2023 Blog Index
1 - Aussie Grown Walnut, Australia Day
2- They Know Not What They Do
3- An Odyssey Nears Completion
4- ACRS Walnut Stock Blanks - Seasoning Information
Scroll down to read entries.
It's Australia Day, and like most of the warmer months I was up and out the door before 6 in the morning, making use of the best part of the day.
Late yesterday, I washed and rinsed the detritus from just 42 blanks I cut in 2008. I've done a lot of that lately, and the numbers soon add up. The seasoning and storage conditions which ACRS blanks are subjected to are very deliberate. So far as I have witnessed and discussed the process is probably unique nowadays. One consequence of the process is an accumulation of muck on the outside of the blanks. At some stage after a decade or two, the blanks must be cleaned up to present for sale. This layer on muck is best washed off, gently but thoroughly, or the planer and thicknesser blades don't stay sharp long. Too, if this is not done, the cast iron in-feed and out-feed tables will be wallowed out soon enough. Like most of my blank production process, it could be done quicker, easier, more efficiently - but quality would suffer.
In the warmer months, blanks are washed in the late afternoon as the sun goes down, and left standing overnight. Drying of the blanks is best done fairly slowly. If it's windy the blanks are covered with a layer or three of hessian, as is deemed necessary, to slow the drying right down. The blanks have been through hell and back over many years during seasoning, but at this late stage, even with a wash literally with water from the mighty River Styx, one does not want to go looking for trouble. In cooler weather, the blanks can take a full day or more to dry out - but done right it does them no harm except for the near-freezing water temperature affecting the hands for hours on end! Whilst that little detail is hardly a vital step contributing to the production of these blanks, it is a small insight into the work involved.
Up and about this morning, the latest washed and dried blanks were yet again double handled into a neat pile next to the planer and thicknesser and dressed off. It's an interesting time, seeing each blank full dressed after all this time. The operation is not without some skill, particularly because one side must be planed flat first, and if this is not done with consideration, precious wood can be lost in a few moments which ought to have been left. Ditto the thicknessing. It all took a long time to grow, cut and season and yet the wood can be lost forever in an instant.
Like any morning, the majority of these blanks made my machines growl. Fresh, sharp blades are needed (and expensive) and you'd think a blank that is only 8" or 9" deep on average at it's deepest end would be a joke to a good 20" capacity machine - but no! - not even 40 thou at a time with many blanks. Some need half that per pass, and the slowest feed position selected in the feed gearbox. This walnut cuts freely enough, generally to an exceptional finish - but yet it is deceptively resilient to sharp steel. It still surprises me today, but it also makes me smile. The reasons for such resilient walnut are the deliberate choice of walnut trees milled, and the myriad of production techniques that profoundly influence the quality of the wood.
Australian-grown European walnut is much celebrated, and the best of it is generally regarded as some of the best stock wood ever cut. However, much of it I won't touch. Walnut trees often grow too fast in mainland Australia (I'm talking seedling trees, not irrigated orchards). Where they grow commonly, I find a combination of vigourous genetics, enough water and reasonable soil. On top of that, crucially most areas have a too-long growing season and if all of these factors combine, a walnut tree will grow like a weed. I don't like to see that, unless I'm looking for the nuts and not the wood. Many trees lay down a LOT of wood each year, but my experience is that much of the wood laid down by walnut trees in Oz tends to be on the "hard, brittle and porous side of the spectrum of acceptable for stock wood". Irregular seasons produce wood of irregular texture, which is also not a good thing for the stocker. That too, is a problem in Oz in some areas. No matter how pretty it be, I walk from such trees and look for something closer to what I know is ideal. Stock wood needs to be resilient. Workable, but tough and yet not too heavy. In some areas, the genetics, soils and climate collide in such a way that more ideal trees grow for stock wood. Such trees are very rare in Australia, and the vagaries of distance and economy in Australia preclude any notions of competing with nearly all suppliers w.r.t. price. Value, on the other hand, is a more relative term. What are you really buying for the price?
The trick is to only cut those walnut trees that are best for stock blanks, and then process them to best advantage. The production process, which also profoundly affects the quality of blanks, is an equally profound input cost. It is ruinous of time, money and body - but it's been strongly reinforced to me through repetative experience that the rewards are worth the heavy price paid. Corners just cannot be cut without sacrificing too much. The blanks might seem expensive, but considering what goes into them, and the quality, I honestly reckon they are a standout bargain.
