Making a Plastic Canvas Mask

          Hopefully this guide will help you along your way in making a costume mask out of Plastic Canvas. This method is inexpensive and can produce lasting masks which are fun and easy to wear. Make sure to read all the way through this before you begin work on your mask, so you know what to expect and have a little background on what materials go where.

The first step is to gather your materials.  

Click for a larger image. Here is the list of the materials which I typically use:
  • 2 - 3 sheets of Plastic Canvas (sold at craft stores and Wal-Mart)
  • Yarn or string (any color, available anywhere)
  • Needles (for stitching the yarn or string through the plastic canvas)
  • Plain fabric or "Foamies" foam (for details in the inside of the mouth, found at craft stores and Wal-Mart)
  • Upholstery foam (like foam cushion)
  • Hot Glue Gun and hot glue (found anywhere, you'll need to get lots of hot glue sticks, and preferably a low temp hot glue gun)
  • Faux fur (One or two different colors. One yard of the main color will do for just a head, though if you plan on making a tail, paws, or a bodysuit, be sure to get extra. This is the hardest to find and most expensive part of this project) 
  • Balsa wood (for rigidity under the chin, if you choose to make a moving jaw, found at hobby shops)
  • Brass fasteners "brads" (if you choose to make a moving jaw. Also helps with fastening the balsa wood)
  • Tiny braid rubber bands (also if you choose to make a moving jaw)
  • Vinyl, leather or pleather (for the nose and eyelid details)
  • Sculpey clay (for teeth or nose details)
  • Wire (in case you'd like an armature in your ears to bend them in position, can also help with making the eyes)
  • Screening for the eyes (Buckram material works well) OR (not pictured) White plastic bowl and black "Chiffon" sheer fabric (You can find plastic bowls in department stores such as Kmart or Walmart. "Chiffon" is a sheer fabric often used in wedding dresses, that can be found in the 'silky solids' section of Joann's fabrics.)
  • Paint (paint for the irises)

     Don't be intimidated by this list, most of these items are inexpensive and easy to find, others you may be able to find and order online (such as the faux fur). If you have an idea for your mask, don't hesitate to use your own judgment on it! Don't be afraid to experiment and try out new materials that you think would work.

The second step is to start on the mask's framework. 

     Begin by cutting strips of the plastic canvas. Make sure to cut any jagged edges, its better to have a smooth straight edge. Start off with two thick strips crossing each other to fit your head. One over the top of your head, and one around the back. From there add a muzzle, then the jaw. The jaw is DEFINITELY not as complicated as it looks! 
     Use the brads to hinge the strip of plastic canvas to the main part of the head. The position of the brads is about where my jaw connects with the base of your neck. Next, place the balsa wood underneath your chin. The placement is important, because you still want to be able to get the mask on and off, but have your chin sit comfortably over the top of it so when you talk your chin pushes down on it. Finally the placement of the rubber bands is about where if you had your mouth closed, the character's mouth will be closed, and when you open your mouth a little bit, it opens without you having to strain or the mask sliding downwards too much. You can use the brads to pin in the balsa wood (then hot glue in place) and the rubber bands are also held in by brads, since you can slip new rubber bands over the top of the head of the brad in case one breaks. Try to put them in an easy-to-access spot)
     For the jaw.. think of it like a fulcrum, the "peak" of the fulcrum is where it is attached at the back of the mask by the brass fastener (brad), your jaw pushes down on the middle, against the balsa wood (I use that because its lightweight, stiff, and easy to get a hold of, you can use anything you think would work), and the opposite end of the peak is where the open mouth is. The framework of a mask.You'll have to play around with the positions of the rubber bands a bit, to find the optimal place where it closes and opens the right amount. And also be careful where to put your chin placement, don't let it poke into your throat, you really only need a little bit to push your chin down on.
      A smaller mask is better than a larger one, its lighter and yields easier movement, so make sure to fit everything comfortably. When you add the foam to "flesh out" the character's features, it will add more padding and shape, and make it a little bigger. You just want enough of the plastic canvas framework to make the mask hollow and give a base to add the foam and faux fur and other features.
     Fill in most the gaps with small strips of plastic canvas, so you have something to attach the foam and fur to to make the desired shape. Don't worry about covering all the gaps, it'll all eventually be covered by faux fur. Sew each of the plastic canvas pieces in using the string. You could also zip-tie it or hot glue it, but I found that yarn is easiest and most inexpensive. It helps to have a sketch of your character's head to look at to make sure you're working in the right direction.
     Last, add the ears. Since you could either add these in plastic canvas or foam, or a combination of foam and plastic canvas. It all depends on how you want your ears to look. If you want your ears to be bendable, I suggest foam with a wire armature poked inside. If you want them to be stationary, I suggest plastic canvas. You could also add your ears when you begin adding fur, like if they are big and floppy. Then you could just sew your ear shape together and attach it to your framework.

