Brian Johnson hunched over the plastic folding table covered with paints, dirty paper towels and well-worn paint brushes. With paint-spattered, greasy fingers, he delicately brushed gold paint over the faux wooden handle of a partially-painted resin gun prop.
Johnson, 36, is the owner and sole proprietor of Johnson Arms in Clearwater, Florida, a company he founded to paint, modify and create original and replica weapons, guns in particular. Although he’s a banker by day, his passion lies in creating props for cosplayers, especially in the steampunk community, costumers and the adventurous-at-heart, be they 10 or 100.
Although some of his work replicates well-known weapons in video games such as in the Halo series or in movies like Star Wars franchise, many are original creations dreamed up by Johnson himself. Some are inspired by historical weapons and others are futuristic but all of them are unique.
In the case of original weaponry, “you’re in a perfect position to never be wrong,” Johnson said.
Racks line the workshop in his studio, a fairly spacious storage unit in Belleair, Florida. Guns in various stages of adornment are strung on wires to dry, awaiting the next coat of paint, details and additions such as telescopes, steam pipes and lights.
His 9-year-old son helps him stay relevant but telling him about cool new shows like Adventure Time and giving him advice on works-in-progress.
“He’s been a good source of what’s cool and what I should do,” Johnson said.
Sometimes Johnson lets him and his daughter paint their own weapons and any money made from their sale goes towards fun activities on the weekends.
On the opposite side of the studio, after you walk past the boxes of Nerf guns and thrift store finds waiting to be given a second life, is a table where Johnson does most of his painting and detail work. Eventually, the small table’s contents will be relocated to a bigger desk along the back wall of the unit, where Johnson can set up better lighting.
Various types of equipment for drilling holes, sawing, soldering and painting are strewn throughout the room. Johnson said that the beauty of his work is that not only does it supplement his income from his day-time banking job, but it helps him afford new equipment to build even better weapons.
“The Nerf gun I’m modding for you is going to get me a drill press or help me stay in my studio and apartment,” Johnson said. “It’s not going towards buying an iPad.”
Like any artist who has to put a monetary value on his work, Johnson occasionally gets flack from would-be buyers off put by the sometimes high price tags. But after the cost of materials and the amount of time Johnson puts into his creations, the mark-up isn’t that high, especially for a one-of-kind weapon that can’t be replicated.
Johnson encourages his clients and fans to try their hand at what he does, and genuinely wishes them well, but knows how difficult the work can be. For those who say his work isn’t worth the price and claim to be able to do it themselves for much less, Johnson tells them to give it a try and has this to say:
“It’s like looking at a painting and you see the brush strokes and you know how the artist did it but trying doing it from scratch.”
Clients who do decide to buy are never disappointed, Johnson said. He works with them one-on-one to produce the prop weapon they envision. If he’s not replicating a specific replica weapon from a movie or video game, he takes artistic leeway with commissions and often adds extra details he didn’t charge for.
I always try to over-deliver,” Johnson said. “I’ll purposely not tell clients what I do with the added details. Those I add without worrying that I didn’t charge them for it.”
Those extra details may not bank him extra money for that sale but they do allow him to experiment with new techniques and to take photos to add to his portfolio that might get him future sales.
His projects can take anywhere from an hour to several weeks depending on the complexity but like any good magician who doesn’t give away his tricks, Johnson doesn’t divulge specifics on the time it takes for particular pieces or on his specific techniques.
Although he’s only been creating prop weapons professionally for a couple years, Johnson said he’s always been the creative type with an eye for looking an every day objects and imagining what else they could be. As a child, much to his mother’s dismay, he often popped gemstones out of her jewelry to use as buried treasure when he played with his G.I. Joe figures.
As with any business, Johnson said, the purpose of Johnson Arms is to make money so that he can pay his bills but independent artists don’t get rich off their craft. While Johnson loves dressing up in costume for conventions and makers fairs, he said it’s “hard to play ‘Make Believe’ if you’re $100 in the hole at the end of the month for your bills.”
There’s always the hope, Johnson said, that it’ll get easier to pay his bills doing what he loves but for now, pursuing his passion makes him happy.
For more information about Johnson Arms and to contact him for quotes visit his website.