Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Cost of a Custom Build

Reader Rich comments on "A Mans Tools"
I doubt if I could afford that much "bling."

But then we all have our hobbies.
Bling? Not hardly. The custom hand carved black ironwood grips I fit to JohnOCs' S&W 1911 last night are bling, in that their function is totally cosmetic (and yes, they are absolutely beautiful with the matte satin stainless and black hard parts on his gun); my modifications are with one (ok maybe two) exception not cosmetic.

Each of the modifications made to my Champion serves a useful purpose. Not only that; but a comparable full custom buildup from a reputable gunsmith would have run me at least $3500, and a production semi-custom gun at least $2500; whereas my total into this gun including the original acquisition cost of $800, is less than $1500.

Not that I deny the costs involved. Good custom guns aren't cheap; but I contend they aren't as expensive as people think. Or rather I should say they are costly, but not expensive; because you are getting good value for your money.

Now, I'm not saying anyone can do this, for this cost; there are several factors in my favor.

First, I chose a platform to start with, that had much of what I want in a custom gun already done to it (including a Nowlin match barrel, and a titanium firing pin; which current production Champions do not have). Had I chosen a more basic model like the Springfield Mil-Spec, the parts and labor cost of this buildup could have easily doubled.

For example, it would have been $600 to buy the gun, $250 to buy the sights, cut and fit two dovetails etc... and that's just on the sights. It would be another $300 to buy and fit the match bull barrel; and then another $300 or so in labor to do the custom machine work that the Champion starts out with, over and above a stock commander (though much of it IS included with the Mil-Spec, just not the GI .45; which is why I recommend the MilSpec as the ideal starting gun for a buildup project); for about $650 in additional cost over the Champion.

If I had chosen to build from a bare frame and slide, I would have had about $400 for the frame and slide, then faced another $300 in machining costs, $150 for the sights, $300 to buy and fit the barrel, and something like another $100-$150 in small parts not listed below (guide rod, recoil spring plug, plunger tube, firing pin and stop etc...) . That totals out to something like $1250-1300 to bring us up to the starting point of the Champion (which as I said cost $800), for an additional cost of $450-$500.

...which just goes to show you why those custom guns actually cost $3500
An aside: This should tell you something about the value inherent in Springfields guns (and to a lesser extent Kimber. They are slightly better guns, but they cost a lot more than "slightly more" money. I usually recommend people go for the Springer).

The Mil-Spec is about the best buildup gun you can buy, at around $600 retail (sometimes as low as $500).

The Springfield loaded line is the best deal in a factory gun there is, at around $900 retail (I got mine for $800) for 80% of all the custom parts and feature of a $2500 gun (an equivalent Kimber is about $200 more)

The TRP is the absolute best full production factory gun you can buy for... really any price, never mind the $1300-1500 it typically sells at; because I consider it comparable to the limited production run $2500 guns from famous custom and semi-custom makers.

The Professional model is in every way as good as a $3500 Wilson, for less than $2500 (and in fact uses many Wilson parts).
Second, I am actually qualified to be a gunsmith. I've had some professional training, as well as having done dozens of trigger jobs, melt jobs, refinishes, basic machine work etc... and I've finished several frames from the rough (it's worth it as a hobby, but not as a means of making cheap guns, trust me). I also have the tools necessary to do so, which aren't exactly a small expense.

Finally, I do get most of my parts at wholesale prices (so can anyone else with their own business by applying for merchant discounts from Brownells, Numrich etc...); which saves me a fair bit (about anywhere from 15-30% on parts).

So yes my buildup was cheaper than most folks would be; by probably $150 on the parts costs, and I was able to use my own labor for a lot of things.

Anyway, let's break it down:
1. Ramped and polished Nowlin match bull barrel, with a fully supported chamber
- (Inc. in cost of gun plus $280 labor for additional fit and polish, plus my labor)

2. Titanium firing pin
- (Inc. in cost of gun)

3. Yost Bonitz Custom Ignition System (sear, hammer, disconnector), 4# pull
- ($110 parts, plus inc. in $280 labor, plus my labor)

4. Ed Brown, ultra short, ultra light, adjustable trigger
- ($30 parts plus inc. in $280 labor, plus my labor)

5. Tuned Ed Brown Hardcore extractor
- ($30 parts, plus inc. in $280 labor, plus my labor)

6. Tuned Ed Brown Hardcore ejector
- ($25 plus my labor)

7. Dual captured recoil system (Wolff 24# primary spring and 8# secondary)
- (inc. in gun, plus $20 parts, plus my labor)