Third step: Adding foam to give more shape.

     Any foam that you choose should work, including couch cushion foam, mattress foam, or even some kinds of batting. The foam is there to give the character shape, and have some of the features stand out more. Such as the jowls, cheeks, eyebrows, etc. I've used thin cushion foam, purchased by the yard, it can be layered easily. I've also used couch cushion foam, which I got at an upholstery shop. The couch cushion foam was harder to work with because it was thick, and had to be cut down, instead of building it up with something thinner. You can experiment with different types of foam before you hot glue it to the plastic canvas framework.
     Be careful when you hot glue the foam to the plastic canvas, because the hot glue will drip through the other side of the mesh. Careful not to burn yourself, either, that's why I suggest using a low-temp glue gun, plus, the higher temperature tends to melt and denature the plastic. Make sure to check the inside after each attachment of foam, to make sure that the hot glue doesn't bubble through the other side. If it does, while it is still wet take a scrap piece of plastic, fabric or "Foamies" and spread the glue around the inside to make it flat again. If your mask is close-fitting, you'll feel the hot glue lumps after they dry if you just leave them. Just a word of caution.
     I also suggest that you have a sketch or a good idea of what shape you want your character to be, and also what sort of expression you are going for. Also keep in mind the location of the eyes, and how big you'd like them to be.

Fourth step: The fur.

     The furring of the mask takes time and care. This is the part that people see, so you'll want to do your best. If you make it with a moving jaw, cover the jaw first, since your view of it will be unobstructed by any long fur, and you can make sure it doesn't have too much friction as you open and close the mouth, you can trim the fur down there, if necessary. If you don't have a moving jaw, just start by covering the largest areas first. Make sure the "nap" of the fur lays the correct direction. Typically the fur direction lays away from the nose and eyes, and down the neck and back, so be aware of the way the fur lays. I normally spread the hot glue over a large area, and quickly place my fur before it dries. There's a few seconds of time where its still wet, which you can then slide the fur into its correct place in case you make a mistake. 
     When you cut the fur, use either scissors or a sharp razor blade. Make small snips and cuts on the backing side of the fur, pull away the fur on the other side from the line you are cutting. This will reduce the amount of "shedding" by a little bit, and make your fur look more seamless when you place two pieces together. You can place a larger square of fur on the part you want furred, and then once you have it mostly glued down, trim it to shape. When you come to a seam or an edge, where two pieces butt together, peel them apart, exposing the canvas or foam underneath, and then run a zigzag bead of hot glue in between. Then quickly push the two pieces close together, pinching the fur that is on the seam until it dries enough to let go.
     It helps to leave fur to cover up your neck and shoulders. Also, if you place fur on the exposed plastic canvas, remember to be careful of the glue "bubbling" through the other side. If the "bubbles" of glue dry, you can cut them off with a razor blade, but its easier if you just spread it around while it is still wet.

The last step: Final touches.

     This step is generally the best, in my opinion. I love giving my masks final touches, and I continue to do so even after I consider my masks "completed." You can do the inside mouth details using fabric, or even "Foamies" which are thin, colorful, dense pieces of craft foam, usually used in kid's projects. For teeth, you can sculpt them using air-dry or oven-bake clay (like Sculpey clay, which works best) and hot glue them in place. Try to avoid using felt on your mask, it will deteriorate over time and never really looks that good, it may be tempting since it is inexpensive, but a small quantity of cut regular fabric can be just as inexpensive and will look a lot better!
     As for the eyes, you can cut out your eyeshape from white plastic bowls. You could also use other white plastic containers, such as spray bottles or tupperware-like storage bowls. Find one with a curved surface large enough for your eyes, draw them out in pencil and use a razor blade to cut it out. Once you get your eyes cut out, you can use scissors to refine the shape and match them up with your mask. Another option you can also use Buckram, which is a stiff white fabric often used as an interfacing to make other fabrics stiffer, you can draw the eyes on with Buckram. Buckram comes in different varieties, be sure to get one that is tightly woven, but not woven so tight that you can't see through it. For mask usage, you can see through the white and the pupil when you use Buckram but you have a relatively flat eye. Plastic bowls, you just see through the pupils, but the eyes can be rounded. 
     With eyes, the important part is figuring out where to place the pupils, and how big (try to avoid the "crosseyed" look). With plasic bowls, the larger they are, the better visibility, but it may not always look good if you're going for a certain expression. When you determine your pupil's location draw the pupil in with a pencil (a compass or circle-stencil helps!) and carefully cut it out with your razor blade. You can use regular acrylic paints to paint your irises on the plastic. Your "Chiffon" fabric is used to cover the pupils from the inside so you can see through, but folks can't see in. I simply just cut a small piece and hot glue it inside.
     I've used vinyl (also you could use leather or pleather, as well as Sculpey clay) for the nose, although you can add the nose before you do the fur, I still consider it a "final touch." If the nose is made from Sculpey clay just simply hot glue it to the end of your snout after furring. Don't forget the eyelids and eyebrows! Eyelids should be made from a smooth material, eyebrows from a a fuzzy material (like an extra scrap of fur). Another use I have for the vinyl is eyelids, they make a nice addition to the mask's appearance, and there are a wide range of expressions you can make with the eyelids, don't forget them! Again, avoid using felt for eyelids or noses, since it won't last over time.
     You can also add other fun features like a floppy tongue, or accessories, such as earrings, hats, etc. Also, its a good idea to install a fan for ventilation. You can purchase computer fans, battery packs, toggle switches and connectors at Radio Shack.

