Cerakote - The Hottest Finish in Firearms
February 14, 2019
If you can’t keep track of firearms manufacturers, don’t feel bad — even those of us in the industry lose count. And the same thing is true of accessory companies. Certain niche products are seeing a huge increase in manufacturers, such as Kydex/polymer holster makers. Here’s another one to add to the list — facilities doing Cerakote finishes.
Cerakote is a trademarked name for a ceramic-based thin film coating that has become very popular in the gun industry, in part because it is offered in so many colors. I’ve seen lots of pistols and ARs coated in Cerakote, and the popularity of Cerakoted guns seems to be exploding. Many manufacturers including CMMG, LWRCI, and Rock River Arms offer factory rifles with solid color Cerakote finishes. Other smaller companies such as Blackout Custom Cerakote in Florida offer all sorts of patterns (custom and otherwise) which really look great. I think this is the main reason why Cerakoting firearms has become so popular — it is a way to turn an assembly-line product into a one-of-a-kind functional work of art.
Like I said, it’s hard to keep track of them all, but one company I’d heard good things about was Blowndeadline Custom Cerakote (Blowndeadline.net). In fact, I was doing some TV with The Outdoor Channel’s Michael Bane during the last SHOT Show in Vegas and he was raving about how great Blowndeadline’s work was — and how as company names go, Blowndeadline is pretty darn good. A week later I was back home in Michigan and picking up a factory-Cerakoted test rifle from my FFL. I got to talking Cerakote with the guys behind the counter and discovered, to my surprise, that Blowndeadline (BDL) is a local Detroit-area company. Located six frickin’ miles from my house. Six!
Considering I didn’t know anything about Cerakote other than that descriptive sentence above which I liberated from the Cerakote company website, I thought to reach out to BDL and educate myself about Cerakote, how it is applied, and how it is (or isn’t) superior to simple paint.
After looking at numerous samples of their work online (BDL seems to live on Instagram) it became obvious Blowndeadline isn’t just a certified Cerakote applicator, they are world-class artists quite often producing one-off masterpieces. To get a walkthrough of the application process and an opportunity to ask stupid questions I willingly self-sacrificed — I decided to have BDL apply a cool custom pattern to a personal firearm, in this case an AR pistol chambered in 300 AAC Blackout.
My Blackout AR pistol truly meets the definition of “Frankengun.” This gun was put together a few years ago — it in fact was the first AR pistol I ever built from the ground up, in honor of the then-new SB15 arm brace. I purchased a lot of the bits and pieces for this gun (gas tube, pistol grip, etc.) through Brownells, the rest direct from the manufacturers. AR-15s are like LEGOs for men, and parts are meant to be swapped out as the mood or need strikes you. So my pistol doesn’t look as Frankengunish as it truly is. Still, it seemed the perfect candidate for a custom Cerakote finish to bring it all together.
The pistol has been tweaked repeatedly since it was first created. As it exists now, here’s the rundown on the parts on this gun:
CMT billet lower receiver, with an SB Tactical SBA3 5-position adjustable arm brace on a carbine receiver extension. Geissele SSA trigger. Magpul MOE grip. Sabre Defence upper receiver (which is probably a collector’s item now that the ATF raided and shut them down). LMT Enhanced Bolt Carrier Group. Rainier Arms 10.5-inch stainless barrel that has been custom fluted by my gunsmith Doug Jones (Acc-U-Rail.com), barrel tipped with an AAC 51T flash hider. Brand new Midwest Industries 9.5" Combat Rail M-LOK handguard with Magpul AFG. LWRCI Skirmish sights. Topped with the new EOTech HWS with green reticle. With a standard carbine buffer, it runs super- and subsonic loads like a champ, and wearing the EOTech, empty it tips the scales at an even 6.5 pounds.
These Colors Don’t Run
I spoke at length to Michael Sigouin, the big boss man at Blowndeadline. Four years ago, when Sigouin started Blown-deadline, he flew out to Oregon for a several-day class to learn how to apply Cerakote and get certified as an applicator. So, I asked him the hard question — is Cerakote really better than simple paint?
