AUSTRALIAN CLASSIC RIFLE STOCKS
BLOG News and Views
2020 Blog Index
1 - BSA Lee Speed Stock Sets (Re-Dux)
2- Sportco Cadet Stock Sets (CSR)
3- Winchester M92 Replacement Stocks
4- Walnut Fever (walnut milling)
5- Rotten Luck (walnut milling)
6- Caprivi In The Caprivi (Kimber Caprivi Re-Dux)
7- That Dargo Sparkle
Scroll down to read entries.
BSA/LSA "Lee Speed" Machined Stocks
BSA/LSA "Lee Speed" Machined Stocks
Vintage Charm - "Lee Speed Re-Dux" Sporter Sets
Vintage Charm - "Lee Speed Re-Dux" Sporter Sets
I've been making these sets for some time now, and sold quite a few. The butt pattern I built has an extra 0.2" Length of Pull over the longest length-of-pull I've seen on an original Lee Speed sporter. You'll need the long, waisted type draw bolt. While LSA used some of the short types, their use does reduce the thickness of the stock sidewalls at the bolt head in a critical area.
The inlet was glassed-in 100% to a BSA Lee Speed No1 Commercial Sporter. Thus the unique "double-draught" is maintained on all surfaces. Customers can order the forend inlet for mag cut-off, or for a solid RH wall.
The barrel channel is the same as a "H" Form Lithgow, and MLE "Long Tom" etc. I can provide the slimmer SMLE barrel inlet to order. A genuine .375-2.5" No2 inlet it also available (no magazine cut-off). Most efforts to re-create a .375 2.5" Lee Speed feature a barrel which is far too heavy in profile.
The set in the photos is shown after initial fitting to an old survivor, to give some perspective of what can be done with these sets. Hence the smoke-print seen inside the inlet and butt socket-nose. The set has also been fitted with an in-house buffalo horn grip cap machined from horn seasoned 15+ years.
Part of the charm of the Lee Speed sporting rifles was a grip bottom angle which is seen as unique among most enthusiasts - the grip is too tight and beefy to be called a "Woodward" grip - the grip cap sits at a similar angle but is slung much lower and not as petite.
Price On Application, since it varies with specifications ordered.
8 September 2020
Sportco "Martini Cadet" Stock Sets
Sportco "Martini Cadet" Stock Sets
"Classic Stalking Rifle" Butt/Forend For Sportco Cadets
"Classic Stalking Rifle" Butt/Forend For Sportco Cadets
Sportco Cadets are commonly encountered in Australia. I believe this is the first dedicated set offered for them in a "British" stock.
The forend in these sets makes use of the standard Sportco fitments (lightly modified), to make it so much easier for people fitting up forends. The barrel channel is supplied to suit the standard Sportco barrel profile. Grip is left very slightly oversize and not inlet for the lever, which requires modification to suit and the grip dressed to suit. Again, I can supply grip cap kits for these stock sets. Length of Pull is approx 14.3" as machined and the set has about as much cast as the draw bolt will reliably bear - this varies very slightly due to socket machining and fitting tolerances/alignment.
The stock set pictured is the Master Set, cut from a magnificent blank with remarkable burl behind the grip and good grain flow from the grip forwards. Fitted to an early .25-20 rifle, it was ordered with buffalo horn cap and tip. Fitting was in this case done by myself during pattern manufacture. In the photographs the set is shown struck to 0.025" oversize and not sanded or finished, at which point I duplicated it for my pattern.
The lever work was then completed, the original being cut off and a new lever fabricated, welded and let into the grip. The images below show the lever nearing completion of inletting and shaping and hopefully give some idea of what can be done with the lever. These show the lever is progressively let into the grip, and also let into a horn cap. Lever latching was to be as simple as possible, in which case I install hidden magnets which always work in a very nifty fashion if done well. Note that grips are supplied machined not inlet for the lever, as there are endless variations here.
LH or RH available - take your pick. Price on Application. Naturally, I have other patterns to suit most of the BSA "cadet" frame-size action variants, thin or thick walled.
11 September 2020
Winchester Model 92 Machined Stock Sets
Winchester Model 92 Machined Stock Sets
Occasionally I get asked to make replacement machined stocks for various lever-action and pump-action rifles. Currently there seems to be nobody making these in Australia - so most such orders are in the plainer grades simply to keep old guns alive. Some folk will treat their pet rifle to a wood set machined to the same standards, but using fancy walnut (drool).
