The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Damien F. Connolly

Added to museum: 10/20/09

The artistic design, manufacture and embellishment of premium firearms

Gunsmith and engraver Damien Connolly is from Mittagong, NSW, Australia. Much of his engraving and miniature firearm work is so small that it requires the use of a microscope for the fine details.

From making surfboards to fine gunsmithing and engraving

Damien Connolly has spent a lifetime developing the skills to make objects of function and beauty. At eight years old he was using a knife to carve animals from wood and making model guns, and by his teens he was making money shaping surfboards after school. At 17, he was working for Bernard “Midget” Farrelly,1963 World Surfing Champion and top surfboard maker, sanding his premium boards, was soon entrusted with one of the most demanding jobs, that of applying the final fiberglass finish.

Once out of school, Damien trained as a carpenter and was always able to find work, but at age 21 he started making muzzle loading rifles and has stayed self-employed in this and related fields for over 33 years. He is completely self-taught, and combines his natural artistic talents with skills honed over the years to take on new challenges. In 1979 he began to experiment with engraving so as to be able to control all aspects of his gun and knife projects from raw metal to finished work of art. In between gunsmithing jobs he also developed an interest in race cars, and has gained specialized welding, carbon fiber component molding and other techniques from his experience as a driver and race car fabricator.

While tradesmen can point to large buildings or bridges they worked on, the craftsman who works in miniature might be able to display an entire life’s work in one room or even on one or two tables. His or her work is judged by quality, not quantity, as people wishing to commission work of the highest quality are more interested in focused results than a large lifetime volume of work. Damien has spent his life developing new skills and perfecting each as he goes, adding to his “mental library” of ways to solve problems and achieve results. This wholly “in-house” approach has resulted in a high level of integration between the artistic and functional design elements of his work.

A collage of photos representing some of Damien Connolly's work. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

As an example, one recently completed project of which Damien can be justifiably proud is the restoration and engraving of a Colt single-action Army revolver for an Australian gun collector. Originally manufactured in 1878 and still in mechanically excellent condition, the pistol was restored from its rusted “relic condition to “better than new before being engraved with the large Victorian scroll specified by the client. The grips were carved by Damien in high relief and the background checkered between the design elements in a tiny 50 lines per inch diamond pattern. The case features extremely graceful and delicate inlaid scrollwork around the Colt name on the lid. Photos in the section below detail the process of creating such a work of art. While some may think it is probably easy if you just know the “tricks of the trade,” after you see how it is done you can tell there are no tricks—just a lot of time and skill.

Working smaller provides a new challenge

One of Damien’s latest project is taking his skills in a new direction again. After years of building and engraving full-size guns, he has just completed a 5-year project to build and engrave a 1/5 scale flintlock Kentucky long rifle, complete with display case. While most miniature gunsmiths work at 1/2 to 1/3 scale, functional pieces at 1/5 scale are extremely tiny, in fact possessing just a little over 1/5 the mass of a 1/3 scale weapon. The challenges of working at this scale increase almost exponentially, and the parts are so small that almost all of the work had to be completed under the lens of a microscope. Almost two thousand hours are invested in this tiny masterpiece, and the finished gun weighs only 1 ounce. It is accompanied by a beautiful wooden presentation case lined in beige pigskin suede, complete with accessories and  fixtures for display of the rifle. In keeping with his “in-house” approach, everything from the metalwork to the woodwork to the engraving takes advantage of the skills he has developed over his lifetime.

Building the 1/5 Scale Kentucky Long Rifle

This photo gives you an idea of how small the 1/5 scale rifle really is. (Click photo to view larger image.)

If you were to hollow out a pencil and leave a decent wall thickness, this 1/5 scale Kentucky long rifle would easily slide inside...all the way up to the lock! It weighs just one ounce, which is 1/125 of the weight of the real thing, just as the laws of cubic measurement demand. By way of comparison, at 1/3 scale it would weigh over 4.6 ounces. The goal was, to work at the smallest scale that would still allow the production of a piece, that when photographically enlarged to life size was indistinguishable from a finely built firearm of normal size.

