Imperial Roman Helmet




Introduction: Imperial Roman Helmet

Welcome to my first Instructable! In this, I will show you the process that I used to create this helmet from raw materials, including a breakdown of all the mistakes I made (and, more importantly, how to avoid them.). This is by no means a historical replica (some of you history buffs may note the lack of a visor and embossed eyebrows), but neither is it a one day cardboard helmet. Instead, treat this instructable as something of an introduction to techniques and tools used in sheet metal working on a hobbyist scale, as well as a really, really cool Halloween costume (this will turn heads, trust me). Note that this is NOT built to SCA regulations.

My personal story relating to this design started in August of 2015. I had just read the Iliad, and was so thoroughly inspired by Homer's vivid descriptions of Hephaestus crafting Achilles' armor that, in a moment of epiphany, I decided to forge my own Greek armor. After discovering that 'real' sheet metal is rather expensive, I wandered down to a local up-cycling junkyard and ran across some duct work. Light. Bulb.

That Halloween was awesome (plenty of heads were turned), but, being an overachiever by nature, I wanted to create an even more elaborate suit of armor. Having just read Virgil's Aeneid (the mythological founding story of the Roman Empire), I naturally decided to create the dress of an Imperial Roman officer. From last years' practice, I felt confident enough with metalworking to publish some of my work, which brings us to this Instructable.

I hope y'all enjoy.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

First off, safety gear should go without saying. Working with metal and the tools involved carries inherent risks, and as such requires appropriate safety gear. Please use common sense, and only use this Instructable as a general guide. Do not work outside your ability to maintain control of the work piece.

Here is a list of the tools I used to make this helmet. You may not require all, or you may use more, but I used a fairly basic tool set for the job, and there are much more specific tools one could use for many of the steps. Each step will also note the tools used.

  • Hammer, ball-peen, 32 Oz. head.
  • Hammer, ball-peen, 8 Oz. head.
  • Dishing stump.
  • Pliers, assorted.
  • Tin snips.
  • Jigsaw.
  • Clamps, assorted.
  • Duct tape.
  • Punch and nails.
  • Anvil.
  • Drill.
  • Hot glue gun.

Finally, here are the materials that I used. My apologies for having only approximate measurements, but messing up several times cut into my raw material supply significantly. I also have not included prices because I purchased most of the parts at a junkyard, where pricing is not at all representative of market value.

  • Steel duct work, galvanized tube. Roughly five feet long tube. Look for little grain structure in the zinc coating.
  • Steel duct work, brass colored. It is my assumption that the color came from heat tempering, but it might be better to just look for actual brass sheet.
  • Copper wire, non insulated, around 1/8" thick. Roughly three and a half feet.
  • Steel wire, 22 gauge. Roughly three feet.
  • Leather, any type (I used an old deerskin). 4 inches by 4 inches.
  • Rivets, 1/8 in. (3 mm), aluminum. Approximately seventy.
  • 10D 3 in. nails, 2.
  • 3/4 in. nails, 8, steel.
  • Two-by-four, roughly two and a half feet.
  • Brooms, 2. Different colors.
  • Tukes/ bob caps. 3.
  • Cotton balls, 5.
  • Leather cord, about 1 ft.
  • Hot glue, about 10 sticks.
  • Magnets, small. A few.

Step 2: The Skeletal Frame

Real Imperial Helmets were raised from a single piece of steel, but due to the labor intensive method and lack of metal thick enough to raise to that degree, I went for a four paneled approach instead. To do this, one must first built a frame to place the raised panels on.

To begin this helmet, I created a basic frame, first drafted up in cardboard. Wearing three tukes (here tell that they are also known as 'bob caps') as padding, I measured the circumference of my head, as well as over the top and from ear to ear. Because my helmet has a rear neck guard, I also added an extra piece in the same place to see if it interfered with movement. Finally, I drew on the approximate size and shape of the ear cut outs. If you have a different helmet design, simply alter the cardboard model to suit your needs. I found it immensely helpful to make cardboard roughs of all the other main parts first as well.

Because of the very personalized nature of this helmet, as well as the many mistakes I made and corrected along the way, I have not included templates. Instead, I recommend that you design your own- after all, building something entirely unique is a lot cooler.

Once happy with the fit of the cardboard model, I replicated it in steel, drawing construction paper templates to get a consistent shape on both sides. While I only attached the parts with duct tape at this stage (something I would not recommend, use nuts and bolts instead), it is important to keep in mind the surface area overlap needed to rivet the parts together. About a square inch is bare minimum. You can see the final result here in the bottom pictures.

My strips were 1 1/2 in. wide throughout, and that small tab extending beneath the brow at the back is dropped 2 in. I ended up overlapping the circumference band nearly 12 in., and for this reason as well as later adjustments I had to make, I will not note the lengths of the bands for the same reason as my lack of templates.

Once this is done, make a copy of the front to back band over the top, and the left to right band. They will be needed later to sandwich the dished plates in between.

Step 3: The Side Panels

Next comes the actual dished out curves in the helmet. The exact shape of each panel need not be precisely matched, I traced the inside edges of each quadrant on the skeletal frame and added about a half inch to each side, which will overlap for rivets later. You can see in the pictures that I used crayon to start- which is great as if you mess up it rubs off, however, come dishing, I discovered that it was erased by the pounding. I would recommend labeling each panel (LF for Left Front, RB for right back...) in Sharpie to avoid confusion later.

An important note here is that the galvanized steel MUST have a very fine grain structure, as shown back in step two, on the zinc coating. If not, the zinc will start to crack and flake, and it just becomes thoroughly unpleasant. Sanding off the zinc is potentially hazardous, so if you decide to attempt so please do research first and attempt at your own risk.

Once all of the panels are cut out (be very mindful of the sharp edges left by the corners), they need to be dished into shape. At this point, you will need a dishing stump. Mine was made by lighting a fire on top a stump and letting it burn out a bowl-shaped impression much in the manner of dugout canoes. There are much better (albeit more expensive ones) on Amazon.

If you are new to dishing (as I was), try it out on a scrap piece of metal first. The most even method for curvature is to work in a spiral from outside in, bringing the hammer straight down and holding the metal at a slight angle. After every few passes, the metal will need planishing to prevent it from folding over itself and for aesthetics. Planishing is essentially hitting the sheet metal against another piece of metal (a thick rod of rebar being my anvil of choice) in order to smooth out the lumps and bumps. It will reduce the curvature slightly, so a few rounds of dishing and planishing are vital.

Wearing gloves to dampen the force transmitted down the metal, as well as hearing protection during planishing (if you're doing it right, it will be loud), is a very good idea. Eye ware should go without saying.

Step 4: Cheek Plates Part One- Cutout and Hinge

With the top part of the helmet coming along nicely, it's ripe time to get to the face protection afforded by Roman Imperial helmets. The cheek plates are fairly easy to make, the hardest part is cutting them out of the stock. I used tin snips, but nibblers would probably work much better.

Making a rough of the cheek plates in cardboard, and attaching them to what we have of the helmet so far to test out the fit is the best way to go about the design process. Keep in mind that the two lumps are to protect the nose and chin, so they should line up reasonably well.

Once happy with your model, trace it onto the stock, keeping in mind the curvature of the metal. These are going to bend inward toward the neck ever so slightly, so lining them up with the curve in the ducting is useful. Then, before cutting, add 3/4 in. to the top (see the pictures to get this part right).

Once cut out, that 3/4 in. tall rectangle is turned into a hinge. I cut a center segment out, 1 inch wide, and folded it down and hammered it flat. The remaining two flaps are the cheek-plate side of the hinge. A 1 in. by 2 in. rectangle of the steel is the helmet side of the hinge, it will later be riveted on. Using a beheaded 10D 3 in. nail for the pivot, I put all of the pieces in the orientation they need to be in, and folded the flaps over the nail. They were then hammered flat for a tight, yet still movable, barrel hinge. See the pictures for more detail.

Step 5: Cheek Plates Part Two- Copper Edging

Once the hinge is in place comes the aesthetic and protective copper edging. Non-insulated copper wire works exceedingly well for this job, being easy to work with basic tools, as well as decently priced (mine was 0.44 USD per foot). I wanted to solder it on, but lacking the high temperature iron/ torch required, as well as being concerned about melting off the zinc coating on the steel deterred me. Instead, it is secured with twisted lengths of 22 gauge steel wire.

To start, I punched small holes, just big enough for the steel wire, 1 in. apart and 1/8 in. in from the perimeter. Then, I formed the copper into the shape of the perimeter and hammered it ever so slightly for a less machined texture. The copper outline should cover all of the edge of the cheek plate, but not have any gaps between it and the plate.

Finally, the copper was secured with 1-ish in. lengths of the steel wire, twisted on and folded beneath the inside of the cheek plate. A few taps with a hammer will clamp them down. Don't be discouraged if any fall off- it happened to me all of the time.

Step 6: Cheek Plates Part Three- Padding

This part is fairly quick and easy, and adds a nice soft leather layer against the wearer's cheek.

To begin, cut out a 2 in. by 4 in. rectangle of the steel. Then, cut out the pattern that you can see in the pictures out of leather. Punch the holes as seen in the pictures, each being 1/2 in. from the edge, in the metal first, and then transfer them to the leather such that the leather is folded under the metal.

Next, rivet the leather on. I used 3/4 in. nails, cut off the ends, and hammered them out for a nicer feel against the skin, but that is completely optional, and warrants some experimentation. Leave the center holes open as of yet.

Finally, line up the leather-covered plates where you want them on the cheek plate and punch the rivet holes to hold the leather onto the cheek plate. Here I used pop rivets for ease, and simply hammered them down. That concludes the cheek plates. Set them aside for some time.

Step 7: Neck Guard Part One- Cutout and Fastening

The next part of the helmet is the neck guard. Neck guards are a constant throughout Imperial Roman helmets, varying in size and shape across the eras of the Empire. Mine is based off of the rough trends of second century C.E. design, as is the rest of the helmet. This part requires plenty of cardboard beforehand, test out your curvature! Mine is a little low, and occasionally likes to grab the back of my neck.

As always, make a cardboard mock up beforehand. On the model skeleton I experimented with how far down the beginning of the neck guard could drop before I couldn't look up very easily. Two inches seemed to do the trick nicely. Translate the dropped-down part into metal by cutting out a rectangle whose height is the same as the amount below the bottom of the helmet that it will drop down to, plus the height of the circumference band, which it will be riveted to. I used clamps to hold it on for the next part, as well as punched three rivet holes through both it and the dropped-down bit of the front to back strip that will be riveted later.

Once happy with the support structure, play around with how you want the flared out neck/ upper back guard plate to look. Some helmets had massive, nearly flat neck guards, whereas others' were very small and angled downward. Once happy with a design in cardboard, choose the half that you are most satisfied with, and chop it off. This ensures a symmetrical tracing. Note carefully how it bends when lined up to the bottom of the metal rectangle support.

Cutting out the flared guard is very similar in process to the cheek plates. One key difference, however, is that once the actual cardboard design is transferred, flipping the template over a center line, a strip, about an inch high, is added to the 'top'- the side that will be closest to the wearer's head. This strip should match the curve of the line beneath it, except at the edges, where I recommend that you truncate it in line with the two 'top' points.

This strip, once cut out, is segmented into small rectangles, about an inch wide each. (note that many of these measurements are fairly arbitrary- the smaller these flaps become, the smoother the curve, but the more labor. Use personal preference and easy fractions). These flaps are then punched through in the center for a rivet a piece.

Test the fit of the flare, then remove the support plate, and line the two up as they will be assembled finally. Holding or duct-taping the two pieces together, and using a nail or punch, punch through the support plate where each rivet hole on the flare lines up. Then, pop rivet them together and hammer the rivets flat. See the pictures here especially. Do NOT rivet the tree center holes, or attach the entire thing to the helmet frame with rivets at this point.

