Not everybody needs a leather plague doctor’s mask, complete with long snout where doctors used to stuff herbs to ward off the plague.
In fact, technically speaking, nobody really does, since the Bubonic plague is quite rare. And truth be told, the masks probably won’t do you a whole lot of good if you happen upon infected squirrel.
Still on Etsy, the online marketplace for crafters and vintage sellers, plague doctor masks are a huge hit for Tom Banwell, master leather maker and craftsman.
But his meat and potatoes items on Etsy are his fanciful leather masks that come in all shades of the rainbow – speaking both literally and metaphorically.
If you think all Etsy sellers are women of a certain age who are merely about pastels and pearls, Banwell, 63, proves you wrong.
But the truth is, when Banwell, himself, first heard about Etsy, he himself, thought he didn’t belong.
His first impression of Etsy: “It was fluffy. I didn’t think my leather masks were going to do well there.”
Fortunately, he tried anyhow.
After all, it only costs $.20 to list an item. And Banwell was looking for something new.
At the time, Banwell and his wife were working as custom resin casters. For a quarter of a century, they made trophies and figurines. It wasn’t exactly a passion, but “the business worked well.”
Then about three years ago there was a lull in business. Banwell got more into making crafts: batiks, paintings and woodcarvings.
He also created some leather masks and got an instant positive reaction on a site for leatherworkers.
He opened virtual shop on Etsy on April 26, 2008. It took a month to sell his first item. He kept going.
“I just kept putting things out there and things just started going from there,” he said. “It continues to grow and grow.”
As of today, he’s sold some some 3713 items on Etsy, a number that dwarfs many others on the site.
Many of Banwell’s Steampunk items, such as his firemasters leather helmet take months to make and sell for thousands of dollars. (The helmet sells for $3,900 and an Underground Explorer steampunk helmet and mask goes for $7,000.)
(He chronicles the process of some of his more complex work on his blog.)
Most of his masks sell for a much more accessible $39.
His work sometimes appear in music videos, independent films and may appear in a forthcoming Hollywood film, New Year’s Eve, directed by Garry Marshall, Banwell said.
He regularly loans his masks to folks who turn around and take pictures with them. The trade: Banwell gets to use the pictures to sell his masks.
It worked out well for Maxine Rebren, a hairdresser who goes by the name Mad Maxx from Pensacola, Florida. She uses the masks to help promote her shop.
“I fell in love with his work. Automatically I had great visions,” she said. “The masks are so awesome. He really puts his heart into it.”
Other’s clearly agree.
The feedback on his shop (100% positive) reads like a straight-A student’s – if that student created work that was alternatively beautiful, kinky, depraved and heartwarming.
“Beautiful product!” wrote someone (buyer identities are not revealed on Etsy) who purchased a plague doctor mask. “As morbid as it might seem, I’m wearing a plague (doctor) costume to go and visit a close friend in the end stages of cancer ~ My friend has sick, twisted sense of humor. And I assure you that it will be one of the last good laughs he has ~ thanks for everything.”
“This mask was perfect for my costume at the Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball this year!” wrote a customer who bought and apparently wore, a rabbit leather mask.
Incidentally, Halloween is Banwell’s busiest time of year. But people also purchase masks for Mardi-Gras, constume parties, Burning Man and even prom.
“I am extremely pleased with this mask,” wrote another, describing a lacy purple number.” It is striking and beautiful and so comfortable that I barely notice I am wearing it at all. I wore it heavily at both Wakarusa and Bonnaroo as part of a costume and it held up very well through the heat and the dust. I also got tons of compliments on it.”
Sales are booming. He’s expecting business to double. His son now also is part of the family team.
“Etsy–it’s just a dream,” Banwell said. “As long as your computer is working and you have Internet access, the orders just come in.”
His only regret: That Etsy wasn’t around 25 years ago when “I was going to arts and craft fairs, attempting to sell my work, and having little popular success,” he said.
“With the worldwide market that the Internet and Etsy provide I feel that my esoteric art could have found a much wider audience and the success that I have experienced over the last few years could have been realized decades ago.”