Today Ricco Ross Frost stopped in with a question,
“Big Red, what do you believe to be acceptable and unacceptable preservation with your collection?”
Fancy meeting you here Ricco, line em up an I’ll go through the most commonly debated helmet “preservation” questions…
Never apply any type of oil product, petroleum based or otherwise, to any part of your helmet. The application of oil with the intent to clean and preserve helmets was done quite extensively to WWI era helmets, which over time proved instead to destroy liners, loosen and soften paint and degrade the underlying sawdust texture. In the 1960s collectors of German helmets again adopted this approach by oiling helmets with the intent to clean, stop rust, enhance paint color and to make dry rotted liners flexible again. Time has proven to degrade loosen and pockmark paint finishes, de-laminate and degrade decals as well as causing leather liners to become fragile and disintegrate.
Rust is part of a helmet’s patina and should not be aggressively removed. Whatever rust is left after a gentle wash or wipe down with a lint free rag should be left as it is.
Repairing as it relates to the M-1 helmet is considered by collectors, depending on the type and extent of the repair, altering or faking. The most aggressive “repair” I have ever applied to a helmet is in the instance of a broken leather liner chin strap. If the entire chin strap is present and has only been torn in two, I will apply a thin layer of fabric glue to the ends and re-attach them allowing the glue to bridge the gap. The chin strap can now be placed over the brim of the helmet or liner for display and because the procedure is minimally invasive can be easily undone. If your intended repair can’t easily be undone it will be considered, by fellow collectors, as aggressive.
This is a time when a wholistic approach to your collection comes into play. First ask yourself, does the helmet have historical or monetary collector value as it sits? If it does, leave it alone unless you are willing to lose its intrinsic value by altering its current state. If the helmet has no historic or collector value beyond being an example of an M-1 helmet there isn’t much to lose. Keep in mind that regardless of what treasure you might find under that crusty exterior that potential buyers may not perceive the value of that treasure as high as it is by the one that uncovered the treasure.
Neck bands, removable leather liner chin straps, and head bands were all inserts that were considered as wear items. When they became worn, they would be replaced upon request and when helmets were turned in to supply, the inserts would be removed and discarded. Liners would be cleaned and repaired if necessary, and then upon re-issue new inserts would be provided. Every collector has a parts stash for exactly this purpose and this is why I do not have a major concern when these missing items are replaced as long as the parts are original and considerations are made to the overall attributes of the helmet so the replacement part is appropriate to the total assembly.
If some reason compels me to replace a damaged part to a high end helmet in my collection, I make sure to preserve the original and keep it with the helmet. For example, if I want to display a helmet that has remnants of a removable leather liner chin strap a ripped or rotted head band or neck band, I will match the attributes of the damaged part to an undamaged example to replace it. Once replaced I will seal the damaged parts into a plastic zip bag keeping them with the helmet. In this way, the original parts remain with the helmet and in the future a potential new owner can make their own decision to leave the replacement parts or to return the original ones as they see fit.
One thing I strongly discourage is adding History to a helmet. What I mean by this is adding a part that has a full name or number that can be attributed to a specific soldier. I find the practice of doing so dishonest to the buyer and to History.
When it comes to cleaning M-1 helmets in your collection less is best. Dusting with a feather duster or canned air is a safe and common solution. To clear away dirt, cobwebs, insect remains, animal droppings and the like, a damp cloth will do the trick. Helmets do not need extreme action to forestall deterioration or preventative action to preserve them. They have survived over 75 years just fine and if you keep them in a climate-controlled environment they will continue to do just fine.
However, if you really have a stinker of a problem like a liner that served as a rodent nest or an unknown odor that prevents you from being allowed to bring the helmet into the house, you might try the following.
Before you start cleaning be hyper cautious of any leather components that can’t be removed. Do not try to remove neck bands or snap in head bands as the webbing may be extremely fragile. If you simply must remove a snapped in item or if you struggle to release a spring clip on a head band, use a small flat head screwdriver. Cautiously slide the tip of the flat head between the snaps or inside the clip then very slowly and gently twist until they release.
Wash the offending helmet or liner in warm soapy water. Use an old toothbrush to gently scrub away grime on the helmet’s chin strap or a liner’s webbing. Do not be aggressive with your cleaning as liner webbing may have become delicate and you will want to avoid tearing it. When done rinse out with clean water and allow the items to air dry.
PS don’t try this with a fibre liner.....
The most common attempt at preservation made by M-1 collectors relates to leather components. Aside from mold, there are three significant leather related issues you will encounter, white film, red rot and dry rot. If your leather is covered with a strange white build up don’t worry, the film is just fats and oils being squeezed out of the leather when it contracts and can be wiped off with a lint free rag.
Red rot and dry rot are both signs that the internal structure of the leather has begun to break down and in both instances, leather will begin to crack and turn powdery. This condition is not reversible, and no matter how you oil leather in this condition it can’t be rescued. Regardless there will be those of you that will be determined to “save it” and will scour the inter-webs for solutions.
The application of saddle soap, conditioners or oils will, at best, make the leather temporarily more flexible but they can’t repair the loss of strength due to breakdown of internal fibers. In time, the chemicals of your treatment of choice will evaporate leaving the leather more brittle than it was before it was applied. It should also be noted that leathers treated with conditioners and oils will leave staining on the fabric webbing, helmet or liner where the treated leather makes contact.
How do any of these actions affect the value of your M-1 helmet? In truth, it depends on the buyer. A collector that views themselves as a purist will de-value a helmet for having had the turds shaken out as well as any other action that altered the “as found” condition. The entire collecting community frowns upon oiling or repairing whereas a gentle cleaning or replacement of a missing part are not given much notice. Stripping is in a class by itself as it can go either way depending on what perceived value the helmet had before the stripping, what and how much was stripped, the skill level at which the job was performed and what was uncovered.
Ultimately, you are the custodian and conservator of the history you collect, and you have the final say on how your collection will be managed. My rule of thumb is “don’t do anything that can’t easily be undone” and if you don’t know if you should, it is best to do nothing.
Until next time, I bid ye a fond