Restoring German Helmets   

This page last updated 12/09/2018


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My latest project: an M-40 helmet shell that needs a liner/chinstrap, and a decal.  There is a dent in it, and I am almost certain that it has been repainted.  The dent is a minor one, and whoever repainted it did a really good job.  So for this helmet, a liner and a decal will suffice.

More likely than not the shell is a Finnish reissue made in the 1950s in Germany for the Finnish army.  Finnish helmets are readily recognizable: they don't have size or factory stamps in them.  I'm using this as practice for when I start buying genuine shells and restoring them.


The Mandatory Politics Note

I suppose I should say something about the politics about all of this.  Some people assume that WW2 German militaria collectors are themselves Nazis.  We collectors are interested in history.  While there are some right wing collectors out there, the primary interest is in owning something that was a part of important world events.  If all WW2 German militaria collectors are Nazis, then by extension all stamp collectors are ardent supporters of the post office.

Introduction

I was a big-time collector of WW2 artifacts some years ago.  I sold off my collection, but I am still interested in German helmets.  I particularly enjoy restoring helmet shells or repainted helmets to their original condition.  While these are not as collectible as 100% intact German helmets, they nonetheless have a niche in the collector's world.  Re-enacters, particularly, prefer buying restored German helmets, because they are better quality than Chinese knockoffs, and, if they get damaged in a re enactment (which happens a lot), then at least a valuable historical object was not harmed.

I present my own guide to restoring German helmets.  I am by no means an expert on the subject.  Rather, I am a hobbyist, who has found some ways of bringing those helmets back to their original state.

Should I Restore it, or Leave it Be?

First off, there is a basic question: when to restore?  If you have a helmet shell that has been repainted, and that has no liner, feel free to go to town.  If there is any of the original paint on it, leave the shell alone.  If the liner is still inside, leave it be.  If you have a "battlefield damaged" helmet, with bullet holes, rust and so on, don't bother.  Yes, you could put several hours into smoothing the surface, filling the cracks with Bondo and so on, but you'll have a helmet that still looks like it was messed up.


messed up shell messed up helmert #2
bad restored shell messed up restored shell 2

Why battle damaged helmets are a lost cause.  No matter how much work you put into them, the damage still shows through.  In this case, it didn't help that the guy used glossy paint.

Look for shells that have been repainted, but are not damaged.  There are some available, but not on a regular bases.  My first restored helmet was advertised as having been repainted.  What the seller failed to mention was that it had been repainted on the inside only; the outside was the proper feldgrau (field gray).  All I needed to do was fit in a reproduction liner. 

There were some German helmets sold to the Finnish army, which come onto the market from time to time.  These were made and sold by the original German helmet manufacturers, and were either made in the early 1950s, or were WW2 surplus with the markings removed (German companies were not allowed to make profits from WW2 made items).  Some have extra holes drilled for Finnish liners, and some don't. 

Look inside of any German helmet shell you might want to purchase.  On the left inside skirt will be a manufacturer number and helmet size.  Any helmet that does not have this is suspect (though reproductions carry maker and size numbers now).

Additionally, there will be a lot number on the back of the inside skirt.

Assigned Manufacture Code
Manufacture
ET (changed to CKL in 1943)
Eisenh├╝ttenwerk AG, Thale Hartzuttenwerk AG, Thale Harz
EF
Emaillerwerke AG, Fulda
Q
F.W. Quist G.m.b.H., Esslingen
SE (changed to HKP in 1943)
Sachsishe Emaillerwerke, Lauter
NS
Vereinigte Deutsche Nickelwerke AG, Schwerte

et64
Typical helmet size and manufacturer stamp (image enlarged and enhanced for clarity)

lot number

Typical lot number stamp (image enlarged and enhanced for clarity)

Sort-Of German Helmets You Might Find

finnish helmet spanish helmet
bulgarian helmet
chilean helmet hungarian helmet
argentinma
From left, top: Finnish helmet, Spanish helmet, Bulgarian helmet.
From left, bottom: Chilean helmet, Hungarian h
elmet, Argentinian helmet.

Look over the helmet you want to buy.  There are several differences between the above helmets and standard German helmets.  For instance, Finnish helmets often have extra holes drilled in them to accommodate the Finnish designed liners.

When they were first issued, German helmets were considered state of the art technology.  Several nations bought helmets from Germany until the war started in 1939.  Undeterred, those same nations started manufacturing their own versions of German helmets.  This is why you see so many variations.

And an Also-Ran


east german helmet


Yes, this is an East German helmet.  What most people don't know is that the design was created in WW2 Germany as a replacement for the M-42 helmet.  The helmets' design was actually safer than the standard German helmet, as it tended to deflect small arms fire.  Hitler didn't like how they looked, so that ended the concept.  Until the East Germans decided they needed a helmet of their own.  There is a certain irony there: the East Germans wanted to divorce themselves from Germany's past, yet they used a WW2 design.


