Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Project Hal

This little 400lb crate:

Is what I was waiting for to arrive, before I made the announcement.

Inside said 400lb crate, is a Seig SuperX3 Mill drill; the best of the Chinese made benchtop mills, here in the guise of the Grizzly G0619 "small mill drill" (it's also available from Jet, and from Shop Fox):

It's one step up from the "mini mills" and "hobby mills" out there, and one step down from a freestanding vertical mill. I've got a power feed for it, and it's got a built in DRO on the quill, and for the spindle RPM. I just need to put a multi-axis DRO on the table and head (and I may CNC it. There's a number of CNC conversion kits out there for it).

Significantly though, it's the smallest mill I would consider adequate for general gunsmithing; with a 1hp motor, a 21"x6" table,  16"x6" table travel, and a no-retram 90 degree rotating millhead. With a 6" rotary table, a 6" cross slide vise, a 6" tilting vise, and a full set of clamps and blocks (all of which I've also purchased) that's enough mill capacity and capability for any gunsmithing operation I can think of short of milling a full stock, or an entire precision shooting fixture.

With this, and the 26" metal lathe (and other tools of course) I've acquired; I feel that I can make my announcement.

I have set up a full machine shop, and wood shop; and I am becoming a full time (or at least most of the time) gunsmith, metal fabricator, and woodwright.

I'm an engineer by nature and by education; with degrees in aerospace engineering, and computer science. I've got almost 20 years employment in some type of engineering work (mostly in IT), and more than 10 years in technical management. I also build and repair computer systems, storage, and networking equipment.

What most don't know (though I have mentioned it here before several times), is that I'm also a trained and experienced metal fabricator, finish carpenter, cabinet maker, and furniture restorer and refinisher (both by interest, and by former employment).

I've been fabricating in wood and metal both professionally, and as a hobby, since I was a teenager.  I've also been working professionally with computers and networks since I was a teenager.

I started my first business while I was in high school, building computers and networks for doctors and lawyers offices etc... I've been working in IT ever since.

From the age of 13, I was also employed part time (and occasionally full time) at my uncles furniture restoration and refinishing shop; where I learned fine carpentry, cabinet making, and furniture finishing and restoration. On the side, I built and finished a couple of boats, more than a couple of guitars, a lot of furniture... basically anything in wood that I felt like messing with.

Other jobs I had as a teenager and during college included an apprentice fabricator at a custom bicycle shop, where I learned to weld and braze (including aluminum and titanium), and where I first learned machinework; and as an auto and motorcycle mechanic.

I've been making knives and swords since I was 17; when a friend of mine in the SCA introduced me to forging, and stock removal knife making. Right now I have several knives that I either made, or heavily modified from stock blades (regrind, reshape, refinish, new grip scales etc...); and I have given several as gifts over the years.

I started gunsmithing... (or more accurately, armorer work since I at the time I didn't do any firearms machine work. Just fitting and filing) when I was 21; working mostly on ARs, AKs, SKS's, and 1911s.

Again, I've never stopped doing that, both as a hobby, and periodically as a business. Over the past 15 years or so, I've done hundreds of trigger jobs and action jobs, and a lot of parts fitting; on Glocks, SIGs, 1911s, and various rifles; and built dozens of ARs, and Remington 700 type rifles (as well as a few other types of guns here and there).  I've also been a firearms trainer (I was NRA certified), and a shop armorer and class III armorer, for several different businesses.

Recently, I've built a number of full custom 1911s, and several precision long range rifles, on the TC Encore, Remington 700, and Winchester model 70 platforms. I've also done a few Saiga conversions, and some rebuilding and refinishing work.

The reason I haven't referred to myself as a professional gunsmith before, was because as far as I'm concerned, you aren't a gunsmith if you don't have the shop and tools necessary to build a gun from bare metal (minus rifling the barrel, which almost no-one has the machines for anymore); and I haven't ever had the space, time, and cash, all at the same time, to have such a shop.

This is the same reason why I haven't referred to myself as a cabinetmaker or furniture restorer. Without a shop to work with, you're just another carpenter.

I've done gunsmithing work for years, using other peoples gear, and using hand tools and light power tools (the dremel tool can be your friend, as well as your enemy); but I haven't been able to do the kind of work I wanted to do.

I've been doing light finish carpentry, making furniture, and restoring antiques for years, using whatever home grade tools I had at the time. Again, I haven't been able to do the work I wanted to do.

As of now, that is no longer true. Now I have the tools, and the space, to do what I want to do.

