September 23, 2010
By Wayne van Zwoll
Here's how to avoid the pitfalls of setting up a place to work on your guns.
By Wayne van Zwoll
It may be the hallowed space around your loading bench. Or the oil-stained table that serves as a gun cleaning station. Maybe it's the carpet corner that catches the parts when you disembowel a rifle. Or the safe or wall rack where you and your shooting irons feel as one.
Whatever it is, and whatever you call it, you need more. More room, that is. You need a gun shop. Not a retail outlet or gunsmithing business but a place for all things having to do with firearms--a place you don't have to make into some other kind of place or relinquish to other people when you've finished turning out handloads or tuning a trigger.
It can be a room or a refurbished garage or a separate building. But it must have a door and walls that enclose it. A gun shop open to casual traffic of non-gun people is like a bedroom open to the sidewalk.
"Wait a minute. I can't afford that," you say. "It's all I can do to meet the mortgage without selling a Parker or a Winchester 86 or cutting my collection of pre-war Smith & Wessons in half."
It's not wise to skimp too much on materials. For instance, the author chose laminated I-beams as floor joists instead of 2x6s because they're stronger.
My sympathies, friend. But if you have any guns worth coveting, you probably buy guns off and on. Skipping next month's revolver to shift gun funds to a gun shop won't plunge you into withdrawal. A modest shop is quite affordable if it's a room make-over or even a garage conversion. A separate building sets you back a bit more, but you can probably do much of the work yourself.
"A shop will cost twice as much and take three times as long to complete as you expect," a friend of mine told me. He was not talking just about gun shops. He had tackled many building projects over many years. Not long after I broke ground behind my house, it became clear he was right.
Now, three years later, I'm still finishing the interior of my two-story pole structure. More cash would have hurried my gun shop along. But doing it myself, in pieces, I learned a lot. Here's some advice.
Save money on size and shape. A new building gives you options not available in the house. The main one is size. You can build a big shop or a little one. Whichever you choose, you'll fill it. "No shop is too big," my friend told me. "It's cheaper to build big to begin with than to add on."
Another truism: The lowest price per square foot is for the square feet under other square feet. You need half as much roof for 1,800 square feet on two floors as on one, and less wall. Basement space is also cheaper than that above ground.
Plan well and early. Whether you contract to erect a building or do it yourself, get all the details on paper before you start. You won't be able to add conduit in the walls once they're sheet-rocked. And quotes for work provided may not apply if you change your mind regarding materials or design--even if the crew can accommodate the revisions without incurring extra cost.
You're smart to monitor all phases of building, without getting in the way. And insist on getting what the contract specified. Scoring the concrete on my shop floor would have prevented the myriad cracks that have since occurred, but I was away when the floor was poured and didn't catch the problem until too late.
If you're building a shop, go big on doors. Garage doors are handy for access, but even regular doors should be wider than standard.
You just can't have too many outlets. Install more than you think you'll need, and, of course, make sure they're up to code.
The eight-inch poles that form my shop's skeleton are plumb, but where the roof trusses meet them, the crew didn't place bolts consistently. Finishing the ceiling at these junctures was thus exceedingly difficult. Again, I wasn't there to oversee.
Overbuild. Overinsulate. Overestimate. A gun shop is a permanent thing. You'll soon forget the few extra dollars you spent using laminated stringers instead of 2x6s, installing more electrical outlets than you thought you'd need or adding a window. But you'll forever commend yourself on the results.
Besides making a shop more comfortable, insulation puts a lid on heating and cooling costs. Don't skimp here, figuring you'll be in the shop only part-time. You'll heat it (or cool it) full time during extremes in temperature.
I used fiberglass batting in walls and roof, to ratings of R11 and R19. This building is snug in winter, despite a modest investment in electric heaters. My neighbor used foam insulation, which fills voids even better.
The cost of standard and extra features hardly ever matches first estimates, so you'd best figure higher totals to start. Midstream, you won't want to delay construction or downgrade it. I could have used more windows in my metal-sided pole building, though I specified twice as many as the company normally installed.
In a house, installing an oversize shop door may not pencil out. But if your building or conversion includes a new door, make it big. You may want to build a bench or shelving outside, then move it in. You may store your portable shooting bench in the shop or routinely carry armloads of cased rifles or shotguns through the door. You'll appreciate a door that's 36 inches wide.
A garage door in a building gives you the option of a backing your vehicle inside to load and unload guns out of the weather and public view. I have one garage door in my shop and wish I had installed two--one on each end.
Wear-resistant, foam-backed carpet on the floor is easier on your feet and legs than is planking or linoleum or concrete. Unless you're cutting
for stairs or have other special challenges, this is properly a do-it-yourself project. My wife helped me lay carpet in my shop--then asked if I wanted a cot too.
Whether in a new building or a reconfigured room or garage, your gun shop needs heat. I recall my days in Michigan milk-houses on frigid winter mornings, when kerosene heaters roared to life. In seconds their flaming orange muzzles blasted frost off the windows and had me stripping my jacket.
Industrial grade racks are great for storing ammo. If you've carpeted the floor, putting coasters underneath the corners is a good idea.
Such blasters don't make sense near gunpowder. While kerosene is still viable in more civil appliances, theirs is "moist" heat, and you can smell the fuel.
