Face masks: the origin and process Part I
The first motorcycle I ever had was a 1979 Yamaha XS650. I bought the bike off a guy in Boise, Idaho and my buddy and I drove up to pick it up and then back, an 8 hour round trip from where we were. The bike was partially customized with a stretch swing arm, bobber seat, bars off a Honda bike of some kind, and some mag wheels of yet a third bike but the motor, front half of the frame, and forks where all totally stock. I loved that bike. It was a lot of fun. I rode that little Yamaha, little because I’m 6’4″ tall, to and from college classes at Utah State University and to my parent’s place where my father and I ran a digital printing and signage company. Riding those back country roads of northern Utah and south eastern Idaho I started to get tired of the debris like sand, gravel, hay straw, and HUGE bugs slapping me in the face. I rode through it all though with a smile on my face because as they say “A bad day on a motorcycle is better than a great day at work.”
Since starting to make these masks I noticed there is a contingent of riders that are openly hostile towards masks, even going so far as to include it on a list of “Top 10 Trends That Need to End” I recently saw on a Harley specific forum. Here is the thing about a face mask, it isn’t really for everyday cruising. My original prototype was my only mask for two years. I wore it on trips that required freeway riding or on long trips and even then it was only if conditions warranted it. The inspiration for the mask originally came from vintage photos of motorcycle racers wearing leather masks. Considering those guys were taking their very lives in their hands in a way modern motorcycle racers can’t imagine I don’t think you can say masks are for wimps. Nor can you, since those photos are vintage from the early days of motorcycling really say that a face mask is a modern trend invented by SQUIDS and R.U.B.’s.
With that out of the way lets get to what this post is really about, making a leather motorcycle face mask.
After I decided I wanted to make a mask I went to Google for answers. I found something called ‘Water Forming’ within the results of a Google search for ‘how to make a leather mask‘. I ended up on Youtube watching a video after video on the topic. In my mind I needed to know how to physically make the face mask before worrying about how to tool or dye the leather it was made form and I still believe that was the right way to go. The first trip to my local Tandy Leather however was awkward. None of the videos talked about the actual leather needed for the masks outside of weights. The second I waked through the doors and the guy at the counter asked what I was looking for… I knew I was in trouble. After a lengthy conversation with the guy about what I was trying to make, a conversation that didn’t need to include how little I knew about what I was doing, we landed on a 8-9oz vegetable tanned half shoulder that was free of blemishes and happened to be on the ‘On Sale’ table. Turns out the people at Tandy Leather stores are actually really interested in helping new people get into leather working and so I had the entire store’s sales people helping me, giving advice, and actually getting excited about my project. But I’m getting distracted, back on point. The 8-9oz veggie tanned leather is the best choice because it makes for a solid foundation for the mask, it is firm enough after water forming that it will hold its shape really well but still flex enough to stuff the face mask in your bad for when conditions are nicer. Here is one video that I found during my Youtube search that I felt was helpful.
Even though the title of that video is “Making a leather mask from start to finish”… we aren’t done here. The problem with most of the videos on Youtube is the focus for their leather working is one of the following:
- Special Effects
- Steampunk (maybe that should be part of Cosplay… whatever)
With any of the above target audiences you are missing a lot of the usability features I discovered a rider really needed. For example most of the masks you will see on Youtube are either over the eye masks, which a rider doesn’t need or want, or really outlandish masks with beaks, yes you read that correctly a beak like on a bird, or some kind of charcoal canister like on a gas mask like the Steampunk guys enjoy. Really the bulk of masks being made on Youtube are all about the visual presentation and don’t need to work around practical use restrictions. So what does that all mean? It means you need to test, test, and test some more.
Make a Pattern
Once you have a mask that works make a pattern out of it. I made mine out of some regular construction paper that I stole from a larger package of paper my son had… yes I just said I stole from my son, don’t judge me. Here is a photo of what I do with that pattern:
In the image you will see that I have two base patterns that I use, I call one the Grifter, its white in color and is under the orange pattern, and the other the Deathstroke, which is the orange patter. Click the names to see examples of each.
