The art of Mardi Gras mask-making

Don’t show your face this weekend without a Mardi Gras mask — or don’t show it wearing a mask.


We’re coming up on Fat Tuesday, but in Juneau the merry-making will mostly take place this weekend, with a Mardi Gras Ball held on Saturday at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, featuring band North Country Cajun Club ($5 at the door).

While you won’t be turned away without a mask, it’s always more fun with one. If you don’t have one lying around, worry not — Heather Ridgway, artist and art teacher at Thunder Mountain High School, agreed to share some of her techniques for making leather masks.

Ridgway started making masks in about 2002, mostly using papier mâché. She had a show in 2003.

It was about three years ago that Ridgway began working with leather. She had read about it online and took a class in Skagway with Tegan Baldwin — “an awesome inspiration,” Ridgway said.

Leather has been her primary material since then, which can be stretched, twisted, gouged and otherwise shaped into a comfortable and beautiful mask.

Want to try it? Ridgway buys her leather online from Tandy Leather, and recommends a lightweight option — 3-4 oz. or 4/64 in.

“The first time I think I tried to use belt leather,” Ridgway said. “It was exhausting. There was, like, no skin left on my hands.”

One bonus of a project that involves painting and embellishment, as Ridgway’s masks do, is you can use “budget” leather, she said. Leather with marks from bug bites and branding, for example.

Before you grab your scissors, the first step is drawing out a mask design, keeping in mind that your face is not flat like a table — maybe you’ll feel a little silly, but hold a piece of paper up to your face and, with a marker, draw in some important features (like eyes). If you have a plaster cast of your face you can use that too. And it’s OK if your paper gets a bit wrinkled, this is just your sketch and your template.

Once you’ve marked where your eyes go, where your nose is, how wide your face is and how tall you’d like the mask to be, it’s time to get creative with the mask — do you want a long nose? Horns? Jagged edges? Swirls?

Keep in mind that, when working with a three-dimensional medium, you may have to allow for some extra material to bend or twist to get some fun effects.

Once you’ve decided what you want your mask to look like, cut it out of the paper and hold it to your face to make sure it will fit. Once you start cutting from leather you can’t easily add it back on.

Now trace the mask to your leather and get ready to cut. You’ll likely need some sharp scissors to cut through the dry leather.

You’ve made your cuts. There’s no turning back now.

In a wide, shallow pan, heat some water — not to the point of boiling — and place your leather mask in the water. Leave it for a half-hour to an hour so the leather softens and becomes malleable.

“Think of it like taking bath,” Ridgway suggested. “You know when your fingers get wrinkly? That’s kind of what you’re looking for.”

Except with the leather, it should be malleable and a little slimy, she said.

Take your malleable leather and start having some fun! Ridgway showed off some techniques for shaping the leather.

To get twisted leather, for things like horns, you’ll want to fasten it in some way so it will dry and harden in the shape you want — rubber bands and binder clips can be helpful for fastening.

You can bend or curve the leather by wrapping a rubber band around it so it keeps the preferred shape.

Stretching the leather in some ways can be fun. For some round cheeks, try pushing the leather over a golf ball, applying pressure and turning so the leather stretches.

For a nose that sticks out, you can stretch and fold it.

Patience is necessary for this part, because when the leather is still quite wet, it won’t hold the shape, but as it dries out, it will lose its malleability. There’s a sweet spot for working the leather.

Once you have the mask shaped as you’d like, let it dry out and harden completely.

The fun’s not over yet. A natural colored mask might be what you’re after, but maybe you’d like to introduce some color or other materials. Acrylic paints can be used on the leather and embellishments can be added most easily with glue.

What’s most important is that you get creative and have fun, so your mask can be as one-of-a-kind as you are.

Maybe your face won’t be showing while out on the town, but your personality will shine through.

Slideshow | Mardi Gras Masquerade


  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback