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Old May 31, 2012, 12:03 AM   #1
dcobler
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A couple general smith questions

Hello all. I would like to start by saying that I have been accepted into the local gunsmithing program and classes will start this fall. I am extremely excited about this and also extremely nervous. This has led me to a few question that I would like to ask of the more experienced smiths around.

1. Are there any specific tools, items that you would recommend to a beginner that you have found useful? There is a pretty long list of required tools so I am wondering more about something you might have figured out that works for you. I feel like that is a pretty general question that may have no answer really.

2. What job have you found to be the most re-occurring? Is there something that you see often?

3. Do you prefer to work only on specific arms or are you open to most jobs?

4. Am I asking questions that don't really matter and need different advice?

5. Has there been anything that you wished you would have known earlier in your career?
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Old May 31, 2012, 01:40 AM   #2
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1- Specific tools: lots of them. Good quality hand tools are a must, since much of your work will be hand work. Screwdrivers, chisels, files, rasps, scrapers, hammers in sizes from small to monstrous, vise blocks for ARs, magnifying lamps, you name it. A good set of assembly/disassembly manuals will really come in handy.

2- Most common job- DC&O (disassemble, clean and oil). Trigger adjustments, sight replacement, recoil pads, action smooting, fixing the bonehead oopsies people always seem to do to their guns all come in pretty regular.

3- Most gunsmiths take whatever walks in the door.

4- All questions are relevant to the asker, but they may seem kind of banal after you have been doing it for a few years.

5- I wish I had known years earlier that I was not going to make any serious money fixing guns.
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Old May 31, 2012, 03:13 AM   #3
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1. Are there any specific tools, items that you would recommend to a beginner that you have found useful? There is a pretty long list of required tools so I am wondering more about something you might have figured out that works for you. I feel like that is a pretty general question that may have no answer really.

You'll probably find that your required tool list is a good one. The only recommendation I have is about the same as Scorch's: Buy quality tools the first time. Spend a little more now and whimper about it--or you'll be spending a LOT more later and wailing.

2. What job have you found to be the most re-occurring? Is there something that you see often?

Once again, it's disassemble, clean and oil. The majority of simple problems can be fixed by cleaning a firearm PROPERLY and lubricating with a quality product.

3. Do you prefer to work only on specific arms or are you open to most jobs?

When I was actively working on guns for fun and profit, I took everything I could--however, I quickly specialized in Smith and Wesson revolvers, and the 1911 series. I also did bedding and refinishing and tuning of internals.

4. Am I asking questions that don't really matter and need different advice?

Oh, heck no. Ask questions...ask LOTS of questions. The knowledge you gain now will pay dividends later.

5. Has there been anything that you wished you would have known earlier in your career?

Although my actual "gunsmithing" career was short, I have come to realize one thing over the years: The firearms community is a close knit one, and you should always take advantage of every opportunity to learn. Don't overload yourself with pending jobs; it's better to do good work and have a waiting list. Always treat every gun you take in as if it was an heirloom from your family, and treat every customer like they are the most important person you will ever contact. The vast majority of your business and livelihood will come from person to person referrals and reputation for quality work.
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Old May 31, 2012, 03:58 AM   #4
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I do not have an ffl,I am an ameteur hobbyist.I do not have to recognize time is money.I make what I cannot easily buy,or afford to pay for.

A friend gave me a booklet of maybe 100 projects for a gunsmith student.It came from the Trinidad school.

You may find that one way you will learn many of your skills in school is by making your own tools.

Example,you may turn and heat treat a set of pin punches or screwdrivers or a reamer wrench or a barrel vise.

I will agree with buying quality.The old Lufkin micrometer I bought in 1974 surprised the folks in calibration past the turn of the century.I still enjoy using that mic.

A few no charge tools:Its always easier to get it right the first time than it is to do it over.

Do not force parts.

Sharp tools leave a good tool finish and better accuracy.

There is a time to push on,keep working,and get the job done...but,there is a time to stop,have a cup of coffee,chill,and let your mind make cartoons about how it works,what is going on,why you are getting tight jaws,white knuckles,and reaching for a bigger hammer.Let the elegant,simple solution come.