The below images show a Winchester Model 1892 Rifle set which has the magazine tube inlet for .32-20 / .25-20 / .218 Bee chambered rifles. The wood is wet with mineral turpentine to show the colours. The blank used is Juglans regia (European Walnut), which I cut 14 years ago. It comes from a very slow-grown tree. The texture of this blank is superb - firm and very fine pored, yet it's light in weight. It's tough, leathery wood - not hard, heavy, brittle rubbish or soft open-pored junk. The finish is as-machined with no filing or sanding. Butt and forend require fitting and finishing. Grading is XXX Select. It's one of seven butt/forend sets completed recently, three of them being extra sets completed "for the shelf". I like walnut of this ilk - it's got a natural reddish hue that needs no alkanet. On top of a magnificent background colour, the the ink/smoke likes are very fine making it sophisticated rather than loud. This is due to the slow growth rate - the dark stripes are finer in width and closer together. Unfortunately I find this very difficult to photograph, the markings are so close together they get partially lost until the stock is finished slick and this set will finish up far better than the photos indicate.
A large factory production line allows specific machinery and tooling to be developed for efficient production of large numbers of parts such as these forends. A small business like Australian Classic Rifle Stocks deals in far smaller numbers, but a much greater variety, and so must develop techniques to make just about any stock that is required. The butt stocks on most lever action rifles are no "big trick" to machine. The forends appear simple, but there is a little more to making these than meets the eye. I started out machining various forends which accept magazine tubes using the same type of fixtures Geoff Slee used, which was a good place to start. Since then I've spent a lot of time designing and making new fixtures. These new fixtures have made mounting forend jobs not only quicker, but they are held more securely during machining. Accuracy and repeatability are also improved.
I rarely machine these out of Black Walnut or Claro Walnut, instead preferring to offer J. regia walnut- all things considered, it's a much superior stock wood. Whether you desire a well-machined replacement stock set for a "working rifle" , or a set up-graded with fancy walnut, Australian Classic Rifle Stocks has enough thoroughly seasoned blanks on hand to help keep Aussie Winchester Model 92 enthusiasts shooting their lever-action rifles for decades to come!
19 November 2020
Walnut Fever - It's Treatment and Long Term Effects
Walnut Fever - It's Treatment and Long Term Effects
WALNUT FEVER ! !
This mostly affects males. In time it becomes all they can think about, and it keeps them up late at night, aching. When holidays and weekends are not enough they sometimes even give up a real job to go chase it. Even as they finally drift off to sleep they know they'll be out at dawn chasing it again. What sleep they do get is in fits, interspersed with mumbled rants - the only discernible words send their womenfolk into a world of worry. Even very experienced gents are susceptible to the fever. Infected 75 year olds climb walnut trees like billy goats climb cliffs if they think there is one last good crotch up there to be milled. Good on them, too. If you tell a walnut fancier you don't understand this, expect that they might just check you actually have a pulse.
There is unfortunately a downside to the disease that occasionally manifests. Some afflicted souls struggle to contain their jealousy and become ever-more embittered when some mangy dog gets a better piece of tree than they ever got, or else more of it.
For a stockmaker willing to work hard, grubbing out your own trees, taming well figured pieces all the way from the tree to the rifle stock can be rewarding in many ways - provided it's done well. The biggest snag? There is a lot of work between the beginning and end, and not much worthwhile information out there on the subject. It's easy to make a real cock-eyed mess of it. It's also not a cheap exercise, particularly in an economy like Australia has.
Not long back I had a call from an acquaintance. He and his son had been showing signs of Walnut Fever for some time. The Father had the worst case it seemed. They'd found a tree. It had a lovely crotch, and a nice looking buttress, but it kept it's figure hidden from view. That only made it more tempting, because it seems the fever feeds on fascination and imagination. This tree was dead and done for so it was best it got milled and made use of. The tree was limbed out, then dug out by hand with crowbar and shovel by father and son. Oh and by the way - they ripped Beauty right out of the backyard of their other son/brother! He might forgive them, in time.
I was asked to help a bit - the goal being to get the best from the tree, given what we had to work with. Time is always against me it seems, but this was a rare chance for a few days off having some fun. I managed to wind up with a few photos, and I'm glad I went on the trip. These people did good work. Milling was a little delayed by the usual grubbing out of rock and compacted dirt even after pressure washing - to be expected. We struck a little iron here and there just to remind us that, long ago, some kid got a hammer and a paper bag full of nails for Christmas. Higher up, we struck much bigger spikes about 9" long and had to section them out. A bit more work, but hopefully rewarding!
