Some Reflections on Stock Finish

    (Originally in Parker Pages ca 1999; slightly revised 2002)


   Last spring, "Big Iron" Kapelski and I had quite a discussion of bogus stock finishes after walking around the Knoxville show. I prepared a draft on finishes, which I circulated to several members of the PGCA. I revised this draft after reading the section on Finishes in Chapter 10 of The Parker Story. I complement, and thank the authors of The Parker Story. It is not often that a work like this appears, which is simultaneously complete, authoritative, and readable. 

  I have done some experimentation to identify the stock finishes on "classic" American shotguns. It is quite easy to imitate the finish on a T,V,P, or G Parker on a piece of straight grained walnut with ordinary hardware store "Bullseye" shellac. A little skill is necessary to produce the uniform high finish around the carving and intricate checking patterns of higher grades. Jack O'Connor and others taught us to think that only a slow oil finish was worthy of application on a fine gun's stock, and I have been a bit apprehensive to make my heretic results public to the members of the PGCA. I felt greatly relieved when I read Chapter 10 of The Parker Story. My thoughts follow.

  There is a legend which attributes " the customer can have any color Model T, as long as it's black " to Henry Ford. Prior to Henry's 1909 Model T, automobiles were assembled and painted like wagons. The assembly line accelerated construction, but the assembly rate could not exceed the rate at which the paint dried. Painting was the bottleneck, and black lacquer was the first fast drying finish.   Partially finished gunstocks can be stored or dried in a warm, dust free cabinet, as perhaps you have seen at Del Gregos'. This is a less severe production bottle neck than a row of sticky automobile bodies, but a gun awaiting stock finish represents an investment in time and materials, a waiting customer, and a comptroller anxious to turn it into an account recievable. Time is of the essence in stock finishing, and especially so in the case of a high grade gun that represents many employee hours of polish, fit, and finish.

  There are two broad kinds of gunstock finishes, "oil" and "varnish". There may be as much treachery in classifying some finishes as "oil", as in calling some fast drying finishes "varnish", with respect to traditional naming of stock finish. Old, and modern handbooks are consistent with respect to varnish terminology: Varnish is a hard, nearly transparent coating with a glossy surface. Spirit varnishes contain finish resins in a rapidly evaporating solvent. Oil varnishes contain finish resins in an oxidizing oil that supplements the resins and provides additional surface protection. Lacquer and shellac are spirit varnishes; copal, damar, and more common amber resin are oil varnishes, although they contain volatile solvent thinner to facilitate application. The finish of many high grade and custom rifles of the first half of this century can be imitated with "French Red Liquid" filler and Man O War spar varnish.  

  An oil finish is the legendary hallmark of fine guns. The classic chronology for application of an oil finish is once an hour for a day, once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year, and once a year forever. Legend has it that classic " London oil" finishes did require a year; Johnson indicates a Parker oil finish could be applied in two weeks; Izzy Lefever produced fine oil finishes in about a month. Mr. Lefever (Uncle Dan's grandson) sealed the stock with thinned varnish. He smeared oil on the outside and placed the oiled stock over the furnace for about two weeks. He scrubbed off the goo with a piece of burlap, and rubbed the surface to a shine with a little more oil. This oil was allowed some more drying time in the heat before final rubbing. I have attempted to duplicate classic oil finishes and find I can do it by adding Japan drier to modern boiled linseed oil. Sealing with French Red enhances the color; adding a little lamp black to the oil accelerates the darkening of the final finish. 

  Orange (amber) shellac is the bilious finish on the plywood wallboard of WPA buildings, and industrial storage bins. Tough, resilient and hideous. It is also the finish of fine violins, other musical instruments and jewel boxes. The look of shellac is a matter of preparation, application, and the underlying material.

  Shellac is an organic resin extracted from the shell of the Asian lac bug. It is an ancient and stable finish of great repute. Dried shellac is not only non - toxic, but edible by humans. Those expensive chocolates, which do not stain your fingers, may be coated with shellac. Interestingly, shellac is one of the few human friendly finishes which is not a choice menu item for mildew and fungus. Shellac is relatively resistant to sun and moisture with a little daily care, but cannot endure prolonged exposure to the outdoor environment.

  The ethyl alcohol that is the shellac solvent dissolves most oil varnishes, preventing shellac from being used to renew the surface of other finishes. It also softens oil based fillers and stains, but shellac is its own best filler and sealer . Shellac can be dyed, and sticks of dyed shellac can be made or purchased which are excellent fillers for checks or bird pecks.  A traditional artesan's filler is made from corn starch and shellac. It sparsely shrinks, and it can be hand tinted to match complex grain if a check is opened in a finely figured piece of wood. A thin over coat of shellac seals in the tint.

  A very fine final finish, sometimes called "French Polish" was accomplished with shellac and linseed oil, rubbed rapidly on the surface until "polish" was achieved. Johnson (1961) mentions this type of Parker finish on page 107, and it is also cited by Gunther and Price in Chapter 10. A shellac/oil finish can progress from bare wood, through fill, sealer, and finish coat in a single work day, if necessary. The ethyl alcohol solvent (spirit) promotes coats of shellac to merge, and allows minor mistakes to be smoothed out on the next coat. A piece of hard finished cloth, wrapped around the finger and dipped in alcohol, can level or smooth uneven shellac in or around carving or checking. Shellac is the fastest fine finish, and is very controllable in the hands of an artesan.

    I have a feeling, in agreement with the cited authors, that French polish is the prevalent Parker finish. If it was good enough for Stradivari, it was probably good enough for an A1, unless the customer asked for an oil finish. Oil slowed production, but so did the barrel boring and targeting necessary for a money trap or live bird gun. An oil finish was a pain in the ass , and a production bottleneck, but a high grade customer was always right.   

  A shellac, or French Polish, finish can be quickly rejuvenated by another application of the pad, as described by Johnson, after careful cleaning. Small dings and scratches can be filled with the proper colored shellac stick, smoothed, and re padded. I have seen several stocks that have barely detectable repairs done this way, and it was probably a common post season treatment for a valued and valuable gun. A gun in this condition certainly does not have a pristine original finish; but much of the original finish may remain.

  I have eight underlifter Parkers which retain original shellac finishes that are almost intact. I have several others which retain little finish, and I have seen relatively young Parkers which have little remaining wood finish. An ignored, or poorly stored, shellac finish may wrinkle or craze, but rarely will shellac peel or flake from the surface. I have a test piece in my yard which is now discolored, but the shellac still adheres after 5 years exposure to rain snow and sun. I propose that stocks with missing finish were initially oil finished, but the oil was not nourished and renewed over the years.

  A finely carved and checked stock, with pristine and uniform original finish is a true treasure, and uniquely rare. A similar stock, with a few small blemishes rejuvenated by a master hand, and with checking skillfully pointed up, is certainly a pleasure, but not a rarity.

  There are many stock makers that can rejuvenate almost anything less than chainsaw damage. There are also many finely made guns that were enjoyed in the field and in the blind by two or three generations of owners, with honest scars that are the provenance of that fine gun's real utility. Filing away those scars might be degrading, when we consider that gun as history.

  We face a contemporary quandary, in that it is actually unlawful to restore finishes of even twenty five years age, using original materials and techniques. Organic driers have replaced lead compounds in boiled linseed oil. Oil varnishes no longer contain heavy metal anti fungal. I caution anyone considering restoring with modern finishes that some of them may actually host and nourish fungus growth; question or test before use. Only shellac remains the same, but the spirit carrier may eventually be regulated, as large scale lacquer spray booths are today.


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