Erik Heine: Building a business after graduating SDI
It was the push he needed. Erik Heine’s first sergeant told him that when he got out of the military, he needed to find his calling in life. Erik enrolled at Sonoran Desert Institute, graduated in March of 2016, and immediately set up shop as a gunsmith. It hasn’t been easy, but NA Gunsmithing is a steadily growing business in Bakersfield, California, and Erik plans on keeping it that way.
Erik Heine is an extremely driven individual. After his conversation with his father about finding his path professionally, his enrollment in school was immediate. Erik enrolled in SDI’s Advanced Gunsmithing Certificate program and within a month of graduating in April of 2016, he had submitted his paperwork to the State of California. By the time September rolled around, Erik was no longer a hobbyist gunsmith but was instead gathering clients at a fast pace. News had spread outside of his immediate group of friends and family, and Erik decided to make a full-fledged business out of his short-lived hobby.
“While in the military, I was used to military firearms and felt very comfortable with them. I realized when I enrolled at SDI that there was much more to learn about firearms in general. SDI taught me detailed mechanisms and how to properly work with firearms. There’s a big difference between breaking down a firearm and taking one apart properly,” said Erik.
Among the best things Erik learned, as simple as it may seem, was the proper cleaning of a firearm. “Oddly enough, the ability to properly disassemble any firearm and clean its mechanisms allows me to learn the inner workings and unique pieces of each firearm, whether I have worked with that model or not.” He then added, “Also…totes. Always have plastic totes. It keeps you organized, and if you take down a firearm in a tote, it might deflect a rogue spring from shooting across the room.”
As with any education, SDI’s School of Firearm Technology gives its students the fundamental education to be comfortable when tackling more complex problems as well as the ability to start learning more complex skills. Erik was able to utilize these fundamental lessons as a platform to start his business, but he wanted to push himself further. Through mutual friendships, Erik befriended a local gunsmith with over 50 years of experience. Over time, Erik was able to prove himself as a willing student and has since been taught to use a lathe and milling machine. Though Erik is in business for himself, he keeps in close contact with his mentor, and, in turn, learns new skills each week. As part of their working process, every couple of weeks, Erik’s mentor tosses him a complicated project that is out of his skillset. It’s not so much to teach Erik anything specific, but rather to see how Erik solves a problem. “Sometimes I miss something or I get taught something, but it’s pretty great when I hear that I completed the task perfectly.”
Erik has now been running a successful gunsmithing business for over a year and has already expanded. He brought on his friend Mitchell Crow this last April to help him with the books as well as take on projects. Since bringing on Mitchell, the demand has continued to grow, and Erik has no intention of seeing that slow down. Recognizing the need, Erik is working his way through a bachelor’s degree in business and hopes to enroll in an advanced machining program soon. In addition to this, as part of their business model, Erik and Mitchell try to attend one advanced armorers course each year. This year was an advanced armorers course at Glock. The results speak for themselves: By focusing on a continuing education, building his skillset, and working hard, Erik is the owner of a growing business.
Being in business for yourself is one of the goals of most aspiring gunsmiths. Erik Heine is a great example to anybody seeking to do this, and he has some sage advice for others seeking to do the same thing. He had the following to say regarding his quick start, “I couldn’t have grown this fast without a mentor. I believe I would have grown, just very slowly. Having an experienced mentor has sped up my learning and his references are quickly speeding up my business.” In addition to his praise of mentorship, his additional lessons almost seem to come out of Kip Carpenter’s Top 10 Mistakes New Gunsmiths Make.
“I would love to spend all my money on new shiny tools. Mitchell and I have realized that we must have money squirreled away for the slow summer business season. My mentor taught me to save money on this by making my own tools when I can. Since he taught me to use a lathe, I make my own punches now, built a barrel floating tool, turned a screwdriver into a custom windage tool, constructed my workbenches, and even assembled a pair of pliers for a Springfield project I had.
“Bill your projects by the project and never bill clients based on time estimate. Some projects take longer than others and you don’t want to bill clients for your learning curve. Additionally, if something is taking longer than expected, you don’t want to limit yourself with a deadline. This can cause you to do inferior work, which would hurt your word of mouth reputation. It’s more important to do great work than it is to hit a deadline. Always try to keep your estimates project-related rather than timeline-related.
“You can’t please everybody. Recognize your skills, and if what your customer wants is outside of your ability, let them know. The risk of working on something outside of your ability is damage to your reputation. The risk of referring a customer to a more skilled smith is a reputation of honesty. I’ve fixed other gunsmiths’ mistakes and it’s always unfortunate to see a customer pay twice for one piece of work.
“Don’t be afraid to break stuff. Being tentative makes you less effective and makes you slow. Yes, you want to take the utmost care of a firearm, but anybody who works on a firearm is going to mess up. You’re going to scuff a firearm with a screwdriver. What will make you a real gunsmith is knowing how to fix those things if they happen.”
If there is anything to learn from Erik, it is to never stop building your skills in your trade. There is always something to learn, whether it’s how to work on the trigger mechanism of a unique firearm or how to file your taxes properly. An education like SDI is just a starting point for a career and not an endpoint. The professional world is competitive, and word of mouth will always be the most effective marketing. Erik has further enhanced his business by reaching out to his community and local businesses.
“I want my business to be a part of the community. We try to sponsor events. I have developed a great relationship with a local firearms instructor and have even gotten to know the local police department by routinely taking coffee to them from the Black Rifle Coffee Company.” Erik stated, “I don’t touch their service firearms, but I work on their personal firearms.”
Erik Heine had this to say about his biggest lesson as a gunsmith straight from his mentor, “There is a huge difference between a parts changer and a gunsmith. Anybody can change the parts on a firearm but it takes years of experience, constant learning, and a lot of work to be a gunsmith. You have to really put in the work to learn the skills of customization and how to fix broken parts. These skills can be learned by machining, using a lathe, finding a mentor or by teaching yourself, but you must learn them to call yourself a gunsmith instead of a parts changer. I credit SDI for giving me the opportunity to learn on my own time and build the foundation to start learning to be a gunsmith.”
Erik shows a unique ambition as a business owner. His hunger to learn, his ability to market his business, and his hard work have paved the way for success, and SDI is proud to see his progress. To learn more about Erik’s business, visit http://www.nagunsmithing.com.