Tom Banwell


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Tom Banwell
06 Tuesday 06th September 2011


When did you first get into making steampunk masks and helmets?

Five years ago when I was 57 years-old I was seriously ill and was hospitalised for three weeks, and that forced me to re-evaluate what I was doing with my life. I realized that I shouldn’t put off doing the things that I wanted to do before I died. Happily there wasn’t much on that list.

Creating art has always been a passion and brought great me personal satisfaction, and I recognized that I wanted to once again work in leather as I had decades earlier.  And so I made several Viking helmets and other fantasy headwear just for fun. I searched online for others with the same interest, and found a Yahoo group for leatherworkers. It wasn’t particularly active, but it did lead me to another online group at

While perusing this forum I came across leatherworkers making masks, and was intrigued. I had made two leather masks years earlier, and they — along with helmets — fascinated me. The maskmaking worked well for me and looking into selling them I discovered the handmade goods selling site Etsy from a post on

Underground Explorer with Canister

Shortly thereafter I opened a shop on Etsy (April 2008) and began selling leather masks, which with my wife and I continue to do today. While looking around the site I came across the term "steampunk" and had no idea what it was, but again was intrigued. As I explored steampunk online I realized I had stumbled onto a world in which my creativity would fit perfectly. I knew that I could create helmets and masks in the steampunk genre, and around August 2008 I found an old rubber gas mask at a yard sale and recreated it in leather and resin: my first steampunk item.

When I posted a photo of it online I got immediate positive responses to it, which encouraged me to continue making leather and resin steampunk pieces.

Where do you think your interest in the steampunk era and style comes from?

Growing up I felt somewhat lost in a complicated, confusing world. Pre-industrial life appealed to me because it was easier to understand than the modern world. Even though I work with modern tools (a laser cutter) and modern materials (plastics) I still relate to 19th century and earlier cultures.


What's your creative background like? We notice you say you're self-taught: what was your first foray into 3D sculpting and carving?

I made a lot of art as a child and I suppose that sculpting in clay was my first 3D experience. I still have a bust of Abraham Lincoln that I made in grade (primary) school.

What do you think gives your steampunk creations their aesthetic appeal?

I suppose it is combining elements that are familiar yet startling with beautiful forms and lines. On top of that I try to use the best of leatherworking techniques, with hand-stitching that is perfectly even and uniform for example.

Prof. Tauruscat's Dream Helmet

Once you get inspired to start a piece, where does your creative process go to from there? Are you a sketch-based man? Or do you start cutting the leather straight away?

I always sketch out my ideas, then usually I sculpt the form in clay in order to draught the patterns. Then I cut out the pieces in cardstock to see how it all goes together. Only after that has been worked out (and reworked) do I commit it to leather. Oftentimes I will still want to make changes, and so will modify the patterns and cut it out all over again.

How often do you get buyers sending in images of themselves in your creations? And favourites if so?

Mostly I get photos from professional photographers who have shot models wearing my masks. Many of those are drop dead gorgeous photos, and I have used many of them on my Etsy site to help sell them.

Banwell at work on Ichabod

What do you think it is about steampunk that still intrigues so many people?

I think it is a fun escape from the pressures of real life, and steampunk is a genre which encourage participants to be creative and to make their own clothing and props.

What do you hope people take away from viewing and owning your work?

I’m just happy when people enjoy what I do. If someone enjoys it enough to plunk down cold hard cash for it all the better.

Which of your own pieces are you the most proud of? Why?
That is hard to say, as I like most of the pieces I have made the last few years, but typically I am most taken with my most recent work, in this case Ichabod the steampunk plague doctor’s mask (above, with hood).

Finally, what are you working on at the moment? And what are your future plans for the helmet/mask world?
I have sketches and ideas for scores of projects. I am in between projects right now, having just completed Ichabod, but I am considering for my next piece either an elaborate 3D lion’s mask, or a squid helmet and mask combination, with a bit of a Cthulu influence...

Keep up with Tom Banwell's work on his site and blog.

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