September 23, 2010
By Tom Turpin
Selecting the right blank is a crucial first step to getting the custom stock you want.
By Tom Turpin
The most obvious and noticeable component of a custom rifle is its stock. The stock is so important that it is almost always the defining feature of a custom rifle. In fact, many custom rifles are not true custom rifles at all--they are custom-stocked rifles.
Factories, at least most of them, turn out stocks with "one-size fits all" dimensions. What that means is that a factory stock can be made to work pretty well by just about anyone but actually fits very few, a real tribute to the adaptability of Mr. Average.
And depending on the maker, factories also generally fashion their stocks almost completely by machine and from the plainest (meaning cheapest) wood available. Some use American black walnut, while others substitute different hardwoods that are sometimes stained to look like walnut.
Roy Weatherby recognized the importance of a nicely figured stock to the consumer, and he usually used California claro walnut for his standard-grade stocks. These often displayed attractive figure. Bill Ruger also understood the tastes of his customer base, and some Ruger models have come with pretty nicely figured stocks.
Most of Kimber's wood-stocked rifles exhibit good wood, and so do select models from a number of other companies but, by and large, if you want a stock that's a cut above, a custom job is the way to go.
When commissioning a custom stock, you get to select the figure, color and even type of wood. In that case, about the only limit is how much you're willing to pay for the chosen blank. Really good wood is not cheap.
Though a few custom rifle fanciers choose maple, mesquite, claro, bastogne or American black walnut for their stocks, the vast majority choose one of the several varieties of thin-shelled walnut, scientific name Juglans regia. From this point on, this is the only stock wood we'll talk about.
Four blanks of west Asian-grown thin-shelled walnut show nice figure, but if the rifle is going to be used, the key is to examine the grain structure in several critical areas.
Juglans regia goes by many different names. English walnut is a common one, particularly here in the United States. Our English walnut is almost all grown in California, and most of it comes from orchards where the trees are cultivated for nut production.
Much of it is from grafted stock. Some very nice wood comes from grafted trees out of orchards, but, alas, some pretty sorry wood comes from there as well. Old seedling trees, when they can be found, generally produce much better wood.
Other names for thin-shelled walnut are French walnut, Turkish walnut, New Zealand walnut, Australian walnut, Circassian walnut, along with a few others. The wood is generally named after the country or region where the tree grew to maturity, but regardless of what it's called, all are genetically the same tree. However, the growing conditions in the various areas differ widely, and the quality of the wood does as well.
With the thaw in the Cold War and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, international wood merchants--including a few American dealers--have tapped several sources of walnut grown in eastern Europe and western Asian. It is the most similar of all the various forms of thin-shelled walnut to the original Circassian walnut, and most of it that I have seen is very good indeed.
These two pre-64 Model 70 actions illustrate why custom stocks can be worth the money and the wait. The blanks are both from Old World Walnut, and the stocks were both done by Gary Goudy.
There are really two aspects to consider when selecting a blank: function and appearance. The inexperienced will almost always place the highest priority on appearance, but if the rifle is to be used, appearance should take a back seat to utility.
I've seen many drop-dead gorgeous sticks of wood that were essentially useless as gunstock material. Grain flow is all-important in a blank, and if it's wrong, it cannot be changed. Okay, if the blank is oversize enough, it can be turned upside down and laid out properly, but today's blanks are so skimpily cut that there isn't enough excess wood to permit that.
Normally, the mineral streaking in a blank (typically called figure), and the real grain flow travel in the same direction. When they do, it is pretty easy to assess the blank. Unfortunately, sometimes they do not. That's where the trouble starts.
The true grain flow direction can be determined by looking at the directional flow of the pores in the wood through some magnification. On a really good stick of Juglans regia, the pores will be extremely small, and magnification is usually necessary.
The critical areas are the grip, the toe and heel of the buttstock, the magazine box area and through the fore-end. The grain flow must be straight through these areas or move a bit diagonally from the top of the fore-end tip to the bottom of the toe.
If it flows any other way, go on to another blank. No matter how much the beautiful figure and color of such a blank tugs at your heartstrings, you'll be smart to pass.
Once you've found suitable blanks that have proper grain flow through the key areas I just mentioned, then--and only then--should you start comparing them for aesthetics.
Another critical factor in the selection process is how dry the blank is and how long ago it was cut. Depending on the area of the country where it has been stored, a blank will usually dry as much as it can within about three years. (Of course, I'm referring here to air drying and not kiln drying.)
Somewhere around 7 percent moisture content is generally considered bone dry in many parts of the country. In very wet regions such as Seattle, 11 or 12 percent might be considered dry.
I live in Arizona, which is a big advantage in drying blanks. My garage makes for a wonderful drying chamber for wood. I start by weighing a
new blank when I get it, and I periodically recheck the weight, writing the date and weight directly on the blank.
