Leather fire helmets are sturdy, strong, and sometimes a lifesaver in their own right.
But you know yourself, sometimes it feels like you need to tweak it, to be sure the brim gives you the level of cover you need to do the job effectively.
That can be a daunting prospect – one that feels full of pitfalls and consequences if you get it wrong.
Don’t panic. We can show you how to shape your leather fire helmet so it does what you want it to do – and how to do it reasonably safely.
First, a disclaimer though. Our method should help you bend your leather fire helmet safely, but leather is an animal hide. It can react differently depending on how it’s been kept and nourished, whether it’s new or older, and the condition of the leather.
So while our method should give you the bend you want, we can’t guarantee that your helmet can withstand the process without cracks or perishing. If you decide to try… well in a very real sense, on your own head be it.
Bending A Fire Helmet Into Shape
While being aware of the potential for leather to crack, split, or even tear when tampered with, the first thing you’re going to need if you want to bend your leather fire helmet into shape is a surface around which to bend it.
If you can find a bullnose counter edge, you stand a better chance of getting a typical Bronx Bend. On the other hand, if you want to straighten the brim, something like a flat countertop is going to serve you better.
So, first – decide what kind of bend you’re going to go for.
Second, find the right kind of surface to help you bend the helmet into the shape you’re looking for.
All set? Cool – let’s bend.
1. Find yourself a deep sink. It needs to be deep so that you can fully submerge the brim of your helmet in it. Got one? Great.
2. Put the helmet in the sink, brim down.
3. Fill the sink with hot water, until you cover the brim completely and have a little more water to spare on top.
4. NB – HOT water. If the water coming out of your faucet is not especially hot, you can boil some in a kettle or pan if you like, and add it to the water carefully. Do not, if you can avoid it, scald the living blisters out of your hands in your quest for a Bronx Bend.
5. Leave the helmet alone for 5-6 minutes. The sign of it being ready to bend is that when you touch it, it should feel soft and pliable.
If it doesn’t feel that way, then whatever the clock says, it’s not ready yet. The clock is only a rough guide here – as we said, the condition of the leather in your helmet is an individual thing, based on age and care.
The pliability is a necessary factor in getting the Bend. Let that sensation be your guide more than the clock.
6. When it feels soft to the touch, take the helmet from the water and reshape the brim, using whichever surface gives you the shape you want.
7. Speed is your friend here. It’s the heat that gives the leather its pliability.
As the heat escapes – and it will, pretty rapidly when the brim is removed from the hot water – the pliability dissipates with it, and by the time it’s cold again, you’ll have lost the ability to safely shape your helmet without instant leather-cracking.
8. If the shape looks wrong by the time the brim is cool, do not force it. If you force it at this stage, you might as well not have bothered with all the hot water – your leather helmet will crack, snap, and quite possibly tear.
9. Instead, heat some more water, and get back to the brim-submersion strategy. Think of it like this: pliability is a feature that allows the brim to bend. Pliability is added to the brim through wet heat.
If you run out of wet heat, you run out of pliability, and you might as well try to bend a Confession wafer with your bare hands. Adding more wet heat infuses the brim with new pliability, and means you can try again to get the shape you want.
10. When you feel you have the bend right in your leather fire helmet (and yes, incidentally, being sure of this might involve you trying on a hot, wet helmet several times!), leave it alone. Leave it out on the counter for around half an hour minimum.
We know some people will read that and think “Wouldn’t it dry and harden quicker in the refrigerator?” Yes. Yes, it will. It will dry, and harden, and then happily crack and splinter, undoing all your good work.
Patience is the key here. 20 minutes or so, out on the counter at room temperature and you should be good to go.
One thing you may find is that the change in the shape of the brim means you need an adjustment to the underwiring that usually holds the shape in place.
Wire though is easily bended with a gentle pressure – again, don’t be too rough or you run the risk of snapping the wire. Bend it gently into shape to follow the path of your new Bronx Bend.
