How to Restore Old Leather Fire Helmets

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
  • Saddle soap
  • Painter’s tape
  • Crack repair sealer
  • Furnace cement
  • Linseed oil
  • Soft cloth
  • Primer
  • Paint
  • Sandpaper, 150 and 250 grit

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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.


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