Military Rifle Stock Restoration

Turn An Ugly Duckling Into A Swan
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A before and after showing a restored Israeli K98 Mauser stock.
The top stock has decades of oil and dirt soaked into the stock
while the bottom shows the stock after washing and several
oil extraction treatments.

As a collector/shooter of military arms, I’ve “restored” a lot of marginal rifle stocks for my range guns. I put “restored” in quotes because the museum professional in me knows restoration does violence to the authenticity of the artifact. Thus far, I’ve no regrets about my decisions. In many cases, I bought these guns specifically because they already had enough wear, damage, modifications, etc., etc., nothing I could do to them in the name of beauty or usefulness would make them worth less than they already were. In short, I bought them cheap to use up.

I hope you use good judgment in deciding what stocks have nothing to lose from a makeover. I strongly advise you not to sand the U.S. Army ordnance inspector cartouche off your CMP M1 Rifle, not to wire-wheel the ancient, black and cracked shellac off the stock of a family heirloom Charleville musket, and not to alter any battlefield damaged stocks on captured guns brought home as war souvenirs.

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Some military stocks were varnished or treated with another hard
surface coating. Since they are usually quite thin, a fine bristle
wire wheel on low speed can be used to remove them quickly.

Military Stock Restoration Challenges

Old military stocks will usually have all sorts of cosmetic challenges — excessive surface dirt, dents, gouges, old repairs, undesirable arsenal markings, deep oil staining in the end grain, and deteriorated protective finish. Less often, I’ve seen the wood faded where the stocks were exposed to the sun or nearly bleached from water damage. Both of those flaws are the result of poor long-term storage rather than service use. In addition, mechanical damage like hairline cracks, breaks, warping and chunks of wood completely missing aren’t uncommon.

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The final restoration step is hand rubbing in a new oil finish. Linseed
and tung oils are traditional treatments. Both will require several
applications, but tung oil takes less time overall.

Dents in the stock can be raised with steam. You’ll need a
cotton rag soaked with warm water and an old steam iron.
This works better after oil is removed from the wood.

You may want or need to replace badly damaged parts of the stock.
This requires a supply of matching wood, the right glue and some
actual woodworking skill.

Sometimes, you’ll find stocks with hardened globules of oil already
on the surface due to heat exposure during storage. The hardened
oil can be rubbed off with coarse steel wool or 100-grit sandpaper.

Bathing First!

Old military stocks can be shockingly filthy. As such, my starting point for a military stock restoration is a good hot shower with lots of Simple Green degreasing cleaner or Dawn dishwashing soap. This is vigorously applied with various plastic bristle scrubbing brushes that won’t scratch the underlying wood.

You’ll get no nervous warnings about the risk of warping the stock from me. I’ve drenched a lot of stocks in the shower over the years and it hasn’t happened yet. Other hand wringers will decry the raising of the grain, as if that could possibly matter when some degree of sanding is a certainty. The more dirt, oil, grease or old finish I can soap up, scrub loose, and rinse away with hot water, the easier the rest of the restoration will be.

Once I can see the wood grain without obstruction, I stand the stock up in the corner of the bathroom closet, away from heat, to slowly dry. When it dries, you’ll be amazed at how much dirt and oil you got out.

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You mix the whiting to a pancake batter consistency, paint it on
the oily part of the stock and wrap the stock in black plastic to
slow the evaporation of the solvent.

Removing unsightly oil stains begins with a hot water and dishwashing
soap scrub down. Heating the surface of the wood with a heat gun
will lift the oil to the surface where it can be wiped off with a rag.

Work smarter, not harder: Use nature’s bounty to help the
whiting work by setting the bagged stock in the sunshine.

Inspection & De-Oiling

With the wood’s surface exposed, I inspect for previously hidden stamps and markings, physical damage and deep oil staining. Military stocks are usually treated with special oils to resist expansion from moisture absorption. However, these aren’t the oils staining the wood. The culprit is copiously applied gun oil soaking into the wood end-grain around the receiver, trigger guard and muzzle. These dark oil stains can be very unattractive and need to be drawn out if you hope to restore the stock to its original appearance.

You can’t use a colored wood stain, even an oil-based one, over wood whose pores are already full of oil. The same goes for whatever remains of the stock’s existing oil finish. Unless the washed stock looks good enough, I could get a satisfactory appearance with just a few fresh applications of boiled linseed oil. My next step is to draw out all the oil already in it.

I have three techniques for getting old oil out of wood: 1) Wiping with a solvent like lacquer thinner on a terrycloth rag will get excess oil off the surface; 2) Carefully warming the wood with a heat gun or hair dryer until the oil rises up and begins to pool on top, allowing me to wipe it away with an absorbent paper towel; 3) Applying whiting to the surface of the wood to draw out and absorb the oil slowly.

Wiping down with a clean, solvent-soaked rag needs no explanation. The heat method must be carefully done to avoid burning the wood, adding to your refinishing problems. You have to be quick with your wiping hand too, or else the oil will get reabsorbed by the wood. This technique uses a lot of towels.

The whiting method is the slowest technique for removing oil from stocks but the most efficient. Whiting, available from Brownells, is calcium carbonate powder mixed with solvent into a paste of a consistency somewhat thinner than pancake batter. Use a brush to paint the batter on oily areas of the stock, allowing the solvent to penetrate and dissolve oils, which are then absorbed by the powder on
the surface.

