So I decided it was time to either get a new helmet or restore mine to a serviceable condition. Upon close inspection, (this means taking stock of my helmet's grievances) I found the liner worn in several areas although the ratchet was functioning, the attachment points were in a bad way, the earlaps were ripped and heavily soiled, the paint was badly cracked and chipped in multiple places and the exposed leather was beginning to dry out. Time to either hang it on the wall or fix it up for a few more years. But taking your prize leather helmet out of service even for a day isn't fun, not to mention out of service for as long as it takes to do a proper job. You feel as though a part of you is missing. But if you don't do it, your $500 or $600 dollar helmet could be ruined. So I carefully take off the eagle and place parts in a box to keep track of. Removed the shield and Bourkes, making sure to place the respective parts in the box as well.
Hacking away at the paint. Just sand off the loose flakes, lightly sand edges of chipped areas and scuff the rest of the surface. Removing stickers causes large areas of exposed leather, so don't replace stickers unless you have to.
Make sure to not sand the leather itself much. It is coated in boiled linseed oil and it won't help to sand it. Instead I have added Linseed oil to it while working on the helmet and let it sit for a bit to soak in.
I find that using nothing more coarse than 150 grit is best. I cut off small strips, working them into the spaces between the filigree (leather design) and around the edges of the chipped areas. Then scuffing up the smooth surfaces as well as the seams.
Filigree is the beautiful leather design or lace found on fire helmets. Use caution when sanding these areas and don't overwork them. Unless there is exposed leather there, just scuff the surfaces both on and between the design.
Between seams on a N6A Sam Houston Leather, there are rather large gaps at the base. This occurs in four places, front and back and then on each side. First I pick out the old cement which at this point is cracked and chunked up. Once cleaned I re-pack 'furnace cement' into this area as it can handle high heat and closely resembles the manufacturer's technique. This is best done by lightly wetting the area with water, then packing the cement in using my finger. I wet my finger and smooth the cement to fit the contour of the helmet. This will take some time to properly set and dry.
The first coat. I picked up a tip from some good brothers on FE Community and my first two coats of paint were mixed with Boiled Linseed Oil. With a mix of 2-1 (2 paint, 1 oil), you'll find these coats very tacky, and a little extra drying time is important. But this gives the paint a little more flexibility and resistance to cracking. As for the paint used, I prefer the brand sold by thefirestore.com "One Shot". It has a good color, coats well, and although its a bit on the really shiny side, it endures the heat well. As for how much paint; one can of 'One Shot' should paint two helmets or 6 coats. The 2-1 mix smooths out nicely, but isn't easy to get into all the tight areas without a good brush. I found that applying the paint with a very soft brush keeps the marks down and allows for a smooth coating.
It helps to mount the helmet on something to keep it off the work surface. Laying your helmet flat on anything is bad for the ratchet system anyway. I use a gallon paint can.
Some advocate a primer coat, but others advise that it isn't necessary. As I used primer the last time I did this and it made little difference in performance, I skipped the step this time around. Also this time I covered the traps that i didn't intend to replace, but in retrospect, I wouldn't bother. When I last painted my helmet, I didn't bother to tape the traps and I carefully painted around them. But this time when I taped the traps, I was a little careless with the paint and the linseed oil was quick to get under the tape. So I don't think I would use tape again. Just wing it.
In between coats, I sanded lightly with a very fine grit like 250 g. Just rough the surface again, and pay particular attention to the areas where the paint edges were chipped. The more you sand the edge of those chips the better will be the result when done. Once the first coat is dried up, you can work at those edges a little easier since the exposed leather has been painted over. After this is done, the second coat is added and once again scuffed up with a fine grit.
Be careful to spread your paint out thoroughly and don't let the paint puddle in the corners and tight areas. Too much paint in one spot will take a long time to dry and will not hold up well. Also, this helps to make sure the filigree shows.
Your last coat should be straight paint, no oil added. Let it dry well before you apply the last coat. I allowed mine to dry for a day between each coat. After you have the last coat on, you may not like the bright shine of 'One Shot', so a light scuff once again, (and I mean light) will help a bit. Time to put the eagle and shield back in their proper places.
The finished product.
At this point I replaced the liner/earlaps by carefully prying up the brass retainer, (a wide tipped pliers or cutters works well) and pulled out the original liner. Fitting in the new one took patience but was managed and then the brass retainer was hammered back down with a very small ball peen, being careful to keep the liner edge braced into place at the same time.
Note: You can make the process a little easier by warming up the brass with a butane lighter which will provide you with a small, workable heat source. Don't concentrate the heat in one spot for any length of time as you will eventually affect the Nomex earlaps. The heat will help to soften the brass, enabling you to obtain a smoother finish.
Once that has been done, a new ratchet is attached through the slits in the liner, snapped into place and is ready for good service. I also replaced my chin strap, I found the old one frayed and order the Chicago style which is a little longer in length. Chin straps are fairly simple to replace, just make sure you notice how you take the old one out, then duplicate the process in reverse with the new one.
In the end you'll be happy to have your helmet back in service. It took several days to get the parts, buy the paint and then steel myself to actually start sanding on my prized helmet. As I said earlier, its a difficult thing to take sand paper and paint to something you treasure so much, but in the end you'll find that you have made it even more a part of yourself as it is your work and pride that went into it.
Back at the firehouse, everyone notices the shiny paint and new look. But it will darken up soon enough.
The Leather Helmet is an expression of your pride in your own heritage as an American Fireman. A little respect will go a very long way with it. Anyone who has spent a little time working on their own leather will tell you of the sense of accomplishment one feels when it is done.
Ready for service, ..Leather Forever!