HGR 017 - From Beater To Beautiful

HGR 017 - From Beater to Beautiful

In this episode, Ryan discusses some of the tools, techniques and tips that you can use to restore a beaten-up old handgun to good-looking or even beautiful condition!

Photo Credit: Turnbull Manufacturing
Photo Credit: Turnbull Manufacturing

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Week in Review:

  • Due to space limitations, I had to re-locate my reloading bench this past week.  Previously, I had a large L-shaped bench setup, but I really didn’t need that space as I didn’t have tumblers and other things working, just my press and powder measure.  I had a purpose-built reloading stand with multiple drawers and shelves that was very compact, so I re-located my setup there.  Now the setup is very space-efficient, and I have some great lighting overhead that will enhance the reloading hobby even more.  Here is a picture of the new setup:

Main Topic: How can I make my beat-up old gun look new again?

This discussion will cover some of the ways that you can take a beat-up old handgun (or for some techniques/tools, any gun) and restore it to a somewhat decent looking condition. I will be dividing the tools and techniques up into several different categories: Metal Working and Finishing Methods; Wood Working and Finishing Methods; Specialty Methods that cannot be done by your typical end-user (i.e. chrome finishes, hot bluing salts finishes, etc.)

Caution!: If you are planning on refinishing an old, beat up firearm PLEASE make sure it does not have any historical or collector value.  There have been a great number of collectable firearms that have acquired a nice, natural patina, only to have it scrubbed off by someone with a wire brush trying to make the gun look “nicer”. If you have any doubts, don’t do it and get the gun checked out.  I thoroughly checked out my Colt 1903 to the point where I felt comfortable enough before I refinished it.

Metalworking & Metal Finishing Options:

  • If you have a firearm that has some light rust, perhaps some pitting and a scratched up, dull finish you may choose to do a complete refinish of the handgun.
  • I originally tried my hand at metal refinishing with an old no-name break top .32 S&W revolver that had no collector value.  It was an old piece that had quite a bit of rust and pitting and the firing pin had fallen out of the hammer so the gun was non-functional which made it a great first test gun.
  • I had the gun sandblasted by a friend with a sandblasting setup, and left in the white (no finish). The gun had to be completely disassembled before the refinishing process could take place (this is typically the case with all refinishing methods.)
  • after the sandblasting took away most of the pitting and imperfections in the metal, I used progressively higher grits of sandpaper until I ended at 2000 grit wet sandpaper.  I must stress that this sanding action was done with a VERY light touch, to smooth out the metal. I then finished with a light polish of the metal with very fine steel wool.
  • One product I used for both the .32 S&W revolver project and the Colt 1903 project that I was very impressed with was Brownells Oxpho-Blue Creme bluing compound.  When I used it, it produced a much deeper and long lasting blue finish than the liquid blue compounds typically do.
  • One thing that is ABSOLUTELY KEY when bluing a firearm (or doing any metal prep work, really) is to wear rubber gloves so you do not contaminate the metal surface with oils and fingerprints, as these will show up in the final finish.  MAKE SURE THE ENTIRE METAL SURFACE IS CLEAR OF ANY OIL.  Use some sort of degreaser to ensure there is no oil that could ruin the finish.
  • If you are someone who refinishes firearms often, you may be interested in the Benchtop Parkerizing Kit from Brownells.  This kit allows you to add a durable parkerized finish to handguns and small parts. The parkerizing absorbs oil quite well and helps with corrosion resistance, and can provide a great replacement finish for a firearm that may not look great cosmetically with a traditional bluing job.
  • One other option for a firearm that may not look great with a cold-blue job is using the Duracoat Painting System. The Duracoat painting system allows you to apply a painted on finish in a variety of colors on firearms and firearms parts. Then you simply bake the part in the oven to allow the paint to cure and let it sit for the time allotted in the instruction manual.  This can be a great alternative.

Wood Finishing Products & Techniques:

  • Much of what will be discussed in this category can be applied to handgun grips as well as rifle stocks that you are refinishing. The same rules apply here: Make sure it isn’t a collectable!
  • I’ve worked quite a bit on smooth handgun grips, but on checkered handgun grips proper wood refinishing can sometimes be a problem. It can be difficult to use many wood refinishing techniques without damaging the profile of the checkering somewhat.  I would caution you to leave the checkering alone when doing wood refinishing unless you have the means & tools to recut the checkering.
  • For grips & stocks that have been dented, scratched and otherwise damaged, there are many techniques you can use to return them to decent looking condition.  First, use some sort of wood stripping compound to remove all of the old finish off the rifle.  Wear thick rubber gloves and safety goggles, and do this outside.  You will use a lot of paper towels while wiping my preferred compound, Citri-Strip, off the wood stock.  This will remove much of the oil that has seeped into the stock over the years.
  • After the majority of the finish is stripped away, but before the stock dries too much, use a hairdryer on the LOWEST heat setting and slowly run it over the wood a safe distance away. Only do this for about 30 seconds at a time.  This will bring out some of the oil that has permeated the wood over the years.  Be careful doing this on thin handgun stocks.  Don’t do it too much as you don’t want to dry the wood out.
  • To raise dents and scratches, soak a cloth towel in hot water, and then using a standard iron, place the wet towel over the dent or scratch on the wood, and press down with the iron for only 2 or 3 seconds. Any longer and you can burn the wood.  This will raise the dent somewhat which will then allow you to sand it and make it less noticeable.  This technique works better on larger and thicker pieces of wood.
  • To finish the wood, use progressively higher and higher grits of sandpaper, I would start at 240 grit and head up to 320 and perhaps a few steps higher after that.  When you reach the feel you want, make sure the wood is free of any sawdust from the sanding, and apply the stain you want to achieve the color you want.
  • To finish & seal the wood, you have a couple options. You can go the traditional route and use a product such as Brownells Tru-Oil Stock Finish or you can use a modern Polyurethane sealer that can be purchased at any hardware store. The Tru-Oil offers that classic, hand-rubbed oil finish look, while the polyurethane offers a glossy, modern look that is quite resistant to the elements.  I have used both, and my choice depends upon the purpose & character of the firearm.

Specialty Methods:

  • These methods typically cannot be done by the end-user, and require that the gun be shipped off to the shop of your choosing to have the metal work done.
  • If I had a lot of extra money laying around, I would send my Colt 1903 to Turnbull's Mfg. to have it completely refinished and reblued. Turnbull’s shop has done so many AMAZING firearms and I hope one day that I get to own a firearm that they have refinished.  They do truly astounding work and they are one of the few shops who can do that classic blue to old Colt firearms and make it look right. I hope to have the money to send my 1903 in for at least a simple hot blue job sometime soon.
  • If hard chrome or other plating is what you’d like to have on your firearm, then Mahovsky's Metalife is a great option for you. They offer many different services including Hard Chrome metal plating, electroless nickel plating, and many more firearms finishes.
  • Another great option if maximum finish durability and easy cleaning is what you desire is the NP3 Finish from Robar. The NP3 finish is an electroless nickel based finish that is similar to Teflon. It is a very durable and very slick finish which allows for easier cleaning as dirt and fouling cannot stick as well to the surface.


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