December 07, 2021
By John Barsness
Many rifle shooters gunsmith their own rifles, including rebedding stocks or even fitting a new stock. This became easier when epoxy resins became available after World War II, when several companies offered unfinished, semi-inletted stocks for zillions of “war surplus” rifles. The barreled action could be pressed into inletting smeared with fresh-mixed epoxy, which conformed closely to the metal, and uncountable numbers of garage gunsmiths turned military rifles into hunting rifles.
This activity peaked in the 1960s, when another gun use for epoxy appeared: synthetic stocks formed in a mold with fiberglass cloth and epoxy. Many rifle traditionalists considered this the end of civilization, but some people are more flexible than others. In the 1980s I started fitting both kinds of stocks to my rifles and eventually did stock work for others—supplementing the meager income of my early writing career and learning a lot from real stock makers along the way.
For most people, the really tedious job of making wood stocks isn’t finishing or checkering, but “finish inletting” even semi-inletted stocks. The traditional process involves coating the underside of the barreled action with a dark grease called inletting black, then placing the barreled action in the stock and taking it out again. This leaves black spots on the stock where wood needs to be scraped away. Repeat this “spotting in” 100 or more times and eventually the stock’s inletted.
I eventually decided the only people who actually like to spot-in walnut stocks are the obsessive-compulsives who end up as full-time professional stock makers. When restocking one of my rifles in wood today, I use fully inletted models from Boyds Gunstocks, which may require some extra barrel-channel work but not much. Afterward, only small areas of the action get epoxy-bedded. I then reconfigure, refinish and checker the outside of the stock, which compared to traditional inletting resembles a paid beach vacation.
Most people who try checkering abandon it before getting anywhere. One common problem is the plain-grade American black walnut on which most aspiring stock makers usually start. It tends to be both soft and brittle. Harder European walnut is far easier to checker, but it’s more expensive. Note that European walnut is sometimes called “French” or “English” walnut, even when not grown in France or England but a nut orchard in California—thus the contradictory term “California English” walnut.
To checker stocks properly you’ll need a checkering cradle. This holds the stock at the fore-end tip and the butt-end, allowing it to revolve while cutting the checkering grooves. When starting out, I made a cradle from a 2x4 and a pair of cheap shelf brackets, which still works but is so ugly it makes my eyes ache. Brownells sells a good (and more attractive) checkering cradle for under $100, which I highly recommend.
Aspiring checkerers might want to buy a copy of 1952’s Checkering & Carving of Gunstocks by Monty Kennedy, a great stock maker who included advice and photos from other well-known stock makers of his era. The book sold so well that used copies can be found on the Internet for around $20.
Also available on the Internet are free videos of making wood stocks, including checkering. In fact, after Googling “stock checkering,” I was somewhat astounded by their abundance, since so many 21st-century rifle shooters apparently think walnut stocks are as obsolete as landline phones.
Many checkering videos involve the power checkering tools professionals use, but they cost as much as a good factory rifle. As a part-timer, I never could justify the cost, so I kept scratching away with hand tools.
One of the biggest lessons learned was to use three-edge spacing cutters instead of the typical two-edge. With two-edge heads, one cutter follows the last groove, and the other cuts a new one, but it’s easier to keep the lines straight with a pair of “follower” cutters.
Another discovery I made is that uncheckered “ribbons” inside a pattern may look difficult, but they actually make checkering easier.
Bedding is, of course, a common job do-it-yourselfers like to tackle, and the approach to this process has changed over the years. During the postwar garage gunsmith era, most stocks were epoxy-bedded from the rear of the action to the tip of the fore-end, but free-floating barrels started becoming trendy during the 1960s. The standard technique was to epoxy-bed an inch or two of the barrel, just in front of the action, to “support the barrel.” This originated due to restocking military surplus bolt actions, mostly Mausers and 1903 Springfields, which had the front action screw in the recoil lug.
They also had the traditional pair of bolt-locking lugs, which when the bolt is closed orient vertically inside the receiver ring. With free-floated barrels, tightening the front action screw could bend the front of the action slightly, preventing the lugs from fully seating, resulting in accuracy quirks.
Bedding the rear of the barrel solved the problem, as it supported the action and not the barrel. As a result, many people still bed the rear of the barrel on all bolt actions.
However, most two-lug bolt actions introduced since 1937, when the Winchester Model 70 was introduced, have the front action screw behind the recoil lug. This prevents the screw from bending the action, and the entire barrel can be floated. Howa actions are one exception, but they’re far stiffer military Mausers.
An example of how modern actions shoot accurately without “barrel-support bedding” is the most accurate factory centerfire I’ve ever owned: a Remington 700 in .223 Rem. with a 26-inch heavy barrel and a laminated stock. When purchased new 20 years ago, the rifle had the standard “hump” in the front end of the barrel channel, which theoretically calms barrel vibrations for finer accuracy. However, it shot only okay, with five-shot groups averaging about an inch at 100 yards.
So I rasped away the tip hump and epoxy-bedded a thin piece of cardboard behind the recoil lug, lifting the front of the action slightly to float the barrel, and the rifle shot far more accurately. In fact, when using benchrest bullets and loading techniques, it would consistently group five shots in a quarter-inch at 100 yards. This is with no support of the barrel, which is why benchrest rifles have totally free-floated barrels.
