In 1619, Charles de L'Orme invented the Medieval equivalent of a hazmat suit. It consisted of a waxed overcoat, leather gloves, cane and beak-shaped mask filled with floral scents. Even though the miasma theory of disease was ultimately proven untrue, the beak functioned like a gas mask so plague doctors could treat Bubonic Plague victims.
I have always thought that the beak / Plague doctor masks were fascinating, but could never justify buying one from a custom maker. With Halloween coming up, what better time to make one myself?
I am not aware of any surviving examples of the costume and it's not clear how widespread they were.
The 17th century copper plate engraving to the right is the most common image we have. It was originally printed in 1921 in Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin.
I am skeptical about how consistent the masks were between doctors and regions. They were likely custom, one-off products of roughly the same shape. In the absence of more information, we are forced to make our own creative choices.
niteKore has a tutorial showing how to assemble the digital pattern he sells. It consists of three primary faces (left, right, bottom) plus straps and reinforcement pieces. On both his mask and mine, we used laser cut acrylic for the lenses.
Mercifully, the digital pattern was vector files that I could modify for use in the laser cutter. I rearranged the objects onto a single 12"x24" pattern (the size of the cutting bed) and cut it out of tag-board.
Before I went and built the entire leather mask, I wanted to check its fit. Simply taping the pieces together, I found that it was perfect as is and required no scaling.
Next I purchased a sheet of 6 oz. leather from Tandy and cut out a 12"x24" piece. Using some scrap, I dialed in the settings on the laser cutter and then ran the entire pattern.
The shadowing burns from the laser cutter do not smell great, but eventually it dissipates. It can be avoided by pre-moistening the leather, but since the mask was going to be dyed a dark mahogany I just let it go. The dark acrylic looks opaque from here, but is actually relatively clear from inside.
While the pieces were separated, I applied several coats of a Fiebings alcohol-based dye. Unlike the oil-based I had been using, the pieces became quite rigid and there were some small cracks when I assembled it. For serious bends, wetting the leather before sewing is necessary to avoid breaks.
Next I set the 1/4" eyelets for the air holes on the top and bottom of the beak. I am not sure how necessary they are since most of the breathing air comes from the edge of the mask, but I think they look nice.
Before sewing, I treated all of the pieces with heavy coats of neatsfoot oil to restore some of the pliability.
Because the dye had dried out the leather, it took quite a bit of manhandling and dampening to bring the seams together without breaking. The laser cut stitching holes were generously sized which made doubling back the saddle stitch on stressed points much easier.
I had antiqued rivets on hand for the strap attachment points, but had to enlarge the holes slightly. Instead of laser cutting the straps, I used slightly larger 1" strapping I had on hand. Using my paper mask, I cut and taped the paper straps to an appropriate length. I then removed the paper and cut the leather to length using it as a pattern.
With the straps in place, I tightened it to size and marked my first strap hole. From there I spaced holes 1 cm apart. To finish, I applied a few more heavy treatments of neatsfoot oil and stuffed the mask with rags while it dried.
Its surprisingly not uncomfortable to wear. The gaps around the mask edge provide plenty of air and the lens only fog up slightly. Maybe not great for keeping out bad vapors, but good enough for a costume party.