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Gunstock blanks: how to buy the best.

Gunstock Blanks

The tracking down of good blanks of fine walnut (or maple, myrtle, or other suitable wood) for the making of custom gunstocks is something of an art these days. Most of the stock blanks used by gun manufacturers and those offering semi-inletted replacement stocks are much simpler to buy, because the wood is pretty much all of the same quality -- plain in color and figure, and with no great pains expended in the drying process. But for the gunsmith, gun shop owner, enthusiast, professional stockmaker, and other gun fancier interested in top grade stock blanks, the selection job isn't quite so easy. It's much like buying a fine thoroughbred horse in that if you know what to look for, and choose wisely, you stand a good chance of buying a winner. Dale Goens, the noted master stockmaker (he's built well over 1,000 rifle and shotguns stocks for fine long guns in a distinguishes career) has had extensive experience in the buying of stock blanks.

"When talking quality in gunstock wood, we're talking quality as seen by the true perfectionist," Goens says. "The best in color, figure, and strong grain pattern, as only nit picky wood fanciers know them."

The great majority of gunstocks are made from the wood of the walnut tree, although there will always be devotees of maple, myrtle, and exotic woods like mesquite. There are several varieties of walnut used by stockmakers today. Thin-shelled English walnut, claro, black, and a hybrid known as bastogne, constitute the bulk of them. (There has always been confusion and debate over the names of various walnut woods. Circassian, French, "California French," and others.) All of these have exceptional qualities of strength at reasonable weight, ease of shaping and finishing, stability over time, and at least the potential for attractive figure and color. Goens has a personal preference for English walnut, but he has made stocks from just about every conceivable gunstock wood.

In the history of firearms, walnut has been the most universally accepted for high quality stocks. Whatever the name they go by, they're grown all over the world. Not unexpectedly, walnut trees grown in some parts of the world seem to make better high grade gunstocks than those grown in other parts. Which particular area grows the best is largely a matter of individual opinion, and a subject of some controversy. You'll find that with today's burgeoning trade between nations, stock blanks (not only walnut) arrive in the U.S. from New Zealand, Greece, the Caucasus, France, Belgium, and everywhere between. In the U.S. the greatest volume of blanks -- and in many experts' opinions, thebest -- come from California, where there are many wood sawyers specializing in the finding and cutting of suitable walnut trees. These wood cutters have developed a knack for finding good trees and having the ability to cut the wood precisely to fit the gunstock format. Most trees are found in old walnut orchards. The best cutters are fooled sometimes, finding a tree that has high quality wood growing next to one that looks the same, but turns out to be a dead loss. Most of the blanks are rather plain, and end up as assembly line stocks for the big gun manufacturers. But most of the time, even the plain ones don't go directly to the buyers before a drying process takes place. And here is where the practitioners of fine stockmaking part company with the users of the "plain vanilla" wood. For the method in which a stock blank is dried significantly determines how much quality it ends up with. "Rapid drying can't help but reduce the color possibilities, make the wood fibers more brittle and unstable, and increase the chances of cracking," says Goens. It's a view which is universally accepted among professional stockmakers. Most blanks are fast dried in a kiln for a few months prior to sale, and with a plain one it doesn't matter so much if there is a loss of color, or if the wood isn't supple enough to take precision checkering. It'll end up pretty plain no matter what you do to it. But with a stock fitted to an expensive long gun -- one that has beautiful color and figure --rapid drying usually won't do. So this is the first thing the prospective buyer of a high grade blank may want to determine about a piece of wood. How long was it dried, and for how long? If it was kiln dried, that could end the negotiations right there (though not necessarily). It the blank has been strictly air dried, ask the seller for how long a time. If the reply you get is 7 or 8 years, it may pay to be a bit skeptical, especially if you don't know the reputation of the wood dealer. Time is money these days, and for a stock blank dealer to keep his wood around for so long without it producing income, would be somewhat unusual. "The first think I do when I get a new stock blank home is to weight it," says Goens. "The I weigh it again 6 months later. If I find the blank has lost a lot of weight right off the bat, I know the seller was probably fibbing when he told me it had 6 or 7 years of air dry time on it." Goens, as a personal practice, lets his blanks air dry for several additional years in his Cedar Crest, New Mexico shop after purchase. "a piece of wood is never doen moving even after four years of drying time," he maintains. "The more time on it before you cut into it, the better." Most reputable stock blank suppliers will have two to three years of air dry time on wood before it's sold, and most stockmakers will in turn let it hang for several more years after that.

According to Goens the cells in wood start collapsing after the moisture content drops down below about 30%, with large changes in its dimensions occurring after that time. If you attempt to carve and mount a green gunstock, misfitting and even cracking will be the inevitable result. Unfortunately, there are -- and probably always will be -- crafty wood merchants out there who will try and sell green wet wood to unsuspecting buyers, trying to pass it off as "ready to work." Even if you know a blank just came out of the orchard, and plan on air drying it yourself, you can still be hurt if the blank "blows up" on you. With a two year air dried piece of wood, the danger of such cracking is largely past.

