Gunsmithing business


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Jim K
January 14, 2012, 12:37 AM
A number of posters have asked about starting in as a gunsmith. A few have taken me to task for suggesting that they first take courses in how to run a business, insisting that anyone can do that.

I have also been beat about the head (figuratively) for advising against having the business in the house or adjacent to it.

Here is a lament I recently heard which, IMHO, shows that my advice should be at least considered.


An acquaintance was lamenting about relations with his local gunsmith, a man who does quite good work. BUT....

He is open only four days a week and not on Saturdays.

His shop is a build-on to his house, so he is always locking the door and going for a snack, to the bathroom, to fix this or that, to help his wife, to watch a TV show, etc.

He makes appointments and doesn't keep them. A customer will call and be told to come in at 2 pm. When the customer comes in at 2 pm, he finds the door locked; if he calls on his cell phone, he gets an answering machine. This happens repeatedly.

He promises that work will be done in some set period, say a week. But it never is. He didn't have the part and had to order. He was sick. He was out of town. An emergency came up. He didn't get the work to his co-worker (he farms out almost everything, but won't tell the customers that).

Even when he calls the customer to tell him the work is ready, and makes an appointment for a time to pick it up, he won't stick around; the customer finds the door locked.



The last time my acquaintance actually talked to the gunsmith, the man was lamenting that business was bad, and blaming the economy. My acquaintance tried to tell him some of the things he was doing wrong, but the gunsmith just kept blaming the Obama administration.

Not Obama. Not even Bush. Or Clinton. Or Abe Lincoln. That man has no one to blame but himself for his "business" going down the drain.

Jim

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Mac's
January 14, 2012, 12:06 PM
You're absolutely correct. Another thing that I would add is of a legal nature concerning running the business out of your home. Like any business, it's good to protect yourself from idiots and other assorted morons. Liabilty insurance is expensive, especially so since it involves firearms. A Limited Liabilty Corporation is a good idea and a good alternative to liabilty insurance. A lawsuit can only get the business, not you or your home, etc. The problem arises though when the business is part of the home. What part is business and what part is home?
Regarding taking a business course: WOW! That's advice that I wish I had taken before starting this business! I learned it the hard way. "Huh? What do you mean I have to pay taxes? Well, why can't I deduct my beer and coffee? Those are operating expenses! Advertising? Advertising? I thought they would just all know about how great we are! Why CAN'T I hire my freinds to work in the shop? Oh so now we're back to the beer huh? I told you already! Those are operating expenses!!"
Keep yer powder dry, Mac.
Mac's Shootin' Irons

dfariswheel
January 14, 2012, 10:12 PM
I'm in the same boat.
I've tried to explain to people that a self-employed gunsmith is NOT a gunsmith.... he's a businessman who happens to own a gunsmithing business.
Many otherwise good gunsmiths have gone out of business because they didn't understand this and pay attention to the business aspects of it.

Too many people have the picture in mind of them working away in a nice shop working on guns.
The reality is that you spend a LOT of time doing paperwork for one level or another of the government, ordering parts and supplies, talking to potential customers, handling customer complaints, doing the books and tax paperwork, and paying bills.

The people who don't understand this soon find themselves out of business, deeply in debt and wondering what in the world just happened.

The other side is a poor work ethic and work habits. Too many people are too prone to shooting the bull with friends and customers and taking long breaks instead of understanding the hours versus wage dynamic.
These people often suddenly notice that they somehow went out of business while they were on break.

Being a gunsmith can be a lot of fun, but you better understand that it's a business first. You have to do whatever the business requires irregardless of whether it's a particular job you hate doing or your best bud Joe wants to talk about something.

FROGO207
January 15, 2012, 10:04 AM
I was in business for myself for 10 years. Not gunsmithing. I decided after this amount of time that when doing the math working for $1.25 an hour while billing the work out at $25 an hour was not worth it.:banghead: I was a good guy and had a lot of "friends" that would not pay until the next problem needed addressing for one thing. Also I had a lot of inventory "shrink" as I shared a space with a couple other guys that did not pay any attention to people wandering through while I was gone on service work.:cuss: Many other things added to that and I decided to just work for someone else and not be on call 24-7. I was glad that I had a different job skill that I could fall back on and distance me from the previous profession. One thing that stands out was that I was in my apartment (attached to the business building) in the bathroom sitting on the toilet. The door opens and a customer walks in and sits on the side of the tub and starts to describe the problem. I hit the roof and started swearing at him and HE was offended that I would swear at him while he was talking.:what::what: That same day I stopped taking in work, thought over what was happening, finished my obligations, and shut down the shop within 2 weeks.

