Walnut for Gunstocks: Your Criteria
Purchasing a gunstock blank should not be based solely on emotion. Sure you should think this is “the most beautiful piece of wood I ever saw”. It should also satisfy a number of criteria which when coupled with its beauty, will make your dream gun. The same could be said for the metal work for your gun, but I will stay with one subject at a time.
For the past thirty years I have occupied most of my time as a gunmaker and supplier of walnut gunstock blanks. When I select a blank for a project, I do so with a set of criteria in mind, learned stockmaking. That is not to say that it is a cold mechanical selection process. I know few people as passionate as I am about gunstock blanks. I have devoted my entire career to them in one way or another. But, that experience has taught me that the gun, which results from the selection process I am going to describe, will be the best gun possible for it’s description and purpose.
When I first became a stockmaker and for quite a few years, all I heard from the people that cut gunstocks was (all were from California that I knew at that time) “We just cut the last walnut tree in the world”, you better buy some before it’s all gone”. Intuitively, everyone knew this was not true, but they had no other source to rely on at that time. We had no contact with Eastern European , Russian, Middle Eastern, etc. gunstock producers. There were political and economic reasons for this, which really don’t matter now.
It always seemed strange how this same guy, or guys, who told you of the last tree being cut, had a fresh shipment of WET WOOD to sell you. Always at high and higher prices. Of course this shipment was the last, and of the highest quality ever, co-incidentally!
None of this, as it turns out, was true. The California wood was seldom of the quality we have today, because the vast majority of California stockblanks were cut from grafted orchard trees, not OLD SEEDLING TREES.
Before I go too far with my story, I should say that I am speaking of Jugulans Regia Walnut. Not American walnut, which I know little about. This thin schelled walnut is called by many names, and most of you have heard them all, English, Circassian, French, etc..
This selection process I am suggesting to you is comprised of six judgments to be made about any given blank.
First and foremost a blank MUST POSSESS proper grain flow or layout for a gunstock. In its most perfect form, the grain must run from the toe of the stock, arching up through the buttstock, to straighten out through the grip or move up through the grip, then the grain must run true to the forend of the stock.
Second, the grain must be close-pored and hard. It must have a mellow hardness when cut. Not chippy or brittle. There is a range of hardness found in Thin Schelled Walnut. The very best of it (I have often said that there is a good argument to be made for the Australian wood being the very best because of it’s extreme hardness), should be hard enough to withstand the heavy recoil of such calibers as the 505 Gibbs, etc..
Third, the overall color of a blank. Walnut exhibits many color variations, tones, and mixes of colors. In general, those most sought after colors, are the blanks which show a “rich red-brown” or “true reddish-purple tint”, “blue black”, or a “dark coffee color”. The reasons are simple. These make the most beautiful stocks in most people’s opinion. There are many other color variations. “Golden Straw”, a “coffee w/cream”, or a “milk chocolate” color. But, hopefully never a GRAY color. Here is where your individual taste and emotions are justified. At some time or the other I have fallen in love with all but the gray color of walnut.
Fourth, is usually the only criteria guiding a customer, it’s sad to say. That is figure. What I am calling figure is the generally BLACK lines, or in it’s best form, marbling found in this type of walnut. All the figure in the World will not make a stockblank for a fine gun. This is why I have placed it low on the priority list. Without the other ingredients, in some degree, you only have a piece of wood cut in a trapezoidal shape. Not a gunstock!
Fifth, is almost always referred to a dryness. This term is misleading and incorrect. Dryness is something which comes relatively soon in the air drying process of walnut, maybe in twenty four months? For quality gunstocks to be used for fine guns, a CURING or AGING must occur. This stress relieves and improves the working qualities of the stockblank. This is important to such an extent that without this aging, the blank is simply not ready for working into a stock. Five years is an absolute minimum, but 15 years is about right when the wood is air dried only. This has been a standard expressed in the gunmaking literature for hundreds of years. Quick profits are not an excuse to alter this standard.
Kiln drying combined with air drying is an acceptable way to improve the time it takes for a stockblank to be worthy of being the material for fine guns.
It is my belief that synthetic stocks are a solution for a problem which does not exist with properly cured wood. Stability is the goal. Wood can provide a stable stock, if proper curing occurs. They also provide a somewhat cheaper solution for stockmaking.
Sixth... Price, is always a criteria for everyone. It’s simple. The price should reflect the degree of the criteria found in the individual blank. A fifteen year old blank has value added over a blank which is fifteen month old and quoted as being 12% moisture content.
Today we are blessed with many sources of very fine walnut from very old seedling trees in places like, Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East (soon I hope from such places as Iraq), the Himalayan Mountains hold some walnut, New Zealand and Australia produce some of the best.
This greater supply has increased the quality of the wood available and has stabilized the prices.
You now have the tools for selecting that dream blank, for your dream gun. Let emotion rule, but remember what a gunstock really is and is not.
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