Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Christy Bullock has been trying to optimize the design of her homemade face masks.


A problem with homemade cloth masks is that they don’t always seal well around the face — air can enter easily and escape through the top and sides of the mask.


Bullock, a retiree in Jefferson City, tried sewing pipe cleaners into the masks, but that didn’t solve the problem. The best solution she’s found is small aluminum strips that the mask wearer can bend around the nose to better seal the top of the mask, she said.


She received hundreds of the metal strips from SMART Sheet Metal Union Local No. 36, a sheet metal workers’ union that covers most of the state.


Local 36 has provided around 50,000 free strips of aluminum to people around the state, including 30,000 to mask makers in central Missouri.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing cloth facial coverings in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.


The local union is a chapter of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers that covers most of Missouri.


Local 36 has been working with the international union to craft and distribute the metal pieces in Missouri and parts of Arkansas.


“We aren’t mask makers, but we know metal,” said Kris Harmon, business representative for Local 36 in central and southwest Missouri.


Shawn Frasher, a teacher at the union’s training center in Fulton, heard about the need for masks on Facebook. With classes suspended due to coronavirus, he took a day to cut metal strips instead of reviewing the curriculum.


The metal strips are 3 inches by one-quarter inch and are cut from sheets of aluminum with metal shears.


He estimates he made between 4,000 and 5,000 strips in one day.


“If they need more, I’ll make more,” Frasher said.


Mask makers could request pieces through SMART’s online form, but the union temporarily stopped taking orders May 15 due to an aluminum shortage and because union members, who had been volunteering to make the strips, are returning to work.


Stephanie Crutcher, a clerk at MU Women and Children’s Hospital in Columbia, ordered 500 metal strips to sew into cloth masks to wear over her regular work mask. She plans on making masks for her family and their caretakers, as well as for “anyone who asks.”


“It’s important for the masks to be able to conform to your face,” Crutcher said.


Mask making helps Bullock feel like she’s doing something useful during the pandemic. She has already made more than 300 masks using the metal strips from Local 36 and given them to family, friends and others who’ve learned about her masks through word of mouth.


Bullock found out about the union’s metal strips in a Facebook group and placed her order.


“Within two days I had them on my doorstep,” she said. “It was wonderful.”


This story was produced by the Missouri Information Corps, a project of the Missouri School of Journalism. Got tips for us? Email: moinformationcorps@gmail.com