23 August 2011

A Fool In Spite of Himself

Chia pays Calabash's nose a visit Sunday
afternoon. (Photo by Kristin Perkins)
About halfway through my Sunday routine, it occurred to me that I've been a fool for ten years.  That is to say, it was ten years ago that my character Calabash sprang, fully-formed, from my forehead.

Not bad for a character that came entirely off the cuff... or perhaps just out of a mask.

I won't go through the full story. If you want to know how Calabash came into being, you can read the full story here: Years of a Clown.

Next year, the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire will be an entirely new place. The location will shift to England, under the rule of Good Queen Bess (to be portrayed by Victoria Dzenis). Calabash was the MC of many a morning atop the front gate, and now his voice will be replaced by another.  So too will we lose the stern presence of our John Knox (which only makes sense, really) and many other large and vocal street performers are taking the opportunity to either switch characters or downshift to a less active role.

New queen, new fool (at least I hope someone takes up the standard) and a whole new cast of characters in need of actors to fill them.  A whole new faire indeed.

Never one to leave quietly, Calabash got in one last run, capering before the village gates, haranguing the privateers and pikemen. Even got to deliver his spiel with a sound system! (Luxury!)

Then he wandered the faire and bade a quiet goodbye to his friends and supporters.  On the final day, I delivered two tiny masks of Calabash proportions to the two ladies who made the world safe for fools, his beloved queen: Melissa Haffly, and Mary Dixon, she who first recognized Calabash and called him out "I know you, mischief maker!"

I will miss him more than even I can say.

Then it was a round of hugs and back to the workbench to take up my new role as the village toymaker.

After all, there are are marionettes out there, waiting to be made and fairies aplenty, lying in wait to turn them into real boys.

Like I need the extra mouths to feed.

Toys won't make themselves, after all.  (Photo by Greg Martin)

20 August 2011

Maskmaker, Maskmaker... IV :: Molding the mask

I wanted to see how much thickness I took out of the leather, so I grabbed the calipers... er... rather, I asked the engineer to loan me her calipers.

The image below was taken before skiving.  The leather is .116 inches thick.

The second, bottom image is after.  The thickness if .0785. It's only a difference of 0.0375 inches, but what a difference that makes when it comes time to sew or fold the stuff.... or get it wet and work it over a mold. 

What I'm about to tell you to do doesn't lend itself to photography, but it's pretty easy to explain.

Fill a sink with water as hot as your tap is able to produce. Keep in mind that you're going to have your hands in this water soon, so don't burn yourself. You want a nice hot bath for your leather, but DO NOT BOIL IT. That's a different thing and it may make dandy Roman armor, but not so much for masks.

Toss the piece of leather you've cut and skived into the sink. If your sink is not deep enough or large enough for the leather to submerge completely, use a washtub or bucket.  I've been known to use a large mixing bowl.

Go and get a sandwich or trim your fingernails; you need to allow the leather to sit in the water for a good ten minutes before you start to play with it.
REMINDER: Once it is wet, everything that comes in contact with the leather might leave a mark. This includes your fingernails and your rings.  Trim your nails and remove your rings before you begin.
When you come back, it's time to get your hands wet.

Start working the leather with your hands in the water. Crumple it up and squeeze it. Keep doing this until the leather is fully saturated with water.

You will notice that the leather has become elastic and just a little spongy. That's the collagen warming up and leaching out into the water. Time to take the leather out of the bath and roll it up and squeeze as much of the water out as you can.

Because you followed the principle of mise en place your mold is sitting right next to you as well as some brass nails, a stapler, and a tack hammer. Right?  Good.  Remember not to put any nails or staples anywhere that you don't want to cut away later. These holes won't heal.
  1. Drape the leather over the mask and arrange it so that its oriented just as your pattern (piece of cloth) was.  Pull one edge or corner over and staple it to the back of the mold.
  2. Push the leather down into the eyesockets with your fingertip or a piece of wood and nail them in place.
  3. Working quickly, start stretching the leather over the mold, and nailing or stapling it to the back of the form.
  4. Do one widely-spaced circle and then come around again, always pulling the leather taut across the form.
  5. If you have an extra-long nose like mine, you will need to have a fold where the bridge of the nose meets the eye brows. This is okay, it lends to the maniacal look of the mask, which is desireable.
  6. You might need to use a strip of cotton or (as I did below) even a wire tie padded by another piece of scrap leather to get the desired drape and tightness, especially on a long nose like his one. Remember to pad it, because the ties can mar the leather.
  7. Italian trained maskmakers use a mallet whose head was made from the tip of a cow horn to lightly pummel the mask down into the creases and grooves of the mask. This also helps drive water out of the leather and compacts it, making for a stiffer mask.  On a larger mask than this one, I would do that.

