How to make a Venetian Mask

January 1, 2012 in Arts Crafts and other, Halloween Costumes

Finished Colombina Venetian Mask

Happy New Year everyone!  I went to a Formal Masquerade party last night to ring in 2012.  As a masquerade I of course needed a venetian mask.  I borrowed several very nice Venetian Masks from family and friends, and tried on several blanks at various stores to no avail.  It’s tough being a big guy, I don’t fit in chairs (or just break them) and apparently standard masks don’t fit me.   I decided the only thing was to make one.  I had about a week before the party so I hit the internet for some quick research on styles, form, materials, etc.  I decided I wanted a Colombina style Venetian Mask for myself and set about making one.

Supplies used to make the venetian mask base   Rough venetian mask blank

First I gathered some basic materials,  plaster impregnated cloth tape is sold at Walmart, Michaels, and other craft stores inexpensively, some gloves, scissors,  paper, and a helper.  I used saran wrap to wrap my head from the upper lip up.  I layed down on the floor, had a helper wet and lay the plaster strips over my head.  My helper put on several layers and I took a nap on the floor for 20 minutes until my base mask hardened enough to safely be removed.


This part was tricky.  I had a hard time finding a center line on my mask blank.  Eventually I came to use a card stock strip to mark a center line vertically up the nose.  I think used the same card stock strip and a small ruler to make guidelines horizontally on the venetian mask blank.  I roughly drew a symetrical mask based on the pictures I found onlone and made a rough cut well away from the drawn in mask.


Getting the shape of the venetian mask blank right was the hardest part of this project.  I used a stationary belt sander to slowly work my way around, carefully eyeballing the final shape.  In the end I didn’t match my drawn in rough mask, instead going with what looked best in the mirror.   Roughing in the eye openings was done with a 3/8″ drill bit followed by a dremel tool with a 1/8″diameter carbide burr.


 With the shape of the mask defined I set about getting the outer surface of my venetian mask blank porcelain smooth.  This was not so easy as I thought. I first tried plaster of paris, but the mask is plaster and it instantly sucked the water from the “wet” plaster of paris before it could be smoothed.  I then tried some Bondo Spot Putty and filler I had kicking around the shop.  It can fill ships and dings on a car and sands glass smooth.  Unfortunately, the spot putty had the same problem as the plaster of paris, the porous mask sucked the solvent drying the putty instantly and making a real mess of the mask.

   painting decorations on my venetian mask

The answer to the smoothing problem was to seal the plaster.  I gave the mask several heavy coats with a gloss white spray paint and cured it rapidly with my trusty shop hairdrier.  From there on out spot putty and sanding produced an acceptably smooth surface.  I made a cardstock template, centered and cut the eye openings to their final shape.  I then sprayed the entire mask with a metalic silver paint.  I used an exacto knife to carefully cut some masking patterns for the next coat of black paint.   It is always better to paint over lighter colors with darker ones, so I started with white, went to silver, and finally black.   If you go the other way you will have bleed through of the darker colors in many cases.


I continued on with another layer of masking and spraying black onto the mask.  The bulk of the design on my mask was applied in this fashion.  I was running out of days and time so I chose this faster method of painting. Originally I planned to hand paint some Baroque style patterns onto the mask.


Every venetian mask image online was trimmed in some form of lace or rickrack.  I figured this was to hide the imperfections on the edge. I picked up a yard each of two different sizes of the same lace pattern in black for the edge on my mask.  There are many types of adhesives and glues out there, choosing the right one for the job is sometimes difficult. I used a solvent based fabric glue as it is quick drying, absorbs some into the fabric and sticks well to smooth surfaces.  It worked well and dries transparent.


