We present an experimental characterization of the process of coherent harmonic generation in single-pass free electron lasers. The harmonic radiation is obtained by seeding the electron beam stored in the Elettra storage ring with a Ti:sapphire laser. Different methods for generating harmonics are compared between them, and a detailed characterization of the emitted light is performed for different polarizations. Our results also contribute to the debate about the possible presence of a coherent on-axis signal in helical undulators. In this respect, we provide an experimental confirmation of recent theoretical studies that predict no coherent on-axis signal.