Introduction: Copper and Steel Viking Helmet
The ship creaks gently as it slips across the tops of the waves, gliding, nearly noiselessly, through the fog. You pull at the oars next to Leif, the bearded giant who rows beside you. The journey has been long as weeks have passed on this tiny boat over the open sea and you twitch in anticipation of landfall and your first battle alongside all of the seasoned warriors who grunt and strain at the oars with you. The sounds of weapons being drawn, checked, sharpened, resheathed, reverberate all around you. Suddenly, from somewhere ahead in the mist comes a shout and a long blast on a horn. You leap up from your seat alongside all of your fellow warriors and adjust your chain mail one more time, then pull your helmet down onto your head, thanking the gods for the smith that made it. You take up your shield, draw your sword, and shout as one with your comrades: "Onward to glory! On to Valhalla!"
It seems like Vikings have been having a bit of a renaissance lately. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about roaming bands of bearded men armed to the teeth raiding our coastal cities any more, but Vikings have been popping up all over the place in popular culture thanks to TV shows, movies, video games, and comic books. Contrary to popular belief, vikings never wore horned helmets (you can blame 19th century German opera and, subsequently, Bugs Bunny for that one), but they did wear some striking helmets that were similar to the one I am going to show you how to build here. This is not necessarily a one to one historical build, but it is Viking inspired and it fits fairly well into historical dress.
Before we get started, I would like to issue a small disclaimer: this project is hard to make. I'm no armorer, but I do blacksmith full time and metal is no real mystery to me, but this project was difficult. Really difficult. The kind of difficult where you throw the thing down at the end of the day and wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea. There were a lot of tedious aspects to this build and it often felt like the metal had a mind of its own as I tried to work it into the shape I wanted.
That said, this project is also doable and having done it, I feel like I've gained a new appreciation for the armorer's art and even picked up some new knowledge and skills along the way. Hopefully seeing what I've done will help you to avoid some of the pitfalls that I stepped in and give you the inspiration to make one of your own.
So, if I haven't scared you off yet, let's get started!
There are a lot of materials and tools involved in this build. The materials are all pretty common and readily accessible at your local hardware store. The tools are a bit more specialty and may be harder to come by so I will include the tools I used below along with some possible substitutes.
- 3/4" Copper Pipe. Available at Lowe's or just about any other hardware store.
- 12"x18" 16 Gauge Sheet Steel. Also available pretty much everywhere
- 1/8x3/8” Flat Rivets.
- 1/8x1/2” Flat Rivets. The rivets are a little trickier to get. I buy mine from McMaster Carr here: https://www.mcmaster.com/rivets/steel-flat-head-solid-rivets/
- Boiled Linseed Oil. Available at most hardware stores.
- Sheepskin, Wool, or another soft padding material. Possibly available at your local hobby or leather store. I already had mine and I think I bought it from a vendor on eBay.
- Leather. Available at your local hobby or leather store.
- Contact Cement. Available at your local hardware store.
- Cardboard. I like to use cereal boxes as they are thin and flex nicely. Available, I would guess, in your own recycle bin.
- Forge. An acetylene or MAPP gas torch would also probably work, but they won't be nearly as efficient.
- Swage Block. A swage block is a specialty tool used for dishing (pressing metal down into a depressed form). It's tough to replace, but they're available in a variety of shapes and sizes and you only really need one that allows you to drive the steel down into a contoured shape. Short of a proper block, you can use a piece of wood with a depression carved into it, or possibly even a sturdy bowl.
- Ball Peen Hammer. There's really no replacement for this and you need one in your life anyway so if you don't have one, go buy one.
- Tongs. A sturdy pair of pliers will do the trick, but tongs make it easier to grab things out of the fire.
- Anvil. There's really no substitute for this one, but anvils also come in all shapes and sizes. A piece of railroad track (which I used for the later parts of this build) or a solid metal plate will work. Just a solid steel surface to hammer metal into.
- Welding Clamps. As you will see, I learned the hard way about halfway through this project that these are irreplaceable. I bought a couple pairs for cheap at Harbor Freight and I don't regret it.
- Steel Wool. If you don't have steel wool, you need it for more than just this project. Go buy yourself some.
- Drill and/or Drill Press. See comments on steel wool. A drill is an absolute must. A drill press is nice, but not strictly speaking necessary.
- Sharpie. See comments about steel wool.
