Jacobus Turck of New York City invented the leather fire helmet in 1740. Turck's boiled-leather helmet was thick and hard, protected the head well, and insulated better than metal. That is why leather helmets are still available, from makers such as MSA (its Cairns line) and Phenix. Firefighters enjoy the classic look and feel of the leather "bucket." Presuming that your helmet is not a valuable antique, you can restore an old helmet for use or display with some readily available materials. The manufacturers, and firefighters themselves, offer effective techniques.
Things You'll Need
Replacement liner and chinstrap
Crack repair sealer
Sandpaper, 150 and 250 grit
Remove the liner, chin strap and front piece.
Clean the helmet with ordinary soap and water to remove dirt. Use saddle soap if you have it handy. MSA recommends using as little water as possible.
Sand the helmet lightly, with 150-grit sandpaper, while it is still damp. Take care not to sand away the filigree, if your helmet has any.
Smooth down any roughness with 250-grit sandpaper. Avoid sanding the stitching; this will weaken the helmet.
Allow the helmet to dry overnight.
Seal any cracks with a crack repair sealer. Firefighter suppliers offer only one, PC-7, an epoxy that you can sand and paint.
Inspect the seams for dried or missing cement. Dig out dried cement, and reseal with furnace cement (available at hardware stores).
Sand to smooth the repair sealer and furnace cement.
Tape off any exposed brass metal or decals you wish to preserve or cannot replace.
Apply one coat of primer. MSA recommends Sherwin Williams Gray E61 A 45; White E61 W 12; or Red E61 R 26, depending on the finished color of your helmet. Allow the primer to dry thoroughly.
Apply one coat of paint and allow it to dry thoroughly. Apply a second coat and allow it to dry thoroughly before you remove the painter's tape.
Sand lightly, with 250-grit sandpaper, if you wish to dull the shine.
Replace the front piece, and install the new liner and chin strap.
You should not need a leather conditioner. Boiled leather is very dense, and it is usually boiled in a treatment such as linseed oil. Still, you may choose to treat the helmet for good measure. Chief Ben Fleagle of the University Fire Department, Anchorage, Alaska, mixed two parts 1-Shot paint with one part boiled linseed oil. Fleagle offers an excellent online tutorial.
Fleagle did not use a primer, feeling that the paint and raw leather would accept the fresh paint well, and saw no difference in performance.
MSA recommends several Sherwin Williams Super Acrylic Spray Enamel paints. Fleagle, and firefighters in several forums, swear by 1-Shot, which is available from The Fire Store. (See Resources.) Still others use stove paint.
If your helmet is an antique, or otherwise valuable, see a professional conservator. See Resource 2 for a description of restoring a 200-year-old fire helmet.
Repainting a helmet, even by the manufacturer's recommendations, voids any warranty.