By constructing this work entirely in various grades of stainless steel chosen to suit the application, and a unique treatment for the woodwork, Damien has done all he could to create a piece that will last into the ages. No concessions or simplifications were made to accommodate working at this scale. Instead, smaller tools were made and a large amount of the work was done using the 9x magnification provided by a microscope on a “telescopic swing arm” that allows its use at all workstations. This moderate power provides the field of view necessary to enable the accurate use of files. The engraving was executed at between 15x and 25x using specially sharpened versions of the standard engravers tools.

In addition to the 600 hours spent making the drill/mill featured at the top of the page and countless hours of planning and drawing, this project consumed no less than 2000 hours of Damien's time over a five year period. Damien says it was this job that crystallized in his mind the secret of doing one's best work: “Try Really Hard and Take a Long Time.”

See the photo section below for more details of the rifle and case, or to read a far more detailed account of the project from start to finish, Damien has prepared an article on the subject. To open the PDF file, CLICK HERE. (File is 5.5 MB—allow time for download.)

A look inside Damien's shop

 

Aside from his machine shop of full-sized machinery, Damien Connolly's shop devoted to miniature work is equipped with small power and hand tools. The drill press was designed and built by Damien. (Click on any photo to view a larger version of the image.)

Building a custom made drill press

Apart from buying a motor, spindle bearings, a drill chuck and some bolts, this 16 speed 1000-28,000 RPM tilting head drill/mill was built in it's entirety from bar stock by Damien Connolly for the miniature Kentucky long rifle project. All non-painted metal is a grade of stainless steel appropriate to the component, and features include micrometer adjustable quill feed and depth setting, and true Vernier depth stop adjustment. A counterweight offers adjustment from a weight assisted drilling feed to a "sprung" return, with feather-touch sensitivity through the moment/index adjustable lever and central hand wheel when the counterweight is at the neutral position. A Connolly designed and manufactured collet chuck holds 1/4" straight shank cutters, while the table has tapered gibs and fully adjustable stops. The moving jaw on the vise comes under downward pressure as clamping force is applied. This ensures accurate and square clamping of small items held in the upper edge of the jaws. A total of over 600 hours were logged in the design and construction of this project. The picture below shows the makers plaque engraved on the base plate.

Here are several examples of Damien Connolly's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

Knife Making and Engraving

Executed in the late 1980's, these 24k. gold inlaid and relief carved eagles are directly inspired by the art of US wildlife artist Guy Coheleach.

A Connolly designed and made knife, engraved with a large foliate motif. Take note of the carefully filed and polished edges and planes of these Connolly made knives.
24k. gold inlaid and relief carved bighorn rams adorn this Connolly made knife, designed with the input of the client and featuring bighorn rams horn as the handle, or scale, material.
Another Connolly designed and made knife, this time featuring a leafy renaissance inspired design, executed in relief carved 24k. gold inlay. Wood Carving series... Reading vertically.
Premium Gun Engraving, Embellishment and Display
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These six photos illustrate steps in the process of carving a deep relief handgrip for the special Colt revolver display case project:

A. The design concept is arrived at on paper before being fully developed on the white painted walnut grips.

B. The design is scribed over the inked lines to prevent loss during the 80hrs or so of handling before background removal is complete.

C. The design outline is plunge cut with chisels as fine as 0.2mm(0.008") (0.8mm in use in picture) before the background is chipped and flicked out, before being scraped smooth.

D. The design is chiseled, scraped and burnished to completion one small section at a time.

E. The progression of checkering at 50 lines per inch through the design.

F. The completed design.

G. In the oblique shot the grip panels are still separate and not tightened to the frame of the pistol.

A .375 Holland and Holland Model 70 Winchester rifle built and engraved for US firearms author and historian R.L. Wilson. Pictured in three of Wilson's books, it features a quick detachable scope mount with slip-on caps to conceal the tapered dovetails when the scope is removed. The caps are stowed in a recess in the pistol grip under the engraved oval cap that swings out on an articulated hinge.

An African Cape Buffalo carved from the steel in relief adorns the magazine floorplate of a .458 Winchester rifle. The background scene is executed in Bulino—tiny dots cut into the polished steel background with the graver.