I have spent the last few months, and about $30,000; building a custom wood and metal fabrication shop, here on my property in Sagle Idaho.

The last tools to purchase were the mill, and the metal lathe (I've had a wood lathe since last year). I ordered them a few weeks ago, and the Mill arrived today (the lathe hasn't shown up yet, but it was supposed to be here today as well).

So, in this post, I am formally announcing the formation of Crispin Arms, and Crispin Fabrication; joining Crispin Press and Crispin Consulting, as subsidiaries of Crispin Enterprises.

Crispin Arms - 

Crispin Arms is a small gunsmithing shop, FFL dealer, Class 3 SOT, manufacturer of firearms and class III items (paperwork is filed and pending on all of those requiring federal licensing); maker of custom knives; and manufacturer of high precision, custom loaded ammunition.

We specialize in custom gunsmithing, ammosmithing, bladesmithing, custom fabrication in metal and wood, and firearms repair; including repair of class III items, and fabrication and fitting of hard to find and out of production parts for firearms and class III items.

Crispin Arms has particular expertise in 1911 type pistols, and long range rifles.

Crispin Fabrication -

Crispin Fabrication is a fabrication, repair, restoration, and finishing shop for wood and metal.

Services including custom machining, custom sheetmetal work, welding, custom electronics and electronics repair, wood and metal finishing and refinishing (including spray and chemical finishes, but not plating or heart cured finishes), wood and metal repair and restoration, and antique repair and restoration.

Crispin Fabrication has particular expertise in automotive, powersport and motorsport applications; aviation applications; boating and marine applications; guitar repair and fabrication; and furniture repair and restoration.

We also manufacture specialty tools and fixtures, and custom and reproduction parts, for all of the industries and interests above.

So, what's next?

Well, I've got the tools, and I've got the building.

I have a 32' x 32' fully insulated and heated shop space; with a second floor, heated, clean air, spray booth (I have both HVLP and high pressure systems. I spend the money to get a Japanese made professional turbine; because you can't cheap out on HVLP setups) , and a storage loft.

I've also got a dedicated 400 square feet in my finished and climate controlled basement; for office work, clean work, and benchwork, and for a secure storage space.

It's small, but with the way I've got things set up (everything is either on a wall, or on rolling stands) it's enough, and it's cheap to run.

The only thing space wise I don't have, that I'd really like, is a space for a vehicle lift (I have a bike lift, and an overhead hoist, and enough clear space to get a truck up on stands; but not enough for a lift), and a loading dock for truck deliveries. Frankly, I can live without them.

Now I need to finish putting the shop together, setting the tools up, setup the storage and organization etc... That's going to take me a few weeks.

I have local resources arranged for plating, anodizing, powdercoating, engraving, and anything else I can't do in my shop (including whatever machining or welding I can't do on my own).

I'm already setup to do stock removal knife making; excepting that I haven't built a heat treating oven yet (and yes, I'm going to build one, not buy one. You can build one for a hell of a lot less than the $2500 they charge for even a small 1500 degree setup).

I will also be building a forge, and hand forging implements, tools, and blades; but that is a ways down the road. 

I've got the paperwork in on my dealers and manufacturers FFL right now. That will take anywhere from a few weeks, to a couple months to clear. I don't plan on focusing on sales of new or used firearms ( I want local shops to send me business, not see me as a competitor); but I will conduct transfers, group buys, and other FFL type stuff. In the mean time, I have an arrangement with a local gun shop to do transfers, to sell my custom guns, and to act as their shop gunsmith. 

Once my FFL comes through, I will file as a Class III SOT; which will take another couple months.

I'm hoping that within the next six months, I'll be able to manufacture, customize, and repair, any kind of firearm I choose, or my customers choose to send me.

Not only that, I'm creative, and I'm skilled mechanically and in materials. I don't just copy and fix, I design new things; and new ways of doing things. I can create original designs, and I can execute them. I plan on doing any type of custom fabricating people want to pay for, and I have the skills to execute.

I'm currently taking advanced machining and advanced welding classes locally, to refresh and expand my skills. I know how to do both, but I am by no means a master at either; and I can always use more practice time, and new skills and techniques. I may become a certified welder, and get a machinists certificate in the process, simply to have as points on my resume. 

Of course, I'll be working locally, through the blog, and through my contacts in the gun world, to generate business. There are a lot of folks out there who have seen my work on 1911s and precision rifles; and a lot of people who have felt my trigger work. I am willing to bet you that many of them would say they've never felt a better trigger than on one of my 1911s, or on my S&W 625.

