You would never guess that Doug Turnbull’s favorite color is green.
After all, blue is what the Bloomfield, N.Y., metal finisher is known for in the world of vintage firearm collecting. Specifically, Turnbull is known internationally for re-engineering the craft of putting the gun metal blue back into old American-made firearms.
Turnbull, who grew up working in his parents’ Canandaigua Creekside Gun Shop, became fascinated with the bone charcoal color case-hardening process that distin- guished one American gun manufacturer from the other between the 1880s and 1940s.
“My father was messing with it in the early ’60s. There were still some people that were doing it or had done it or understood it,” Turnbull says. “You get a little bit from each person, piece it all together and then experiment.”
Perfected by craftsmen, the craft of charcoal color case hardening was a tradition passed down through the generations in the family gunmaking businesses. Kept a closely guarded secret, the process was never written down and when the last of the craftsmen died, so, too, did their knowledge of the process.
“The case-hardening process was used to harden and toughen and to seal,” Turnbull says. “The colors were kind of a byproduct in many ways. The colors are very distinct to many different manufacturers.”
In fact, the majority of firearms Turnbull Manufacturing Co. restores today are those produced by the well-known companies of that era, including Winchester, Marlin, Colt, Parker, L.C. Smith and Fox. Orders come from collectors across America and Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Holland, and South Africa.
“I took it from just doing one gun here, one gun there to, in a sense, a production run... as the factories did it back in the old days,” says Turnbull, founder and CEO of the company that today employs 18 people.
In 1983, Turnbull began restoring firearms in his parents’ shop.
“I grew up in the industry. I used to take naps in the shop. It’s what I know and understand,” says Turnbull, who says he was photographed in the Democrat & Chronicle at age 3 with a muzzle-loader shotgun in his hand in his parents’ shop.
In 1998, he moved the store to Bloomfield and has expanded twice. Today, the company boasts 13,500 square feet of space, including a showroom where visitors are greeted by Daisy, a 6-year-old longhaired miniature dachshund “guard dog.”
In addition to restoration projects, the company fulfills orders in quantities of upward of 4,000 to reproduce vintage handguns and recently began manufacturing its own line of Colt-style single-action revolvers and Winchester-style rifles, complete with period-style finishes.
“Doing restoration work, it doesn’t matter if it’s guns or cars or anything else. It’s attention to details,” Turnbull says. “It’s getting the polish and the grain and the metal or wood right. It’s using the right paints or finishes on the wood.”
Restoration work can include filling holes and repairing guns that have been heavily damaged by rust or wear; polishing the grain of the metal; recutting, sharpening and deepening the lettering; and selecting and putting on the proper finish for the period and metal.
“You can’t do a black oxide finish on an old gun—it needs the carbona blue or rust blue—because it wouldn’t look right. Just like you wouldn’t take an old Model T and go and put polyurethane on it. It will look nice, but it won’t look correct,” he says. “And with any restoration, it doesn’t matter what it is, when you walk up to it, you have to look at it and go, ‘Yes, that looks right.’ If you’re a dealer or collector, you know when something looks right or doesn’t.”
The biggest order the company has fulfilled for an individual customer was a 10-gun set. Using a high-resolution image of the set loaned to him by a publisher friend, Turnbull was able to create a replica of Winchester shotguns from the 1890s, complete with the engraving patterns. The $200,000 custom order, which took a year and a half to complete, was a gift for the customer’s son.
Today, Turnbull balances his craft, traveling to a dozen trade shows a year and designing cartridges. He contracts with manufacturers to produce and assemble one of the three cartridges he developed and received approval to manufacture. He currently is working on a fourth cartridge design.