Pacing through the aisles of outdoor retailers, the walls are covered in firearms.
Gun retailers can be found fairly easily. But finding custom gunsmiths? It may become a lost art.
In a time without many custom firearm makers, 22-year-old Nick Claes of Loudonville, Ohio is bringing youth and a new name to the custom firearm business.
Claes graduated from one of the United States’ top Gunsmith programs, Trinidad State Junior College (TSJC) in Trinidad, Colorado. Upon graduation he immediately set up his own shop in the hills of central Ohio forming Claes Custom Firearms, LLC.
“I like making stuff,” said Claes on how he found his passion. “I started in my class with 20 people and graduated just one of six. I just kept at it and found out I was good at it.”
Having earned his degree from one of the country’s top Gunsmith programs at TSJC, he learned the art from the best in the business.
It was a tough program. In his first semester, he had to hand-forge his own chisels, scrapers and other tools needed to detail the stock. “That’s how we got graded in that class, based on the tools we made,” added Claes.
While in school, he took his education beyond just what was required in the classroom. Claes worked with Clayton Nelson, an 82-year old gunsmith, spending time as an apprentice. “I was always hanging out around his shop,” he said. “I learned a ton from him to help me get started on my own.”
Many of his current styles are modeled from what he learned as an apprentice and talking to others while in Colorado. But the 22-year old is developing his own signature brand using a variety of wood and checkering technique, all with the tools he made from school.
Claes Custom Firearms sits attached to his garage outside his home. It is a small space but enough to fit all his equipment and give him adequate space to work. A safe, lathe and milling machine take up a majority of the room. “All my professors from college said they started in smaller shops,” said Claes. “It’s roomy but gets tight when I’ve got a lot of repairs sitting around taking up shelf space,” he added.
The shop took shape with getting a mill, a graduation gift from his grandparents. “That’s what got me going,” said Claes. “It allowed me to make my very first stock.”
As for getting his stock materials, he looks no farther than his wooded backyard. “My dad forests and so we’re close with all the mill guys so we have access to a lot of wood like black walnut and tiger maple and some other wood,” he added. “I start with a blank and turn it into a rifle.”
Upon graduation, Claes had to wait eight months to get his Federal Fire Arms License (FFL) because he had not yet turned 21 years old, the age required to obtain an FFL.
“Two weeks after graduation I built the shop and a few weeks after that bought the mill,” Claes added. “I made my first stock exactly one week after graduation.”
The dedication didn’t stop upon creation of his company. He spent his 21st birthday hand carving and checkering the handle of a handgun as opposed to celebrating like most 21-year-olds.
Now a full-time Gunsmith and FFL Holder, Claes spends a majority his days making custom stocks from wood found throughout the woods of Ohio.
Manufacturing the stock takes anywhere from 3-4 weeks depending on a variety of factors. Afterwards, he gets down to detail. “We look at the checkering and what kind of finish in the end, if they want a high gloss or more dull” are just a few of the things he looks at.
“On a stock it’s about $1500 and up depending on how detailed [the buyer] wants it,” Claes said in regard to price. “The first stock I did took about 90 hours of labor and I charged a grand which equated to working for just above minimum wage.”
Time and detail are the benchmarks of custom firearms. Making sure the gun fits to the buyer is what separates it from the mega retailers who are just looking to push a sale. “When you buy a custom gun, it’s going to fit you,” added Claes. “You can tell the difference in the look and checkering, but ultimately when it’s custom, it’s your gun.”
After the stock is finished he either progresses to complete the rest of the gun himself or relies on the tight-knit group of his six college classmates to help with the manufacturing process.
“The action and bluing I send out to a few friends I graduated with,” added Claes. “We all work together. Slow rust bluing I do myself, hot-salt bluing I send to Wisconsin to a guy I went to school with.”
While he can craft any firearm from start to finish, Claes eventually wants to get strictly into the stock manufacturing and checkering aspect of the business.
But right now, Claes cares more about getting his name out there and building his resume as a quality gunsmith before he can worry about picking and choosing his jobs. “Everyone has his or her doubts,” he added. “Like anything else, some days you have your good days and bad days.”
The good days are beginning to outnumber the bad for the Loudonville kid. Business is growing and money is coming in.
Getting started is the toughest part, but like anything else, a quality product will keep you around. Something Claes no doubt produces in the hills of Central Ohio.