The Ins And Outs Of A Bronx Bend
If you’re wondering what exactly a Bronx Bend entails, that’s easy to answer. It’s the style of fire helmet where the back of the brim bends almost straight down.
That way, it offers much more protection to the back of a firefighter’s neck, which can be dangerously exposed with a standard design.
That standard design only has a slight downward bend, which offers less protection. On the other hand, there’s also the option of wearing the brim with a Colorado Bend – which is essentially a very shallow bend.
How To Repair A Crack In A Leather Fire Helmet
Sometimes, doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing. So before you rush to fix a cracked helmet, ask yourself which would be better – to try and repair a crack, or to replace the helmet entirely.
This is not rocket science – if the crack doesn’t compromise the effectiveness of the helmet, you may not need to do anything, or it might be worth fixing before it grows longer and more dangerous.
If the crack is longer or more compromising, you might be better advised to simply replace the helmet. Also, be aware that if your helmet is under warranty, there may be official ways of getting it repaired before you try to fix it yourself.
If you have small cracks in your helmet and you want to take care of them yourself, you’re going to need some epoxy resin, some furnace cement, and some sandpaper (150-grit for preference).
First, clean your helmet thoroughly, and ideally leave it to dry overnight.
Then, take your epoxy resin, and fill in the cracks, as instructed on the packaging.
Check for any parts of the seam that are missing cement. Reseal these areas.
Finally, sandpaper the helmet, smoothing out any bumps or irregularities.
The Expiring Helmet Controversy
This is a delicate one. According to the National Fire Protection Association Standard 1851, all elements of PPE for firefighters, including their helmets, must go out of service after ten years.
Many in the service find this Standard to be dubious, and have lobbied the NFPA to raise the lifetime of helmets to 15 years.
Ordinarily, this would probably be no big deal, but helmets must not only be removed from service but physically destroyed when they go over the lifespan. Many firefighters find this a waste – especially in a time of generalized austerity.
The Best Leather Fire Helmet For Our Money
The world is full of leather firefighter helmets, so picking a favorite among them is no easy matter.
On balance though, whether you intend to give it a Bronx Bend or not, one helmet in particular shines through. Which one?:
Why the Cairns Houston?
Cairns has a long history of making firefighting gear – since 1836, the company has been building a reputation for reliability and quality.
The Houston is fully hand-crafted, hand-shaped, and hand-stitched. That means you’re getting a helmet that will – barring accidents – last you the full decade of NFPA Standard 1851, and, if allowed, will probably last you the full 15 years recommended by firefighters, without any need for a great deal of ongoing maintenance.
Available in a range of sizes to fit most firefighters’ head sizes (and with a brass eagle holder up front), it’s a versatile helmet that can work for everyone.
The face shield on the Houston can resist high temperatures and corrosion, so you can get through a lot of action with the Houston on your head.
One of the best elements in the Houston that makes it stand out is the one-handed buckle release.
With that, you can keep active in any firefight secure in the knowledge that it won’t slip, twist, or become a problem, and you can get an easy release when the firefight is done and the only thing you can think about is getting free of your gear.
On top of all of which, the Cairns Houston is a fully compliant helmet under the NFPA standards. How important is that?
Well, if you consider that one helmet has a piece of paper because it meets a whole swathe of criteria laid down by people whose job depends on keeping firefighters safe and comfortable… and another doesn’t, you’re more likely to go for the one with the piece of paper, no?
There are plenty of great helmets out there, but the Cairns Houston has a lot of the best features going for it, and you can wear it confidently for years to come.
If you decide you want to bend your leather fire helmet, especially with a Bronx Bend, you now know what to do to make it more comfortable and/or give you more protection on the back of your neck.
Whether it’s for 10 years, as per Standard 1851, or whether it turns out to be longer, if you choose a great helmet to begin with – like the Cairns Houston – and then you maximize its effectiveness through things like the Bronx Bend, you should have a firefighting helmet that will be with you for at least a decade, keeping you safe and repaying your investment, both in money and in the time you take to look after it.