I’m Tom Banwell, and my wife Jill and I own a leather mask making business, Tom Banwell Designs. Our shop is below our house in the rural community of Penn Valley, California, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We are assisted by our friend Christine, our son Erin, and our friends’ 17 year old daughter Lauren, who works as a summer intern.
Up until a few years ago, we focused primarily on custom trophies, for which we had purchased a laser cutter. Through experimenting with it, I discovered that the laser cuts leather very nicely, and I discovered the fun of designing and making leather masks. In a way, it was a return to my roots — I was a leather worker for a number of years in the ’70s and ’80s.
To make the masks, we start with top grain vegetable tanned cowhide. We trace a pattern onto the leather, get it wet so that it becomes pliable, and cut the mask out with the laser cutter. The laser cuts faster and more intricately than I could do by hand, allowing me to design the delicate filigree cut out masks we’ve been known for over the last few years. Next, we shape the damp mask over a face form and allow it to dry. The next day, we paint it with an airbrush. Once it’s dry, we attach a piece of elastic and place it in a plastic bag, ready to ship.
Shortly after I began making masks, I discovered Etsy. The combination of the two has transformed our lives. We’ve been able to completely give up our old business and make masks full time. We no longer have phone calls to answer for work, and although we work hard at what we do, it is much less stressful. Jill and I both love working at home at our own pace, away from the hustle and bustle of an office. Plus, we get the satisfaction of knowing that our shop is run 100% off of solar panels on the roof.
One of my favorite designs is the Raven mask. Jill and I were eating lunch one day in our dining room when I noticed that the woodgrain of the kitchen cabinet resembled the shape of upraised bird wings. I thought that it would make a beautiful mask, and I made the first design with dramatic, 14” tall wings. Unfortunately, after a few days the wings fell over, and I was sorely disappointed. Several weeks later, my daughter Erika came to visit and I showed her the problem I was having. She suggested tying the wings together. That, combined with shortening the wings two inches solved the problem. The Raven has been one of our best sellers ever since.