Introduction: Functional Leather Respirator

About: I primarily work in leather, but I also try to make anything I need whenever I can. Plastics are my nemesis.

Being a creative, hands-on person, you've probably worn a disposable dust mask many times during your projects. You've also undoubtedly noticed their limitations: They're uncomfortable, they get clogged fast, they become filthy as soon as you touch them, and they have the resiliency of a paper towel. There are nicer, re-usable masks out there, but they tend to be expensive, cumbersome, and plastic. Plastic is...not my cup of tea.

When I started this project, I just wanted something that would hold a disposable dust mask, making it less fragile and fit better. This was a utilitarian project, pure and simple. I think this is one of the reasons why I like the finished look of it so much.

Before getting into the details, I want to explain what I mean by "functional": I use this when sanding to block sawdust. It works great for that. Bear in mind that a handkerchief over my mouth and nose would work, as well. Obviously, this isn't going to protect you from toxins in the air, and I make no such claim. It has an exhalation valve, and filter material over the intakes, so I feel I'm safe in calling it a respirator.


5-6 oz leather for main body

3-4 oz leather for straps

1-2 oz leather for edging and valve cover

heavy thread

2"-diameter can (tomato paste commonly comes in this size)

metal screen from speaker (or metal sheet)

dust mask with exhalation valve

2" D-rings (or thick wire and some patience)

paper clips/scrap wire

scrap foam


sharp knife (for cutting leather)

harness needles


metal snips

leather hole punch

french edger (leatherworking tool)

edge slicker (leatherworking tool)

Step 1: Cut Your Main Pieces

The human face is a tricky shape. Leather can stretch, but you can't just take a flat piece and press it over your face until it fits (at least I can't!). After much trial and error, I came up with the pattern you see here. I was going to have two halves that just joined in the middle, but having a third piece down the center made for a lot less stress on the seams. I also made the overall shape much flatter.

I'm a big believer in sharing patterns, so I've included a Jpg as well as an Inkscape file. The Inkscape file preserves the exact measurements I used to fit my face. Your face may vary.

I used 5-6 oz leather, because I wanted the mask to keep its shape. Thinner leather could work, especially if you wanted a mask that you could crumple up and toss in a bag.

You can cut out the circles on the cheeks now, or later. I would advise cutting them out now. I didn't do this yet because I wasn't sure what size I would need. The circles should be slightly smaller than the small can that you're using.

Step 2: Bevel and Stitch

Start by marking all of your stitching lines and holes. This is especially important in this project, when the pieces don't line up until they're bent.

Bevel the edges inside the 'V' of the middle piece. This is going to be the bridge of the nose. These two edges are going to come together at roughly 90 degrees, so shave off material at about a 45 degree angle.

I found it helpful to glue these edges together first, then sew.

Next, sew the two side pieces to the middle piece. Because we're making a three-dimensional shape, you can't just lay the pieces down on a table. You're going to have to bend them and fiddle with them to make them line up. This is a very frustrating part of the construction process. My only advice here is to test-fit often, and remember that you can always glue first to see if it will look right.

Step 3: Shape It!

Once you're happy with your stitching, dunk the whole thing in water, or dampen it well with a sponge. You don't want to case it, just get it wet so that it will stretch a little. Now, press it over your face. Pay particular attention to the sides of your nose and chin. Gently press, forming it until it fits comfortably. This is where you can fix any problems with the shape from previous steps.

When you're happy with how your mask fits on your face, carefully set it aside to dry completely.

Step 4: Create a Seal

No matter how well you shaped your mask, the edges are still going to be rather uncomfortable. You need this to fit tightly against your face, or it won't be very effective.

Cut a strip of 1-2 oz leather about 2" wide, and long enough to go around your entire mask (or use multiple strips).

Cut a strip of foam about 1/2" wide and also long enough to go around your entire mask. I used an old foam pad designed to go under your sleeping bag. Bits of foam from old knee pads or the like would work great, too.

Use glue to take the leather strip in position around the outside of the mask. Next, tack your foam around the inside. Now, fold your leather strip into your mask, covering the foam. You should have enough room to sew the leather strip in place, trapping the foam inside.

Test fit the mask again. Doesn't that feel better?

