19 August 2011

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.

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