James Simon delves into the mysteries of walnut and discovers why this unique timber is prized as the ultimate material for gun stocks.
Walnut possesses a number of qualities that make it the ideal material for gun stocks. Its exquisite, heavy figuring may be stunning to look at, but its beauty is more than skin deep.
Walnut is hard, dense, and resilient. It resists warping, suffers little shrinkage and isn’t prone to splitting, which is important when working with something as lively as a shotgun. It’s easy to work and takes fine chequering exceptionally well.
Manuel Ricardo has been handcrafting made-to-measure gun stocks from his workshop just north of Porto for more than 30 years. His reputation has built him an impressive international clientele, most of whom value two things over all else – fit and aesthetics. Manuel’s stocks flow from organic curve to organic curve, they are highly functional pieces of high art that just beg to be handled.
“In my opinion, walnut is the best wood for stocks and fore-ends,” says Manuel. “The combination of beauty, consistency, strength and ease of working makes it impossible to beat. We only work with Turkish walnut, which is the very best.”
Manuel deals in relatively small quantities of walnut for a select few. At the other end of the scale sits Meccanica del Sarca (MdS), a subsidiary of Beretta. It sources and manufactures stocks for the entire Beretta group, the majority of which are walnut.
At any one time it has an inventory of 450,000 blanks sitting in environmentally controlled storage awaiting manufacture. Every gun from the humble Silver Pigeon and up is fitted, or can be fitted, with a walnut stock.
Robert Frampton, Brand Director at GMK, is a regular visitor to the MdS factory in north east Italy. “It’s an incredible set-up,” says Robert. “They have teams of skilled craftsmen, capable of the most intricate handwork, working alongside robots and CNC machines. Walnut is by far the most popular choice of material across most product ranges.”
Reading the blanks
After a walnut tree has been felled, any wood suitable for making stocks is cut into roughly trapezoid-shaped chunks of timber called blanks. Inspecting a blank to predict the appearance of a finished stock takes experience and skill but there are some obvious things to look for.
“An ideal walnut stock will be straight-grained at the head – near the action – getting progressively more and more decorative towards the butt,” explains John Jeffries of John Jeffries Custom Shotguns. “Most clients want to see as much pattern as possible, and that’s fine over the majority of the stock, where the wood is thick and strong.
“However, at the head of the stock, where it meets the metalwork the wood can be very thin. So here and on the grip we want the grain to be as straight as possible for strength.”
Finding blanks with these characteristics is becoming increasingly difficult. “I do come across some lovely blanks,” says John, “but customers must be prepared for hefty price tags. A piece of wood like that will cost upwards of £2,000, perhaps twice that or more.”
At the more reasonable end of the market, you find guns with straight-grained stocks with barely a flourish in sight. If you want a workaday gun, does it matter?
“In my opinion, walnut with very straight grain may be strong but it transfers recoil to the shooter more readily than wood that’s less uniform,” says Manuel Ricardo. “It is not just an aesthetic decision.”
There’s a very good reason why top-grade walnut is so expensive. It’s scarce, and becoming increasingly so. Steve Turgay has imported modest quantities of fine walnut for more than 20 years. He’s supplied many top gunmakers in the UK, and works closely with John Jeffries.
“The scarcity issue is two-fold,” he explains. “Timber found where the roots join the trunk makes the finest stocks because the roots are more figured and the trunk is straight-grained. Although no timber is wasted, even the best tree cannot yield that many quality blanks. Matched blank pairs are particularly scarce.
“Secondly, the older that the tree is, the more characterful the figuring, so all these old trees have been in great demand over the past few decades. The best walnut is found in a comparatively small mountainous area in south east Turkey, but most of these ancient trees have already been harvested. Those left are high up, difficult to reach or both.”
Robert Frampton agrees. “MdS sources premium walnut from the Kurdistan region, which is where south east Turkey meets Iraq. The soil here gives Turkish walnut its beautiful colour, and the cycle of harsh winters and hot summers provides the intense figuring. An added problem is that this is a dangerous conflict area where terrorist activity and airstrikes have been commonplace over the past decade.
“Because we’re only interested in trees more than 150 years old that have their rootstock intact, quantity is very limited. Production costs are high and the supply chain can only get more restricted.”
This may sound like a sustainability nightmare to some, but it’s worth pointing out that many of these old trees have actually reached the end of their natural lifespans.
These walnut trees are readily cultivated for their fruit in this region, and government backed schemes are in place to ensure that more trees are being planted than felled. Wood is traded in US dollars or Euros, and a decent tree can bring in useful income for families living in an area where poverty is rife.
Freshly felled ‘green’ wood needs to be seasoned before it can be worked. Seasoning removes the moisture within the walls of wood’s cells, essentially drying it out so that it is in equilibrium with the humidity of its environment. A stock made from green walnut would eventually just shrink, twist and crack.
Cheaper grades of wood are most commonly seasoned in a kiln, but premium walnut is air-dried. “We steam our wood first,” says Robert Frampton, “to take out the tannins. This makes the timber more flexible, and it also gives it a deeper colour.
“Then it is dried naturally for at least six months until the moisture level drops to 30%. When the wood is needed for production we’ll place it in a large drying room for a further 40 days to bring the level down to 10%. All in all, it can take more than a year for a piece of wood to go from tree to blank.”
“There are no official grades, no universal standards” laughs Steve Turgay. “Fortunately, we can all agree on whether a piece of walnut is good or not – we just can’t agree on what we should call it.”
Steve Turgay grades his premium blanks Grade 3, 4, 5 and Exhibition. Manuel Ricardo starts with Class D, through C, B and A before reaching X for exhibition grade. To add to the confusion, MdS starts with Grade 2, then 2.5, 3, 4 and 5.
“Unless you are buying tonnes of wood unseen,” says Steve Turgay, “it is of little consequence. But, if you are spending thousands on a blank or stock then try to view it in person before handing over your credit card.”
Colour can vary from pale to rich dark hues, but again choice is down to personal preference. “In our opinion, the colour is not relevant,” says Manuel Ricardo. “Usually, we keep the natural colour of the wood.”
“Sometimes,” adds Robert Frampton, “if a piece of wood is particularly pale we may apply a traditional dye such as alkanet root but usually the oil finish is enough to bring out the colour.”
Other than wiping your stock down with a clean, soft cloth after every use, little care is needed. If your stock does need rehydrating then CCL oil is popular, as is boiled linseed oil. Wipe a small amount on and leave it to soak in before removing any excess with a cloth. Then enjoy