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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. At one time prices were reasonable, but, in my short time in the hobby I have watched as the price of a helmet has gone up; a year ago you could get a good helmet with liner for about $60 to $80 while I have seen current prices run as high as $150 to $180. Even the prices for lesser poorer quality helmets are going up. With this in mind, one option available to the reenactor is restoring a helmet. A perfect option when you also consider that some vendors charge as much as $150 for a restored helmet.

Helmet shells with no liner and little or no original finish can still be found rather cheap if not free in many places. Such a helmet shell is a great basis for restoring a helmet to use. I recently restored a helmet and I would like to share some of my experiences in this article.

My first step to restoring the helmet was finding an Olive Drab paint that I was satisfied with. There were 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 draw back 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 an 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 catalogue 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 saw dust. In playing around with saw dust at work and at home I found that the ideal saw dust came from particle board. I simply took a small piece of scrap and ran a sharp scrapper along the edge of the board creating saw dust and catching it in a dust pan. I found that the dust from the particle board was very similar to the saw dust on the helmet. I also noticed that the saw dust on my original helmet was somewhat fine. As a result I sifted through the saw dust I was making, trying to insure that I had the smaller and removing the larger. I found that finer saw dust is best and the paint will build up on the saw dust, making it seem larger.

Once I had the paint and the saw dust it was time to prepare the helmet. I used a wire brush to help loosen dirt and remove rust, then washed it with soap and water and dried it very well. 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 saw dust 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 saw dust while the paint is wet. I worked the helmet in sections by spraying a small area and then applying the saw dust 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 painted then a liner 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 $50.00. Installing the liner was easy and took about ten minutes to do. The liner was laid into the helmet, chin strap fed through the "D" 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 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:

Paint --
Brownells, Inc
200 South Front St.
Montezuma, Iowa 50171
Website --

Helmet Liner--
Prairie Flower Leather Company
Rt. 3 Box 156 B
Ord, NE 68862
Website --

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