In an age of technology where ever-changing, sleek, highly complex machines are part of our everyday lives, there are still pieces of our past that not only continue to function as they always have, but that can also now be considered an art form. And the people who create them with their hands are artists.
Nick Toth is just such a man. His art form happens to be traditional dive helmets. Commercial divers in all corners of the world have used this style of helmet since the mid 1800’s. As technology advanced, the basic design of these helmets has changed little since their inception, but demand for them has slowly diminished over time. Newer, more technologically advanced equipment has taken their place, making the use of these traditional helmets an exception. Their presence is now more as a diving symbol and a piece of art than an everyday piece of commercial diving equipment.
Nick is probably one of the last true dive helmet makers in the world and works his craft in the historically rich, commercial diving community of Tarpon Springs, Florida. He is the grandson of a machinist and helmet maker, Anthony Lerios, who came from Greece to help with the burgeoning sponge diving industry on the west coast of Florida in the early 1900’s. Anthony’s background was one of an engineer trained as an apprentice and eventually became a master engineer. He then moved to Turkey and became the manager of a shipyard. After that, he moved to Florida, where his father and grandfather were already in Tarpon Springs and were heavily involved in sponge diving. Lerios worked the sponge docks manufacturing any and all metal components needed aboard the sponge, fishing and trade boats of the area. He manufactured everthing from block and tackles to anchors. Anything that was not wood on a boat was fair game for Nick’s grandfather, from stuffing boxes and drive shafts to the anchor on the bow. He became an expert in installing and outfitting the new Sterling diesel engines that were starting to replace sail at the time.
It was at this point that Nick’s grandfather met and befriended an elderly helmet maker who had also moved from Greece to Tarpon Springs, named Anthony Avgerinos. He was a blacksmith by trade who had made dive helmets in Greece and was brought to the US to supply the divers here. As he got older, he had Nick’s grandfather help him with the metalworking and machining required for the manufacture of the dive helmets. It was through Avgerinos that Lerios learned the entire process of helmet making. It wasn’t until the death of Avgerinos that Nick’s grandfather took over the manufacturing process himself, adding to his repertoire of offerings. He went diving with the helmet and made his own modifications to the design, with the resulting helmet becoming what is produced today.
As time went by, demand for Lerios’ helmets grew and Nick came into the picture. Hanging around his grandfather’s shop from the tender age of three, he learned from the ground up what all of the machining tools did and eventually learned to use them all. Nick has vivid memories of working with his grandfather on the machines.
“I grew up watching him do all the jobs. I’d carry his tool boxes and when I was 11 I would stand at the lathe…at this lathe here,” he said, pointing to a lathe that belonged to his grandfather. “He would put his hands over my hands on the controls and turn my hands on the lathe so I would feel how it worked while it was cutting metal.”
He did the same thing with calipers and taught Nick to learn by feel more so than by numbers. He learned what the right fit felt like. “I can feel what the proper fit should be,” Nick admits. “I feel my way around.”
It wasn’t until 1979-1980 when Nick graduated from the University of Florida that his grandfather suggested he start in earnest making the helmets they had worked on together. His grandfather was getting older (now in his 80’s) and wanted to slow down his work pace and eventually retire. He wanted his grandson to take on the role of helmet maker and carry on the family tradition. Notoriety of this unique trade soon followed. The State of Florida recognized their work with a Florida Folk Heritage Award, along with a National Heritage Fellowship. National Geographic and others featured Nick’s helmets in countless documentaries worldwide.
The dive helmets that had been refined over time were not only more practical and comfortable than the original helmets developed a century before, but they had also become true works of art with refined lines, bevels and machining. All hard edges were softened and materials were highly polished. All parts are hand-formed and machined and the materials used are the same as in the original helmets. The templates and forms used are those of his grandfather and even the lathes and tools he uses are one and the same.
Nick starts the process by forming the shoulder plate on a cast iron form created by his grandfather. A large copper sheet is bolted into the form and then pounded into shape and smoothed with a special mallet and peg. It is then trimmed and set aside. The next step is to create the helmet portion or “kettle.” Forcing it against a spinning form on a large lathe shapes copper for this part of the helmet. By using levers and skill the rounded shape takes form. Once Nick has the shape he is looking for he then cuts the holes in the helmet for the viewing windows and air intake and outlet valves. Fittings for the four large openings are provided by a local foundry and refined in Nick’s shop. They are then attached to the helmet and quarter inch glass is mounted within them. A compression system on the inside of the openings is used with leather forming watertight gaskets on either side of the glass. The inlet and outlet valves are completely manufactured in Nick’s shop, as are all the bolts and wing nuts for the breastplate and any other fasteners used. All pieces that require soldering are expertly done using special methods taught to Nick by his grandfather, creating flawless smooth solders. After intensive polishing and the application of a name plate, the helmet is ready to be used or displayed.
It takes 320 hours of hand crafting by the artist using antique tools, to make one of his pieces of history. The finished result is spectacular and can’t help but inspire visions of diving adventures of a time gone by. All this beauty and high level of craftsmanship comes at a price, however. Because these helmets are handcrafted and are extremely limited, prices for a helmet such as the one pictured in this article start at around $18,000. Nick has plans for a special hundredth anniversary edition in collaboration with a local jeweler, which is expected to be considerably more costly but will truly be a one of a kind.
The 40-pound helmets took a special kind of person to wear and work in them and certainly take a talented artist to produce one. They represent a piece of diving history that may well be history themselves, if not for Nick Toth, one of the last of the helmet makers working the waterfront.
Glenn Hayes is a regular contributor to All At Sea Southeast, and writes a monthly column on work around the waterfront.