Don't take our word for it: Just ask top open-wheel racecar drivers Christian Fittipaldi, Alex Tagliani or any of the Andrettis who their go-to guy for custom helmet paint is and they'll all answer Michael Savage, owner of Melbourne, Florida's Savage Designs. Savage has painted almost 1000 helmets over the last five years for big-name racers as well as everyday riders who wanted to set off their headgear with some personal style. When we decided to do a custom helmet installment for our "Explained" series, Savage was the first-and only-artist we called.
Artist is the right title for Savage. He got his start in motorsports illustrating high-end, richly detailed racing lithographs (cars and bikes both-check them out at www.savagedesigns.com), and only discovered his talent for painting helmets after doing a one-off job as a favor for his friend Fittipaldi. Soon what seemed like the entire open-wheel paddock was on the phone begging him for paint, and now 80 percent of his business is helmet painting-the vast majority for motorcyclists.
Like any work of art, a proper custom helmet is a collaboration between the painter and the purchaser, Savage says. Usually his customers have a very specific vision of what they want their helmet to look like, but some leave the concept up to him. In that case, he starts asking questions. "I find out what their hobbies are, what they like to do, what their favorite colors are, what they ride... Then I start throwing ideas out and run with whatever they seem to respond to."
Either way, Savage works up a design on paper and has the customer approve this before he even picks up the paint gun-something he says any good painter should do. "The customer should have a 100 percent say in what goes on the helmet since they're wearing it," he says. "I want them to know exactly what they're going to get when they open the box."
Once you've got the right design in mind, the next step is choosing the helmet. Some riders supply Savage with a helmet like we did, sending him a plain white Icon Motorhead to transform; others buy a new helmet directly from him. He'll work either way, and if you do purchase the lid through him he passes any discount he gets directly to the customer: "I want them to have more money to spend on paint," he explains.
Savage suggests starting with a solid-color helmet if at all possible. "Helmet graphics are almost always vinyl," he explains, "and in the sun vinyl will expand and contract differently than clearcoat does, which will cause spider-web cracks. Solid-color helmets eliminate that problem and give a nice firm base for the paint to adhere to without any other colors to bleed through."
What sets a great paint job apart? It starts with meticulous surface preparation. "Good prep is key," Savage says. "You can use the best paint in the world, and if you don't prep the helmet right it's going to turn out crummy. You don't build a house on a swamp, do you?"
Savage begins by disassembling the helmet, removing all the gaskets, visor hardware and interior lining. The only thing he doesn't touch is the protective EPS (expanded polystyrene) liner: "I don't play with that-I don't want to mess up the helmet warranty," he says. Then he wet-sands the shell with 600-grit wet/dry sandpaper to give the surface some "tooth" for the new paint to adhere to. Savage almost never uses primer on his helmets because it is too thick, he says, and hardware often won't fit when you reassemble a helmet that has been primed.
The final step before applying paint is cleaning the helmet once more using a wax and grease remover to pull any oils off the surface. "Even sanding with water, your fingers still leave behind oils," Savage says, "and any oil on the surface will produce fish eyes."