Finally, cut out another plate the same height, but slightly smaller in length that the support plate. This will go on the inside of the helmet to cover all of those gnarly looking rivets. Hold onto it for a few more steps.

Step 8: Neck Guard Part Two- Copper Edging

This part is identical to how I did the cheek plate copper edging, so if you missed that part it would be prudent to go back a few steps. The copper adds a slight layer of protection against the sharp edge, as well as a neat aesthetic appeal. I ended up needing around a foot of the wire for this step.

Before doing this, I highly recommend that you consider other possibilities of attachments or borders, as these little metal tabs love to grab the backs of shirts. I would have loved to flatten out the copper and fold it over the edge, much like how fishing weights attach to line, but that was simply not feasible for my skill nor time constraints.

Step 9: Decorative Plating

At this point, your helmet probably looks pretty skeletal as of yet. The decorative plating will change that. It is my way of cheating around the construction constraints that push this design away from historical accuracy- e.g. wherever there are rivets, this pretty much hides them all.

Before we begin with the decorative plating, I must forewarn you that I really wish that I had punched all the rivet holes in the structural elements first, then screwed them together before adding the decorative stuff and the real rivets. My method of duct-taping everything lead to propagation of small errors and gaps caused the the duct tape, and the final product actually has large gaps between the decorative plating and the substructure it's covering. Bleh.

Anyhow, to do this step, we pretty much recreate all of the parts of the skeleton, but with less concern about structure and more on aesthetics. Make everything feasible slightly wider, so as to cover up more of the rivets and the skeleton. The parts in the first picture, from top to bottom, cover up:

  1. The rivets holding the neck guard flare to the support plate.
  2. (The circle, which is a tracing of a duct tape roll), the top of the helmet. It needs slight dishing and planishing.
  3. The left to right strip on the skeleton.
  4. The front toe back strip on the skeleton. It will fold up into the inside on the front, and is attached by the lowest center rivet on the neck guard plate in the rear.
  5. The front of the circumference band, all the way to the ears. This particular picture actually shows one that I cut too long, by about a half inch, and had to redo. It is by far the hardest part to get just right.

Hold onto these for a moment.

Step 10: Rivet Holes

Start punching rivet holes on the decorative plating parts, putting them few and far between, and in nicely spaced, even locations. Then, fit them onto the helmet as you have it, and begin to punch those holes through the lower structural layers. If you are going to cover any of these rivet holes, as was the case for the vertical cross-strips, simply punch the holes on the plating where they line up with preexisting ones. DO NOT actually pop any of these rivets yet.

While simple in theory, this part is actually hard going. I ended up taping my fingers to keep them for the cuts that forcing metal into place does to one's skin.

A few places deserve special mention. First off is the front to back strip. It folds under at the front, and has two holes punched there. Those two pass through something like six layers of metal each, and, to put it candidly, just suck to make. They do add a lot of strength though. Once those are in place and secured with nails of screws, stretch the strip to the back and punch holes in it where it lines up with the three ones on the neck guard.

Next is the rear strip, the one that looks like a demented rectangular 'u'. I only put four rivets through it, two per side, having it cover the lower part of the front to back strip instead of using that rivet hole as well. These need to pass through the neck guard support plate as well as the inside cover, as they will hold the inside over on. The upper hole on each side is useful for adding the front strip.

On all of the others, just use preexisting holes, or find even looking spots to stick the rivets.

This is also a good time to add rivet holes for parts like the cheek plates (remember, they only need to be attached on the hinged piece), and at the center top where the skeleton frame strips cross. Continue that center top hole through the entire thing, all of the decorative plates and the center of the circular one, but it will not be a rivet in the end...

Step 11: Ear Guard

Before being completely done with the decorative plating, I had one more part to add. This is the ear guard, a little flare that sticks out and, in reality, helps to stop a sword from sliding all the way down the helmet and chopping off the wearer's ear.

