JoAnn Bortles
January 24, 2019

When it comes to customizing a helmet, most folks get out their package of stickers and go to work. And it’s tempting to do—no fuss, just crack an adult beverage and arrange the stickers on the helmet. But what if you could custom-paint your helmet over the course of a weekend using leftover paint from a previous painting project? Editor Kinnan recently threw down that challenge, and we took him up on it. Can helmet paint be easy to do, not cost much, and still look good?

Quick and easy helmet painting starts with the helmet itself. When you’re ordering a helmet, look for one that’s a solid color with no graphics on it. If your paint design is bright and bold, order a white helmet. If you’re going for a dark, aggressive look, find a black helmet. One big shortcut is to try and find a helmet that’s the same color as the base color in your design. For example, if orange is your base color, look for an orange helmet. But if an orange helmet is not available, a white one would work. Many colors, like orange, tend to be transparent; spraying them over a white base will result in a bright effect.

Creating a helmet design is easier than you might think. You can make a “blank” for your design by using any graphics program on your computer. Save a photo of the helmet and open it up on a graphics program like MS Paint or Photoshop. Then “paint” white over the surface of the helmet, leaving only the visor and the helmet outline. Print out some copies and grab a pencil. Find some helmet ideas that you like, use them for inspiration, and sketch away. The beauty of having a blank design is that you can use as many copies as needed until you draw up the design you want.

Rob wanted his helmet to have a classic, all-American look that was bright and bold, so we came up an American flag theme with a touch of 1970s retro. Rob’s RaceQuip helmet came with a white pearl base that had lots of sparkle, and it was perfect for the white of our American flag. For the blue and red, we remixed some leftover PPG Deltron paint from previous projects by adding in some PLRX Pearl powders. Never throw away paint; you never know when you might need that color. When experimenting with remixing, pour a small amount into a cup, and then add whatever you want, give it a stir, and take a look. Always test a small amount before mixing up the whole batch.

If you don’t have the colors needed, you can always order pints and half pints from your local automotive paint supplier. And remember to test your colors and their coverage by spraying paint samples before trying the colors on your helmet. Start off by removing all the hardware from the helmet. The visor is usually held on by bolts. Remove them and tape any washers or bushings to the bolts so you can reassemble them later, exactly like they were. Next, clean the surface of the helmet with wax and grease remover, also available at a paint store. Go over it several times, wiping it on with one cleaning cloth and wiping it off with another. Clean until the surface squeaks when you rub a finger on it.

Carefully mask off any openings and vents. For the visor and the head openings, cut a piece of cardboard that fits inboard of the openings. Align and tape them in. Next, run a line of tape along the rubber gaskets of the openings, covering the gasket and the edge of the cardboard. Pay special attention to the vents; cut tape pieces to fit over them. Make sure to use a good-quality automotive painter’s tape. Do not use house painter’s tape.

Next, use a scuff pad to de-gloss the surface. Pay special attention to the recessed areas of the helmet surface like the concave curves around the visor area. Then use 800-grit sandpaper to damp-sand the large, open surface areas. If you’re keeping the base color, take care not to sand through the clearcoat on the helmet.

If the helmet has graphics on it, then it might need to be sanded with 400-grit sandpaper and primed with urethane primer/surfacer and sanded. That way, it will have a smooth surface that’s ready for paint. But if the helmet’s factory surface is free of decals and graphics, then you’re ready for paint. If you’re changing the base color of the helmet, apply a coat of primer sealer and then spray your color. Here we are using the base color, so we moved directly to applying the paint design. Follow along for the steps.

