Restoring the M1917 Helmet
By Vincent Petty
For anyone getting into WW1 living history finding a good serviceable helmet with a well-preserved liner can be a difficult task (and as well preserved helmets become more difficult to find, they should be left to institutions and collectors that can conserve them properly). At one time prices were reasonable, but, as we approach the centennial of the Great War, not only does the value of collector quality helmets continue to increase but so does the prices for even lesser and poorer quality helmets. With this in mind, one option available to the reenactor is the restoration of a helmet. I have restored a few helmets over the last few years and I would like to share some of my experiences in this article.
The first step to restoring a helmet is locating a suitable helmet shell. Helmet shells with no liner and no original finish can still be found rather cheap. When considering a possible helmet shell, ensure that the bails and the metal tabs that affix the bails to the helmet remain intact and sound. While these can be re-manufactured and replaced, such work may be too difficult for those with little metal working experience or restoring their first helmet. The shell itself need not be in the greatest shape, a little surface rust or pitting is acceptable. Rust is easily cleaned off or even stabilized with a chemical treatment and pitting can be filled – I have previously used JB Weld. Once the shell is selected, clean and treat it as necessary and prepare it to be painted.
My next step to restoring the helmet was finding an Olive Drab paint that I was satisfied with. There was any number of variations on the color Olive Drab during the World War and one option would be to have a paint mixed at a hardware store. I would be able to achieve the OD shade that I wanted; however, while the color is correct the paint — acrylic or latex — is not and would be susceptible to peeling. Another drawback is that such paint would have to be applied with a brush, leaving brush strokes and standing out as hand painted rather than factory mass produced. For me, the ideal paint would be OD green spray enamel.
I found what I thought to be ideal paint when a friend turned me on to Brownells, Inc. Brownells is a dealer of parts and tools for gunsmiths and shooters and among their products is camouflage paint. I ordered their “Olive Drab” and found that it was within the OD shade that I was looking for. The particular color appears in Brownells catalog as item #040-009-870 “Olive Drab Camo Paint.” Its brand name is Aervoe “987A Olive Drab.” The paint cost $5.95 for a 12 ounce can. Though I choked when I learned that it cost $7.25 to ship the single can.
Once I had my paint I had to then re-create the sawdust. In playing around with sawdust at work and at home I found that the ideal sawdust came from particle board. I simply took a small piece of scrap and ran a sharp scraper or a rasp along the edge of the board creating saw dust and catching it in a dustpan. Another option is to use a hand saw and make a series of cuts to create the sawdust. I found that the dust from the particle board was very similar to the sawdust on the helmet. I also noticed that the sawdust on my original helmet was somewhat fine. As a result, I sifted through the sawdust I was making, trying to ensure that I had the smaller and removing the larger. I found that finer sawdust is best and the paint will build upon the sawdust, making it seem larger.
Once I had the paint, saw dust and the cleaned and prepped the helmet it was time to actually start painting. I started off by painting the inside of the helmet and allowing it to dry. After the interior was dry I flipped the helmet shell over and gave the helmet a light coat of paint and allowed it to dry as well. After “priming” the shell I painted a section of the helmet and immediately applied the sawdust to the wet paint. To apply the dust to the paint I pinched it between my thumb and index finger and sprinkled it as one might sprinkle salt. However, work quickly to apply the sawdust while the paint is wet. I worked the helmet in sections by spraying a small area and then applying the sawdust and then lightly painting over the applied saw dust. I also made sure that I overlapped the application, working around the brim, the crown and then the top. Once I was pleased with the amount of sawdust applied to the helmet, I gave it an even coat of paint and allowed it to dry. Once dry I ran my hand over the helmet to “break” off any of the sawdust that was not fully adhered and then gave it one last coat of paint. The end result was that I have a helmet that looked just as good as my original, but newer.
Once the helmet was painted a liner then needed to be installed. I purchased my reproduction liner from Prairie Flower Leather Company in Nebraska. I found that they had the best reproduction liner available and cost $55.00. Installing the liner was easy and took about ten minutes to do. The liner was laid into the helmet, chin strap fed through the bail rings and assembled using the split rivets and then the copper rivet fed through the hole in the chin strap and the top of the helmet. The only thing that I could not do was peen the rivet by machine as the originals were, but I had to peen it by hand. Trim the rivet a little and then place it against a sturdy surface (I used an anvil at work for peening rivets) and with a ball peen or riveting hammer peen the rivet enough so that it will not pop out.
The first helmet I ever restored the paint had cost $12 and the liner $50, but the shell had not cost anything. Once I had finished the painting, application of the sawdust and installation of the liner I had a helmet that I was very pleased with and which cost at most $65 to restore. I also had a helmet that looked new rather 80 years old.
The following are my sources for paint and reproduction helmet liner:
200 South Front St.
Montezuma, Iowa 50171
Website — http://www.brownells.com/