Yes the term "a businessman owning a gunshop" is a correct definition. You will spend twice as much time on the paperwork part as you do on the gunshop/smith part I will tell you before you start. Also just because you can fix a few gun problems this does not make you a gunsmith. After you break a couple or a dozen high end firearms and have to replace them then you will realize there is a need for at least an armorers course for that particular firearm. I thought I was smart till I actually attended one of these and had my eyes opened up. Dont forget the liability insurance either.:o I will say you are way braver than I if you do open your own gunshop.:scrutiny:

Jim K
January 16, 2012, 01:01 AM
Boy, oh, boy. I have posted several times about just those points and have been called crazy and told that I was trying to discourage folks from making big bucks as gunsmiths. I have been told that a gunsmithing course is stupid and unnecessary; that a business course is not needed; that machinist training is silly; that $1000 in capital is more than enough.

I don't want to discourage anyone from going into business for himself; it is the American way. But to start a technical business while completely ignorant of both the technical and business aspects, seems to be heading for disaster.

IMHO, a home gun business can attract some very nasty folks, but I know of one case that almost resulted in divorce. The family was roused at 4 am on opening day of deer season, not by burglars, but by a guy who wanted the gunsmith to repair the rifle he broke last season. The wife was not amused and only a quick deal on a business location saved the marriage.

Jim

Frogomatik
January 16, 2012, 06:55 AM
as others have said, the reality of being a self employed gunsmith is spending as much or more time managing the business as actually doing any gunsmithing. You really have to be dedicated and prepared to put in a lot of very long hours for only a modest income.

BBBBill
January 16, 2012, 11:43 AM
This ought to be a sticky. Whenever anyone brings up the subject, they could be directed to read this (homework) and be prepared for a test afterwards. :D

moto_stevo
January 17, 2012, 12:19 AM
What is a realistic expectation for gross income. I'm considering a job change at 41 years old. I've been a carpenter for 25 years specializing in trim carpentry. My wages have gone down with the illegal labor here in Colorado and the housing market stinks. I've managed to keep food on the table but that's about it. I also know my body can't take it for 20 more years. The Colorado school of trades is not too far, but I'm trying to figure out if the commitment will payoff

Clark
January 17, 2012, 06:44 AM
Q: What would you do if you inherited $100,000?
A: I would gunsmith, until it was all gone.

Mizar
January 17, 2012, 02:07 PM
I can only add - gunsmithing is an art, it's a gift - same as being a musician, or painter. Vocation if you want... Everyone can become armorer, very few can become gunsmiths.

boris

dfariswheel
January 17, 2012, 08:10 PM
What is a realistic expectation for gross income.

Income depends on many factors.

You'll "probably" make more if you work for someone else, especially a larger company. Big custom shops like Wilson and the gun companies all employ gunsmiths. So do large companies that do research and use gunsmiths, Federal agencies, and the bigger gun stores.
In these you usually get at least decent money with benefits, etc.

If you're self employed, once you figure in the hours you spend doing the businessman functions, most gunsmiths aren't making much more then minimum wage.
The one's that do make more money have gained national reputations and are in great demand. These people also are able to to world-class work FAST.
The people who make real money are people like Wilson who are running a big shop and employ a number of gunsmiths.

Generally, gunsmiths don't make a lot of money, so you have to get "paid" by job satisfaction and live a lower key life.
You won't be earning big money , living in a large house, and driving an expensive car.

Again, there's the old joke:
"How's a large pizza and a gunsmith the same?
Neither can feed a family of four".

Clark
January 18, 2012, 01:42 AM
http://www.thehighroad.org/attachment.php?attachmentid=156265&d=1325816917

I am an amateur gunsmith, with all the TIG welding and lathe equipment, but I got a REAL gunsmith to fix this forcing cone that I blew out. He welded in drill rod material.

He charged me $30.

