Make a Hammered Copper Mask

July 25, 2009

 Instructions for making a wearable mask made with sheet metal and basic metalworking techniques, using tools and materials that can be found at most hardware stores.

SAFETY NOTES:  This is not a kid’s project.  It involves sharp-edged tools, hammers, fire, and hot metal.  It is designed for someone who has never worked with metal before, but it does require patience and concentration.  Choose a well-lit, uncluttered work area that is free of children and pets.   

CHOOSE THE IMAGE:  I first used this technique to make a Copper Cat Mask, but it can be applied to masks depicting other animals, birds, or human faces.  First, make a small, simple sketch that captures the essence of the face using only the outline and a few simple contours.  Remember that the mask will not be colored.  Hair, whiskers, etc. can be added later as embellishments, but to be most effective, the mask should be completely recognizable without them.  The mask below is easily identified as feline even without facial markings, whiskers, or pupils in the eyes.   

Cat Mask

Cat Mask

I want to make a jaguar mask, so I made this sketch:

Jaguar head sketch

Jaguar head sketch

Compared to domestic cats (and small wild cats), the big cats have longer faces, deeper muzzles, and eyes that are smaller in relation to the size of the face.  The jaguar has a round face and small ears that are set quite low on the head.

PAPER MASK:  Before cutting any metal, make a paper template.  Measure the following for the person who will be wearing the mask:  face width, distance between the eyes, height and width of one eye, and the depth of the mask (usually the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, but it depends on the shape of the mask and how much of the face will be covered). 

FIRST DRAFT:  Use your measurements and your small preliminary sketch to draw the mask.   First, mark the placement of the eyes and draw the eyeholes.  Don’t worry too much about the eye shape at this point – a simple oval is fine.  Draw the outline.  Keep it simple – except for the ears, avoid sharp projecting points, since these will make it difficult to shape the mask and may be a nuisance when you’re wearing it.  Cut out the paper mask and the eyeholes.

CHECK THE FIT:  Look in a mirror and hold the paper mask up to your face, bending it slightly to fit.  Check the size and position of the eyeholes.  No part of your eye should be covered.  If you have trouble seeing clearly, you may need to decrease the distance between the eyeholes and/or enlarge them.  Mark the paper with any adjustments.  Look at the outline.  Are you satisfied with the way it covers your face?  Are the ears positioned and sized correctly in relation to the rest of the mask?  Check the position of the nose, since you may want to cut the nostrils out as breathing holes.

SECOND DRAFT:  Re-draw the mask.  Remember that it will probably be larger and wider than the face of the animal you’re depicting, and the eyeholes may be relatively large for the size of the face.   But even if the shape isn’t entirely realistic, you can adjust the relative proportions of all features except the eyes to make it look more convincing.  Now design the shape of the eyeholes.  Since they will determine the facial expression, try several outlines to see which one gives the effect you want, but be careful to stay within the boundaries of the size and placement that you measured with the first draft.  Cut out the second draft and try it on.  You may need to make several paper versions to get it perfect. 

TOOLS YOU WILL NEED:  Sheet metal snips or shears (several types are available; two are shown here), file, awl or sharp-pointed large nail, small propane blowtorch and lighter, medium-sized ballpeen hammer, and a sheet of 400 grit emery paper.  The only specialized tool that you will need is something with a round hole that is slightly larger than the ball end of your hammer.  This tool is the “anvil” that will support the work while you hammer, and the hole gives you something to “sink” the metal into.  Probably the simplest such tool is a wood block, such as a piece of 2 x 4, with a hole drilled in it.  File the top edge of the hole so it is smooth and rounded, so you don’t hammer a crease into the metal.  (You can also use a thick-walled piece of plastic pipe or a flared piece of steel pipe clamped in a vise.)  

If you have them, a jeweler’s saw and a motorized grinding tool (such as a Dremel moto-tool or its heavier-duty, more expensive cousin, the Foredom flex-shaft machine) can save time, but they are not essential.

