Limited sight, big vision

Kate Gatacre talks to Ken Newman, founder and owner of Custom Stockz, the company that has revolutionised the look of many a shooter’s gun on the clay circuit.

Ken Newman isn’t what you’d expect of an airbrush artist. When he set up his company Custom Stockz at his home in Kent, the only thing he’d painted was his own gun. Stranger still, he had lost 90 per cent of his eyesight.

This hasn’t held him back, though, and from the first attempts on his own gun, he’s been fully booked. “I had a chauffeur-driven car business, but when I started to lose my sight at 40, I had to sell the company,” he says.

Looking for things to do, Ken decided to take up shooting – and then to paint his gun. “It snowballed from there; from the first time I took my painted gun out at a competition, everyone wanted one!” 

For that first gun, Ken had used a spraygun: “The same ones they use for cars – I’d sprayed a few cars before, but never more than just touching up the paintwork. I realised that if I wanted to do this seriously, I’d need something a bit more accurate, so I looked into airbrushing.”

A trip to Ripley Art Centre got him a contact and he had a lesson from an airbrush artist. Pretty soon, he was booked solid. These days, a huge amount of his work is on ear defenders. “I’ve done hundreds of them: ones with Motorhead, the Isle of Man, and on mine, I’ve done a picture of my own ears!” 

Ken works on his own, and these days, gets enquiries from all over the world to paint people’s shooting kit – and most of the time, he can be found in his double garage.

“We bought this place because of the double garage, which we needed when I had the car business. It’s the perfect space for painting. I’ve had to put in a good air filtration and conditioning system, but it is a sealed unit, which you need for this work.” 

Look through Ken’s portfolio, and the variety is immediately evident – from his own gun decorated with a theme from the TV show The Walking Dead to a St George and the Dragon, and a gun that has its barrels painted to look like wood and its stock to look like metal.

Ken’s process takes time. In the case of guns, the stock must been thoroughly cleaned and any imperfections repaired before painting. “Sometimes with an older gun, the chequering is too worn to be effective, and I have to remove the rest of the chequering to get the best effect,” Ken says.

“But most of my clients have commented that they prefer the feel of the paint finish against their cheek than the original wood.” Once Ken is satisfied with the surface, a two-part primer is applied, which fills and seals any imperfections.

This is then sanded down to a perfectly smooth surface. A base coat is then applied, which is vital to the depth of colour and luminosity that set Ken’s pieces apart. This is followed by a transparent, tinted paint called Candy to add further depth.

Once the design has been applied, Ken uses two clear coats, each of which requires a drying time. The stock is then sanded down until there are no blemishes, before it is cleaned, given one more clear coat and polished to a high lustre. 

“Each step has to be meticulous,” Ken says, “and you can’t cut down on drying times. I do get people asking for a rush job, but I won’t do that.” Ken clearly takes pride in his work. He says, “It’s all got a lifetime guarantee, so if it chips or cracks, I’ll fix it. I don’t want any of my work out there that doesn’t look perfect – the work is the advertisement, so it’s got to be spot on.” 

Is there anything he won’t paint, I ask? “I am careful about what I agree to. The St George and the Dragon painting was very difficult – just trying to come up with a design that would fit on the stock. And I won’t do anything that might upset a company – a Krieghoff design on a Beretta gun, for example. It might seem strange but I have been asked to do stuff like that.”

Ken’s passion for his work is matched by his passion for shooting, and he travels all over the country to compete. “These days I can do Trap and Skeet – but if the light changes I find it hard to see the clays.

“The condition I have is called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which means that my eyesight is reduced to pinholes. Apart from the competing, I organised a charity shoot this year to raise funds for Kent Association for the Blind. The only problem was that I won it, and as the organiser I couldn’t take the trophy!”

This year’s event raised £1,200 for the charity, which Ken was delighted by. 

Ken’s work is unique. In five short years he has become known around the shooting circuits as the man to go to for a custom paint job. It helps, of course, that his work is so visible – not least through his sponsorship of a young shooters, like Izzy Thurnell, Laura Shinn and Holly Bryant.

But it’s his fantastic colours and designs, beautifully finished, that are his best advertisement. Keep an eye out at the next event you go to, and you’re bound to see some great examples of Ken’s work.

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