Your excitement and enthusiasm are great!!

Often,the reality of the moment presents enough real challenges that it is a waste of time and energy worrying about what the future may or not bring

OR,save your money,for now,so you can buy the tool you need when you need it.

There is a place on the web,MSC,.Manhattan Supply,is a good outfit to look at tools and supplies.Enco has some good stuff,maybe Travers Tools is still there,or DoAll They all carry good lines.Web or phone order from MSC will usually be on your doorstep inside two days.

McMaster Carr is a good resource if you need a foot of 2 in 8620 alloy steel,for example

Keep in touch!!

Get a little 10 x jewelers loupe,a magnifier.Maybe $7 or so.And,there are fancier stones,diamond and such,but for now,about a 4 in by 1 in by 1/4 in fine india stone,Norton is good,will be real handy.

A six inch scale,Starret or Brown and Sharpe,flexible,1/2 in wide.Get one that has scales in both 1/10th and 1/100th in,and also the 1/32nd,64th grads.

When working on a machine,checking your location quick with the scale will save you the dread .100 thou error

And,you can spread peanut butter with it.

Last edited by HiBC; May 31, 2012 at 04:07 AM.
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Old May 31, 2012, 09:30 AM   #5
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We called that scale "the gunsmith's knife"- perfect for opening packages from Brownells.

Buy some Starret 1/16" punches...you'll break them. Learn to cut them back so you don't have to keep buying them. Get a sharp scribe. Make a recoil pad screwdriver.

Buy good quality safety gear. Don't scrimp in eye protection, or dust masks. Gunsmithing is hard on your body when you're doing it 8+ hours a day. Focus on a comfortable bench that's bolted to the wall and doesn't move. Ergonomics of your work area will buy you extra time at the bench which turns into productivity. As you age, you'll want better lighting. Trust me.

Buy books when you can find them. Dunlap. JB Woods. Powells Books and Amazon are a great resource. I used to check out a local used book store and found lots of the NRA exploded view books for cheap.

We called it "DCI" or disassemble, clean and inspect. It's also a great opportunity to sell work- "Hey, that recoil pad is crumbling. Want me to replace it with a Decellerator?" Back in the late 80' we charged $35.00 for a DCI and you can crank out a lot of them in an 8 hour day.

You'll probably find yourself gravitating toward some sort of specialty. Roll with it, but keep your eyes open- markets change. It's a business and you have to be adaptable.

I would have focused more on the customer service angle. I don't smith anymore, but I do customer service every single day now.

No, your questions are the same I had.
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Old June 1, 2012, 08:45 PM   #6
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Hand tools are fine, but I don't think even a beginner can get by without a decent drill press and lathe. And knowing how to use them, which gets into the question of learning machine work.

Knowing gun design is pretty important, too. I have seen a couple of cases where a gunsmith drilling a Mauser action drilled right into the chamber because he didn't know where the chamber was in relation to the receiver ring. Another never heard of short chambering, so when he installed a new barrel, he ground the back end of the locking lugs so the round would chamber. Others have tried to drill for a scope using a hand drill, with, shall we say, less than optimum results. One "expert" on the M1911 pistol got so tired of his knife edge sears failing from the hammer falling into the half-cock notch that he ground off the half-cock notch. Yup - machine gun!

I do have a bit of a problem when I realize that to be a beautician requires a series of courses, certified training, an intensive examination, and a state license, where to be a gunsmith requires nothing but an FFL (which says nothing about the holder's competence) and a sign on the door.

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Old June 2, 2012, 03:59 AM   #7
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I can appreciate your concern,James,but our OP is going to gunsmith school.

I do not know where,but there is a school in Trinidad,Colorado that has a very good reputation,I seem to recall something about PO Ackley being involved with that program.

As I suggested,a student may pick up considerable machine tool and hand tool experience making his own kit of gunsmith tools.

http://www.trinidadstate.edu/index.php/gunsmithing

I expect the grads of this program do not drill scope mount holes into chambers!

I admire his enthusiasm,and wish him the best.

Anything that makes a young man passionately want to go to school and learn......

Is not a parade to be rained on!!
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Old June 2, 2012, 08:03 AM   #8
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Read Roy Dunlap's book BEFORE you go to school.

You can buy a set of screwdrivers for overnight delivery, but the brain takes time to assimilate knowlage. There's a university education in "old school gunsmithing" in Dunlap's book. It'll take a summer to read and really assimilate. No black-gun parts-changing advice there, but if you want to know how to grind a screwdriver to fit a screw, or to tell what kind of steel something is made of by looking at the shape and color of the sparks it produces when you take a sample to a grinding wheel it'll serve well. Want to know how to make a spring, case harden a hammer, rust blue a shotgun, etc.. Those skills are GUNSMITHING and are what Dunlap writes about. There is a chapter on building and organizing your workbench. Read it!

Add to that Smith & Smiths books on "Rifles" and "Pistols and Revolvers" (2 books). These three books are enough to give you probably 85% of what you need to know to REALLY understand the mechanics of so many firearms designs that my guess is by REALLY reading all three and then REALLY practicing from easy projects thru harder ones you could self-teach yourself to competency. With those books under your belt (and on your bench) as well as shop based formal training, you will have a great start.

I bought these books over 30 years ago, and the pleasure of reading them and really understanding them has brought me countless hours of enjoyment, and a wealth of knowlage. I assume that they are still around for purchase.

Remember too that this is a "Craft", and one who really masters it is a "Craftsman" in the classic sense. Going to school will make you a good apprentice. Working for another established Gunsmith will take you to being a Journeyman. When you can meet his expectations of perfection, and take on the most complex jobs that come into his shop and do the job, and TEACH HIM a trick about how you did it, you "might" become a Master. This is the old way and there is no shortcut. A "Masterpiece" is just what it says: A project that incorporates every part of a craftsmans craft, to be produced to show expertise, and which is judged by other Masters, and when "Passed" allows the Journeyman to be welcomed as a peer by the other Masters. VERY FEW so called "Gunsmiths" are anything but Journeymen quality. Aspire to be a Master. Work for the BEST and MOST DEMANDING man that you can find. Work for free under him if that is what it takes. Be able to make Lock, Stock, and Barrel.. that's what a Gunsmith ought to be able to do. "Building" AR-15's by bolting on parts is a monkeys work.

Here's a quick war story about my (short) career as a journeyman 'Smith (I worked full time for 2 years at it). When I came into the shop, "The Old man" gave me a file, a compass, a micrometer, and lump of steel and told me to come back when I had made a 1 inch square cube out of the steel. Hmmm... no square? Uhh... use the compass to swing circles, use the resultant points to make a square out of piece of steel, use that square to measure the progress, and start filing.

(lesson #1: Sometimes the first thing you need to do to complete a job is to make a special tool so you can complete the job. Otherwise he would have given me a steel square, too...)

What I lost was much of the skin on the ends of my fingers. What I gained after TWO WEEKS of effort was a cube of steel (that actually passed the old mans scrutiny with a "Hmmm... not too bad... but not too good either", knowlage of some geometry, prussian blue, surface plates, and steel handing as well as a handmade steel-square (see "making your own special tools" above).

A file is the poor mans milling machine. With it you can make ANY other tool if you have enough time. You have no business with a Bridgeport if you do not know how steel "feels under the file", and that was the old mans point. No lesson is wasted. And there is NO way to infuse that knowlage without taking the time to learn it.

Or as the old man said: "If you are not cutting or forging, you are not Smithin'". What he meant was that SMITHING is "shaping metal", not bolting on parts.

A gunsmith's files and screwdrivers are his most precious tools. Buy the best and never lend them.


