Introduction: Leather Dragon Mask Part I - Design and Cutting

Hello! In this Instructable I'd like to show you the steps to create a hybrid leather/worbla mask. I'm going to specifically show a stylized dragon, but the basic steps will hold true for any design you choose to make. Before I get into the steps, here is a list of the tools and materials you will need:

  • Leather (5 oz is my favorite for masks, vegetable tanned cowhide)
  • Worbla (optional, if you want to do Worbla detailing)
  • Leather Dye (I recommend Fiebing's alcohol dyes, or Tandy Eco-Flo if you don't like the smell of alcohol)
  • Leather Sealant (Acrylic Resin or Fiebing's Leather Sheen are my go-tos.)
  • Acrylic Paint (for the Worbla if you use it. Can also be used for detailing on the leather.)
  • Cutting Mat
  • Paper for Template
  • Sharp Utility Knife or Scissors
  • Ballpoint Pen
  • Pencil
  • Sponge
  • Water
  • Heat Gun (if you're using Worbla)
  • Tinfoil (if you're using Worbla)
  • Leather Hole Punch
  • String or Ribbon

Recommended Tools-

  • Head Knife
  • Trim Knife
  • Swivel Knife
  • Edge Beveler
  • Edge Slicker
  • Latex Gloves
  • Sheepskin Remnant
  • Wool Dauber

Concept Drawing

Start with a drawing of a face. If you can't draw, print out a very simple face drawing from google image search. Starting with a face makes it much less likely that you end up with a wonky mask. Don't worry too much yet about the fact that your face is curvy and your paper is flat. We'll deal with that in a bit. I've developed a design for a stylized dragon with worbla horns, worbla embellishments, and a lace beadwork veil.

While you're designing, keep in mind the eventual purpose of the mask. If it's just for decoration you have pretty much complete freedom. However, if it is going to be worn, or danced in, or whatever... you'll need to account for weight, size of the eye holes (for visibility), and secure attachment to the wearer.

For this mask I don't have to worry about a wearer with glasses, but there are ways to account for that in mask design.

Next Step: Making the Paper Template

Step 1: Making the Paper Template for the Leather Mask

So you have a beautiful concept drawing for your mask. How do you make that into a template? This is the part of the process where you have to account for all the folding and curving the mask is going to to. I'll mention how I do it when I get to that part - I've also made some notes on my actual template drawing.

You'll need a sheet of paper for this part, sized to however large you want your mask to get. I have a large piece of paper to account for the horns. In this case I'm also using a thick, sturdy paper so I can see the sculptural aspects. Most of the time, I prefer to work with thinner paper to make transferring the pattern to the leather a little easier.

Step 1: Proportions
While I love props and costumes that change body shape in significant ways, this tutorial is structured around masks that fit a person's face, preferably comfortably. I take care of this part by folding the paper in half, and then holding the fold up to my face. I'm holding it low in this case to leave room for the large horns at the top. For this mask, I need a mark at the bottom of my nose to plan the snout, my eyeline to plan the eyeholes, and my forehead to measure the height of the mask and place the embellishment.

After marking those lines, I turn the paper flat to the side of my face and use something (something not sharp) to mark how far my eye is from the middle of the mask (aka the fold of the paper).

Step 2: Drawing the Template.

I started with the eyehole, but you don't have to. I find it easier to start with the eyehole on this one because it gives me an anchor to judge how big the other parts of the mask need to be. This is also the step where you need to consider the curve of your face and the way you want the mask to fold.

For this mask, I extended the "cheek" out further to account for the curve of my face. I also made the horn-holder taller than the concept drawing to account for the fold I intend to put in it. Finally, I made the snout a little longer than possible to allow me to fold the snout up and out a little bit without revealing the wearer's nose.

Step 3: Cutting

Cutting the perimeter of the mask is pretty straightforward, so all I will say here is that if you need to cut out the eyeholes and don't have a utility knife handy, a good way to do it is by bending the paper and making a snip in the middle of the eyehole. Then unbend the paper, insert your scissors into that snip, and then cut your way out to the eyehole line and around. It's hard to describe, so that's why I put the pictures in. (You can just open your scissors and "drill" a hole through to accomplish this, but the thicker the paper, the easier it is to stab yourself in the hand while doing this.)

Step 4: Fitting

Try the mask on. Minor changes can be made with scissors and tape. If you need major changes, trace the template you just made onto a new sheet of paper as a starting point and build from there. This template is the most important part of the mask making process, so take the time to make something that you love.

Step 2: The Horns and Other Stuff

When making any attachments to your mask, make sure to use your original template to trace the attachment area. This insures a better fit.For the dragon mask I am tracing the top of the horn-nub so that I can draw the horns, and I am tracing the forehead area in between the horns to make sure the flame/gem embellishment sits correctly.

If there is going to be adhesive involved, make sure you add a little extra space to host the adhesive. In this case, I've left a tab on the bottom of the horns to help attach them to the leather. I am planning to use Worbla to make an attachment joint for the forehead gem.

Step 3: Tracing to the Leather

In this step we're just tracing the shape, not any of the designs. In fact, I haven't even drawn the designs from my concept drawing onto the template yet.

A lot of leather purists prefer a stylus for this part, but I like the ballpoint pen. Firmly hold your paper template onto your piece of leather, and trace around the outside edge and the eyeholes with the pen. Easy peasy!

Note: When I started this, I discovered that the only leather I had on hand was armor-weight leather, about 10 ounce leather. You might recall that I said the ideal mask weight (for me) is 5 ounces. This thick leather is going to minimize my ability to fold and form the leather later!

