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Herbal root, London guns, and hue.

Restoration of a long-neglected English classic. Here's the details of how classic gun makers achieve their much sought after stock finishes.

It all started with a 1882 W.C. Scott that my Dad literally found in a trash bag at an estate sale. It appeared to have been stored for generations in an old lambskin case. Over time and humidity, the wool bonded with those old Damascus barrels and corrosion was so extensive I thought for sure all was lost. There was a nice piece of walnut under the reddish stain but the grain was a mystery due to the dirt. W.C. Scott may not be a Sons of London "Best" grade, but this was most certainly the finest gun I ever worked on. It was a true side plate hammer gun with carefully executed scroll engraving and it was by far the lightest 12 bore I have held. It was a gentleman's gun and it was my desire to bring it back to life.

I needed to figure out what gave the stock that reddish color, better described as its hue. Gun makers in the 1800s used what was available to them. In many cases it was the same materials used for hundreds of years, something to keep in mind when searching the past. I sought answers in the gunsmith area and a gentleman was kind enough to tell me it was certainly alkanet root but had no idea where to obtain some. I had read about something called slackum and also found that Purdy's was selling alkanet, albeit at a high price and with mixed reviews. Some gun stores simply sell stain labeled as "Red Oil" or "Red Stain" but I needed this gun to be correct.

More searching about alkanet led down the herbal highway. It's a place of candle makers, soap makers, traditional dye makers, and holistic medicine. Alkanet comes from a number of places and Europe, the Middle East, and France are large producers of it. With the exception of the finest of guns, it is almost extinct in its usage in stock finishing. In an age when any gun manufacturer can acquire rapid application, rapid dry times, and minimal cycle times, Alkanet was destined to follow rust bluing into the great unknown.

Alkanet has a long history, having first arrived on the scene in Egypt in the latter half of that ancient civilization's 3,000-year period as a world power. As I stated earlier, if you want to learn what the old craftsman used it's important to look at what others were using during the same period. Among its other uses, alkanet was used as a pigment in paint. It would be natural for a stock maker yearning for a color in the 1800s to turn to oil paints for a solution. By the 1800s alkanet had already been in use as such for hundreds of years and lies within all the great paintings of our time. Alkanet played its role along with many other ingredients. The old masters didn't have Home Depot to turn to, and neither did the cabinet makers, luthiers, painters, or blacksmiths. In many ways, they all had the same tool box to turn to, learn from, and refine for their specific needs.

I learned where I could get alkanet and found it's readily available from a variety of sources, but that is only one component. In looking at any gun finish there are multiple facets that must be considered for the entire recipe. Alkanet gives the medium the color and is the focus, but carrier oil is used. How long does it take to dry? How will it flow? How will it settle? How easily will it possibly run? How long can the user work with it before the very hands using it become the enemy of its beauty by it tacking up too fast? What can be added to improve its flow, its gloss? Most importantly, what did the old masters most likely use?

Linseed oil is used in oil paints and has been around for centuries. In its natural state it takes forever to dry. Boiled linseed oil isn't boiled at all, but simply has chemical additives added to aid in accelerated drying. It is readily available, easy to apply, and easy to repair. Like alkanet, it too had been used in the oil painting trade forever and it's these facets and common history that keep us on the trail of what guns were carrying around on their surface and what components can make up "alkanet oil." Turpentine is a true solvent of linseed oil. When I say true I mean once blended they shall never again part from each other.

Many people confuse dry time with what I call tack time, or dryness to the touch. My objective with any finish is to assure one coat per day can be applied because I have read that the old makers would put a coat per day for 30 days. Based on my experience, "happyland" for linseed lies between 12 and 30 coats. The quality of the finish is subjective but I find that in my use that band is pretty common. Customers of any product like to complete that effort in some I rational level of time and making fine guns was a process that took time and, quite frankly, was expected to. Many activities were taking place in parallel to that 30 day application process in the fabrication of a firearm.

Although in many ways, spirit of turpentine may be a great choice but it has a nasty smell that bothers some people and also has some health issues that can be significant with prolonged use. After extensive trials, my decision was to use mineral spirits which is much safer. OSHA notes, "turpentine is a skin, eye, mucous membrane, and upper respiratory tract irritant in humans. It may also cause skin sensitization and central nervous system, gastrointestinal, and urinary tract effects." In many experiments with both I could see no difference in results that would drive me to a different decision.