In manufacture, it is similar to the neck guard- the cutout has an added section which is segmented and folded out for rivet holes. Placing it on the helmet and marking the rivet holes is one of the most tedious parts of this project, requiring each part around it to be removed and replaced as each rivet hole is punched in turn. Don't simply mark where the holes seem to line up, then punch all four. They will not account for how the metal bends nor the coverage of the rivet holes afforded the other decorative plating. Once done, denote with a sharpie which rivet holes are for the ear guard (it is nice when one of them lines up with a preexisting one) for later reference, as we won't be riveting quite yet.

Step 12: Structural Rivets

Here comes the last of the rivet punching. I used the instructions found in this thoroughly awesome Instructable for reference in making the holes. Simply place the dished panels where you want them, sandwich them between layers wherever possible, and punch a lot of holes. I used 3/4 in. nails as both punch and holding mechanism here, leaving them in to hold the helmet together as I went. They were spaced one in. apart at maximum.

Keep an eye out for anywhere that the dished plates intersect currently existing holes, and punch through them there as well.

At this point when I was building this, I discovered that innumerable small errors had knocked the top front to back strip out of a trued right angle, and nearly gave up upon seeing the seemingly irrevocable mistake in the design. But, I didn't and once fully assembled, simply passed it off (it is actually now hard to see unless you are looking for it) as battle damage. Don't give up at this stage, you're so close!

Step 13: Final Assembly

Important note: DO NOT rivet the top center hole in the helmet unless you do not want a plume mounted on it.

After punching all those holes, begin the assembly with rivets. I completely took apart my helmet and cleaned it of all the duct tape and grime that had accumulated. I did not polish it however, as polishing galvanized steel can end in strange, often undesirable ways, especially as time goes on and rust develops. If you have any embossment, treatment, or polishing in mind, now is the time. I personally really wanted to added embossed eyebrows, but lacked the skill and equipment to do so.

Once ready, begin riveting the parts together. Go slow, starting with all those structural holes that you just made to hold the dished plates on, and hammer each one flat, much in the manner of planishing, both for visual appeal and for increased strength. Hammering them flat also, well, flattens them, and doesn't interfere with any layers you may add on top, as well as not poking the wearer. For reference as to the order in which to rivet, go back in time using these steps. I know (actually, I hope too) that many of you chose different helmet designs to try out. If that's your case, simply go layer by layer.

I used aluminum rivets for ease of removal, just in case I absolutely messed up and riveted a layer that I wasn't supposed to. Aluminum also is easier to flatten, and for this project, has really no downside over their steel equivalents. While I used highly anachronistic pop rivets, I made up for the visual side by hammering as well. Unless you really know your rivets, or if you look closely, the difference is almost invisible.

Pop rivets also helped me avoid the horrid labor associated with hammered rivets. I made the mistake of trying to add the hammered rivets used in the cheek plate padding to the outer layers, but messed up really bad and ended up bending the nail shaft, so stopped after the first.

Finally, one good thing to note is the importance of holding/clamping the layers together as you rivet them, because if the rivet doesn't grab all the layers, parts may unexpectedly fall off later on, and nobody likes that.

Step 14: Nearly Done

At this stage, I hope that your helmet looks more or less... helmety. At this point, you may be content, and if so, good for you. However, there is still one more part to mine... something designed to strike fear into the hearts of my enemies and to give me not only an awesome Mohawk, but also nearly an extra foot of apparent height.

That's right folks, it's time for the horsehair plume.

Step 15: 'Horsehair'

For the horsehair part of the horsehair plume, I expatriated two brooms from their normal duties, and cut out all of the bristles. The fastest way to do so that I could find was to bunch them into groups of five or so tufts (each tuft was twenty bristles- really ten folded in half), duct tape each tuft together, then cut them off at the base with a hacksaw. This step is all about mass production.

Do that a lot.