A man can get badly hurt doing this work - maybe even lose a leg:
The telling expression on Old Mates face when he finally saw inside his first walnut tree's main crotch and root boule is recorded below:
Look at the colour of those chips - they explain his expression. Richly marked and coloured walnut is not always so easy to get. So, where is the legendary colour? The marble cake, those ink lines, and the various other descriptors walnut fanciers mumble?
I think it's very fair to say that mature Juglans regia walnut trees produce white wood in varying amounts, sometimes in abundance. It's not all sapwood. I've milled European Walnut trees 5-6 feet through the trunk at the narrowest point, that have been "white" all the way. Other big trees have had only piffling amounts of colour. No, that white wood isn't 153 years worth of sap - or 120 or 205 or whatever the case might be when the annular rings are counted.
One of the saddest facts is that the wood which holds the most striking fiddle-back is the wood grown under the most compression and tension - the closer to the bark the bolder the fiddle-back. The exception being rare tiger-stripe trees that form fiddle-back right the way through (a genetic trait) - but even then the best is closer to the bark than the core of the tree. Of course, some walnut trees "colour up" to within an inch or three of the bark in old age - but some just do not! I have cut a lot of white wood blanks (Grade X). There used to be a healthy market for white wood blanks Down Under, with one supplier selling thousands of stocks machined from X Grade blanks. Some of these blanks hold the most exceptional fiddle-back you will ever see. It seems some people think it is no longer readily available, which is not true.
Some overseas walnut cutters steam and/or kiln wet J. regia wood, which forces this white wood to a honey colour - but in my opinion it buggers the texture of the wood somewhat, and colour contrast is never as bold - the colours get "muddy". Through experience I noticed it was possible to "turn" the colour of the white walnut without steaming, kilning or otherwise compromising the working quality of the wood, or any contrasting colours. It's a black art. Paul Dressel Jnr (RIP) was kind enough to swap notes on the subject with me, and they aligned well so I kept on that track. A scant few others shared some knowledge too, and I thank them.
The white walnut blanks can be made into very fine stocks. Some folk prefer the white walnut left as is, including the chap who got this tree. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", he reckons. I've heard it proclaimed that this white wood is all porous, soft, pithy junk. Some of the blanks I have seen were exactly that - but they didn't come from the areas I source trees from. This tree was overall an "average" specimen and the white wood is fine pored, tough and well and truly hard enough for a good stock to be made from it. As the fibres slowly settle from years of seasoning in our harsh climate the texture and working qualities will only improve. It's at least as good a stock wood as maple. I'd argue strongly that it's superior overall. I've lost count of the number of British guns and rifles stocked in it, and cunningly coloured up. Rightly so, too. While I mention colouring up white wood, it's no new trick but, sadly, the art of "fuming" white walnut to darken it seems near extinct in gun-stocking circles nowadays.
I've also heard some quite accomplished stockers claim it's not stable. I'd suggest that is more the result of the way their blanks were cut, stored and seasoned than the fault of the white wood itself. If this were true, we wouldn't see so many white wood blanks used by factories. From vintage Oberndorf Mauser rifles (most of their commercial sporters I've seen wore it, ditto military rifles) to classic BRNO rifles (even the earliest ones), L series Sako rifles - the list goes on.
Not too far down into this walnut log, we struck a bit of colour. It's shown here dried off, so the darker colours as photographed are not a good indication of the final colours in a finished stock. I've spent a few weekend afternoons cutting blanks from this tree of late, and will try and get a chance to put up some photos once they are dried off and planed. It will be far longer before the blanks are thoroughly seasoned. For me, this is at least a decade long process thanks to thorough air drying and seasoning. I'd rather not see young, force-dried and/or steamed blanks in my workshop! I'm happy that the owner of this tree sees it this way, too.
I could see the blokes who were involved in recovering this tree are all afflicted to varying degrees with Walnut Fever. The long term effects are simple - there is no known cure. Most sufferers die with it, but rarely from it.
Keep up the ointment, then, eh fellas!
21 November 2020
Rotten Luck, But It's Not All Bad..... A Day Trip Away
Rotten Luck, But It's Not All Bad..... A Day Trip Away
I got a call about a wind-blown walnut tree up in the north of the Apple Isle. The trip over the top with Ray was like a holiday. Great Lake views are easy on the eye, even though there were no deer seen this time. The weather was super. No ice, no snow chains, no winching. The farmer is a gentleman, and I like this part of the world a lot. I was optimistic the tree would be worthwhile, but knew many wind-blown walnuts did so because their roots had succumbed to rot.
