The Nova Lab’s Slack channel is a wonderful source for good information on what’s going on, how members can volunteer, or what is going on in the various shops. But the Nova Labs Slack sub-channel called “Random” is always a wonderful place to get inspired about a maker-related news item or project.
So it was no real surprise when member Bo Wernick posted up a link to something incredibly cool: A leather mask made to look like one of the iconic “facehuggers” from the Alien movie franchise. It turns out that you can buy a pre-made set of leather pieces from a number of different places out on the Internet. Besides the link that Bo found, there are a number of Etsy pages using the same pattern to supply kits; these run the gamut from $40 to $250 depending on the quality of the supplied leather. And unsurprisingly, there area number of excellent YouTube videos that show how to create the mask from the pieces supplied in one of these kits.
But I’m a proud maker, gosh darn it! Why would I possibly pay a reasonable amount of money for a pre-made kit when I could do it myself for just slightly less money plus hours and hours of my time?
So I was able to track down a legal copy of the original pattern through the amusingly-named LeatherHub site. For a mere $15, they supply a set of PDF documents that will allow you to create the mask in one of several sizes.
The PDFs are fine if you are going to use the pattern to manually cut the pieces out of the leather yourself. But that’s not quite violent enough for me: I have access to a 100W CO2 laser, so what was I going to do, NOT slice the leather with a beam of coherent light? As if.
Given that, the first step was to convert the PDF pattern into a set of vector objects. This was accomplished using Adobe Illustrator, but I could have used Inkscape or some other vector-art tool. This was a fairly tedious process since most of the 56 pieces in the pattern are uniquely shaped and you also need to remove all the sewing-hole guide shapes and replace them with points so that the laser doesn’t cut out the guides.
This probably took me three or four hours, but at the end of the process, I had a very efficient pattern that would minimize wasted leather.
The next step was to reserve some time on Nova Lab’s laser. The pieces of leather I was using were fairly big, so I used the larger of our two lasers – Rabbit – to cut out the patterns. As luck would have it, I wasn’t able to start until fairly late at night… and that turned out to be a good thing. Burning leather smells a lot like burning hair, in that it is a horrific odor that I would not wish on anyone. Our laser lab has excellent ventilation, and all the smoke gets vented outside on the roof and since the breeze is usually from the West, the cloud of stinky leather-smoke drifts away from the maker-space and across the well-manicured golf course behind us.
A few thoughts on leather. Those who seen or read about any of my adventures in knife-making will have seen some of my wife’s amazing leatherwork on the sheaths.
She is an extremely talented leatherworker, so what that means is that I have a small room in my house that is dedicated to storing cowhide. I’m very serious here – when we have a houseguest coming to stay for a weekend, there is an hours-long ordeal where I have to haul rolls and rolls of leather in various thicknesses from the guest bedroom down into the basement. Then, when the guests leave, I have to hoof all these rolls of animal skin back up two flights of stairs.
I’d complain, but my wife would just give me the stink-eye and point the big pile of scrap metal in the garage. Or the boxes of microprocessors and LEDs in the workroom. Or the electro-etching gear. Or the unused car parts. Really, I’m lucky she hasn’t divorced me.
Anyway, my wife was able to guide me through all the weirdness associated with this incredible material. I’ve worked with wood, metal, ceramics, and even fabric, and most of those materials obey some fairly simple rules. Leather is just kind of odd. You can get it wet and mold it into a new shape; you can sand it smoothly; you can polish it; you can carve it; you can sew it like fabric; you can dye it; you can paint it; you can thin it down; you can rough it up.
So after I brought home all the laser-cut pieces of leather, we washed the soot off of each piece and then molded the “fingers” to shape while the leather was wet.
The laser was able to burn holes in the leather for each of the stitch-points, but wetting the leather partially closed all these holes up. So the next step was to use a rotary tool to widen each of these holes to about a 32nd of an inch using a small drill-bit. This ended up being several hours of work.
That tedious step completed, my wife and I began to burnish the edges of each of the fifty-eight pieces. Burnishing leather – for those like me who are/were ignorant of the term – involved impregnating the edges with a gelatin or wax mixture and then rubbing it down with a smooth surface. This results in a nice, smooth, and partially-sealed edge that will be resistant to fraying. This too took many hours of very tedious work, even with two people splitting the jobs and a rotary tool attachment that eliminated a lot of the manual labor.
At this point, we had fifty-eight individual pieces shaped and ready to color.
The tutorials recommend a light, yellowish shade of dye for the main color and then adding progressively darker, browner dyes down each piece to make a gradient across most of the leather elements. My wife decided on the popular “English Bridle” dye, which was a little darker than the one shown in the video. But since she used an airbrush to carefully control the amount of ink she put on the different areas, it was far lighter than the color a brushed-on dye would have produced.
The airbrush also allowed her to quickly replicate the gradual gradient across each piece with a fraction of the overall effort shown in the YouTube videos.
Then came the sewing. Hours and hours and hours of sewing, all of which had to be done by hand.
Since my wife did not have any “fishhook” needles on hand, I took some of her nice leather needles and heated them up with a butane torch before bending them into a half-circle arc and then polishing them needles back to silver. The curved needles were necessary to sew many of the “tail” pieces, especially when those pieces needed to be curved into a tube.
Leather thread is incredibly strong and often needs to be pulled taut with a lot of force to make a good fit. I found that taping my index and little fingers on both hands allowed me to impart a great deal of force without hurting my hands.
The sewing was easily the longest portion of the build. I think I binge-watched five-hour-long drama episodes while constantly stitching and pulling the filament through the leather pieces.
Finally, the straps on the rear of the mask have small metal pins that fit into leather eyelets. Setting those hardware pieces probably took five minutes; the easiest part of the build by far!
The final result looks pretty striking and it is a lot of fun walking through a supermarket wearing the thing in lieu of a cloth mask. There are a lot of double-takes.
Honestly, the most disappointing thing to me is the number of people who don’t recognize the facehugger for what it is supposed to be. Those folks still appreciate the workmanship and skill that went into the mask, but they’ll ask me which Star Wars movie creature I am supposed to be, or if the mask is from the Harry Potter franchise. One young lady gushed about how much she loved the most recent Mad Max movie, and it was cool that I had recreated Immortan Joe’s mask.
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