WW2 Limited Helmets

ww2 ltd catalog
WW2 Limited catalog.

Let us go back to the Golden Age of WW2 militaria collecting, when the real stuff outnumbered the fake stuff, and the fake stuff was really easy to identify.  Prices were affordable, and you could outfit yourself with a complete genuine WW2 German uniform with all of the equipment and still have money in the bank.  Oh lordy, but those were the days!


Everyone who collected WW2 militaria in the 1970s knows about WW2 Limited, a St. Louis outfit that specialized in selling bad military reproductions.  A lot of it looked like stuff made in people's garages.  The medals they sold were made of some soft, low melt metal-- if a pin came loose on a badge, trying to solder it back on would get you a melted badge the moment the hot soldering iron touched it.  Their patches were hand made, with yarn rather than thread.

My favorite item they sold: home made lye soap advertised with the words "Most of these were buried after WW2...ingredients better imagined than described."  It took some nerve to market something like that.  They printed more catalogs than they needed, so they enclosed a note in the catalogs they sent out: ""Please add 10% for inflation..."  vYeah, they were a class outfit.

They, of course, had to turn their attention to German helmets.  They did not disappoint.  They sold what they called "Heer alloy" helmets, which according to them, were a postwar helmet, beloved by the troops because they were cooler and lighter than the regular steel helmets.  I wish I had a picture of what they sold.  Copies of their catalog just show a stock photo of German troops.

Kevin R. Austra bought one, and he reviewed it on Amazon:

"In the mid-1970's I ordered a cast aluminum German helmet. The catalog described the helmet as a post war version of the familiar flared Stahlhelm, albeit produced for West German border police. Later research determined that no such helmet was ever produced for West German police."


The term"alloy" means a combination of at least two metals: these were just cast aluminum.  I have had a couple of reports about these: they were sold unpainted, with no liners, and were 1/4 inch or so thick.  I haven't seen any photos of them at all, not even from collectors.  Some reproduction collectibles, such as originals of the fake SS butterfly knife (which never existed in WW2), are quite collectible (mainly because overall they're well made knives), which has led to people selling copies of the fake originals,   I'm certain there are a few of those helmets out there.  If someone discovers what they have, you can bet that there will be dealers selling copies of them.  Never underestimate how low people will go to make a fast buck.


aluminum helmet
To add to the fun, there were aluminum German helmets made for use in parades. The above is an example of one.


Unique Imports Helmets

unique imports catalolog.
Unique Imports catalog.

the most impressive dyed liner      unique imports helmet      a uniwue birf
Examples of the bottom, right side and helmet decal of Unique Imports German helmets.



   a page from the Unique Imports catalog
Unique Imports magazine ad.

Another big player in 1970s mail order militaria was Unique Imports  (often referred to by collectors as "Eunuch Imports") .  They sold a mix of genuine vintage militaria, as well as some decent reproductions.  Their specialty was WW2 German helmets, which they sold for $19.95 each.  They also sold "parts daggers," which they claimed were put together from parts of military daggers that had not been assembled, combined with reproduction parts.  That could have meant anything from daggers with almost all original parts, to  a dagger that only had only one small original part.  Do you see why I stopped collecting that stuff?

The helmets were not reproductions: they got some WW2 German helmets that had been purchased by the Norwegian army.  The Norwegians repainted them, replaced the chin straps with their own, and for some odd reason dyed the leather on the liner red.

Unique Imports would get you any branch of service helmet you wanted: Luftwaffe, Heer army, Africa Korps, SS, Luftshutz.  They just took the helmet shells, and repainted them.  They would supply decals which you could add.   And sure enough, they had Afrika Korps decals, but at least they admitted that there was no such thing as an Afrika Korps decal.  They also sold Luftwaffe paratroopers helmets, which they machined down from original German helmet shells, along with reproduction liners and chinstraps.

Unique Imports German helmets have some collectible value, more as curiosities than anything else.  Re-enactors like them.

I had a Unique Imports Heer army helmet when I was a kid.  The paint was thick on it, and looked like it had been brushed on.  The liner was a red dyed Norwegian liner with a Norwegian chinstrap.  The eagle decal was a blurry image of the Heer army logo: it looked like a 5th generation Xerox.

Delta International

real iron cros     deltabuiternational fakr
Left: real iron cross first class.  Right Delta International fake.  Look at the number 3 on both examples.

