Refinishing a rifle in good condition – is it a good idea?

Refinishing a worn and dented old stock can be very rewarding, but what if the stock’s already in perfect condition? Mike Morton finds out the hard way.

“You must be mad!” was the response I got from one of my shooting buddies when I told him all about my latest idea. And it wasn’t just my latest idea, it was one of my greatest ideas! After all, what could be better than stripping the finish from an old gun stock, sanding it until it felt like marble, then refinishing it with a lovely wood stain and a few coats of neo-traditional stock oil?

He had a point though, because the stock I had in mind wasn’t some battered and bruised specimen that had been doing battle with some barbed wire and brambles, it was the stock from my Weihrauch HW95 K. I love this rifle, but it’s seen far more range time than field use, and the stock was still in pristine condition.

There are some practical advantages in removing a factory finish, however, even if it is undamaged. Varnished or lacquered finishes are nice when new, but are hard to fix if they do ever get scratched or dented, whereas an oiled finish that gets dinged can more easily be given a spot repair. An oiled finish also lets you connect directly with the wood itself rather than with some crispy M&M’s-type outer layer, providing a more tactile experience and potentially enhancing your grip. And let’s not forget the way a stock looks either. 

For many shooters an oiled stock is hard to beat, and as shallow as this may sound, I’m a firm believer that if you like the way your rifle looks, you’ll pick it up and enjoy shooting it more often. The finish on this HW stock was absolutely fine, but I was convinced the end result would be richer and more luxurious.

So with this in mind I set about planning the processes that would be required to turn this lacquered stock into an oiled stock. In writing articles like this, I try to imagine what readers will get out of it. I hope they may find it interesting, inspiring, instructional or simply entertaining. In this case it turned out to be more of a cautionary tale.

Stocks that have already been oiled are the simplest to work on, as old oil can be pulled out of the wood very easily. Varnished stocks are pretty straightforward to work on as well, with the help of some appropriate chemical stripper. 

And then there are lacquered stocks. I’ve refurbished 28 stocks over the years, but only one of those had been lacquered. Lacquer is a much harder finish to get off, but it can be done, and the lacquered stock I’d previously worked on hadn’t turned out to be too much trouble after all, so I was keen to crack on with my Weihrauch.

Let’s Get Started

As anyone who’s taken on a practical project like this will know, half the battle is to have all the tools and materials you think you’ll need beforehand, along with a suitable work area and appropriate protective gear. I almost got this right.

The process began by removing the stock from the rifle, then taking the butt pad off the stock. I had expected to find the pad glued to the wood in a belt-and-braces approach, but only had to contend with the screws. If you do find a pad that’s been glued in place you can try gently prising off the pad, but if this doesn’t work you may need to carefully use a blade to score down the glue line before the pad will come away.

Nitromors must be dabbed, rather than brushed onto the stock as a decent layer of gel must be applied before it will start eating into the original finish

Next on my task list was to strip off the lacquer, and to do this I used Nitromors. This chemical stripper is available in two types, All Purpose in a green tin and Craftsman’s in a yellow tin. The Craftsman’s might seem to be the better bet for gun stocks as it’s designed for fine furniture and carvings, although I’ve used both products on gun stocks before and haven’t noticed much difference. The Craftsman’s is free-flowing, while the regular stuff is non-drip, and I went for the latter as it’s considerably easier to use and can be cleaned up with water afterwards.

Nitromors will work best on a clean finish, so if a stock is particularly greasy, it’s a good idea to either give it a wipe-down with a soapy cloth beforehand or even a full-on bath in soapy water to remove the excess oil and give the paint stripper the best chance to do its job. 

An alternative is to use a cloth soaked in a little white vinegar. This is an excellent all-round degreaser, but must be kept well away from any metalwork.

Protecting your work area is vital when using this stuff, and I used a plastic container that’s designed for cleaning oven trays and barbecue grilles. While this plastic is resistant to the chemical stripper, I thought I’d line it with bin bags, both to help protect it and to assist clean-up. 

