Introduction: Sculpted Leather Mask Tutorial

About: Renee from BeZi Artful Designs is a leather artist specializing in mask art and artfully designed bags and accessories.

In this instuctable, I'm going to guide you through the making of a leather mask. I'm a leather artist and mask maker who learned much of this art form online. Please use my mask as inspiration, but design your own! I'm providing a basic mask design to get you started. Because things move pretty quickly around here, especially around Halloween, you'll see me working on my Bast Mask and Bioshock inspired Splicer Rabbit Mask.

First you have to shop! I've purchased most of my mask making and leatherworking supplies from Tandy and a few of my modeling spoons from Hobby Lobby. My cutting mat is from a fabric store and the marble slab is a repurposed cheese board. My paints come from a local art supply store. For this project you'll need:

Ultra fine point Sharpie Marker
Cutting mat
Marble slab
X-acto or craft knife
Swivel Knife
Modeling spoon
Keen edge Beveler
Wood Burnisher
Leather stamps
Sponge & container for water
Paint Brushes
Hole punch

Card stock or heavy art paper
Tracing Film(Tandy) or tracing paper
Vegetable Tanned Leather (4-7 ounce)
Acrylic Paint
Sealer/Leather Finish
Ribbons or leather ties

When selecting your veg tan leather, look at both the front and the back of the hide. They should both be clean and smooth. Leather with a rough back will be uncomfortable on the face. My personal preference is 6/7 ounce leather for this type of mask, but you can go as light as 4 ounce, especially if you're doing a filigree mask. Thinner leather is somewhat easier to cut, but not as easy to mold and may warp over time. I like to use Tandy's European Single Bends because they're super clean & have great carving and molding properties.

Step 1: Now to Make Your Pattern

With my method, you only need to design one half of your mask! I've included a picture of a basic mask design to print on standard 8.5 by 11 paper to help you design your own. Print this and add on ears or horns or whatever makes you happy! Depending on the size of your mask, you can use basic 8.5 by 11 inch card stock or larger art paper. Rabbits require much larger paper! Fold your paper in half as shown. Start on the folded edge and draw your mask shape and the art you want to carve on it. In this case, I'm doing my Bast design. When I designed my first mask, I used a cheap paper mâché mask from a craft store to get an idea of how far apart to space the eyes. Helpful hint: make the eyes larger than you think they should be... You'll thank me later! (Mine average 2.25" wide by 1" high) If you have a motif that you want to repeat on the mask, cut one out of scrap cardstock and trace around it multiple times like I did on the ears. Once you're happy with your design, cut around it with an x-acto or craft knife including the eye holes.

Open your pattern. Does it look a little big? Good! When you wet mold and bake your mask, it will be curved to go around your face, so it should look a little too large when flat.

Step 2: Make Your Tracing Template

Time to trace your design! If you're using standard tracing paper, fold the sheet in half just like you did in the last step. I prefer tracing film because I create masks professionally and reuse my designs, so I want something that will last more than once or twice. I also don't want to be limited by size. Tracing film comes in a roll, so open it up, lay your pattern on it and trace around the pattern using your sharpie marker. Don't forget to do the eyes! I leave my tracing film a little larger than the pattern, but you can cut right on the lines if you'd prefer. Do not cut the eye holes. Carefully fold in half by lining up the eyes and edges.

Slide the folded pattern into the folded tracing film. Secure with tape if you'd like. Trace over the designs on the pattern with your sharpie marker. Remove your paper pattern and flip your tracing film or paper over. Very carefully trace your pattern from the other side. Open it up.... See, you made your own mask design!

Step 3: Cut Your Mask & Transfer Your Designs

Now lets play with some leather!

Lay out your hide and decide which part to use. Place your paper pattern on the leather and carefully ink the eye outline with your sharpie. I use the eyes as a guide to make sure I don't move the pattern. Then ink the outline of the mask. Cut the section of leather from the hide to make it easier to work with. I use leather shears for this. Next, VERY carefully cut out your outline and the eyeholes using your craft knife. I recommend cutting the eyes from the inner corner to the outer. It's better to go back into the corners with your knife to carefully remove the leather "eyes" than to over cut and ruin your mask.