A second vital thing you would want to ascertain when you start looking through a pile of stock blanks, is the size of the blank relative to the purpose you have planned for it. For a rifle blank this usually mandates a Minimum size of something like 2-1/2 inches thick by about 7 inches high, by about 34 inches long (maybe larger if the rifle is over size). For a shotgun blank the dimensions could be shorter in length in the case of an "intermediate blank," from which both the butt stock and forearm will come (the preferable way of coming up with the two pieces, since you can then be assured of a match between the two). The better a stockmaker you are, the less "over" you need to be in the dimensions. You might get by with a mere 2 inch thickness for a rifle stock (in the case of a real gem piece of wood) if you figure you can legitimately cant the stock a little in order ot squeeze the design in. Many stockmakers--Goens included--prefer a wedge shaped blank to one that has a crescent shaped piece cut out of the supposed pistol grip area, because it gives them more room to maneuver their design.

A third vital thing to find out about a blank before you plunk your money down, is the appropriateness of the grain structure. Ideally you want to end up with one that contributes strength in critical areas. Essentially this means a grain direction that flows down and out through the pistol grip area, because most of the stress in both a rifle and shotgun occurs just forward of that point. The grain should also flow down and out of the toe of the stock, because this is where most breakage takes place in that area, even with a butt plate attached. In the forend the grain should run lengthwise, because if it wanders off in all directions, it's a good bet that gun accuracy will be affected. Most buyers of stock blanks carry a transparent template in the generic shape of a stock along with them when they go looking at wood, which they can slide around on the blank to determine where the grain will fall, and how the color and figure will be composed. (You can make one of these forms yourself by obtaining a piece of sheet plastic, Plexiglass, or even Lucite, and tracing out and cuting a standard stock profile from it.)

Another thing you, the prospective buyer, would want to determine of course, is the color and figure aspects. These qualities, after all, are what make custom stocks really stand out from their plainer cousins. A pretty gunstock can turn a utility piece of shooting hardware into something compelling and beautiful to look at. But here -- as with all things artistic -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Each buyer will look for something just a little bit different. Whether it is black streaks on a reddish background, distinctive "marbling" effects, or other beguiling figure, or the particular overall composition they make in the wood, the resulting character is what will make it an eye catcher or not, and set it apat from all others. Usually the sellet will offer to pour some paint thinner (or other non harmful wetting agent onto the wood to help bring out the color, figure, and grain, and to approximate the look of the characteristics after the finish is applied.

Finally, check the integrity of the wood. The seller, if he's responsible, will have pointed out any defects. But it won't hurt to check for cracks, knots (not necessarily fatal, but some stockmakers shy away from them), and signs of bark occlusions (where the tree has grown around a soft, pulpy area). Voids in the wood are a common defect too, but usually you don't find them until you start cutting.

If all the above aspects have been looked at, and the blank looks like it has potential for your particular needs, you could start talking price. With the "plain Jane" blank there isn't likely to be much argument. As little as $20 might buy such a piece of gun handle, or stock pattern wood. For high grade pieces, however, it will be different. What you pay, in the end, is what you're willing to pay. Those in the trade know of cases where blanks have gone for $2,000 or more. But such prices should be considered marketplace aberrations. "Personally I wouldn't pay more than $750 to $800 for the best blank I ever laid eyes on," Goens says, and he probably speaks for most customizers. But still, funny things can happen at a gun show where there is a lot of pretty wood on display, and where a lot of eager buyers are looking at it. (There are even some blank "collectors," who admire the wood for itself, and never plan on turning it into a gunstock. It can be like buying fine art in a way, with the value placed on a given piece dependent on what an individual deems it to be. Generally, a respectable piece of claro walnut can be obtained for $100 to $300, with thin-shelled English costing somewhat more.

And where do you go to find top grade gunstock wood?

One of the best places is gun shows, as mentioned. From small local shows to classics like the American Guild of Gun Craftsmen, you're bound to see raw stock wood on display, and in some variety.

If you want to get closer to the source, you could search out the cutters and distributors of stock blanks near where the wood is cut and dried. In the U.S. this means the north central valley of California primarily. One step removed from the mill is the middleman who buys selected blanks and caters especially to the customer in search of top quality wood. Since he knows what the demands of his customers are, his wood is likely to be better aged, and to have the richness in color and figure customizers like. (See the sidebar for a partial listing of the many stock blank suppliers.)

Some gun shops have a few blanks around too. The fact is, "A good gunstock blank is where you can find it," said the late Joe Oakley -- a California blank supplier of note -- whenever he got to talking about fine gunstock wood.

Another good source is the classified sections of gun publications. Most of the suppliers listed will be happy to furnish details regarding their wood inventories.

Professional stockmakers always have their own supply of blanks around the shop too, some of which are obtainable in a direct sale (guaranteed obtainable if you contract to have a gunstock built). In addition, most stockmakers have at least one "hideout" blank, of exceptional quality, which they're hoarding for that special long gun. On rare occasions one can talk them out of these gems.

Finally there are the word-of-mouth sources. Most gun shops and virtually all professional stockmakers have wood sources which they are glad to share, including leads to foreign distributors. The ones they swear by are likely to be the most dependable and ethical in the business.

Of course it's always best if you can take a look at the wood yourself before you buy it. But if you can't (as in the case of foreign sources), most reputable suppliers stand by their wood. If you run into an unexpected defect, or even the lead of spent bullets, after you start cutting, you can usually return the piece for an equal replacement.
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Title Annotation:gunsmithing tips
Author:Swartley, Ron
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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