by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
Today’s report is Part 6 of reader Vana’s excellent report on stock making. This is the completion of his very thorough report on stockmaking.
If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, please email me.
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:
- Finishing the finishing
- The first rule of applying a finish…
- Put a handle on it!
- Dyes and stains
- Oil products
- Other potions and elixirs
Finishing the finishing
We’ve covered theory, materials, carving the stock, personalizing it and the preparation for finishing. This is where people get anxious and start rushing to be done – that’s a bad approach.
First is to decide what level of finish you want. A Try-Gun stock may be left “au naturel” where a fancy burl walnut stock looks awesome under umpteen coats of hand-rubbed linseed oil.
Take the time to get properly set up… Take a deep breath! Tidy up your work area, vacuum up any dust and think about what you will need — brush, cloth, rag, paper towels, gloves, cleaner, the finish, and — oh yes — the stock. Arrange a quiet, clean place where you can hang the stock to dry – preferably where the cat can’t rub on it. It can take as much time to finish a stock as it took to make it.
The best thing is to take your time, relax and enjoy the process. I would suggest to practice on scraps of wood to get familiar with the materials, but I know that isn’t going to happen! LOL!
The first rule of applying a finish…
Anybody who has read the instructions on paint cans knows that they say “two thin coats are better than one thick one”. That is absolutely true! The best advice I can give is: Believe it! Do it!
On flat, horizontal surfaces you can get away with applying a thick coat because the finish is just going to sit there quietly as it dries. On a stock there are few horizontal surfaces and whatever liquid finish you apply will show a strong preference for running away and hiding in big sticky blobs under the stock.
For stocks, less is best! The goal is to just wet the surface with a thin coat of finish that will set-up quickly and stay put. A thick coat of finish will skin-over on top but the liquid finish underneath will still ooze downhill creating runs and waves in the surface. Multiple thin coats are the easiest and quickest way to a beautiful stock.
Necessity is the mother of invention… Some odds-n-sods cobbled together make a nice cradle to hold the stock while I work on it.
Put a handle on it!
It is very awkward to hold a stock covered with a sticky wet finish. To help with this I mount a long dowel “handle” to the stock (in place of the receiver) and use a cradle to hold the dowel handle. My stock-cradle consists of a piece of pipe mounted on a block of wood and clamped in the vice at a height and angle that is comfortable to work at. To steady the dowel and provide a bit of friction, I lined the pipe with rubber cut from a computer mouse-pad. It’s not fancy but it works and only took five minutes to make from some stuff I had lying around. Adding a screw-eye to the end of the dowel provides a means of hanging the stock up. It’s a good idea to wrap the dowel with “cling-wrap” plastic to prevent accidentaly gluing it to the stock with dried finish. LOL!
Now that we are ready, let’s review some of the options for finishing a stock.
These are all stains with different properties. It’s best to read the fine print and test products on scraps before committing them to your new gunstock.
Dyes and stains
There is an incredible array of dying and staining products on the market. They can be oil, alcohol, or water based, opaque or translucent, thin as water or in a gel. Some claim to be a stain and a sealing finish.
The best I can suggest is that you do some research. Woodworking forums are a good place to lurk and gather information. Finishes are a personal preference, asking for “the best finish” will probably net you dozens of different opinions.
If all else fails, read the labels on the cans and try the products that are available to you to see what you like.
I wanted to mention to keep your eyes open for other possibilities — dyes for leather and cloth will also work on wood and surprisingly, unsweetened Kool-Aid drink mix (powder) makes a good dye — ask any kid with a blue tongue! I have used the Kool-Aid color charts (found on the web) for reference to make dyes to color fur and feathers for my fly tying — the results have been excellent.
Like stains, it’s best to do some research before purchasing a product. Because of the sheer volume of products available this is the most difficult section to write about. Instead I will talk about the products that I use. Being old-school, I have the most experience with natural oil and polyurethane based products so I prefer them and stick to (no pun intended) the products I know.