Al long as I'm mentioning 1970s WW2 mail order houses, there was also Delta International, which specialized in good quality fakes of military memorabilia..  They had  lot of pins and flags, but no helmets.  They would often go to a lot of trouble making replica badges and medals, sometimes redoing the design.  What you'd get would be a very skillfully made fake that couldn't fool a schoolboy.


Liners:

ukranian liner
originalk liner
finnish helmet liner finnish helmet liner
     
Top: Ukranian reproduction (left) and original liner (right).  The leather has browned after 70+ years, and the liner was pushed to match the shape of its helmet, but those are the major differences.

Bottom, left and right: Finnish German helmet liner.  Note the numerous differences between this and the real deal (above)
 

size charts:

shell size 60 fits 53 liner/head sizes 
shell size 62 fits 55 liner/head sizes 
shell size 64 fits 57 liner/head sizes 
shell size 66 fits 59 liner/head sizes 
shell size 68 fits 61 liner/head sizes 
shell size 70 fits 63 liner/head sizes

Metric size 53 is US 6 5/8 (small) (20.86 inches)
Metric size 55 is US 6 7/8 (small) (21.65 inches)
Metric size 57 is US 7 1/8 (medium) (22.44 inches)
Metric size 59 is US 7 3/8 (large) (23.22 inches)
Metric size 61 is US 7 5/8 (extra large) (24.01 inches)
Metric size 63 is US 7 7/8 (extra extra large) (24.80 inches)

Chances are that you don't wear a hat, and thus don't know your hat size.  Using a measuring tape, measure the circumference of your head, about 1/8" above your ears. Use the above chart to size your helmet.

Please note that people's heads are bigger than they were 70+ years ago.  We're eating better, and are bigger overall.  Chances are you won't find a helmet shell that will fit you exactly.

Watch movies about WW2.  If the German helmets used in the film you're watching are original, they will more likely than not sit on top of the actors' heads.  If they are reproductions, they will fit properly.


Measuring a German helmet:

If your helmet no longer has a liner or the size mark on the rim is unreadable, then you need to measure the shell. Measure the circumference of the outside of the steel shell. Subtract 1 cm.  You need to get the nearest even number, which would be your shell size. If you measure your helmet and get a circumference of 69cm, that means that the helmet size is 68.

Nowadays most reproduction liners are well made.  The leather, being in good shape, would never fool anyone, but nonetheless I have yet to see a recently made  bad reproduction liner.  If you see a liner as being a "German/Finnish" liner, steer clear.  They are not accurate liners for a German WW2 helmet.

In the 1970s the notorious WW2 Limited offered a one size fits all German helmet liner.  It was made of plastic and vinyl, and had cuts on the chinstrap to make it look old.  I took one look at it and threw it away, as I'm sure every other collector that bought it did.

Paint:

Rustoleum Deep Forest Green:  Heer mid to late war, Combat polizei, Waffen SS 1940-1945
Tamiya Desert Mustard Tan: Afrika Korps
Rustoleum Satin Black: Polizei (civic), Allgemeine SS
BLP Camouflage Spray Paint Olive Drab: Heer 1933-1940, Kriegsmarine, Waffen SS 1933-1940
Testor's Modelmaster Dark Sea Blue: Luftwaffe, Luftschutz

With the M 40 helmets on, aluminum oxide powder was used to dull the finish.  Some hobbyists use sawdust or sand, wrongly assuming that will give a similar effect.  With my lack of painting skills, I'd skip the powders and just go with a matte paint.

Additionally, some people buy battle damaged/rusted helmets, assuming that the texture of the rust will resemble aluminum oxide powder treated helmets.  This is an incorrect assumption.

If you're repainting a helmet, don't just start spraying away.  You need to remove the old paint first.  There is a paint stripper called Citstrip that will do the job.  Just brush it on, let it sit, and then scrape it off.

Look over your stripped helmet.  If there are any imperfections, get some Bondo and fill them in.  Wait for the Bondo to dry, and then sand it smooth.

Use good old auto body gray primer for the first coat.  Allow to dry, then add 2 or more coats of the color you want, allowing it to dry between coats.

Decals:

heer army helmet with decal nation al shield decal
     

It is perfectly acceptable to have a German helmet without decals, as toward the end of the war, to save time in manufacture, they were issued without decals.  Really, it's your choice, whether to make a helmet a one decal, two decal, or no decal. 

Helmets were often
 repainted, and reissued to troops.  WWI style German and Austrian helmets were used up until 1943.  So it is not uncommon to see photos of divisions of German soldiers with a few different helmet types.

Decals are readily available on eBay, and other places on the internet.  On eBay, some dealers have taken to sell decals with the swastikas removed, so that eBay can conform to German laws.  And other eBay dealers get around that by selling decals in pairs, and either showing the tricolor decal only, or showing the tricolor and part of the decal with a swastika. 