I added some additional decoration, a few sparkle fake jewels and a glitter puffy sticker to the black side.  I had thought to paint the lines on the harlequin pattern with a 3d paint, but when I tried that on a test piece it was quickly apparent that I didn’t have time for it to dry so I forwent that detail.  I did a bit of touch up work on paint where the black bleed through the edge of the blue painters masking tape to clean up the lines.  I went with a traditional tied ribbon on my venetian mask  I attached it with 5 minute epoxy and cross layed a few saturated pieces of ribbon to spread the load on the mask.

Finished Colombina Venetian Mask

The finished mask was lined with some red velvet via spray adhesive on the inside.  The soft velvet made wearing the mask much more comfortable.  My Venetian mask was well received at the party, survived the night unscathed, and I was happy it came out as well as it did.  After having worn my venetian mask  for an entire evening I would make some changes if I were to make another one.  I would add a layer of cloth to my face underneath the saran wrap when making the very first rough mask blank to add space for the ribbon attachment inside the mask.  Additionally the eye openings should be considerably larger.   I felt too much like I had sight blinders on me when I was wearing my mask on account of the smaller eye openings.  All in all, the Formal Masquerade was a great party and fun way to ring in the new year.

Me in the Venetian Mask I made at the welcome to the party, now stand here by the door “mug shot”.

3D Cake Baking Tips

December 20, 2011 in From the Kitchen


3d cake baking trips and how to

There are few things I do better then eating and making snacks.  I often am asked for recipes for the many things I bake and share.  In the past, I would make 10-20 birthday cakes a year for birthdays in my research group at UNH. Over the years I have developed some pretty good cake baking practices and favorite recipes.   Since it is the season of holiday baking, I thought I’d share some of my 3D cake baking experience while make you drool over the yummy cake photos.

3D Christmas Tree Cake Baking Pan

The photos in this post are all from a practice cake, made in preparation for one I will make on the 24th that I will bring as my contribution to the big family gathering on xmas day.  Last year I received this glorious 3D Christmas tree cake pan from my good friends Amanda and Ben.  A super awesome gift for me, Thanks guys!   When using one of these 3d cake pans, it’s best to make a practice cake  to get the volume of batter needed and baking times just right.  Speaking of cake batter, lets talk about what makes for a good 3d Cake recipe.  Here’s my recipe that I’ve used in about 6 different pans.  It’s an alteration from some original recipe that came with one of the pans I believe.

 Zac’s 3D Cake Recipe:

  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 sticks UNSALTED butter
  • 2 cups Granulated sugar
  • 4 large white eggs
  • 1.33 cups milk
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract

Many people think baking is about the recipe, but it is not really.  Making tasty snacks is more about the ingredients and some rules on how you combine them then the recipe propper.   Cake flour is key for baking cakes.  Flour comes in different grades, each with a different content of gluten.  In terms of softest (least gluten) to hardest (most gluten)  it goes:  cake flour, pastry flour, general purpose, bread flour.  For cakes, use cake flour.  I prefer King Arthurs unbleached cake flour personally but in a pinch I’ll use Pillsbury’s Softasilk cake flour.  Different flours taste differently. Experiment and fun one you think tastes best.   Be sure to use unsalted butter and not salted in a cake, it makes a difference.   Another secret to making exceptional baked goods, is to make your own Vanilla extract.  I’ll do a post on making your own Vanilla in the future as I am almost out of my last batch. The short version is buy real vanilla beans and soak them in Vodka.

Directions for Zac’s 3D Cake recipe:

Soften the butter by letting it out in your mixing bowl.  Don’t cheat by microwaving the butter,  it unevenly melts the butter and it won’t cream well.   Let all your ingredients sit out to reach room temperature while the butter softens.   Cream the sugar by adding the sugar to the butter and mixing on medium speed until smooth and a bit fluffy.   Crack and lightly beat with a fork your eggs until they are just barely mixed.  Do not over beat them! You only want to mix them to uniformity.  Add the mixed eggs a little bit at a time to the mixing creamed sugar.  Stop a couple times to scrape down the sides of the bowl so it all mixes nicely.   The flour, salt, baking powder should all be dry mixed in a separate bowl.  Sift if you feel the need,  I do not.  I have done side by side recipe comparison and find sifting of modern dry ingredients purposeless based on the results.  Likewise add and stir in the vanilla to the milk in a separate container.   Add in alternating fashion, flour, milk, flour, milk, four, milk, flour.  Now you want to be careful to not over mix your cake batter. I stop as soon as it’s uniformly mixed.  Your cake batter is done and ready to go in the pan.

