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How to choose the wood for your gun stock

Diggory Hadoke warns you never to buy wood for your gun stock without consulting an expert

gun stocks

A beautiful piece of wood can make the difference between a good gun and an exceptional gun

When deciding to re-stock a gun with a new piece of walnut, a lot of thought needs to be applied before gun stock (known in the gun trade as a blank) is chosen and any wood gets cut.

As with many aspects of gunmaking and repair, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. So can bargain-hunting and cost-
shaving; especially if you are an enthusiastic amateur.

  • Suppliers of wood find it helpful to grade gun stocks according to quality of colour and figure so they can price them accordingly.
  • Gunmakers — especially volume manufacturers 
— also find it useful for the purposes 
of selling guns, with slogans such 
as: “This model has grade five wood.”
  • Customers have become used to choosing wood in this way and perhaps believe it makes them sound knowledgeable when actually they know very little. If you can tell people that your gun has grade five wood 
and your friend’s only has grade four, 
it is easy one-upmanship.
gun stocks

Gun stocks waiting for use at Purdey’s London factory

Piles of gun stocks

Bespoke gunmakers generally ignore this grading and go through piles of blanks to find individual ones that meet their demands. It’s not simply 
a matter of choosing the ‘busiest’ pieces of wood.

Every manufacturer seems to use a different system. The most common grading system is numerical  but others are descriptive, such as ‘fancy’ or ‘semi-fancy’. Others use A, AA, AAA and so on. In reality, it is pretty meaningless 
and it’s best to look at lots of options and choose the blank you like.

gun stock

This smart stock blank was carefully chosen for re-stocking a classic Holland & Holland shotgun

However, don’t buy the blank without your stocker’s approval as you don’t know what you are doing and he does. I hate to accept a re-stocking commission and have to tell the client that the lump of wood he has bought specially for the project is a non-starter.

The best walnut for gun stocks?

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the best walnut for gun stocks traditionally came from the south 
of France. The variety best suited 
is Juglans regia.

However, two World Wars and 300 years of demand have exhausted supplies and today most wood used in the British gun trade comes from Turkey. There are supplies from Bulgaria and Iran, as well as the US and New Zealand, but Turkey is the main supplier.

To be hard enough and well figured enough for use in quality gun stock making, a tree has to be roughly 200 to 300 years old and ideally grown in tough, arid conditions, where the slow growth provides the desired colour, figure and density. Good walnut ‘wears like iron but cuts like butter’ is the gunmaker’s adage.

Colour variations of wooden gun stocks

The colour and figure of the walnut will vary.

  • Classic French walnut has a warm amber base with dark streaks for contrast.
  • Turkish walnut is deeper red with black contrast.
  • New Zealand walnut can be very dark throughout
  • Bulgarian walnut can have an orange hue.
  • A lot of American walnut has a mid-brown base note with darker figure or yellowish fiddleback.

Blanks, either quarter-sawn or flat-sawn, depending on the way you want figure to show, are best if air-dried. The blank is cut from the root collar of the tree, where trunk and roots meet.

London gunmakers used to store large quantities of walnut blanks, drying them slowly for at least seven years until the moisture content was stable. Some suppliers kiln-dry or steam their wood to sell it more quickly but this can make it brittle and should be avoided.

Red oil for gun stocks

Red oil, seen here at the Purdey factory, is used to colour classic English guns

The colour depends partly on the finish applied. Traditionally, British gunmakers apply ‘red oil’ to their stocks. This is linseed oil in which alkanet root has been steeped for months. It produces a blood-red liquid that soaks into the open grain and enhances the contrasting figure and imparting a warm, reddish base.

One give-away sign that an English gun has been re-stocked abroad is the absence of the ‘right’ colour because they have omitted the red-oil stage.

Good wood choice is not entirely subjective — there is the practical consideration of strength. The gun stock is at its weakest in the hand, which flexes, and around the head, where the metalwork is let in. Here, the wood needs to be straight grained.

gun stocks

Straight grain shown in a bespoke gun where the inletting and hand require strength and stability.

Dark lines and figuring

Once the straight-grained wood has flowed from the hand to the comb, 
it can become more figured and here we will ideally see the development 
of dark lines and other figuring, which should continue all over the wider butt stock and flow into the toe.

When re-stocking British guns I prefer a classic style with straight grain in the hand, moving into black-streaked figure, with patterns running downwards and flowing 
into the toe. This accentuates the 
flow of the gun’s lines and does not distract the eye purely to the figure 
in the wood.

If the gun has a stock bolt holding it tight on to the action, it is possible to have more highly figured wood throughout length of the blank. We see this on high-grade Italian over-and-unders with so-called ‘marble cake’ figure.

gun stocks

This re-stocked 1897 W&C Scott is an example of good colour, figure and finish

Configured for strength

Ultimately, once you have made sure the wood is properly cured, is optimally configured for strength and of a price you can live with, the rest is up to you. We all have different ideas of what is beautiful.

However, pale marble-cake stocks on vintage English guns look wrong, as do those made from American claro walnut and finished without red oil.

Some people show me their pride and joy and, to my eye, they have ruined the gun. But it is their gun, 
so what does it matter?

Finally, we come down to the 
issue of cost. Walnut stock blanks 
can be bought for as little as £100 
or as much as £2,000, even more for some spectacular pieces. In general, you should be able to get a very 
nicely figured and coloured blank 
for between £600 and £1,200.

As with all aspects of gunmaking, a large part of the pleasure of the stocking process for the customer 
is comparing his aspirations, tastes and desires with the advice and expertise of his gunmaker to create an outcome that will be both aesthetically pleasing, practical and objectively tasteful.