Introduction: Antique Fire Helmet Restoration
Restore a vintage fire helmet to its original glory. For this, my first ever restoration project, I used a pre-1947 Cairns & Bros Senator (Aluminum) fire helmet. This relatively easy project uses tools and techniques that can be applied to other projects.
- Tools and Materials
- Find a helmet to restore
- Strip and clean
- Painting and color schemes
- Leather fronts
- Additional resources
Note: This helmet was restored for display only. The project did not address restoring the helmet lining and chinstrap.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
- Battery-powered drill
- Wire brushes (for drills), I used the following Kobalt brushes:
- 4 in wheel brush
- 2 in wheel brush
- 2 in cup brush
- 1 in end brush
- long sleeve shirt and pants
- shatterproof eye protection
- medical gloves
- durable work gloves
- dusk mask/respirator
- A vintage fire helmet
- JB Weld
- Masking tape
- Rust-Oleum Aluminum Primer
- Spray paint in desired colors
- Minwax Clear Aerosol Lacquer (Clear Satin)
- Leather and leather working tools (optional, only needed if making your own leather front)
- Brass Front Pins (see Leather Fronts Step)
Step 2: Find a Helmet
This is by far the hardest part of the process.
For buying old fire helmets, I have had the most success on Ebay. It can be quite frustrating because vintage fire helmets are pretty popular with firefighters, many of whom restore leather helmets for actual use. There are three main categories of helmets:
1) Fiberglass- this is what modern helmets are made from. While I'm sure some amount of restoration can be done to these, I don't really see the point.
2) Leather helmets- by far the most popular. Many firefighters still wear leather helmets today. Restoring a leather lid follows the same basic process as this restoration, but you will need to use sandpaper to remove all of the paint instead of scrapers. Be careful not to damage the stitching, which will affect the integrity of the helmet.
3) Metal helmets- these were produced for a short period of time, but are no longer used today. The most common is the Cairn's Senator. It is an aluminum helmet, and often features the high eagle front holder. There are also some really cool European metal helmets out there.
Here are some pointers for selecting a good helmet to restore:
- Try to find a helmet that has generally kept its shape. Trying to bend metal back into the right shape can be very frustrating and quite frankly I don't think it's worth the effort.
- Pay particular attention to the edge of the brim. There is a wire that runs around the edge. The metal of the helmet is folded around the wire, forming a bead all the way around. It is possible to do some minor patching if the brim edge is damaged and the wire is exposed, but if there is too much damage, you may want to look for a different helmet.
- Look at all of the mounting hardware (holding the eagle on, at the top of the dome, and where the dome connects to the brim). Try to find a helmet that still has all the rivets in place.
- For Cairns helmets (both leather and metal) check to see if it has the red circular sticker/plate on the inside of the dome (see picture). This sticker/plate can give you an idea of what year the helmet was manufactured. I'll include a list of dates at the end of this instructable.
- Pricing on ebay can be tricky. Leather helmets in good condition can go for over $400 often times, but if you're patient enough you can usually score one for closer to $200/$250. Metal helmets are not as popular. $200 or under would be a reasonable price for one of these.
Step 3: Strip and Clean
Time to finally start getting dirty! To strip and clean the helmet I used a variety of tools/techniques to strip and clean the helmet but first I have some very important safety advice:
- Always wear eye protection, gloves, long sleeves and pants, and a dust mask or respirator (you really don't want to be breathing in paint and metal dust.
- Work in a well ventilated area
- Do not get paint remover on your skin. It WILL burn you.
- Use extreme caution when using the drill wire brushes, particularly near edges. The brush can catch and will jump off violently if you aren't careful. It will also catch loose clothing, hair, etc... These wire brush will not be shy at all about taking off skin.
- Use the wire brushes to strip off the majority of the paint and rust. The different sizes and shapes will help you reach a lot of the recessed areas. As an added bonus, the wire brush is all that is needed to get the brass hardware nice and shiny. Again, use caution with the brushes. They can and will hurt you if you aren't careful.
- For stubborn paint and tight areas use paint remover and scouring pads, or any other scraping tools you have.
- Do not use the wire brushes when using paint remover, it will fling it everywhere.
- If the metal is thin in any spot, or there are small holes in the metal, work carefully. The brushes can make holes or enlarge existing holes. Don't worry too much if you have a couple small holes.
- Continue this process until your helmet is nice and shiny like in the photos above.
- Clean the helmet thoroughly with a soft cloth.
Step 4: Repairs
I am not an expert metal-worker so if you're helmet needs major repairs I am not a good resource. Here is a couple things that you can do though:
If the brim needs a little reshaping, place a wooden block under the part of the helmet you want to reshape. Ideally the wooden black should be roughly the same shape that you are trying to achieve. Then use a rubber mallet to bend the metal accordingly.
