You will needs some basic materials and oils:
Red Oil. This is a traditional stock colouring agent and is made from dried Alkanet Root and Raw Linseed Oil, steeped and gently heated and stirred over several months. It will enhance the colour and contrast of your wood to give the correct colour so evocative of the English gunstock. There is nothing that gives away the work of an amateur more clearly than a stock with an insipid, brown colour and insufficient contrast. Where there is figure, this oil will bring it out. However, if your stock is a plank, this stuff will not turn it into exhibition grade walnut by magic!
Stock Finishing Oil. This is a combination of linseed oil, driers and waxes that I have cooked up in my kitchen to old recipes teased out of London gunmakers and from old publications, some dating back to Victorian times. The issue of stock finishing oil is a complex one. No two pieces of wood act alike so sometimes when I feel a particular blend is ‘the one’ because it works so well on a given job, I later find that the next job I use it for requires much more work. It is not just the oil we have to consider, but the wood itself. However, take heart: all these old recipes will provide the authentic finish you seek if applied with care and patience, paying attention to detail and not rushing the job.
Other things you will need before you get started:
Rotten Stone Powder. This is a good burnishing agent. Some finishers use grain filler. I generally do not. It saves time if you do – but a properly applied series of layers of finishing oil with a rotten stone burnish, I believe, provides the best results on English gunstocks. If you are doing a foreign gun, you may find the grain is very open in places and proprietary grain filler is therefore required. Using one will save you time.
Wet and Dry Paper. From P120 down to P600 in increments. You will only need P80, which is quite coarse if your are cleaning off a lot of dirty wood and finish, otherwise, start with a finer grade. You do not need to go any finer than P600 because if you get the surface too smooth the red oil will struggle to sink in.
Stanley Knife Blades. For scraping the stock gently (after applying the surgical spirit to loosen it) if the old finish proves stubborn.
Needle Files. They are cheap and come in little packs from hardware stores. They are great for cleaning up checkering lines or deepening them a little if you need to.
Surgical Spirit. Get a bottle from the chemist. It only costs a few pence and I find it cleans off old finish from stocks and checkering as well as anything and it will not damage wood or metal. Being alcohol, any residue simply evaporates. If the stock is synthetically varnished, use Pollystrippa first to remove it.
Bounty Kitchen Roll. This is what you use for wiping of the dirt as the alcohol lifts it from the stock – do it as you go or it will dry hard again.
Wire Wool in two or three grades from medium fine to very fine.
Small Brass Wire Brush. For cleaning out the checkering.
Old Newspaper. To save your furniture and prevent divorce proceedings. When you tire of the work, take a rest, rollup the dirt in the paper you have been working on and throw it away.
Soft, Lint Free Cloth. The stuff from builder’s merchants that comes in a roll like a sock is ideal.
Before you start the stock, clean out the checkering.
Do this with a brass wire brush and steel wool. Soak the steel wool in surgical spirit and dab onto the checkering. Rub a little then clean gently with the brass brush, following the line of the checkering. Repeat the process until the dirt is all removed. A surprising amount of dirt will come out of the checkering and it will look and feel much sharper. A stock that looks like it needs re-checkering is often just clogged with palm grease and can be refreshed simply in the manner described above. An alternative, perhaps gentler, method is to use a paint stripper such as Polystrippa and a camel-hair paint brush.
Now clean off all the old finish.
Once your checkering is cleaned out, begin to take all the years of grime off your stock by applying surgical spirit to a medium fine grade of wire wool and rubbing back and forth. Soon, a dirty scum will begin to lift from the stock, as it does, wipe it off with the kitchen roll before it sets. Apply more surgical spirit and continue until no more dirt will lift off.
Now allow the stock to dry. Then rub it all over with kitchen roll and then fine wire wool until the wool is not lifting any more dirt. This early preparation will make the papering stage faster and easier, as there will be less to clog the paper in the early stages. If you have left finish and dirt behind it will be clear to you when you start papering, as the paper will get filled up with a shiny wax polish type of sheen very quickly. If that happens, go back to wire wool and surgical spirit or scrape very gently with a new Stanley knife blade. Be sure to remove only dirt, not wood with the blade.
Prepare the surface of the exposed wood
If the stock is dented or scratched, you now have to raise what you can to achieve a smooth surface. I use a normal electric iron, though I have had success with old, table knives heated on a gas flame. Whatever you use, DO NOT apply it direct to the wood. Get a piece of folded cotton cloth or Bounty kitchen roll and wet it, wring it and apply it to a dent. Put the iron or hot knife to it and press hard. The steam will be forced into the wood and the fibres will swell. If done carefully and repeatedly, most dents will lift out and when papered the stock will be smooth and even. You will not be able to totally remove scratches or gouges where wood has been torn or removed, but they will be lessened and may then be either papered out or filled.