My brother has a TIG welding certificate, and HE can't weld that well.

JohnBT
January 18, 2012, 09:26 AM
My buddy has been a self-employed working plumber with a couple of trucks on the road for 35 years. He does paperwork/computer stuff/ordering/billing every morning from 4 to 6 a.m. to get it out of the way before he heads to the first job.

Another friend has been a self-employed bankruptcy attorney for a similar period and he has the same type of paperwork headaches and overhead expenses (not counting the expense of keeping trucks on the road.)

Ever notice how many of the very successful gunsmiths soon develop a line of products like sights, 1911 parts or scope mounts for revolvers? You can only make so much money working with your two hands due to the limited number of hours in a day.

JT

FROGO207
January 18, 2012, 11:16 AM
Believe me---If I coulda' I already woulda'.:D

Jim K
January 18, 2012, 01:52 PM
A point touched on above, but which needs more attention. If you do set up a gunsmith shop, find enough money to hire someone to work the counter. Gunsmith shops attract gun nuts (OK, I plead guilty, your honor!) who want to gab (er, talk about future work) and if the gunsmith stops to gab he loses money, big time. The gunsmith can be everyone's friend and adviser, or he can be a gunsmith, but not both. So get someone at either end of the age spectrum, a kid who wants to hang out in a gun shop or a retired person who knows guns, to take care of the customers. If a customer really needs work done and wants specifics, then the gunsmith can chip in. But the counter guy should be able to handle the fellow who wants his .30-'06 "rechambered" to .223 or his old Damascus-barrel double reamed out to take 3 1/2 inch Magnum shells.

Jim

JRH6856
January 18, 2012, 02:41 PM
You may be a self-taught expert on one or two platforms, may be able to do 2 or three things well enough to impress your friends and have strangers begging you to do the same for them. You may know enough about other platforms and procedures to be able to figure it out. This may encourage you to go into business doing these things. You will soon find that 95% of the customers that come in have problems you have never seen before and have no idea how to solve. You may be asked to do a lot, but rarely is it the things you do well that led you to offer these services to others. And if you try to limit yourself to just the things you do well, you won't get enough business to pay for the coffee that you will have plenty of time to drink.

If you turn away people who have problems you can't fix, they will usually not be back when they have problems you can fix. So you take in the work and try to find someone to farm it out to. Then you have to pay him to do the work while you still have to do the paperwork and you won't make enough off the job to pay for your time. Pretty soon you find that you are just an agent for several other businesses and next thing you know you are just like the guy in JimK's opening post.

blarby
January 18, 2012, 02:51 PM
Ok, heres a little chum for the pot :

Anyone know any smiths taking on apprentices ?

Most blue-collar type employment offers this... a quick google-moogley reveals not so much on the gunsmith.

Most, if not all, of the training that's being offered here would come in on an apprenticeship pretty easily, yes ?

Fleet
January 18, 2012, 03:55 PM
Ok, heres a little chum for the pot :

Anyone know any smiths taking on apprentices ?

Most blue-collar type employment offers this... a quick google-moogley reveals not so much on the gunsmith.

Most, if not all, of the training that's being offered here would come in on an apprenticeship pretty easily, yes ?
Most blue collar trades come with unions that provide the apprenticeships, yes. Or you might be able to start as a "helper" somewhere, like the local large truck dealership. As has been pointed out, most gunsmiths are one man shows.

Burnie
January 18, 2012, 04:22 PM
Well there goes my retirement dream. I own a small franchise business and was thinking that gunsmithing would be nice to work into retirement. I'm glad you all burst my bubble and brought me back to reality.

ColtPythonElite
January 18, 2012, 06:29 PM
I know two gunsmiths. One is a machinist by trade and learned gunsmithing hands on over 5 decades out of passion. The other got a piece of paper from a community college hoping to make a living. The first is still in business, but will tell you he doesn't do it for the money. The latter closed up shop in less than 2 years after bumming up more guns than he fixed.

moto_stevo
January 18, 2012, 11:17 PM
If I go to a school... Specifically the Colorado Trade School of Gunsmithing and finish in outstanding fashion ( I am 41 years old and have been a carpenter for a lifetime. I understand craftsmanship). Can I expect a future or at least a job offer? I currently make 45k a year and have seen my wages drop due to the housing market over the past ten years. I am good at what I do, so don't tell me I get low wages because I'm not good at it. I have not missed a day in five years and cannot think of vacation because I an than busy. I just know I don't make enough to retire, and my body won't last until 65. Anyone got a straight answer to a straight question?