Filling and Baking in your 3D cake pan:

Preheat your oven at 325F  and move a rack towards the middle most level.   Prep the 3D cake pan by spraying with cooking release spray, and flouring lightly.  Alternatively you can melt shortening or use corn/conola oil brushed onto the pan and then flour lightly.   Cooking spray does a better job of evenly coating the pan and results in better release and details.   With some 3D cake pans, my practice cake pan included, you have to pour in a small amount of batter and brush it around the small detail areas.  If you just pour in the batter en mass you end up trapping air bubbles causing the cake pan details to be lost to voids.   Practice cakes are important for fine tuning the filling process.  The recipe above makes enough cake to fill even the largest of my 3D cake pans.  I adjust the volume needed for each pan by removing cup cakes from the mixing bowl based on my practice cake experience.  For the Christmas Tree Cake I learned that I need to remove 3 full sized cupcakes prior to filling the pans in the future.  What happens during the practice cake is that you end up with an uneven cake, as seen in the photos below.  Fear not, you simply cut off the “muffin top” portion of the cake should this happen.  This overfilling leads to the thinner outer regions of the cake being over cooked.


Carefully monitor the cake, using 35-45 minutes as a starting point.  Every 3d cake pan cooks differently, some longer and some shorter making it important to monitor the time on the practice cake so you can get it just right when you make the real cake.   With the cupcakes removed from the full batch of batter, remember that the “real” cake will be done a few minutes early and set your timer 5 minutes before your practice cake was done.   Start careful monitoring when your timer goes off so you can remove your cake as soon as it is ready. Nothing worse then an overcooked dry cake.    I use long thin skewers to test the center or thickest portion of the cake.  When the skewer comes out dry I pull the cake from the oven.


Cool your cake in the pan for 15-20 minutes on a rack before you do anything to it.  Then trim off the top with a long flat serrated bread knife.   Be careful not to nick you precious pan.  The nonstick coating is fragile.  You can see one side trimmed down in the upper left photo.  The bonus is that you get to taste your practice cake at this point.  It is hard to beat cake warm from the oven for yummy in the tummy happiness.  After you trim down your cake, give it a few taps on the counter to release it a bit.  Hold a wire cooling rack over the top and quickly flip your cake.   There’s a trick to flipping and releasing the cake from the pan that comes with doing it a few time.  Don’t be sad if you fail the first time or two and damage the cake.  Just use some frosting to hold it together should this occur.

Let the cake cool completely on the pan.  This is important,  rushing to put it together results in the cake falling apart. Trust me on this one and don’t rush it.   I keep a roll of kraft paper on hand to cover the cake so it doesn’t dry out too much.  I then leave it for 3hrs or more to cool.


Frost one half of your cake on the flat side with your favorite frosting.   Also frost the base and very gently stick it on a cake wheel vertically.   I lightly frost the second half as well, but if your cake is really flat you only need to do one side.  Put the second half together and squish a little bit so the frosting oozes out the crack.   Then take a small butter knife and trim/putty in the frosting to smooth out the crack.

Now it’s time to decorate your cake.  I chose a chocolate glaze to go with the practice cake but I’ll likely do a white frosting or glaze with green sugar for the real deal.   I wasn’t fast enough with the green sugar on the chocolate and it did not stick as the glaze had cooled too much.   Worry not, the practice cake did not go to waste.  It was eaten by my niece and nephew.  I of course had my fair share of it too.  The taste was pretty good, minus the overcooked thin sections that were, well, overcooked and dry.    That’s the basics of making a 3D cake.  There is no substitute for experience, so make a practice cake or two for yourself before making one to bring to a party or event.

