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Picking the Right Gunstock Blank for Function, Beauty, and Affordability

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by Peter B. Hiatt
Peterb@coinet.com

Function is the most important of the three. If the stock is a failure waiting to happen, none of the other considerations matter. The type of walnut is unimportant. English has better workability, but all other qualities overlap.

There are two main considerations...A blank must be suitable for its intended function. This means it must be without degrading flaw and must be suitably dense. The other consideration is that the layout of the pattern must be strong.

Walnut sometimes grows under conditions that makes it soft and weak A friend recently stocked a gun in the customer's Turkish walnut and the wood is so punk, it will not last the hunting season. It may have been attacked by pests or even rot. Sapwood is most often seen with pest holes but sapwood is not to be confused with light colored English which is the rule rather than the exception. Rot can occur in living trees around wounds, or in fallen trees. The eye can spot unusual color variations. Then that area as well as the stock in general can be checked with a simple thumbnail to check for hardness. A good piece will show a thumbnail scratch as a burnish mark instead of an indentation. You can practice on several pieces to check for differences. Another problem to avoid is wind shake-checked wood. Some trees grow in high wind areas like the Columbia River gorge. A friend once cut a four-foot diameter tree and only salvaged 4 blanks due to so many wind shake cracks in the wood. Sometimes a stock cracks when drying. This often occurs in highly stressed areas like feather centers. This may be ruinous or minor. Each piece should be judged upon its own merits. Centers of feathers can also have bark pockets and even walnuts that fall in the crotch and then are encompassed by growing wood. Again, judge each on its own merits.

The other consideration is the layout of the blank. One must avoid burl and feather in the thin wrist and action area. Burl and feather are weaker than fiddle and straight grain. An exception to this rule is guns with through bolts. These are often seen with burl or feather in the wrist area. The through bolt that cinches the wood tight to the action gives greater strength. The resulting gunstock is stronger than one without a through bolt but weaker than a through bolt with a stronger piece of wood. However, it can save some weaker but beautiful pieces of wood that otherwise would be knife handle material. Ideally, one has straight grain in the wrist area going with the flow of the wrist. That may be straight, or curved. View the blank from the ends and edges. This will let you know how the grain flows through the wood. You must avoid stocks that have grain that turns out instead of going with the wrist and in the action area. You can often tell more about a blank from these views than from side views. Blanks can be saved if the bad area can be moved into the thicker butt area. There are some photos of gunstocks that show excellent layout for strength and beauty.

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(Number 1)
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Photo #1 is of my Superposed 20 with English walnut. It has amazingly tight, dense grain in the wrist area flowing perfectly with the bend in the semi-pistol grip wrist. It then flowers into a mad-dog riot of marble pattern, color variation, and a "Winchester" style feather. The light colored wood is not sap wood but typical English color. For beauty and function, this may be as near perfection as possible.

(Inletted by Russ Wilson 541-846-7787, and checkered and finished by Dwaine Wright (the engraver) 541-846-9123.)

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(Number 2a)
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(Number 2b)
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Photo #2a and 2b are of my other Superposed 20 which is a grafted blank of Claro and English. It is difficult to see in the photos, but there is perfect grain flow through the wrist and wild pattern, color, and a feather flowing in through the rear of the stock. It is another beautiful and strong blank.

(Inletted by Russ Wilson 541-846-7787, and checkered and finished by Dwaine Wright (the engraver) 541-846-9123.)

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(Number 3)
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(Number 4)
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The next two stocks (#'s 3 & 4) could be consecutive slices off the same tree if they were not two different types of walnut.

Again, the flow through the pistol grip is simple perfection. An example of perfect layout in a burl stock is seen in my stock blank web page in the Myrtlewood blank which has perfect grain flow plus fiddle pattern the wrist and burl in the butt. Minor voids in burl are to be expected and can be filled without problem. Just keep burl out of the wrist unless you have a through bolt.

How to save money on your blank:

Luckily for us double barrel types, two-piece wood is viewed by the stock brokers as an ugly step-child. Sales are significantly slower for these and most of the major stock turners won't even inlet any two-piece blanks. Even Fajen, when still in business, farmed them out to other people. Now most blank sellers will still gladly sell you a two-piece for a LOT of money if they know you want a fine one. So you can save some money by checking out blanks in person.

