by Wayne van Zwoll
Older hunters may well be wondering: Where’s the walnut? These days it’s harder to find, unless you shop the custom rifle market.
If you’re old enough to remember the manual typewriter, you probably recall the real gunstock. It was walnut. It looked warm and felt like part of a real rifle.
Sadly, real gunstocks have become harder to find and more expensive, driven from the blue-collar market by rising prices for walnut. When I was a lad, you could buy a fancy American walnut stock blank for $25. Land sakes, I paid just $7.50 for the semi-inletted blank that went on my first deer rifle! Now even American walnut has become too costly for ordinary rifles. Birch and other cheap hardwoods are replacing it. At the same time, injection-molded synthetic stocks have become easier to produce. Top-end carbon-fiber or Kevlar stocks retail for several hundred, finished, but they’re still less expensive than mid-level walnut, hand-checkered.
The problem with walnut is that you can’t make it. You have to grow it. Growing walnut takes a lot longer than growing tomatoes, so we’re inletting wood from trees that may have been around before the V-8 engine, before metallic cartridges, before the Declaration of Independence. Don’t figure on cutting gunstocks from trees you’re planting now.
In a cruel twist of circumstance, when Europeans first learned about walnut they had no guns to put it on. That was back in the 13th century, when Marco Polo allegedly brought walnuts from their native Persia to Italy. Nuts and seedlings eventually found their way to England, then to France and other parts of Europe. The tree eventually wound up in California, to be adopted as “California English.” Grown from nuts, it has a tawny cast like Old World English but with less black streaking and “marblecake.” Classic French is often red or orange. Most of the Circassian walnut I’ve seen runs heavy to black. It’s named after a region in the northwest Caucasus, on the Black sea.
The scientific name for the species is Juglans regia, or “royal walnut.” Though grain structure and color varies, J. regia is the same world-wide. Common names denote location, not genetic differences. English walnut is J. regia; so is French.
“These days the best regia walnut comes from Turkey and Morocco,” says Don Allen, who knows more about walnut than anyone else I can name. Before establishing Dakota Arms, Don built rifle stocks while finishing a career as a commercial pilot. His passion was – still is – fine wood, and he has traveled all over the world to get it. Currently, Dakota processes about 1000 stock blanks a year. “The best Turkish walnut is superb,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s being sawed into dollars at an unsustainable rate.” Don predicts current reserves will be depleted in five years. “We think some of the trees being cut in Turkey are 300 to 400 years old. Age adds color and figure to wood. But old trees soon become scarce.”
California is unlikely to relieve the shortage. “There are lots of new walnut trees,” says Don. “But they’re planted close and pruned for nuts. Gunstocks have always been a byproduct of walnut trees, and the current crop won’t grow big enough for stocks.”
J. hindsii, or Claro walnut, was discovered in California around 1840. Decidedly red, and with more open grain than English walnut, Claro was crossed with English to produce ornamental Bastogne walnut. The nuts from these shade trees are infertile, but fast growth and dense grain has made Bastogne a favorite of stockmakers. It checkers more cleanly than Claro and withstands heavy recoil. The best of Bastogne has beautiful color and figure. Sadly, this walnut is almost gone, the limited supply diminishing fast under unrelenting demand. As with J. regia, the most desirable Bastogne comes from trees at least 150 years old.
“Black English” or Claro rootstock adds figure to California English – the black streaks, “smoke” and rusty accents characteristic of the Old World variety. Grafting also brings meaty thin-shelled walnuts from hardy native roots.
American or black walnut, J. nigra, has been the mainstay of our firearms industry since the first “Kentucky” rifles were forged in Pennsylvania. This relatively open-pored wood is warm brown in color, with just enough black to justify the name. It can be as plain as a power pole or richly patterned, depending on the tree’s age and locale, and the location and type of cut. Quarter-sawn walnut has the striping most of us are used to; the saw runs across growth rings. Plane-sawed walnut shows wide color bands because the saw runs tangent to growth rings. Either cut can yield a sturdy, handsome stock, but quarter-sawn walnut is most in demand.