How to make a super cute stuffed toy

December 18, 2011 in Arts Crafts and other

Finished bunny ready for gifting

This year for Christmas I have several new babies and small children on my present list.  I decided to make some super cute stuffed animal toys as gifts.   I always feel that a hand made gift is the best kind of gift.  I started by looking at some of my stuffed animals, which I of course have strictly for when little ones visit.    I decided my stuffed animals had to be super cute, ultimately cuddly, and have nothing hard (chocking hazard) on them.  I really like this one ugly doll that I have in my collection. I decided I’d go with something like him mixed with some of my favorite anime styles/artists work.   The bunny above is the finished product.  Here’s how to go about making one of your very own.

Select a super soft fleece fabric for cuddly stuffed animals    Start by making a pattern of the stuffed animal in paper

The first step is to get some super soft very cuddle-able fabric at your favorite fabric store.  I bought 1 yard of this soft fleece at Walmart.  Truth be told,  the fabric caught my eye while walking from automotive to electronics one day and spawned the project to some extent.   Next step is to make a pattern in paper.  The photo above is my finished pattern for what I will loosely call a stuffed bunny.  It took quite some time, and a bunch of paper to settle on this design.  Working in paper is faster and easier then cutting fabric so it makes sense to use paper.  This is a project truism that holds true for making just about anything. Make a pattern in paper first before you have a go at using a more expensive material.  After I settled  on a pattern design, I scanned it in to the computer, in case I had some Zactastrophe  resulting in the pattern being lost, ruined, set on fire, stolen by fairies, etc.

   Stuffed animal pattern cut out for sewing

After making your pattern and copies of it,  start to cut out the pieces from fabric.  I folded and used a crease to make life easy in my designing this toy.  In some cases I left the fold, in others I sewed all around the cut out piece.   You can do it either way.  After cutting out two of everything, except the tail I laid out the pieces, as in the photo above right, to make sure the stuffed animal looked cute.  I thought it was pretty good.    Sew up each of the appendages (tail, arms, legs, ears, noses, etc)  leaving the small end open.  Flip them right side out and stuff with small cut up scrap bits of the super soft fluffy fleece fabric until quite full.  At this point you can either sew up the ends, or leave them open to be closed when you sew them onto the body.

Make a cute stuffed animal bunny

Next, cut an appropriately placed vertical slit in one of the body pieces for the tail, pull the tail through the slit and sew it up.  Now’s the time to embroider eyes, face, makers mark, etc by hand.  It’s best to do this BEFORE you sew up the body and stuff it (as in the above picture).  It wasn’t until the third stuffed animal that I actually did the embroidery work before sewing up the doll.  The hard part in sewing it all together is making all of the toys arms and legs fit inside as you sew.  I found it was far easier to do it one at a time as I went.  I started at a leg and went out and around next sewing in an arm, ear, and back down around.  Part of the cuteness factor is the small size of these stuffed animal toys.   Making them small, and thus cute, results in an increased in sewing difficulty but it’s worth it.   After you are done sewing around the doll and all the body parts are on, carefully flip it right side out by pulling each arm and leg through the small opening one at a time.   Stuff with polyfill minding the shape of the final stuffed animal. I found that teasing the polyfill some was needed as I stuffed it in to keep the body from becoming lumpy.  Finally, hand stitch the “filling area” with a thread colored to match the fabric you select.  Your doll is done and looks like the image on the top of the page.

A Hand made stuffed animal toy makes little kids happy.   A Hand made stuffed animal toy makes little kids happy.

Happiness is seeing a lil girls face light up when she opens her Christmas present to find the very special doll made just for her.  I’m pretty sure that this little bunny is going to see lots of love and will become a favorite of the children that get them this year.     It takes about one hour long tv show to make one start to finish, not including the pattern making.  The yard of fabric I bought is enough to make about 8-10 stuffed animal toys of this size.  By cutting up and using the scraps as fill for the arms/legs/ears there is zero wasted material in this project.  All in all I’m happy with the costs, efforts, and final products of this project.

