Finishes for your Custom Pistol
Mostly done for cosmetics, this option involves shortening the slide stop pin and re-shaping the radius so that it's slightly below flush with the side of the frame. The hole in the frame is counter sunk to allow room for the finger to still press in on the end of the slide stop pin to disassemble the gun. This option has it's origin as a means of reducing the chance that a right handed shooter can press his index finger against the end of the slide stop pin, making it shift to the left and lock up the slide. Actually, if all the involved parts are in spec, it's next to impossible for this to happen with the slide at rest. Training is a less expensive "solution" to this problem, but for a pure custom touch, it is very cool looking!
Metal Prep and Refinishing Costs
It may seem odd discussing cost before the different options, but it makes sense to me to know what the basis is for various pricing points. That makes it easier to recognize certain finishes being more suited to a particular firearm than others. All of my finishing prices are predicated on the assumption that I'm refinishing a current production Colt Series '70 Government Model. That's my baseline or starting point. Finishes are usually two types of textures - All Matte, and a combination of matte on the rounds and polished on the flats. A Matte texture is generally accomplished by using compressed air to blast abrasive grit against the part being refinished. It is very uniform in coverage, covers flaws well and is economical to do. Polished finishes are done by block or plate sanding the parts with coated abrasive paper in consecutively finer grits, until the desired level of polish is reached. Combinations are most often encountered with matte rounds and polished flats. Metal polishing is by nature a labor-intensive operation. It consumes time, sandpaper and elbow grease. You have to start at a grit level coarse enough to let you remove all existing flaws, like pits and scratches, high spots around roll marks and low spots before you change to the next finer grit. If you have a pistol with pitting for example and you start sanding with 600 grit paper, you'll still be wearing out sandpaper a week later and not have all the pits leveled out. You'd need to start with maybe a file or 80 grit paper to erase the pits, then move up to 120 or 150 to erase the 80 grit sanding marks, then 180 or 220 to remove the 150 grit marks and so on. The same concept applies to original finishes that were coarsely done like a factory matte painted finish, finishes with flats that aren't flat, yet were buffed out to a mirror and other sundry problem surfaces. This is why your Springfield GI or Mil-Spec, for example, would be a better candidate for a matte textured finish than polished out to 1200 grit. It can usually be done, but will have an added metal prep charge which can easily double your refinishing cost. It's also why your Colt M-1911 WW I reissue costs extra to get a 1200 grit polish (cool guns, with an awesome Carbona blue, but the level of factory polish is about 100 grit). So if your project gun varies from the level of finish mentioned on my base line current production Series '70, or I find your flats have problems after I start prepping them, understand that extra time will be required to correct these things, creating extra cost.
Slide Markings and how metal prep affects them
Slides can be marked by several methods, which can have an impact on what finish, and type of metal prep is best for your situation. One of the most frequently encountered is Roll Stamping, where a steel wheel with a raised impression of the design is rolled over the slide under heavy force, imprinting the lettering and design into the slide. This typically leaves raised edges where metal was displaced by the die. The depth of impression can be shallow to the point where some of the design or lettering may be sanded away, necessitating re-cutting of the roll mark by an engraver.
Another popular method is electro-chemical etching. This method uses a stencil that bears the design, which is placed on the slide and taped down. A slight electrical current is passed through a cotton pad, which is wet with an electrolyte solution through the stencil, “burning” the image into the base steel. This is a much cheaper means of marking slides, but is unfortunately leaves fairly shallow marks, which limits how much sanding can be done on the adjacent flat before you start sanding away the design. It is not feasible to refresh the design by burning it a second time. The stencils shrink and expand over time and you would not be able to place the stencil exactly in the same place, resulting in a double image. Because of this, I only recommend matte finishes for these slides. They are typically only surface ground and lightly polished before marking and bluing and by the time you sand them out, you’ll have eroded a good part of the slide marking. The deeper parts of the markings are too deep to sand out by hand.
Hot Dip Bluing
Without getting into a historical overview of all the versions of bluing, suffice it to say that it is the oldest firearms finish and most popular in use on carbon steel firearms today. In my opinion, bluing is the finish that makes a firearm look like a firearm. Because it's a very dark, almost black finish, it does a good job covering or minimizing small flaws in metal finishing and preparation. The commercial bluing process is done by submerging the carefully prepped and degreased parts in a heated bath of water and bluing salts until the parts turn blue/black. The appearance of the blued steel can be varied from an eggshell matte texture (done by blasting with glass beads and high pressure air) to high polished blue (done by polishing with progressively finer grades of abrasives). The matte texture is normally applied to all the rounded surfaces and those that you want to have a non-reflective surface, while the flat surfaces are polished anywhere from about 400 grit up to 2,000 grit and beyond. Flat surfaces polished to that point and then blued have the appearance of looking into a bottle of ink. My bluing work is priced at different levels of prep work. The only difference between them is how fine a grit the polishing is taken to. It's all done by hand, the hard way, never on a buffing wheel.
