All to often, we have had projects completed by other self proclaimed "Professional Cerakote Applicators" come through the door of our shop that, well,.......SUCK. Plain and simple. Like any other service related industry we have the good, the bad and every one else in between. I have seen work by "Factory Trained and Certified" applicators that was horrific and work by those that are not factory certified that is absolutely awesome. So right off the bat, I want to establish that a good applicator is often determined by the individual, their attention to detail and understanding of the general concepts regarding the application process and techniques utilized for a top notch job, and not necessarily governed by possession of a piece of paper from NIC Industries. On the flip side of that, I have run into less issues (or re-work) from factory trained applicators then those of the home schooled variety. With that said, and while not absolutely necessary, you would be wise to start your Cerakote search with a factory trained applicator.
So then, "How do I know if they are any good?", which is a good question in which we will get to in a minute. The second, and equally important consideration is legitimacy. I am referring to the legal means of operation. By proxy of the application of Cerakote, and the retention of a firearm, overnight and/or for profit is that the individual and/or business is considered to be in the "Gunsmithing" trade and requires an FFL (Federal Firearms License). So, if you provide another person a serialized component (gun related) to be coated, and paying for that product and/or service for the item, or is kept overnight that person/company needs to be in possession of an FFL. Parts and accessories do necessarily fall into this category, but if there are any questions it never hurts to due due diligence. Ok, back on topic.... Along with the FFL, State and local business licensing is next in the order of business in addition to insurance. If you have any questions, ask the potential applicator if they possess these items. Those that do are more then happy to acknowledge and display (if necessary) these items. They have spent good time and money in acquiring these, which can be no easy feat within some localities. Once you are comfortable with your potential candidate, now you can validate quality of work.
More often then not, at least in my experience, you have learned about a specific company or person through word of mouth. Good references are a great way to narrow your selection, if for no other reason then some one else has done all the leg work, with a satisfied product. Photos are another decent way of determining quality of work. I use decent, because again, photos now a day are easily doctored or manipulated to hid flaws. I have seen this first hand. I noticed and event commented on excellent work (via social media) only to have that same item come into the shop and I was flabbergasted. There was hair in the coating, tape lines and simple (easily avoidable) mistakes that should never have occurred. So, view photos with a grain of salt so to speak.
The visit.... Stop by the shop and meet with the staff or owner. Talk to them about your idea and/or project and vet their understanding of the application process in addition to general gunsmithing/armorer skills. After all, part of the process is the disassembly and re-assembly of your firearm and while this may seem like it's all "part of Cerakoting"...it is not. All too often I have new clients walk in where their newly coated gun isn't working properly. Application is only part of the overall process. It can look like a million dollars but if it doesn't run then that's one hell of an expensive paper weight.
Also ask if it's possible for a tour of the shop. While some places may turn down your request due to liability reasons (rightfully so), I personally enjoy giving "the tour". I have spent a lot of time, effort, energy and money building up my company and the equipment I used (as most others have). Therefore, I am very proud of what I do and have, and have no qualms easing a client's mind by displaying the quality of our tooling and work. Also ask if they have any completed items on hand to check out. They may...or may not, depending on the work flow. More often then not, we do not have many completed projects on hand for the mere fact that once they are done I like to get them out. Our shop runs off of pay upon pick up (for Cerakote services), so once it's done it's gone. The last (major question) you should ask is if there is a warranty of services. As with anything, especially service industry related, is a rarity and not a requirement. We offer a workmanship warranty on our service which included protection from chipping, flaking, pitting, cracking, fading and anything outside of normal wear or damage from excessive abuse. These items are specifically named/covered because if proper application of Cerakote is adhered to, these specific abnormalities should not occur, unless there is a problem with the product itself, such as product has gone by/expired or the rare occasion of a flaw from the factory (all of which has happened). And since we have a very stringent processing/prepping policy and zero flaw mentality, I have had only 3 returns (all product issues) out of hundreds of guns over the last 4 years.
So to cap it off:
-Good references/reputation? (Very important)
-Professional business environment/clean, orderly?
-Stand by their work?
Noticed I left out pricing? While there is a general, acceptable standard across the industry (and honestly, it's a pretty small community), there in no MSRP per se'. It's what the market will bear for that particular area. BUT, I will say this (as with most everything)....you get what you pay for. There are some places that will run limited time, promotions where you can get a good price for great work, but that is the exception not the rule. So if you are seeing a price that is 50-60% cheaper then the market average....re-read this article because there's a reason.