Mineral spirits, contrary to what some reading may believe, didn't accelerate drying. Mineral spirits is a great thinner of linseed oil but not something that improves dry time significantly or the tack time so that another coat can be applied. To think of it another way, my desire was to get the surface of the material dry enough to be handled, knowing that through the process of oxidation the many layers would be "curing" over time while another coat could be applied. To give you a clear understanding of the evaporation rate of mineral spirits verses other solvents, mineral spirits evaporates 14 times slower than VM&P Naphtha and 56 times slower than acetone.

Mineral spirits is an excellent choice as a thinner but it really isn't the best choice to aid in the dry time. Water evaporates quicker. The trick is finding that balance of dry time. If you incorporate an excessive amount of one ingredient over another, the working time could be cut down dramatically while the flow and the dry time could be negatively affected. I only reference acetone because most of us are familiar with the blinding speed at which acetone evaporates. I am not suggesting it be used in any linseed oil-based finish. I wish there was a profoundly simple solution but there never is as it takes experimentation if you desire to find that blend of chemicals. I use mineral spirits and VM&P Naphtha.


There is one last ingredient mentioned in many texts regarding the definition of slackum oil as used by the London gun trade and that is the use of Venetian turpentine or Venice of Turpentine. Venetian turpentine is made from the resin of larch trees and larch tree resin, especially those found in the areas of the Alps and Carpathian mountains, though it can also be made from trees in the western United States. If it comes from anything else, such as a standard pine, it is not Venetian. Venetian turpentine has a natural golden-yellow color and it looks and feels like honey. Venetian turpentine is soluble in acetone, ether, and water, and partially soluble in petroleum hydrocarbons. The most common use of Venetian turpentine, particularly in pure form and not blended with anything else, is in application to horse hooves. The turpentine is applied after shoeing or other foot treatments as a therapeutic measure to help the bottom of the hoof heal. Venetian turpentine is mixed with certain oil paints to increase the paint's flexibility, transparency, and gloss.

After reading of this one mysterious ingredient listed for a traditional recipe for slackum it made perfect sense! It isn't that the old master craftsmen invented something new, they just looked to painting and fine furniture making for the answers to their questions. What does it look like? Alkanet stain looks like Cabernet Sauvignon and doesn't affect wood and wood grain quite the same as a traditional stain. Depending on the specific piece of wood it may respond differently to it. It is a very "safe" stain to use, especially on deeply-figured walnut that may have varying levels of porosity. Fine walnut is not just brown, it has touches of purple, red, and orange. It may be hard to pick up these colors unless the light is right but it is there, especially in crotch feather. There may be just a sliver of color. A normal stain can act to give the overall color hue desired, while at the same time masking the very details, like those subtle colors, that were already hard to see.

Alkanet doesn't do that at all as it creates a subtle mahogany hue. Instead of masking colors it seems to accentuate them, sometimes dramatically. In addition, walnut will have mixed levels of porosity, perhaps slivers of it, and what the wine color will do is fill those areas with color. It is in these overall yet small changes that an already nice piece of wood becomes an even greater piece of wood because of it.

Alkanet was a pigment for thousands of years as was linseed oil. Mineral spirits and turpentine have been around since the Crusades and actively used by painters of the day. Venetian turpentine has been documented in use since the 15th century. Naphtha in its various forms has been around for over 2,000 years. In creating my SB McWilliams Alkanet Oil, I had no desire to create something new. My interest was simply finding the solution that would have been available when my Dad's 1882 W.C. Scott was made with such great care. The key to the solution, in the end, was not really the ingredients; they were just the beginning of a long journey. It is important to understand the detail that the quantity of one ingredient versus another can have an extremely negative or positive impact on the outcome. In any fine restoration, details matter because it is the details that make a "Best" gun simply, profoundly, and exactly that.
Speed          Evaporation Rate   Liquid

Fast                 >3.0         Methyl Ethyl Ketone=3.8

Medium            0.8 to 3.0      Ethyl Alcohol=1.4

Slow                 <0.8         Isobutyl Alcohol=0.6
                                  Mineral Spirits=0.1

Above: Evaporation rates of mineral spirits verses other solvents.
Mineral spirits evaporates 14 times slower than VM&P Naphtha and
56 times slower than acetone.
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Author:McWilliams, Shawn
Publication:American Gunsmith
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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