A Classic Oil Finish
By Frank WhitonThe following is my gun stock finishing method using the wet sanding technique. I must give credit to Phil Pilkington for teaching this procedure to me. I attended a week long school presented by Phil that covered stock layout, checkering, his finishing method, and acid bluing. If you buy Phil’s Gunstock Finish you will receive an instruction booklet with these basic instructions. The wet sanding finish is used by most custom gunsmiths today with some differences from gunsmith to gunsmith. Not only can this procedure be use for gun stocks but will give a table top or jewelry box a beautiful finish.
Here is a nice example of a nice stock finish by Dennis Earl Smith, a member of the American Custom Gun Guild. Note the light glow to the stock. Also note the sharp edges on the stock. The edges must be maintained when sanding.
The first decision is what oil finish you want to use. The worst choice would be raw boiled linseed oil. BOL does not have the correct dryers in the oil and if you get into a hurry you will have a mess. A better choice would be a commercially prepared finish like Tru-Oil, Len-Speed, Waterlox, or Pilkington’s Classic Gunstock Finish. There are many other finishes out there and many are used with good results. I have never use Tru-Oil with good results but many have. For me it dries too fast for a wet sand-in finish. Len-Speed is not the same oil that it was years ago and I have not used it for many years to finish a stock. The problem with both of these oils is they are linseed oil based. Linseed oil does not have the water proofing properties that Tung oil has. There is no doubt that Linseed oil gives a beautiful finish and we will use some in our finish. Waterlox and Pilkington’s Classic Gunstock Finish have a Tung oil base. If you are finishing a stock for wet conditions I would stick with a Tung Oil based finished. Pilkington’s Classic Gunstock Finish doesn’t have the water proofing ability of Waterlox. When I finished rifles for Alaska I used Waterlox as the filler base and then applied the Pilkington’s Classic Finish over the Waterlox. You can use Waterlox for a complete finish and it will be quite nice.
Now let’s get down to work on finishing a rifle stock. You need to finish all inletting and shaping of the stock. The sanding should be done down to 220 or 240 grit paper. If you have used an aggressive rasp or a bastard file, make sure all damaged wood is removed. The best sanding paper I have found is the dark gray wet or dry paper used by body shops. It is usually Silicon Carbide and has a low friability.
Aluminum Oxide has more friability and will cut faster but you don’t want the grit to breakup and put impurities into the finish. Now the stock is ready for the finish. The first thing to do is to LIGHTLY fog the stock with water. A fine mist sprayer held a good distance for the stock will do. Do not soak the stock. Set the stock aside and let it dry. If you want to speed it up you can evaporate the water using a hair dryer. Don’t use the hair dryer until the whiskers on the stock has risen and don’t burn the stock. Your nicely sanded stock will now be very rough to the touch. This is called by some as “Raising the Grain”.
The next step is to remove the whiskers from the stock. Removing the wishers is done by locking them into position and cutting them off. We do this with our finish of choice and the wet or dry paper. I will describe the procedure using Pilkington’s Classic Gunstock finish. You need a small glass bowl like those used for mixing spices before you put them into your recipe. You need some glass eye droppers from the drug store. A good source is your local college science lab if they will sell them. The stock finish is diluted with Mineral Spirits by a one to two ratio. The eyedropper should be able to suck up about an inch of finish or mineral spirits with no problem. Start with 10 droppers of finish and add 20 droppers of mineral spirits into your glass bowl and mix well. Now soak the finish into the stock. I use a rubber glove to apply the finish with my hand. You could use a brush or your bare hand. If you run out of finish just mix some more using the 1 finish to 2 spirits mixture. Soak in all of the finish that the stock will absorb and also to the inletting. Now set aside the stock and let it dry for 24 hours. In most cases it will dry sooner but you want to be sure it is totally dry before the next step. After it has dried the whiskers will be locked into the finish. We will remove the whiskers in the next step.
After our 24 hours of drying time we can began the wet sanding of the stock. The purpose of wet sanding a stock is to fill the pores. Most Walnut and most other gun stock woods have fairly large pores. We will fill the pores with finish and sanding debris. Wet sanding is done using 320 grit wet or dry sandpaper. Before you start to apply more finish you need to cut up some 320 sandpaper into pieces 1.5” X 2”. I usually cut a couple of dozen at a time. Any left over can be used next time. Make sure you cut the paper with scissors instead of tearing. A lot of times I cut them with a razor blade. Now mix some of the finish with the spirits at the 1 to 2 ratio. Wet a small portion of the stock with the mixed finish. A small portion would be 4” to 6” of the for-end.
The sanding is done very lightly in a straight line. Never sand in circles. You just glide the sandpaper over the stock. You will feel the paper cutting. You can use a backing to the paper. My favorite backing was a draftsman rubber eraser that is 1” wide, 3” long and about 3/4” thick. I grind a radius on one of the long sides of the eraser making a nice 90 degree round edge. Using this as a backing I can sand flats and up to round edges. Most of the time I will use my fingers as the backing. If you sand too hard you will pull the finish out of the pores instead of filling them. This is a key factor. Sand just hard enough to feel the sandpaper cutting. Always use a backing when sanding two different materials that butt up together like the recoil pad or grip cap. As you sand the small area you will see the finish and the sanding dust combining together and forming what I refer to as “Muck”. You just want to see a small amount of Muck that just looks like dirty finish. Before using a new piece of sand paper I wet it in the finish so I am never sanding a dry area of stock. Now wet another small area and continue to lightly sand and continue this process until the whole stock has been wet sanded. Change sandpaper squares very, very often and keep it wet with the mixed finish.
