How a Gun Artist Does Cerakoting
Nick Kesselring takes his custom themed gun finishes to a new level with a healthy dose of creativity and ingenuity to create one-of-a-kind firearms.
CERAKOTING HASN’T BEEN about only protecting a firearm from the elements and wear and tear for quite some time now. Once folks realized how well the ultra thin, super tough polymer-based coating worked on firearms, they soon realized that it could be applied in any color and pattern imaginable, electric blue, ultra red, and—of course—pink guns hit the scene and it’s been a wild free-for-all ever since.
Now that the practice of using Cerakote on firearms has become mainstream and common, some custom gun makers have elevated themselves to the level of artists when it comes to what they can do to the exterior of a firearm.
Nick Kesselring of northern Pennsylvania near Sayre is one of those guys. From his shop, FSG Custom, he creates batches of star-spangled slides and polymer handgun frames in specific colors for major gun manufacturers. But his true passion is creating one-off custom firearms and pushing combinations of Cerakoting, KG Gun Kote, and precision laser etching to their limits.
He’s a high energy guy who likes to be in the back of the shop late into the night instead of during business hours, and his workshop looks like a lot of work gets done there—it had an organized clutter that made me instantly comfortable.
The combination of pigments, polymers, ovens, and spraying stalls alongside computers running high tech design software and a CAD controlled laser etcher is really interesting to behold and a real testament to how far into the high-tech world the gun industry has come, even at the local level.
Now, a bit about how the Cerakote process works.
What Exactly is Cerakoting?
Twenty years ago, Cerakote didn’t exist in the gun world. If you wanted a finish on your firearm, you were choosing from some old school options and an array of colors that included gradients of blueing, stainless steel of varying textures, shiny nickel, or the swirly rainbow of case hardening.
Today, Cerakote and other coatings like it have turned the gun world into a dizzying cornucopia of colors and patterns only limited by the applicator’s skill and creativity—and when combined with laser etching and modern software, texture is also entirely customizable.
Specifically, Cerakote is a polymer-ceramic composite coating that can be applied to metals, plastics, polymers, and wood—all the materials that make up pretty much every gun on earth (and we learned through this AR build project that it works pretty well on carbon fiber too). Its benefits include abrasion and wear resistance, corrosion resistance, chemical resistance, impact strength, and hardness. It’s also hydrophobic, meaning it sheds mud and water extremely well. This is also why you can’t get decals to stick to a Cerakote finish.
The thing that sets Cerakoting apart is that it’s high performing and applied in extremely thin layers, about .001”. This means it doesn’t add much material so it can be used for the customization of close-tolerance and high-performing machines, like firearms.
Many gunmakers offer rifles, handguns, and everything else in between with Cerakote finishes in a few basic colors, usually black, FDE, a shad of OD green, and maybe some kind of gray, but thanks to its polymer make-up, it can be done in pretty much any color you want, and those colors come out vibrant and true when applied.
Now, I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, but what I learned from hanging around Nick’s shop for an afternoon is that the Cerakoting is applied as a liquid after its been mixed to the correct color with a pressurized sprayer, pretty much like airbrushing.
It has to be applied as an even, consistent coating, which is where a good amount of skill comes in, and the surface it’s applied to has to be properly prepared so that the coating bonds to it correctly.
Then, once the coating sets, it has to be gently heat-cured at specific temperatures to complete the process.
Kesselring, whose shop morphed from custom gun shop to a pretty much 100-percent custom finishing business, has been coating firearms for about a decade using Cerakote and the similar KG Gun Kote. These days, he does work in large batches directly for a major gunmaker and a large firearms distributor in between custom jobs. When I was there he was working on a cart-full of American flag themed handgun slides, all identical.
Nick estimates that he’s coated about 8,000 Glocks in his career.
That kind of work goes a long way toward paying the bills. But building custom guns with unique themes is his true passion.
“Creating a project that has something to say or that has a distinctive design that reflects something the customer is fond of or something they’re into is really rewarding and just a lot of fun,” Nick says. “That’s why I do this, really.”
The Jurassic Park Glock
Nick says his favorite piece is a Glock 37 pistol in .45 GAP that’s on display in his shop, done up in a black and red Jurassic Park theme.
The frame is Cerakoted in an alternating gradient of black and gray that makes it almost look like sunlight is shining on it through the fronds of some jungle foliage. When you look close, you see the stippling on the grip, done with laser etching, is actually tiny dinosaur footprints.
In the middle of the grip on both sides is a medallion with the iconic Jurassic Park T-Rex skeleton logo in solid black and vibrant red that is textured—something Kesselring achieves by applying more than one layer of Cerakoting and then removing a pattern with the laser etcher.