Propane offers dry, odorless heat, either from an attachment to a portable tank, or a heater connected by hose to a big tank outside. I chose electric heat for my shop because electric power is relatively cheap where I live.
As my gun shop measures 15x40 (with eight-foot ceilings) and is part of an even larger building that includes storage, I chose portable rather than baseboard units so I can move the heaters to the loading bench or other areas where I'm working on cold days, without heating the entire interior.
Before installing permanent heaters, think about where you'll store powder and primers. You'll want them (and ammunition) well clear of the heat source. Ditto for sawdust and other flammable material that might result from gun projects.
Fire danger also precludes wood heat. While wood stoves can save you money, add ambience and seem quite in keeping with the deer antlers and Winchester calendar on the wall, the danger of a jumping spark is, in my view, too grave to risk.
Assemble benches with bolts, not nails or screws. This butcher's block is thick enough for a press and sufficiently sturdy thanks to the bolts.
If your shop is big, a wood stove isolated in another section can work. Consider installing a fan to circulate heat. Whatever the source of heat, conserve it with weather-stripping at portals. Invest in double-pane windows, curtained for privacy.
Lighting matters in a gun shop, where you'll read data in loading manuals, scales on micrometers and faded proof marks on collectible firearms. You'll handle tiny screws and perhaps re-cut the checkering on a rifle stock.
I chose fluorescent ceiling lights because they're less expensive to run than incandescent bulbs and provide more even light over big areas. My gun shop has six lights, each with a pair of efficient T-8 bulbs. In addition, my gun bench and loading bench each have incandescent lamps with 100-watt bulbs that I can direct to work at hand.
Locating the two 24x36 slide-open windows over the wings of the corner bench gave me an assist from sunlight. Ivory paint on the walls keeps the interior as bright as can be. The room adjoining my gun shop and the second floor of my pole building feature fluorescent ceiling lights as well, but they're on separate switches so I can light my shop without putting current to other sections.
Incidentally, high-wattage metal halide lights work well in large buildings with high ceilings. Cost per lumen is low, although metal halides deliver only about 50 lumens per watt while fluorescent lights can give you 90.
In small shops, halides don't make sense. Installation and bulb replacement are both expensive, and light quality won't match that of strong fluorescents. On the CRI (color rendering index) scale of 1 to 100, where 100 most closely matches natural sunlight, halide bulbs score around 70; T-8 fluorescents rate 86.
You can hardly have too many electrical outlets. I installed 14 (seven pairs), evenly spaced and two feet above the floor. I don't need 220-volt power so chose not to wire for it. Conduit in the concrete floor carries the 110 wiring from a breaker box just inside the building's door. I made sure before finishing the interior that electrical service "met code" and was approved.
To rein in costs, I did not plumb my shop. The building is big enough for an apartment and might sell better with water, but the gun shop doesn't need it. Unless you operate bluing tanks or a stock-making enterprise, yours shouldn't either.
Equipping your gun shop is the fun part. But before marking up those catalogs, you'll need a place to put the hardware. Shelves and benches must be sturdy, because you'll likely put heavy things on the shelves and lean hard on the benches.
My newest loading bench used to be a meat-cutter's table, a laminated slab two inches thick. Still, I'm about to reinforce it on the edges with one-inch planking. I'll attach presses with machine bolts and nuts (not with lag bolts) and keep centers of leverage over the legs. A table that doesn't move or flex not only lasts longer, it makes handloading easier--just as it's easier to split firewood on a solid stump than on soft ground.
My loading bench, 24x40 inches, is free-standing, with floor access all around so I can mount tools on every edge. My L-shaped gun bench, also 24 inches deep, lines a corner. This work station needn't bear the forces of a loading bench, so it is not as heavy. But its top--2x6s under half-inch plywood--is more than stout enough for gun repair, assisted by cradles from Midway and MTM. Shelving underneath holds rifle rests, powder, miscellaneous tooling.
Ranks of industrial shelves, five high, run across the center of my shop from the entrance to the loading bench in the open work area. They hold ammo and loading components (and rest on heavy-duty coasters to save the carpet).
Stacks of dies will sift into post-office style compartments above the bench--when I manage to find time to build them. I attended a county auction to buy well-used school-library bookshelves to support my ever-growing supply of catalogs, handloading manuals and books on cartridges, ballistics and gunsmithing.
On a vertical wall rack, a handful of long guns awaits bench time. While you may, logically, keep all your firearms in your gun shop, I designed mine as an activity area. Security (the safe) is elsewhere.
Speaking of security, double locks on doors make sense, as does an alarm system. While a burglar might have little use for lead ingots, bullet concentricity gauges and th
e caribou antlers over your case tumbler, you don't want him there. Nor do you want youngsters to wander in unattended.
If your shop is a part of the house or attached garage and you must marry security with aesthetics, a small padlock will keep all but determined criminals out of the room. Install the alarm and deadbolts on the house.
No matter how well-planned, a gun shop should be designed to evolve. You'll almost surely find a few things you'd like to change. And eventually you may wish to add tooling not even available now. You may take up trap shooting or throw your Stetson into the cowboy action game.
The most useful gun shop is a versatile gun shop. Years from now, when you want to tutor a youngster in the basics of handloading, you'll be glad you kept that old press and that extra-tall stool once tagged for a garage sale. You'll be pleased as well that you built bench enough for the two of you. A gun shop, after all, is not just for guns.