Don’t be afraid to let your stuffed animal design evolve as you make them.  My first toy was a little bit too wide for my liking.   My second stuffed bunny was a very cute size but I decided I didn’t think the arms were cute enough and made a new pattern for the arms.  The evolution continued with each stuffed animal being uniquely different.  All of them are cute, cuddly, and oh so soft meeting my original requirements.  As such they will each get gifted this Christmas and I hope loved by a small child.

Here’s the pattern I came up with for this toy: – cute bunny stuffed toy pattern




Chainsaw milling by Zac

November 11, 2011 in Milling lumber

zac built Alaskan sawmill


I’ve always dreamed of a sawmill of my very own.  Given the retail price of hardwoods these days I decided it was time to do something about that dream.   A bit of reading, some research,  a raid of the metal stock racks in the shop, and about 2 hrs later I had my very own Alaskan style mini sawmill.   I have a few chainsaws, but the 450 Husqvarna is the one I decided to put this on for now.   I based my design roughly off the Graberg International small log sawmill. I had considered buying one, but in this economy money is tight and the total cost to make mine was 6.95 (for the bolts). Everything else I had as scrap, scrounged from something or left over stock already payed for by some other project.

Alaskain Sawmill on which I based my zac built sawmill design  Home built Alaskain sawmill


Side by side showing the commercial Alaskan Sawmill on the left and the Zac built sawmill on the right

Milling downed trees into lumber has become one of my favorite past times.  Partially because I know I’ll use the wood for some project down the road, and partially because I feel happy knowing I’m turning trees grown on the property into valuable and useful material.   My first few boards were not great as you can see below.

First boards milled with my zac built alaskain sawmill

The number one thing I learned early on is that it’s all about sealing the end grain on the log as soon as you cut them.  Some of the maple I cut up checked faster then I could put down the saw and brush on the sealant.  More on my end grain sealant of choice in a future post.

The Start of the Honda CX-500 Cafe Racer project

November 10, 2011 in CX500 Cafe Racer Build

As it happens, a friend suckered me into this project with an IM link to this page on a 1978 honda cx500 cafe racer build.  We both were very excited by the article at the time.  This was about a month ago, since then I’ve done a great deal of research, reading and a bit of Craigslist hunting.  I finally came across the right bike for my winter build a cafe racer project.  I went and met with the owner, Aaron last night and came home with my project donor bike, 1979 CX-500.   The bike runs well but needs some brake work on the mechanical side.  I’m sure there will be some surprises along the way but for now, I’m really happy with my purchase.


Honda CX500 pre Cafe Racer Build       Honda CX500 pre Cafe Racer Build unmodified

A Shaker Inspired Dining Table

November 10, 2011 in Woodworking and Furniture

A shaker inspired dining table


A friends wife contacted me one afternoon back in September, inquiring as to my availability to build a new dining table for them.   After some discussion and lengthy decision making process on the design, style, and type of wood I began construction.  This is the dry fit assembly of the table.  I used mortise and tenon joints on the lower part for this table.  Originally we discussed simpler and cheaper pocket hole joinery but I felt that a table shouldn’t need to be tightened up with time and get all wiggly like my current store bought kitchen table has a tendency to do periodically.  More on this project as it progresses.


A shaker inspired dining table

A shaker inspired dining table

Welcome to projects by zac

November 10, 2011 in Messages from Zac

Greetings and salutations.   I’m working on getting this new blog up and running.  I plan to use Projects by Zac as a single hub to manage and share all of my many projects spanning woodworking, machining, artwork, modeling, robotics, cnc and whatever else I’m working on for the day.  I hope this format works and I can successfully share and organize my projects with the world at large, because I know that the world at large cares oh so deeply.