Step 4: Cutting the Leather

There are all kinds of tools you can use to cut leather. Before I committed to spending mucho money on my leather hobby, I used craft scissors and an X-Acto knife. Now I use a head knife (the roundy one), a trim knife (the hooky claw one) and titanium scissors (not shown in this set of pictures. However, you do not need expensive equipment to make leather masks. Most of the cost will be the leather.

Some masks I cut entirely with the scissors. On this one, I did the large cuts with the head knife and then the eyeholes and tighter curves with the trim knife.

I always recommend saving your larger leather scraps. You can use them on other projects, or make smaller projects like keychains.

Step 5: Edge Beveling and Edge Slicking

Edge beveling and edge slicking are for looks and also for protection. They make the raw edges of the leather look nicer and they also close up some of the cells to help with weatherproofing.

If you don't have an edge beveler, you can approximate the effect with your utility knife (or head knife or in my case, a skiver). If you don't have an edge slicker, there are ways to make one but no really good substitutes.

If you are edge beveling with a knife or skiver, turn it at an angle so that you get a good bevel. If you have a purpose-made edge beveler, it takes care of that for you. On leather this thick, I bevel the front and back of the mask. On some thinner leathers you really only need to do the front. I also bevel and burnish the edges of the eyes.

Edge slicking requires water! Wet the edge of the mask, a little bit at a time, and then go at it with the edge slicker. I have the "wheel" style slicker, but there are some wooden dowel ones, and also some made of glass. They all work well. Like cutting the leather, slicking the edge takes some muscle. You'll want to press firmly and go over the same area several times to get a good burnish. It's slow going, but it's worth it.

Step 6: Adding Details and Design

It's time to play with your paper template again. I only do the drawing on half of the mask if I am doing a symmetrical design. As part of this I'll show you how I mirror the design on the other half. But first, get your trusty pencil back out and play around on your paper template until you have a design that matches your concept vision.You can get very detailed and textured with leather tooling, and even create bas-relief sculptures, but in this case I am keeping it simple.

For the dragon I am just going to add some shapes around the eye for prominence and as a background for the later Worbla detailing. I'm also adding nostrils, horn detailing, and an outline. I do all of this with the pencil on the paper template.

Once you're satisfied with the design, it's time to case the leather, also known as getting the leather damp. Veg-tanned leather soaks in water quickly, so be careful how much you apply. If it is bone-dry to start, I will usually go over it once with a fairly wet sponge, and then a second time with a sponge that has been wrung out. Your goal in casing the leather is to dampen just the top bit of the hide to make it more receptive to imprints and tooling. This is where veg-tanned leather really shines.

Lay your paper template on top of your mask so that you can see your drawing design, and make sure that the edges of the template and the edges of the mask are aligned. Use your ballpoint pen, press firmly, and trace the pencil lines on your template. If done correctly, this will accomplish two things. First, it will imprint the design drawing onto the leather mask. Second, it will emboss the design drawing (in reverse) on the back of the paper template.

We're going to use that embossed mirror of the design as our tracing template for the second half of the mask. Re-dampen your leather with a mostly wrung-out sponge, align the back side of the template and mask, and then trace with your ballpoint pen.

At this point, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of what your mask will look like, but we're not done yet!

Step 7: Design With the Swivel Knife

If I were to recommend any one piece of leather-working equipment, it would be the swivel knife. It's amazing, and there's no good substitute for it that I've found. A swivel knife (pictured above) has a short, thick blade at the end of a straight barrel handle, and a u-shaped handle for your index finger that allows nearly perfect control. The swivel blade is meant for cutting grooves into the leather and is just the best when it comes to getting your carefully drawn design to show up.

If you've never used a swivel knife, I would highly suggest practicing on some scrap leather first. The immediate thing that I learned is that the swivel knife works best when used at an angle, when the blade is being pulled more than pushed. You can see the position that my hand is in in the above picture, with my fingers sort of wrapped around the barrel, pulling the blade along the design.

Used correctly, a swivel knife will make smooth, detailed grooves in any combination of straight and curved lines you want. For those who want to get tiny, there are interchangeable blades for the swivel knife that can make smaller or tighter drawings. However, I do pretty detailed work on many things, and I have done just fine using the standard blade that came with the knife.

Once you get the hang of the swivel knife, case your leather again, a portion at a time, and carefully cut all your imprinted designs into the leather. You can see in the last picture how well the show up compared to the rather wimpy look of just the ballpoint pen imprint.

Congratulations! You have designed, cut, and embellished a leather mask! Stay tuned for Part II of this Instructable which will talk about adding Worbla, tooling, forming, dying, painting, and finishing the mask.

Step 8: Resources

I buy my leather and most of my leather supplies straight from Tandy. If you end up doing this regularly, it is well worth it to join their Gold or Elite clubs.

If you don't like them for some reason, the leather guy has also been good to me.

You can also find good deals on eBay and Craigslist sometimes from people who bought a bunch of leatherworking stuff and don't use it anymore.

Tandy also has a video library that teaches leatherworking techniques and also how to care for your leather tools. The guy in the videos, George, is just amazing. Here's a link to their video on using and caring for a swivel knife: Use and Care of a Swivel Knife with George Hurst

And here's a link to the whole library: Tandy Free Leathercraft Library

In addition to Tandy, YouTube has a trove of good videos with different ideas and techniques that people have developed. One professional mask-maker, Merimask, has a tutorial about her baking process if you are interested in really honing the forming part of your mask.