There are other options like lacquer, shellac or spar varnish but I personally don’t care for them on gunstocks.
There is a major difference between pure and prepared oil finishes. Pure oils penetrate into the wood but don’t dry to a film; prepared formulations have proprietary ingredients that control the drying rate and the type of finish that will result.
Most linseed oil based products create a satin-sheen finish. In addition to their traditional beauty, oil finishes are easy to apply and it’s easy to touch up scrapes and scratches.
There are several products that are readily available as well as many home-brew recipes, each with their own properties. Some of the ones that I have used are Danish Oil (a pure polymerized linseed oil with no additives), Original Wood Finish (polymerized linseed oil with pure beeswax) and Varnish Oil (refined polymerized linseed oil and pine-sap resin).
I wanted to specifically mention Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil which is a linseed-based product formulated specifically for gunstocks. It seems that people making musical instruments are fond of its durable, high-gloss finish as well. Though it is thicker than I prefer, I have used it several times with good results.
Other potions and elixirs
Here are some products that I use on my stocks. Found these in the housewares department.
You never know where you might find a product that you can use for gunstocks. In addition to the paint department, the automotive department and housewares stock various lacquers, oils and waxes that can be used on gunstocks with nice results. You probably already have a supply of furniture and car polish at home that is just begging to be tried on a scrap of wood. Spray furniture polish is great for cleaning and adding a shine on most surfaces.
On a different note, Aqua Fortis is a traditional stock finishing reagent that chemically reacts with the wood to create a rusty-brown color accentuating the grain. The pale grain of maple reacts particularly well making for a really awesome looking stock. I’m not going to get into it here but I thought I would mention it in passing.
As a sidebar — There are videos and instructions on how to make the Aqua-Fortis reagent on the WEB; it is a dangerous process and I strongly recommend that you buy it rather than making your own. [Editor’s note: Aqua Fortis is nitric acid and is extremely dangerous to handle. Even the fumes are caustic and can cause bodily injury.]
I found Howard Feed-N-Wax in the housewares department of the local hardware store and have been very pleased with it. It’s a combination of orange oil, beeswax and carnauba wax that penetrates deep into the wood to leave a beautiful matte finish. It’s ideal if you are in a hurry (or impatient LOL!) to get a nice protective finish on the wood — no fuss, no muss. One application and half an hour later you are good to go. The firewood stock featured in this blog series was finished with Feed-N-Wax, I chose it because I wanted a matte finish to compliment the camo theme.
Generally, oil products are applied, allowed to soak in, wiped off, buffed and then set aside to cure for a time before applying the next coat. Two to three coats are typically required to seal the wood with an occasional reapplication and buffing to maintain the sheen. A top-coat of paste wax can add another level of protection and shine as well.
These are the polyurethane products that I use on my stocks. The Wipe-On-Poly is my current go-to favorite. Behlem Rottenstone is a fine abrasive powder I use to create a satin finish when I want tone down the gloss.
Polyurethane creates a durable high-gloss finish that builds quickly and shows off the depth of the wood grain very well. It is easy enough to use on a flat surface but the curved surfaces of a stock present some challenges. Being so smooth and clear, urethane will magnify the presence of dust particles, brush-strokes, runs/drips and scratches. Any scratch or dings the stock suffers will be quite noticeable and can be difficult to repair.
Polyurethane is marketed in gloss, semi-gloss, and satin finishes. In truth, the semi-gloss and satin finishes are really a pure gloss formulation with some pollutants added to blur the grain. I always use the gloss product and buff the surface with rottenstone or pumice to take some of the shine off if I want to — I have more control that way.
This is another of those “Believe it — Do it” things printed in the directions on the can. When working with polyurethane (lacquers and varnishes etc.) be aware that they will shrink and pull to a smooth finish as they dry. It is very important that the surface be totally free of contaminates like dirt, finger oils, grease or soap to prevent the finish from de-wetting and pulling back into a “fish-eye” spot. I wipe down the surface (and my hands/gloves) with a paper-towel and rubbing alcohol (and let it completely evaporate) just before applying the finish. Don’t use a cloth, as even if it has been thoroughly rinsed it will contain soap residue that the alcohol will dissolve and transfer to the stock causing trouble.
I have always thinned my polyurethane with mineral spirits or paint thinner (up to 10 percent) to get better penetration into the wood and to make it easier to apply. For the past couple of years I have been using clear gloss MINWAX Wipe-On-Poly and have been very pleased with the results. It is thin enough to penetrate well, applies with a cloth, is easy to work with and dries quickly to a smooth, hard finish. The wipe-on-poly dries in 3-4 hours but l prefer to leave at least 12 hours to harden between coats — makes sanding/steel-wooling easier. Also, I have found that the more solvent that evaporates before the next coat is applied the better the end result.
This is my process… For the first filling coat I like to saturate the wood by keeping it wet until it has sucked in all it can hold, then I mop off everything that has not soaked in and let that dry completely – usually 24 hours. Then I steel-wool the surface with #0000, dust it and wipe it down with rubbing alcohol before applying the next coat.
Softwoods usually “fill and shine” with the fill coat plus 3-4 coats, close grained hardwoods like maple and birch need the fill coat and 2-3 coats. More porous hardwoods like walnut will take numerous coats to completely fill to a smooth finish.
A comment on filling the grain; I re-did the walnut stock on my FWB 300 with a coat of the wipe-on-poly followed with a couple of coats of thicker polyurethane to fill the grain. Two months later the thick urethane had dried completely and left tiny depressions where it shrank back into the grain. It doesn’t look bad — real wood does have a grain texture, but it was not what I had intended. I wonder when/why I started thinking a stock had to have a perfectly smooth finish — guess it is that we live in a smooth “plastic world”. Anyway, I wanted to point out that it takes a long time for thick finish to totally cure and for a smooth finish I think that multiple thin coats of the wipe-on-poly left to dry thoroughly between coats is a better solution.
The trick to using regular polyurethane is to apply it and spread it as quickly (and thinly) as you can, “flowing it on” rather than brushing it over the wood to minimize air bubbles and then don’t mess with it — let it dry thoroughly in a dust-free area. Over brushing or touching-up a spot is sure to make a mess — don’t ask me how I know this!
Forget cheap brushes for regular polyurethanes — they leave hairs, bubbles and make a mess, use a quality brush meant for oil finishes for best results. Surprisingly, the foam brushes do an excellent job of applying polyurethane.
The advantage of the Wipe-On-Poly is that it is very thin (it is best applied with a small piece of flannel cloth) and flows easily to leave a smooth, wet surface. The Wipe-On-Poly feels oily when you first apply it and its tolerant of being touched-up; you have a bit of working time before it starts to go tacky but once it starts best to leave it alone and hang it up to dry.
Another option is to finish the stock with regular high-build polyurethane and when you are ready for the final coat, clean up the brush marks, bubbles or flecks of dust with #0000 steel wool and use a can of spray polyurethane to restore the gloss. The final coat needs to be very thin as the spray polyurethane in the can is low viscosity and will drip if too much is applied.
I’ll mention a couple of common sense safety precautions about working with finishes. Work in a well ventilated area when using stains and finishes – a sniff of the fumes is not bad but breathing them for an extended time is not good. Wear vinyl gloves as the chemicals in these products can be absorbed through the skin. Be aware that the volatile fumes from most stains, finishes, and cleaners are flammable.
The biggest precaution is: don’t throw a used wadded rag into the garbage — the curing process of the finish can generate enough heat to cause the rag to burst into flames! The best way to dispose of rags you have used for applying finishes is to lay them flat on a non-flammable surface to dry.
So there you have it, stock making 101, start to finish. Sorry to be so long-winded! Star Trek fans will recognize this as my attempt of a Vulcan “mind-meld” for making your own stock. I hope that I have been successful and you will give it a go.
In addition to having a custom fitted stock, making your own is a satisfying experience. One warning — stock making can be addictive …can you make just one?