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Candy McClernan and Rachel E. Pollock • Feature • March 3, 2016
The 3D-printed mask
The 3D-printed mask

Evaluating mask-making methods to find the optimal build

While experience is often the best teacher, it can also lead to calcified decision making about the best way to proceed—especially in the heat of the production cycle—preventing us from making the ideal choice for a show. In order to test our assumptions about mask-making, we evaluated and compared nine different mask-making materials for efficiency, cost and stability. 

In order to standardize the comparison, we used a single design of a full-face grinning skull, made out of various materials. The mask was fitted to a base matrix sculpture formed from DAS air-dry clay. The clay was allowed to dry for 24 hours, then sealed with an acrylic sealer. Over the course of the study, this matrix had to be subsequently altered to accommodate the various techniques required of each individual material used. The materials surveyed were as follows: papier maché, vacuformed styrene, Wonderflex, Fosshape, Worbla/TerraFlex, Celastic, hardened leather, cast neoprene and 3D-printed PLA plastic.

The methods for creating each mask were varied due to the nature of the materials and included techniques using steam, pressure, heat, acetone, horn hammers, heat guns or specialized equipment such as a vacuform machine and a 3D printer. Each material functioned in a different manner, and some of the more unusual media required a learning curve on the artisan’s behalf in terms of workability and obtaining desired results. So we considered each of the “time” estimates for each mask exactly that: an estimate. The same goes for material cost—your stock, manufacturer sales, and even the availability of certain components, will contribute to your cost prices. That said, our numbers are well within range to draw conclusions from each method. 

Scanning the 3D mask prototype
Scanning the 3D mask prototype

3D Printing in PLA

For this mask, our base matrix first needed to be modified by painting the surface flat black to achieve an optimal 3D scan. The matrix sculpture was scanned using a Sense scanner and an .stl file was generated for the topography of the shape in Meshmixer. The structure was drafted to be 2mm thick and printed using a Fusion3 printer. The completed mask may be painted with a variety of media, after a primer coat of Krylon Fusion plastic paint. 

Labor Time: The printing process took around 10 hours
Dry/Cure Time: Not applicable
Cost:  One mask used 370 g of filament (just over a third of a 1 kg spool), about $6 worth of material. 3D printed masks may also be created using nylon, ABS, and other filament types.
Weight: 109 g

The mask made of Celastic
The mask made of Celastic

Celastic

For years, Celastic was the go-to mask and prop-building material in many theatrical costume shops. It is a nitro-cellulose colloid-impregnated fabric which activates when saturated with acetone or Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK). Both are aromatic solvents requiring the use of a respirator and butyl gloves to protect the artisan from toxicity. Once pliable, strips of the Celastic are adhered to a foil-covered base matrix and the solvent allowed to fully evaporate. Celastic formed a very lightweight, durable mask. 

Labor Time: 3 hours
Dry/Cure Time: 2 hours
Cost: This product is no longer manufactured or sold in the U.S., so unless a shop possesses old inventory, Celastic is not a viable option for mask projects. It may be identified by the “Celastic” logo printed on the material. It is likely to be stored in a roll and has the texture of stiff canvas.
Weight: 74.5 g

The mask made of Fosshape
The mask made of Fosshape

Fosshape

Fosshape is a felt fabric composed of thermoplastic fibers, which may be heat-activated and formed. It is sold in two thicknesses—a lightweight (Fosshape 300) and a heavier weight (Fosshape 600). For this mask, Fosshape 600 was sewn into the rough shape of the base matrix. Heat and pressure were applied using a steamer and a miniature iron in order to form the mask. The level of rigidity and surface smoothness can be controlled by adjusting the amount of time, pressure and heat used. A mask made from this material is extremely lightweight and needs to be reinforced around its edge with a stabilizer such as millinery wire. 

Time: 5.5 hours, including molding, painting/finishing, and fitting. 
Dry/Cure Time: < 15 minutes
Cost: $26/yard at 45 inches wide, from which approximately 20 masks could be made.
Weight: 91.6 g

The mask made of leather
The mask made of leather

Molded Leather

For this mask, our base matrix first needed to be modified by carving a channel into the reverse and filling it with wood filler in order to make a pinnable surface around the perimeter. Vegetable-tanned leather was saturated with warm water to soften it, then stretched and pinned or tacked onto the base matrix. A horn hammer was used to mold and shape the finer details of the mask.

Labor Time: 5.5 hours
Dry/Cure Time: 24 hours
Cost: Cost will be determined by the quality and thickness of the leather used—in this case, it was around $7 per square foot, from which a single mask was made.
Weight: 188 g

The mask made of neoprene
The mask made of neoprene

Neoprene

Neoprene latex comes in a cast-able liquid form, so a negative mold must first be created from the original base matrix sculpture in order to cast a mask with it. Oil-based clay was used to cover the matrix, enlarging it to accommodate the 5-10% shrinkage of the neoprene’s final product. A plaster cast was then created for the negative mold. The liquid neoprene was poured into the mold, filling it to the brim. The neoprene formed a skin on the plaster mold and, after 24 hours, had gained sufficient thickness for the desired mask. The excess liquid neoprene was poured off and retained in the container for future use. The cast then cured for another 24 hours before it was removed from the mold. Once removed, the mask required even further dry time to off-gas before finishing. 

