by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
Today’s report is Part 5 of reader Vana’s excellent report on stock making. This one was delayed because of the SHOT Show, followed by my need to catch up on reports followed by my forgetting I had it — and Part 6 that’s still to come.
If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, please email me.
And now, over to you, Hank.
This is my original 55 year old Slavia 618 in its new “firewood” stock. I made this one in a “camo” style, using cherry and maple blocks in a random arrangement of the pieces.
This report covers:
- Preparing for finishing
- Cabinet Scrapers (aka Card Scrapers)
- Sandpaper and sanding
- Steel wool
- Preparing the surface
- Smoothing the wood
- Fancy it up
- Accent pieces
Preparing for finishing
In this part I will discuss the hand-tools that I use to finish the stock and how I use them. The stock, having been shaped with rasps, files and coarse sandpaper, will have scratches, bumps and flats that need to be smoothed out before I can even think about applying a finish. Electric sanders are useful time savers but you can easily get by without them. In truth, I like sanding, and find the quiet time I spend working on the wood relaxing.
#1 shows the material (an old saw) and the tools I use to make my scraper.
#2 a knife and some improvised scrapers are tools that I use for making boats, bows and stocks.
#3 is a commercial scraper set with shapes that work well for a variety of applications.
Cabinet Scrapers (aka Card Scrapers)
Scrapers are excellent for quickly smoothing/shaping rough surfaces in preparation for finishing. A scraper is a flat piece of steel that has a small razor-sharp burr burnished along its edge. Dragging a scraper over the wood will remove fine shavings in a controlled manner. With a bit of practice, very smooth finishes can be achieved with the scraper alone.
Scrapers are available in a variety of shapes to suit the flat, convex or concave surfaces to be shaped. For rifle stocks, a rectangular one 3-4 inches wide and 2-4 inches high is good for most of the work.
I custom make my scrapers by cutting them from an old hand-saw blade with a Dremel tool or an angle-grinder, squaring up the edge with a wet-stone and burnishing on a burr. The smooth shank of a “butcher’s steel” (a hardened steel rod used for aligning the edge on a knife) just above the handle makes an ideal burnishing tool. The shank of a twist-drill mounted in a dowel can be also be used for burnishing or, in a pinch, even the shaft of a screwdriver. Since making a scraper is quick and easy I always have a sharp scraper in the exact shape I want. For detailed videos on how to shape, sharpen and use these effective tools, google “cabinet scraper”.
Here is the stuff I use for smoothing and finishing my stocks. The chamfer on the sides of the sanding blocks makes it easier to hold the sandpaper in place which allows a more relaxed grip and avoids hand fatigue.
Sandpaper and sanding
Sandpaper is fairly straightforward stuff; it works by abrading what it is rubbed against. You start with coarse grit (which leaves deep scratches) and work your way through the different grades (which leave smaller and smaller scratches) until you reach the finish that you want.
Choosing the right grit of sand paper is a compromise between having fewer large cutting edges or many smaller edges to remove the wood. The amount of wood to be removed and the hardness of the wood determine which grit I select.
With softer woods I use fairly coarse sandpaper and a light touch to get a nice finish. Hardwoods show scratches easily so I prefer finer sandpaper, again with a light touch, to remove them.
I emphasize a “light touch” because sandpaper (like all edged tools) cuts best when it is not forced. Being heavy-handed will just break off the grit, dulling it and clogging the cutting edges — neither will cut well. I listen to the sandpaper and feel it cutting. When it gets clogged I’ll knock the dust out and continue, if it stops cutting get a fresh piece — working with dull sandpaper is a waste of time and effort.
To avoid humps and hollows that are very noticeable on a smooth, glossy surface, I use a sanding block. For a block, I used a piece of blue foam (the rigid insulation panels made from extruded polystyrene that is used on the construction sites) cut an inch narrower than a quarter sheet of sandpaper and chamfered so that the top is ½” narrower than the bottom surface. I find that the chamfer makes it easier to hold the sandpaper in place.
