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Learning To Checker – Part 1

Learning To Checker – Part 1
By Paul Mazan

Paul did this checkering job on an inexpensive Stevens 311 shotgun.

A lot of words come to mind when I think about gun stock checkering. Some of those words are "beautiful", "useful", "decorative", and "functional". On the other hand, when I think about the times I’ve messed up a checkering job, a few words come to mind that can’t be printed in an article like this! Checkering can be both difficult and exasperating - yet very rewarding and satisfying at the same time. So are lots of other things worth learning to do, like playing an instrument well or rebuilding a vintage Corvette. I even have one friend who thinks checkering is soothing! It’s an art that takes practice and patience. It’s not easy to do well, and it may not be for everyone. But checkering adds beautiful and functional embellishment to a new custom stock or an old trusted firearm. And with the right tools and the correct mindset, you can learn to do it yourself.

Checkering Basics

I am by no means a checkering expert. You will see some common errors in my work, but I’ve learned some things, and I’d like to share them with you. I recommend you start with hand checkering tools. They are relatively inexpensive, and you can buy everything you need to learn how to do high-quality work without taking out a second mortgage on the house. Investing in electric checkering tools before learning the process can turn into a big waste of money if you decide that it simply isn't for you.

In the simplest terms, checkering is nothing more than two series of parallel lines intersecting at about a 33° angle. The lines themselves are V-shaped and form diamonds where they intersect. There is no hard-and-fast rule that the angle has to be 33°, but most people seem to like the look of the diamonds when the ratio of length to width is three or four to one. Feel free to try other ratios and see what appeals to you. The trick is to keep every line straight and parallel. To achieve this on a flat surface with little to no figure in the wood is not extremely difficult. But gunstocks are rarely flat and generally have some figure to make the job more challenging.

Crossing lines create a raised diamond.

The normal procedure is to learn to use the tool on a flat surface before advancing to an actual gun stock, and that is excellent advice. I have done several practice panels, but regretted spending time on something that had no functional use. It is much more constructive to start on an old stock with worn checkering and learn the process by re-cutting it. This is harder than checkering a flat piece, but when you’re finished you’ll have a checkered stock even if you decide to never pick up a checkering tool again. Naturally, starting with the most inexpensive old gun you can find with worn checkering is preferable to a high-dollar collectable, but you can let your wallet be your guide.

Practice pieces, templates and cutting tools.

Choosing The Tools

Brownells offers several starter sets and an entire range of tools from both Gunline (#364-000-616) and Dem-Bart (#241-700-016), as well as a Checkering Restoration Kit (#080-000-363) to re-cut old, worn checkering. They are all very good and will provide everything you need to get started. However, I think they contain more tools than necessary for the beginner, and they lack one item I highly recommend. If you are going to do mostly rifle and shotgun stocks, a Checkering Cradle (# 080-026-000) is a super handy tool. I admit to having re-cut worn checkering on my bench top without a cradle. And sometimes, on two-piece stocks it is impossible to reach the checkering at the front of the buttstock while it is still in the cradle. But for 98% of all your checkering, the cradle is darn near indispensable.

Secure the stock in a checkering cradle so it’s held securely and both hands are free.

The next tool is the single-line cutter. You will use this one the most. The single-line cutter is used to lay out the pattern and the master lines - and to deepen the checkering to full depth. A single-line cutter is indispensable.

Next is the two-line cutter, used to lay out the next line to be cut and to keep it parallel to your master line. One edge of the two-line cutter acts as a guide, running in the master line and deepening it while the second edge cuts the new line. 

You can pretty much get by with just these two cutters, and I have done entire stocks with nothing more. However, a triple-line cutter really keeps the lines from wandering off. It’s so much easier to use that I regret waiting so long to get one. You are still only cutting one new line at a time, but the other two cutting edges run in previously cut lines, making it easy to keep all your lines straight.

Cutters are sold in sizes ranging from 16 LPI (lines per inch) through 36 LPI. The finer cutters in the 20-36 LPI ranges are generally used on custom stocks by really expert artisans. For us beginners, I really suggest starting with a selection of 18 LPI tools. It is difficult to cut fine checkering without jumping out of the shallow groove and really messing up the pattern, or by crossing over previously cut lines, or wandering off leaving an open spot in the pattern. 18 LPI tools are just a little more forgiving.

L-R: Single-line cutter, two-line cutter and triple-line cutter.

Keep It Simple

Keep your work confined to simple point patterns at first. Keeping lines straight in any wood is hard enough at first. Adding curves and tight corners is simply asking for trouble. I will normally draw out the pattern on the stock with a Mark-On-Anything pencil (#347-125-000). These are available in yellow and white and are soft enough that they don't compress the wood and leave impressions behind like ballpoint pens and ordinary pencils do.

You might want to tape white paper to the stock and draw your pattern on that. You can then remove the paper, cut out the pattern, lay it back on the stock and then trace the outline on the wood. After you’ve done a few stocks and feel more confident, you can draw the pattern right on the stock.

One easy way to get the proper angle for the master lines is to use a Dem-Bart Checkering Gauge (#241-000-001). It costs less than $10 and is simply a diamond shaped template, 3" long by 1" high for a 3-to-1 ratio, or 4" long by 1" high for a 4-to-1 ratio. Use it to lay out your master lines and the ends of your pattern.

Now that you’ve got your tools, next month we’ll do an actual checkering job. It’s a great beginner project - recutting worn checkering on an old shotgun stock – that’ll get you started with confidence.