Another tale from the Colorado School of Trades
I’m guessing that as a group, either in law enforcement, or those who enjoy cop stories, there are a few firearms enthusiasts among you. For decades I had used firearms both on the job and off. I never thought much about the folks that work on them, gunsmiths that is. My minimal knowledge was it was a profession similar to locksmiths and chain saw sharpeners. Something that a retired gent could learn in the comfort of his own home by taking the mail order course advertised in Popular Mechanics magazine. Like most things, I was wrong. This episode details just a bit of what goes into making a gun stock from scratch. It aint easy!
HICKORY DICKORY DOCK, WHO JUST GAKKED UP THEIR STOCK?
On June the 8th, 2015, most of December Class graduated machine shop and passed on to “Stocks” where we learn to make custom gunstocks from wood and synthetics. For most of us we would begin by learning how to checker stocks and prepare our chisels and gouges for carving our wooden stocks. Two deceptively easy sounding projects… oh, those funny guys at the Colorado School of Trades. More on that in a moment.
The classroom work for stocks started while we were still in machine shop. The two lead instructors for stocks are Lee and Chuck. Lee is a dumpy, owlish looking, retired Navy guy who served on nuclear submarines and despite being out of the Navy for decades, he talks incessantly about his Navy days, most of which is unbelievable nonsense about targeting his third ex-wife’s house in Indiana for a nuclear missile strike. We students have nicknamed him Red October.
Chuck on the other hand is a man of few words, thick glasses, a van dyke, stud earrings and the hardest working hands you have ever seen. He is somewhere between 80 and death, and rumor has it that he was an honest-to-god nuclear scientist in a past life. I don’t doubt it for a moment because even talking about carving a wood stock, Chuck gets beyond you in seconds and begins talking in riddles involving mathematics and art. “As we all know from geometry, we can locate the midline of a cylinder, even a tapered one, by placing it on its side along a plane, not two planes, a single plane, placing the base of a right triangle on the plane and against the cylinder and scribing a line down the length of the cylinder.” Sure Chuck. Chuck has little tolerance for rowdy smart-aleck kids fresh out of the military, or broke down retirees.
So this dynamic duo is teaching us how to make gunstocks. There is much drawing on the white board and talk of half depths, toe lines, grip lines, comb lines, length of pull, length of grip, bore line, pitch, cast-off, and on and on. Chuck holds forth for 2 days on abrasives, known to mortals as sandpaper. Lee talks about the difficulties of pillar bedding and finishing a synthetic stock, topping off with a cackle of laughter when he tells us that no one has ever gotten an A on this project. Thanks for the encouragement Red October. Even though we are still battering our way through the last days of machine shop, December Class now knows that there is something worse than Basics, or Machine Shop…Stocks.
The art of checkering. Checkering on a wooden gunstock is both decorative and functional, a series of tiny diamond patterns cut into the wood to create a larger pattern and enhance the shooter's grip on the weapon. The school gives the student a set of tools that look like small wooden handled screwdrivers with a slight bend at the tip and a tiny replaceable wood file in place of a screwdriver blade. Some tools have only one tooth while others have up to three.
The student carefully lays out his pattern on a piece of practice wood with a flexible ruler and pencil. With the borders and two master lines laid down, a razor blade is used to trace the master lines on the wood. The single tooth cutter is set on top of the razor blade track and eased forward to deepen the line. And this is where the wheels come off. The little cutter tooth being much wider than the razor blade does not want to stay in the track and meanders off mindlessly on its own in a curving arc across the practice piece. Gak!! And Double GAK!!! Off to the disc-sander with your now ruined pattern to sand it out, re-coat with wood sealer, let dry, and start the entire process over.
The novice checkerer starts on flat pieces of wood, trying to control the tiny parallel cuts in the wood. 18 to 20 lines to the inch, depending upon the checkering tool issued, and then an equal number of lines crossing at a 30-degree angle to form little diamond patterns in the wood. As the crossing lines are deepened the little wood diamonds come to a raised point that is very pleasing to hold in the hand. After a few practice flats the beginner has to transition to curved pieces of wood because there are no flat pieces on a wooden gunstock. They give the student two weeks to complete one panel of checkering on a curved blank that represents the fore-end of a gunstock. I got a B- on mine because for reasons unknown all of my parallel lines converged on one another and correcting that caused a noticeable low spot.
When you are about to lose your mind from trying to keep the little wood cutters on parallel tracks you can take a break and work on shaping and sharpening your wood carving tools. Wood chisels and gouges were part of our original tool issue, but even though they were new and sharp, they did not pass muster in Lee and Chuck’s world and would take days of shaping and honing to pass. A regression back to “Basics Class” with hand stones, grinders, files, dowels wrapped in sandpaper, crooked lines, facets and misery.
