American Dragoon Helmet, circa 1820
This is my attempt at reproducing this beautiful helmet. The chin strap should be made of overlapping brass plates.
This formed leather helmet is made of four pieces: The visor, the band, and two crown halves. The visor and band are bent and stitched dry. The crown halves need to be stretched over a form while damp (cased). The form illustrated consists of a plaster skull and a Masonite or plywood crest. The skull piece is made by filling a commercial hardhat with plaster, and then bandsawing it in half (or somewhat less than half so that it is sized properly). A standard head form for a helmet with a liner would be about 9” long by 7” wide. Thus the skull half should measure about 3½” wide at it’s thickest.
The crest form is made from 1/8” Masonite bandsawn to shape so that the bottom fits nicely to the skull and the top has a sweeping curve. Place the two forms as shown against a ¾” plywood ‘L’. Cut a piece of 5 - 6 oz. oak tanned leather and case it (saturate it in water, wrap it in a towel, and leave it for a couple of hours). Then place it over your form, and push it into shape. The dotted line in illustration B indicates where the leather needs to reach.
Using a heavy staplegun, staple around the skull and crest forms as closely as possible driving the staples into the plywood. You may need to use pliers to pull the leather into place. First staple around the skull starting in the middle, and stretching the leather as you go. It will want to form wrinkles, and you need to keep this from happening. Continue stapling around the crest. The leather will want to bridge the juncture where the crest and skull meet shown in illustration A as ‘X’.
Press down hard along this line to get the best shape. You may need to use a dull tool to assist in forcing it down. You may want to clamp the second piece of Masonite crest that you’ll need to hold the leather over the crest down to the form. Once the two crown pieces are dry they can be removed from the forms and trimmed to shape. Punch slits with a lacing chisel in all four leather pieces for stitching together.
Attaching the horsehair: After the crown halves are formed you’ll use the two Masonite crests to hold the horsehair in the finished helm. Begin by placing a generous coat of Barge cement (contact cement) onto one side of one of the crest boards. Lay the horsehair carefully down into the cement, spreading it out so that the cement is touching all of the hair. Then put the cement on the other Masonite crest, and lay it onto the first one, sandwiching the horsehair in between.
After the cement has dried, glue the Masonite crest in between the two leather crowns. Using waxed thread, stitch the crown pieces together, being careful around the horsehair to keep it evenly spread. Then stitch on the band, and finally the visor. A sweatband and fabric liner completes the helmet.
©2006 Tom Banwell