Bluing is readily worn from use and easily rusted. A few dozen draws from a properly fitting leather holster and you'll probably be able to tell it, even if it didn't wear through to bare steel. Handle it with sweaty hands, then put it away without wiping it with an oily rag and your pretty blued gun will have a case of the "brown fuzzies" in a few days. This isn't to say that bluing isn't a valid choice for a finish for your pistol; just that bluing has some limitations. Wipe it down after handling and keep it out of kydex holsters and you can probably live in harmonious existence with a blued pistol. If you have "poison hands", carry concealed and keep the gun wet with sweat or live on a body of saltwater, bluing probably isn't the best choice.
There are some limitations as to what materials are suitable for bluing. Aluminum parts will dissolve in a bluing bath. Stainless cannot be blued with the same baths used for normal bluing. There are some processes that will color stainless black, but they all have problems of one kind or another. Some steel alloys will not turn black, darkening to a plum color instead.
Parkerizing has been around since before WW II and is still a process that delivers a useful finish today. The most common form of this finish is a deposit of manganese & phosphate, which are applied by soaking the parts in a heated bath. It must be done to parts that have been prepared by degreasing and sand or glass bead blasting. Parkerizing can only be done to carbon steel parts. The rule of thumb is if you can blue it, you should be able to Parkerize it. Parkerizing has a crystalline structure that will hold oils and waxes well. It varies in color between medium gray and charcoal black and has a sort of "soft" look to it. The old G.I. guns that had a greenish-gray color got that color from being coated with preservatives such as Cosmoline. The variation in color is due to differences in the base steel alloy and it's heat-treating and tempering. The color variation can occur on the same part, where a specific area was treated with induction hardening. A Parkerized gun is just a little more resistant to abrasion than a blued gun, but is more rust resistant. Because it's been the finish on many of our military arms, it speaks to anyone that ever carried a U.S.G.I. M-1911.
Called "Spray & Bakes" by detractors, these coatings vary in quality from really awful to quite good. The process requires a bit more sophistication than simply hosing down your blaster with some "Gun Scrubber", squirting on some paint from an aerosol can and then sticking it in Mama's kitchen oven to dry, while supper's cooking. I've seen some jobs that I'm sure were done without disassembling the pistol.
When it's properly done, it's a more durable black finish than either bluing or Parkerizing. Please don't assume that it's on par with hard chrome or electroless nickel; it's not. What it does do is to seal the gun's pores so that nothing can attack the base metal. This is a big plus for someone that (A) wants a black gun, (B) carry's concealed frequently (C) sweats (D) lives in an environment that has high humidity or salt water. The downside is that it's not as "bulletproof" as hard chrome. If you carry in a kydex holster, it will wear through at the corners. If you bang it into something hard, you may chip the finish. There are a couple of things worth mentioning at this point. Even when worn through to apparently bare steel, it's tendency to rust seems to be less likely than were it not coated. The other thing is that when bluing or Parkerizing wears through, they look better than a worn through spray coating finish does. Spray coatings must be applied to metal with a roughened up texture, such as bead or sand blasted. They will not adhere well to metal that has been polished first, because the mechanical bond is not strong enough. I believe Black-T is the best of breed in this category and only offer it.
IonBond DLC (stands for Diamond Like Carbon) is a hard black finish that is fairly new to the firearms market. It is a is a physical vapor deposition coating that has a 3-6 micron build up per surface (that's less than .005"). DLC can be applied to carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, over polished surfaces as well as matte surfaces. When bone-dry it is a dark charcoal color. With a little oil on it, it's black. It's hardness runs 70+ on the Rockwell "C" scale. I think it's the best all around option for a black firearms finish. It appears to be the equal to hard chrome in the durability and rust resistance departments. Black-T might be a better choice if rust resistance is the main criteria, like working in a salt water environment with no care given to wiping down every day or so, but in a less hostile climate or one with more care given, rust is a non-issue. There are a couple of peculiarites with DLC. It requires that the part be able to conduct an electrical charge, creating a problem in coating anodized aluminum. Anodizing is an insulator. If the aluminum is bare, it can be successfully coated with DLC. Type III hard coat anodizing might be a better choice for your aluminum frame than DLC in this respect: DLC (and hard chrome, too) is a little like an unpeeled hard-boiled egg. The exterior is fairly hard and tough, but because of the relative softness of the interior, that coating (or shell) is also a little bit brittle. Should an aluminum-framed pistol coated in such a manner be dropped and dented, the coating's adhesion with the substrate may be compromised. I don't consider that to be a huge deal. I understand that I've already made a compromise by selecting an aluminum frame to start with. I understand that aluminum is easier to dent than steel and I accept the risk. Anodizing penetrates the surface of the aluminum as well as building up the exterior. I'd recommend finishing your Lightweight Commander, for example, with Type III anodizing on the aluminum parts and DLC on the steel ones, getting the best of both worlds.