My "Masterpiece" if you want to call it that, was a single shot rifle. I made the entire firing lock from scratch. I made the mainspring. I made the hammer. I drilled and button rifled the BBL, made the stock, checkered it, finished it... etc. It took me TWO YEARS of effort "when not working on shop projects". I did each phase of the project in tune with what subject the old man was teaching me. I still think that any 'Smith worth the title ought to have done at least one project like this. It may seem archaic... but the result is a base of knowlage that is the foundation of all else. In the end I did not persue the profession, but I stll enjoy making things mechanical, and those lessons are used in a variety of ways both physical and metaphysical. Patience, persistance, problem solving, and pride in a job well done.


Masters teach Apprentices to be Masters. Journeymen teach Apprentices to be Journeymen.

Make sure that you work with Masters... they are damned rare.


If this is your passion, go for it! It's going to be a hard climb. Nothing easy is worth having.


Best,

Willie

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Last edited by Willie Sutton; June 2, 2012 at 10:15 AM.
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Old June 2, 2012, 09:58 AM   #9
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Quote:
My "Masterpiece" if you want to call it that, was a single shot rifle. I made the entire firing lock from scratch. I made the mainspring. I made the hammer. I drilled and button rifled the BBL, made the stock, checkered it, finished it... etc. It took me TWO YEARS of effort "when not working on shop projects". I did each phase of the project in tune with what subject the old man was teaching me. I still think that any 'Smith worth the title ought to have done at least one project like this. It may seem archaic... but the result is a base of knowlage that is the foundation of all else. In the end I did not persue the profession, but I stll enjoy making things mechanical, and those lessons are used in a variety of ways both physical and metaphysical. Patience, persistance, problem solving, and pride in a job well done.
My dream is to someday become skilled enough to build a firearm from scratch.
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Old June 2, 2012, 10:04 AM   #10
Willie Sutton
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It's what the old man made me complete before he would let me work on a "complete gun" rather than on a "part".

It's not that hard... it just takes time, patience, and a grumpy but kindly old man. And a good set of sharp files.


Willie

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Last edited by Willie Sutton; June 2, 2012 at 10:09 AM.
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Old June 3, 2012, 02:13 AM   #11
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Good measurement tools
Good drill index with quality bits
Good gunsmith screwdrivers (the more the merrier)
Good bench block
Good set of pin punches
Lead hammers
Quality work mat
Cleaning solvents and lubes
Anything else would be gun/caliber specific and if you got everything you might encounter, you'd be broke before you got started. Smithy.
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Old June 5, 2012, 12:06 AM   #12
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With each post I read I get more excited. Thanks for the references on the books Willie and I was on the edge of my seat reading through your experience. It gave me the same excitement that I remember as a child of reading a thrilling book. And thank you to everyone who has thrown in their advice. I appreciate it more than I could explain in words. As HiBC pointed out, I failed to mention where I will be going to school. I was accepted into Murray State Colleges Gunsmithing program and I can assure you James K that I will not fail your concerns. Im not sure how the course fairs when compared to other programs around the country but I read somewhere that it falls within the top ten and maybe even the top five. Again, it is a local school so I am not sure how much weight that carries outside of southern Oklahoma. Thanks again to all who have contributed.
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Old June 5, 2012, 09:13 AM   #13
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dcobler

You go eat it up!

One,if we are going to keep shooting,we need a new gen of gunsmiths to replace the cranky old flatulants that are going blind and dropping dead every day.Now the GreatestGeneration is in Sunset,us Boomers will fade,you may be the only smith in a three state area.

And,if you find a particular specialty,well,there is a gentleman up the Thompson Canyon who doesfine making Sharps Rifles,for example.

Something else to keep in mind,there is a school up in Laramie,Wyoming.Has a heck of a program in building hot rod cars.Yeah,they will teach you about chopping tops and building race motors,and fuel injection,and electronic control systems....

Whether these young folks have lifetime careers building hot rods or not,does not matter.They found a passion to go to school,and through those hot rods,math,engineering,etc gets snuck in on them.

I recall a fine gunsmithing book by Clyde Baker,it might have been "Modern Gunsmithing" from the 30's.

PO Ackley's "Handbooks for Shooters"

Newer books,Venturino's series,"Shooting Buffalo Rifles"and some other "Shooting..."