The tree, pictured above, had tipped over in a gale. It's rotten roots could simply not support it any longer. Yes - rot!
The first trick for recovering gun and rifle blanks was knowing how far up the trunk the rot went. I cut as much of the rot away as I was comfortable with and limbed the tree out. I cut each section so that we could transport it, but not suffer any blank losses. The amount of rot was more than I'd expected, but I cut the main log on the long side. It's a little easier for me to assess it after the cut dries off just a little - half a day in this weather. Normally of course, I'd not be discarding the root boule, which often has the best blanks in it - and they almost never get removed from a good mature log, at least not without good reason. Usually, the trees are milled on-site but this time, it was easier to drag a single tree back home and process it there. Once we were back in home territory, the main log was slung and Ray unloaded it just on dark. It was an enjoyable day. I used to get out and do a lot of this caper, but the last few years, not quite so much. It was a treat.
Over the next few days I trimmed the trunk back quite some distance - in fact I basically lost the lot to rot. The below photo taken during milling of the primary crotch shows the trunk removed and a lot of rot still there. The rot had taken the very best of this tree, unfortunately. The main log had two crotches, at near 90 degrees to each other. In order to get the best from each crotch, the log was cut to give two separate crotches that I could now orient to best advantage when milling. The cut placement was critical - there was not much room here. An understanding of how much colour probably lay in this particular log, the way it was laid out (grain flow), and how this affected the likely recovery have to be assessed in order to make the right cut. Cut two inches too high or too low in this case and I'd probably lose blanks. This scenario also meant, in all likelihood, no one-piece (long) blanks would be cut from the tree.
Cutting the lower primary crotch from the upper one also allowed me to separate the source of the rot from the upper section of the log. I had to put that fungus in "quarantine" if possible, or it would likely spread and ruin the uppermost crotch in the log. If you look at the photo of the log being unloaded, there is an old limb pruned off - that was the start of the rot in this tree.
The milling went well. My mates Steve and Ray are the best sort of hands a bloke will find. We hit a bit of steel, but with no roots to mill it was a pretty quiet day. With the average size mature trees, Steve's 6" Lucas mill is a good option. It's light and portable, and in the past as a team we've milled around 10 trees in a day enough times - provided they were ready to mill. A portable bandsaw mill has a narrower kerf and theoretically leaves more wood for stock blanks - but I've milled enough trees via both types to know that walnut root boules are Hell to a bandsaw mill. It doesn't take much to make a bandsaw waver in it's cut enough to cancel out that theoretical kerf advantage. The bandsaw mills are slower going for this work, and have more down time spent sharpening. A good operator on a Lucas Mill has some strong advantages over a bandsaw, at least some of the time.
The photographs in the below gallery show the slabs from the crotch closest to the ground, and they were taken the morning after milling as they were processed and racked. This is the "Quarantine Crotch" that I knew held the lions share of the rot.
The photos show a few things:
- The reason why nearly all the trunk was cut off/lost is from the rot damage. The early stages of rot discolour the wood a brassy/honey/tan colour and can travel rapidly if conditions are right for it. I've seen rot like this before, but not all that often. Maybe I've been lucky, but our trees don't commonly rot like this. This stained wood will show the dry rot stain and is no good for stocks. The dust is probably a health hazard, because it bears fungal spores. I wish I'd known that 25 years ago.
- As the rot gets an ever increasing hold in the tree, the wood goes much lighter in colour and gets soft, pithy, and is completely buggered. As we get near the pruned branch this is very visible in the photos.
- The dark black or green patches are also from fungus. These were not visible after milling - the dark fungus stains have sprung overnight. Sometimes this is just a mould on the outside of the slab, but I know from experience this time it's coming from deep in the slab.
- I might get a blank or two from the lower crotch, but these slabs are wet and the fungus is merrily having it's way with them. More or less, it is right through the wood, even where it looks sound there will be some fungus in there. The sooner I cut what seems like sound blanks from it and try and isolate the sound-looking walnut, the better. I treated the fruiting bodies by spraying with a stiff solution of copper sulphate - but it will only stop surface activity and won't kill the fungus inside the wood. It's basically doomed though - the best blanks are all but lost.