- Center Punch. Not strictly necessary, but really helpful.
- Awl. Also not strictly necessary, but also really helpful.
- Metal Cutting Tools. I used a shear, a metal band saw, and a cut off wheel because I had them, but you could probably do all the cutting I did with a reciprocating saw and a metal cutting blade or even a Dremel with a cut off wheel.
- Measuring Stick or Tape Measure. See comments on steel wool.
- Files. see comments about steel wool
- Sander or other Grinder (Optional). The work these tools do could also be done by a Dremel or some sandpaper and elbow grease.
Step 1: A Note on Safety
Over the course of this project, you will be working with copper and steel, both of which have the potential to form sharp edges that can cut you. You will also be using some sharp tools and some dangerous tools that have the potential to cut you and throw metal splinters that could lodge in your skin, eyes, or lungs. I, personally, have a bad habit of not wearing my protective gear and it has come back to bite me more than once. After a metal splinter in my eye, I've been better about wearing my glasses, but I wound up with no fewer than five cuts on my hands as a result of not wearing my gloves during this project. Learn from my mistakes. Wear your protective gear. Glasses and gloves at all times and a mask or respirator when cutting and grinding.
Step 2: Take Your Measurements
The very first step is to figure out the dimensions of your helmet. To do that, that you need to know the dimensions of your noggin. One of the simplest ways to do that is to wrap a string around your head, grab it where it meets with its own end, and then lay it out flat to get the distance. I didn’t want this helmet to be too tight so I added about an inch to my head's circumference measurement to determine the overall size.
You also need to establish how deep the helmet will be and, subsequently, how far down it will sit on your head. To do this, I measured with the string, over the top of my head from temple to temple. I thought this would give me a nice depth. Last but not least, I measured for the other arch from the middle of my forehead to the back of my head.
Once you have all your measurements, you’re ready to make a template.
Step 3: Make a Template
Using your head measurements, mark out some bands on your cardboard. I made my bands roughly an inch wide, but the size isn't integral at this point. You should wind up with three bands, one long, one medium, and one short or, in my case, four bands with two taped together for the long one.
Once you have the bands marked, use a pair of scissors to cut them out, then use some tape to attach them together. By the time you're done, you should have a rough template for your helmet with a band that fits comfortably around your head and two arches that go up and over your head from front to back and from left to right. You should have about half an inch to an inch of extra space all around.
This step may seem kind of goofy, but it's important for making sure that your final product will actually fit your head. Unless you're incredibly confident in your ability to assess size, it's better to do this and discover that something is off now rather than later.
Step 4: Prepare the Copper Pieces
Once you're satisfied with the template, you're ready to make your copper bands.
For starters, we need to flatten the copper pipe. Use your ball peen hammer and your anvil to flatten out the pipe so that it becomes one long, flat band of metal. Once you've gotten your copper flattened out, use the measurements from your template to cut the bands to length.
After cutting, you're ready to bend. I used a bending jig because I had it, but you can bend the metal by hammering it into shape, bending it little by little in a vice, or even by hand. Copper is pretty soft so it's relatively easy to form into the semicircular shapes that you need. Note that the head band is more of an oval shape than a circular one as heads tend to be more ovular than circular.
Use some clamps to hold the bands together as a rough mock up and make sure that all the pieces will fit together roughly the way you want. At this point in the project, I was still using wood clamps, but the welding clamps would work here as well.
Step 5: Lay Out and Cut the Steel Pieces
Once you're satisfied with the overall shape of your helmet, it's time to mark out and cut the steel plates that will fill in under the arches.
To do this, we need to make another template. Using the cardboard template you just made along with your copper arches, take some measurements and determine your dimensions. I laid my template over some other cardboard and traced out the rough shape. I also measured my mocked up copper band and arches to make sure that the size of my tracing wasn't way off. Once I was close, I added about an inch of space around the triangle to make sure it would fit under the band. I also rounded out the corners and sides to make sure that there would be enough material to catch the bands after dishing and to make them a little less sharp and friendlier to work with.
Cut out the cardboard plate template and check it against your cardboard band template and your copper bands. It won't fit perfectly because it isn't possible to dish cardboard, but you should be able to tell if the basic shape will fit or not.
Once you're satisfied with the overall shape, mark the plates out on your piece of sheet steel, and cut them out.