Magazines,Black Powder Cartridge Rifle ,Ithink..The Accurate Rifle,Precision Shooting...

Oh,and if you have never read "The Old Man and the Boy" by Robert Ruark,do.It will be a part of your well rounded education.
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Old June 5, 2012, 09:58 AM   #14
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Quote:
gunsmith's files and screwdrivers are his most precious tools. Buy the best and never lend them.


My "Masterpiece" if you want to call it that, was a single shot rifle. I made the entire firing lock from scratch. I made the mainspring. I made the hammer. I drilled and button rifled the BBL, made the stock, checkered it, finished it... etc. It took me TWO YEARS of effort "when not working on shop projects". I did each phase of the project in tune with what subject the old man was teaching me. I still think that any 'Smith worth the title ought to have done at least one project like this. It may seem archaic... but the result is a base of knowlage that is the foundation of all else. In the end I did not persue the profession, but I stll enjoy making things mechanical, and those lessons are used in a variety of ways both physical and metaphysical. Patience, persistance, problem solving, and pride in a job well done.


Masters teach Apprentices to be Masters. Journeymen teach Apprentices to be Journeymen.

Make sure that you work with Masters... they are damned rare.
As you stated, there are no short cuts in becoming a Master or Journeymen. Something todays generation tends to loose sight of. I am not stating that OP is looking for short cuts but just making a general statement so keep the pantaloons nice and loose.
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Old June 5, 2012, 02:42 PM   #15
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I suspect that he's going to do just fine... he's got a good program booked, and that's a good place to start. Personally, I'd encourage some progress checks. Hey Kid: You already have a rooting section. Chase your vision.

Willie

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Old January 23, 2013, 10:59 PM   #16
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I know its been a minute since the OP but Im still hanging in there. I have a whole lot less time to cruise around the internet these days and can confirm that I have held a file for more than a minute or two. Ive also worn one or two out and had a dozen more resharpened. Experienced some bad chatter and some beautiful machining depending on how close of attention I paid to my tool bit. Learned and had my practice with multiple blackening processes and created some temper colors both on purpose and accident.

Before posting tonight I re-read all the other posts and understand quite a bit more of what was previously said. Thank you all again and I will keep the updates coming, maybe after long breaks though.
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Old January 24, 2013, 12:46 PM   #17
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I am going to mention tough ones - turning down work, and being a businessman.

The key is to have a work rate, just like your plumber does. You probably need to charge at least $40-60 an hour (check how much your plumber charges) or you will go under fast.

There are some jobs that you will have to just turn down, even at the risk of some harsh words from a would-be customer, because they can't feasibly be done or because the cost will exceed the value of the gun.

The most common are old H&R or Iver Johnson revolvers, old .22 rifles, and old shotguns; these are almost always totally worn out, with broken springs and bent, broken or filed parts from previous attempts at repair. You can easily spend days trying to get those junkers working (and maybe fail) but you just can't afford to and make any kind of a living. So you turn them down.

You should decide early on if you want to have a shop and deal directly with customers, work for an established store, or take work from local gun dealers.

If you go with the shop, don't spend time BSing with customers. Hire a minimum wage kid with enough gun smarts to tell the guy with the Stevens Crack Shot that it can't be rechambered to 300 Win Mag. Your job is to gunsmith, not chat about who got the biggest buck last season.

If you are going to run your own business, I strongly recommend taking a small business course (often offered by community colleges). The finest master gunsmith in the world, who can file a precise 1" cube, won't stay in business long if he doesn't know how to run a business. If you approach the job as a hobbyist, doing free favors for your friends, tinkering with old worthless guns, and spending your time chatting with gun guys, you will go under. Not might, will. You can hire a bookkeeper and/or an accountant and/or a tax guy but they are like your tools - if you don't know how to use them, they are little help. (I knew of one good gunsmith who kept his "accounts" on scraps of paper he kept losing - maybe that worked in 1820, but it won't work today. He went out of business when the IRS got after him for income tax and the state wanted its sales tax.)

Some schools do cover this kind of stuff, but most tend to deal with the technical aspects of machine work, etc., and devote little time to the details of running a business.

