It may sound difficult, but applying a new finish to a pistol is actually one of the easiest do-it-yourself handgun projects. Modern spray-on finishes allow you to make your pistol one solid color, apply contrasting colors, or create elaborate patterns. The only limitation is your own imagination.
For this 1911 that belongs to my friend Eric Reynolds, we decided to paint the slide and frame in Flat Dark Earth, and the safety, slide release and other small parts and controls in contrasting flat black.
There are several coating-type metal finishes on the market. I have had good luck with DuraCoat by Lauer Custom Weaponry, which is available in a staggering range of colors and finishes. DuraCoat is an air-dry product, which makes it easy for a do-it-yourselfer to use. The downside of that is you have to wait 24 hours for it to dry. If you are doing a multi-color pattern, or if you’re just impatient like me, that’s an issue.
LCW also has a product called DuraBake. This is an oven-cured finish and it will set up much faster. Some also believe it’s a tougher finish. It is easy to apply to any metal part. (A note of caution: If you want to paint non-metal parts, such as a polymer frame, the air-dry DuraCoat might be the better choice. Baking plastic is not a good idea.) We used DuraBake for this project.
Degreasing the Parts
The key to a good result is in the preparation. The first step is to take the gun apart. If you have not done this before, I suggest you first find an exploded-view illustration of the gun, showing all the parts. This will help greatly in reassembling it. Also, stop and take photos at each step before you take anything apart. Photograph each part before you remove it if you can. This helps when it’s time to put it all back together. Search the Internet for videos that show how to disassemble and re-assemble your model gun.
All the parts must be degreased with a solvent that dries without residue. This can be done with an aerosol degreasing agent. There are some very good gun-specific degreasers on the market, but they tend to be expensive. The most inexpensive option I have found is CRC Brakleen, which I buy by the case at my local auto supply store. It’s safe on metal, but can destroy some plastics and paints, so test it on any non-metal parts or finishes first.
It’s handy to have a bucket of degreasing solvent for soaking parts. TruStrip Solvent, available from LCW, works well, as does Brakleen purchased in one-gallon bottles.
A bucket of TruStrip or lacquer thinner is also handy to have during the coating process, in case you make a mistake. Simply dunk the part before the coating sets up. This removes the coating and lets you start fresh again.
Use any of these solvent products with plenty of ventilation. Also cover up with gloves, long sleeve shirts and eye protection. I use a face shield.
Once all parts are clean, let them air dry, and then handle only while wearing gloves. The oil from your fingerprints can prevent the coating from adhering properly. I use latex gloves after washing them to remove the powder, or cotton inspection gloves.
Preparing the Surface
DuraBake can be applied over just about any clean surface. On past project guns, I have simply degreased parts before applying DuraBake. If you do that, it’s best to rough the surfaces up a bit with a Scotch-Brite pad or sandpaper for better adhesion of the coating. This is a very easy and effective approach for a do-it-yourself project.
A better way to prepare the surface, though, is to sandblast the metal parts to be coated. This removes old finishes, and the rough surface from sandblasting actually increases surface area for the DuraCoat to grip, and gives it “tooth.” It also helps give an even, flat look to the finished product. (The 1911 shown here was built from parts, so there was no previous finish that had to be removed.)
Remember that coatings add dimension, so make sure to mask off any area you do not want coated. Also cover up anything you don’t want sandblasted with masking tape. Plug holes with modeling clay. Parts with critical dimensions should never be coated.
The most inexpensive way to sandblast is to use a stand-alone sandblaster and consider the sand as a consumable. I’ve found sandblasters for as little as $14 on line. Make sure you use “sand” that is designed for this work; 120-grit aluminum oxide blasting media is best. Never use beach sand.
Later, if you discover that you are going to re-finish a lot of guns, you may want to invest in an enclosed blasting cabinet. The cabinet keeps the sand confined and you can recover it to use again.
Keep the sandblaster moving and watch the metal so that you have an even sheen to the finish. If you are not using a cabinet, be sure to wear thick leather gloves, long sleeves, a respirator and goggles. (I know from painful experience that this stuff will sandblast the skin off your gloveless hands in a split second!)
Don’t forget to sandblast all the small parts that you are planning to coat. Note that any screws or pins that show on both sides of the handgun must be prepped and coated on both ends. Once all the metal has an even texture, remove all the tape and clay. Be sure to get all the clay off the metal, which may take some work. Degrease again if needed. You must have clean, bare metal before coating.
Prep the Oven
To bake the coating, any constant and controllable heat source will work, even the oven in your kitchen. However, the heated coating emits an odor that might not smell as good to everyone else as it does to you. To avoid problems, I simply bought a large toaster oven for my workshop. It cost less than $100, which is far cheaper than a divorce lawyer. Mine is big enough to handle handguns as well as actions and frames from rifles and shotguns. In fact, it will handle just about anything gun related, except a rifle or shotgun barrel. I found that the temperature setting is unreliable, so I bought an oven thermometer to help regulate the temperature.
Parts must be suspended in the oven. I make wire hangers and attach them to a place on the part that will not interfere with the coating. It’s a good idea to make a couple of test runs and hang the parts in the oven to be sure they will fit, and that you can easily place them in the oven when it’s hot. Gloves and pliers are a must. Test-fit all the parts you will be including in that batch to make sure they’ll hang freely without hitting one another. When you have all that prep work done, it’s time to spray.
Applying the Finish
I use a relatively inexpensive gravity-feed spray gun that is powered by my shop’s air compressor, but I have also used a DuraCoat finishing kit that comes with an airbrush sprayer, propellant, and hoses. This works very well if you don’t have an air compressor. Replacement propellant canisters are available at most hobby shops.
LCW also offers several self-contained, one-time-use spray kits, including those with aerosol spray cans.
Pro finishers use a painting booth to contain the overspray mess. I use inexpensive plastic drop cloths that are available in the painting section of home supply stores. I hang one from the wall and let it drape down over my workbench. When finished, I just pull it down, roll it up, and toss it in the garbage.
Just as when removing an old finish, you need good ventilation when applying a new one. Wear a respirator to avoid breathing anything you shouldn’t. Safety glasses are a must as well. Latex gloves will keep your hands from looking like you tie-dyed them.
The oven should be pre-heated to the correct temperature, usually 350 degrees, as noted in the DuraBake instructions. Put the parts in the oven and set a timer for the recommended baking time, typically 30 minutes. Remove the parts from the oven and hang them back on the rods to cool. For best results, repeat with a second coat.
After the parts completely cool, reassemble the gun. Function-test it, then head to the shooting range. Be prepared for a lot of attention, admiration, and a little jealousy from other shooters.
For information on DuraBake, DuraCoat, and sandblasting products, check out lauerweaponry.com.
Signed copies of Bryce M. Towsley’s full-color, hardcover 158-page book, “Gunsmithing Made Easy,” are available from brycetowsley.com.