Tools for a Metal Mask

Tools for a Metal Mask

CHOOSING AND CUTTING THE METAL:  Copper is the easiest metal to work with, though you can also use brass (a little harder) or sterling silver (dramatic but expensive). Aluminum and steel require different techniques and are not covered here.  If the metal is too thin, it will not hold its shape, and if it is too thick, it will be difficult to hammer and heavy to wear.  The easiest metal to find (and work with) is the sheet copper that is used for roofing and other building projects, and is available at many hardware stores.  It should be roughly the thickness of a piece of poster board.  I’m not giving an exact gauge here because it will depend on the manufacturer, if it’s given at all.  The rolled-up metal foils that are sold for craft projects are too thin for this particular project.

Lay the paper template on the metal and draw around it with a Sharpie or other permanent marker, or score the metal with an awl.  Cut out the shape with metal shears.  For the eyeholes, poke holes with a hammer and large nail so you can get the shears in,  and cut a rough shape.  Use a file to smooth the inside of the eyeholes and the outside edge of the cutout.  (Or cut the eyeholes out with a jeweler’s saw).

Jaguar Mask:  Paper Template and Copper Cutout

Jaguar Mask: Paper Template and Copper Cutout

ANNEALING:  Before hammering, the metal must be annealed (heated and softened).  Work outdoors.  Ordinary UV-blocking sunglasses should offer sufficient eye protection.  (Yes, the torch gives off UV radiation.  All flames do.)  Place the metal on concrete, a stone, or a firebrick and heat it with a propane torch.  Move the torch slowly over the metal until the entire piece has turned dark and/or shows swirling iridescent colors.  Shut off the torch and let the metal cool.  It may be covered with black or brown powdery firescale (copper oxides) that will flake off as you work. 

HAMMERING:  Using the ball end of the hammer, begin hammering on the BACK SIDE of the mask, in the center of the forehead, placing the metal over the hole in the wood block.   Use light, even taps that are very close together or overlapping, and keep the metal moving – don’t hammer too hard or long in one spot.   Work outward towards the ears, the bridge of the nose, and the edge of the mask.  You will slowly “sink” the metal into the hole.  Hammer the cheeks, then the muzzle, and then the bridge of the nose in the same way, starting in the center and working towards the edges.  You’ll see the nose automatically begin to define itself between the domes of the other hammered areas.  Hammer it last, just enough to give a shallow dome without distorting the surrounding metal.  Flip the mask over, and hammer the ears.  To hammer the edges of the metal into a gentle curve, tilt the mask up about 45 degrees, resting on the flat part of the block (not the hole), and hammer along the edge.  For this first heat, try for even, gently domed contours over the entire mask, and don’t worry about details.

JAGUAR MASK after the first hammering session:

Jaguar Mask - First Heat

Jaguar Mask - First Heat

ANNEALING AGAIN:  You’ll eventually feel the metal begin to harden and become more resistant to shaping.  Once you begin to feel this effect, stop hammering, anneal the metal again, and let it cool.  You will do this several times before you’re finished, so be patient.  Annealing the metal softens it and relieves the stresses of hammering to keep it from cracking.  If you hammer the metal for too long without annealing, you risk developing creases, flat spots, cracks, and other permanent flaws.  When you take a break to anneal the metal, it gives you a chance to inspect the work carefully and plan what you will do next.   In any metalwork, studying, imagining, and planning are essential parts of the entire process, not just the beginning. 

HAMMERING – ADDING DETAIL:  As the mask takes shape, you’ll see areas that need to be raised higher, edges that need to curl under, or areas such as the ears and nose that need more definition.  After the second heat, you’ll refine the shapes of each area and begin to add details.  It will become easier to see which areas need work, and your hammering will feel less random.  If your hammer blows are overlapping, you’ll see the surface begin to smooth out and look less dimpled.

Here’s the JAGUAR MASK after the second hammering session.  The relief is higher, the nose and forehead are better defined, and a file has been used to begin to refine the bottom edge of the mask.  But the  eyes haven’t been touched, and the forehead and muzzle need more definition.