Some dealers sell Afrika Korps helmet decals.  This is pure bunkum.  Don't buy from any dealer that sells these decals.  There were never any decals issued for Afrika Korps helmets.  Instead, soldiers painted the Afrika Korps logo on their helmets.

Ebay sells blank decal sheets whereby you can print your own decals.  I'd recommend getting the white sheets for this project, as the clear sheets would show the background color of the helmet through.  You will have to do some very precise cutting, but the savings over buying decals will be worth it.  I have done some research, and below is a link to a PDF file of 1:1 images of German helmet decals. 

helmet decals

(click on the above image to view, or right click to download it.)


Right after printing your decals, you'll need to spray 2-3 coats of clear matte enamel over your printed decals, allowing it to dry.  Otherwise the ink would run the moment the water touches the decals when you apply them.

With any decals, I've found that the best way to apply them is to soak them in water.  Look at the decal: it will curl up, when it first hits the water.  When it is ready to apply, it will straighten out completely.  Slide the decal of onto the helmet, using wet fingers to arrange it properly and push out air bubbles.

  After applying the decal to the helmet and the decal has set and is dry (I'd wait a few days), spray it with some clear matte enamel, so it is less prone to being damaged by scrapes and scratches.

Putting It All Together


Let's start with the easiest part.  Take your helmet rivets and push them through some card stock (I used a junk mail postcard).  Spray that with at least three coats of the appropriately colored paint, allowing it to dry between coats.

painted rivets
painted rivets on card stock

If you can find one, buy a German helmet liner with the chinstrap already attached.  If you get a chinstrap separately (or are left handed), you need to get a needle nose pliers.  Essentially, putting a chin strap on a helmet uses the same procedure you use when buttoning a button.  Just push that rivet through, and then use the pliers to push it through the rest of the way.

The black part of the strap is usually on the outside.  See the following photos for how to place the chinstrap.

If you're right handed, the chinstrap's buckle will go on the left side of the liner.  If you're left handed, it will go on the right.  Why do that?  This has to do with firing a rifle: you don't want a buckle getting in the way.

chinstrap buckle
chinstrap buckle

chinstrap
chinstrap, right side

liner back
Liner back.  Note the round hole.  This is very useful as for aligning your liner.

liner left
Liner, left side with buckle.  That horizontal hole is where one of the rivets goes through.

lier right
liner, right

liner fitted
Liner fitted into helmet.  Note that there are no gaps: it fits precisely.

Installing a liner in a German helmet is a straightforward process: you have three pins that hold it in.  Just push the liner in, jimmying it around until all of the holes line up.  Push the pins through, apply the washers, bend the prongs, and you're done.  Simple as pie. 

The above is like saying that playing a flute is easy: all you have to do is blow in one end and work your fingers up and down on the holes.  German helmet liners were designed by demons who got great pleasure out of frustrating people.

The liners I have installed all fit in very tightly.  It wasn't a matter of dropping them in, so much as forcing them to match up with the rivet holes.  With the first helmet I repaired, I walked away with torn fingernails and cut up hands.

Now, added to the many problems (see below), please note that German helmet liners are made by firms that are copying older designs.  They're doing a great job, but sometimes things don't match up.  On the liner I purchased, everything lined up except for the left front rivet hole.  The hole needed to be expanded.  I used a Sharpie to indicate how large the hole had to be.  See photo below.  I used a rotary tool to make the necessary change.

rivet hole that needs expanding
The rotary tool worked perfectly.  I found that using a diamond dust tipped steel but worked the best.

pins and washers
Chances are you will have a set of washers to go with your pins.  Don't bother with the washers.  The liner will be held in place just fine with the pins only.  The washers add nothing to the build except aggravation.

Once you have your liner fitted in, and the holes match, it's time to put your pins in.  I'd recommend putting in the rear pin first, to anchor the liner, and then putting in the two other pins.  This is the most complicated process of the build.  Basically, what you'll have to do is push the liner aside with something, pop the pins in, and bend them as best you can.  With the left and right pins, they should be done vertically.

One tip: once you push the pin in, put a piece of tape on it to hold it to the helmet.  I had so many pins fall to the floor, which meant dropping everything to look for the lost pins.

Chances are your first attempts will not sit snugly against the helmet.  Step aside for a day or two, just to calm down.  Then push the liner aside, push the pin in with one hand, and using a pliers, push the pins in so they fit snugly against the inside of the helmet.

Don't be worried about damaging the liner by pushing it back. It will snap back right away, as it was designed to.

pin and liner

 General overview of pushing a pin in a helmet.  Note the flashlight used to hold the liner.  Note also the pin location: right under a leaf spring.

helmet back    helmet front

finisheft     helmet right
Four views oi the finished helmet.