The helmet design process can also get a little tricky because there can be many hours of labor when customizing. The question to keep in mind is whether the customer is willing to pay for this. Most don’t see a problem with paying top dollar for a first-class custom paint job, but probably not when it’s for a helmet. There is often a balancing act needed to decide between what the customer wants and what he or she is willing to pay.
Rich tip: The fastest paint jobs are usually freehand, so try and stick to this method especially when doing something less expensive such as team sport helmets.
Measure and mark for reference
Sometimes laying out graphics on a helmet can be a little frustrating. It’s important to take a lot of measurements and mark as many reference points as you can with little pieces of tape. Hopefully the helmet is not perfectly smooth and has some ridges or vents to use as a reference point when measuring.
The helmets are very round and it’s sometimes hard to line up graphics and lettering to be perfectly centered and straight. Your best bet is to find the middle point of the front, which is not usually too hard, and then find the middle point of the rear, which is a bit harder.
Then lay a centerline down the middle of the helmet with some fine line vinyl tape. This is a good place to take further measurements for the rest of your paint job and get everything laid out and evenly spaced from one another.
Rich tip: Make sure every graphic is laid out just right before you spray it or things could end up looking lopsided.
Remove hardware and materials
Before you begin with your helmet project you have to examine the hardware and the materials on the inside. Sometimes removing certain parts will cause damage to the parts and they will need to be replaced. If you don’t have any replacement parts you will need to decide which parts will be removed and which will remain.
Store everything that you end up removing in a plastic bag and label the bag with the list of parts and the helmet it corresponds with. Sometimes you get lucky and receive a brand spankin’ new helmet from the manufacturer with extra hardware or in the stage just before the hardware is to be installed. Unfortunately though, in most cases you will have to improvise and do a lot of masking.
As an example, you usually can’t remove all the materials inside the helmet, unless you happen to have some experience with the fabrics and adhesives involved in putting these helmets together. We’ve done a lot of custom painted helmets here at the shop, but it’s not exactly our specialty. So we don’t remove anything that we’re not completely sure that we can put back just the way it was. This includes the interior of the helmet and sometimes the trim around the bottom of the helmet and visor openings. A lot of the time, you will not be able to remove these pieces without having to replace them due to the damage incurred.
Start by sealing
Begin with sealing the inside of the helmet. I always start by masking off the trim pieces with 3M masking tape. It is very important to leave a hairline area exposed around the side of the trim that meets with the surface of the helmet.
When the trim pieces are masked off and the hairline area is exposed seal off the visor opening so that the paint will not get inside and damage the helmet’s interior.
Usually the best way to do this is to tape from the inside facing out. Place one piece of masking tape from one side of the visor opening to the other, using a 1 1/2 inch roll of tape. Remember to place the tape on the inside with the sticky side facing outward through the visor opening.
I usually place tape around the edge of the outside trim (that is already masked off) and attach it to the sticky side of the masking tape that is sealing off the visor opening. This will give it extra strength when base coating or clearing with the big gun that can sometimes blow through the tape. Then I crumple up some masking paper and stuff it inside the helmet and seal off the bottom of the helmet with the same 1 1/2 or 2 inch roll of 3M masking tape. I follow the same steps as with the visor opening.
Rich tip: Make sure that the layers of tape overlap to be sure the paint doesn’t get through. Also, don’t make the tape tight. It needs to have some slack so that the helmet can be placed over a stand when painting and clearing it. I usually use a roll of masking film covered in masking paper and attach that to a stand with some tape.
Importance of exposing trim
There is a reason why we leave that little sliver of trim exposed where the trim meets the painting surface. If you mask the trim completely, when you clear the helmet and the clear dries, you are going to end up with a problem. When you peel off that masking, it will most likely also peel the clear off and leave you with a very ugly custom paint job on your helmet. One option that a lot of people use is to cut along the edge of the masking with a razor. But this can also leave you with a rough edge that might lift later on.
What we always do is cover the last little sliver of trim with some 1/8 inch blue vinyl tape. We start at the middle of the back of the helmet and use only one piece of tape to wrap all the way around the bottom of the helmet trim and the visor trim. When you get all the way back around to the beginning of the tape, overlap it about an inch and leave a little excess unattached from the helmet when you cut it. Then fold that excess tape over to make a little flap that you can easily grab and peel back. This is for when you’ve finished clearing the helmet. As soon as you’ve sprayed your last coat of clear, very carefully pinch the flap and peel it back and around the helmet until it’s off and that same little sliver of trim is visible once again.
Rich tip: This must be done while the clear is still wet, so be extremely careful not to touch the wet clear and go very slowly. Then you can let the helmet dry in the booth and the clear coat should line up nicely against the edge of the trim and leave a clean custom paint finish.
Practice makes perfect
With these steps and procedures, you should be able to produce your custom paint job on a helmet just as you would on any other motorcycle or automobile. Just remember to take your time with the masking, because helmets are made with a lot of materials that don’t necessarily react well with urethanes and solvents. Take your time and with each helmet try to do it quicker and quicker. The trick is to be quick, but not rushed. It still has to look good and if you get quick enough, you can turn a nice buck on these little projects.
Rich Evans, owner of Huntington Beach Bodyworks in Southern California, is an award winning painter and fabricator. Currently he is offering workshops at his facility so he can share his special techniques to other industry professionals. For more information about Evans, visit www.huntingtonbeachbodyworks.com