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Gunstock Finishing

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by Peter B. Hiatt
Peterb@coinet.com

Finishing is really the fun part of completing a gunstock, but the preparation work is 95% of stock finishing. We are assuming at this point that the inletting has been finished. The most important thing at this point is to remember that the wood has no resistance to moisture entering the stock. The opposite is also true. If the inletter is in a wet area and you are in a dry area, the wood can shrink away from the metal if unprotected too long. I recommend a diluted form of your final finish on the interior of the wood, under the butt, wood screw holes, and through-bolt hole, if present. Don't apply too thickly or the wood will not fit back into the metal and more scraping and refinishing will be required. So firstly apply a thinned coat to the interior areas and do it quickly! Next is going back to prep work. Shotgun stocks are much easier to work on than rifle stocks, because there are many more areas on a rifle stock that can have unique little designs like side panels, snobbles, shadow lines, wild cheek pieces, etc. They make interesting and neat guns but many of the adornments are simply to show the artistic and craftsmanship merits of the stockmaker. Another way to show excellent craftsmanship is to leave sharp lines EVERYWHERE! They really add to the look of quality of craftsmanship in a gun but, unfortunately, have a tremendous affinity for anything that can bump and bruise. In opposition to this, a great shotgun stock finishing job is dependant upon fine wood to metal fit and wood to metal not being proud of each other. Now some commercial stockmakers (including a David McKay-Brown I saw at the last Vegas show) leave the wood higher than the metal. Their usual explanation is that it gives room for the eventual refinish job to be flush to the metal. This is, of course, CRAP since the refinish job may be 75 years from now. It is simply much easier to finish without being flush to the metal. This does not mean that you should have to stoop this low. About the only area on a shotgun stock that allows sharp lines are the flutes between the grip and start of the cheek area on the stock. I suggest wrapping sandpaper around a wooden dowel and following the stroke in the exact direction each time. The result is a sharp and classy look. The next thing I do is to make a 1/8 inch line with a soft lead pencil all around the areas where the wood touches the metal. This is to help avoid cutting away too much wood making the metal proud of the wood. I do not sand these areas with the heavier grits. I wait until the last sanding before I finish this strip giving little chance removing too much wood. If it should happen, you can gradually build up the area with successive layers of finish.

SANDING
I shall not tell you NOT to use a power finish sander. However, if your stock has a soft area (like many Turkish blanks) or a fiddleback pattern with alternate hard and soft areas, a finish sander with a soft, felt face will sand the softer areas deeper than the harder areas. You will wind up with a high and low ripple pattern as often seen on $30K Piotti's. Simply crappy looking! On these woods, a hard-faced hand sanding block is your only choice. For sanding grit size, unless the stock returns from the inletter-turner in very rough shape, I prefer to use no coarser than 150 grit to start my sanding. If the stock has a pistol or semi-pistol grip that requires hand sanding, remember that the hand sanded area will have a coarser finish than power sanded areas with the same grit paper. Use finer paper to finish in these areas. If your double rifle or (shudder) shotgun has a cheekpiece, the easiest way to sand the sloping area is to cut a "-1" strip of sandpaper and place the thumb with pressure on top of the sandpaper and area to be sanded and pull the paper with the thumb remaining stationary. It gets a bit warm but is very effective so suffer a bit. If your gun is in the white, you can finish sand with the wood on the metal. Now the prep work is over, and it is time for finish. The two basic questions remaining are whether to finish with the pad on or off and what finish to use. I finish a through-bolt stock with the pad off since it has to be removed to install the stock, anyway. I finish a non through-bolt stock with the pad on. A stock with a poor fitting pad looks like crap. You often see it on custom stockmaker's custom presentation guns that are often refinished due to scratches in use or show dings. It just doesn't look classy. Carefully tape the pad when applying finish.

WHAT TYPE OF FINISH?
The strongest finish against bumps and bruises is a two-part epoxy like Fullerplast which was used on Weatherby guns. It is a one-coat finish but quite thick and not classy looking. The same is true of the plastic Urethane finishes. Wax is an adequate finish on exotic woods with extremely high oil content. Most finishes will not permanently stick to these finishes although Fullerplast seems to work well on them. For oil finishes, the old standard was Linseed oil which is, frankly, a horrible product. It darkens with age and hides the beauty of finely figured wood. It does not adequately harden and does a very poor job of protecting the wood from moisture. It gives only 1/3 the moisture intrusion protection of Tru-Oil. The age old advise is to apply a coat a day for a week, a coat a week for a month, a coat a month for a year, and a coat a year FOREVER! I hate Tung oil even worse than Linseed oil. It must be applied in extremely small amounts and let completely dry for a long time before any more is added over it. Otherwise, it will turn from a seemingly hard finish to a sticky mess when the weather warms up. My favorite is Tru-Oil (the favorite of the Italian gunmakers). It is a plastic with the properties of oil. It dries quickly, provides excellent moisture protection, gives a classic thin and beautiful finish, and can be finished either matte or satin. Please never use stain or filler. It looks like crap, ruins the look of fine wood, and is difficult to refinish.

THEE FINAL ACT
My first coat is applied with thinning agent to soak as deeply into the wood as possible. After drying, I rub with 0000 steel wool and then blow and wipe the stock free of any steel particles. I apply the next coat VERY thickly and then SMEAR it when it becomes tacky. This helps seal the pores quickly. 0000 steel wool again removes all the finish that has not bonded to the wood. The secret to using the steel wool is to REMOVE ALL OF THE FINISH! That which has bonded into the wood and filled the pores remains. I repeat the thick, smeared coat again then steel wool again after it dries. A couple of more normal coats and all the pores should be filled. Steel wool is used between EVERY coat. By this time, you will have seen your stock with both satin and matte finishes several times and will know what you prefer on this particular stock. Checkering is done after the last coat…except you will add a thinned coat to the checkered area only after the checkering is finished. Voila! Many people have favorite finishes but, in my experience, it is less the type of finish that works well and more the individually learned techniques to apply them that is important (and often not told in adequate terms). Most finishes have hardening agents in them. A partially empty can allows air to harden a surface film which you crack open the next time you use it. After a while, the hardening agents get used up in this film and the finish will no longer harden in an acceptable period of time. A good BBS hint is to add marbles to the can to raise the level of the liquid to the top so that no air is present. Spray finish gets away from this problem and the average size Tru-oil can is adequate for about two stocks.

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