While plastic trays may be resilient to Nitromors, our eyes, lungs and skin are not, so I wore eye protection and a painter’s face mask as well as a pair of polythene gloves of the type you get at a petrol station forecourt. These gloves don’t offer as much dexterity as a pair of latex gloves, but unlike latex they won’t melt when they come into contact with the chemical. I began the stripping process back when we were in the grip of snow and ice, and had to work indoors. Even though I was wearing a mask I opened every available window for ventilation. It was freezing!

The stripping process was messy and time-consuming, but progress was slowly being made – this was the state of play after five hours’ work

I’d bought a new, but cheap paintbrush to apply the Nitromors. An initial coat needs to be applied after which you wait 10 minutes, apply some more and then leave it for another 40 minutes before going any further. The Nitromors must be dabbed on rather than brushed, and must not be allowed to dry out while it’s softening the lacquer.

The paintbrush was also useful for making sure the Nitromors got into all the tricky areas such as the chequering and the inletting. When I was happy the entire stock had been properly coated I wrapped it up in a plastic bin bag to keep it “wet” while I was waiting for the chemical to start working on the lacquer.

Forty minutes later, I inspected the stock, expecting the lacquer to have bubbled up, just waiting to be simply scraped away. I presume this stock was made by Minelli, and take my hat off to the person who sprayed the lacquer finish. This stuff is resilient! That initial coat of Nitromors had barely any effect on the finish, and my hopes of getting the stock stripped in one go, just like the fumes, went straight out the window.

Let’s Get Stripping – Again

It was now obvious that several additional sessions would be required, but by this time the weather had changed and I was at least able to work outdoors. 

I’d now worked out a reasonably effective two-pronged approach, these being to use an old credit card as a scraper, while using a stiff nylon-bristled brush to agitate the chequering and reach deep down into the inletting, cocking slot and trigger recess. The brush I was using is designed to clean the face of rimfire and centrefire rifle bolts, but I wanted to use a nylon brush rather than a traditional woodworking brass- or bronze-bristled brush as I didn’t want to risk scratching the stock. 

This is how the stock looked after a third session of stripping – this represents seven hours’ worth of work and two whole tins of Nitromors

And while a metal scraper would have been much faster, I knew the plastic credit card wouldn’t score the wood either. However, I soon ditched my initially worthy idea of lining the plastic tray with bin bags as determination turned to frustration, and sore fingers and an aching back began to take their toll.

It’s hard to describe how slow, tedious and physically challenging the stripping process actually was, and don’t forget this was all done with me wearing goggles and a mask, which soon became uncomfortable. I switched tactics, and instead of trying to work on the whole stock in each sitting, focused on one specific area at a time, such as the left-hand side of the forend. After a few minutes of working on a portion of the stock, the gel would dry out and clump up, requiring more fresh product to be applied in any case.

There were two upsides to this lengthy process – the chance to have a chat to my neighbour about shooting and archery through the garden hedge, and the fact that once it had dried up, leaving behind a sludge-like mess, the excess Nitromors was fairly easy to brush off the stock to reveal the lovely clean wood buried underneath.

The Nitromors never really did make the lacquer bubble up as I had been expecting, and I got through far more of this stuff than I ever expected. By the time I’d finished I was on my third tin, having used around 1.5 litres in total, using the credit card to both scrape and slowly chip away at the loosened lacquer. 

It took me four sessions and nine hours of actual work in addition to the waiting time in between applications, but in the end the stock was stripped and completely free of the original lacquer finish.

Another nice bonus was the discovery that instead of the stock first being stained by the factory and then having the lacquer finish applied over the top, the stain and lacquer had been mixed in with each other and applied together. 

This meant the stripped wood had taken on far less of the original stain, meaning my task of getting back to perfectly clean, bare wood had been made a lot easier. Any residual Nitromors was allowed to dry out, after which it was brushed off before the entire stock was thoroughly wiped down with soapy water.

