A Gripping Tale

S&W .38 Double Action Safety Hammerless with Desert Ironwood grips

A few years back I started making pistol grips for revolvers, mostly because I liked a lot of revolvers no one makes grips for. Over the years I got better at it, and occasionally made a set of grips for friends.

People have increasingly asked me if I want to sell grips. Now, I like making grips and it’s a lot less hard on my aging body than making swords. But inletting the grips to fit over the frame is pretty labor-intensive, and labor is far-and-away the most expensive component of most hand-crafted items. In short I couldn’t charge enough for the grips to make them worth what I would have to sell them for.

What I needed was a way to inlet the grips that didn’t require as much labor. I looked at various options, and discovered that small CNC routers were not awfully expensive. After sorting through reviews and such I made my choice- a Sainsmart G3018 PROver.

About $400 from Amazon including shipping and a few accessories.

When it arrived a few things became apparent. It’s a bit smaller than I expected, something like 1-1/2′ wide. It’s big enough, so that’s fine. The second thing I realized was that Sainsmart and I have very different ideas of what constitutes ‘simple assembly.’ In fairness if you have an advanced degree in engineering or regularly assemble satellite buses it’s pretty easy, and the directions aren’t hopelessly bad. Your Mileage May Vary.

The last thing was that the software that’s bundled with it is junk. It simply doesn’t work on either of my computers (one of them a state-of-the-art gaming laptop.) I tried to find out how to make it work, and the best I could discover was a fellow who said, ‘It just started working. I don’t know why.’ This will not do.

Much teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling later I realized to was simply a GRBL controller, and there are plenty of them out there. I tried several and settled on the Sourcerabbit GRBL sender. Easy to use, free and, most importantly, it actually works. As an aside I love that I get to use Gerbil-control software; plays into the ‘Mad Scientist’ trope nicely.

Then things got expensive. With the learning curve on CAD software it was apparent that the way forward was to use a 3D scanner. I finally bought a unit from SOL (about $800) that would do the trick. I made a 3D model to use as a ‘blank’ for K-frame square-butt grips and proceeded, which meant learning to use CAD software on top of everything else.

The SOL 3D scanner. Does good work and is (relatively) easy to use. Don’t let that fool you, there is definitely a learning-curve!

We will draw the curtains of charity over the events that followed. Suffice it to say that it was a process of Trial and Error; it was a trial that was mostly in error. I did eventually get things working, and a dozen prototypes later I had my first set of grip-blanks… which required extensive hand-fitting and ultimately didn’t work. Back to the drawing , uh, keyboard.

The grip blank with the gun I am using for fitting- a custom 3″ S&W M&P

Learning from experience I made a new physical model, scanned it and set the machine to work. There were some bobbles, but eventually it worked. The grips fit perfectly with less than a minute of fitting. I can live with that.

One thing to point out- this process, from scanned model to a usable grip-blank, took a week. The thing is the CNC router is not fast when it comes to a complex model like this; the first run took over eight hours for half of a grip. As I learned the machine and software this got faster, but each grip-half still takes 2-1/2 hours. That’s acceptable given that setting up the machine and starting it takes about 3 minutes per half, and I don’t have to charge for the labor because I can walk away and do other things.

Once I have a right and left grip blank I cut the final shape, sand the contours on the belt-sander and go to hand-sanding. All of the external shaping and finishing is done by hand, but the labor costs of that are manageable, and I’ll be able to offer the grips at a competitive price. Achievement Unlocked: Potentially Viable Business.

The first set of grips in Birdseye Maple. Big for this gun, but a longer-barreled gun or L-frame ought to look about right.

Actually selling them is going to be a whole ‘nuther challenge. I reckon Linda will set up a website, then we have to figure out how to drive traffic to it etc. We’ll open that can of worms another day. In the meantime I’m going to work on grips for N-frames, K-frame round-butts and who knows what else.

grip set number 2, in American Holly. Spendy stuff, but I love the look of it!

I’m pushing 60; making swords and my various misadventures in martial arts demos, martial sports, theatrical fighting etc. have not been kind to my body. Making grips may provide a less brutal way of supplementing my income. While I’m not going to use this blog to push these, I will be posting a link to the eventual web-page here.

Maybe it’ll work out, maybe not… but it’s been an interesting learning experience. Hopefully it will be a profitable one as well.

Stay safe, and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 June 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *