RESTORING OIL FINISHED STOCKS
Rifle|September - October 2021
LIGHT GUNSMITHING
Gil Sengel

The stocks of the Stevens M414 (top) and Winchester M1890 (bottom) are almost black due to the failure of the original finish and 100 years of handling.

When considering gunsmithing projects that can be done in the home shop, the installation of scopes is probably the first to come to mind, followed by parts replacement and then stock repairs and refinishing. Near the end of the list will be cleaning, because it is generally not considered gunsmithing, even though a large number of failures to feed, fire and eject can be traced to dirt or brass shavings somewhere in the mechanism.

The topic here is related to cleaning, but not of metal parts. Some people will panic when they see mention of oil-finished stocks, thinking we mean refinishing of pre-’64 M70s or some such. These folks can relax, as refinishing is not meant; no dents will be raised, no scratches sanded out. In fact, no abrasive paper of any kind will touch the wood.

Perhaps “restoring” as used in the title is not correct, since it indicates “making new” again. That is not going to be done. Maybe “reviving” is a better word as the dictionary gives us, “to bring back from a depressed, inactive or unused state.” That’s it exactly! What stocks would benefit from reviving? Literally any from the beginning of the cartridge era up to today that have had some type of oil-based finish applied, or the finish is gone and the wood has darkened with age.

This old Lefever double gun stock was finished with lacquer or shellac. The light area (arrow) is bare wood, due to the finish flaking off. The rest of the stock shows the colored finish that remains.

Gil’s A.H. Fox quail gun was stocked in the 1970s and hunted hard, but the stock is maintained.

Determining if a stock will respond to the reviving process is not difficult. All finishes applied to stocks were also used for wood paneling, furniture, flooring and decorative objects. From the dawn of the cartridge age to the end of World War I, this was shellac, a natural resin secreted by insects and dissolved in denatured alcohol, or varnish, a resin consisting of fossilized or dried sap from various types of pine trees, originally cooked with linseed oil to make a liquid.

Shellac was a good furniture finish, but poor for gunstocks because many things soften or remove it and it doesn’t resist the elements well. Varnish is much better. It can be built-up and rubbed out a bit, but hard use and exposure causes early varnishes to darken and just “go away.” The wood also then darkens from handling. Linseed oil was seldom used on furniture, but often on stocks because it was cheap and available most everywhere. Basically, any gun made before World War I having a dark, dull, wood surface will respond to being revived.

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