Brownells 75th Anniversary - A Shooting Heritage

Stock Refinishing - Part I

by David Bennetts


It was a really tough hunting season, and your poor gun took quite a beating! Look at those dings and scratches in the stock. They look horrible! In fact, it looks bad enough that you should think about refinishing during the winter so it will look good for spring shooting.

The first thing you need to do is make sure you have the proper tools you will need to do the job. If you have a shotgun, you need to have the tools for removing the recoil pad from the stock. This is usually a Phillips screwdriver, but occasionally you will run into a square drive, or slotted head screw. Take a look at Brownells Magna-Tip Screwdriver SuperSets™ -- they’re designed specifically for working on guns. Next, you will need the proper stock wrench for your shotgun. Be sure to check for all of the stock wrenches we have in stock.

After you remove the buttstock, you will need to remove the forearm. Some guns it just slips off, some you need a special wrench to remove it. If you are unsure of what to do, go see your local gunsmith, they can usually help you with this. If you have a rifle, it normally requires a set of screwdrivers, or hex drivers to remove the stock. Sporting rifles are simple, but the military issue rifles can be more difficult, so again, if you’re not sure, seek professional advice. You can also call our Gunsmith Techs for specific help at 800-741-0015.

After you have the wood removed from the firearm, you need to also remove any other non-wood related parts, such as buttplate, grip caps, cross bolts, swivel studs, etc. In a lot of cases, the grip caps, forend tip, and butt plates are made of plastic, and the stripper you will use will melt them. If they look like you will destroy them during removal, then don’t! We will tell you how to work around this later. This is also a good time to think about putting on custom accessories, such as custom swivel studs, new recoil pad, or a custom grip cap. It sure is a lot easier to fit this stuff while you’re doing the refinish than it is with a finished stock.

Now that the wood is off, and the hardware is stripped off, you get to the really fun part. Stripping the old finish!

You’ll need quite a bit of stuff to do this. First, a good quality stripper is essential. Look for one that is rated for epoxy finishes, and I personally prefer the paste type as it will cling to the odd shapes better than a liquid will. You will also need a pair of rubber gloves, and to be on the safe side, I would highly recommend wearing a pair of safety glasses and a long sleeve shirt. These potent finish strippers will give you a chemical burn very fast, so protect yourself. .

If you have a newer gun, the chances are that the finish on it is epoxy. Most firearms made since the mid-80’s have this finish, so in order to remove it you will need a couple of scrapers. I personally like the Jerry Fisher Scrapers in a small diameter with the octagon shape. They are easy to use, and easy to re-sharpen. Make sure that the work surface you are going to be using will not be damaged by the stripper. In other words, don’t use the dining room table! I have found that a very thick layer of newspaper (10 to 12 layers) on my work bench works well to absorb the excess stripper and keep it from soaking through to the bench top.

Before you start laying on the stripper, take a close look at your stock. If it appears to have a very uniform, dark drown, or reddish brown color, the chances are the existing finish had a colorant added to it. This is how the factories get the uniform color from gun to gun. This is important to know before hand, because you will find that after stripping, the wood underneath will not be anything like what you see now, in fact, you may have quite a bit of sap wood in the stock that you will deal with when you do the finishing. Just be aware that your stock will not look much like you see it now. The good thing is, however, in many cases, there is some very pretty wood being covered up by that colored finish.

To start the stripping process, lay the stock on its side on the newspaper. I usually will pour the stripper right from the can and use a bristle brush or even a rag to spread it over the stock surface. You want a good thick coating. If you had plastic fittings on your stock, you want to be very careful not to get the stripper on it. I will brush the stripper up close, then take a Q-tip and apply the stripper as close as possible. Another thing to keep in mind is to do just one side at a time. It’s easier to concentrate on a smaller area, than it is the entire stock. Now sit back and let the stripper do its work; generally 20 to 30 minutes.

If you have an older stock with the non-epoxy finish, you will be able to watch it bubble up and see it working. If it’s an epoxy finish, it will look as though nothing is happening. But, it is.

Next, hold the stock firmly in your rubber-gloved hands, and using the flat scraper, start at the checkering and scrape back towards the butt of the gun. The finish will scrape off, but not easily. You’ll have to work at it! Get as much off as possible, always working away from the checkering since this keeps you from slipping and putting some unsightly gouges in it.