Walnut must be dried before it is worked. Says Don Allen: “Immediately after a blank is cut, free water starts to escape. Think of a soaked sponge dripping. If the water leaves too fast, the wood surface can crack and check, and eventually crust, inhibiting movement of bound water from the core. Structural damage may result.” Don explains that a kiln helps throttle the release of free water. “Most drying damage occurs in the first weeks after cutting a blank. Moisture content will then stabilize at about 20 percent, after which time the blank can be air-dried or kiln-dried without damage.” He adds that you don’t need a special environment to air-dry wood that’s been properly brought to 20 percent moisture. “Just avoid extremes of temperature and humidity. Weigh the blank periodically. When the stock no longer loses weight, it’s dry enough to work.” Stockmakers may turn the blank to profile at this point and let it dry another six months before inletting.
In France, walnut growers used to steam logs before cutting them into slabs or flitches. Steaming colored the sap, turning it from white to amber. It also wiped out resident insects.
Dakota rifles are renowned for their fine walnut. Don is quick to point out that you’ll pay extra for figure but concedes that Dakota’s wood room is one of few places where you can still find figured walnut – at any price! “Less than five percent of all walnut cut passes muster as fancy or exhibition-grade,” he says. “Without a market for standard-grade wood, large mills can’t afford to handle fancy walnut.” Dakota Arms has established a milling operation in New Zealand, where Don says he still finds dense, figured walnut.
While Don Allen plans ahead, he’s quick to recognize opportunities on the doorstep. A couple of years ago he bought one of the largest Bastogne trees in the world. Very old, the lone tree towered over a California prune orchard. Its trunk measured 12 feet in diameter, and the canopy spanned over 150 feet. Thirty feet above the ground some branches were 20 feet in circumference! “It was a real find,” says Don, “And a real job! First we had to limb it, then trench around the stump. We didn’t cut the tree down as you might fall a spruce. Instead, we cut all the roots and pushed it over. Wood deeper than a foot underground is too soft for gunstocks, though the buttwood usually delivers the best color. Figure can reach high in the tree. In this case fiddleback ran all the way to the small limbs.”
Don says that light-colored walnut is commonly assumed to be worthless. “Truth is, many walnut trees contain no dark wood, and the white core is hardly distinguishable. Knowledgeable buyers know that the best colors lie next to the core or sap pillar, so they don’t mind a little white trim in their blanks.”
Sections of tree go to the mill, where they’re sawn into blanks 3 inches thick. “The big Bastogne gave us 4700 blanks,” chuckles Don. “More importantly, we got some of the finest figure I’ve ever seen.”
Handsome walnut is of no value if it breaks. “Layout” is an important first step in stockmaking. The grain on a quarter-sawn walnut blank should run roughly parallel with the top of the grip, when viewed from the side. That way, you’ll get maximum strength through the grip, while reducing the tendency of the forend to bend. Viewed from the top, the grain should run parallel to the bore, to prevent side pressure on the barrel. Many costly rifles have stocks with highly figured butts and plain forends. Figure in the butt doesn’t affect accuracy, but up front the knots and crotches that make for interesting patterns can twist the forend. Though figured wood may be dense, it is not as strong or stable as straight-grained wood.
Glass bedding strengthens wood but does not eliminate warpage. My own preference is for glass or epoxy in the recoil lug mortise, both to prevent splitting through the magazine well and to give the metal firm and unchanging contact with the stock. With glass compound at the bottom of the mortise, you can tighten the front guard screw securely without compressing the wood. Glass displaced into the first inch or so of barrel channel and under the receiver broadens the metal’s platform. You may want to put a smaller bedding patch under the tang to ensure it has a solid base of support. Aluminum pillars around the guard screws serve the same purpose, giving you solid contact from bottom metal to receiver.
