One of the questions I get asked the most about SCA C&T and WMA fencing is how to create rigid back-of-the-head protection on a budget.
It’s actually pretty easy to convert a cheap hard hat into perfectly acceptable back-of-head (BoH) protection, and while my method uses a few common workshop tools, you don’t need access to all of these tools to get the job done. In fact, I’ll be sure to point out alternative methods wherever applicable.
To make this BoH protector, you’ll need:
- 1 x Cheap hardhat (available at any hardware store)
- 1 x Sheet (9″ x 12″) of 0.25″-thick neoprene (available at any craft store)
- 1 x roll of double-sided duck tape (available on Amazon)
- Dremel (or similar rotary tool) with cutting wheels (EZ Lock variety recommended)
- 1″ belt sander (alternative: coarse file or sandpaper)
- Bench-grinder-mounted wire wheel (alternative: fine sandpaper)
- 1,500-watt heatgun (or you can use a torch if you’re clinically insane)
- Mat knife/box cutter or scissors
- Permanent marker
One quick note before we go any farther: you’ll want to double check with the rules of your organization before making one of these. In some cases, you’ll need to modify it slightly to offer additional coverage, and in other groups, DiY solutions like this are outright forbidden.
Also, you may note that I don’t use safety guards on a lot of my shop gear. That’s not because I don’t know better (really, I do) but because a lot of the work I do requires me to reach angles that aren’t accessible with the standard guards in place. In addition to wearing eye and ear protection while I work, I’m extremely cautious around this equipment. That said, my attorney advises me to explicitly state that I do not officially condone using any shop equipment without any and all safeguards in place.
So, without further ado, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make a hardhat mack back.
Step 1: Buy Cheap
There’s honestly no good reason to spend a whole lot of cash on a hardhat you’re planning on turning into a mask back. Up to a certain point, the shell (the part you actually use) stays the same, and the only thing that improves is the suspension, which you’re going to toss out anyway. Do yourself a favor, buy the bottom-dollar hardhat. This one cost just $6.50 at my local hardware store. Add $1.00 for the neoprene sheet and some 2-sided duck tape to the project, and you’ve got a BoH protector for a little over $7.50. Not bad.
Step 1a: Need Pads?
Seriously, if you’re buying protective gear on a budget, you might find a set of perfectly decent pads in the same aisle as the hardhats. Depending on your organization’s rules (at the time I’m writing this, mine only requires thick padding), you might be able to get away with a couple pairs of these and have everything but hand protection sorted out before you leave the hardware store.
Note: regardless of your organization’s requirements, I’m going to suggest picking up pads that cover the sides of the joint, not just the points. Good pads are way cheaper than joint surgery, and it really doesn’t take much to mess up a knee or an elbow.
Step 2: Toss Out the Junk
See that suspension harness? You might tell yourself a fairy tale about how you’re going to re-purpose that nylon strapping into something else, and if you’re really crafty, then maybe you can. After making a dozen or so of these BoH protectors, I finally convinced myself to just toss them out, and I’ve never thought, “Darn, if only I’d have kept that junk.”
Step 3: Plot the Course
No matter how many of these I make, one thing’s for certain, if I want to get good results, I have to draw out the line I want to cut.
In general, you’ll want to cut off the brim of the hardhat, carving down the bill in two parallel lines on either side, effectively extending the bill to the rim of the hat. There are two kinds of nubs you’ll need to work around, the large ones created by the 4-point suspension harness mounts, and the small slots for mounting the chin strap.
You can cut off the small nubs entirely, so draw your line over those, whereas you’ll need to work around the larger mounting point nubs.
Step 4: Carve with Care
Grab your rotary tool and a set of cutoff wheels, and you’re ready to go to town. Personally, I prefer a good ol’ adjustable-speed Dremel and a brass-plated copper EZ Lock wood cutting wheel, because I can reuse it dozens of times. The standard EZ Lock cutoff wheels will do just fine, but you may break one or two, if you’re unlucky. Either will cut through this plastic like a hot knife through butter.
Speaking of hot, you may want to back down on the RPMs a bit, or you’ll run the risk of melting the plastic as you cut, and that can get messy. Go nice and slow, and try to keep your cuts perpendicular to the plastic as much as possible. This will provide you with the cleanest cut and do wonders for preserving your cutting wheels. I typically don’t even try to remove the entire brim in a single cut, as these large cutting wheels don’t corner very well.
Instead, I take two or three cuts and multiple small passes afterwards to get the smoothest cut possible. After all, you can always remove more plastic, but you can’t undo a cut. What’s more, the better job you do with the cutting, the less cleanup work you’ll need to do later on.
Step 5: Trim Off the Jagged Bits
There are two additional parts of the hardhat you’ll need to look out for: the corners of the suspension mounting slots, and the rim of the hat that protrudes under the bill. Both of these leave jagged edges that can be potentially painful if left untreated. For the edges of the suspension mounting slots, I just trim off the corners and then round out what’s left with the wire brush and heat gun later on in the process.
