Stock refinishing is a very common job for many shops, but we’ve seen that some gunsmiths leave the checkering “as is” rather than re-cutting it. To our way of thinking, refinishing of wooden stocks is not considered complete until the checkering has been freshened up, or re-cut. If the checkering is worn but visible, it can easily be recut. If there are bare areas where it has been completely worn away, or new wood has been added to repair damage, it can be repaired with just a little more work and the finished results will be far more pleasing.
The first step in recutting existing checkering is to clean any dirt, lubricating oil, or excess stock finish from the wood. Using a polypropylene-bristled Brownells Gun/Parts Cleaning Brush along with mild soap and water or solvents will greatly speed this task. If soap and water are used, be sure to completely dry the wood using an electric hair dryer. If solvents are used to clean out the checkering, blot out any excess when the checkering is clean and allow to air dry until all odor is gone.
|Gun/Parts Cleaning Brush
After the checkered area is clean and dry, examine the checkering carefully, use a magnifier if necessary. I like using the OptiVisor in 1¾ power, because it allows you to take a real close look and keep both hands free. Look for damaged areas and loose or broken tops on the checkering. If the checkering pattern has borders, take a look at the borders to see if you will need to purchase a border cutting tool or make a shaped scraper to clean up the borders after the checkering is sharpened up.
Before you jump right in and start restoring the checkering on your favorite rifle, you need to look at tools and fixtures to make the work easier. Although good work can be done in your lap, sitting on the sofa, it’s a lot easier to have a sturdy workbench with proper lighting, a good, swivel-type bench vise and a checkering cradle. Lighting your work properly will go a long way in preventing eyestrain.
Existing checkering is recut with single line cutters only. A pattern cut to a nominal 20 lines per inch may be 19-15/16 lpi. Because of this, dual cutting or spacer-type checkering cutters are useless. By the time you get eight or ten parallel lines cut, you’re cutting a groove where a peak should be.
Checkering on many European guns was cut with 60° cutters. Custom rifles with fine line counts, 24 lpi and finer, often is done with 60° cutters. Most American, factory-cut checkering uses 90° cutters. Early shotguns, from around the turn of the century, were often given flat top checkering, where the checkering consists of incised lines or grooves, without the diamonds brought up to a sharp peak. Care must be taken on this type of checkering to keep the flat diamonds and grooves consistent in size, depth and shape.
Although checkering can be done or re-done on bare, unfinished wood, the process works much better if one or two coats of stock finish have been carefully applied and allowed to fully cure. The finish acts to help hold the existing checkering together as well as penetrating the wood to strengthen the fibers. The rest of the stock can be fully finished at this time, but it is best if you stop two or three coats of finish short of the final coat. This allows you to correct any overruns or mistakes in recutting the checkering where it may have escaped from the borders.
If you have areas with the checkering completely missing due to wear, wood damage or wood repair, use a straightedge and sharp pencil to complete the missing lines. Mark in the lines three or four at a time, and then use a sharp bench knife, hobby knife or Xacto knife to lightly cut down the center of the pencil marks. Be extremely careful that the lines you are penciling in and cutting in do not cross to a different row. Then, using a single line checkering cutter, deepen the knife lines to about ¼ of the final depth of the checkering. Continue this on all lines, until all of the missing checkering is partially filled in. Give these areas a light coat of stock finish and allow the finish to cure before proceeding.
When recutting checkering, the diamonds must be brought up to a sharp peak without waves or inconsistency in the surface height of the checkering. This may take several passes over the checkering with the single line cutter to get the diamond height even within the line of checkering as well as from row to row. After two or three passes with the cutter, you may have to stop and add another thin coat of finish to help hold the wood together. Remember, it’s much better to take several light passes with the cutter than to cut too deep and have to correct an entire panel of checkering. When looking at the checkering from above, the diamonds should be symmetrical, with each facet the same shape and size.
After the checkering is pointed up, the border, if any is present, can now be recut. Cutters for a convex bead are available in narrow, wide and extra wide. If the original border consists of concave beading, a radius scraper may have to be made to match the size and shape.
With the checkering and borders cleaned up, the last coat or two of stock finish can be applied to the stock. Be careful, and keep the finish from pooling or building up in the bottom of the individual checkering grooves.
Here’s something to remember about stock finish. Before you can add a second or subsequent coat of any finish, the previous coat must be absolutely dry and cured, not just dry to the touch. Applying too many coats too fast will give a skin of dry finish on the surface with partially cured, soft finish underneath, that may literally take weeks or months to fully harden. Soft finish under the surface will mar easily, and even gripping the stock hard with the bare hand can leave marks. Soft finish will also gum up checkering cutters, leaving them useless until it is cleaned out of each tooth on the cutter.
There are the basics to recutting checkering. If you are the cautious type, I suggest looking for an inexpensive, used, factory stock at the next gun show that has some machine-cut checkering you can practice on and save your prized hunting rifle or shotgun until later, when your confidence is at its peak. Checkering is time consuming but always a good way to relax and take your mind off of other things. And besides, when your hunting buddies are admiring the fine, hand-cut checkering job on your rifle, you can wave your hand, nonchalantly point to it and casually say “This old thing, it’s just something I threw together in my spare time.”
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