Transfer your designs to the leather. Slightly dampen just the top of the leather with your sponge. Lay your tracing film on the leather, carefully aligning the eyes and edges. Using a ball point pen or stylus, press firmly as you trace over your design lines. I always start with the eyes and use them to make sure my transfer film stays aligned. Don't worry if you're a little wobbly. You can touch this up on the leather with your sharpie or stylus.

Step 4: Beveling and Burnishing Your Edges

For some this next step is optional, but I'm a stickler for a good, clean, polished edge. Beveling and burnishing your edges not only makes your mask more comfortable, it makes it look more professional!

Slightly dampen ONE eye hole and bevel both the interior and exterior of the eye. I use a size 4 Keen Edge Beveler. If you are using thinner leather, go as small as a size 2 beveler or only bevel the top. Use your craft knife at a steep angle to finish the bevel in the corners. Pick up your mask and using the narrow part of your wood burnisher at an angle, rub the corners of the eye. Flip and repeat on the back. (You can also use a wooden chopstick for the corners and other tight angles.) Then find a groove slightly larger than the thickness of the leather and burnish the top and bottom of the eye with a quick side to side motion. Don't press too hard, or you'll leave marks and stretch the eyeholes out of shape. I finish burnishing the eyes by setting down the mask and using the wide end to rub just a little more, then flip and repeat on the back.

Move on to the second eye and repeat the same process.

Dampen (slightly!) the edges of the mask and bevel just the top edge of the leather. Make sure your edge is still damp and burnish the edges until they're smooth and shiny. if they're not perfectly slick, don't worry! I'll show you a little trick in the paint process that'll help!

Step 5: Carving and Tooling

When you buy a swivel knife, it comes with a 3/8 inch metal blade. I prefer using a 1/4 inch ceramic filigree blade because the ceramic glides through the leather. You need to strop your blade before carving and whenever you feel drag. To strop, apply Jeweler's rouge to a scrap of cardboard or leather. Hold your swivel knife at an angle to hone just the blade and pull it back 4-5 times. Flip your blade and repeat on the other edge. Do tis several times on each side until your blade edge feels super sharp.

Case your leather by dampening both sides evenly with a sponge and letting the leather rest a little while the water is absorbed. You know it's ready when the color starts to lighten and there is no standing water on the mask.

Carve the lines of your design with the swivel knife. There are free videos available on to show you the right way to carve. Your tooling can be as simple as just opening the lines with the stylus or as complex as you'd like it to be. With Bast, I use a modeling spoon to indent around the eyes and other carved lines so they stand out. Then I stamp areas of the forehead medallion with pebbled matting stamps. (Tandy- M881, M882 & M884) Start with the smallest at the edge of your carved lines, then use the larger stamps to fill in. I love the texture from these stamps!

Step 6: Sculpting Your Mask!

Once you're happy with your design, it's time to sculpt or wet form your mask. There are many different approaches to this. I find that the slow drying techniques don't give the firmness I prefer, so I use an oven.

Wet your leather. You can submerge it in a basin of warm water until it stops bubbling, which takes a minute or so. Set your mask on a towel to rest for 15 minutes or so, as it will be too wet to hold a shape at this point.

While your mask is resting, preheat your oven. The temperature will depend on the thickness of your leather. Thinner leather requires low heat - around 170 degrees and will need to be checked on even more frequently as it bakes. Thicker leather can handle higher heat, so for my 6-7 ounce mask, I preheat to about 240 degrees. You can go lower, but it will take longer. Do NOT leave your kitchen during the baking process! This is not like baking cookies where you set a timer and are good to go. Expect to remove your mask from the oven at least six times through this process. If you burn your mask, you have to start over. That said, in the few hundred masks that we've made here, only one has over cooked so it was shrunken and rigid, and one burned on the edges.

I do some shaping from the back of the leather with my Wood Burnisher. I use it to stretch and curve certain points of the mask. By now, your mask is ready to sculpt.

Start by lining up the inner corners of the eyes and pinch a line from between the eyes to the tip of the nose. Now move on to the center point below the eyes and pinch in the opposite direction at the bottom edge of the mask. This starts the fitting for the nose. Open the mask and put that damp, cold thing on your face! :) Look in a mirror and make "mad eyebrows" while pushing the mask into the bridge of the nose and the eyebrow ridge. Next, push below the eyes. Do a little more shaping around the entire mask.