To answer that Sigouin showed me the test results provided by NIC Industries, the inventors of Cerakote (Cerakote.com). In a 3000-hour ASTM B117 salt spray test Cerakote performed better than any other anti-corrosion finish on the market, including IonBond, Nickel Boron, DuraCoat, and FailZero.
Cerakote’s resistance to chemical corrosion was tested as well against likely gun cleaning products as well as unlikely compounds such as gasoline, acetone, and paint stripper. After a 24-hour exposure Cerakote got an “Excellent” rating against every chemical but one — a 5% solution of HCL (that’s hydrochloric acid, folks), against which it only scored “Good.”
On a Mohs hardness scale of 1 to 10, with 10h being diamond, Cerakote gets a 9h, which is the top of the scale for coatings. Surprisingly, it is also one of the most flexible coatings around, and can undergo a 32% elongation without distortion or coating loss (ASTM D522 test). That’s why it works well on polymer, which has some flex to it.
So yes, apparently Cerakote is a lot tougher than simple paint. But it is also thicker than a lot of other coatings on the market, which is why you usually only see it applied to the exterior of firearms, as opposed to on internal moving parts, as it changes the dimensions too much. Mostly Cerakote seems to be popular as a way to decorate and personalize your firearm, rather than a corrosion resistant layer, but it does both.
Sigouin told me, “As long as it’s mixed right and fully cured it’s not going anywhere. Cerakote doesn’t flake. If you drop it, it might chip, but that’s it.”
I learned there are several different kinds of Cerakote, two of which are most commonly used on firearms, “H-series” and “C-series.” H-series Cerakote is the heat-cured stuff. It is a two-part product, a color base (paint) and a catalyst (hardener). H-series Cerakote is heat-resistant to 625 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are a lot more color options in the H-series—close to 200 in fact, and it is possible to mix existing colors for custom tints, so this is the stuff you see on most firearms.
C-series Cerakote is air cured. It is a one-part product, and while it is dry to the touch in an hour, it takes five days to cure. Ironically, it is much more heat resistant than the heat-cured stuff. Up to 1200 degrees F, and unlike H-series Cerakote it is UV stable. That’s right, the Cerakote that most people get on their guns isn’t UV stable and will fade under direct sunlight…..but that fading will take months of continuous direct exposure to the sun, it isn’t going to happen in a few hours. Sigouin has really only seen fading on Cerakoted car parts that have been continuously exposed to the sun.
Mike Sigouin stated that he prefers using H-series Cerakote for a number of reasons. In addition to there being more color options, he feels it provides a more consistent product. That said, he uses C-series on products that are going to get very hot, such as firearm suppressors.
Traditionally, you vary the amount of hardener/catalyst to color base to get various finishes. Adjusting between a 12-to-1 and 18-to-1 ratio will change the finish from glossy to satin to matte. Sigouin uses a different method. He uses the same ratio for everything, but adjusts the temperature on his ovens to change the finish. H-series Cerakote can be cured at temperatures between 180 and 300 degrees. Sigouin cures just about everything at the minimum 180 degrees, that way he can bake metal and polymers together, and the temperature isn’t so high the polymers will warp or the light colors will darken.
“People worry about Cerakote sticking to polymer,” he told me, “but in my opinion Cerakote sticks better to polymer than metal, so no worries.”
Break It Down
Once I decided on the firearm I wanted coated, I had to decide what kind of pattern I wanted. As I feel an AR pistol chambered in 300 Blackout is the literal definition of the Modern Urban Carbine, I thought some sort of “urban camo” would be a good choice. However, most urban camo looks bad or cheesy or both.
After talking to Mike Sigouin a bit I decided on one of the most popular patterns right now, Black Multicam. From a distance, however, Black Multicam appears almost solid black, so I was thinking a lighter/grayer version of Black Multicam, perhaps with a little fake rust, verdigris, or some “battle wear”, depending. As Blowndeadline is a true custom shop they could tweak the pattern any way I wanted. Although I had no idea how they might do that. They are the artists, after all.
Sigouin told me, “I think we took Cerakote to a totally different level. We do stuff nobody else does. We try to make our ‘battle-worn’ patterns as realistic as possible. We were the first people to do the ‘Spartan Worn’ pattern.”