I for one am very happy that the few pioneers who planted the majority of trees I've milled, did what they did so well. Without them, I'd have been without the raw resource from which to cut my supply of blanks. We have some fine native timbers in this country, but my own experiences tell me that they (sadly) just don't begin to compare with the best walnut on gun and rifle stock applications I was going to take a few photos of some prime blanks to promote them a bit - but decided it was not a worthwhile thing to do. Why? A stocker cannot tell much from a photograph about the way a blank will work, or how stable it will be. Photos can promote an obsession with appearance over more important aspects of a stock blank, so I decided against photos for this post. I feel that too often, photos bait folk into buying pretty blanks based on appearances alone. That has become a main focus of most traders, buyers and stock makers. Photos like that are easy to do. Walnut that works well and is stable is however, the best bait for accomplished stockers and discerning shooters who demand more than skin-deep aesthetic thrills. Good walnut with excellent texture and working qualities is difficult to obtain, so that is not often a focus for suppliers and buyers have been conditioned against any strong focus on such. That's what I see, anyhow.
Stock blanks are nowadays much harder to market locally. It's true that the market is awash with rival offerings, though in reality it always has been and diversity in itself ought never to be discouraged. What has changed, in my honest opinion, is that folk who are able to accomplish high quality work and who really know good walnut and how to work it to advantage, well they are getting increasingly less common - and they have always been rare anywhere.
I'm looking forward to working as much of this walnut as I can. It's character is distinctive, and it's working qualities are profoundly good. It appears I'm likely the last bloke left standing in the trade who is stalwart to the grand nature of the best Aussie walnut blanks, no matter the cost. A newcomer in the scene who does good work, and predominately in high quality local walnut blanks, would be a fine thing to see and a long time coming.
I held this one back for a few years, but it's a prime example of what I've seen so much of. I've had a bit of time off with a lurgy, and the best work I could manage follows:
A while back, I received a machined stock set from another supplier or such. I'd been asked to checker the stock. Evidently this was an attempt to duplicate the original butt and forend, which were also sent to me. Looking at the original butt and forend I can clearly see it has been copied - there is a myriad of fine marks on the outer surfaces of that original butt/forend set which display a lack of care and poor technique. A poor attempt had been made to epoxy bed the metal to the wood in preparation for a stock duplication job, about the worst I have ever seen.
My heart fell out my trooser legs when I saw that it was just a rough machining, and had not even fitted let alone finished and ready to checker.
To put it politely, I'd been Skunked.
I reckon a corpse could see that this entailed far, far more than a checkering job! Like a fool I got cajoled into trying to make it whole, and it joined the queue - another in a long line of similar jobs I'd completed over the years.
In short, this set was completely unusable, and I will also say that is constitutes the worst example of stock machining I have ever witnessed, and by quite some measure. Thus, the work expected of me now rose to having to complete a proper replica pattern for the job, machine the new stocks, fit, finish and then I could do the damned checkering job.
I will list most, but not all, of the deficiencies of this job. Comments as I see fit:
- Blank used is brittle and not of a physical quality I'd expect to see on any gun. It was brittle in nature, too heavy for the job, with poor grain flow. To boot, it had large pin knots in the wrist of the stock which weakened the grip far too much, especially considering the brittle nature of the blank. The blank was also too plain, considering the grade and Maker of the firearm.
- Head of stock (front face) has a huge gap. I measured this by aligning the front pin "inlet/hole" into position as best I could and got exactly 0.060" on feeler gauges at the top, less at the bottom. This measurement is as accurate an approximation as could be expected because the front pin is not drilled to any sort of proper standard and so the reference of location is somewhat arbitrary. However, the gap is certainly in the order of 0.060" at the top. This is a monumental error - and makes the set unusable in it's own right.
- Front top strap pin (front tang screw) not drilled fully or properly. This hole is tapered and MUST be correct - it must time in with the head of the stock such that the tapered pin forces the head of the stock hard against the frame. This hole is one of the cornerstone foundations of a good job and if a worker does not know this, or how to do it, they ought not to bill out work as of merchantable quality. I realise we all make mistakes, myself included. This is a big one even though it is just an itty bitty hole. An epoxy repair would be a sin on such a job, as well as sound evidence of a lack of skill.
- Significant gaps to top strap inlet.
- Significant gaps and offset to trigger plate inlet. Significant cutter-slip in guard strap inlet. Distance from top strap inlet bottom to bottom of trigger plate inlet approx. 2.5mm excess wood. The machine operator must not know to check tolerances, or how, or both and probably not the significance of the error when actually stocking the firearm with the machined "stock". It's customary to machine in some excess wood at these points, an excess of around 0.007" is more along the lines of what is customary and 0.020" would be getting tedious. Once again, this aspect alone makes the job not ever of merchantable quality, and well beyond any sane potential use.
- Compared to pattern, lock plates offset by in excess of 0.040" combined extra wood. Lock plate inlet features poorly thought out machining of rear plate dog (hook) area and significant gaps shown in photographs. Lock plate inlet has been hogged out to allow for excess overtravel of mainsprings in the un-cocked condition, which is normally done as an undercut when essential, so it cannot be seen from the outside once assembled. The cutters have dug-in in this area resulting in an even worse gap at this point than seen in the original stock. This demonstrates a lack of requisite knowledge in restocking; a lack of control of the machine and it's use; and a lack of quality control. Lock-work inlet features a grossly undersized trigger stop inlet, resulting in grossly excess front trigger over-travel.