There’s also a small panel of dino footprint stippling for the support hand thumb on both sides and it includes an undercut trigger guard.
Now, the slide is really awesome. The whole thing is done with a red and black gradient base that gives it a worn look and the “Jurassic Park” logo is etched into the side so the black shows through.
On the top, between the ejection port and the rear sight is a three-claw slash mark that is literally cut into a fairly thick red Cerakote layer to show the black beneath. The depth of the slashes really gives it a remarkable look and plays with light in a way that no flat 2D design could.
Beginning at the top of the slide just behind the front sight are three more, long slash marks that extend around the slide to just in front of the ejection port on the right side.
Plus, on the barrel, showing through the ejection port, Nick etched another roaring T-Rex skull.
I won’t lie, I spent way too much time looking at this gun from every angle, sure I would see something new each time I turned it over.
So what is a gun like this? First, I’d say it’s a tribute created by an artist to a movie he loved from his childhood. It’s also a 100-percent functional firearm, so it’s art you can take to the range. That’s cool as hell.
The Range365 AR Builds – ‘Stormtrooper’ ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘The Hunter’
When we approached Nick with our idea for a three-gun custom AR build project that would conclude with a unique Cerakote theme done on each rifle, he was immediately up for it.
AR-15, .223 Wylde
The first rifle, a minimalist AR in .223 Wylde, is fairly straight forward. It’s done up in Range365 colors with a mostly white upper, lower, and handguard, a black barrel and buttstock, and a blue full length top rail with the “Range365” logo on the magwell.
It came out sleek and trim and awesome. It looks light and nimble, just like it is. Because of all the white, Mike Shea, who spearheaded the builds, and I took to calling it the “Stormtrooper.”
One of the coolest and most understated aspects of the finish on the Stormtrooper rifle is the etching on the left side of the receiver. Nick matched the pattern of the cuts on the handguard and then etched it into the side of the receiver, so it looks like the pattern is continuous from the front of the handguard to the back of the receiver.
AR-10, 6mm Creedmoor
The second rifle is a testament to how subtle and detailed Cerakoting can be. “Lady Luck,” a 6mm AR-10 DMR precision rifle has a WWII bomber theme.
The entire rifle is a very dark OD green. On pretty much every surface Nick etched panel lines and “rivets” to give it the look of a airplane fuselage skin—a laborious undertaking for sure.
The right side of the magwell has a classic colored illustration of a tough looking WWII-era pin-up girl riding a bomb like Slim Pickins.
The adjustable cheekpiece on the stock is emblazoned with a military style red, white, and blue star-and-stripe logo, telling you at first glance what the idea of the design is.
The left side of the upper receiver has the rifle’s name, “Lady Luck,” in white script and in front of that little bombs are etched into the coating representing the practice of painting decals on WWII planes to denote the number of kills it and its crew had accrued. The Bushmaster logo and lower designation text is preserved on the left side of the magwell and fits great with the gun’s aesthetics.
A subdued “Range365” logo can be found at the base of the handguard, and the whole rifle is perfectly accented by the bright red of the trigger. It looks tough, heavy-duty, and accurate—which it most certainly is.
AR-15, .450 Bushmaster
This last rifle was the simplest to describe, but ultimately produced some of the most striking results. We told him we wanted this to be a custom gun that was interesting to look at but was still subdued and not flashy at all. And then I gave Nick a few images of Vietnam War-era tiger striped camouflage used by the U.S. military and set him loose.
What he came back with is a tough-looking purpose built gun that is actually so well camouflaged I would be hesitant to set it down too far away in the woods for fear I might not find it again.
We threw Nick another curveball when we substituted a carbon fiber handguard to replace the aluminum one that was originally part of the build. Go here to find out why we had to swap them out. He told me he’d never Cerakoted carbon fiber before, but he was eager to try.
Nick said he was very cautious when prepping the handguard, but otherwise, it came out great. The subdued tiger stripe camo running over the lines on the receiver and the M-Lok handguard is almost hypnotic, and it ties together a rifle that was built from parts made by various manufacturers in various colors in a simple and elegant way.
While Cerakoting can certainly be an excellent utilitarian firearm coating that will protect a gun from things that wish to do it harm and eat away at its components—in the hands of gun artists like Nick Kesselring, it can be a whole lot more.
And having a custom Cerakoted gun does not mean it has to be a safe queen that only gets pulled out when you’re going to the range with new people. It can be a competition gun like “Lady Luck,” a hard-hitting field gun like “The Hunter,” or an all around rifle with a little flair like “Stormtrooper.”