Some blanks are "one-sided". That means they are very pretty on one side only. However, most blanks (except the overrated Turkish) are 2 " thick. The average rifle stock with a cheek piece needs 2-2 " in thickness in the butt. However, most shotguns are only about 1.6" thick at the end of the butt and at the action area. They are even thinner elsewhere. This means many one-sided stocks will make gorgeous shotgun blanks on both sides. You need to carefully scrutinize not only the flats of the blank, but more importantly, the ends and top/bottom of the blanks to see where the pattern really exists. I bought two one-piece blanks this year for $35-40 that will make $300 two-piece blanks. They were ugly one-piece blanks but beautiful two-piece blanks. Two-piece usage doesn't come to mind quickly to most stock men. And definitely don't mention that you are after two-piece blanks! When looking at a two-piece blank you might say: Gee, that would be gorgeous if it were a one-piece blank. Maybe I'll get it for my kid's .22. if you can make me a deal" Always keep the thickness issue in mind as most rifle-oriented stock sellers usually do not.

Everyone has a personal preference and if yours is different that the stock grader's preference, you stand to get a blank for a grade or two less money than his choice. The white color in photo #1 was a detraction to the seller and I got the blank quite cheaply as a result. Some people view any white wood as sap wood, but remember most English has little if any dark line pattern at all. It is not a flaw in this case. You can even stain it if you do not personally like it Minor fill areas reduce prices but fill areas are usually so easily filled and masked that even the finisher may have difficulty finding where the fill was done a few months later.

Another great idea is to take your own pattern with your own drop and length of pull measurements with you. A different pattern or length of pull can be all important. A blank may have been significantly marked down due to some flaw that misses the final stock in a shorter pattern. You can make a great blank work for a pattern sometimes by cutting an inch off and using a full 1" length recoil pad. Some stock seller's patterns are short on LOP to make more blanks look acceptable. Some do or do not include the 1" pad. To know what you are really looking at and for, take your own pattern. Run it out like a full stock so no one knows you are looking for a two-piece blank. You can lay the gun in question over a heavy piece of plastic. Then mark it out and cut it. Do not use cardboard as you want to see through the pattern. You can also cut out the center of cardboard or aluminum. This also works well. If traveling a distance, the former piece of plastic can be rolled up and easily put in a pocket or briefcase. Be sure to remember if it includes the recoil pad or not. A smaller gauge or light 2-2 " gun may not need a pad and you will need more length of wood. If you are after a blank for a Mod 12/21 or especially something like a Ballard, you might get a gorgeous blank out of the throw away material that is too short for a regular stock. If a stock is not marked with a pattern, the blank, although beautiful, may not lay out appropriately for a stock. On the other hand, it may look much better with a pattern and be a steal at the listed price. I picked up a French feather last year for $75. that was an example of the latter. It is a $750 blank now. The beauty of a blank may be in a small area, but it may be large enough to fill your pattern. On the other hand, a large, gorgeous blank may look mediocre when only the area of the pattern is viewed. Make a pattern!

We have touched on "problem" blanks. I feel these are the best value for the money. They usually have much better beauty than their price suggests and if a person studies the blank, the problem might go away. "Problem" blanks include one-sided blanks, blanks of shorter than usual length or thinner than acceptable for stocks with cheek pieces (we usually do not use cheek pieces on shotguns), blanks with flaws that we can miss when we lay our own pattern, flaws that will be cut away when the stock is turned, non-structural flaws that can be filled or covered with checkering or tang, or cap, or inlay. If a blank is beautiful and sound and a good price, use your imagination to solve any problem it may have.

Finalizing the Deal:

Many wood dealers are a treat to work with and are extremely helpful in picking the right blank for you. Others are not. Try to size up your dealer. You should expect a discount on buying a quantity of blanks. You should not expect a discount when you buy an Exhibition grade blank even if you are a known Guild gunmaker. There are too few GREAT blanks around to do that. Cash is often better than check. You may often get a better deal if you can show the seller why a particular blank may have a potential problem. However, most blank dealers are from the West and have a low tolerance of someone knocking their product and then wanting a deal. This is not recommended behavior.

Turning your blank is another critical stage. I am happy to recommend several people who do 90-95% inletting and one who does 100% press fit inletting. Just email me...Pete Hiatt peterb@coinet.com

(Except for posting strictly limited to "www.doublegunshop.com", all rights reserved by the author.)

A Walnut Sampler

How to choose a gunstock blank

Gunstock Finishing

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Pete Hiatt - Guns For Sale

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