This hardened leather helmet is great for reenacting, renaissance fairs, or accidentally scaring the neighbors. This style of helmet is nice because it doesn't require large pieces of leather or pieces of uniform thickness, so it can be made from scraps and leftovers. The mask that covers the lower face is completely removable.
This style of helm dates from 6th to 8th century Sweden. It evolved into the Spangenhelm in later centuries. The surviving historical examples seem to be made of metal, but it is not unlikely that leather ones also existed particularly among poorer and less skilled people.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
Scrap leather (vegetable tanned cowhide preferred) between 5 and 10 oz weight
- Razor knife
- Leather hole punch
- Bristol board or card stock for patterning
- (optional) Edge beveler
- Leather lacing or a leather lace cutter
- Large pot of boiling water for hardening
- Tongs or similar (also for the hardening process)
Step 2: Patterning
Make a pattern of you helmet from Bristol board or thin card stock.
The two most important parts of the helmet are the crest band and the brow band. The brow band is the part that wraps around the head, passing over the tops of the ears and the forehead. The crest band goes over the top of the head, connecting the to the brow band in the front and back and also extends down below the brow band in front to make the nose guard. The final helmet has an inner and outer brow band and crest band, hiding the ends of the woven pieces and the laces. The outer bands will need to be about an inch longer than the inner bands to account for the thickness of the leather in between them. The remainder of the helmet consists of a basket-weave of leather strips.
In my helmet, the crest and brow bands are both 1 3/4 inches wide. The woven straps are one inch wide.
The pattern should fit quite loosely because the hardening process will shrink the helmet by about ten percent. I used six 1-inch wide straps on each side to make the woven portion. Evenly space all ends along crest and brow bands. For this part you just have to mess about with the woven pattern until it works. Number the woven straps and their places on the brow and crest bands will help to stay organized when putting it back together in leather. Once you have the weave figured out and the pieces numbered, take it all back apart to for the leather cutting step.
Step 3: Cutting
Time to start cutting!
Select the thickest leather for the crest band and brow band to help maintain the shape of the overall helmet.
Cut two of each weave pieces. Cutting both the leather pieces off the same pattern keeps the woven portions more symmetrical. Don't forget to flip the pattern over when cutting the second set, so that the pieces are a perfect mirror.
Cut two of the brow band and crest band. Only one of the crest bands needs to include the extra 2 or 3 inches for the nose guard.
Step 4: Weaving
If you're unfamiliar with leather, lacing leather together is fairly straight forward. Simply punch a hole in each of the two pieces and pull the lace through (like large scale sewing).
The foundation of the helmet is the crest and brow band. Lace the ends of the brow band together so that it forms a circle, and then attach the crest band on opposite sides of the brow band so that it forms a half circle (see picture). For the visible portions of the helmet, put the grain side (smooth side) out for a better appearance.
Punch six holes (or however many weaving straps you have) evenly spaced on each side of the crest band. Punch a hole in the end of each weaving piece, and lace them on to the crest match the hole in the end to the corresponding hole in the crest band (see picture).
Next, punch evenly spaced holes in the brow band to connect the other ends of the woven pieces. Punch holes in ends of the woven pieces and lace them to the brow band. You should now have something that looks like a basket and fits loosely on to your head.
To tighten the whole thing up, punch holes in each intersection in the woven areas and run a lace around the helmet going through each hole. This makes a sort of thin inner net that becomes part of the woven areas.
Step 5: Outer Bands and Neck and Cheek Guards
It's time to lace on the outer crest and brow bands. Start by lacing the brow band in the front, and the crest band over it, leaving the nose guard sticking down below the brow band.
Next, run a lace through the center of the crest bands.
Cut five neck guard rectangles, approximately 1 1/2 by 6 inches, and a cheek guard shaped to your fancy, approximately 6 by 3-4 inches.
Take the neck and cheek guards and cut tabs of the same width to attach the neck and cheek guards after hardening. By hardening them helmet separately and lacing on the the guards later, the unhardened laces act as hinge so the guards can move freely with you. The cheek guard tabs should have an extra hole in the front to attach the mask later on.
Lace together the edges of the brow bands with the tabs for the neck guards and cheek guards between the bands.
Step 6: Touching Up
Beveling the edges (basically rounding the edges) makes the overall appearance cleaner. It tricks the eye into missing the smaller imperfections.
Burnishing the edges a little bit just smooths things out as well.
Step 7: Hardening
Hardening makes the leather very stiff and a little brittle. It also darkening the leather. For an even darker color, a little tea in the water will dye it quite nicely. It's better to err on the side of too soft because leather can always be re-hardened, but if over cooked it can become weak and far too brittle.
Begin by wetting the the leather until it is thoroughly soaked through. This helps it to shrink less in the hardening process. Boil enough water to cover the helmet. When the water is boiling, dip the helmet in using a pair of tongs. Hold in the water for between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the thickness of the leather.
It will shrink slightly and pull out of shape. While it is still hot, re-shape the helmet by pulling it into the proper shape, and when cool enough putting it on your head. (No pictures for this part because I didn't have enough hands for the camera). Keep checking that it is holding its shape until the helmet is completely dry. It should be pretty hard. Warning: do not put too much pressure on any individual woven band. This thinner leather could crack and break, as a whole it is much stronger than each little piece.
Repeat the hardening process for each of the neck and cheek guards. The bottom of the neck guards curve out to accommodate the outward curve of the shoulders. This is easily done by bending the neck guards as they cool.
Step 8: Attaching the Guards
Lace the neck guards and cheek guards onto the corresponding tabs.
Step 9: Mask
The mask both protects the face and adds a degree of anonymity.
Put on the helmet and make a paper pattern that fits over your face and with the mask. Cut this out of leather and harden, shaping as desired. Lace the mask onto the extra hole we left in the cheek guard tab. In order to remove, it needs only to be unlaced.
Step 10: Think About a Hat
A nice wool hat cushions the inside of the helmet, fills in any left over space and allows air to circulate under the brow band. I would definitely recommend finding or making a hat to fit under your helmet.
Step 11: Wear It!
All the hard work pays off in the end. This helmet is scary and awesome. All the more awesome for being completely hand made.