Once the blanks have dried and aged — the author's minimum is five years — they're ready to be made into stocks. The top blank is from western Asia, and the bottom one is California English seedling walnut.
The first six months or so it will lose moisture pretty rapidly. After that, weight loss will occur much more slowly. After a couple years, and sometimes less, it will no longer lose any measurable weight and is as dry as it is going to get.
Theoretically, at that point it is ready to be whittled into a stock. However, a year or two is not long enough to "season" and stabilize the wood. That requires more time, much more time--the longer the better. Most stock makers I know prefer wood that is at least 25 years old if they can get it.
It's important to find a reputable stock maker to turn the blank into a custom stock. Do your homework by checking references and talking to as many people as you can.
Finding wood that has been cut that long is, as you would expect, difficult. Realistically, there isn't much wood around that has been air dried and stabilized for that many years. If you could find one, rest assured it would be pretty pricey.
What then is the minimum amount of time a stock blank must be air-dried and seasoned before cutting into it? I wouldn't have a stock made from a blank that was less than five years old and wasn't properly dried. That is my minimum.
I prefer wood to be aged longer when possible, but I won't use any younger than five years. Ten years is much, much better. Longer than that is gravy on the biscuits.
Since we are almost never present when a particular blank is logged, how do we know when a blank was cut and how it was stored after cutting? The short answer is we don't. This is the main reason you should deal only with a wood merchant who has a reputation for reliability and fairness.
Dealers who have been in business for many years don't stay in business by scamming people. The best advice I can give is to deal only with known, reputable dealers. If you deal with anyone else, then assume the wood is wet and therefore unusable for at least five years; it should be priced accordingly. Wet or green blanks should be considerably cheaper than dry and seasoned wood.
When you're shopping for a suitable blank, you need to realize there is no objective method of grading a stock blank. Some dealers use Xs to grade their wood, some use numbers and others use names. Most all refer to their top grade of blanks as Exhibition Grade.
The system is one thing, but the basis for assessing a particular grade is another. One guy's XX is another's XXXX. Another dealer has a blank he grades at Exhibition that to me is no better than XXX. All the grading system does is to establish a price for a blank from that particular dealer.
The Next Step
Once you've chosen a blank that you are wild about, it's time to find a stock maker to turn that treasure into a finished stock. How do you do that? Well, first I'd look through magazines and books and find a stock style you really like.
The custom gun section of Gun Digest usually contains a number of photographs of the work of several makers. You can also contact the American Custom Gunmakers Guild for a listing of its members; visit acgg.org and click on "Find A Gunmaker." That's a good place to start, but remember there are many great stock makers who, for whatever reason, are not members of the guild.
Talk to friends or acquaintances who have had custom work done, and ask their advice. I would advise you to do all these things because having a custom stock made is not an inconsequential investment. Do your homework.
Once you have a list of makers whose styling you find attractive, start calling or e-mailing them for information. Of course you need to know the cost of the maker's work and what that cost covers. Some makers charge a flat fee for a stock that includes a simple checkering pattern, buttplate, grip cap, sling swivels and sometimes a fore-end tip.
The blank is almost always an extra cost. Other makers price just the labor of building a stock. Checkering, accessories and everything else are priced separately.
The cost of a stock varies widely, depending largely on the name and reputation of the maker. About the least expensive custom rifle stock these days from a known artisan is about $2,500. From that approximate base figure, prices rise substantially to about as high as one wants to go.
I haven't done the research, but I would guess that the average cost of a custom stock from a known maker would be around $3,500, not including the blank or a fancy checkering pattern.
The next deciding factor after cost is delivery time. Most known makers have pretty substantial waits for delivery. Two or three years' wait is not uncommon. About the quickest delivery I know of is about a year, and in my experience this is the exception rather than the rule.
Another item to consider, and it pains me to have to mention this, is wildly incorrect delivery estimates. What I'm about to say is not true of all by any means, but neither is it particularly rare within the trade: If you're having a custom rifle built for a specific hunt with fixed dates, don't count on it being done.
I've seen it happen time and time again. A client goes to a maker and agrees on the particulars of the custom rifle. The client specifies to the maker that it must be done by a certain date. The maker assures the client that it will be done by that time. The specified time rolls around and, lo and behold, the rifle isn't finished.
There are many legitimate reasons for delays in custom work, the biggest of which is that most makers are one-man shops. Illness or injury brings a sudden stop to the output of the shop until the owner is cured or healed. There's no way of accurately predicting that dilemma.
Still, makers are hesitant to factor in such exigencies into their delivery estimates. I suppose they fear losing the client if their estimate is too long.
Once you have the right stick of wood and have agreed with maker on cost and delivery, the hard part begins: The long wait until the finished rifle is in your hands. But, believe m
e, if you've done your homework well, when the delivery truck pulls into your driveway and the driver hands you your rifle, the effort and the wait will be all worth it.