LANSDALE, Pa. (AP) - Tim Dell got into gunsmithing because he figured firearms weren't nearly as dangerous as plants and flowers.
"After high school, I started working at a horticulture supply company in sales, and I started seeing all the problems the guys in the greenhouses were having from contact with the chemicals," said Dell, 48, on a recent morning while standing amid the machines and tools in the back workshop of his store, Dell's Firearm Specialists, Inc., at 1217 Walnut St. in Hatfield Township.
"The guys were having me go into greenhouses when they just sprayed chemicals that morning - when there's supposed to be no entry for 24 hours - and they were still using cyanide and a lot of other chemicals that weren't legal anymore but they were still using them," Dell continued, shaking his head. "So I decided that it was safer dealing with loaded weapons."
"I knew those chemicals were eventually gonna get me, but a gun, I can pretty much be careful and you cut your chances of having a problem way down," he deadpanned.
It's been about 25 years since Dell switched careers, and now he's one of the more highly regarded gunsmiths in the greater Philadelphia region, providing a wide range of repair, cleaning, enhancement, instruction and other services at his shop along with selling handguns, rifles, shotguns, ammo and a variety of firearms accessories.
On this particular day, as one of his employees mans the front of the store - where dozens and dozens of weapons, mainly older vintage models, sit in glass cases and hang on the walls - Dell is in the back working on cutting and custom-fitting carbon steel components made by Caspian Arms in Vermont for what will be a classic, high-quality 1911-style pistol when he's done.
"The components come oversized so parts don't fit, you gotta machine everything," he said, pointing to a 1940s-era Rusnok benchtop mill he acquired from a buddy's machine shop about 10 years ago which is holding one of the Caspian frames. "I machine the rails down to fit the slide, I hand-lap the slides to get a really good fit," he continued. He'd already spent an hour working on fitting a beavertail grip safety on the safety, carefully welding and cutting the part at a table surrounded by scores of hand tools.
"I've got all kinds of files," Dell said. "Almost every job needs something else, so I'm constantly buying tools. I just got this vice, and I'm always trying to get bigger and better machinery - eventually I'll have a big mill and lathe in here."
Properly assembling the Caspian, sans the refinish, takes about 2 or 3 days, said Dell. "If I don't get bothered," he added with a laugh.
Most of what Dell stocks in his store are used firearms, and that's because after working in the industry for a quarter-century, "I got kinda bored with new guns," he said.
"To a gunsmith, new guns are not made nearly as well as the old guns were," Dell continued. "The old Smith & Wessons and Colts were all hand-fitted parts, they polished the interiors and fitted everything really nice, that's why they're worth more and they have such good trigger pulls. Some of the new guns that are out, everything is computerized machinery and you can get a kid off the street to run the machine...they run the machine until the cutters break, and you start getting gouges and ridges in the parts, which gives you that heavier and harder pull."
But that's one of the things that keeps Dell's in business, he smiled. "These guys buy these new guns, they go out and they shoot 'em, it's a rotten trigger pull so they bring it in, we polish everything to a mirror finish, put it back together, and it feels so much better," Dell said.
Dell, who originally hails from Hatfield Township, had a love affair with guns since he started shooting at age 5 with his father at the Souderton Harleysville Gun Club (to which Dell still belongs). After taking a gunsmithing mail-order course, Dell ran a shop out of his house part-time before going to work for a string of companies - including Evolution Gun Works in Quakertown - doing both gunsmithing and gun sales before establishing Dell's Firearms Specialists, first in Montgomery Township, and then moving to its current location on Walnut Street over a year ago.
Given the history of the Philadelphia area, particularly when it comes to warfare, Dell said he's seen - and worked on - weapons "from the Revolutionary War forward."
"There's always neat stuff coming out of the basements and attics," he said.
To illustrate the point, he pulled down from his walls a 19th-century British shotgun and a famed Civil War-era Smith carbine. "Just look at some of this, look at the finish, that's what I'm talking about," he said. "The way the craftsmen built these, that's what we try to do. You get such a good fit and finish compared to slapping them together like these manufacturers do anymore."
"Here's another one of my customs," Dell said, brandishing a Marlin Model 25 .22-caliber rifle. "This one was very rusty - in fact, I had to file out a lot of the pitting that was in the barrel and reshape the barrel again, and we took it all apart, I filed down everything, polished it back up, sandblasted it and then DuraCoated it."
Jobs like that can take a couple of weeks, he explained. So can cleaning jobs.
"A lot of times people come in with weapons covered with oil and dirt and dust and it coats the whole gun, you can't even see how good the finish is underneath it, but we'll clean them all up," he said.
Dell said that he's worked on tens of thousands of firearms during his career, and prefers working with metal to wood. "Metal is a lot easier," he said. "Wood, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong. The grain grabs your cutters, you can get moisture getting in there and splitting it, you can find rotted areas in the wood or oils that get in that can rot the wood."
"But that's all part of the challenge, and that's enjoyable," he said, adding that when the truly vintage firearms come through his store, "I just love getting them in my hands. I've been handling and cleaning them so long you know what to do, although maybe you take your time and think twice or three times before you do anything. You'll even take and grind screwdriver bits to exactly match the screws, so there's a lot more effort that goes into some of these high-end guns."
Nowadays, Dell considers himself an artisan. "There are less and less gunsmiths," he said. "It's a tough skill to learn."
To that end, Dell said he currently has an opening for an apprentice gunsmith.
"It's an unpaid position but I put them through a course that I pay for and teach them in here," Dell explained, "so after a year or a year and a half, they're a certified gunsmith. The thing is, you can take the course, but unless you have guns to work with on a regular basis, you don't really retain a whole lot, so that's why it would be really valuable for someone."
He also said that his 18-year-old son, under Dell's tutelage, has been gunsmithing since he was 8, and he'll "probably be surpassing me in a few years," so perhaps Dell will be able to hand the family business down to his son someday.
But that day likely isn't coming soon, because even though Dell has plenty of skill, he doesn't consider himself a master gunsmith. "There's always more to learn," he said. "It'll never get stale."
To find out more about the myriad gunsmithing services Tim Dell offers, visit Dell's Firearm Specialists online at www.dellsgunroom.com.
Information from: The Reporter, http://www.thereporteronline.com