How to Paint a Motorcycle Helmet

An artist customizing a motorcycle helmet.
Trevor Williams / Getty Images

Restoring a classic motorcycle often includes repainting the chassis or panels. But the owners often want to go further with the appearance of both the bike and riding gear.

Personalizing riding gear by painting helmets or adding studs to a leather jacket, for instance, is something motorcyclists have done from their inception. Both of these examples need skill and patience. The good news is that the home mechanics with access to basic painting equipment (i.e.: spray gun, air brush, and an angle sander/polisher) can transform a standard helmet into a custom designed unit.

New helmets come in a variety of styles and paint finishes, as well as prices. But a plain white or black helmet will be less expensive and a good starting point for a custom paint job. However, it is very important to check with the helmet manufacturer and paint supplier to ensure that the chemicals you intend to use are compatible with the helmet's base material.

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Four images depicting helmet maintenance.
Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

The process starts by preparing the working area and getting the appropriate tools ready. The work area must be clean dry and dust free. Mounting the helmet at a suitable height on a workbench with a mannequin Styrofoam™ head will make the job easier. 

Full face helmets must have their visors removed, along with any plastic attachments such as vents.

The first part of the procedure is to degrease the helmet with a mild solution of some general household detergent or dishwashing liquid. This should be followed by using a proprietary wax and grease remover. The artist who painted the helmet shown here uses Acetone, but this is a dangerous chemical and should only be used by painters with knowledge of the safety requirements.

As the human hands and fingers carry greasy deposits, it is important to wear disposable gloves, such as Latex gloves, when handling the helmet.

After degreasing, the surface finish must be sanded using a fine wet sandpaper (400 grade) to remove the sheen and give the new base paint a suitable surface to adhere to. When the entire helmet surface has been sanded to give a flat dull appearance, it must be cleaned off using a damp cloth. When it has dried, the surface must then be wiped off using a tack rag to remove small dust particles.

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Masking Out the Design

Four images depicting stenciling.
Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

The helmet and any remaining fittings must now be masked-off. Ideally, a good quality paper clear of any printing should be used for this process along with Vinyl tape of ⅛" width (the narrow tape makes bending around corners or difficult shapes easier).

The first coat/s of paint (the base coat) can now be applied; however, it is very important to allow the paint to dry before applying another coat to avoid runs.

Once the base coat has dried, the design can be applied. Again, it is important to avoid skin contact with the surface to avoid grease spots. Taking great care with the application of the masking tape to ensure symmetry, for instance, will pay off in the finished helmet.

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Painting Different Colors

Four images depicting painting and masking tape.
Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

In this example, to separate the different colors, only areas where paint was to be applied were left exposed, whereas areas that will get a different color were masked off. After leaving sufficient time for drying, the newly colored area is masked off and a different color applied to the newly exposed area. This process is repeated until all the colors have been applied.

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Clear Coat

Four images depicting helmet maintenance.
Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

Removing the masking tape can only be undertaken when the various colors have completely dried and should be done slowly to ensure that the paint is not lifted during the peeling. A tack cloth should be used again to remove any dust particles trapped under the tape.

The final coat to apply is a Urethane clear coat (it is very important to use a propitiatory respirator during this process, available from major auto stores). The more coats applied, the more apparent the depth of paint will be. Typically four coats of clear coat are sufficient.

After the clear coats dry (typically 12 to 24 hours) the entire surface should be wet sanded to remove any dust particles and small imperfections with 1500 to 2000 grade paper. Finally, the entire surface should be buffed (especially around any sanded areas) with an appropriate polishing compound.

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Four images depicting painted helmets.
Image courtesy of Nick Tsokalas

When the final clear coat has dried and been polished for the final time, the various attachments can be put back on the helmet.

Although the process of custom painting is labor intensive, the finished product is something the owner will be proud of and one that will be admired by many.