It works best when the stock is warmed up and kept warm during the leeching process, making sunny summer days the ideal time to apply. The stock can be warmed up with a heat gun or just left in the sunshine. The heat gets the oils closer to the surface, where they’ll be easier to capture.

After application, the stock is placed in a black plastic bag to help the solvent resist evaporation and assist heat absorption. You leave the bag in the sun all day and let nature do the rest. When you open up the bag, you’ll see the formerly white powder on the surface has turned various funky colors as it sucked up solvent-liberated oil. At this point you can brush the contaminated whiting off with a plastic bristle brush. It can take many applications to remove deep oil stains.

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These Chinese communist militia brands are part of the history
of a rifle, so Frank wouldn’t remove them during refinishing.

Physical Damage Tips

Physical damage to the wood surface may be addressed by steaming and sanding. Dents, where the wood is compressed by an impact but the wood fibers themselves aren’t cut, can be raised almost miraculously with hot steam. The process requires an old steam iron set to the hottest setting and a wet piece of cotton terrycloth towel.

The wet cloth is placed over the dent and pressed with the hot iron, turning the water therein into steam. The steam penetrates into the wood and expands, raising the dent. It usually takes several treatments to fully raise the dent.

Gouges and cuts in the wood surface where wood fibers are actually severed or missing can only be filled in or sanded out. Filling them in requires gluing in small pieces of patching wood matched to the color, grain size and direction of the surrounding wood. Unless you have a supply of hardwoods on hand, this is easier said than done.

Lacking a wood repair sample library, sometimes you can transplant wood removed from an unseen spot under the buttplate or inside the barrel channel. Both the filler wood and the stock need to be oil-free for wood glue to join them.

If there are gaps in the fit between the stock and patch, wood glue won’t work well so I’ll use an expanding polyurethane glue like Gorilla Glue. I always carefully mask off the surrounding stock wood with paper and masking tape to prevent excess glue from creating a mess. The installation of the new piece of wood in an original stock is a precision affair of cutting, fitting, gluing, clamping, sanding and finally staining it to match. To do it well is time-consuming even for the talented, which is why I try to avoid it except in the worst cases.

I’ve noticed military stocks are often a little oversized, especially if they’ve been through an arsenal rebuild program. For example, rebuilt British No. 1 Mk III and No. 4 Enfields and post-World War I rebuilt French Berthier rifles always seem to have noticeably meatier stocks than the original. An oversized replacement stock offers a special opportunity to sand out all the surface defects while still maintaining the right balance of dimensions. I’ve restored stocks like this to “factory new” appearance.

Sanding

Sanding is among the final steps of a stock restoration. I’d advise the use of a face mask and nitrile gloves for sanding. For example, the dust produced when sanding the finish off a Japanese Arisaka stock can cause a serious skin rash.

The correct technique for sanding is to slide the paper in the direction of the wood grain only. You use progressively finer sandpapers as each paper removes all the sanding marks in the wood from the coarser grain paper preceding it. I start at 100-grit, follow with 150-grit and finish with 220-grit. Military stocks are generally not sanded any smoother than this.

After the final sanding with 220-grit paper, I wet the wood surface and allow it to sit overnight to raise the grain. Then, I’ll sand off the stock’s new beard growth with the fine 220-grit paper and move on to staining (if needed) or sealing the stock with oil if it’s not.

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Frank restored this Indian-made No. 1 Mk III rifle stock with good results,
preserving the military ordnance stamps on the buttstock.

Coloring

To color the wood, I only use water-based stains. I think they give better results on a wider range of wood types than alcohol and oil-based stains. You can control the depth of color by diluting the stain before application or by applying multiple coats, allowing each coat to fully dry before laying another over it.

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The oversized stock allowed him to remove all the defects in
the forend by sanding, leaving it looking new and unissued
when the job was finished.

Protective Coating

The last step in a military stock restoration is to re-apply a protective oil finish to the wood. Most military rifles had some type of oil-finished stock as it was an inexpensive way to give them a measure of moisture resistance and dimensional stability. It was by no means perfect protection and in fact, some argue it was only a little bit better than nothing.

In World War II, U.S. military rifle stocks were treated inside and out by dipping them in hot oil and hanging them to air-dry to the extent they could. For our purposes, five to seven coats of raw or boiled linseed oil, hand-rubbed into the wood, will replicate the military finish. Each coat is allowed to fully dry over the course of 24 hours before the next coat is applied.

After you build up a good base of this polymerizing oil on the surface, minimal maintenance is needed. There’s an old saying regarding oiling stocks — “Once a day for a week, then once a month for a year, and finally once a year.” It is not uncommon to rub the latter coats of oil into the wood with the palm of the hand. The heat thus generated is helpful in curing the finish. Speaking of heat, the leftover rags will spontaneously combust so dispose of them properly in an outdoor metal garbage can.

You can also use Tung oil to seal stocks. In many respects, it’s superior to linseed oil, though it is generally at least twice as expensive. Tung oil dries faster and harder and allows you to seal the stock much faster with fewer coats. If you are going to use the rifle in wet weather, a few coats of paste wax will improve the moisture resistance.

Oiling the stock is my favorite part of the restoration process, and it’s not because it’s the last step, either. The oil brings out the beauty of the wood grain, which makes the finale that much more satisfying.

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