When you get to the inside curved areas, get out the small diameter scraper and work those areas trying to get as much off as you can. At this point, you will probably have most of the finish off, but you will some brown streaks. This is that lovely colorant and filler that I talked about earlier, so you may want to apply some more stripper and scrape some more. Try to get as much as possible off but if some remains, you can get it off later when you do the sanding.

As you get to the plastic parts (if you have them) start the scraper on the edge just ahead of where you stopped the stripper and work away from the plastic. It’s okay if you scratch it, you just don’t want the stripper to melt it. If you do get stripper on it, wipe it off quickly and you won’t hurt anything, just don’t let it sit too long! When you have that side done to your satisfaction, wipe the remaining stripper off with a rag or paper towel. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you’re just getting rid of some of the mess. You also might want to take a scrap of stiff cardboard and scrape up some of the crud off the newspaper, or take the first layer of newspaper off the top and discard the whole thing.

Now, turn the stock over and repeat the whole process again. On-two piece stocks, I’ll usually do one side of the stock and one side of the forearm at the same time. Again, try to get as much as possible of the brown colorant as possible, but don’t worry if some remains. Now take a rag or paper towel and wipe as much of the stripper left on the stock off the surface. You also need to get the finish out of the checkering. To do this, I take a Q-tip and apply stripper to the checkering pattern only, one panel at a time. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes or so, then take a bronze brush and scrub all the crud out of the checkering. Dipping the brush in lacquer thinner sometimes will really help with the cleaning.

The next step is to neutralize the stripper. One of the biggest problems I often run into is problems with a new finish not drying properly, and most of the time it is due to not cleaning the residue of the stripper off the surface, and out of the pores. The way I like to do this is by dipping a pad of 0000 steel wool in lacquer thinner and scrubbing the surface well. This will remove any petroleum base additives in the stripper. Next I will take the stock over to my sink, and with hot running tap water and a few drops of dish soap, I will saturate the stock with water, put the dish soap on another pad of steel wool, and scrub the stock with the soapy, hot water.

Also, you can use an old toothbrush to scrub the stripper that dripped into the inletting. Shake the stock off, and set it aside to let the surface dry. While the wood is still slightly damp, take a look at the surface. If there is finish left, it will look like little crystals on the surface. If you scrape them quickly, before everything is dry completely, they will come off easily. Once you are satisfied the finish has been thoroughly removed, set the stock to the side and let it dry completely. Overnight is usually the best bet, because you want the wood dry again before you start sanding. Just make sure that the area you leave the stock in is fairly dry and not damp and musty. Otherwise it might take a few days for it to dry out completely.

When you’re satisfied that the stock is dry, you’re ready to start sanding. I always hand sand, rather than using a power sander. It is very easy to lose your sharp lines, and over-sand with a power sander. These also have a tendency to leave swirl marks in the wood, so I avoid their use on gunstocks. The supplies you will need for this will be Aluminum Oxide Sandpaper (wet- or dry) in 120, 220, 320, and 400-grit. I like the aluminum oxide paper because it cuts fast, and doesn’t dull from the abrasive fillers that are in the pores of the stock. You will also need a good sanding block. You can make one up from a scrap block of wood, with a hard felt pad glued to the bottom. You want a sanding block that is firm, yet has some give so it will follow the stock contour. Now you want to install your recoil pad, or buttplate, and any non-metallic fittings back on the stock, such as a plastic grip cap. The idea is to sand these parts at the same time you sand the stock. This how you get that perfect fit on your recoil pad!

Remember the plastic pieces that you had to leave on the stock? Well, now you’re going to sand the old finish off! I usually do this first since it will make the surface uniform to the wood before you sand the rest of the stock, and this will avoid any dips that could show up from over sanding to get the finish off the plastic pieces. You want to start out using 120 grit paper backed up with the sanding block.

The goal is to only remove what finish and dark filler is left on the surface of the wood, you are not looking to remove any defects, just to get the down to the wood surface so it looks a uniform surface. You must take care at the areas that the wood and metal will meet. You do not want to over sand!