After two days of this something snapped in me and I started cruising the Internet looking for solutions. The answer came in the form of the Tormek 7 water cooled sharpening wheel with power leather honing wheel on the other side, express shipped from Amazon to my door just in time for the weekend. My fellow December Classmate and confidant, Nick, joined me in my garage on Saturday and in about two hours we had eight razor sharp chisels and gouges, literally honed to a mirror finish. We decided to stagger turning the tools in to Red October in case adjustments had to be made. I turned mine in first and got a decent grade, though I could tell that Red October had his sonar set to max. Nick turned his in a couple of days later and Red October spotted that they were very similar in perfection to mine. “I don’t know what you fellas did, but I’m watching you now!”
So with tools sharpened and checkering pieces turned in, it was time to start on the wood stock. Depending upon whom you ask, we were given a stock blank that was 40 to 80 percent complete. Apparently in the gunstock industry huge percentage points are given for removing the bark and smaller limbs from a piece of tree. My stock blank looked for all the world like an overly long, seasoned piece of walnut firewood, less the bark. I chucked the log up in my vise and dug out the blueprints we had drawn in the classroom under Chuck’s tutelage.
Short digression - In the last weeks of machine shop we all the quality rifle barrels and did all of the machine processes to fit them to our project rifle actions: Threaded, bolt recess cut, chamber cut, and correctly head spaced. No big deal for a seasoned gunsmith, but nerve-wracking as hell for a novice, especially the part where you assembled it all, stuck a live cartridge in the chamber, grabbed it by the barrel (no stock yet) and pulled the trigger! Now we had the working guts of our project rifles (called an action) and it was this action that we would build a wood stock and a synthetic stock around.ling tones I would hold forth, “Hickory Dickory Dock, let’s see who just f*#ked up their stock.” I would follow up with a bunch of scientific gibberish and December Class would beg for more.
Short digression - In the last weeks of machine shop we all the quality rifle barrels and did all of the machine processes to fit them to our project rifle actions: Threaded, bolt recess cut, chamber cut, and correctly head spaced. No big deal for a seasoned gunsmith, but nerve wracking as hell for a novice, especially the part where you assembled it all, stuck a live cartridge in the chamber, grabbed it by the barrel (no stock yet) and pulled the trigger! Now we had the working guts of our project rifles (called an action) and it was this action that we would build a wood stock and a synthetic stock around.
With flexible ruler, yellow pencil and blueprint in hand I approached the log and began making marks on it. Soon it was a mass of intersecting lines that could have been an illustration in the Da Vinci Code. I stood back and admired my progress. Fortunately for us “Stocks” students there is a junior instructor named John who had had nothing to do with nuclear science or nuclear submarines, and can speak in plain understandable language.
While chipping away at a piece of walnut-like an Italian puppet maker may sound relaxing after the giant whirling death machines of machine shop, in fact the pace is ferocious and a single mistake can set a student back for days. We tape a progress schedule to the lid of every student toolbox and Red October makes his weekly rounds to insure compliance. If a student is falling behind, or thinks he is falling behind, he can go on voluntary Fridays with no penalty. If Red October puts you on involuntary Fridays you just lost one whole letter grade for “Stocks”. I put myself on Fridays and I think I chose well. Besides our daily work in stocks there are classes, (triggers, sights, business, design & function, history of the gun, ballistics and custom hand loading), sometimes up to four hours a day, and those set you back a lot.
John then laid my barreled action on top of the stock and traced out where I was to carve a track that would eventually settle all of that steel mechanism into the wood like a hand into a glove. The process is called inletting and for me it involved three weeks of painstaking work with chisels, gouges and scrapers. Once a rough channel is cut in the top of the stock, a black grease called inletting black is applied to the underside of the barrel and action. The blackened metal is set in the channel and where it transfers inletting black, that portion of wood is removed. After a long time the metal sits down in the wood fairly well and now it takes sharp blows to the metal from a soft mallet to give accurate feedback. Next the stock is opened up for the trigger assembly and then flipped over for the bottom metal to be inletted. Bottom metal is the trigger guard and bottom of the magazine assembly.
While chipping away at a piece of walnut like an Italian puppet maker may sound relaxing after the giant whirling death machines of machine shop, in fact the pace is ferocious and a single mistake can set a student back for days. We tape a progress schedule to the lid of every student toolbox and Red October makes his weekly rounds to insure compliance. If a student is falling behind, or thinks he is falling behind, he can go on voluntary Fridays with no penalty. If Red October puts you on involuntary Fridays you just lost one whole letter grade for “Stocks”. I put myself on Fridays and I think I chose well. Besides our daily work in stocks there are classes, (triggers, sights, business, design & function, history of the gun, ballistics and custom hand loading), sometimes up to four hours a day, and those set you back a lot.