There's also a few folks who have seen (or own) my custom furniture and wood working pieces; and they'll tell you they've never seen a better piece, with a better finish, than I make.

Tomorrow, I'm going to post an example of a product I intend to sell, made by hand, in wood and metal; and that I can make and sell many of, with relatively low overhead.

As I mentioned in the other post, we've got a few months worth of living expenses banked; but until I can get the shop in full swing, I'm going to be taking IT contracts, and possibly a full time position locally if I can find one worthwhile. I'm actively looking as of now.

Frankly, getting out of debt and then setting up the shop were both FAR more expensive than I thought they would be, totalling almost $80,000 altogether. After the IRS took its share of my severance,  I paid off our debt, and I paid for the shop; there is a lot less left over than I am happy with (I originally intended to have a full years worth of bills and expenses banked).

The fact is, until I can book between $5,000 and $7,000 a month in revenue, I'm not going to be able to do this full time.  In fact, I may never be able to drop IT consulting entirely; but I see the value in having the tools, and keeping up the skills, for these pursuits.

Every good gunsmith I know has a multimonth (or in some cases multi-year) backlog of work of course; but it took them years to get to that point. I expect it will take me some time to get to the point where I have as much gunsmithing and fabricating work as I can handle; if I ever get to that point. 

Over the next few years, I think it's going to be very valuable, to have the skills and tools to work locally, on things that need to be built and repaired locally.  I think having those skills, tools and equipment, will, long term; provide at least as much value as I could provide with the much higher revenue I would be generating in IT consulting.

Plus, it's just something I want to do.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be doing a number of posts about setting up the shop, the tools, the costs, the services well be offering etc...

Oh and of course, I need to setup the web sites for Crispin Arms and Crispin Fabrication. Haven't done that yet. 

I'll also be doing tool reviews, and posts about building the shop fixtures, furniture, some of the projects I've done lately, and items I'm offering for sale.

Also, I'm going to get back to real gun blogging. I have a lot of content queued up and ready to go; with a bunch more partially written waiting for me to finish. I plan on having at least three major updates or substantive posts every week; and I'd like to get one out every day if I can.

So... why am I doing this, AND computer work, AND publishing?

The fact is, it's tough for a small business owner out there.

The only single one of these businesses that could (at least for now) provide enough revenue on it's own to be self sustaining, and to provide my family with the standard of living I want (at least without working more hours a week than I'm happy with) is the IT consulting; so that's what I've spent most of my time and effort on over the past 15 years.

Even under the best of circumstances, I don't think I could provide for my family with nothing but gunsmithing and gun sales revenue, or publishing revenue, or local computer systems building and repair; or even all of them combined.

It's just not viable at my scale.

To keep the lights on here, costs us about $4500 a month; between rent, utilities, bills, food, and gas. That's a net income requirement, just to pay the bills, of about $54,000 a year. That doesn't account for any savings, any vacations, any recreation etc... That's just paying the bills for the house and shop, two cars, and eating.

If we add in say, 20% on top of that to account for "extras" such as savings, retirement, emergencies, eating out occasionally etc... that's another $10,800 or about $65k a year total net, to maintain our standard of living.

In a normal salaried job, that means something like an $85k a year salary; which isn't exactly nothing, but I've been making far more than that working in IT for the past 15 years (at least 50% more than that most years, double that in some years).

 I'm just not going to be able to make that much, or anything near it; in the other businesses.

For the fabricating and gunsmithing; at an $85/hour shop rate, and $65 per hour bench rate (presume 1920 hours per year to account for sick time and vacations), if I presume I can maintain 50% billable hours in a year (a very big assumption) at 3/4 bench and 1/4 shop time, thats a gross of $67,200. Net... maybe half that after taxes and expenses.  I would have to maintain something between 1200 and 1400 billable hours a year to reach the income levels we need. I can ever get to that point, it will be years from now.

The same goes for publishing. If we were lucky, and managed to attract say, six reasonable selling books a year, and another six contract publishing jobs, we MIGHT manage to GROSS $60k a year. Net... half that or less (materials costs are much higher as a percentage than in gunsmithing).

I don't know if this is going to work. I know I can do it, but it's also a huge risk, and there may be no payoff... but I'm working at it as hard and as smart, as I know how; and I'm going to do my damndedst to make this a success.

Because I want to build things, and make things again; and because I want control of my own destiny.