The whole idea is to remove as little wood as possible, and to avoid having the edges roll over. Keep everything sharp! Just as the stock was when it was made. You also want to be very careful around the checkering, just work up to it, and don’t sand over it. To sand inside contours, such a cheek piece or flutes, tear off a small piece of sandpaper, and wrap it around your finger. For small radii, use the eraser end of a pencil, or any other cylindrical object that fits the radius.

You now have the stock and fittings all sanded to a uniform 120 grit, so the next step is to try to lift the old filler out of the wood pores. To do this, you want an OLD steam iron; don’t use your wife’s good one, as it will ruin it! Take a soft cotton rag, flannel works good, but make sure it is well washed, or it could transfer dye to the stock. Wet the rag and lay it over the stock, covering as large an area as possible. I usually make it large enough to cover both sides of the buttstock, and long enough to go full length of a shotgun stock, or _ the length of a rifle stock. Turn the iron on to high, and let it get good and hot. Now take the iron, and lay it on the wet rag, but keep it moving slowly, and go over the entire covered area including the checkering. Be careful! You will be producing some very hot steam that can burn!

If you are doing this correctly, you can actually hear the steam rumble under the cloth. This will force steam into the wood pores and lift out the filler, and raise most of the dings and dents that you have acquired. Go over the stock with the wet rag and steam iron enough to make sure you have covered the entire stock as best you can. If you haven’t covered everything, rewet the rag, and move on to another area. When you have finished, set the stock aside to dry. If you have an old hair dryer, you can speed up the drying time considerably. You will also see a color change in the wood as it dries. After the stock has dried, you will see that the grain has also been raised and opened up.

Now take some more 120 grit paper and sand the stock again. Once more, all you’re trying to do is smooth the surface, not to remove much wood, or change dimensions of the stock. When you are happy with your sanding, remove all the dust with a soft rag and a soft brush, such as a cheap paint brush. Now take a close look at your stock. Check it over carefully for defects, like scratches that went clear through the finish and into the wood, dings that didn’t come out with the steaming process, and hairline cracks. The scratches can, for the most part, be sanded out. But be careful, and follow the stock contour. Don’t leave a low spot. Blend your sanding in with the rest of the stock. If you still have some dings, try spot steaming them with a wet rag, and use the point of the hot steam iron.

If you work at it you can raise most dings with success. If you can’t get them out, I like to fill them with a clear, quick drying epoxy, such as Acra-Quick. You mix a small amount of epoxy, and using a toothpick, apply the epoxy to the low spot, building it up higher than the surface, because some will soak into the wood. Another trick is to take a lit match and pass it a few times over the epoxy. This warms it and allows it to work into the wood fibers for an even better repair. Just be careful not to burn the adhesive. Set it aside and allow to dry overnight.

Once this has dried, go back and sand the surface till it is even with the wood. For cracks, the best thing I have found is The Original Hot Stuff. This adhesive is water thin, and will seep into even a crack that is clamped tight. Just apply the glue to the crack, and it will wick itself to the back of the crack. Once again, let the outside dry thoroughly, and sand the surface even.

Now look at where your recoil pad, grip cap, etc. meet the wood. If they are not perfectly flush, then use your sanding block and sand either the stock, or the piece till they are flush. Also make sure you have all the old finish off of your plastic pieces. By this time, you should have a nice, clean gunstock with nothing showing other than the darker areas where you did any repair work. Don’t worry about those areas being darker; they will blend in when you do your finish.

Now, start sanding with the finer grits of paper to smooth off the surface. Start with 220-grit and re-sand the entire stock. You want to remove the scratches left from the 120-grit, but once again, do not over-sand the wood to metal areas, and use your sanding block to maintain your contours. Once you have finished with the 220-grit, remove the sanding dust like you did with the 120-grit, and repeat using 320-grit paper.

Once you have finished sanding with the 320-grit, this is usually smooth enough for any type stock finish, but if you want to get your stock perfectly smooth, than proceed to use the 400-grit paper. This will nearly polish the surface, and if you have any defects, lake waves in the sides, they will really show up. If you are satisfied with the results, then the next step will be to apply your finish.

Next month I’ll be talking about putting the finish on the stock.

Stock Refinishing - Part II