When I camo painted an AR for an article for this magazine several years ago, I taped off parts and pieces, but I didn’t fully disassemble the rifle. Blowndeadline, however, isn’t a hack gunwriter but rather a professional coating facility. I watched Mike Sigouin completely take apart my AR pistol (down to the smallest pin) in about five minutes, which is amazingly fast.
After complete disassembly, every part that was going to get coated was dumped in a tub of non-chlorinated brake cleaner for fifteen minutes for degreasing. The aluminum hood for the EOTech was included, so he had to cut the cable connecting the hood to the battery compartment door. If the polymer parts on your gun can survive the brake cleaner, and the acetone scrubbing which follows, they’ll survive the Cerakote application just fine. Sigouin has found that almost all non-ABS plastics do just fine. He’s Cerakoted everything from Yeti coolers to Oakley sunglasses to compound bows to staplers.
Cerakote also recommends applicators gas off parts. Some metals can absorb certain gases and compounds, and heating them for a while purges them clean. Apparently, this is quite a problem with GI AR-15 magazines. Taking apart the plunger on an AR’s ejection port cover is a nightmare, so to get the oil out of there BDL burns it out with a blowtorch.
Sigouin told me, “Ninety percent of this is prep. If you didn’t prep right, it’s gonna look like crap.” He pointed out some bare metal parts hanging on a nearby rack, waiting to be worked on. They exhibited spot rust. “Rust is like a cancer,” he told me. “You have to eradicate it completely or it’ll come back.” Blowndeadline fights rust with their sandblaster.
After the brake cleaner and acetone Blowndeadline uses a sandblaster on the parts to get coated. The sandblasting (using 100 grit aluminum oxide at 60–80 psi) produces a texture on the pieces to which the Cerakote can adhere. I’m told they sandblast just about everything but scopes.
After the sandblasting came the time-consuming job of taping off everything that shouldn’t get coated. The rubber on the SB Tactical SBA3 arm brace had to be taped off, as you can’t Cerakote rubber or silicone. The masking tape they use is rated to 300 degrees and Sigouin uses scalpels to cut and shape it. Prior to entering the firearms finishing world Sigouin was an automotive interior engineer.
“In the auto industry, I worked with leather a lot, doing interior seats, and that’s when I started using scalpels,” he told me. “They’re sharper than X-ACTO knives.” His are made in Sheffield, England.
Layers Aren’t Just For Cakes
Single color coatings are less time consuming than patterns, but according to Sigouin they are harder to do. “With a single color, every single mistake shows up. Patterns hide goofs.”
The base color for Black Multicam is black. And using a small paint gun (the kind preferred by people painting automotive trim pieces) Sigouin made sure the base layer was thick. “The base layer against the bare metal is the only one that protects,” he told me. “Everything else is just decoration. Like icing on a cake.” He also told me, “Wet Cerakote shrinks and levels itself out. It’s very forgiving.” After spraying he lets the pieces sit for fifteen minutes before putting them in one of Blowndeadline’s $8,000 industrial ovens for 15 minutes at 180 degrees.
When mixed into the color base the hardener activates it, and is good for about four hours or so before it starts to thicken up at room temperature. In that way H-series Cerakote is a lot like two-part epoxy — you can’t unmake it, so it’s usually mixed in small batches to reduce waste.
Blowndeadline isn’t just a small business, it is a family business. Every one of the six employees is a relative. Sigouin’s wife Dana is a graphic designer, and a very talented artist as well based on the paintings I saw. She is the one usually tasked with laying down the stencils for the camo patterns. Luckily, she doesn’t have to cut the patterns by hand — they’ve invested in a GraphTec electronic cutter. They design the patterns in Adobe
Illustrator and then transfer them to the unit, which cuts them out of a vinyl sheet. They use a high temperature-resistant vinyl that won’t leave a residue, bright yellow so the stencils are easier to spot underneath the paint.
While the stencils are cut by machine, there is no shortcut when it comes to applying them to a firearm, it all has to be done by hand. And with some camo patterns (like the one I chose), a second layer of stencils has to be laid down halfway through the process.
When the gun parts come out of the oven they’re almost too hot to touch. They sit for fifteen minutes, then Dana Sigouin applied the first layer of stencils to the large pieces, partially reassembling them so the pattern matches between the upper and lower receiver. She told me that BDL doesn’t do patterns on the small pieces, as there is not enough real estate. The small pieces are coated in solid colors. Unlike many Cerakote companies Blowndeadline adjusts the pattern size based on the size of the gun; for example, the Multicam blobs on an AR are larger than what you’ll find on a pistol.
