Artisan Nicholas Toth is among the last to carry on the
century-old family skill. He uses only his hands, cast-iron
mandrels, wood patterns, lathes and other machinery inherited
from his grandfather.
Though rarely worn nowadays, Toth's helmets sell for more than
$20,000. With divers preferring modern, lightweight equipment,
they are bought mostly by collectors as works of art that can
also be used as diving gear.
“Basically, I try to make a 40-pound piece of jewelry,” said
Toth, 59, who works out of the shop opened by his grandfather.
In three decades of making helmets, Toth has received more than
a half dozen national awards and honors, including a heritage
fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
One of his helmets from the 1980s – the first he made on his
own, with his grandfather watching – is on display as part of
the permanent collection of the Museum of Florida History in
Toth's grandfather, Anthony Lerios, came to this town on the
Gulf of Mexico, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of
Tampa, in a wave of Greek immigrants in the early 1900s. They
were drawn by the booming business in which divers descend to
the sea floor to find the best sponges.
Born on the Greek island of Kalymnos, famous for sponge diving,
Lerios was raised in Turkey and trained as an engineer before
coming to the United States.
Lerios is credited with developing improvements to traditional
helmets that included adjusting the angles of the portholes so
divers could see both the sea floor below and the diving boat
He also moved the exhaust valve forward inside the helmet to
make it easier for divers to release air when they tapped it
with their heads, and tapered the breastplate for easier
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“He came up with simple solutions to complex problems,” Toth said.
Toth grew up at the side of his Papou – the Greek word for
grandfather – in the machine shop, heading straight over there every
day after Greek school.
As Toth grew older, his grandfather allowed him to work the lathe,
guiding him by putting his own hands over the boy's.
After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in
political science, Toth came back to work full time as his
He mastered his grandfather’s techniques – sheering an oval shape
from a sheet of copper, pounding it with a wooden mallet and pegging
into a cast-iron mandrel to make the breast plate, then soldering
the studs into place.
Toth still uses a pattern designed by his grandfather to spin the
helmet on a lathe. Toth cuts four openings for portholes. Each is
set with glass and fitted, along with the neck ring, and leather
seals that keep it water-tight.
His grandfather continued coming to the shop until age 98. When
Lerios died in 1992, at the age of 100, Toth could not bring himself
to make another diving helmet for four years.
Today, Toth is likely one of the only craftsmen of his kind.
“He really is the last helmet maker,” said his sister Kally
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Gunna Dickson)
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