8. Full wolff spring set (main, sear, firing pin, plunger)
- ($25 plus my labor)

9. Tightened and trued frame and slide rails
- (Inc. in $280 labor)

10. Smith and Alexander Checkered arched mainspring housing
- ($50 plus my labor)

11. Smith and Alexander magwell, hand blended into the frame
- (Inc. in $50 above plus my labor)

12. Lowered and flared ejection port
- (Inc. in price of gun)

13. Lowered, extended, and thinned Wilson safety
- ($30 plus my labor)

14. Lowered, extended, and thinned Wilson slide stop
- ($30 plus my labor)

15. Mild dehorning and edge breaking
- (Inc. in $280 labor, plus my labor)

16. Slide and frame flats trued, polished, and brushed; the rest bead blasted
- (Inc. in $280 labor plus my labor)

17. Recessed angle cut muzzle crown
- (Inc. in cost of gun)

18. Novak lo-profile combat sights with tritium inserts.
- (Inc. in cost of gun)

19. Wilson mags (47d) with steel ultrathin base plates
- (Not counted against price of gun)

20. Wraparound hogue finger groove grips, with torx head grip screws
- ($30)
So, that works out to $280 for Ted Yosts labor, plus $390 for the parts that weren't actually included in the gun (it'd be about another $150 to replace the rest of the parts and $150 for the sights), plus $800 for the gun (plus tax, but let's not count that since it varies from state to state), and we have a grand total of ... $1470 (or if we paid full retail price on the parts, $1620), for a gun that would easily cost $2500 even as a semi-production gun like one of the Ed Brown or Wilson production customs; or $3500 as a full custom gun.

Now admitedly, that assumes I went directly to this configuration (and I didn't, there have been several rounds of fitting, and replacing parts that either I didn't like, or didnt work as well as I'd hoped), and doesn't include any value for my labor, which is not inconsiderable.

I would estimate that my labor on the gun, presuming I were going to arrive directly at the configuration listed above, would be something on the order of six hours. Presuming a shop rate of $70 an hour (the rate Yost gave me), thats another $420 added onto our build total, for a grand total of $1890, and still saving me a HUGE amount over the equivalent custom gun from Brown or Wilson.

If I went with a bare frame and slide to start with, it would have cost me about $500 more ($1300 for parts and machine work, minus $800 for the assembled gun), for a total of... gee looky here, somewhere around cost of a factory semi-custom, at about $2400; about half of which is the labor costs associated with it.

That's parts AT COST, no profit included there guys; and about 20 hours of labor (including machine work).

...And some people complain that the custom smiths are charging too much? Believe you me guys, what you are getting for your money is not only worth every penny, it's a bargain.

Of course, next time, I think I may just build my own frame up gun.


Because I want EVERY part, exactly as I want it; I want to use a titanium frame; and I want it in 10mm.

Assuming I do all the labor except the sight cuts and frame machining, and have Caspian do that, it's going to cost me $900 just on the frame and slide; but for that price I'll get a frame and slide I dont need to do any machine work on, except the final fitting.

$235 for the slide
$110 for the slide machining (sight cuts, chamfering, reverse plug)
$375 for the frame
$190 for the frame machining (beavertail, plunger tube, ramp cut, serial#, and hand fit to slide)
$150 for the sights
$220 for a Bar-Sto match bull barrel ($60-80 less for a Nowlin or Kart, which are just as good)
$540 for the hard parts, springs, grips etc... (that's assuming the best quality of everything)

That's $1820 right there, before taking into account any value I'd assign to my own labor.
I'd guess the fitting, finishing, and assembly work is probably something on the order of 12 hours. If we said my time was worth $70 an hour as before, thats another $840 for a grand total of... hey wait a sec, that about $2660, pretty close to that $2500 factory semi-custom job number again.

It would be about $200 less if it were just a stainless frame instead of titanium, and $150 more if you bought the parts at retail instead of wholesale prices for a total of maybe $2450-2650 for a stainless gun that you had built and fit for you. Again, right in the range of the factory semi-customs.

Of course that's assuming you get $70 an hour and it only takes 12 hours. Like I said, there's about 20 hours of labor into my Champion if you include the extra machine and finishing work.

Again, it's usually around $2500 for a semi-custom and $3500 for a full custom gun from a major custom smith like Wilson or Ed Brown.

Think maybe some of those prices are justified now? Expensive means you are paying a lot for what you are getting; I say you are getting a lot for what you are paying.