I made this helmet just because Vikings and their earlier ancestors are fascinating people, and it seemed like a fun project. It’s great for reenacting, renaissance fairs, or accidentally scaring the neighbors while taking a photo shoot. This style of helmet is nice because it doesn’t require large pieces of leather or pieces or leather of uniform thickness, so it can be made from scraps. The mask that covers the lower face is also completely removable for a different look. This is one of my favorite costumes.
This style of helm dates from 6th to 8th century Sweden. It evolved into the Spangenhelm in later centuries. The surviving historical examples seem to be made of metal, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that leather ones also could have existed particularly among poorer and less skilled people. I first discovered this helmet type through the website of a re-enacting group called The Ravens Warband.
Materials: Scrap leather (vegetable tanned cowhide preferred) between 5 and 10 oz weight.
Tools: razor knife, leather hole punch, ruler, bristol board or card stock for patterning, edge beveler, leather lacing or a leather lace cutter, large pot of boiling water for hardening, tongs or similar (also for the hardening process).
I first made a pattern from thin card stock.
The two most important parts of the helmet are the crest band and the brow band. The brow band is the part that wraps around the head, passing over the tops of the ears and the forehead. The crest band goes over the top of the head, connecting the to the brow band in the front and back and also extends down below the brow band in front to make the nose guard. My final helmet has an inner and outer brow band and crest band, hiding the ends of the woven pieces and the laces between the inner and outer. The outer bands will need to be about an inch longer than the inner bands to account for the thickness of the leather in between them. The remainder of the helmet consists of a basket weave of leather strips.
In my helmet, the crest and brow bands are both 1 3/4 inches wide, and the woven straps are one inch wide.
The pattern fit quite loosely because the hardening process will shrink the helmet by about ten percent. The paper mock-up felt huge, but it ended up almost perfect in the end. I used six 1-inch wide straps on each side to make the woven portion. I evenly spaced all ends along crest and brow bands. It took me a while to work out the right pattern. I numbered the woven straps and their places on the brow and crest bands will help to stay organized when putting it back together in leather. I took the pattern back apart to trace on to the leather. It was hard to take it apart after putting so much work into putting it together.
I used the thickest leather I could find for the crest and the brow to maintain the structure as best as possible. One of the crest bands included the extra 2 or 3ish inches for the nose guard.
I cut two of each of the weave pieces. Cutting both the leather pieces off the same pattern kept the woven portions more symmetrical. I almost forgot to flip the pattern over when cutting the second set, which would have left me with two of the same side.
I laced the ends of the brow band together so that it forms a circle, and then attached the crest band on opposite sides of the brow band so that it formed a half circle (see picture). For the visible portions of the helmet, I put the grain side (smooth side) out for a better appearance.
After that, I punched six holes evenly spaced on each side of the crest band, and in the end of each weaving piece. Then I laced them on to the crest matching the hole in the end to the corresponding hole in the crest band.
I repeated the process with the brow band and other ends of the weavers.
To tighten the whole thing up, I decided to punch holes in each intersection in the woven areas and run a lace around the helmet going through each hole. This makes a sort of thin inner net that becomes part of the woven areas, but I were to make this helmet again, I wouldn’t do this step. In the hardening process, the thin exposed lacing spanning the holes in the weaving became very brittle because it hardens so much faster than the thicker leather in the rest of the helmet.
I laced the brow band in the front, and the crest band over it, leaving the nose guard sticking down below the brow band.
Next, I cut five neck guard rectangles, approximately 1 1/2 by 6 inches, and cheek guards, approximately 6 by 3-4 inches.
I cut tabs of corresponding width to each neck and cheek guards, and then laced them into the bottom edge of the brow band. By hardening the helmet separately and lacing on the the guards later, the unhardened laces act as hinge so the guards can move freely. The cheek guard tabs have an extra hole in the front to attach the mask later on.
Beveling the edges (basically rounding the edges) made the overall appearance a lot cleaner. It tricks the eye into missing the smaller imperfections. Burnishing the edges a little bit smooths things out as well.
Hardening makes the leather very stiff and a little brittle. It also darkening the leather. For an even darker color, a little tea in the water will dye it quite nicely. I didn’t dye this helmet, but I did dye some arm guards I had made previously to match the helmet by soaking them in some cooled Earl Grey tea. When hardening, I think it’s better to err on the side of too soft because leather can always be re-hardened, but if it gets over cooked it can become far too brittle and structurally weak.
I began by wetting the the leather until it was thoroughly soaked through. This helps it to shrink less in the hardening process. I boiled enough water to cover the helmet. When the water was boiling, I dipped the helmet in using a pair of tongs, and held it in the water for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds.
It shrank slightly and pulled out of shape. While it was still hot, I re-shaped the helmet by pulling it into the proper shape, and when it was cool enough, I put it on my head. (No pictures for this part because I didn’t have enough hands for the camera). Wet leather shapes very easily, so it wasn’t too hard to bring back to the right shape. I’ve had a couple of the thinner bands crack a little, but luckily they didn’t crack all the way through and are not really visible.
I repeated the hardening process for each of the neck and cheek guards as well as the face guard. The bottom of the neck guards curve out to accommodate the outward curve of the shoulders.
The neck guards and cheek guards laced onto the corresponding tabs.
I later knitted a nice little wool hat cushions the inside of the helmet, and fills in any left over space. It also allows air to circulate under the brow band. The wool hat makes all the difference it the world when wearing the helmet.
All the hard work paid off in the end. This helmet is both scary and awesome (I think so anyway). It’s also all the more awesome for being completely hand made. It’s very satisfying to say “I made it” when someone asks where I bought it.