Stability Check: Wooden Gunstocks

I was once reminded that a tree is a pump of such efficiency that it can pull water from 30 feet underground to 80 feet above ground without drawing a deep breath. And, very early on in my shooting career, I got a demonstration or two about what happened when an incompletely sealed wooden gunstock was exposed to rain. Then, later on, there were the three custom wooden rifle stocks that were so unstable (even though they were completely sealed) that if someone cut a damp fart in the next room they would shoot a foot wide the next day.

So, being of a timid and uncertain temperament, I spent my formative years with a can of wood sealer in one hand and a box of Q-tips in the other, frantically slathering all the raw wood I found, and there was plenty of that.

In the days before free-floated barrels and pillar-bedded stocks, not to mention synthetics, wood’s instability was a common problem, and one of the solutions was laminated wood. The theory was that if you glued layers of wood together with the grain running in alternate directions, the result would be unable to shift because of opposing forces. Or something like that. The only shooters who went into laminates in a big way were benchresters, because they liked the weight and the chance to create odd and grotesque patterns with wood of different colors and shapes like paramecia and amoebae.

My friend, the late Russ Carpenter, a peerless gunsmith and a tester for Consumer Reports, once (I think this was in 1980 or so) decided to see if laminated wood was truly stable. The answer, he found, was a decided no. Unless a laminated stock was carefully and completely sealed, it was no different than homogeneous wood, and would double-clutch on you the first time someone cut a damp fart in the next room.

Now we fast forward to this year when I was about to take my laminated-stock Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle de-ah hunting in Maine, which was practically a guarantee that it would be rained, snowed, or sleeted on, or all three. While the stock is sealed, the checkering is not, and years ago, when I still used wood, I would have put Flecto-Varathane, (which is not made any more) on the checkering.

However, I first e-mailed John Blauvelt, ace gunsmith of Milford, Pennsylvania, who knows all things, and asked him if it was worth it. Here is his reply:

“The newer laminated stocks are completely weatherproof. They’re made of thin sheets of wood, which are soaked in epoxy and then pressed together. This causes the epoxy to impregnate the fibers and bond them in one monolithic piece. Rutland Laminates Company patented this process, and just about every laminated stock started* as a blank from Rutland.

“The laminated stocks made in Russ Carpenter’s time were just slabs of wood with thin glue between the boards. Russ was correct about them soaking up water because the boards were not impregnated.

“Your stock should not need any additional sealing of the checkering, but if it concerns you, go ahead and add a thin, brushed-in coating of polyurethane wood sealer.

“One of the downsides of laminated stocks is that they do not cut cleanly. Checkering has to be coarse or the diamonds will not point up and will break off. The checkering also tends to be fuzzy, as does the inletting of the barrel and action. If the checkering is fuzzy, the polyurethane will harden up the fuzz and then you can run a fine-tooth checkering cutter through the lines, cut off the fuzz, and clean it up. If you’re in a survival situation, the fuzz from the inletting will give you enough tinder to start a few fires.”

So I’m not going to seal the checkering, and I’m certainly not going after anything with a checkering tool. As Dirty Harry Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

*In 2014, Rutland Laminates suffered a catastrophic fire that closed the plant, apparently for good. Its successor is Cousineau Wood Products in North Anson, Maine, which produces a similar laminate. The company is making 13,000 stocks a week, and operates virtually around the clock, all the time.