Fridays are actually okay. There are fewer students and no classes so you can get a lot done. In the process Chuck and I have improved our relationship. He no longer talks in riddles and since he is the one who will be grading my stock I value his inputs and corrections. There is no doubt about it, he knows more about stock making than most will ever know, and what has taken me over 180 hours, he can knock out in two days. You have to respect that.
It is not all doom and gloom in stocks. Because of the young guys, predominately returned war vets, that I work with there is almost always something humorous going on in the form of ridiculous conversations or practical jokes. Now that December Class is near the end of stocks, there are two junior classes among us. The January class has some great guys in it as all of their losers have been weeded out, but the consensus is that there was some kind of a policy change with the February class that retained a bunch of booger-eaters. Almost all are non-military vets, which means their parents were so desperate to get them out of their houses they will spend over $25K plus room and board for 14 months of peace and solitude. The veterans of the December and January classes have named all of them and religiously call them by their new names. Even the instructors use our naming convention now!
By their alternative names: Eric Cartman (of South Park fame), a baby faced, sloppy fat kid who wears a backwards baseball cap and dirty, tough-guy T-shirts.
Filthy – a grungy wood-hook from somewhere in Missouri who never washes his hands after going to the bathroom and coughs with his mouth uncovered.
Greasy – a hunch shouldered, crane-necked, oofdy-goof who has never washed his long greasy hair. He angered all of the young war vets by showing up on his first day of school wearing dog tags on the outside of his shirt. When asked what branch he had served in he replied, “None, I just think they look cool.” Jake of January class, who lost his left leg in Afghanistan, removed the dog tags from Greasy.
Blind Fury – I’m going to lead off with an editorial note here about it being uncool to speak ill of anyone with a handicap, but Blind Fury is living proof that even a handicapped person can be a jerk. Legally blind and almost as fat as Cartman, Blind Fury wears nothing but martial arts T-shirts and threatens to kung-fu us all to death. He also brags that he taught martial arts to the Marines (which is nonsense as they have their own qualified Marine instructors).
Easy Rider – another non-military tough guy wanna be who is sleeved with stupid tattoos and rides a Harley.
And now for the antics that keep stocks bearable. Inletting black, the black grease that marks anything in its path, often finds its way to the dials on combination locks. Greasy looks like he is covered in war paint by noon every day. Same for Blind Fury. February class goobers that leave their wall lockers unlocked get their locks put on upside down and covered in inletting black. Hysterical to watch Cartman on the floor like a baby walrus trying to look up at his combo lock and work the combo. Sometimes it’s not his lock, but Blind Fury’s or Easy Rider’s. In those cases John the junior instructor has to come over with his master key and sort the whole mess out. He doesn’t get mad at us though because he despises them too.
We all have the same issued tool boxes and there are only about eight or ten different keys for the cheap locks. A little experimentation quickly shows you who can open who’s tool box. A fact that none of the February elite has snapped on. So Filthy has gotten several hints about the merits of cleanliness: the top tray of his tool box filled with hand sanitizer (without bottle) and again later with liquid hand cleaner, again without bottle. Plus instructional, though I’ll admit somewhat profane, notes about washing your hands after you go to the head.
Greasy – a hunch shouldered, crane-necked, oofdy-goof who has never theshed his long greasy hair. He angered all of the young war vets by showing up on his first day of school wearing dog tags on the outside of his shirt. When asked what branch he had served in he replied, “None, I just think they look cool.” Jake of January class, who lost his left leg in Afghanistan, removed the dog tags from Greasy.s trying to take Jake to the ground with some kind of ju-jitsu wristlock and Jake is just standing there. Blind Fury is getting beet red and tells Jake “I guess you really want me to do it to you huh?” Jake says, “Go for it Blind Fury” and then I think Jake reached all the way through Blind Fury’s ponderous gut and grabbed his spine. After a while Fury quit crying and could breathe again. Cartman and Easy Rider (who’s Harley mysteriously falls over on a frequent basis) kept their heads in their work for the rest of the day, and have been blissfully quiet ever since. John the junior instructor hurt himself laughing. It’s the little things I tell you!
Well, I have two weeks left in stocks. Chuck has helped me create something that looks like the classic American stock complete with ebony fore-tip. I’m just doing the hand rubbed finish now. Pictures to follow when the rifle is complete.
Six months to go with most of that working on customer guns in the repair shop. I’ll have some time for my own special projects.
Until the next installment…
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