A piece of wood can be used as a sanding block, as can the high-density flexible foam used in those lock-together floor tiles. I used the blue foam because it is light and won’t leave a dent if I bump the stock with it. The high-density foam works well and is more durable than the blue foam but I find it a bit thin to hold comfortably. I plan on laminating two thickness of the yellow foam together with a flexible adhesive and cutting out a couple of sanding blocks with the tables aw.
Steel wool is essentially a wad of fine sharp-edged wire. It is available from Grade #3 – very coarse, to #0000 (aka “steel fur”) which is very fine. For stocks I use the Grade #00 and #0000. These finer grades of steel wool don’t leave scratches the way sandpaper does.
Steel wool cuts by slicing and scraping which makes it ideal for removing fine bits of grain that sandpaper leaves and for removing the shine from a coat of varnish in preparation for the next coat. Steel wool works best when it is not compacted so I will frequently fluff it up to remove the dust and expose fresh cutting edges.
Where sandpaper will flatten humps and bumps, steel wool will conform to the contours closely. Typically I will use sandpaper and/or a scraper to flatten the surface and steel wool to polish it.
Preparing the surface
Wood, being an unrefined natural material, frequently has knots, resin pockets, drying checks and even insect holes. A perfect piece of wood would have a straight grain and be free of all of these “features” — it would also be boring (no figure) and very expensive. While a poor piece of wood should be avoided, typical boards will have minor imperfections that are easy to correct.
Knots are considerably harder than the rest of the wood and will require special attention such as using a sharp file instead of a rasp or fresh fine grit sandpaper when working that area. Small knots are rarely a problem and larger loose ones can be locked in place with CA glue (i.e. superglue).
Cracks and voids need to be well cleaned before filling. I like to prime deep cracks with thin CA glue to stabilize them. There is a variety of stainable wood fillers available and a bit of research will help in selecting one. I often make my own filler by packing the void with sawdust and adding a drop of CA glue. This works well but it takes a bit of experimenting to get the color correct, an alternative is to add a contrasting color — I have used old (dry) coffee grounds to fill knots and the patch looks like it belongs there.
Smoothing the wood
With the stock shaped it is time to remove the tooling marks and prepare the surface for the finish. The smoother and glossier the final surface is the more it will show any scratches beneath it. I use a combination of scraping and sanding to get where I want to be.
Sanding removes roughness. Trying to smooth a rough or deeply scratched surface with a grit that’s too fine will take forever. The fastest way to a smooth surface is to work from coarse to fine grit without skipping a grit size.
The coarser grits remove soft material well, with minimal clogging and doesn’t scratch deeply into the surface if used gently. For softwoods I’ll start off with 100 grit sandpaper and work my way up to 220 grit.
In hardwoods the sharp grains of the sandpaper don’t cut as deep as they do in softwoods, so having more cutting edges (finer grit) will remove material better than coarser grits. For hardwoods I’ll start at 150 grit and step up through the papers to 400 grit.
During rasping, scraping and sanding fine wood fibers will be pressed down and trapped. Applying a finish to the wood will raise these fiber “whiskers” and roughen the surface. To prevent this from happening I blot the wood surface with a damp (not wet) cloth to raise the whiskers and dry with a heat gun or hair-dryer. When dry I go over the whole stock with #0000 steel wool to slice the raised fibers off. You may have to do this a couple of times before it stops feeling “furry”.
Fancy it up
There are lots of ways to personalize a stock and what I choose to do will depend on how the stock will be used, the type and figure of the wood and how much time I want to invest. The first decision is whether the work is to be functional — like checkering for a better grip — or decorative, like some relief carving on the butt. To my mind, a stock with a lot of figure to the grain needs little embellishment, where a plain stock would benefit from it. Like I said, this is a personal thing so feel free to express yourself!