- Forend iron inlet by machine far too deeply, so much so that it would be touch-and-go as to whether the job could be used - I expect not. We are down to just a few thousandths here and when considering the quality of the rest of the forend machining, The top surfaces also look undersized and my experience tells me to expect headaches fitting and lost time. Wood used is more or less as per the butt blank. I'd call it again, not of merchantable quality.
- Outside machine work tolerances not otherwise measured or assessed, but the quality is such that I'd expect issues. I thought it pointless to waste time even looking at it, given the above.
All measurements witnessed by the photographer with an in-depth explanation for such - see below:
N.B.: Photos kindly taken on ACRS premises and supplied for publishing and my record of proof by B Comins
As if that is not bad enough, then there is the metalwork. The metalwork was in no fit shape to restock in a professional manner, to say the least. I've made a few quick notes about some, not all, of the problems:
- Knuckle heavily peened or "knocked up" in an attempt to tighten the gun, either to fool a buyer for sale to hide the gap between forend iron and knuckle. Or, because the bodger/s who inflicted this inane act upon the gun thought they actually knew something about such work. This is NOT the way to re-joint this area. Note, the gun has been fitted with a replacement hinge pin, probably at the same time. One of the worst examples of this I have ever seen. This can be seen in the raised, silvered portions at the sides of the knuckle, the loss of blue proving it to be a job done some time ago.
- The standing breech edges have in the past been heavily peened, to close the gap between barrels which were off the face despite the replacement hinge pin. I am unable to comment on the jointing of the barrel face, bites, hook etc etc as I have never seen the barrels. Note, a stock maker needs barrels in-hand to fit a forend!.
- Water table area has been "knocked up", which can be clearly seen in the photos I retain. This amounts to a lip being peened on the upper edge of the water table in an attempt to hide the gap between barrel flat and water table, which looks to have been grossly in excess. Note there is normally a slight gap - I'm talking peening to attempt to hide a massive gulf.
- During photographing that I noticed what I am certain is a fine crack at the stress raiser indicated by the scribe (pointer) in one of the photos. This is a deal-breaker, I will not work on a cracked action for safety reasons - even if to only work on the stock.
That crack relegates it to being a wall-hanger (preferably rendered inoperable), or destined for stripping for what few sound parts it has and subsequent destruction of it's remains. In short, it's one of the worst clunkers I've seen. How anyone can think this gun is in serviceable condition is beyond me. Ditto restoration. Without that crack, it would be a potential major resurrection case, not a restoration (note I have no idea of barrel condition). I'd suggest this crack is the result of battering from the gun being so loose at to batter the buggery out of the metal in front of the hinge pin, and/or from ham-fisted fitting of the new pin. Note I cannot comment exactly because I was never in possession of the barrels.
The peening shows very poor skills. No attempt to tighten/rejoint was made - but rather the gun has been "knocked up" - peened to hide gaps.
Photos of a few of the major issues below:
The stock set was not ever fitted up, let alone be ready for checkering. More so, it's obviously unusable and much more than the simple, clean checkering job I agreed to complete. The whole project ought to have been identified as pointless - the gun is beyond resurrection. The gun was returned to the interstate dealer and advice given that I regarded the gun as unsafe, and not repairable, to be dealt with as per local laws.
- Folk who do decent custom gun work, almost always have a backlog of it. Almost always being measured in years. A surprising amount of that backlog is due to dealing with unforeseen complications in jobs received and agreed to - this one being a prime example. It seems increasingly common that, only in desperation, many jobs get handed to someone who can actually complete the work well. Rather than a much cleaner job go to them in the first place. Such customers are nearly always the most pushy, in my experience. I'm left dumbfounded anyone could ever see that this work was a good prospect.
The worst thing is, the time spent assessing, photographing and writing about this job - well it took longer than it takes to checker such a stock!
Hopefully there is something in the above that a few folk find educational - that being the real reason why I took the time to post the above. Ownership (and use) of a gunstock duplicator does NOT the Stocker make!
26 January 2023
An Odyssey Nears Completion:
Geoff Slee's Best & Final
Classic Stock Pattern Range
From the 1980's up until his passing in May 2011, Geoff Slee was by far the most prolific stock maker in Australia. His output of many thousands of machined gunstocks in a broad range of designs over at least a quarter century was remarkable for a sole trader. Yet on top of that he left behind a body of semi-custom and custom stock work that is the envy of many. His products sold to buyers around the globe.