With experience you will be able to feel the sandpaper cutting and will know when it is time to change. If the area you are sanding seems to get dry just dip the sandpaper back into your finish or just dab a finger into the finish and add a little to the area you are sanding. Do not sand long in one place. It is almost like rubbing down the stock with a rag. If you don’t sand enough or use enough oil you will not build up any Muck. Sanding a complete stock will take less than an hour. With experience you can sand one in 40 minutes. You should use up nearly all of the 24 squares of sandpaper you cut. When you are finished sanding the stock will have some areas still wet but the first sanded parts may be quite dry. Now cover the complete stock with your mixed finish using only your fingers. Don’t rub it; just wet it down so all of the sanding Muck is wet and the stock is gleaming. Now set it aside for the finish to start to dry out again. You don’t want it dry but you want the finish to thicken to a paste consistency. This will take 5 to 15 minutes according to how hot it is in your work area. After you do the next step a couple of times you will know how dry it should be.
After the wet stock has set and the muck is starting to firm up but is not dry, we will remove the muck using paper towels. The paper towels should not be the type you use in your kitchen. They are way to absorbent. The best paper towel I found was the shop towels used to wipe grease off of your hands. They were a brown/tan color with some texture. The cheaper towels are better because they are not as absorbent. Take a paper towel and wad it up so it is all winkled. Start rubbing in a circular pattern rubbing off the muck from the stock. Do not rub hard unless you have let it dry too much and then it will be more work. Do not polish the stock just wipe off the muck turning the paper towel to keep new towel wiping off the stock. Use new paper towels as needed. Don’t be concerned if a little bit of the muck is missed. You want to remove the muck but if some is left it will be removed with the next wet sanding. Do try to get at least 99 percent. You probably won’t see any filling of the pores at this time but you will as you repeat the procedure. Now set the stock aside and let it dry for 24 hours
After the 24 hour drying time you will repeat the procedure again using the 320 grit paper.
After another 24 hour drying time you will repeat the procedure again using the 320 grit paper. This time you need to be careful to remove all of the muck. This is where you have to use reflected light to view every bit of the stock looking for any residue and that all the pores are full. If you don’t have a dull glass smooth surface, with all the pores filled, then repeat the procedure a fourth time after the 24 hour drying time. Usually three wet sandings with 320 grit sandpaper is all that is needed.
After the last wet sanding with 320 grit sandpaper and the stock has set for 24 hours, repeat the procedure using 400 grit sandpaper. Continue to lightly wet sand and to lightly remove the muck just as you did with the 320 grit sandpaper. Be very careful when removing the muck with the paper towel. If you rub too hard you will pull the finish out of the pores.
After another 24 hour drying period repeat the procedure using 600 grit sandpaper. This is a polishing step and you just need to float the paper over the stock. This time when you remove the muck use a clean cotton flannel cloth and do not rub in circles. Rub along the length of the stock and remove every bit of the residue. The muck at this stage is not much more than just finish. Don’t wipe hard enough to polish the stock. Just use the cotton cloth to remove any finish.
Now we wait 4 days and we then checker the stock or do the following rub down. I mentioned earlier about using Linseed Oil on the stock and we are at that point now. This finish has been based on using Pilkington’s Classic Gunstock Finish. If you bought some of his oil you should have also got a bottle of his Classic Linseed Stock Rubbing Oil. Even if you have use a different finish you can use the Linseed Rubbing Oil for a finish. This oil is used in future years to renew your finish. To finish the stock we take some of the Rubbing Oil and add some rottenstone to make a past. We lightly rub the stock with the rottenstone and oil mixture covering the stock very quickly with out rubbing the stock with any pressure. Set the stock aside for 30 minutes and then lightly remove the finish with a clean cotton flannel cloth. The finish is now done. The wood will have a beautiful luster to it but it won’t be real shiny.
You can see the nice soft glow and all the pores are full. This stock was finished using Waterlox, Pilkington's Classic Finish, and Pilkington's Rubbing Oil. Work by author.
To add more shine to the finish we can add more Linseed Rubbing Oil. After the rottenstone rub procedure and the stock has set for 4 days you can apply a thin coat of Rubbing Oil on the stock. Just use enough oil to cover the stock. Set aside for 30 minutes and then wipe off with a clean cotton flannel cloth. Don’t rub, just remove the wet oil. You will leave a very thin coating of the linseed oil and it won’t attract dust. Repeat this procedure every 4 days until you get the shine you want. Keep in mind that the purpose of using the sanding-in procedure is to put the finish into the pores and not get a big build up of finish onto the stock. If you add many coats of the rubbing oil you will add to the surface build up of the finish. This same procedure can be use at a later date to renew the finish.
The above finish will give you a fantastic finish but there is another way to get a beautiful finish with less work. When you have finished wet sanding the stock with 320 grit sandpaper and you have the pores filled to suit you proceed with the 400 and 600 grit sanding as directed above. Now instead of the rottenstone apply the Linseed Rubbing Oil and let it set for 30 minutes. Wipe off the oil with a clean cotton flannel cloth. Wait 4 days and repeat the step with the rubbing oil. It is now done and you will like it.
If you want a real quick finish you can go straight to the rubbing oil after the 320 grit sanding has filled the pores and keep adding the rubbing oil until you have the finish you desire. Remember that you must wait 24 hours between wet sandings and you must wait 4 days between coats of Linseed Rubbing Oil. The waiting period is to insure the previous coat of oil has completely dried.
To my eye this is the worst possible finish. I much prefer the finish above (photo with the green background). This finish is very water resistant but if it gets scratched, it will allow moisture inside the stock. It is very difficult to repair.
This is nice work by Steve Billeb, a member of the American Custom Gun Guild. You can duplicate this finish by following these instructions.
There you go, now everyone can turn out a professional looking oil finish.
Text and images copyright 2007 by The Firearms Forum and the author, all rights reserved.