Helmet Sellers Face New Trend

Welding HelmetSkill, determination, exactness. A good welder must have many things, but is an eye for fashion one of them?

Featuring flames, skulls, camouflage and cobras, new helmet trends allow welders to express their individuality and reflect their style—not to mention protect their heads and faces. Manufacturers are churning out dynamic designs, and distributors are keeping an unprecedented number of helmets in stock as the demand for even the wildest of helmet graphics shows no signs of slowing.

Surprisingly, it’s not the industry’s first foray into the world of fashion. As any industry veteran will tell you, pipe welders were once notorious for wearing brightly colored hats on the job, a safety precaution that would increase visibility in the event of a cave-in. But today, whether helmet designs are a product of fashion or function, one thing is certain: the standard black fiberglass helmet may soon be just as passÇ as bell-bottom jeans and leisure suits.

Welding Helmet

Keeping Up with Demand
“It’s about personal expression,” says Pete Matarese, president of Liberty Supply. In Liberty’s Leominster, Massachusetts, showroom, four helmet lines are on display, a large selection that Matarese attributes to his customers’ demand for a myriad of design choices. “Whether a customer wants a helmet that is mid-range or top of the line, they want those wild graphics,” says Matarese, who notes that Liberty rotates its helmet selection regularly in order to showcase the newest, trendiest designs, the same way many retail clothing and shoe stores operate. According to Matarese, customers seem drawn toward helmets that feature “anything to do with flames,” he says. “Our customers love those flame designs.”

At Norco’s branch location in Meridian, Idaho, models from at least seven helmet lines occupy the showroom floor, a marked change from even ten years ago. “We used to carry two or three different lines,” says Assistant Manager Walter Evans, “and it was just your basic helmet.” Today, Norco stocks a larger variety of models in order to appeal to customers’ varying tastes, and according to Evans, customers appreciate the selection. “Helmets aren’t basic anymore, and welders like that they now get to make a choice.”

Up to 20 models from four helmet manufacturers can be found on the shelves of Lampton Welding Supply’s showroom in Wichita, Kansas. “It’s very rare that a distributor can get by stocking only one or two lines anymore,” says President Guy Marlin, who explains how new helmets create some friendly competition among welders. “It becomes a game of ‘my helmet’s classier than the other guy’s helmet.’” According to Marlin, welders’ desire for more personalized helmets is a natural progression, considering a helmet’s critical role in welding safety. “A helmet is extremely important to the safety and well-being of a welder,” says Marlin, “but if they have to wear it all day long, it ought to be something they like.”

Welding Helmets

What the Customer Wants
Helmet manufacturers agree. Miller, Sellstrom, 3M Speedglas and others each produce several designs that cater to welders who want to inject a little personality into their work wear. Each manufacturer uses focus groups and market research to create compelling designs, but when the helmets hit the marketplace, it’s up to welders to determine which models come out on top. Across the industry, top sellers include flame designs, the American flag and automotive graphics.

“For so many years, the standard welding hood was either flat black or in some rare instances, a solid blue or gray,” says Tom Sommers, product manager at Miller Electric. “Today, welders want to express their personality and have some fun.” With 18 different graphics spread across four different models, Miller gives customers a chance to do just that. Since entering the market in early 2002, Miller has seen the demand for personalized helmets grow and evolve. While patriotic designs and Nascar-inspired graphics were popular at the outset, “Today’s customers want designs that are more intricate and carry a theme,” says Sommers. “They want helmets that tell a story.” One such helmet features cross pistons set against a black background that morph into bones in changing light. “These edgy helmets aren’t for everyone, but they’ve certainly got quite an audience.”

At Sellstrom, it’s the company’s bright colors that are in hot demand. “Specialized colors are becoming more popular,” says Customer Service Manager Jason Suarez. The company offers eight different custom helmet colors, including neon greens, yellows and oranges. “Helmets are like cars,” says Suarez. “When you see an orange Camaro or an orange helmet, you turn your head and say, ‘Wow, look at that!’” Currently, Sellstrom’s most popular color is a bright canary yellow, a shade that, according to Suarez, attracts plenty of attention. “When it comes to helmets, the flashier, the better.”

David Sullivan, sales manager at 3M Speed- glas, evaluates the trend in a single sentence: “Fashion has hit the welding marketplace!” Sensing the demand for personalized helmets, 3M Speedglas will launch a new helmet line in early 2009 that includes motorsport-inspired graphics, among others. “The graphic helmets show the individuality of the welder,” says Sullivan of the new line, which will include a total of seven new designs. “It’s a major trend in the market.” Sullivan also explains that, for 3M Speedglas, the future looks bright. “I see new technologies coming out that will allow us to put brighter colors and brighter graphics onto helmets,” he says, “and I see this trend continuing.”

The Downside
While personalized helmets have a definite bright side, distribution of the helmets isn’t without its issues. The sheer quantity of helmet designs available forces distributors to stock an ever-growing number of models in their showrooms. When each model requires different replacement parts, therein lies the problem. “Every brand has a different replacement lens,” says Pete Matarese. “Even one line of helmets can have up to a dozen lens sizes, which makes it hard when a customer comes in and needs a new lens for a helmet he bought from us. We should have that lens, and sometimes we don’t.” Guy Marlin has experienced the same issue with headgears. “There are numerous headgears for the same helmet,” he says, “so trying to take care of everybody out there when you’re selling helmets is just short of the impossible.” The solution? According to Matarese, the quick fix may be to scale back on helmet offerings in the showroom. “There are some great helmets out there, but I’m hesitant to pick up another line. It’s just too much inventory to carry.”

 Welding Helmet

Made to Order
For customers, another solution is available. Welders need not trade in their favorite helmet for a newer, flashier model in order to express their style. Kevin Scott, an instructor at Hobart Welding Institute in Troy, Ohio, helps students put a unique spin on their own welding equipment. A talented artist, Scott uses automotive paint to create custom designs on welding helmets, and for a small fee, the possibilities are endless. “I’ve done skulls, cowboys, cobras, hot rods, pretty much whatever the welder wants,” says Scott, whose handiwork comes at a fraction of the cost of a new helmet, which can run up to $400. “A lot of guys who paint professionally tell me I’m way too cheap, but my students don’t always have a lot of extra money,” says Scott, who uses water-based paints to create the designs, clear coats the helmet with automotive glaze, then buffs each helmet to a shine. “They’re pretty fancy when I get done with them,” he says. In fact, some of Scott’s customers think their new helmets are even too fancy to wear, opting instead to display the finished products in their homes like artwork. However, the ones who do wear the customized helmets get plenty of positive feedback. “A student will compliment another student’s helmet, and they’ll get to talking about hot rods or motorcycles or whatever his helmet design is,” says Scott. “Right off the bat, personalized helmets create a conversation.”

And if industry predictions are correct, it’s a conversation that won’t be quieted anytime soon.

*Helmet photos courtesy Kevin Scott

Gases and Welding Distributors Association