After the stencils are laid down a second layer of Cerakote gets applied. For my chosen pattern, the second color was a medium green, and it is a partial layer. After the spray, the pieces went back inside the oven for fifteen minutes, cool for fifteen minutes, third partial layer of gray Cerakote, oven, cooling rack, and then Dana Sigouin applied the second, larger layer of stencils. Partial spray of black over the new stencils, back into the oven, then onto the cooling rack.
Have you happened to notice how much time and effort is going into creating this pattern? On one gun. I had no idea it took this much work to apply Cerakote, but it does, and there aren’t any shortcuts. While I’d chosen different hues for my gun, every step I’ve documented has to be taken for standard Black Multicam and most of the camo patterns offered by BDL and other Cerakoting houses. As they told me, “It’s a lot easier when we’re working in big batches.” I kept that in mind as I examined the nearby pile of 100 or so
Fenix flashlights waiting to be Cerakoted, and forty or so AR lower receivers hanging from one of their big metal racks. As Sigouin moved it out of the way, the swinging lowers made lovely musical notes.
“Just like wind chimes,” I said.
“Those are freedom chimes,” he corrected me.
Beat It Up — Artistically
After the last coat of colored Cerakote had been cured and cooled, Sigouin used tweezers to remove the stencils off all the parts, revealing the full pattern, which took a good ten minutes. Then it was time to apply the “battle worn” finish.
“Everyone does ‘battle worn’ a different way,” Sigouin told me. “When I was starting out I threw and dragged my gun across cement a few times just to see and learn where it would get worn and scratched. We don’t try to change the shape of the metal, we just want it to look a little beat up. You have to know what’s too much. We don’t remove any metal, we just wear the Cerakote down to where the metal is bright. The high edges are the parts that are going to get worn in normal use.
“There are dozens of ways to distress something. Sometimes I use Scotch Brite pads by hand. Fine steel wool. Other times I use soft Scotch Brite pads on a grinder. Some people use sandpaper but that looks too aggressive to me.” As Sigouin pulled out a small grinder and took hold of my newly Cerakoted lower receiver, he said with a smile, “I hate to do this to new Cerakote, all that work to make a nice pattern just to mess it up a little, but I know the end result looks great. Most people don’t want to watch, though. Everyone likes hot dogs, but they don’t want to know how they’re made.” And with that he went to work on my AR pistol, lightly wearing away the Cerakote on this or that edge or corner until the bare metal started to peek out.
“You can’t do that with plastic, of course,” he explained. “There’s no metal underneath. We’ve got a few tricks for that. One of them is putting down a silver base coat, and when we wear it, wear it down to that silver.”
After doing his ‘battle worn’ magic Sigouin wanted to do some drip effects on the pistol, including adding some ‘rust” effects. He did this with a Q-tip and Cerakote that had been thinned out so it would run. “You have to know where to dab so that the end result looks realistic,” he told me. “But it’s not rocket science.”
“No, it’s art,” I told him.
When he finished, Sigouin clear coated the whole pistol which both darkened the colors slightly and made them more vibrant. After that, everything went back into the oven to cure for another two hours.
After the parts came out and cooled, the pistol could be reassembled.
When it comes to applying a pattern in Cerakote to a firearm, there is no other way than to do it by hand. Which means no two firearms are going to look exactly alike. Embracing that concept, Blowndeadline now provides each customer with a Certificate of Authenticity which states ‘This hereby certifies complete authenticity of this one of a kind masterpiece Cerakoted by Blowdeadline Custom Cerakote’.
“When you try something new, you never know what it’s really going to look like until you put it all back together,” Sigouin told me as he assembled, lubed, and function-tested my pistol. He regarded the finished product. “It’s definitely lighter than Black Multicam,” he observed. “What do you think?” he asked me. “You wanted urban camo.”
“It looks like a bunch of weeds growing up through a pile of broken rusted concrete,” I told him.
“That’s Detroit,” he agreed.
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current novel, Bestiarii, is available now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.