The best filler for deep gouges or chips is Araldite with the dust from your wet and dry paper mixed in. Apply it, allow it to set and then sand it level. You can effect some very good repairs this way. Be careful not to use paper-dust that has been over the silver or gold escutcheon or oval, if you do, you will end up with a metallic sheen to your repair!
Once you have a clean stock with no dents and all the gaps and any chips and gouges filled, paper the stock all over with wet and dry paper. You will need to raise the grain between sheets of paper. To do this, just wet your hand and wipe on a thin film of water to wet the surface of the stock. Immediately dry this off with heat – if you have a gas hob on your cooker, use the flame and pass the stock smoothly over it. Be careful not to get too close; you just want to evaporate the water.
Start papering with as fine a grade as you can. It will depend on the state of the wood but if the paper clogs too quickly, use a coarser grade. Go down the grades carefully, working in the direction of the grain. Keep raising the grain and papering until the surface is perfectly smooth.
Each grade of paper should remove all traces of scratches left by the last grade. When you have finished with the P600 grade, you can begin with the finishing.
Stop and consider the job so far.
Let us pause a moment here and take stock. As with all jobs, the finish will only be as good as the preparation. Any flaws you leave before you begin the finish will be there at the end, so don’t rush into the finishing stage before the wood is ready.
When papering the stock, be careful not to paper the metalwork. I always remove the action and all the metal furniture from a stock before I start to clean it and finish it but you don’t have to. Masking tape on the metal parts can help protect them.
Be careful not to paper the wood too low where the stock joins the action or where the trigger strap lies in its inlet. You do not want the wood lower than the metal where they meet. I generally only wire wool these areas with increasingly fine wire wool as I don’t want to wear away the wood at all. A little discolouration at these points is better than a poor meeting of wood and metal.
Getting the colour right
So, now you have your stock clean, papered and ready for the next stage. First you need to colour it with Red Oil. The oil is smelly and will stain everything it touches. So, put a little Red Oil on a small patch of cloth (shotgun cleaning patches do the job) and wipe in the direction of the grain until the whole stock has a coat of it. It will soak in quite fast. Leave it alone to do so and come back in a couple of hours and do it again. Between coats of Red Oil, rub the stock with the palm of your hand, this will help the oil sink in an remove any surface residue.
You will see that the red oil is starting to bring redness to the lighter parts of your stock and making the veins go a nice black in contrast. Keep going with several coats until you are happy with the colour. The finishing oil will pull some of the red out, so don’t be afraid to darken the wood at this early stage.
It takes two or three days to get the colour right in most stocks, but yours may take in oil faster or slower than normal. When satisfied with the colour, leave it in an airy room to cure for a couple of days. Come in and rub it with a dry, soft cloth from time to time. Putting it on a sunny windowsill for a couple of hours will help it cure.
Applying the finish
Applying the Finishing Oil is no mystery. All you do is put a little on your palm and rub it into the stock. Use very little oil because it is important that no residue is left on the wood; it all needs to be rubbed in. As you rub the oil into the wood, you will feel it get warm with the friction. This is good because it helps the oil to sink into the wood and also activates the driers in the oil and aids setting.
What you are trying to do is add very thin layers of finish imperceptibly, allowing each to dry before adding the next. This will take several days and it can take weeks to get the right finish.
A very important stage of this process is ‘rubbing off’. This means that after leaving a layer of oil you have rubbed on, you come back to it a couple of hours later, put some finishing oil on a cloth and rub it all over the stock. Rub hard until the stock is dry, then buff with your hand and leave it for another couple of hours. Repeat this applying of oil and rubbing-off process for as long as it takes.
If you find uneven build-ups of finish in any area, put a little finishing oil on a pad of very fine wire wool and rub it back, then continue with the finishing, which will even itself out.
Burnishing and filling the grain
As the finish builds up, buff the stock with the rotten stone powder. Just put a little directly onto the dry stock and rub it in with your palm. It will disappear but any pores in the grain will fill with the powder and the next layer of oil will mix with it and fill the pores, ensuring an even finish. Between coats buff the stock regularly with the cloth.
When the job is ‘done’ will be clear to your eye. The finish will be even with no discolouration or cloudiness between the shine and the colour in the wood. It will be a semi-gloss lustre which will really bring out all the quality in the wood. The contrast and figure will lift from the wood and give a very pleasing result.
Time for setting
Now let the finish cure for a week or two, just buff it with a dry cloth every evening. In the future, apply a tiny drop of Finishing Oil with your palm every month or so to keep the finish bright and fresh. This traditional oil finish does not harden like varnish but allows the wood to breathe. If it gets scratched or knocked, a quick rub with a drop of oil will put it right.