When you get to a point where the mask is fully nailed in place, pummeled and/or lashed into place, put the mask out in the sun to dry.

Some maskmakers use a hair dryer at this stage.  You have to be careful doing that, because you can dry out and crack the leather with that much heat.  Best to let it sit in the sun for a few hours while you make the next mask or go do something else.

19 August 2011

The Toymaker's First Weekend

Last weekend was my first full weekend as the toymaker. My friend Christa snapped this picture of me using a small trim plane to shape my new marionette.

Photo by Christa Smiley
I set up my table and tools on the edge of the main path, not far inside the main gates.  Just sat down and started making wood shavings.

It's been a long time since I sat still at faire. I'm reveling in the opportunity to really talk to the patrons rather than just making a quick joke or teasing them as I fly past on my way to the next place where the queen will need me.

It's a lower-key experience, to be sure, but I am enjoying it immensely.  And it tickles me a bit how many people tell me that they didn't know anyone knew how to make things with hand tools anymore!

And when I get bored sitting still, I grab that cage you see on the ground next to me and shoulder my large net and go looking for all of my many escaped marionettes.  (Bloody fairies never ask permission before turning them into real boys.  Like I need another mouth to feed...)

A trip to our faire inspired a series of renaissance faire related comics over on Scott Kurtz's PVP webcomic.  Check them out over at PVPonline.

Yes, we really are that close to Target.  Well... almost.

This weekend is the final weekend of faire!  Come one, come all!

Maskmaker, Maskmaker Part III :: Preparing the Leather

At the start of this sequence was a post called "Tools of the Trade :: Garb Carpentry" which laid out and discussed the supplies needed in order to complete the mask project.

If you have gotten this far without reading it, it is time to go back and read it now.

The leather used for our mask is a "vegetable tanned" cow hide. Most mask makers prefer the bellies because the leather is stretchier at that end of the cow. Bellies are often cheaper than tooling leather because it is thinner and doesn't take well to tooling and impressions. It is mostly used by folks who make knife sheaths, holsters, and masks: all things that benefit from the stretchiness of the bottom of a hide.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Once it is wet, everything that comes in contact with the leather might leave a mark. This includes your fingernails and your rings.  Trim your nails and remove your rings before you begin.
How do I know how much leather I need?
Take a scrap of cloth and drape it over your form so that you have a generous amount underneath. Cut away the excess and then spread the cloth out. That is the amount and shape of the leather piece you will need to cut.

Skive (thinning) the leather
In the aforementioned post, I ranked a skiving knife as "nice, but optional".

I'm rethinking the "optional" part, but I will still leave it up to you. If you buy carefully, you won't need to do much skiving, because you can chose he thinnest hides you can find.  It depends on how much use you want this mask to endure.

I tend to buy entire hides or bellies and worry about thickness when I decide which project I'm going to use them on.  One end of a hide may end up as a mug, and the other a mask.

Skiving is the act of scraping away the back of the leather to make it thinner and more flexible. There are an astonishing number of types of blades used for skiving leather, ranging from half-moons of steel to something that looks like a vegetable peeler to a sharpened butter knife.  There are also complicated machines to do it for you.

Ideally, when reducing the thickness across the entirety of a piece of leather, you would use a splitter, essentially a wide blade that can split a hide in one big swoop. If you haven't the room for such a contraption, do as I do and stick to either a knife or what I call the razor blade style.

Razor style: Pictured at right, the razor blade style has interchangeable blades so that you never have to sharpen it. You just drag it across the back of the hide in exactly the way you wouldn't want to if you were shaving hair off your skin. The blade will dig in and shave away thin layers with each pass until you've achieved the depth and consistency you desire.  (All the shavings next to the hunk of hide in the photo are leather shavings.)

A lot of leatherworkers don't like these because they're not as quick as a splitter, and consistency can be a bit of a problem until you get used to using it.  Nevertheless, for the hobbiest, it is an inexpensive, serviceable option for you. The holders and replacement blades are sold at most leather stores and suppliers.

Knives: There are almost too many varieties commercially available these days to enumerate them. They are mostly used to pare edges to make stitching easier. To skive a large piece with just a knife would be a feat. Not impossible, mind you, just difficult. Most of the people I know who use these are bookbinders, because the edge of a piece is the main concern with leather book covers.

