When most folks think of gunsmithing tools, they often have images of expensive lathes, mills, buffers, and all sorts of high-priced specialty reamers and handtools. And, yes, there is an element of truth in that. Some gunsmiths do have a heck of a lot invested in top-of-the-line machines and handtools. For most of us, however, those high-ticket items are seldom used on a day-to-day basis.
This fact came home to me not too long ago as I was working at my bench repairing a split stock. I was using a piece of surgical tubing to bind the stock as the epoxy set up. I thought how handy surgical tubing was and how often I used it. I also was darn thankful it was so inexpensive. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were a number of tools I used frequently that cost very darn little. I thought you might like to know about some of these tools. You just might want to add them to your shop.
Surgical tubing is useful for a lot more than surgery! I honestly don’t know or remember where I first saw a gunsmith using it. It was probably being used to hold a stock together while a split was being repaired. That’s certainly the way I most often use it.
Unlike a standard wood or metal clamp, surgical tubing will conform to the curved surfaces you so often encounter in a stock. This allows you to get good grip on the stock, and it also allows you to apply a lot of pressure with virtually no danger of damaging the exterior of the stock.
I’ve also used surgical tubing to hold forend tips in place as well as buttplates and recoil pads that I chose to attach with an epoxy rather than screws. The tubing comes in handy from time to time when holding a barreled action in the stock while glass bedding. I must admit I generally use the guard screws, but on occasion I have used surgical tubing to hold everything together while the bedding sets up.
Parallel Jaw Pliers
When working on a firearm you will often have to pull a pin, screw, or some other part out of the mechanism. Parallel jaw pliers are the first tool I reach for when I need to do this. Parallel jaw pliers are different from normal pliers in that the inside surfaces of the jaws are always parallel with one another.
On regular pliers the jaws are only parallel when they are closed. Whenever you’re holding an item such as a pin that’s aligned with the length of the jaws, only a small portion of the jaws will actually be in contact with the body of the pin. This can lead to dents or dings that should be avoided.
Parallel jaw pliers allow you to hold a pin from any angle, sideways or straight on, yet you will always have full contact with the body of the pin. In addition, you can get parallel jaw pliers that have serrated or smooth jaws. The serrated jaws are handy for rough work where you don’t have to worry about damaging or scarring the part. I tend to use parallel jaw pliers that have smooth, nonserrated jaws so there’s no worry about pliers marks on a part.
Automatic Center Punch
One of the most frequent tasks in gunsmithing is drilling holes in metal. This is more often than not associated with making a part or with mounting sights. Once you have located the exact point where you want to locate your hole, you’ll want to use a hardened center punch to mark that spot. The tiny “V” created by the center punch also serves as a guide for the drill to help keep it from walking off the desired location.
You can take a standard center punch and tap it with a hammer, but that takes two hands. Long ago I started using an automatic center punch and it has allowed me to hold a magnifying glass in one hand to precisely locate the point of the center punch. The automatic center punch is spring loaded, so all I need to do is just put the point at the desired location and press down. The internal spring is compressed and then a “hammer” that drives the point into the metal is automatically released. It’s quick, easy, and precise.
Another inexpensive low-tech item I use frequently is a stock jack, or bench support. I have a number of different ones. One is simply a number of pieces of 2x4s glued together in a “stair-step” configuration. I position it on my bench to support long items, such as stocks, that are being held in my vise. The “steps” in the jack allow for variations in height as necessary. I have another support that I made out of a discarded light stand. This one sits on the floor and allows enough elevation to support anything that extends out away from the bench. I use it a lot when doing stock work.
Razor or hobby knives get a lot of use on my bench. Whether it’s slitting the face of a recoil pad for attaching screws, opening packages, cleaning up stock bedding, or making minor wood repairs, these knives get a workout. I have quite a few of them with blades of various sizes and shapes. The blades are cheap enough so that if a blade becomes damaged or dulled, it can be easily replaced.
Gunsmiths are always reaching into actions–either to install or replace parts. While needlenose pliers can often be used, I tend to use shop tweezers for most of this work. But these are not your wife’s cosmetic tweezers. Shop tweezers are much larger and more substantial. I have some that are straight and some that end in a bend or angle. These are just the ticket for reaching into tight spots, holding a solvent-soaked cleaning patch to scrub out the nooks and crannies inside an action, or to hold a tiny screw or part when cold blueing it.
I have a small brass hammer that gets a lot of use driving pins and small parts into p
lace. Because it’s brass and softer than the steel, there’s very little danger of denting or marring the parts that are struck as would so often happen with a regular steel hammer. My favorite brass hammer is one I made maybe 30 years ago out of some brass salvaged from a water faucet along with some scrap steel and a piece of an old gunstock. (Did I mention I’m cheap?)
I’m not quite sure about the real name for this item. I’ve always called it a packing hook. It’s a pointed metal rod that’s a tad bit longer than a pair of shop tweezers, and it has a straight point on one end and a curved hook on the other end. I use the straight point as a scribe to lay out lines or mark the location of holes as well as to clean out crud and gunk that builds up inside guns.
The straight point is also often used to help align parts that are secured by a pin. The long taper on the shaft can frequently help to position parts prior to inserting a pin or screw. It saves a lot of time and frustration. The hook is also a real lifesaver for helping to position small parts and springs inside actions where my old fat fingers just can’t squeeze in.
Small Ball-Peen Hammer
The last inexpensive tool that sees a lot of regular use in my shop is a plain little four-ounce ball-peen hammer. It’s constantly being used to drive punches and for minor swaging or forging tasks. The hammer itself is nothing special, and you can find similar ones at any hardware store. However, I’ve carefully polished both the face and ball of my hammer, and that ensures that these critical surfaces are absolutely smooth, which makes them less likely to scar or mark any item the hammer strikes.
This can be especially important when reshaping and repairing damaged screw heads. By the way, gun parts seldom require the application of a lot of force. Generally, if you need a bigger hammer than this, there is something wrong that needs to be corrected.
Well, that’s about it. None of these tools costs over a few bucks, and some were literally made from scrap. However, they’re all used on almost a daily basis when I work at my bench. If you don’t have similar items I would heartily encourage you to add these tools to your shop. I’d be willing to bet that once you have them and use them, like me you’ll wonder how the heck you got along without ‘em.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!