Jim
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Old January 24, 2013, 02:27 PM   #18
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Great advice, Jim.
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Old January 26, 2013, 05:43 PM   #19
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Not a gunsmith, but starting a firearms-related business after finally reaching the frustration point with the construction industry here in FL...

That said, for a lot of years I had $1MM plus in revenues at a decent profit, and a B.S. in Business Admin- so I feel qualified to chime in and second the good advice James K gave you.

If you want it to be your livelihood, you have to earn a profit. And to earn a profit, you need an understanding of what your expenses are.

ALL your expenses... "What's General Liability and Product Liability insurance?"

If the school offers, take some general business/accounting classes. Trust me, you'll need them, to be successful...

That is, if you plan on going into business for yourself someday, that is...

Some guys, aren't interested in that, and that's fine (and often, the better route...). In that case, just learn your skills- and let the owner worry about whether he's charging enough!

Good luck.
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Old January 26, 2013, 09:19 PM   #20
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I didn't cover insurance, an important part of a gunsmithing business. If you have a fire in your shop, and it destroys a quarter million dollars worth of Purdey shotgun, you better be insured. And you also can run into other liability issues. You do a beautiful trigger job - so beautiful that the gun fires accidentally and someone is killed. Or you fix an old Damascus barrel gun which promptly blows up and takes your customer's hand along for the ride.*

So insurance is damned important.

Another is knowing and understanding all the laws, rules and regulations that affect businesses. Some folks think all they need to be a gunsmith is a set of screwdrivers, a file, and an FFL. They don't know about business licenses, sales tax licenses, zoning laws, OSHA regulations, EPA regulations, etc., etc. (Why do you think few gunsmiths do tank bluing any more?)

Also, it is a darned good ideal to have an attorney on retainer in case you get into some kind of trouble with all those laws.

Another issue not often considered is location. I have been berated and insulted over this one, but here goes again. I strongly recommend you NOT run your gun or gunsmithing business out of your home, even if zoning laws allow it. There are two reasons, one serious. The less serious is that your wife will be very unhappy when your customers wake you at 3 A.M. to fix their guns so they can get to the woods or fields early on opening day. The serious is that if a bunch of drugged up thugs want to raid your store for guns, it is better that they raid your closed business premises than your home and put your family at risk. Also, have an unlisted home phone and don't tell casual customers where you live.

*Work with your attorney in drafting a release form that a customer will have to sign if he wants you to do work that could make a gun dangerous, like fixing an old shotgun so it will fire. Or just turn down any such work.

Jim
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Old January 29, 2013, 04:19 PM   #21
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While on the subject of files:

Sadly, Nicholson no longer makes files in the US. They're now made in Brazil. I've used Nicholson files made in the US and now made off-shore.

I no longer think Nicholson files made off-shore are worth my money. I'm going to see if Boggs can make them cut better, but I'm rather doubting it. It seems as tho the Brazilian files are going dull faster than the US-made files did.

Anyway, you're going to have to learn to seek out quality tools in this age of increasingly predominate crap tools. It used to be that companies took pride in turning out tools used by masters and craftsman - no more, apparently.

For more and more of my files, I'm turning to companies like Grobet and files made in Europe.

As others have said about files and screwdrivers: They're your life blood, along with the tools you will make. You're going to learn to make tools, have no doubt of that. Never lend them out. When you get fully tooled up, you will have hundreds of dollars tied up in files, hundreds more in screwdrivers and punches, and hundreds of hours in custom tooling, fixtures and jigs.
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Old January 31, 2013, 08:13 PM   #22
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Don't know how it works in other states, but in Oklahoma we never could insure customer's guns in our shop. You can't insure something that doesn't belong to you. Most homeowner's or renter's insurance covers it even in our shop. The customer either has it insured or he doesn't.
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Old January 31, 2013, 08:54 PM   #23
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Good point. I know it works that way with cars in a repair shop.

What kind of liability insurance did you carry in case you damaged a gun, or your work caused a problem?

Jim
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