Mine began its life as a butter knife that was subjected to a series of files, sharpening stones, and emery cloth until you could shave with it.
  • Whatever you choose to use, be careful with it! These things are, by necessity, very, very sharp.  If it's not sharp, sharpen it or change the blade. Dull blades skip and skitter and the cuts they deal out are far worse than the cuts you might endure from a sharper blade.
  • Practice on a scrap before you screw up your nicer stuff. Use the thing like you would use a razor on your skin and begin pressing down until you get a feel for how hard you can or should press to take off just enough leather. It may take some practice
DIY Skiving/Paring Knife
If you want to make your own paring knife for your leather working toolkit as I have done, this video from master bookbinder Peter Goodwin will show you how... 

Next Step: Mise en place
Mise en place usually shows up as a cooking term used to remind cooks to have everything in place before you start. Before you begin any recipe, you have to make sure you have all the ingredients ready and easily at hand.

Leatherworking is no different and in wet forming, this is especially important. While you can skive your leather out on the back porch to avoid a mess in your living room, you need to have your mold and tools at your elbow before you begin wetting the leather.  So, sometime between steps one and two, you need to acquire the following and lay them out so that they come easily to hand.
  • Your mask form
  • Some kind of skiving knife
  • Tacks, preferably brass
  • Tack hammer
  • Stapler with extra staples
  • Box knife
  • Some strips of cotton cloth or gauze bandages
  • Extra leather
 The next step will be to get the leather wet.  Once that happens, it's a race to the finish, so get everything together, get your leather prepared and get ready to spend up to an hour manipulating wet leather with your hands and tools.

17 August 2011

The implicit agreement between the actor and the audience.

Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play. It is most often remembered for the Saint Crispin's Day speech given by the king ere the close of battle on the field of Agincourt (and re-cast by Captain Splinter at opening gate, I might add). But as a writer and an artist, good as it is, that is not my favorite Shakespearean speech from my favorite play.

There is another.

I was reminded of this recently.  On a Facebook group for ren folk, a fellow from California posted a complaint: Why should we even bother trying to breathe some life into the sixteenth century when our efforts are beset on every side by port-o-potties and ice cream vendors and patrons on cell phones?

Why even bother?


Oh, ye of little faith.

Shakespeare would have understood as well as anyone what we're trying to do. Better, I'd wager.  If you do not believe me, look no further than my favorite part of my favorite play: the introduction.  Right there at the beginning, he implores the audience to multiply the one actor into multitudes, to see a man in a paper crown and clothe him as king, to see a wall of canvas and supplant it with a castle.

Everything you need to know to write a novel, short story or play is encapsulated in those lines. And more importantly for our purposes, it contains everything you need to know about the implicit agreement between the actor and the audience.

As we gear up for third weekend, entering our third act if you will, these are words it would do us great service to remember, to hear echoing in our heads when doubts assail us or if we hear someone mumbling about tents and Honey Buckets.

Earlier this week, my wife asked you to post your favorite memories of faire from the first two acts.  Use those memories, siphon the energy from them and close your eyes for a moment. Paint over the popup tents and the stages and the smelly blue boxes and patrons in Stargate uniforms.

Even Shakespeare had to do this. Even he had to remind his audience to help him out. So can you.

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unrais├Ęd spirits that hath dared,
On this unworthy scaffold, to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O pardon, since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million,
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high, uprear├Ęd, and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hooves i' th' receiving earth.
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
Turning th' accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history,
Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.

Or you can always watch Derek Jacobi do it from Branagh's Henry V movie:

10 August 2011

Maskmaker, Maskmaker Part II :: Carving and Completing the Form

 To make the mask mold for this project, I've been using carving knives like the one shown at left. You don't have to. My grandfather would have made this entire project with his pocket knife, been quite content doing so, and done a better job than I have.

Use what is most comfortable for you. Carving knives that are worth your time start at about $20.00 and go up from there. Spend less than that at your own risk. The carving knives I use are "Flexcut" knives sold by Rockler woodworking. It's a nice level of tool for the serious hobbiest.

It's been pointed out elsewhere that when I talked about doweling a nose-piece in place last post, I did not complete the thought.

Why didn't I just use a larger piece of wood and carve the whole thing in one piece?  The short answer is grain lines.  Whenever you are carving, life is significantly easier if your blade is moving parallel to the grain.
Also, if I was to carve from a larger block, I would have to remove several times more material to get to the final shapes I wanted.

In order to keep the grainlines aligned to the path of the blade, it's sometimes better to make the wood match the carving rather than vice-versa.  When your goal is to have a finished display piece, this might not be a desirable thing to do, but in this case, we're just making a form for leather to stretch over.

I did this by doweling a nose piece perpendicular to the face so that whether I was carving the cheekbones or the nose, my blade is carving cross-grain as little as possible. 

Once I was finished with the blade, I used a sanding wheel on my Dremel tool to round and smooth the planes of the face.  If you don't have a Dremel tool, you can do this with sandpaper, it will just take a bit longer.

