This past week I shot Sporting Clays with a friend of mine named Charlie Yellott, who is not only a hell of a shotgunner, but a fine gunsmith as well. Charlie was shooting a Remington Model 32 o/u which had been built in 1934. He had rust-blued it and stocked it in an iridescent piece of black walnut. It was a reminder that wood can’t compete with chemicals for a working-rifle stock, but on a shotgun, wood is the only thing to have. (Unless, of course, you want to do something like hunt waterfowl or turkeys, and then who cares?)

A figured wood stock is like a snowflake; it is unique; there has never been one exactly like it and there never will be another one like it. Moreover, it will change over the course of time. Walnut usually darkens as it ages, and its colors get richer. One of the great satisfactions in working with walnut is sanding a blank as smooth as glass and then applying the finish. It is at that point that the thing is literally transformed. All the shades and tones jump to life in an instant.

There’s mystery in wood. As you cut into a blank fancy figure can vanish and be replaced by no figure, or a plain blank can metamorphose into a thing of wonder.

If you’re not familiar with it, there are four varieties of walnut that are used for stocks. The first, Juglans regia, is the tree with thin-shelled nuts that grows in France, England, and Turkey. Second is American black walnut, Juglans nigra, which is not as desirable. It’s more porous, somewhat heavier, and in its plain grades, furnishes most of our factory wood stocks. In its fancier grades, it can cause you to wet yourself. Claro walnut comes from California. It’s more porous and not as strong as other varieties, but its colors are spectacular. Bastogne walnut is a hybrid of claro and black, and produces spectacular wood. It’s heavy and strong, and I’ve had at least one stockmaker refuse to work on a Bastogne blank for which I had paid a lot of money. Its grain was too irregular, he said, and he wasn’t getting involved.

I dearly love wood. I may have to take my battered Beretta side-by-side up to Charlie and see if he has any more blanks lying around.