Labor Time: 2 hours
Dry/Cure Time: 48 hours, plus off-gas time
Cost: $55/gallon. It is difficult to estimate how many masks might be made from a gallon, since the quantity required for a mask includes the quantity of liquid needed to completely fill the negative mold while it cures.
Weight: 176.1 g

The mask made of papier mache
The mask made of papier mache

Papier Maché

Torn pieces of newspaper were saturated in white glue (PVA/polyvinyl acetate) and layered onto the plastic-wrapped base matrix. A layer of tissue paper was applied as the final surface in order to achieve a smoother finish. Several hours dry time was required between layers, and several layers were required to build up the mask to a sufficiently durable thickness; this resulted in a longer production time than some other methods.

Labor Time: 4 hours
Dry/Cure Time: 48 hours
Cost: White glue averages around $20/gallon, and newsprint was obtained from free newspaper stands, with which several dozen masks might be made. 
Weight: 116.3 g

The mask made of styrene
The mask made of styrene

Styrene

A styrene sheet was heated and formed directly onto the base matrix using a vacuform machine. We removed it from the matrix and carefully cut it down to shape. The resulting mask was quite fragile and required a layer of papier maché to strengthen and stabilize the mask. 

Labor Time: 1.5 hours
Dry/Cure Time: None
Cost: $8 for a 24-inch-by-48-inch sheet, from which a single mask could be made.
Weight: 38.9 g

The mask made of Wonderflex
The mask made of Wonderflex

Wonderflex

Wonderflex is a thermoplastic composite material that is heat-activated between 150° and 170°F. A layer of scrim is integrated into the thermoplastic sheet, which adds stability to the product. A heat gun, steamer or simmering water bath may be used to soften the material, which can then be molded to the desired shape over the matrix. The resulting mask was very durable and lightweight, though the material will reactivate if exposed again to heat, which may result in undesired deformation.

Labor Time: 5.5 hours 
Dry/Cure Time: < 15 minutes
Cost: $43.95 for a 42-inch-by-55-inch sheet, from which approximately 20 masks could be made.
Weight: 145.5 g

The mask made of Worbla/TerraFlex
The mask made of Worbla/TerraFlex

Worbla/TerraFlex

This thermoplastic/wood pulp composite material is sold under the name Worbla to the cosplay market and by Tandy Leather under the brand TerraFlex. It is activated by raising it to temperatures above 194° F with a heat gun, steam or simmering water bath. Unlike Wonderflex, this material does not contain a reinforcing scrim, so small pieces can be joined making a thermoplastic putty to be shaped or used to fill gaps. Depending on the vendor it comes in varying sheet sizes. Our figures employ the largest size sheet from Tandy Leather and reflect the range of prices they offer, from retail to wholesale accounts.

Labor Time: 5 hours, including molding, painting/finishing and fitting.
Dry/Cure Time: < 15 minutes
Cost: $28-$40 for a 29.5-inch-by-19.5-inch piece
Weight: 107g

Drawing Conclusions

Making a decision which material to use is complicated by the fact that each of the materials have various and situation-specific drawbacks. Location of safety information (MSDS/SDS) for Celastic proved difficult to locate, and non-existent for Worbla. Worbla’s U.S. distributors market their product solely to a hobby market and refused to provide an SDS when asked. Sold under the name TerraFlex by Tandy Leather, however, a safety document is accessible on their website. Styrene is lightweight but not durable and requires special machinery for forming. Leather and neoprene are durable but have the disadvantage of extended time required to finish the product.

If cost is a primary concern, papier maché is an excellent choice provided there is enough time for the layers of the mask to dry. It is lightweight and easy to finish, and the components are inexpensive and easy to obtain.

Vacuum-formed styrene may be the material and method to choose for multiple iterations of the same design of mask when time and cost are the limiting factors, provided the shop has access to a vacuform machine. 

3D-printed plastic can be a great option for multiples with very little active work time, once the original scan has been generated and a test-print run. The resulting mask is quite durable and easily painted, padded and finished.

Worbla/TerraFlex is a light, easy to use, durable material, although since it lacks the scrim support that Wonderflex has, Worbla/TerraFlex can be stretched too far and lose its structure. The thermoplastics Wonderflex and Fosshape are excellent all-purpose materials; they are lightweight, easy to use and a cost effective way of producing durable masks quickly. There is virtually no waste with these materials. Small pieces can be joined by heat or stitching, making these more economical. These materials do not require the use of specialized safety equipment. Thermoplastics are often the best choice for theatre use due to safe handling, ease of use, availability, and quick turnaround time.

In the end, all of these materials may be valuable tools for mask-making in the theatre. Choosing which medium to use depends largely on what is most important to the production as to cost, turnaround time or durability.  

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