Step 5: Create the Exhalation Valve Cover

See that big, circular hole dead-center in your mask? That's where all the air you exhale will come out. We want to give that air a nice, direct path out so that it doesn't stick around and make the inside all hot and moist.

Cut out the exhalation valve from your disposable mask. If you can, cut away the plastic cover. We're putting our own leather one on it, anyway.

I admit I did this part the difficult way. You could just leave the plastic valve poking out, or you could cover it with a metal screen like we will for the intakes on the cheeks. I was still experimenting at this point, though, and this is what I came up with.

Soak a 3" square of 1-2 oz leather in water. Once it's completely saturated, it should be nice and stretchy. Stretch it over a cylinder that's about 1.5" diameter. A pill bottle or dowel are some options. Once you've got it looking like the picture above, let it dry.

Once dry, you'll need to punch holes in it. I included a simple pattern I made up. The layout of the holes doesn't really matter, as long as air can get through.

Step 6: Let Some Air In

Now you're going to create the intake areas. I tried a lot of variations on this. I originally planned to have most of the sides open, with just a frame of leather around the edge. The problem with that design was that it wasn't very sturdy, and it didn't keep the filter material in place.

I ended up using the final design because it was structurally very sturdy and it allowed filter media to be changed easily. I really wanted to avoid bulky canisters sticking our on either side like a gas mask. Instead, the metal just protrudes slightly from the mask, with enough room in behind for a circle of dust filter.

If you didn't cut the circles in the cheeks earlier, you'll need to do that now. As I was, once again, experimenting as I went, I had to mark and cut my holes on the rounded cheeks, which was a pain.

Once my shape was marked, I stabbed a hole at approximately the center, then cut radial lines to the edge. Once this was done, it was a simple matter of carefully cutting out each little wedge. This is MUCH easier than trying to just cut around the whole circle.

Now, open up your can with a...can opener, of course! Dump out the sweet, sweet contents and save it for later. Now use your can opener to remove the bottom. Wash thoroughly. Use your metal snips to cut off about 3/4" of both ends. Discard the middle. Don't cut yourself.

Next, go around the circumference of your can ends and make cuts every quarter inch or so, all the way down to the ring. Don't cut yourself.

Now, cut some circles of metal mesh. I used the covers from an old set of speakers. It's basically metal sheet with many tiny holes punched in it. The idea here is that large bits of material will get stopped by th8is and not clog up the dist filter. In practice, it also protects the filter from splashes.

You want your circle to fit tightly inside the can, so that is rests against the inner ring edge. I recommend cutting it slightly too big, then sanding/filing it to the perfect size.

Press the whole thing into the cheek hole, from the outside. If it's a little too big to fit, that's good. The leather will stretch and you'll end up with a tight fit.

Find a hard surface and gently but firnly hammer the back of the can flat. If you have any leather or sewing experience, you may recognize that we've essentially made a large grommet.

Step 7: Add a Filter

I took some paperclips, cut them to length, and bent them as shown above. They provide enough pressure to secure a piece of filter material against the metal mesh, while still allowing the material to be removed and replaced. I used pieces from the same disposable mask I got the valve from, but if you just want to block dust, a piece of cloth or even paper towel will work well. Remember, you have to be able to breathe through it!

I found the mask to be pretty air-tight, but I added a generous amount of cement around the filters and valve, anyway.

After all this is done, you can leave the inside as-is or add lining. As no one really sees the inside, I didn't see much of a point.

Step 8: Strap It On

Originally, I figured I'd just have a single strap going around the back of my head, but that didn't work. I tried two straps, one going above my ears and one below, but they kept shifting around. Maybe it's just my oddly-shaped head. Regardless, I ended up making a piece that goes on the back of my head, both securing the strap ends and keeping them in place relative to each other.

I can't say much more about the strap setup that the pictures don't already show. Friction does a great job of keeping the straps tight. The D-rings are invaluable, as they allow you to attach the straps without worrying about the precise angle you need.

In the future, I may take some more material out of the back piece for ventilation, or even add some padding.

Step 9: You're Done!

When you're happy with the shape and fit, give the outside a good coat of leather finish.

Hang it next to your mad-scientist goggles to give your workspace some class!

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