Honestly, you could probably just skip this part, because theoretically, the goal here is to have something to stretch leather over, not to make something to sit on the shelf.  I like to make them suitable for the shelf because the more of these I make, the harder it is to avoid looking at them, so I might as well make them pretty.

This is the final form once it has been sanded and finished with spar urethane (above).  I used spar urethane because the leather is wet when it's applied to the wood and the added protection helps the mask form to last longer.

I then traced around the mask on a 1X4 and cut it out, attaching it to the back of the form with screws so that I can change it out.  This is a waste piece of wood into which many nails and staples will be driven, so it's important to be able to swap it out if you want to make more than a couple of masks from the same form.

NOTE: If you watched that video and chose to work in concrete for your form, Thurston James advises leaving a hollow in the back of the form and in the eyeholes to be filled with Plastic Wood for the same reasons.  You will periodically have to refresh the plastic wood in that case to allow for future nails to be set. 

Maskmaker, Maskmaker, Make Me a Mask :: Part I

The number one most requested thing for me to teach is leather maskmaking. I learned by reading books and screwing up a lot. With any luck, I can spare you some of that.

Commedia del Arte is a form of theater designed to be performed by a limited number of actors in a setting that is less than ideal for theater: The Renaissance marketplace. Each actor wears a specific mask and adopts certain prescribed poses that are universal to the form.

The characters bear names like Pantalone, the unscrupulous and grasping old man; Capitano, the strutting braggart; Arlechinno, the clever and (more or less) innocent servant... The iconic masks, poses and well-defined characters allowed the actors to perform amid the bustle of marketplace and festival in a time before microphones. The cavernous noses of the masks have even been alleged to magnify the voices of the actors. . . though I've worn one for years in performances and I can't say as I buy that argument entirely.

Even if you could not hear every word or see them clearly, you knew who was doing what. Even from a distance, there was no question which actor was playing which role, so well-known were the archetypes they portrayed. Even today you would recognize them whether you realize it or not. Harlequin came from commedia. Punch & Judy as well. Shakespeare borrowed shamelessly from his Italian counterparts. Pants are called "pants" as a short form of 'pantaloons' named for the costume worn by Pantalone.

In more theatrical and modern(ish) terms, The Marx Brothers, Monty Python and the Muppets all owe an enormous debt to their frenetic forbears in commedia del arte.

Traditional Italian commedia masks were leather like the one I am wearing above, wetformed over wooden forms.  That's the sort that I'm about to show you how to make.

If you don't have the knack or the interest in carving, rest assured that you can create a mask in clay and then make a positive mold as shown in the YouTube video below, only instead of using fiberglass, fill your mold with the fine concrete used to make stepping stones.  You can then form your leather over that.

The video...

Not only is that okay, it's how Thurston James advises you to proceed in his book The Prop Builder's Mask-Making Handbook (sadly out of print, but still available here and there if you look hard enough) which many consider to be the book on the topic. He hates carving things out of wood, but advises leaving hollows in the back of the mask and eyes to fill with plastic wood for the later steps involving nails.

Unlike Mr. Thurston James, I actually enjoy hand-carving and own all the necessary tools to do so, so that is how I intend to proceed.  If you don't care to join me, you're on your own, I fear, though later lessons about the molding are universally applicable.

But I'm getting ahead of myself already.

So many people protested when I said I was giving up fooling, I wanted to create a poppet or doll in the costume of Calabash.so that he'd still be around. So I'll be making a 1/3 scale version of my mask (pictured below).

All of the following steps will be identical on a full-sized mask, or even for a smaller one. These things can get as small as you choose to make them, though the smaller you get, the less you shall be able to attain intricate details. 

When asked how he sculpted The Thinker, Rodin said he just cut away everything that wasn't his statue and when he was done, voila! I'm not sure that a blog like this is the place to learn woodcarving, but I shall do my best.

The tools I used were a saw, a rasp, and a knife. Keep them all sharp. Be cautious. Wear protective gear as appropriate. Proceed at your own risk.

All carvings begin the same way as Rodin. Woodcarving is just sculpture in a reluctant medium... with a simple block of wood. In this case, I used a chunk of scrap pine.

As the Maestro said, the first thing is to draw the shape on the block and then cut away everything that is not mask. Use a coping saw if you're attached to the notion of period perfection or a power saw if you have one.

 Use a rasp or file to begin beveling edges and beginning to shape the cheekbones, making the mask into a three-dimensional form. 

Once I had the basic shape, I used dowels to attach a piece of 2x2 to make the nose as shown in the profile plan below. I don't have any pictures of that, but the it's really just drill a hole and insert wood and a dowel.

Then continue carving until I had this...

Next, we'll get into some leatherwork, at long last