Please keep in mind that softwood will not hold fine details as well as hardwood but it is possible to fortify the wood with thin CA glue. I practice on scrap to see if I like the way it looks.
The wood I chose for my stocks usually has a lot of character so I will usually forgo any decoration and rely on form, contrasts and grain patterns to show it off. That’s my style but still, there is always room for embellishments.
Most of the commercially made stocks have their details pressed into the wood or laser cut. For our custom stocks we also have a couple of options to choose from.
I was curious how the relatively soft cherry end-grain would take checkering so I did a (very) fast test using the No. 1, 2, & 3 cutters. Ignoring where I messed up a couple of lines, the diamonds look ok.
Checkering can be functional and decorative; it is a traditional thing and I like that. The checkering tool is like a set of files configured in an array so that they will cut parallel lines in wood. Cutting intersecting patterns of lines will form the checkering “diamonds”. The tools themselves are reasonably priced and not difficult to learn to use though it does take some practice to get a feel for how they work. Tools are available in a variety of pitches, my set cuts 18 lines-per-inch (LPI) which I feel is a good compromise in-between too coarse and too fine. For those who are interested, here is a link to a video that gives a good overview of the checkering tools and how they are used. that gives a good overview of the checkering tools and how they are used.
Stippling is the process of hammering a pattern into wood (or melting one into plastic) to create a textured surface. A whole range of stippling tools in different sizes, shapes and patterns are commercially available. A quick google of “stippling tools” will show dozens of percussion punches and stippling tips that attach to a soldering iron.
I like stippling with a punch that both cuts and compresses the pattern into the wood as it leaves a crisper texture. A large punch prints a noticeable pattern that is difficult to disguise; I find that distracts from the effect I like, so I use a small punch (3/16 inch diameter) and rotate it after each strike. Rotating the punch confuses the pattern and makes the whole stippled area appear to be homogenous.
I made my stippling punch from a large nail and shaped the sharp-edged teeth with a needle file. You can also make one from a suitable bolt or an old screwdriver shaft.
Carving is a whole other world to explore. Borders, initials, animals and complete scenes are all possibilities. I have done a bit of relief carving on stocks and plan to do more. It’s definitely a way to personalize a stock if you are so inclined. Softwood stocks take well to wood-burning so that is an option if working with construction materials like fir or spruce.
Here is my FWB 124 wearing a maple and walnut stock. I was experimenting with contrasts but didn’t expect the walnut to darken as much as it did. The walnut accents on the forend, grip and butt help to visually tie things together but I need to replace part of the maple cheek-piece with a chunk of walnut to tone it down.
Contrasting pieces of wood are a simple way of adding highlights to a stock – just glue them in place and shape them as you go. The end of the forend, the bottom of the grip and the butt of the stock are all suitable locations. I find that it’s best to be subtle and not overdo the contrast thing, as it can detract from the stock as a whole.
I have made a couple of stocks where I used pallet wood with big, ugly, knots in it. Strategically located, the wild swirling grain around the knot and the contrasting colors looked awesome when finished. In hindsight, I think that is how thumbhole stocks were invented.
If you intend to mount a bipod or add sling swivels you should keep that in mind when designing the stock. Be sure that the mounting areas are large enough, are at the correct angle and have sufficient wood to hold the mounting hardware. Wherever possible/practical I like to embed a threaded metal insert and use a machine screw to mount my accessories. In very thin areas it is sometimes best to mount a stud (a machine screw glued into the stock) for attaching the accessory.
For powerful springers (aka sproingers) or any rifle that has heavy or sharp recoil it is often a good idea to add a pillar and screw cups to help secure the receiver to the stock. Pillars are closely fitted metal tubes that are threaded and/or glued into the stock and so that more force can be applied to the mounting bolt. Screw cups are designed to spread the compression force of tightening the screws over a larger area to protect the wood.
At this point all that remains is to give the stock a thorough vacuuming to clean out the pores of the wood. Now we are finally ready for the final part — the finishing.