I’ll stand up and admit it — I’m a gun plumber.
In case you aren’t aware, a “gun plumber” is an oft-derogatory term for someone who works on firearms despite a lack of proper tools, basic knowledge or any real skills. The telltale cry of a gun plumber is the famous announcement of, “Sure, I can fix that” — even though he might not even be sure if the object in question is animal, vegetable or mineral.
In other words, a gun plumber is someone who, without a care in the world or any shred of self-doubt, dives into the innards of a firearm in hopes of repairing a problem even though they are more likely to be named Playmate of the Month than fix the gun. In some cases, they do resolve the problem using high-quality repair parts such as paper clips or hot glue, but more commonly, things are generally made worse.
If the person in question actually repairs the firearm, and can do it repeatedly on demand and with minimal watching of YouTube videos, they’re dangerously close to becoming a legitimate gunsmith and will soon discover they can charge $500 an hour for using a file. I’m far, far from this point and so are most of my gun friends.
Look In The Mirror
Let’s be honest — most of us who attempt firearms repair will, sadly, almost always remain a gun plumber. We want to do better; we might even buy some of the required tools, but actually learning the required skills just seems like so much work. “Why bother,” the gun plumber asks, “when any dummy can figure this out?”
My own journey started in my youth, about 15 minutes after I got my first Daisy Model 102 BB gun. This is perhaps the most low-frills model in the entire product history but it did sport a “real wood” buttstock. At the ripe old age of 12 — as near as memory serves me — I decided I needed a “custom” rifle to hunt chipmunks, squirrel, elk and other game, so I embarked on my first journey into the world of gun plumbing.
The stock on the M102 is a chunk of some non-descript wood held in place by a long bolt, which engages two pressed-steel ears on either side of the receiver. Honestly, it’s one of the ugliest pieces of firearms cabinetry ever conceived, but it served the purpose of allowing the gun to be used as a shoulder weapon, and more importantly — I assume — it was cheap to manufacture.
My stock was among the ugliest of the ugly and I’m assuming the raw wood had started life as a packing crate at the Daisy factory. After reading about the joys of custom hand-rubbed Circassian walnut in my hand-me-down copies of GUNS Magazine, I realized I wanted the same quality for my “rifle.”
By The Book
I had a copy of an old 1940s deer hunting book I’d won as the prize for scoring the highest on the State Hunter Education test in my junior high. Sadly, the book is long gone from my library and I don’t remember the name or author.
The book included a chapter on how to sporterize your own Mauser (common and cheap following WWII), including instructions on how to refurbish the stock. After reading the chapter several times, I was imbued with completely baseless confidence — the hallmark of the gun plumber — and snuck off to the garage where I used pliers from my dad’s toolbox to remove the stock.
I selected a nice piece of white pine that had been lying around for several years after it had been cut off the end of a 2×4 during a home project. The wood had been sitting under the workbench and was periodically used in various capacities as door stop or hammering surface, thus it sported quite a bit of “character,” a nice word for dings, stains and mashed cobwebs.
As a proto-gun plumber on his first deployment, I’ll admit I took shortcuts. The piece was a little too long by about 3″, twice as thick as the factory stock and shy a few inches of height. Ignoring these inconvenient truths, I cut a notch about halfway back using a handsaw to approximate the bend between wrist and stock, planning to round it later. Then, rather than trying to make the stock thinner by using a planer or belt sander we didn’t own, came the attack of the sandpaper.
After 10 or 12 strokes of 80-grit paper — it was the only thing lying on the workbench — I decided the stock was thin enough and the wrist looked just fine sporting a more contemporary straight profile. I then considered all the checkering and intricate scrollwork I wanted. After pondering the time this would require to complete, at least an hour of work, I decided to dispense with the rest of the niceties. After all, I reasoned, this was a hunting gun and such extensive craftsmanship would undoubtedly be ruined after a season or two of hard use in the cornfield behind my house.
Pleased with my 30 minutes of intense effort, I grabbed a mostly empty rattle can of aerosol varnish and gave the stock a thorough coating, spraying until the can was empty and the wood was well-protected. The varnish did add visual interest in the form of drips and runs, which, if you squinted, resembled some type of grip-enhancing undulations.
As you might imagine, the stock wasn’t unattractive, but I’ll grudgingly admit it wasn’t collector-grade, either. Upon seeing my BB gun, most people would immediately inquire about the stock, asking things like, “What happened? Did a beaver attack your gun?”
Who cares what people think. Thick skin is another requirement for a practicing gun plumber.
Now, armed with decades of hard-won experience, I’d like to share a few tool recommendations for those considering working on their own firearms:
Dremel tool — A stalwart of the practicing gun plumber, you should keep a rotary tool on your workbench at all times. Whether you’re trying to remove too much metal, remove too much wood or create deep scratches in a gun finish, a rotary tool is a vital centerpiece of your arsenal. I’ve discovered you can save several valuable seconds in cleaning up sears, notches and other fire-control mechanisms with judicious application of a small grinding wheel. Granted, you might end up facing hunting violations or manslaughter charges later but at least you won’t have wasted much time working on the gun.
Hand drill — Who needs an expensive drill press when a hand drill can do almost the same work? If you’re very, very careful and brace on an immobile object, you can drill straight, perpendicular holes for scope mounting nearly 15% of the time. As an added bonus, some of the deep furrows where the drill occasionally wanders across the surface can be claimed as custom engraving, thereby raising the value of the gun.
Punches — You’ll need a series of punches if you want to knock out pins or drift sights to correct for windage, but a common framing nail or Phillips screwdriver works almost as well. See the tip above for ideas on dealing with scratches.
Screwdrivers — Gunsmithing screwdrivers are horribly expensive, but flea-market sets are quite reasonable. You’ll save considerable money, plus gain valuable practice using a file to fix “boogered” screwheads!
Vice — I can attest most of us have a vice or two, while some have many. Good character requires we try to keep our vices confined mostly to those which don’t rise to the level of felonies.
Files — Files are nice and most of us have a few sitting around. If not, sandpaper works almost as well, and I’ve been known to rub parts across the concrete floor of the garage to smooth things out.
Die, tap, forge and other tools — All of these other tools are nice to own, but a real gun plumber considers such things as candy-ass niceties, something a Real Man or Woman doesn’t need to fix a malfunctioning Marlin or busted BAR. A screwdriver, a Dremel tool and proper motivation are key here!
One final but crucial tip: Have a well-prepared alibi ready. This is important when you have to take a box of gun parts to your local gunsmith because you can’t get the stupid thing back together, or worse, you have two screws and a spring left over when you’re done.
In this case, I’d suggest the old standby: “I’m dropping this off for a friend. He said it’s some kind of gun …”