How To Maintain Your Classic Diving Helmet

How To Maintain Your Classic Diving Helmet
How To
Maintain Your
Classic Diving
By Ocean Eye, Inc.’s Chris Gabel
nstead of our usual fare of maintenance tips for today’s modern and technologically advanced gear, let’s
take a look back and discuss maintaining historical
diving helmets.
I recently had the honor and privilege of diving Rich
Riley’s Schrader commercial hat, receiving air from a 1916
hand pump, at the ADCI Midwest Chapter meeting in
Pittsburgh. I would like to thank Riley, of Marion Hill Associates, and express my appreciation to him for allowing
me such an opportunity.
As fate would have it, I was also able to dive Fred
Barthes’ Chinese hat, and followed that with a visit
with Desco’s Ric Koellner in a time span of a little over
a month. Then I was able to take a cursory look at Ray
Mathieson’s vast collection of heavy gear, which features a
plethora of different nameplates, some of which I couldn’t
even dream of trying to read.
All these events got me thinking about how many historical hats are still in service – everything from MK Vs to
Russian and Chinese heavy gear (specifically the TF3 hat).
So this edition’s maintenance article is based on what it
takes to maintain these hats and keep them in service. •
November•December 2007
Common Problems
I’ve found some interesting remedies for
common problems, some of which are actually ingenious and somewhat humorous. For
instance, I learned from some individuals
that when a leather gasket starts becoming
too worn you can shim it with a new gasket
cut from a paper bag or heavier construction paper material. As a matter of fact, I’ve
heard of people using multiple shims of four
and five layers. Incredibly, this resolution
works like a charm for heavy gear helmets
such as the MK V.
Ken Downey from Morse Diving gave me
some pointers helping a friend out with separating his MK V helmet from its attached
breastplate. The problem was that the gasket
had been in place for so long that the helmet
and breastplate were fused together via the
leather gasket. It took a few weeks of soaking the gasket material with WD40, but with
some patience and four burley friends, the
helmet came loose.
Classic gear, such as
this MK V, require
constant visual
inspections to
ensure diver safety.
It can be difficult to separate the MK V from its
Shedding Some Light
I was informed that new lights are no
longer made out of glass, but are now Plexiglas. What does that mean? Well, a little
more care in cleaning for one. You also have
to be mindful of the way that the lights are
mounted (those are the windows for those of
us new to historical diving). Some are much
easier to replace than others.
I’ve seen hats in which the lights were
“leaded in,” where the manufacturer actually
used a lead seal between the glass and hat.
This can be very tricky to replace and expensive, as well. Not something for the faint at
heart to try and replace.
Also, please take note that duct tape
does not constitute a permanent repair. In
a talk with Ric at Desco, he informed me
that they’ve even witnessed tractor lights attached with duct tape to some helmets.
Valves, Valves, and More Valves
One component that requires constant
attention and maintenance is the non-return
valve. Paying attention to this assembly is
November•December 2007 •
(Opposite) Regular valve inspection and maintenance is also a huge factor in keeping your classic hat in good
working order.
not an option. In talking to many of the
helpful people for this article, the nonreturn valve came up in conversation
You must check the internal spring
and seat. They need to be clean and in
good condition. The spring must be
clean, functional and free from corrosion. The seat must not show significant
signs of deterioration.
Some of the seats are leather, so
leather conditioner should be used when
they are exposed during disassembly
and inspection. This rule also applies to
the leather gaskets. I was informed that
you can never use too much Neatsfoot
Oil. The leather needs to be kept supple
and pliable.
Another design (starting in the late
1960s) uses an o-ring cartridge design.
That o-ring needs to be inspected and
replaced if it is deformed or any deterioration shows in any way.
While you are in the general area,
you should be looking at the exhaust
valve and make sure that it functions
and operates smoothly.
Another must is to maintain the air
control valve. This is your air supply
valve that gets tied in to the helmet or
breastplate (depending on the type of
hat your diving). The air control valve
that most, if not all, historical divers use
1/2 horz
is this a pickup?
14 •
November•December 2007
is a needle valve. That needle valve needs
to be checked before every dive for function
and cleaned and repacked at least once a
year to make sure of proper function.
Since the buoyancy control, air supply,
carbon dioxide control, and emergency
egress depend on the air control valve and
exhaust valve, both need to be checked and
re-checked before every dive. We all know
can happen if a non-return valve fails, so
the same rule applies to the exhaust and air
control valves.
Constant Visual Inspection
Visual inspection before a dive is important. Again, as I have said before, this
may seem like common sense. Everyone
gets excited to get in the water and dive
their historical gear. The “hero” pose on the
dock is the ever popular secondary goal of
the day. Something that would make Cuba
Gooding Jr. beam with pride. Make sure
that you look at all of the soldered seals
around the lights and breastplate. They can
look like anything from bright silver to a
dull gray. What you want to make sure of is
that there are no breaks in the solder. Also
check for pitting.
As with any hat, any hoses must be
checked prior to each dive. This is especially
true if you haven’t dove the hat in a while. If
the leather gasket is nicked or broken, then
it needs to be replaced.
November•December 2007
As I mentioned, you can shim gaskets
with heavy paper material such as a paper
grocery bag, but even that has its limits.
Valves should be regularly checked for leaks
and made sure that they freely rotate (make
sure not too freely). They should have a
slight resistance to them.
Check the seal around lights and make
sure that there are no breaks in the sealing
material. If any of the lights are cracked,
they need to be replaced before diving.
Bringing Damaged Hats Back to Life
Should the helmet have serious damage,
then it’s time to send it to the professionals, people who have the experience and
expertise to bring a historical hat back to
life. People like Ric at Desco and Ken at
Morse Diving.
I was able to witness some of Ric’s staff
work to install new lights. I saw Chris
Koellner building a hat with the care and
precision of a true craftsman. Some of the
helmets were works of art. Others were
frightening and resembled something more
out of the middle ages than a working diving hat. Regardless, these folks can bring
them back to their true potential.
Be Smart, and Enjoy Your Gear
I know most, if not all, of this seems like
common sense. But then again, sometimes
common sense isn’t so common and we all •
get complacent. Especially when we just
want to get in the water and dive our personal treasures.
I can’t stress how important it is to
remember where we came from to understand where the industry is going. I applaud
those people that can keep this gear up and
running. All of the effort is appreciated,
no matter how much cursing occurs while
trying to set the gear up and get ready for a
dive, or getting hit repeatedly in the nose by
the breastplate and hat itself.
I would like to thank everyone that
helped contribute to the article. Rich Riley
from Marion Hill Associates, again, thank
you for the experience of diving your
Schrader on a hand pump. I’m certainly
grateful that no one got tired of spinning the
pump wheel while I was in the river.
Ray Mathieson, thanks for the drawings
and catalogs. They were a huge help with
article. Hearty thanks also to Ric Koellner,
Bill Pelky, and Chris Koellner from Desco;
Ken Downey from Morse; and Fred Barthes,
Vince Scarponi, and Wayne Gerhartz from
the Northeast Equipment group. I apologize
to anyone I missed. I tried my best to keep
track of the amazing amount of information
being fired away during our dives.
Next issue, back to the new stuff. Dive
safe. UW
Email your maintenance questions to
Chris at
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