I am 100% certain that there is a better, more accurate way to do this step, but I’m worse at math than I am at making armor and that’s saying something. Hopefully somebody will chime in down in the comments with a better method so we can all learn something. Either way, this is how I did it and it worked out A-okay.
Step 6: Dish the Steel Pieces
This is one of the more challenging aspects of this project, especially if you don't have a lot of experience with metal work, but it can be done with a little patience, potentially some practice, and, hopefully, a minimum amount of frustration.
Use your forge or torch to heat the metal plates. I recommend doing this one plate at a time to allow yourself to concentrate. When the steel reaches a bright red or orange heat, take it out and hammer it into the swage block. Your goal is to make a nice gradual dish shape that will fit inside the copper bands. As you hammer the steel into the depression on the block, the edges will want to deform and buckle, so it's helpful to periodically move to the anvil to hammer the deformities back out. Make sure to kind of roll the piece upward as you hammer so that you aren't flattening your nice dishing work.
When you get close to the shape you want, lay the piece over the copper frame to make sure it will actually fit. It won't be exact, but doing this will help you to get close. You may even want to hammer the steel plate directly on to the copper frame to get it to the right shape. By the time you're done with all four plates, you want them to be roughly the same size and shape, and you want them all to have a similar contour. There's some room for error, but you want them to be close.
I went ahead and quenched each of the plates to cool them off and give them a little bit of a heat treatment, but this steel is mild so the carbon content isn't high enough to actually harden it.
Step 7: Trim the Steel Pieces and Make Them Uniform
After the forging is done. It's time to trim off the excess from the plates. To do this, I laid all four of the plates together and clamped them into the rough shape of a helmet and then marked lines straight over the top from front to back and left to right. Then I cut each of the plates so that they would butt against one another rather than overlapping. Some of my plates also sat a little lower than the others, so I marked and trimmed them as well. I also recommend marking the plates that were trimmed together to make sure they stay beside one another. I did this on the front and back pairs of plates by marking '1' and '2' with arrows pointing toward the cut and on the left and right pairs of plates by making a line with some shapes at the end. This may seem arbitrary or redundant, but knowing which plates match with which is important for making a helmet that is symmetrical.
Make sure that your pieces all fit together and make sure that all the edges of your plates will fit underneath the copper bands. If the pieces don't match up, trim them some more until they do. If they don't fit under the copper bands, or if the trimming made them too small to fit on your head, it's time to go cut and forge some more.
Once the trimming is done, be sure to deburr the edges of the steel with either a sander or a file to prevent yourself from being cut.
Step 8: Mark and Drill Holes in Copper Bands
Now it's time to mark and drill your copper bands. I did this by first marking the ends and middle of each band, and then the middle of each half of each band. Doing this gives you a better sense of where your holes, and later rivets, need to go. After you mark the middles and ends of your bands, take one of them and mark the spots where the rivets will be drilled. I spaced mine 1 1/2”-2” apart. Once you have them marked, center punch each one. Center punching is optional, but doing so creates a divot that will help the drill bit catch and prevent it from dancing away from your mark. At this point, you only want to mark and drill one of the bands. The other one will come later.
It is very important to make sure that the top four holes line up on both of your arches. The rest of the holes are independent of one another, but these four must match up. Line up your two bands, mark one of them and drill it, then line up again and use the holes you just made to mark the holes in the other band. Make sure everything is staying straight and even, or you will wind up with a lopsided helmet when you're done.
Drill the rest of the holes in your band and deburr the holes by using a larger drill bit to remove the sharp edges. Don't rivet anything together yet.
Step 9: Lay Out the Steel Pieces With the Copper Bands
The final step before beginning assembly is to check the fit of your plates against the copper bands one more time. This may also seem redundant, but when I was assembling this helmet, I discovered that some of the plates didn't fit together quite as well as I thought and I had to trim them some more. Once you start to assemble, it is very difficult to trim any more, so it's important to make sure that your pieces will all fit together the way you intend them to.
I also added a center line on the copper bands to help me make sure my plates were staying centered where they needed to be.
Step 10: Begin Riveting the Top Bands to the Plates
It's finally time to start riveting the helmet together. Take the band that you already drilled, and lay one of your plates inside of it. The straight side of the plate should more or less follow the line you drew on your band. There should be enough space on each half of the band for the edge of each of the plates to be caught by the hole and, subsequently, the rivet. Use your sharpie to mark all the holes through the band and onto the plate, then punch and drill each of them and deburr the edges of the holes.