Combining both machined stock production and custom stock work was a tough gig (and remains so!). Geoff was self taught, an incredibly hard worker, and his love for and knowledge of fine British guns and rifles was equalled by few of his contemporaries. Geoff was also blessed with intellect that few can match, and a fair slab of it was devoted to his love of fine guns and rifles, and stock making in particular. He was also a gifted artisan. Geoff was brave enough to move away from the increasingly Americanised sporting rifle stock designs that the local gun trade had promoted. Australian shooters in the 1980's we still enjoyed a remnant British influence in our shooting and hunting sports, and just a few custom gunsmiths and stockers held true to that heritage.
Geoff's commercial target, thumbhole and other familiar patterns were the main money earners, but it was his "English Classic" range that was dearest to his heart. His commercial English Classic patterns were a fine blend of slim, open-handed stocks featuring some cast, yet with drop-at-heel figures which were in line with contemporary thinking. That is to say, nearly all of Geoff's commercial patterns had a comb approximately parallel to the bore - his thinking being that is was practical for rifles mounted with telescopic sights, and that light weight, larger-calibre centrefire "stalking" rifles were more controllable under recoil with stocks with little drop. This was a commonly held viewpoint back then, though not all Aussie stockers held the same belief. The design worked well, and was a commercial success. Later on, an even slimmer variant of the English Classic was evolved, and the two designs are quite familiar to many.
One downside of the success of Geoff's patterns was that they were often copied - with or without permission, by folk with duplicators, lacking honour and without skill or grit enough to make their own patterns.
After a few decades, the original patterns were getting somewhat dated. Not obsolete by any means, but it was time for a major change, both for the sake of evolution and to keep ahead of the verminous stock rippers. Geoff's accumulated exposure of fine guns and rifles and knowledge of various hallowed makers stock designs was enormous. Too, after more than two decades of professional stock making he had the skills to make much better patterns than before, both in design and execution.
I'd known about this since August 2005 when Geoff first discussed the idea with me. I'd previously been taken under his wing and he'd been actively passing on his knowledge to me, and during the endless discussions he'd told me of the plan he'd hatched for a new range of patterns. At that stage, demand hadn't forced me into machined stock production, so I was no threat to his operation. In fact, I'd just refused a job with him, and he still encouraged me and passed on his knowledge. In hindsight, I was the only person he chose to educate extensively. Around 2009 the patterns had progressed to a small series of outstanding and entirely new butt design outside-shapes, but with no inlets - in fact nothing at all ahead of the head of the grips. Fate stepped in and Geoff became terminally ill. He continued quietly working on them until just before his business closed shortly before his death, but the new pattern range was left only partially completed.
One of the last things Geoff said to me, was that he asked if I'd continue the work on his new range of patterns. I agreed to do so - as best I could, and that I'd acknowledge his involvement in their making. His response was that he'd be honoured on both counts, and that he was glad because he didn't see anyone else who had all the skills. I'd also been heavily schooled in his style, and could emulate it successfully.
The very last thing he asked of me was that surely I had a good blank in the ute, and I'd best get it out so he could see it. Luckily, I did. It was a good way to say our farewells, over a decent bit of tree.
It has been a monumental undertaking, 12 very hard years and thousands of hours spent on the new Slee patterns outside of my own work. One of the downsides of Geoff's patterns was that, for much of his career, the locally produced AU and NZ-grown walnut pattern-grade blanks that Geoff bought in, well the hard truth is that many of them proved unstable. These later patterns were no different. Completing Geoff's patterns that were without warpage issues has been an odyssey - but sorting the problems created by unstable blanks is akin to a Viking saga. I'd long known there were issues with them, but the true extent was not realised until I was in it up to my neck. Why he didn't use more Dargo blanks for the patterns I will never know. I expect it may have been that he'd had the blanks he used in storage for many years and expected they'd surely be stable. Now, they are just about done and the patterns will be proudly made use of for as long as ACRS can do so. My father Jock has been staunch as owner of Geoff's new outside shapes that I've transformed into patterns. This would not have happened without him buying those new shapes.
These are both Geoff's best, and final, word - totally NEW designs, and my best interpretation of what Geoff would have done with them from where he left off. They will be marketed as such, to be cut only from Australian-grown walnut, and until such a time as the patterns and/or blanks are sold will only be available from ACRS. I've actually tried to sell both the patterns and blanks for some time, but I have been messed around so much. With Geoff's words ringing loudly in my ears, it seems they must come from my hands in order to recover the costs of this endeavour.
A separate page announcing these new patterns will be published in the not-too-distant future. They in no way replace my own ACRS patterns. They are an additional range of new patterns, and it's important that they be bought to market as a quality product. In the meantime, pictured is Geoff's first, archetypal, refined pattern; completed as a show-stopper. Yes, it's a pattern - Geoff's spur marks shown in the photos are unique. It shows my great mentor meant business, and is a fine totem. From this pattern on, they just get better and better.