The best custom rifle stockers dismiss glass as a fix for shoddy inletting. They pride themselves in skin-tight fit of wood to metal, maintaining that a properly bedded stock won’t split at the web or grip. While that’s true for most rifles, the brutal kick of some modern magnums tests not just inletting but the integrity of the walnut That’s why you’ll see crossbolts reinforcing wood stocks on “safari” rifles. Pins fore and aft of the magazine well appeared on Winchester M70s when stocks began to give way under the pounding of the .458 Magnum.
Whoever came up with checkering deserves a free elk hunt in Arizona. Not only does checkering help you grip the stock, it can be an elegant finishing touch. The finer the checkering, the more demanding the work, because each diamond must be the same size as all the other diamonds and properly “pointed up.” Checkering can be as fine as 32 lines per inch, though such small diamonds are more decorative than functional. You’ll get better purchase with crisply-checkered panels cut 22 to 26 lines per inch. I like 24-lpi checkering, but it’s hard to find on production-class rifles. Expect from 18 lpi (coarse!) to 22.
Though electric cutters have taken the place of traditional tools for hand checkering, most factory stocks are now checkered on machines. They’re remarkably good at keeping diamonds uniform, borders clean. If you want intricate panels or wrap-around checkering at the grip, better see a good stocker – after a trip to the bank. Oddly enough, fleur-de-lis patterns that typically draw the most admiration are easier to cut than point patterns. That’s because the fleur-de-lis is a fill-in job. You scribe a border, then simply cut grooves to it. In a point pattern, the border is part of the checkering, not simply a frame. If you’re off a tad on a fill-in effort, the border will still be right, and only close inspection will show an error. In a point pattern, and the mistake follows to completion. A full-wrap point pattern on any grip is for experts only. So too ribbons inside patterns. Among the most skilled contemporary stockers is Gary Goudy, of Dayton, Washington. His ribbons are fine as flyline, uniform and unbroken by over-runs. I can’t tell you how he does that, because I don’t know.
Checkering is best done after finishing; otherwise finish gums up in the trenches. To finish fresh-cut panels, I use a toothbrush – which is also handy for cleaning the checkering of dried blood and tuna sandwiches. Dip the brush in boiled linseed oil and scrub vigorously.
By the way, boiled linseed oil (raw linseed oil will not dry!) is the traditional finish for walnut stocks. It’s still a good choice, albeit tedious to apply. After sanding, wet-sand with 600-grit paper to raise whiskers in the wood, polish off dust and rub in oil until it gets hot under your hand. When you’re tired, wipe off excess oil with a clean rag and set the stock aside to dry, preferably where conditions match Death Valley in July. When the stock is really dry, repeat the process, and so over weeks build up microscopically thin films of boiled linseed oil. Open-grained wood takes longer to fill. To polish out trapped dust, use a slurry of rottenstone in oil, then wipe off the excess. One advantage of boiled linseed oil finish is its easy maintenance. Because the oil has soaked into the wood, scratches wipe away with an oily cloth. Dings can be steamed out with a flat-iron over a wet washcloth. Then use the rottenstone slurry to smooth and blend. Boiled linseed oil can be used with stain, but by itself often brings out the most pleasing look. It is not a waterproof finish; however, it does repel water adequately for most elk hunting.
Polymers, such as used on bowling pins, deliver more durable finish, but the look is neither warm nor natural. Polymers do excel as sealants, and have largely supplanted the traditional spar varnish I used 35 years ago on my first gunstocks.
If you want a sturdy, lightweight, weatherproof riflestock, buy one of Kevlar. If instead you crave one with personality, walnut is your only choice. Really.
Wayne van Zwoll-- writer, scholar, sharpshooter, hunting guide--has published hundreds of articles, six books and several short stories about guns, hunting, and hunters. His latest books are The Hunters Guide to Accurate Shooting and The Gun Digest Book of Sporting Optics.