Place it in the oven on a sheet of parchment paper. I don't use a timer, but after a few minutes, take your mask out. At this point, your mask will have slumped and flattened a little. Don't worry! That's perfectly normal! Let it cool slightly , then place that steamy, warm mask back on your face for more molding. As it cools, the mask will start to hold its shape better. Work the nose and the brow ridge. See how it's starting to mold better? Pay more attention to forming the outer areas of your mask this time, as it will dry from the outside in. Place it back in the oven for a few more minutes so it heats back up. Then back onto your face again. Make sure your mask is curved to fit a human face and form it some more. You can push from the back of the mask to better define some areas and curves, especially below the eyes. Check for symmetry and put the mask back in the oven! As it starts to hold a curve, I remove the parchment and use the oven rack to stabilize and help shape the mask. It's done when it holds the shape firmly and is back to the original light color. Turn off your oven and close it. (You'll see why in a minute.) Masks can be tricky little buggers. After your mask cools, if it feels really cool to the touch it is likely still damp. I wait 15 minutes, check on the mask and if it feels "too cool" set it back in the still warm (but off!) oven to finish drying.

Step 7: Color!

Before you add color to your mask, work it a bit in the areas it will flex like the nose and brow. It will soften and ease the molding slightly without losing it's shape, making the mask more comfortable to wear.

You may choose to stain, paint, antique or any combination! A wide variety of stains can be purchased at Tandy, but with most of my masks, I paint. I do not recommend cheap craft paints because they have a tendency to crack. Art paints such as Liquitex, Jacquard and Golden are what I use and recommend because they are flexible and have great adhesion. There are many other brands... try some and see what you prefer! Inexpensive, wide brushes work great for base coats, but you want to use better quality brushes for the fine work. Hobby Lobby has an excellent selection of paint brushes in their fine art department.

Base coat your mask with your color of choice. I used Liquitex Basic in black, thinned with a little water for Bast. I also added some Jacquard powdered pigments to add a slight metallic sheen. Work that paint right into the swivel knife cuts with a firm hand. Use a stiffer brush for hard to reach or deep cuts. Take that paint right to the edge with the side of your brush and burnish it in while wet with your finger. This will smooth any leftover fuzzy edges. Expect to do two thin coats of paint for good coverage with most colors. White and yellow will take at least three coats. Your mask will look better if you do multiple thin coats, than one thick, gobby one!

Once that's dry, move on to your next color. I used a mix of gold paints from Golden and Jacquard on Bast. Paint the areas you raised with your carving and tooling using an appropriate sized brush. You can choose to fill in your carved lines with paint or just stay in the raised areas. Using a very fine brush and your base color, go back and clean up any mishaps you made!

Sit back and admire your work while it dries! (Yep... Watching paint dry can actually be fun if you're crackle painting!) If you did ears or anything that will extend beyond the face, you can paint the back to match the base on the front. I do not seal or paint where the mask will be on the face. By leaving the interior unsealed, it will slightly form to the wearer with body heat and moisture. It can also be dampened with a spray bottle in areas that don't fit perfectly, tied on and soft formed to adjust the fit. If you'd like, you can seal the front of the mask with either a spray sealer or traditional leather sealer like Resolene or Super Sheen. To seal a mask with a matte finish, I like Liquitex matte varnish.

The last two photos show the size difference before and after sculpting.

Step 8: Finishing Your Mask

Now you need holes to tie it on! Use an adjustable hole punch to make the holes. Hole placement is more important than you may think. I go directly off the corner of the eye to the edge of the leather about a half inch in, then thread ribbon or leather through the hole and tie to secure. If you place your holes too high, the mask will pull uncomfortably below the eye. Too low and it'll press too hard on the nose. I learned this the hard way, so you don't have to! Did you goof and make it too high or low? We can fix that by adding a second set of holes in the opposite direction. Thread your ribbon through both holes, starting and ending in the back and tie to secure. Fixed! If your mask design extends out on the sides with feathers or whatever, use the two hole method farther in from the edge so you don't distort your shape.

Step 9: You Did It!

Now wear your leather mask proudly! You did it!! I hope my mask instructable gave you a good start in the world of leather mask art!
I'm adding a few photos of some of my other masks to inspire you. I'm including some of the Splicer mask that I used for the sculpting portion of this tutorial.
Once again, please be inspired, but don't please don't copy the work of other artists!


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