Clark
January 19, 2012, 03:08 PM
My brother in law is a lawyer and makes over $500k/year, and I can't teach him parallel from series in hooking up his electric trains.

My favorite gunsmith pays taxes on $30k/year, and I am always amazed at the things he figures out or invents.

Mac's Precision
January 19, 2012, 05:27 PM
I have seen a number of guys WANT to start up a shop. It is a bit cloudy for them to understand that a slim understanding of a few guns does not make you a 'smith. Just because you have successfully assembled an AR from a kit or put some bling parts on an 870....or put a bunch of parts together making a custom 10/22 doesn't represent what goes on in a shop.

The ability to make mods to working guns is great. It is a starting point and surely fuels the interest in learning. But dressing a gun in bling is not gunsmithing. What does a guy do when he is presented with a S&W that needs to be timed? What about one that needs some love with the babbet bars? What about a great many other pit falls that get the best of those of us that are skilled? I routinely encounter things that make me go Hmmmm.... Normally it is deciding how to fix a gun that has mistakes from another guy. Sometimes that gets pretty elaborate...to solve something really ugly. I routinely think to myself..."boy...good thing I had this special machine...or that tool....or that experience as I wouldn't have been successful with out it". Or....boy try that at home without a machine shop at hand. It is a specialized art...with specialized tools that require a lifetime of skills. It is the ability to apply proper techniques in a timely fashion to produce industry standard results for a cost the customer won't have a fit over.

Here's the thing, a proper working gunsmith needs to have a pretty vast knowledge of gun systems, gun history, manufacturing techniques, machine work, welding and heat treat, engineering and tolerances, wood working, finishing of metal and wood, AND then add on the need to handle paperwork, legal matters, the ability to speak to a wild array of customer personalities....AND then possess all the tools, machines, supplies...THEN....have the place to do the work that is secure, heated and proper with safe storage facilities.....Then there is the issues of paying for liability and property insurance as well as getting zoned and approved...and a book keeper and accountant. Whew...THAT was a long sentence.

It isn't just hang a shingle and get after it. It is a LOT of work...a huge pain in the arse at times...and I could make 3x the money working for someone else. I do it because I love it and I'm really too crippled to work for someone else....not because I am making a killing. Show me a guy talented enough to successfully run a shop and I'll show you a guy that is talented enough to make serious money as the right hand man working for someone else.

In the last dozen years or so of reading things in forums I have seen some pics of work posted that are quite good. There are some guys on the forum lists that have genuine talent. Guys that show real promise as working gunsmiths. I have seen some very well executed restoration jobs and modifications. Now are those guys good candidates to run a shop at home? Maybe, maybe not. They might be really obsessive machinists that are VERY much anti social. They might not be paper work kinda guys. They might really hate the idea of dealing with the ATF. They might be VERY motivated to work their guns since they get to keep the end product. They also might have put a million hours into a job that if done in a business setting would cost as much as a new car.

Point is, not every guy has ALL the right skills and the right personality to make all the parts of a gunsmith shop work. Not every guy has a fully functional machine shop and the thousands of dollars of tools to confidently take on every job that will walk in the door. Is it the right way to make enough money to retire well. Probably not.

Jim K
January 19, 2012, 07:48 PM
A lot of good info; I am glad I started this thread. I have seen a lot of previous "I want to be a gunsmith" threads that usually end up in the "FFL and a mill bastard file" department. I felt it was time to get serious about the business end of running a store, whether a gun store, a gunsmithing shop or, for that matter any kind of hobby business.

The first gunsmith I worked for used to go ballistic when an employee talked about taking off to go hunting. "If you are going to be a gunsmith, forget about going hunting. Your job is to fix some guy's gun so he can go hunting. If you forget that, you go broke."