Mr Sandman

I had a decision to make: start sanding or try to remove what remained of the original wood dye. I decided to sand first, reasoning that any surface dye would be removed by the sanding process in any case. As the stock had not been damaged, all I really wanted to do was make the wood as smooth to the touch as possible. 

For practical in-the-field purposes, a slightly rougher finish is preferable in terms of grip, but I do enjoy handling a smooth stock. Where possible, I sanded with the grain of the wood, as going against the grain can leave sanding marks that will be visible when the stock has been dyed and oiled.

One area I had to go against the grain, however, was the end of the butt where it mates with the pad. Butt pads are slightly oversized so they can be sanded down to match the wood, but it was the opposite with this particular stock and I had a fair bit to remove, using progressively finer grits of wet & dry paper. I reattached the butt pad and sanded across both the wood and the rubber until I had the seamless join I was looking for.

One technique that’s very useful is to use a damp cloth to wet the wood and raise the grain before sanding down the raised fibres. If you do all your sanding dry, when you add oil this will raise the fibres, leaving the stock looking and feeling rough. I use fine- and super-fine wet & dry foam sanding pads for the bulk of my sanding work because they won’t put flats on curved surfaces. I like to use a semi-rigid sanding block on flat areas like the top of the inletting to prevent these surfaces from being rounded off.

With my preliminary sanding done I inspected the stock and found more of the original stain remaining, so I used ordinary household bleach applied with a paintbrush to remove as much of this as I could. 

This was only partially successful as some stain had resisted first the Nitromors, then the sanding and now the bleach. If I had managed to get a perfectly clean stock my plan was to dye the wood a golden colour by means of a change, but as there was so much old stain remaining I opted for a dark walnut colour instead.

No Stain, No Gain

Wood stain was applied in thin layers with a sponge and allowed to dry – this was an easy product to work with and wasn’t as messy as expected

After giving the stock a final light sanding it was time to apply the stain. While wood stain can be applied with a brush, I prefer to use a sponge as it doesn’t leave any streaks. 

The product that I used was a delight to use, going on evenly and cleaning up easily with water. Wood stains can be water- or oil-based. I use water-based stains so the subsequent coats of oil don’t lift the stain, but some people prefer to use an oil-based wood dye and mix it in with the stock oil, applying both together.

Wood stain can be built up in layers, adding density of colour, and I was amazed how far this process could be taken. I applied four coats, with the end result being significantly darker than the first. It’s easy to overdo this, and with hindsight I think I should have stopped at three coats as the end result is a bit darker than I was looking for.

Oil’s Well That Ends Well

With the HW95 K reunited with its stock, this rifle can resume its duties at the club range – and is well-equipped for the field as well

With the hard work over, the fun part was about to begin – applying Napier Stock Shield, a blend of oils and resins that dries much faster than regular gun stock oil  Stock Shield looks a bit like those liquid shoe polishes that you gently squeeze out and work into the surface with the supplied applicator pad. As with the sanding process, I  made sure to take my time, being methodical and ensuring everything was coated, especially the inletting. 

Once the entire surface had been thinly coated I left it for about 30 minutes to absorb as much Stock Shield as possible, then rubbed in the excess with my bare hands. After waiting several hours I repeated this entire process six more times.

The stock was now finished and ready to be reattached to the gun, and what a moment that was! I admit I quite enjoyed the latter stages of this project, and even the bleaching wasn’t too bad. But I truly hated the stripping process. No doubt I could have found a more aggressive chemical or used a more effective scraper, but at least I didn’t damage the stock. Nevertheless I spent around £40 in materials and it took a good 20 hours of my time.

I’m happy with the end result though. It looks nicer than the original finish, and more importantly, for me at least, it feels nicer to hold and to shoot with. Would I do it again? With all the time and expense, plus that horrible chemical smell and back-breaking effort? No. Never. Not in a million years. Well at least not until the next time.

More from Mike Morton

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