Here’s the design we came up with. Rob wanted it to look like a flag blew over it, and he wanted a loud and bright design reminiscent of the 1970s. The design is stylized and bold with glittery colors and thick sparkling silver borders around the stars.
The helmet has been cleaned, sanded, and masked off, and it’s ready for the flag graphics. We start by drawing the design on the helmet with a pencil.
First, we’ll paint the red stripes. We need to mask off the white stripes and the blue area. 3M 218 1/8-inch Fine Line Tape is run along the inboard side of the blue graphic. Be sure to tuck that tape down into the visor recesses.
The blue is completely masked off and we’re ready to finish drawing the stripe design and mask off the white stripes.
The 1/8-inch Fine Line is run along the inboard side of the white stripes. Next, the stripe is masked off with American Tape’s Aqua Mask 1-inch tape.
Here’s the helmet, all masked off and ready for the first color to be sprayed. Remove any fingerprints with a wipe of pre-cleaner. Lightly go over the surface with a tack cloth to remove dust.
We use a SATAminijet 4000 B spray gun to spray our custom-mixed PPG Deltron sparkling red pearl. Go light with your coats. Don’t try to get complete coverage in the first coat. Three coats of red pearl are applied. The red pearl is allowed to dry for an hour and the masking tape is removed.
Now the tricky part, applying and spacing out the stars. We start off by cutting paper stars and taping them into place; this works out the locations so the stars will be evenly spaced. Next, we create star stencils by cutting stars out of adhesive-backed stencil paper. Then we place the stencil stars where the paper stars had been.
The stencil stars are used to line up the stencils for borders of the stars. Next, we have to adapt the two-dimensional border stencils to the round surface of the helmet. Each border stencil is cut into four pieces and placed around each star. If needed, cut the stencil into five pieces and individually mask off each star point.
To paint the silver border around each star, we cut star stencils that are about 1/4 inch smaller than the star. These are placed inside the stars so that the opening around the star is even on all sides.
We tape up any gaps or seams between the border stencil pieces and mix up some PPG Deltron Silver Star metallic. It’s the most sparkling of all the PPG metallics and will contrast perfectly against the white pearl base. We airbrush two coats using a SATAgraph 4 airbrush. It dries for an hour and the tape and masking are removed.
Next, mask off the stars. We cut out more stenciled stars, and then cut those into four pieces so that the material lies flat. Any gaps or seams are taped over. Carefully press down along the gaps to keep paint from leaking into them. Then check the surface for any leftover adhesive from the stencil paper and remove it using pre-cleaner.
We apply three coats of our special mix of Deltron Blue Pearl. Never spray pearl paint too heavy. Spray medium coats; you want the pearl flakes to stand up and reflect light. Make sure to give enough time between coats. Allow the bottom coats to dry so that the solvents aren’t fighting to get through the topcoats.
The masking is removed from the stars and the surface is checked for any flaws that need rework. Now it’s ready for clearcoat! The helmet is clearcoated with PPG Deltron DBU 2021. That first round of clear is sanded and three more coats are sprayed. Reassemble the helmet and now it’s ready for race day!

Helmet Masking Tips

Here’s a quick way to mask the rivet heads on the sides of a helmet. Use a circle template to find the size of the rivet—use a circle that’s just a little bigger than the rivet.
Then hold a roll of masking tape against the circle. Trace the circle with a pencil and cut it out with a pair of scissors.
Hold the circle with a pair of tweezers, position it over the rivet, and press the edges down firmly against the metal.
To tape off the screen vents, press a piece of masking tape against the vent and trace the outline with a pencil. Cut it out with an X-Acto knife or scissors. Use tweezers to hold it and push down through the opening onto the screen. Press the edges down using the tweezers.

Materials
PPG Deltron custom pearl paint mixes $100


PPG Deltron DBU 2021 Urethane Clear, 1 quart $120
PPG DCX61 Deltron Catalyst $129.99
PPG SX330 Acryli-Clean Wax and Grease Remover, 1 gallon $66.99
3M 1/8-inch 218 Fine Line Tape $12.97
FBS 1/8-inch Proband Fine Line Tape $11.69
American Tape 1-inch Aqua Mask $5.97
Mirka Mirlon #18-118-446 800 Grit Scuff Pad $18.52
3M 800 Grit Imperial Wet/Dry Paper, 5 sheets $6.89
Gerson Blend #20008B Prep Tack Cloth $8.86
Frisket #52802 Matt Masking Film $24.71

Photography by JoAnn Bortles