Jaguar Mask - Heat 2

Jaguar Mask - Heat 2

HAMMERING – FINISHING TOUCHES:  By now, there should be only a couple of areas that still need a lot of work, and most of your hammering will be to refining the domes and making sure both sides of the mask look the same.  (The jaguar mask was finished in three heats, but the cat mask took four.  The exact number doesn’t matter, since YOU are the one who decides when it’s done.  You should remember that the metal grows a bit thinner as you hammer it, and as you develop higher and more complex relief, the shaping becomes more of a challenge and the chance of spoiling the previous work increases.  Don’t overwork the metal.)

JAGUAR MASK – Finished!  The forehead has been given a “brow ridge” to add definition, the muzzle has been refined, and the top edges of the mask has been filed into shape.  Nostril holes were drilled in the nose, the edges of the mask were sanded smooth (very important to avoid cuts and scrapes when you’re wearing it, and to give a finished look) and 14 gauge copper wire rings were added to the sides.  (Punch or drill holes for these.  If you don’t have any wire, get a couple of 1/2 inch  split rings, such as are used for keyrings.)  Note that the domes are not completely smooth, and the metal still has a slightly dimpled look.  In order to get rid of the dimples, you would need to anneal the mask one more time, place it over a round polished stake (or the ballpeen hammer clamped in a vise) and use a very flat silversmith’s hammer to planish the metal on the FRONT SIDE, which will give the domes a smoother shape…IF you know what you’re doing and you have stakes that are the right size and shape.  This is a lot of extra work and could spoil the lifelike, hand-hammered vigor of a mask made of copper or brass, though I’d do it for one made of sterling silver.  I didn’t do it for the cat or the jaguar.

Jaguar Mask - Third Heat

Jaguar Mask - Heat 3

You could stop here.  If you want the copper to be bright and shiny (as I did for the cat mask, since I was wearing it at night), you can sand the mask with emery paper (400 grit first, then 600 for a higher polish).   Here are the two masks shown together for comparison.  The jaguar hasn’t been polished, and the cat was polished and has since tarnished.

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks, side view

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks, side view

 TIES:  Ribbons, leather cords, strings, and even elastic bands will not hold the mask securely for a long time, especially if you will be walking or dancing while wearing it.  Instead, make ties from strips of cotton fabric, about two feet long and two inches wide.  Tied in a square knot, these will be very secure (try wearing the mask around the house first to get the fit right).  Make the ties out of black fabric (simple, elegant, and inconspicuous) or use a fabric that will integrate with the rest of your costume.

The Jaguar Mask isn’t finished.  It’s wearable now.  But in a later post, I’ll add spots and ornaments.


6 Responses to “Make a Hammered Copper Mask”

  1. […] 26, 2009  Go HERE for the first post on how to design and shape the mask. Copper Jaguar […]

  2. Konad Kellman said

    Im new in Lloydminster, from Ontario. Im a medieval armoursmih. Just looking metal supplier in my area, or near by. Would you know of any info that my help me????

    thank you

    Konrad Kellman

  3. ironwing said

    I’ve bought metal from the hardware store, a local metal supplier, and occasionally online through ebay or a specialty supplier. All I can suggest is to check the phone book and call around your local area if you’re looking for something specific. I buy very small quantities at a time and use a lot of salvaged (though new) stock, so it’s not often an issue.

  4. Angela Thomas said

    Thank you so much for this tutorial

  5. First off, thanks for putting this together and nice work! I am interested in what gauge of copper sheeting is best for these purposes. I know you said that different manufacturers have different sizes, based on how they produce it… but if you could give me a ball park, that would be very helpful. The place I am looking at online, called Basic Copper, sells sheeting in 1, 1.4, 5, 8, 10, and 16 mil thicknesses, that seems like a pretty wide range so I am kind of stumped as a first-time copper craftsman. I was thinking maybe about 10mil? Thoughts?

    • ironwing said

      I use roofing copper which comes rolled and is flexible enough to bend with your hands, but is heavier than foil and requires a hammer for any detailed or precise shaping. The thickness wasn’t marked and I don’t have a sheet metal gauge tool. If you have no experience with sheet metal, I’d try the hardware store or a local metal, jewelry, or building supplier rather than buying online, so you can see and feel what you’re getting. For a mask, you want it as thin as possible (to reduce weight) but thick enough to hold its shape.

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