ShopTalk with Kip Carpenter: Top 10 Mistakes New Gunsmiths Make

  • SDI Admin

“Excuse me sir, I’m really sorry, it seems that my screwdriver slipped and I scratched the surface of your pistol. No, I did not realize this was one of Wyatt Earp’s revolvers. I have not put together my insurance but I can make payments to reimburse you.” This is the conversation that you may have right before you put a “closed” sign on your business doors…and leave it there.

You may never work on Wyatt Earp’s revolver, but you will work on firearms that mean a lot to the people who own them. With a little bit of advice, you might avoid mistakes while starting out as a gunsmith. Like any school, you will emerge from SDI with the fundamental knowledge and skills to pursue a career, but these assets can only take you so far. You must be an employable commodity, you must gain workplace experience, and you must avoid serious mistakes. The following is a conversation with our resident guru, Kip Carpenter, regarding the top 10 mistakes he has encountered from new gunsmiths.

10. Buying all the latest and greatest.
When starting out as a gunsmith there are a lot of tempting, shiny tools out there that you would love to get your hands on. In Kip’s words, “You have to consider your return on investment (ROI). I advise new gunsmiths to buy as they go and if it is a unique situation, borrow or rent equipment. There is no reason to buy a top-of-the-line lathe if you are going to do one or two barrels per year.” It is easy to run out of startup capital on tools. Instead, use your money wisely. If you decide to make any major investments, look at inexpensive advertising or any other spending that might increase your business. Then worry about diving into the Brownells catalog.

9. Verify your licensing.
In every state, there are rules and regulations on what it takes to be an operating gunsmith. New gunsmiths need to make sure their business is completely covered, especially with your FFL. Kip has seen this on several occasions. “One time there was a new gunsmith I knew that was chatting at a local gun shop about his first business. They asked him about his FFL and he stated that it was supposed to arrive the next day. As it so happened, there was a firearms inspector at the same counter and this gunsmith’s business was immediately ruined by fines as well as risk for jail time.” Under no conditions should you start working before you have the proper paperwork in order.

8. Set up your shop and use what you have.
When starting out, it is very tempting to find a large space to set up shop. Like buying all the new tools out there, don’t spend your capital on the biggest and best shop location. Don’t be afraid to use your garage or home shop. It is very difficult to effectively set yourself up for success with a huge rent hanging over your head. Consider your funding and manage it conservatively.

7. Get insurance.
In the beginning of this article, a situation was presented where the gunsmith could not cover the damage to a firearm that was under their care. Operating without insurance can be a slippery slope and it is easy to overlook as a business owner. Insurance costs money, but not nearly as much as a potential mistake on a customer’s firearm. As Kip warned, “Attorneys are sharp. And if you are not covered, you can kiss your business goodbye. Under no condition should you operate as a gunsmith without insurance to cover you. Mistakes happen in business and you must keep yourself safe for when they do.”

6. Stay honest.
Honesty in business seems to be a no-brainer, but little white lies in business are easy. They usually go something like, “Yeah, I can totally do that for you.” Overpromising and underdelivering is a sure path to destroy your startup. When starting as a gunsmith, be careful and realistic about your abilities. Be honest with customers if they have requested something you are not familiar with. Let them know that you can outsource the service or that there will be a learning curve as you go. If they have made too large of a request for you to cover, do not be afraid to recommend somebody else. You may lose a small amount of business to this honesty, but it will not be nearly as bad as the damage that your reputation could take if you tell a customer that you can do something if you have not developed those skills.

5. Buy good tools.
Eventually, you will be required to buy tools. If you have managed your finances conservatively, you will have the budget to do so. Kip has sage advice for these purchases, “When you need to buy a new tool, make sure you buy a good one. Nothing is worse than spending your hard-earned money on a brand-new tool that breaks after a few uses, or worse—something that damages the firearm that you are working on. Files are a great example.” Make sure to find quality brands from reputable sources and do your research on consumer forums before purchasing the tools. When your livelihood depends on it, make sure you use equipment that will hold up.

4. Time management.
Managing your time covers all aspects of your business. You must be wise with how you spend your time at work. Allocate your time to activities that help your bottom line as a business owner. There are a lot of distractions when working for yourself, so it is important to make sure that your choices are helping your business. Managing your time also becomes important when it comes to billing. Kip explained, “Try to avoid billing by the hour. Some gunsmiths are faster than others and some tasks can run into complications. It is important for your reputation not to end up in a situation where you have exorbitant costs passed unexpectedly to your customers. Instead, gauge a cost for the proposed tasks and stick to those estimates. This will ensure that your customers get what they expect.”

3. Be careful.
Mistakes happen to the best of gunsmiths. Kip knows this well and exercises absolute caution when working on a project for a customer. In Kip’s words, “You wouldn’t believe how much painters tape I use on a project. Even if I’m removing a screw, I will surround it with three layers of tape just to make sure I don’t slip and damage the firearm.” Kip also recommends getting a hold of some cheap practice firearms to perfect your process and ensure the greatest care for your work.

2. Don’t overextend yourself.
This falls in line with staying honest with your customers and extends to being honest with yourself. While working on a project, you will encounter situations where you must try something new. It is important to recognize when you are in over your head. This is another situation where purchasing practice firearms will be beneficial. If you find yourself challenged by a project, try to obtain a duplicate part or firearm to make sure you have honed your skills to complete the task at hand. If this is not possible, reach out to your customer. Instead of diving in to tackle a possibly risky situation, use open communication with your client and be honest with yourself about your abilities. Your reputation depends on it.

1. Check your ego.
With youth comes exuberance. Exuberance also comes with developing a new business. Kip noted this as the single most common and biggest mistake that he sees from new gunsmiths. Firearms create a lot of opinions and it is easy to develop your own. It is of the utmost importance as a business owner to forget much of your skill in conveying your opinions and to concentrate on your listening abilities. As Kip says, “You’ve got to keep yourself humble. I have been saved several times by doing this. You never know when the client standing across from you might have been the inventor of the trigger mechanism you are about to discuss negatively. More practically, you will often talk with clients who have done their own work on their firearms. Some of these clients have more experience than yourself and just might not have the time to do their own work. Keeping yourself humble will ensure quality relationships throughout your business life.” Your number one commodity is you and your reputation. Clients return and recommend people that listen and people that they like. Keep this in mind as the single greatest investment you can make in your business.

Opening a new gunsmithing business is difficult and a significant number of businesses do not make it past five years. Avoiding these pitfalls will help you on your path to success while trying to forge your gunsmithing career.

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