Possibly the most demanding of engraving disciplines, this frieze-like motif of a cheetah running down a group of Thomson's gazelles has been cut from the steel in high relief to leave a polished background devoid of tool marks or ripples. Many hours of great care with scrapers, stones and laps are required to achieve this effect.

Though functionally excellent, and with a good bore, this Colt 1860 Army percussion revolver was in badly rusted condition. Damien restored the flat planes and trued the surfaces to the highest standard, before engraving with a rich motif of Victorian scroll. New screws were made throughout, along with several parts and a new set of select walnut grips.

The fine gold lines inlaid to the lid if this little 18k gold and walnut makeup jar made by Damien measure just .005" across. The gold is rolled to .002" thick before being inlaid to a depth of .020 to .025". The process of polishing the gold flush results in a microscopic burring of the edge that increases the width of the line. The rings are also made by Damien.

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Colt Revolver Case Lid Inlay Series:

A. Guillotined strips are ground and filed to a predetermined series of waists and humps before being curled by hand to match the drawn design. All design elements have a small amount of draught, (a vertical taper) to the edges to facilitate a neat inletting job.

B. Piece by piece the design is assembled and superglued over the design.

C. Silver soldering the "cross" to the "t" in Colt.

D. The design ready for "investing" in dental plaster and silver soldering.

E. Hard Chavant modeling clay is prepared flat and pressed down over the design.

F. With the superglue softened with acetone, the paper is peeled away from the embedded design.

G. The clay is scraped away to leave metalwork exposed to half depth.

H. Dental plaster is poured over the design. When set up fully, the clay is removed and all joints excavated of plaster and cleaned thoroughly, before being silver soldered. The soldered junctions are then filed clean and true.

I. Inlay area is given a light coat of flat black lacquer. The design is pre-formed to match the dome of the lid, then super glued in place to allow the scribing of outlines that will show clearly on the blackened surface.

J. Wood to be removed is plunge cut to the scribe lines and flicked out with chisels sharpened to a stronger angle.

K. The design is carefully tried in the cuts. Its fragility mandates first cut accuracy, as a tight fit will cause damage on removal of design.

L. When all is right the design is tapped into place with glue to about .060", and the process of filing down to wood level begun. The inlay is filed flush, and the feather edges left by the file are trimmed using a specially shaped graver.

M. Polishing is followed by shading the intersections of lines with the graver. After the grain of the wood is raised and the pores completely filled, the whole case is given a dozen coats of acrylic lacquer and cut back with 1200 grit paper, before being finally polished with rottenstone and oil.

N. The Colt case lid "push to open"catch. The mechanism is attached to the central ribbon motif and is installed from the front, while the surrounding tendrils are inlaid in the same way as the Colt motif.

O. The completed ensemble: Manufactured 1878 in New Haven CT, the restored and engraved Model 1873 Colt Single Action Army pistol with carved walnut grips and bespoke case. All hinges, screws, accessories and other hardware custom made by Damien Connolly. The result of in excess of 1100 hours labor.

P. The engraved revolver is shown with the miniature Kentucky long rifle for size comparison.

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Project Planning—A Painting in Guache, Pastel and Pencil for a Unique Rifle:

A. Draft design development. Note the complete dissimilarity to the finished design!

B. The central scene drawn in pencil prior to coloring.

C. Breakfast! Scene in pencil and guache. Dogs to be in gold relief, with scene varying from relief to Bulino. Bulino is a technique where the images are composed of thousands of tiny dots pricked into the polished surface with the point of a graver.

D. The wood work is depicted in many layers of pastel over a foundation of guache with each layer "fixed" with a matte artists fixative. Each checkering diamond has all four facets individually painted to represent the wood's color at that facet's angle to the light.

E. That's one complex inlay/carving design...but shown by experiment to be eminently achievable with the right approach.

F. An overall view of this project: Designed for cartridges with a head size .222 Rem or smaller, this is one petite rifle, with an overall style and proportion aimed to speak more of a scaled down express rifle. A great deal of care has been taken to achieve a balance between the "visual weight" of the metal components and the wood work. The receiver is just over 2/3 the height of the popular Ruger No1.