          I hope you found these instructions and tips helpful! If you've got a success story for your mask making project, or if you just need a little bit of help, go ahead and e-mail me! I'd also love to see pictures, even in-progress ones! 

Also, be sure to take a peek at my Matrices mask construction page, and my canine mask construction page. They may help in making your plastic canvas mask as well!

Hybrid Techniques
(Notes about Working in a Plastic Canvas Moving Jaw On a Foam Head)

          A few people have asked me advice on how to do a moving jaw on an all-foam head (see my foam head tutorial).  

          I started with a foam head and approached the lower jaw I had originally built differently. Using hot glue, plastic canvas was attached to several specific spots on the foam jaw. Two lengths on either side of the of the (separate) jaw that,when fit inside would reach back to about the wearer's ears inside the mask, these were for the attachment 'pivot' points of the jaw. A length of plastic canvas underneath the jaw was placed there to help support the piece of rigid plastic I inserted in the foam (the material I used previously with the plastic canvas technique was balsa wood, but since I had leftover plastic from working with the plastic bowl technique for eyemaking, I used some from the bottom of the bowl to make the jaw more rigid where the wearer's chin pushes down.). 

          Once the separate jaw piece was concocted, I worked towards the perfect placement. Using brads (paper fasteners) I attached the two lengths of plastic canvas to the head (temporarily poked through the foam). Originally I had made the two side lengths of plastic too short, and the pivot point too much in the center. When the jaw was pushed down, it closed it more, and behaved like a teeter totter, where when I pushed it down on one end (where my chin pushed it) the other end (the supposedly open mouth) would go up more inside the muzzle instead of open! I realized my problem was that my pivot points were not far enough back. I made them longer (about to where my ears are) and then they worked good. I'd push down, and the mouth would open. To get the mouth to close again, I added a piece of plastic canvas to about the middle of where the jaw was just behind the mask's jowls and in front of the cheeks. I placed a brad there and put a tiny hair rubber band over the brad's head. I added a second brad to the matching spot on the jaw and put the other end of the rubber band over that brad's head, too. (the picture to the right shows the jaw partially opened to show the rubber band placement)

          Once I figured out the best location for the pivot points to open the jaw, and the rubber band placement to close it, I was ready to attach it to the head. I removed my temporary attachments (where brads were just poked through the foam), it may help to mark its location, and I took a rectangle of plastic canvas and poked a brad through the jaw part and the rectangle of plastic canvas, and folded down the brad's ends. I carefully glued the rectangle of plastic canvas to the head (put it back where you remember it worked the best, or where you marked it), and let it fully cool. Try and smooth out any lumps or bubbles, since this is where your jaw will be moving the most, and bubbles and lumps of glue may cause excess friction. Gluing it is a little bit tricky, since now its all attached with the jaw piece, and you want to make sure its attached to the foam well. Do this for both sides at the optimal pivot points, and then reattach your rubber bands. Try it out in the mirror, you may have to pad the inside of your mask more to get the best fit.

          This technique is also not perfect, although it will result in a working and moving jaw, you will have to emphasize your jaw movements as you talk to get it to show up well with your mask (this is pretty much the case with most moving jaw masks, though). Also, since foam is very flexible, I had problems with the whole head flexing when the jaw was moving, so you may need to add more structural pieces to your mask to get it so it doesn't flex as much.  Furring may fix it so it doesn't flex as much, but for this particular mask I tried this hybridized technique on I wasn't the one furring it. Something else to note is that you want to leave a gap all the way around, you don't want the jaw to rub where it closes near the lips/jowls, remember to accommodate any fur that you may be putting there. The jaw will move more freely that way.

Front view of mask being worn, mouth closed, and side view, mouth open.


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