Free-floating helps most bolt rifles, but only if the barrel doesn’t touch the fore-end as it vibrates during a shot. For many years the suggested test for free-floating was sliding a folded piece of paper between fore-end and barrel.
This can work with wood stocks, which are pretty stiff, but the fore-ends of many synthetic stocks are more flexible. A better test is to grab both the barrel and fore-end tip in your hand and squeeze. If the fore-end and barrel touch, they can also touch during firing, resulting in fliers—the reason a round rasp is my primary free-floating tool, to deepen the barrel channel in the fore-end’s tip.
Another supposed accuracy innovation appeared during this period; today it’s known as pillar-bedding. It started with the first thin-shelled epoxy/fiberglass stocks, which tended to collapse as the action screws were tightened. The solution was metal tubes, with an inside diameter slightly larger than the action screws, epoxied into the stock.
Since benchrest rifles tend to be accurate, many people assumed pillars made any rifle more accurate, and this is the reason they get installed in many stocks that don’t need them. My favorite synthetic stocks for home installation are made by Pennsylvania gunsmith Mark Bansner. The areas around the action screws are made of solid epoxy, and Bansner won’t install pillars unless a customer insists.
“They’re a waste of money on a solid stock and can even be a liability,” Bansner told me. “If for some reason a pillar loosens, accuracy goes to hell.”
I’ve installed several Bansner stocks over the past 30 years and never pillared any of them. The last was on a Remington 700 action rebarreled to .280 Rem. Ackley Improved, which shot very well in a factory walnut stock.
Eventually, however, the lighter weight of a Bansner Sheep Hunter became too seductive. The Sheep Hunter has a narrower barrel channel and nicely machined action inletting. As a result, the only epoxy-bedding necessary was a dab behind the recoil lug, since the No. 2 Douglas barrel fit the barrel channel pretty well. Afterward, the rifle’s first group at 100 yards resulted in three holes touching.
In fact, the new trend in bolt-action bedding appears to be minimal contact between action and stock. The major point of any bedding system is to prevent stressing the action, so less contact should work better—and usually does.
The most common epoxy-bedding method uses the action screws, which to prevent stress should be tightened only until they just start to snug up. They need to be coated with the same release agent used on the action, but I also loosen them slightly after the epoxy starts to set up, just to make sure.
The other technique uses soft, stretchy rubber tubing wrapped around the action to hold it firmly in the stock. This prevents action-stress, but you must make sure the action-screw holes line up with their holes in the stock—and plug the holes with plasticine clay to keep epoxy out.
Epoxy bedding is still often referred to as “glass” bedding because the original bedding epoxies contained fiberglass particles to strengthen the cured mix, but today many include other stiffeners, even steel. I usually use Brownells Acraglas Gel, which after mixing has about the same consistency as thick cake frosting, making it easy to apply. But thinner epoxies work fine for skim bedding, even typical hardware store five-minute epoxy.
Finishing a stock is another task almost anyone can handle. Over the years I discovered that professional walnut stock makers almost universally use modern spar varnish as a finish. Spar varnish was originally developed for the spars of wooden sailing ships, which flexed considerably and so required a flexible finish. A common formula was pine resin thinned with turpentine, but it wasn’t very waterproof and neither was the linseed oil used in traditional hand-rubbed stock finishes.
The modern version of spar varnish is typically a mixture of polyurethane with oil pressed from seeds of the Asian tung tree. Tung oil is more moisture-resistant than linseed oil, and polyurethane is more resistant than tung oil. In fact, stocks can be finished in straight polyurethane, but if the first coat cures too long before another coat is applied, moisture can allow the top coat to peel off. The tung oil in modern spar varnish allows multiple coats to stick firmly together.
With fine-grained wood the primary process is to brush on a little spar varnish, then rub it in with fine-grained sandpaper. This creates a slurry of wood-dust and varnish that fills the wood’s pores.
After this coat dries, excess varnish/wood-dust is rubbed off with a slightly abrasive material, such as burlap, and then another coat is sanded in. This results in a finish that’s mostly in the wood, rather than built up on top like many varnishes, including factory finishes, and revealing far more of the wood’s figure.
The larger pores of softer walnut and some other stock woods often can’t be filled by sanding in. The solution is a separate filler such as the original Herter’s brand, now sold by Brownells.
But what if your stock is a synthetic? It’s time to learn to paint. When I started fooling with synthetic stocks in the 1980s, the trendy finish for hunting rifles was the wrinkle paint often applied to auto-engine valve-covers. For target rifles it was the metal-flake paint used on car bodies. Since then, other high-tech sprays have appeared, including pickup bed-liner paint, speckle paint and marbled paint including stringy streaks.
I own synthetic-stocked rifles painted with all those variations, but I usually apply a three-color camo to the stocks I install, using sagebrush twigs as stencils since I live in sage country. I even use two varieties: silver sagebrush, which has long, thin leaves, and big sagebrush, which has shorter, rounder leaves. The Remington .280 Ackley got a big-sage paint job.
It’s very satisfying to restock a hunting rifle to look nicer and shoot more accurately, but it’s even more satisfying to use a self-stocked rifle in the field.