Unlike steel, wood has warmth in both feel and appearance. A wood stock wears scars well and, provided that you don’t abuse it, ages gracefully. Its individual color and figure give your rifle unique character. You can replace wood with a synthetic stock (as in voting you can supplant fiscally responsible politicians with spendthrifts), but in the long run, the results may not please you. However careful you are with wood, hunting and handling can mar it. Once on a steep rock face, I lost my footing and shot down the scree on my belly, fingertips bloodied as I clawed for purchase. My canteen tore free and hurtled over a precipice, shattering on boulders below. I stopped just shy of the cliff, three fingers jammed in a fissure. My battered rifle came briefly to mind.
Hard hunting is hard on rifles! But scratched and gouged wood stocks—and those whose finish has succumbed to water damage or ordinary abrasion and scratches—needn’t stay ugly forever. Repairing and refinishing stocks can be rewarding, even profitable. I once earned a few shekels rejuvenating used firearms for resale at a local gun shop. I learned to see color and figure in dented, oil-blackened wood, through chipped and clouded finish.
PREP THE STOCK
To start, remove the stock from the rifle and then all the furniture from the stock. Repair structural damage with epoxy and pins in tang cracks, and fitted wood epoxied into chipped voids (see “Rifle Rx” column in this issue for a more detailed how-to). Then remove the finish.
If the finish is polymer, such as Remington RKW or Weatherby gloss, ordinary paint and varnish remover won’t strip it. You’ll have to sand—a tedious job—which, in the process of getting off all the finish, will take wood (behind the grip and in the comb flutes) you want to leave on checkering borders. Then you must erase with fine sandpaper those furrows you left with the coarse grades you needed to cut the polymer. And mind the wood-to-metal fit, especially if yours is a two-piece stock! Wood should stand a bit proud against the receiver, at least flush with the buttplate and grip cap.
Removing a heavy finish may use up all the thickness you can afford to lose! Sanding will also tend to give edges a Roman nose if you’re not careful. Better to leave nearby dings and keep the crisp, original wood-to-metal fit. Hardware standing proud signals a botched refinishing job!
Varnish and oil finishes yield to commercial strippers, but get a big can—you’ll often need more than what comes in gunstock finishing kits. Before you start, remove the sling swivel studs from the stock and mask or remove the plastic stock fittings, as the stripper can eat them. Use coarse steel wool to apply the stripper then wait three minutes before scraping and scrubbing the finish off. Work with the grain, reapply, and scrub until all the finish is gone. Use a toothbrush with the stripper to clean the checkering. Dark-stained beech and birch will become lighter in hue but not uniformly.
However, don’t fret: Some sanding along with the new finish and stain will pretty it up. One advantage of an oil-based finish, by the way, is that, while not as water-resistant as polymer, it is easy to repair. You can blend new oil into scratches (even lightly sanded dents) and make them fade. Dented or chipped polymer is like a cracked windscreen: You can’t erase the damage with spot treatment.
After reattaching the buttplate and grip cap (and masking, if they’re steel), sand the wood with 150- then 220- then 320-grit paper, on the back of a blackboard eraser or a wooden block. A small art-gum eraser excels in small places. Now attend to the dings. Moisten a towel and lay it on each dent, apply a hot flat-iron or, in concavities, a hair-curling iron, then steam the dent. Move the towel to add moisture and steam again. Steam raises the grain. Deep dents and gouges won’t come out completely. But before you sand to erase them, consider how sanding will affect the stock’s contour. Better to leave a small ding than “belly” a flat surface or change the stock’s profile.
STAIN AND SEAL
Finish sanding with 400-grit paper. Wet it to raise the “whiskers” and examine the stock in oblique light to see small sanding marks—finish will make them visible! Wipe the stock free of dust and then apply stain. Whether powder or liquid, dilute it with water and towel it on in long sweeps. I don’t stain walnut, and I use stain sparingly on light-colored hardwood like beech. My preference is for the wood to emerge close to its natural hue. Subsequent scratches are easier to erase when they’re on unstained wood. After the stain has dried, you can reapply or go to the next step: grain sealer.
I’ve used spar varnish to seal wood, but the Miles Gilbert stock finishing kit by Battenfeld Technologies has the best sealer I’ve found. It is also the most complete kit, including finish stripper, industrial sandpaper, stain and oil finish, plus a paste filler, brushes, rottenstone and good instructions. Sealer is best rubbed in fast and with the grain. Let it dry (I said dry!) then repeat. Wood porosity determines the proper number of coats—I’ve used up to eight. A day’s drying time between each coat is enough for Battenfeld’s sealer in my arid climate, and polishing with very fine steel wool keeps the surface smooth.
Sealer or varnish alone can replicate the look of some factory-finished wood. After the last coat, mix a pinch of rottenstone with boiled linseed oil and hand-rub this slurry into the finish until it is smooth and warm. Using a clean toothbrush, lightly scrub checkering with boiled linseed oil but with no rottenstone. Wipe and brush off the excess oil then buff the stock with a dry cloth.
Want an oil finish? The “classic” boiled linseed oil has been replaced by fast-drying concoctions from Battenfeld, Birchwood Casey and other firms. While I use boiled linseed oil for touch-ups and an occasional rubdown on weathered stocks, commercial products trump it for refinishing. To prepare the stock for oil, cut sealer to a uniform sheen. You may have to take it to bare wood so only the filled pores shine. Now apply the finish and let it dry. Repeat until you get the glow you want. A slurry of rottenstone will bring the glossy reflection down to a rich gleam.