For small holes* and damage to the brim, I used JB Weld. Use masking tape to cover the backside of any holes you want to fill (I wouldn't worry too much about small holes). Mix together an equal amount of both JB Weld compounds. Once they are mixed the JB Weld will slowly begin to set. Gently rub a little JB Weld into the holes you want to fill. For the cracked brim/exposed wire, I dobbed on some JB Weld and gently formed it by hand. For both of these techniques I just used my fingers to do the filling and molding (wearing medical gloves of course). Let it set for about 4-6 hours, or preferably overnight. You can then sand down these spots to get a nice smooth look.
*Note: There should be two or four holes in the front of the helmet. Do not fill these holes. These holes are used for attaching the leather front.
Step 5: Prime
Before you can paint the helmet you need to apply 2-3 coats of primer. After a lot of research I settled with Rust-Oleum Aluminum Primer. It worked great.
First use masking tape to cover all the areas you don't want painted. If you didn't remove the tag on the inside during the stripping phase, remove it before painting. For the brass eagle I wrapped it as tightly and closely as a I could. Where the eagle joins the helmet, I placed small overlapping strips and then used an exacto knife to trim the excess. Also place masking tape over the backside of any holes that you didn't fill in order to prevent paint from dripping through to the other side.
In a well ventilated area, spray paint the primer using smooth strokes back and forth, about 6-8 inches away from the material.
I found it best to start by priming the bottom and inside. Apply one coat of primer, allow it to dry for a little while, then apply another coat. Allow it to dry for a few hours. Move masking tape as necessary before flipping the helmet and spraying the topside. That's it!
Step 6: Painting and Color Schemes
If you plan on using a simple color scheme, then use the spray paint of your choice to paint the entire helmet, just like you did with the primer.
For a fancier color scheme, paint the entire helmet the first color and once dry use masking tape to cover up the part of the helmet you want to keep in the first color. Apply the second color.
For each color, apply 2 coats, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next coat.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the fire service, many if not most, fire departments have a color scheme, usually to denote rank or position, but also sometimes to denote function (Ladder, Engine, Rescue, etc...). For example at my department we use the following:
- Black helmets (or yellow, which was the old color for this rank): Firefighters and Engineers (drivers)
- Red helmets: Lieutenants and Captains
- White helmets: Chiefs
- Blue helmets: Junior Firefighters/Explorers
Some fire department also have a specific color schemes for certain types of trucks. In Boston for instance, ladder companies traditional painted the top of the helmet red, and the rest of the helmet black. Google can show you a lot of other ways helmets can be painted.
I chose to paint mine in the same manner as a Boston Ladder company, since I ride a ladder truck. To do this I first painted the bottom and underside of the helmet black. I then painted the entire top red. Once the paint was dry I carefully used masking tape to mask the top third of the helmet. I then painted the rest of the helmet black. When I took the tape off, I got the result you see above. DO NOT REMOVE THE TAPE FROM THE EAGLE YET.
Step 7: Finishing
I am not sure how the finish lacquer affects the brass hardware, so I kept the eagle covered with masking tape until after I had applied the finish. To finish the helmet I used Minwax Clear Aerosol Lacquer (Clear Satin). Just like with the spray paint, apply two coats over the entire helmet, allowing it to dry between coats.
I suppose you could also use brass polish to polish up the high eagle, but I found that it was already bright enough after using the wire brushes.
At this point you can re-attach the metal plate on the inside (if applicable).
Step 8: Leather Fronts
Originally I had intended to make the leather fronts myself, but at the time, I didn't have the tools or know-how to do it quickly. So I cheated and ordered a custom leather front from a guy who specializes in making leather fronts for vintage high-eagle helmets. His website is: www.fdhelmets.com. Dave, the owner, did a great job and had the shield to me in a matter of days. If you order a shield I recommend getting one that does not have mounting holes. See below on how to attach a shield.
I did however go so far as to create the pattern (attached) for the shield before I decided to order the shield instead. To use this pattern, print out the pattern on standard paper. Used Microsoft Word or a similar program to create curved text in whatever font you want. Make it in several different sizes until you find a font that fits in the banners of the pattern. Cut the letters out closely and tape (use clear tape) them on the pattern. Photocopy the entire thing and then you'll have a complete pattern. One of these days I'll try to make an instructable for how to make your own leather front.
Attaching the front:
- Locate the mounting holes (usually two or four) on the front of the helmet
- Place the front shield in place and hold it there.
- From the inside of the dome, poke an awl through each of the mounting holes to mark the back of the leather shield.
- Remove the shield and use a drill to drill all the way through the shield at the spots you marked with the awl.
- Mount the front using Brass Front Pins. Push the pin all the way through and bend the arms back as shown in the photo above.
Step 9: Finished Product and Additional Resources
Here are some additional resources:
Manufacturing Dates for Cairns Helmets:
If you buy a Cairns Fire Helmet, and it still has the tag on the inside of the dome, you can usually use that tag to figure out when the helmet was made.
On the left side of the tag, look for a letter (A-Z). If you find a letter, compare it with the picture above. If there is no letter (like my helmet), the helmet was likely produced prior to 1947. New fire helmet are now required to have an information sticker/plate inside the dome.
Thanks and enjoy!
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