When it comes to cutting leather you will find most people preaching the use of leather sheers and specialty tools. Well since I’m a gearhead, a D.I.Y.’er, and a cheap ass I decided to find a cheaper way to cut the leather. In the photo above you will notice a box cutter, with a regular blade, and under my straight edge a set of industrial style sheers I got from Walmart. These two tools are more than enough and a whole helluva lot cheaper than the ‘official’ stuff. Don’t fall prey to the idea that to do this kinda work you have to go buy a bunch of expensive tools because you don’t. In fact I would challenge anyone that wants to try their hand at leather work to start out with as little as possible and find a way to make it work.
Get Your Creative On
The next step in making a face mask is to decide what you want on the mask. My first couple masks were just simple and smooth masks that were dyed only in one color. I’ve since started doing more on my masks as you can see from the other items in my catalog. I prefer to draw out my design rather than work directly on the leather, my preferred method seems to fit with the most of Youtubers also. Here is a photo of a mask I’m working on right now showing what I mean: (please don’t use my image here to steal my pattern, that would be dick move)
This is where we can start to get back on track with what the Youtube videos will tell you about and show you, so I will pickup the pace here. Transferring your design to the leather face mask blank is as easy as cutting the paper design out, laying it on the leather with a damp surface and tracing over it. Originally I used a regular ball point pen to trace the design and it works just great. Now I use a small stylus tool I found at Michael’s craft store to trace the design and the only reason for that was a picky one, the ball point was a little to wide for my tastes and my designs. Here are two photos of what the design will look like on your leather:
Tool That Sucker
After the design is transferred to the leather you can start the tooling process. I’m not going to cover this because it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, watch this video right from Tandy Leather… but ignore the quality of the video and its awesome soundtrack but watch closely the process and order the host uses. While this video might be kinda lame the information in it is the most basic and distilled way to show the process.
Here are two photos of my project, one during and one after tooling:
Water Forming, NOT Water Boarding
After tooling its one to water forming the leather. This stage can almost be more fun than the tooling because this is where it becomes a mask and not just a weird shape of leather on the table with a cool designed tooled into it. Water forming is as easy as you saw above in the video. You soak the leather and then start molding it and then support it in its new shape and let it dry over night. What you don’t see in the video is something I found out later which is the temp of the water. I like to use warm to hot water. I saw several places that this isn’t the recommend method but I like it so screw them. I would suggest that you try both ways and see which you prefer. You might end up telling those on your blog that I’m an idiot because cold water is better. Here is another tip, you don’t need to let the leather “soak”. In fact not only do you not need to but you shouldn’t What I found is that for these simple mask shapes you don’t need that amount of water in your leather. Where you doing something really intricate shapes you might need the extra working time. In this picture I only let the leather sit in the hot water for maybe 20 seconds.
The actual shaping process is exactly that, a process. Don’t expect that you will just move the leather to shape, it will hold, and then dry like that. The leather needs to be coxed and convinced to change its shape. Here is a tip, grab your sharpie, the one you used to transfer your design and use the opposite end, the non marking end, as a shaping tool. Using a sharpie like this possibly one of my greatest insights into mask making, yeah I know how sad that is, since its rounded tip allows for all sorts of shapes depending on how hard you push on the pen. Here are two photos at different stages of the shaping of the mask we’ve been working on, one of my Deathstroke face masks.
This is the end of part I of my mask making blog post and I will leave you with these two final pictures of the mask after drying.
I will also leave you with one last note, something that came to a surprise to me on my first tooled mask. After water forming the mask the tooled design will lose some of its crispness and will look a lot less… well cool. Fear not, this is a common issue and one I’ve yet to really find a solution to. However I handle it by just crisping up the design after its all dry with a shaping spoon and by just dampening the surface of the mask with a wet rag.
Go buy some leather and get started… but don’t steal my designs… and don’t make motorcycle masks so I can have the market to myself.