By Ted Yost
Recently, we listed sources for refinishing your firearms projects. Bluing, plating, and other finish providers were listed, and their services described. I may have been guilty though of putting the cart before the horse! While the choice of a finish, and a finisher for that matter, is important, it’s also vitally important to understand surface preparation is every bit as critical to the outcome. The best finish, applied perfectly over an imperfect prep job is a disaster often difficult and costly to remedy.
The explosion of home-built 1911’s in recent years has led to an obvious “raising of the bar” where the aesthetics of the finished project are concerned. I can remember a few of the “homebuilt jobs” folks brought to Gunsite back in the ’90’s. They were sometimes reliable, but often not very pleasing to look at. Quality components and the natural evolution of the hobby have made it possible for the average Joe to put a pretty nice gun together. Dehorning, which seemed foreign to many until recently, is being done well now. Proper parts fitting has been made easier by online tutorials and videos. Most hobbyists struggle though, when it comes down to the final surface prep prior to finishing their project.
While a matte prep for a painted finish is a pretty straightforward process, a prep job incorporating both matte and polished surfaces can be challenging. It’s easy to mess up one aspect of the finish while trying to get the other right.
Using a large, heavy block keeps the flats flat, making the job easier.
Simple — But Complicated
If you’re prepping a gun for a finish with bead-blasted edges and polished flats, keep this in mind — every mark you put on those flats will have to come out. So don’t scuff up the flats during the work, and don’t bead blast them either. Protect the flats with tape while you’re working, and again when you blast the round bits. I carefully mask the flats with two layers of Frog tape (it holds up best in an abrasive cabinet), and trim with the edge of a razor blade for a clean line. Don’t concentrate the media on the edges of the tape, or it’ll lift the tape. Sneak under and roughen up the finish you have to polish. Once the bead blasting is done, carefully peel the tape and touch the blasted edges as little as possible.
On to the polishing. The goal here is a flat surface, polished to the same sheen and luster overall. Most of the newer frames are pretty flat, but a lot of the older Colt frames have little hills and valleys adding a real challenge to the job. Let’s take the easy path first. With a reasonably flat surface, you have very little correction to do, so pick a good starting grit (usually 320, unless you’ve put a few dings or scratches in while working). Use a good grade of wet/dry paper, and don’t be skimpy. When it loads up, change it.
I use a flat steel block for sanding, but mine is a little different than the norm — it’s 2.5″ x 5″ and about 1″ thick, weighing a couple of pounds. This does two things for me. It controls the block, and running it dead flat is easier. And the weight means the block does the work. Whenever possible, run the paper in one direction. Every time you change direction, you put marks into the finish. Decrease grit size in small increments (don’t go from 220 to 600). It greatly reduces the overall amount of material you end up removing, and quickly reveals any fine scratches you may have missed. Once finished, protect those flats from fingerprints, impacts with other parts and humidity until you can get them to the finisher.
Thin roll marks don’t have to be a blemish on a great gun.
Here’s the “before” and “after.”
We mentioned the older Colt frames and slides. You can make the polishing job a little easier on these if you simply glue a thin (1/16″- or 3/32″-thick) piece of rubber sheeting to your sanding block. It helps get into the low spots without having to completely lower the high spots.
Invariably, when working with factory roll-marked slides, you’ll encounter lettering or logos that get lost to the polishing process, either at the factory or afterward. We don’t have to put in all the work to properly polish the gun and then settle for crossed cannons that are half missing, or a pony without a head. Lettering and logos can be restored, and for a reasonable cost. I’ve used David Clevinger, an engraver in Colorado, to restore roll marks on vintage Colts. His work is simply outstanding, and he’s not backed up for years — yet. You can see David’s work and contact him through his website, www.dcengraving.com.
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index