The rim under the bill is a bit trickier. You can carve it off with your Dremel, but be sure to work from the bill inward, or you’re likely to take off the bill by accident, and you typically don’t want to do that. Once you’re dealt with these two issues, it’s time to bust out the belt sander.
Step 6: Bust Out the Belt Sander
A 1″ belt sander with heavy-grit paper in it will make short work out of leveling off the edges of your hardhat. I’ve used both 80- and 120-grit to good effect, but since I plan on smoothing out the edges further, I see no reason other than caution to go with a finer sanding belt. That said, take your time and go lightly. I tend to use the unsupported part of the belt (circled in green) when I do this, because it provides a rounder edge.
If you have a smaller head and need to carve out space for your ears, now is the time to do that. Carefully fit the shell to your head (allowing for an offset due to 0.25″ padding) and mark out where your ears are. Gently grind that region down a bit with the belt sander. You can do this at the end too, but that will mean backtracking through the remained of these steps somewhat.
By the way, if you happen to not have access to a belt sander, then you can achieve the same effect with either a coarse file or coarse sandpaper, though a file will provide you with a more level edge. Whichever rout you take, when you’re done sanding, you’ll notice that the edge is far smoother than before, but you’ve acquired quite a bit of fuzz on the rim.
You may be tempted to skip the next step and simply melt down the fuzz with your heat gun (or torch, if you’re a maniac), but I’d advise against this, as you may inadvertently build up the rim into a tough edge with a sharp lip that way. This will require you to put in a fair amount of elbow grease to fix, and you may not notice it until it’s digging into your favorite neck.
Step 7: Brush it Off
I suppose you could use any number of tools to get the fuzz off of the rim of your hardhat, but I prefer my old bench grinder, which I’ve outfitted with a wire wheel. In the absence of a bench grinder, you can use fine sand paper or a box cutter to trim off the fuzz. If you are going to use a wire wheel, I find I get the best results running the wheel parallel to the edge of the hardhat, which strips away the fuzz, without altering the contour of the BoH protector.
Step 8: Light it Up!
Got a heat gun? Good. I use a 1,500-watt model on the high setting, and it does wonders for melting down what’s left of the textured edges into a smooth texture that won’t unexpectedly gouge you. Yes, you can use a torch, but you’re not a damned pyro now, are you? So, if you’re using a heat gun like a well-adjusted person, then you’ll want to get right up close to the plastic and keep the heat gun moving at a slow and steady pace.
This will melt the finest plastic, without causing the whole hardhat to turn into putty (yes, that can happen). If you do happen to melt a bit of the material, don’t panic. You can wait for it to cool a bit and then cautiously reshape it by hand. I’d strongly advise you to use welding gloves for this, if you value the skin on your fingers.
Pay special attention to the rounded off corners of the suspension mounting points you carved down earlier. If you do this right, you can partially re-contour those nubs and reduce the profile of the BoH protector. That said, the nubs actually serve as spacers against the mask, and if you get a good fit, they’ll grip onto the inside of the fencing mask while providing a bit of airflow.
Step 9: Pad it Out
When you’re done with the heat gun, what started off as a hardhat should now resemble a proper back-of-head protector. All that’s left is to pad this sucker out and you’re good to go. I use the kind of 0.25″ neoprene that comes in 9″ x 12″ sheets and only cost $1.00 or so at my local Michael’s craft store, but you can use whatever padding suits you best. For best results, I just lay some 2-sided duck tape down on the sheet and use it as a guide to cut out the pieces I need. This tape is surprisingly strong, and I’ve had no problems with it even in middle of summer, but if you’re worried about it, you can substitute the tape with 3M Super 77 spray epoxy or similar adhesive.
Step 10: Try it On
At this point, you’re more or less done. You may need to make some additional adjustments, depending on your head size and mask type. I’ve seen variants where there’s a slot cut near the top of the BoH protector for the tongue of the mask to sick to, and I’ve seen plenty of versions where someone has either glued or riveted on some elastic to grab onto the tongue instead.
These are great alterations to the design, if your head is small or you find yourself in need of extra security. For the most part, this pattern fits pretty snugly in an adult/large fencing mask, and the mask’s elastic band loops around the bottom of the protector (just above the brim), holding it securely in place. Here are some images of the final product:
Note, I’ve highlighted the overlap with the gorget in green in one image. You should have sufficient overlap so that you can move without exposing your spine. In the event that your neck is too long or you’re just not comfortable with the fit, I’d suggest adding a lame of barrel plastic or 10–12 oz leather, just to be extra safe. Also, you’ll want to cover this up with a hood, both because it’s not particularly attractive and because that will prevent the BoH protector from going far in case it makes a break for it. At any rate, you may have to play around a bit with this design to get it to work for you, but I hope you find these instructions helpful.