Take a 1/8"x3/8" rivet and put it through the second hole down from the top on your band and your plate. Do not rivet the top hole yet. Put the base of the rivet against the surface of the anvil and hammer straight down. This will cause it to mushroom and fill in the hole, permanently attaching the plate to the band. Repeat this step for the other three plates, until you have one rivet in each plate. Make sure your holes line up the rest of the way down, re-drilling the steel for any that are off, and rivet the rest of each plate minus the topmost set of holes and the bottommost set of holes on both sides, and the second to bottommost set of holes on the front.
Pro-tip on this step: it's much easier to set the flat part of the rivet on the outside of the helmet and hammer it down from the inside as it's difficult to get the rivet onto a solid surface the other way around.
Step 11: Rivet the Other Top Band to the Plates
Position the other to band over the holes you previously made in the top and rivet the two bands together along with the plates using a 1/8"x1/2" rivet. As a general rule, I used the shorter rivets when I was going through two layers of material and the longer ones when I was going through three.
After the top rivets are set, mark your other rivet holes down the length of the upper band that has not been drilled yet, punch them, and then drill them through the copper band and the steel plate underneath. Deburr the holes and rivet the pieces together using the 1/8"x3/8" rivet. Again, go all the way down the band, saving the last two holes for later.
By the time the rivets are all set, you should have a shallow skull cap that will sit on top of your head somewhat comfortably. I found that my helmet had moved on me so I had to trim my bottom pieces again slightly.
Step 12: Attach the Bottom Band
This is the step where I discovered that I really needed a couple welding clamps. This is also the point in the project where I threw it on the floor along with some choice words and questioned all my life choices.
Determine roughly where the middle of your long band is and position it at the back of the helmet. Mark the two holes from the top band onto the bottom band, punch, drill, and deburr. Line the holes up and rivet the bottom band to the top, then mark roughly where the rest of your holes are going to go (center, then center of each half, etc. just like with the upper bands before). I positioned mine at about two inches or so apart. Here is where things begin to get interesting.
The goal is to wrap the bottom band tightly around the skull cap of the helmet. The trouble is, metal is somewhat springy, even when it is as malleable as copper, and it sometimes has a mind of its own. The best method I found was to pull the lower band as tight as I could against the base of the skull cap and then clamp it in place with the welding clamp. Then I marked and punched my holes, drilled and deburred, and riveted the piece together, only removing the clamp once I had the rivet set. Then I went on to the next one and repeated the process. I only discovered this method after I had finished about half the band and I cursed my own name for not figuring it out sooner, so you're welcome for that little tid bit.
Work your way all the way around the base of the helmet, riveting into the bottom of the steel plates and the bottoms of the upper steel bands that we didn't rivet before. Save the last two rivets on the front of the helmet for later.
Step 13: Lay Out the Face Mask on Cardboard
At this point, your helmet should be starting to look like a helmet and it's time to make the face mask. There are a dozen different styles that you could make from a simple nasal piece to a more elaborate covering with cheek plates and engravings and so forth. I decided to go for a design that is relatively simple, but I think is still somewhat unique and interesting. Personally, I wanted a mask that covered my face down to about my upper lip and gave me good visibility but still offered good theoretical protection.
For my design, I figured out how far back I wanted the upper corners of the face mask to sit on the front of the helmet, then measured that distance to get the dimension. I also measured how far apart my eyes are to determine where the middle of the eye holes should be. I then took my measurements back to my trusty cereal box and laid out a design I thought I would like. I cut it out and taped it to the helmet to see how it would look and discovered I really didn't like it at all, so I did it a second time and really liked the look so we went with it. Remember, cardboard is cheaper than steel so determining the shape of your face mask in cardboard before you try to make it in steel is integral.
A pro-tip on this step is to lay out your design, cut it out, then fold it in half and trim it so both sides are exactly the same. Do the same for the eye holes to make sure that everything is symmetrical.
Step 14: Trace and Cut the Face Mask on Steel
Once you've developed a shape that you like for your face mask, trace it out onto the remainder of your steel plate and cut it out. Use a file, a sander, a Dremel, or some other grinding tool to refine the shape and clean up any rough edges. Remember that this piece is going to be all but pressed against your face so you want to make sure it's smooth.
The way that I cut the piece meant that I had a split at the bottom where I cut up into the eye holes. This isn't necessary and, in fact, it's maybe better if you don't have it, but It also won't cause any problems.
