Tips for a Custom Helmet Painting

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Introduction to Helmet Painting

John H Glimmerveen Licensed to

Restoring a classic motorcycle often includes repainting the chassis or panels. But the owners often want to go further with the appearance of both the bike and riding gear.

Personalizing riding gear by painting helmets or adding studs to a leather jacket, for instance, is something motorcyclists have done since the very beginning. But both of these examples need skill and patience. The good news is that the home mechanic with access to basic painting equipment (a, spray gun, air brush, and an angle sander/polisher) can transform a standard helmet into a custom designed unit.

New helmets come in a variety of styles and paint finishes, and of course, prices. But a plain white or black helmet will be less expensive and a good starting point for a custom paint job. However, see safety note below.

Safety Note:

It is very important to check with the helmet manufacturer and paint supplier to ensure that the chemicals you intend to use are compatible with the helmet's base material.

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Taking time during the preparation stage will pay off in the finished helmet. Here, the helmet has been mounted at a reasonable working height, and the visor and plastic fittings removed before wet sanding and masking. Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

The process starts by preparing the working area and the getting the appropriate tools ready. The work area must be clean dry and dust free. Mounting the helmet at a suitable height on a work bench will make the job less strenuous; a mannequin Styrofoam™ head

Full face helmets must have their visors removed, along with any plastic attachments such as vents.

The first part of the procedure is to degrease the helmet with a mild solution of some general household detergent (dish washing liquid). This should be followed by using a proprietary wax and grease remover. (The artist who painted the helmet shown here uses Acetone, but this is a dangerous chemical and should only be used by painters with knowledge of the required safety requirements).

As the human hands and fingers carry greasy deposits, it is important to wear disposable gloves, such as Latex gloves, when handling the helmet.

After degreasing, the surface finish must be sanded using a fine wet sand paper (400 grade) to remove the sheen and give the new base paint a suitable surface to adhere to. When the entire helmet surface has been sanded to give a flat dull appearance, it must be cleaned off using a damp cloth. When it has dried, the surface must be wiped off using a tack rag to remove small dust particles.

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Masking Out the Design

The basic design begins to take shape. Using narrow vinyl tape helps when forming intricate shapes. Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

The helmet and any remaining fittings must now be masked-off. Ideally, a good quality paper clear of any printing should be used for this process along with Vinyl tape of ⅛" width (the narrow tape makes bending around corners or difficult shapes easier).

The first coat/s of paint (the base coat) can now be applied; however, it is very important to allow the paint to dry before applying another coat to avoid runs.

With the base coat applied (and dry), the design can be applied. Again, it is important to avoid skin contact with the surface to avoid grease spots. Taking great care with the application of the masking tape to ensure symmetry, for instance, will pay off in the finished helmet.

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Painting Different Colors

After each color coat has dried, it can be masked over before the next color is applied. Planning the color sequence is important. Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

To separate out the different colors (on this particular helmet), only areas where paint was to be applied were left exposed, whereas areas that will get a different color were masked off. After leaving sufficient time for drying, the newly colored area is masked off and a different color applied to the newly exposed area. This process is repeated until all the differing colors have been applied.

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Clear Coat

After the masking tape has been removed, the helmet is sprayed with a Urethane clear coat to give a deep lusty finish. Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

Removing the masking tape can only be undertaken when the various colors have completely dried and should be done slowly to ensure that the paint is not lifted during the peeling. A tack cloth should be used again to remove any dust particles trapped under the tape.

The final coat to apply is a Urethane clear coat (it is very important to use a propitiatory respirator during this process - available from major auto stores). The more coats applied, the more apparent the depth of paint will be. Typically four coats of clear coat are sufficient.

After the clear coats dry (typically 12 to 24 hours) the entire surface should be wet sanded to remove any dust particles and small imperfections with 1500 to 2000 grade paper. Finally, the entire surface should be buffed (especially around any sanded areas) with an appropriate polishing compound.

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Finishing off

With the final pieces of tape removed and fittings reattached, it's time to show off the new helmet. Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

When the final clear coat has dried, and been polished for the final time, the various attachments can be put back on the helmet.

Although the process of custom painting is labor intensive, the finished product is something the owner will be proud of and one that will be admired by many.

Safety Note: It is very important to check with the helmet manufacturer and paint supplier to ensure that the chemicals you intend to use are compatible with the helmet's base material.