G. Detail of engraving design and metal work at muzzle.

Working at the blend of function and aesthetic on the wood and polyester filler mockup Damien created to enable accurate planning of the way metal meets wood, and hence the engraving design.

Modeling in clay to meld function with aesthetics.

• Action: Single shot falling block. A unique and elegantly simple design engineered by Damien Connolly.

• Barrel length as depicted: 24 1/2"

• Length of pull: 14-1/4"

• Projected weight 6.2 lbs - plus scope and custom detachable mounts.

• Skeletonized trap buttplate and unique trap grip cap system.

• No visible screws.

• All barrel furniture (sights, rib, swivel bases) machined integral from blank.

1/5 scale Miniature Kentucky Long Rifle
 

This tiny project involved approximately 2000 hours of work, and it was not done on commission. It was done simply for the challenge of working this small, and it serves as a fine showcase for Damien’s skills as a gunsmith and engraver. The following photos and captions briefly explain its construction. For a more detailed article by Damien, CLICK HERE. Many of the photos from the article are reproduced here, where you have the option of clicking on them to view a larger image that better allows you to appreciate the fine detail.

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A. The rough finished set trigger group and main spring securing screw, which is only 0.8 mm. The trigger adjusting screw is 0.4 mm. Damien produced his own dies to make all the tiny screws on the rifle.

B. The roughed out barrel tenon blanks and star shaped escutcheons with the rifle assembled to dummy “mule” stock. Adding or removing the thickness of a couple of pieces of paper to a dimension can change the whole look of parts at this scale. The trial stock was begun merely to ensure the fit, curvature and relative scale of the various parts, but rapidly evolved into a valuable test bed for achieving the “look” of a classic Lancaster School long rifle. Note the parts merely embedded in filler, the saw cuts and the pieces added to allow reshaping. Damien says that he still worships at the altar of epoxy filler and superglue!

C. The lock internals. Overall length 23 mm. The flint is sculpted and heat blued stainless steel, held in “thinned” pigskin lining material from case. Just visible through the lower aperture in the bridle is the “fly” or detent that ensures the sear nose does not catch in the half cock notch when the set trigger is used.

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A. The sideplate is pierced and carved from a .032" piece of 316 stainless steel using traditional engravers hand tools only. The final finish is achieved using a variety of ebony, cast iron and steel laps charged with abrasive paste. This piece is under an inch long and is inlaid into the wood about .020" The fit is all wood to metal - no filler.

B. Of note in this picture is the extremely fine natural striping, or “fiddleback” in the curly maple stock, the delicately filed “fences” where the tang transitions onto the barrel, and the .012" diameter pins through the stock that retain the trigger guard in the traditional manner.

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A. Aside from the important part it plays in reducing eyestrain, only through the use of a microscope can the fit and finish of parts and the precision of engraving at such a small scale be maintained.

B. The barrel is just over 9" long, has a bore of .098" and is rifled with 7 individually broached grooves.

These three pictures give an idea of the diminutive size of this tiny masterpiece. Excluding only the length of the rifle and the width of the butt, no dimension comes close to the width of one of Damien's fingers.

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A. In addition to many uncounted hours of planning and drawing, Damien logged 396 hours in constructing this display case for the miniature Kentucky rifle. Using the same timber as was used for the stock, the case consists of a mitered frame, with a top panel carved and scraped into its “violin back” shape at a thickness of .080". The pigskin suede lining material was ground to .020 thickness before being stretched and glued over the precisely carved block that forms the case interior.

B. As with the rifle, Damien made all wood screws used in the case in addition to the hinges, which feature an opening and closing detent to further add to the effect of premium quality work. The cleaning rod rotates in bushes in its handle, and features a removable “jag” that can be replaced with a wool mop stored in the top left compartment.

 C. Attached to the lining of the lid can be seen the name "Connolly" in 24k gold lettering. Each one of these letters was formed or “coined” in an individual die cut for the purpose.

D. The rifle is mounted on its display fixture, which is stowed in the compartments at the front of the case when not in use.

All engraved designs shown are copyrighted by Damien Connolly and may not be copied or reproduced in any form without written permission.

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