Step 15: Bend the Face Mask and Fit to the Helmet
Once your face mask is clean and smooth, its time to bend it to fit the front of the helmet. I bent the mask to shape with my swage block, but you could probably to it by hand either with a hammer and anvil, or just your bare hands and a vice if you're feeling like a beefcake today.
Step 16: Rivet the Face Mask and Remaining Copper Bands
Now that your face mask is sized to the front of your helmet, you're ready to rivet the whole thing together. This can get a little bit fiddly as there are a lot of independent pieces all coming together. Be patient and concentrate and you'll get it all together. I chose to make a copper nasal piece that goes on the front of my mask to cover over the split at the bottom and to give the whole mask more strength. If I had it to do over again, I would probably have made the upper band longer so that it could all be one piece, but it worked out alright.
Mark the holes from the bottom of your upper copper band onto the face mask, punch, drill, and deburr. Make sure your mask is straight relative to the rest of the helmet before you drill or you will wind up with a lopsided helmet. Fit the mask into the holes and rivet together. If you are making a nasal piece like I did, make sure to mark and drill it and make sure it is straight as well or, again, you'll have a lopsided helmet. With the front two rivets set through the mask, go back up to the pair of holes right above it, and rivet them as well. Now, mark, drill, and deburr the rest of the holes down the nasal piece and rivet the rest of the mask to it.
Finally, punch and drill your final holes in the top and corners of the mask and between the corners and the nasal, and rivet them in place.
Like I said, this whole process is very fiddly. I ruined more than one rivet and said more than a few things that I'm not proud of, but, in the end, it came together.
Step 17: Clean Up the Rivets and Bands
Now that the helmet is completely riveted together, we need to take a minute to clean up the appearance of the bands, make sure the rivets are set, and make sure the helmet is the shape we want. Remember that copper is pretty malleable, even after all the beating we've given it. I went over the whole helmet and tapped the copper pieces down against the steel to close any gaps that still remained. This also gave the copper more of a hammered look along the edges which I like. I then went back over each of the rivets to make sure they were all properly set and not loose at all. My face plate was a little bit lopsided along the bottom so I also hammered it a bit to bring it back into shape. Riveting the bottom band had also caused the whole helmet to become a little lopsided along the circumference so I hammered and pushed it back into shape. Basically, at this point, you just want to make sure you are satisfied with the overall shape and structure of your helmet.
Step 18: Add Some Padding
This is a very important step if you want to avoid getting a concussion every time you put the helmet on. Lay some sheep skin or other padding inside the helmet, mark it, and cut it out to fit. The pieces of sheep skin I had were too small to cover the entire interior of the helmet so I did it in two pieces. Once you have the pad cut out, spread some contact cement on the leather side of the sheepskin and on the metal inside the helmet. Wait until the cement is tacky and then press the pad into the helmet. Follow the specific brand's instructions for how long to wait, but it's usually about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Step 19: Add Some Straps
If you want the helmet to stay on your head, and I'm assuming you do, you need a couple straps. I just used some soft, supple leather, cut to length to tie as a strap under my chin. Drill a couple more holes on either side of the helmet through the bottom band, poke a hole through the leather strap, and rivet it to the copper band.
Step 20: Clean and Oil the Helmet
Last but not least, it's time to add some finishing touches. Run some steel wool over the entire surface of the helmet to clean and brighten up the steel a little bit.
If you want to give the steel some protection, I recommend oiling the surface. I chose to use boiled linseed oil because it darkens steel just a little and it also hardens, leaving a nice protective coat over the steel. You could probably use lacquer, clear coat, or any one of a number of other things, but I tend to like the oils better.
Step 21: Final Notes
And that's that! Congratulations! You are now an amateur armorer. As I said above, this project was difficult, but very rewarding. If I had it to do over again, I would change some things and even completed, I'm thinking about ways to tweak and improve the finished project. I may add a chain mail collar on the back, or some cheek plates, and I will probably try to figure out a better strap system than just tying it under my chin, but for now it works and I’m proud of the way it looks.
I hope you've enjoyed this build as much as I enjoyed making it and that it has inspired you to try it out for yourself. I imagine this same basic design would also work well for leather or foam, though I'm not sure how the dishing would work because I don't often work with those materials on this kind of scale. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy the build and enjoy the journey!
First Prize in the