Jim

moto_stevo
January 19, 2012, 08:54 PM
Mac's Precision, thanks for a realistic response. I do understand the running of a business as I have been self employee for ten years now. I have a building contractors license and do most of my work for other contractors. Usually because they can't figure out how to build custom rooflines or cabinets or some odd design feature. I have resigned to the fact that I will never be able to enjoy retirement. As i states in previous posts, my intention is to do the school route. My real question is; is there a real market for a gunsmith, ideally working in someone else's shop. I don't have the capital to invest in a mill, lathe, tig welder etc. I will also be taking out some loans if I do pursue this career path to cover living expenses and tuition. Satisfaction wise I know it will payoff, but satisfaction doesn't pay the bills.
I'm willing to put in the time. I am a real problem solver... On a daily basis. I just can't afford to lose my home and not feed my family ( wife and one son we aren't the octuplette types)

moto_stevo
January 19, 2012, 09:01 PM
Jim K, thanks for starting this thread. Lots of good info

Mac's Precision
January 19, 2012, 09:37 PM
Well, everyone's circumstances are different and so I can't say what works for you. Regarding the market for a gunsmith in another person's shop: I don't know what kind of businesses are in your area but I would STRONGLY suggest you do your homework first. You need to establish a realistic idea of what the market looks like in your area.

Just because Bob, Harry or Jim says that they make a killing doing gunsmithing doesn't mean your area is able to support it. Those guys might live in a very PRO gun area and they have customers 9 deep every morning waiting for the doors to open. They also may have worked long and hard to establish a customer base that is loyal. Do your leg work and really see. Go to the local shops and ask them. If you aren't looking to invest the thousands of dollars in equipment and running your own shop you had best be darn sure you have a place to work before you commit time to learning a trade and taking loans.

Regarding loans: I wouldn't advise anyone to take a loan on a "what if". Only take the loan if you have a 100% reliable method to pay it back. Speculating on your future ability to get employed as a 'smith is a bit risky. Don't take a loan based on a Gun Shop owner saying "yeah...you get trained...I'll hire you". Things change and if the market gets a bit soft...he may back out. You are in up to your eyeballs in debt...and no gunsmith job. Make sure you can pay the loan back with the work you do in construction. Make sure you have a bit of cushion in your bank account before you plan to negotiate a career change as there will be some time where income will be spotty. While the job might change your bills are a daily demand. You don't want to be getting upside down while you try to get the next flow of cash up and running.

I don't mean to sound discouraging, but rather take it as a word of caution and a directive to make darn certain of what you are aiming at before you flip off the safety. If you can get the stars to align and find a nice spot for you, the right shop, the right owner, it could all be great.

In the right circumstances working on guns can be rewarding. Now that doesn't mean to say you are going to make a million bucks. You likely wont. But the reward comes in personal satisfaction of turning out quality work. Satisfaction doesn't put the dinner on the table so make sure that what ever shop you connect with can provide. Be very honest about it, and when you think you've done enough leg work....do some more. Ask more questions. Know your market.

Also realize that "new" gunsmiths are treated with quite a bit of distrust. Until you have some time under your belt and a lengthy list of satisfied customers people are hesitant to have you fix their pride and joy. Gun shop owners know this and will also be hesitant to put a new man in the shop. You have a better shot at it in a shop that already does gunsmithing and HAS a senior 'smith on staff. You'll be hired and watched over by a trusted man.

This can be both good and bad. If he is a good 'smith you can learn a LOT from him. If he is a known 'hack' you want to be as FAR away from him as possible. Ask around, shake the trees, find out who is the VERY BEST in your area and go talk to them. Remember this guy get's paid by the hour, so if you are going to beat him to death for information and take an hour or more of his time, I'd expect to compensate him. I see it like this, your looking to gain enough information to base a life change on....$50.00 is a cheap fee.

moto_stevo
January 19, 2012, 10:49 PM
Mac's Precision, thank you for your input. I will do my homework these next few months before making the hard decision. I believe the market to be decent here in Colorado.... Everyone I know is pro gun. I will find out for sure soon enough. We ( my family ) are not opposed to relocating either... So long as there are wild outdoors nearby

Thanks again,
Stevo

Mac's Precision
January 20, 2012, 12:29 AM
You betcha...do what you have to ...just make sure you have all your ducks in a row. Let us know how things turn out. If you have more questions feel free to ask, we'll all do what we can to keep you on the straight and narrow. Best of luck.

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