Another unique feature to know about DLC is that the shape of the part can have an impact on how the PVD process coats the part. For example, the shape of beavertail grip safeties can sometimes cause a faint, narrow "stripe" to be seen on the back side of the safety, where your hand goes. It changes appearance somewhat, due to light and the presence of oil. It is an anomaly that the IonBond people are trying to solve, but still shows up from time to time. I mention this because some guys after learning about DLC, get the idea that DLC is the modern day replacement for bluing and is superior is all regards. Well, it's not.
Bluing is a process where the parts are submerged in the salt bath and all surfaces are equally coated. The process for applying IonBond DLC requires that each part be tied to a wire that is hung from a fixturing tree after which a vacuum is drawn in the chamber and the atomized molecules are transferred through the vacuum to the negatively charged part being finished. It’s possible for a tiny speck of gray dust to land on a part at just the wrong time and a tiny white spot can occur. It’s something that IonBond works hard to avoid, but has been known to happen. If it does, the only thing that can be done is to abrasive blast the part until the finish is entirely stripped (which leaves the metal in a rough matte texture), then sand any polished surfaces back to whatever level they are supposed to be and send it back to IonBond to be recoated. IonBond will recoat the part at no charge. Were this a blued part, it could just be dipped a second time in many cases with no additional prep work. I will charge for any prep work involving sanding and any additional roll mark restoration needed. For this reason, I really recommend only doing matte IonBond finishes.
While DLC comes close to matching the appearance of bluing, it's not quite the equal in it's ability to have a consistent, uniform color, regardless of the shape of the part or the direction of the light. It also doesn't reflect light the same as bluing. It always looks a little hazy, just because it doesn’t reflect light the same way. If you're selecting a finish for your family heirloom, presentation grade pistol, where appearance is the chief concern, bluing is still the King. If you want a best of breed, black finish that excels in many areas and when durability is really important, DLC is the good stuff.
As of this writing, hard chrome is the end-all, be-all firearms finish. Except for one thing: it isn't black. It is very hard, testing in the 70's in the Rockwell C scale. It is very wear resistant and durable because of this hardness. Applied properly, it bonds well to both carbon and stainless steel and has a degree of natural lubricity. It doesn’t always cover all interior surfaces and can build up on edges and corners. Like bluing, different texturing techniques can be used during metal prep to give hard chrome differing degrees of gloss. Most frequently hard chrome is done in an all-over matte finish. Occasionally, you will see a combined texture of matte rounds and polished flats (the polishing is done to around 400 grit and called "brushed" usually). The combined texture hard chrome job needs to be reserved for a pistol with very good surfaces and true flats, as it will show any flaw easily.
There are a few things to be aware of when you have your pistol chromed. The color is a bluish, whitish silver that will reveal any flaw in the base metal. While it is one of the most durable of all readily available firearms finishes, it is not impervious to damage. It can be rusted, if neglected. Banging it into something sharp and hard can scratch it. You can abrade the finish by enough draws in and out of a holster (of course, you will probably wear out a holster or two at the same time).
Although it has some similarities to hard chrome, Electroless Nickel is a unique finish that holds it's own place in the firearms finishing world. Don't confuse this finish with Nickel electroplating. They are two very different processes that serve different purposes. Electroless nickel is a silver colored finish that has a golden cast to it, when compared to hard chrome. Electroless nickel provides a very uniform thickness of coating on all surfaces of the part being plated, where as nickel electroplating is typically heavy on the corners and thin on the flats. Electroless nickel doesn't test quite as hard as hard chrome on the Rockwell C scale, but is a good bit more corrosion resistant. It can be used as an undercoat to enhance the rust resistance of hard chrome. It can be applied to aluminum frames to allow hard chrome to adhere.
Aluminum has to have some help, in order to last as a firearm frame. The traditional way to increase the surface hardness of aluminum is to anodize the frame. A series of chemical baths with a small electric current will create a very thin skin of aluminum oxide that is much harder than the base alloy in it's natural state. Introduction of a dye during the process can finish the part in a variety of different colors, with black being the most often encountered.
One of the old standbys in custom 1911 finishes has been the two-tone look; a blued top end and a hard chrome bottom. This combination is unique, attractive and fairly practical due to the frame assembly having the attributes of being durable and rust resistant, while the slide assembly is more glare proof.