Step 16: Crest Cutout and Assembly

All of those hard earned tufts need something to stick in, and for that job I simply used a two-by-four and a jigsaw. First off, I got a rough curve I liked out of cardboard, which then was traced onto the two-by-four in two segments. I cut them out with a jigsaw, and polished them up roughly with a file. They were attached with a pair of screws and glue. Keep in mind that you will be drilling a lot of holes in this, so don't put the screws in too steeply, or they will get in the way.

Next, drill those holes. Because of the grain structure, I was unable to drill them in any recognizable pattern, so I merely tried to confine them to at least a quarter in. from each side. They should mimic the size of the tufts made in the last step, and need only be about a quarter in. deep. At the back of the crest note the rounded off segement. This part is to give the 'horsehair' the appearance of falling backward instead of being so rigid. It was also a good use of certain tufts that on my brooms came longer as a design for reaching into tight corners. After all of this, it isn't a bad idea to give it a coat of some sealant like mineral oil. It will make it more durable, and brings out the color of the wood nicely.

Once drilled, divide the lengths into where the different colors will be (if you have different colors), using length as a guideline, and start sticking in the 'horsehair' tufts. My technique was to unwrap the bottom of each tuft of its duct tape, drop a goodish dollop of hot glue into the hole, and jam in the tuft. Working from front to back was the easiest, and having two people doesn't hurt either.

Step 17: Crest Mount

Once your crest is built, all it needs is a mount. You may prefer yours to go from side to side (centurion style) but I opted for a lower ranking (although it depends a little on time period and style), but cooler looking front to back mount.

To start, cut out a strip of sheet metal into a 1 1/2 in. by six inch rectangle, and fold it into a 'Z' shape, the two horizontal parts being 2 inches long each. On one, punch a large hole in the center, and on the other put two smaller rivet holes.

Those two rivet holes hold on a rectangular 'U' which should fit the crest box. Size it accordingly and rivet as shown.

Finally, find a nut and bolt, and widen the large center hole at the top of the helmet, and the hole in the center of the bottom of the 'Z'. The bolt should just fit through. That is what holds the 'Z' shaped holder onto the helmet, while still letting it be removed. Measure how little thread it needs to attach all of the parts together, and cut it off there, as if you don't the wearer will have to deal with a screw in the top of the skull.

Step 18: Crest Mount- Tie Downs

At long last, we reach the last step in the assembly.

In order to stop the crest from swinging and bobbing everywhere, it needs to be tied down on the front and back (or sides perhaps). To accomplish this, I made two loops of copper using pliers and a hammer. The pictures do a better job of explaining that words might. The front fits through a hole I punched in the decorative plating, and is simply rotated into position, and thus removable. That long pointy end fits in between the decorative plating and the substructure, and is wedged into place with friction. The back loop is hot glued in between the rear decorative plating.

After screwing in eye screws to the front and back of the crest, all that is needed is some leather twine, about six inches per side, which is tied like a shoelace to hold on the crest.

After this, you are done. Congrats.

Step 19: Reflections

Congratulations! Take a step back, remove the safety glasses, and exhale. If you made it this far, I hope that your journey was similar to mine, albeit with fewer mistakes, and just as gratifying. Likewise, I fervently hope that you learned something while building this, and that you had a blast.

My finished product, including crest, weighs about fourteen hundred pounds, or around three pounds. It is shiny, satisfying to wear, and thoroughly entrancing to gaze upon. To make it, I spent around ten USD, messed up two prototypes, and spent somewhere in the region of twenty to thirty hours. Oh, and was it ever worth it.

Until next time,

Senatus Populusque Romanus!

Maker Olympics Contest 2016

Participated in the
Maker Olympics Contest 2016

Halloween Costume Contest 2016

Participated in the
Halloween Costume Contest 2016

Metal Contest 2016

Participated in the
Metal Contest 2016

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    2 Discussions

    Rogue Duck
    Rogue Duck

    3 years ago

    Hello everyone! Not to be a huge self promoter, but if you enjoyed this it would be very nice of you to vote for this Instructable in the metal contest. It would make my day.


    3 years ago

    This is so cool! Thanks for sharing!