By Paul Smeltzer
Certified Professional Gunsmithing Graduate, GCA SilverPLUS Member,
No, Old Checkering is not a bourbon, although the thought of having to “fix” old, faded checkering can drive one to a strong libation.
It can be a daunting task, but a necessary one in doing restorations of firearms BSS (before synthetic stocks). Yes children, back in the day before plastic trigger guards, plastic stocks, and “space age” materials, stocks were made of wood as a matter of course. This wood was usually walnut, with a pleasing grain pattern, nicely finished and checkered on the forearm and butt stock grip. Restoring these older fine quality examples of the Gunmakers trade is just as much about the wood as it is about metal.
Checkering is in itself a fading skill, but there are still a few good artisans around the country who do amazing work. They are in demand, never bored, and rightfully expensive. If I needed to have new wood checkered, I would send the piece off to one of these craftsman and wait whatever time I needed to wait, and pay whatever I needed to pay.
However, in my restoration work I have become skilled enough to do re-checkering of old, faded, and worn checkering. Restoring checkering has one big advantage over doing new in that the pattern is still visible to some degree, even in worse cases. Many times most of the cuts are still there, albeit worn. In my opinion having these patterns in front of me makes it a doable project.
You can never have enough tools, and checkering is going to require some basic specialized tools. The first couple of tools you can’t buy, but are required – patience and steady hands.
You can’t rush the job and you have to be able to run a steady line, sometimes curved, sometimes straight. Beyond that you need a few basic cutting tools. I generally use four tools on a regular basis:
- Dem-Bart fine single line No.1 cutter
- coarse single line No. 1 cutter
- jointer tool
- a carving knife
These tools must be sharp, the cutters will wear relatively quickly especially on a good hard walnut. The two cutter blades are expendable items, at $6.00 each you need to keep a few around, the job becomes incredibly frustrating with dull cutters. The last three items needed are a good magnifying device, I prefer the Optivisor, checkering oil to seal and protect your new checkering, and an old toothbrush to clean the sawdust from your cutting efforts.
Getting it done:
The first step is to clean the wood and do any repairs necessary. Next, I mask off the checkered areas with painters tape to protect what remains of the original checkering from the following step, which is to sand the wood. I will complete all sanding and finishing steps to the exposed wood short of actually applying a finish oil/stain before tackling the checkering.
When I have the stock parts ready for checkering I remove the painters tape and clean off any sticky material left behind. At this point I will take the fine cutter or the carving knife and lightly cut any of the outline lines that are faded or not smooth. Several passes are made to deepen the cut, usually with the coarse cutter. Once the faded cuts match the remaining parts of the outline in depth, a final cut all around the exterior lines is done to clean out and recut the entire outline/s.
Now the fun begins, the actual checkering, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my.” Have no fear, start on the clearest and deepest line with the fine cutter and a light touch running along the groove into the faded/light area.
With a sharp cutter, a light touch, and a steady hand, the cutter should follow the line. Make the line as long as you are comfortable with and still on the line. Go back and make a couple more passes along the same line. I will work 3-5 parallel lines, then start cross lines in the same area.
I tend to work small areas, maybe an inch and a half in length, taking light cuts, and working the cross lines in the same area. If you don’t do the cross lines at the same time and continue to deepen only the parallel lines, it will become more difficult to identify and work the cross lines. As you continue deepening both sets of lines, parallel and cross, you will see the cuts begin to “point up.” Once you start seeing that, move on to adjoining areas following the same methodology.
Pay close attention to how the grain is running as you move around the pattern. At times you will be close to perpendicular to the grain and sometimes close to parallel to the grain. You may need to increase/decrease pressure on the cutter or change between coarse and fine cutters as you engage changing grain orientation and/or wood hardness.
Occasionally you may encounter a ding or gouge in the checkering pattern. Many times these can be minimized by carefully running the cutter tools through the defect. Severe deformations can be filled in with appropriately colored bedding glass and checkered to blend into the surrounding pattern. Application of bedding glass should be kept to a minimum and only where it is needed, avoid smearing it all over the pattern, it just creates more work.
It is inevitable your tool will slip and you will cut outside the lines. When that happens, take a breath, after cussing, and pick up the jointer tool. This tool is very helpful in straightening out your mishaps.
When I have finished out the whole pattern I will go over the whole pattern again with a fine cutter to even out all the lines and points. After this, the first of 2-3 coats of checkering oil is applied. While you can purchase specific checkering oil, I generally use diluted Tru-Oil. Apply oil sparingly and remove access with a lint free towel, I am fond of using blue shop towels.
The final stage of the stock restoration project is to apply the final finish to the entire stock, being careful not to overload the new checkering.
There is no doubt checkering is an exercise in patience and control, but with some simple tools and a little experience a very nice firearm can be made whole again. Cheers!