The rot might have spread slowly for years, or it could have happened over the last several months. I've seen both in the past. Walnut is so variable, that there are not too many hard and fast rules. You can play your averages based on experience, and still get the occasional surprise or shock. Most rot I see is more isolated than this - in some cases even in trees that have been dead a while. One thing I am convinced of - that termites and rot only run rampant in the trees with reasonable colour! Truly. I have no idea why, except to guess that perhaps marble-cake tastes best. Ditto the various borers that Australia has so many of - they are straight into laying eggs in this sweet wood. In Australia, wet walnut slabs must be sprayed to protect them from the ravages of borers.
The below photo shows one of the centre-most slabs cut from the second (upper) crotch. Colours are nearly always bolder the lower down a tree we go, with the root boule holding the most striking stuff in mature trees (those that colour up anyway). Despite more subdued colours and less-bold colour contrast, I still have some worthwhile walnut to cut blanks from. Because of the loss of the bottom of the tree, I am glad for this. The colour will change a bit as it dries, sometimes markedly. I know from experience how this one will likely turn out - walnut is very variable and I still get an occasional surprise. It's been a lot of work for this and a few of the largest limbs, and they will only yield two-piece blanks - but this is the nature of recovering walnut for gun blanks. They are not all trophy trees.
There is a slight bit of discolouration from the early stages of rot here, but I'm pretty safe and will recover some OK blanks from it.
I've written a blog to show another average situation in this game of recovering blanks from local walnut trees. This tree is old, and slow grown. We have a fairly short growing season down here - shorter than walnut regions in mainland Australia and much of NZ, too. I can tell from experience that the physical working properties of the wood will be wonderful which is what is most important to me. That makes it worth the effort, because I know where each blank came from, how it was dried and seasoned, and I know I can trust it. Many punters and some stock makers worry first about beauty and forget function and what the wood will be like to work with. I'll be in my 60's when I work the handful of good blanks from this old tree, if I'm still around (I aim to be!). It was a borderline tree financially, but I'm happy to have the opportunity to try and make the best of it's potential.
23 November 2020
Caprivi In The Caprivi
Caprivi In The Caprivi
The Kimber Caprivi is a likeable rifle in many ways, and is good value. The rifle in the photos has a good many miles under it's belt, hunting big game. It had done this in factory trim. The owner decided to take the Caprivi to the Caprivi strip in the NE of Namibia, an excellent area for hunting big game. The stock was looking tired despite being well cared for, and the time for a re-finish had come. He asked that I also shorten the forend and re-shape the whole stock such that it was heavily slimmed down - but that it retain the looks of a much-refined Kimber Caprivi.
This task was a little more difficult than normal, because this time I was sent only the stock. Time was too short to send the metalwork. Not having the barrelled action didn't concern me too much - I was very familiar with this particular rifle.
First, the forend was shortened up, and slimmed down quite a bit - well below the original checkering. The forend was never going to be slim on the rifle (the factory barrel profile saw to that). The original cross-bolts needed to be set set farther into the wood. The original ebony forend tip was re-installed, taking pains to ensure the barrel fit would only require very minor work, if any. I was not surprised to see CA glue-filled checks in the ebony below the original finish - lots of them, and deep. After re-shaping, I was concerned these would fail in the future, but I also realised they'd held up thus far. I needed the metalwork to install a new tip, and besides, there was no time to do anything else before the trip. All I could do was re-purge them with CA, and finish over the top of the repair like the factory did. I'm not a big fan of ebony for this reason and see a lot of perfectly sound forend wood cut off, just for the sake of appearances. I won't call it vanity, because the vast majority of customers don't realise what is really being compromised.
The M-70 style tang affects the shape of the "head" of the grip. Stocks of such rifles can never be made truly slim in this area without first changing the shape of the receivers rear tang to allow for it. This, and the factory grip position/design in relation to the trigger, meant an "English" style re-work would never gel. The owner liked the position of the grip, however the cap hung too low and the grip was a little too large in circumference. I removed the original grip cap and cut an alarming amount of wood from under the grip cap. The grip was then slimmed up, below the checkering depth. I'd deliberately done the changes in this order. The stock now looked proportionate and felt quite good in the hands, from the grip forward and I'd pared every last fibre off it that I dared from the grip forwards.
The butt, however, only looked more monumental with each change, and it was time to sort it. I knew what it would wind up like in my minds eye. The butt was much too wide and deep, and the cheek piece matched it. There was so much timber in it, that I was able to get the drop and cast sorted to what I knew suited the owner. An improved cheek piece with shadow-line was in order, and I did the best I could with the wood that was there.
The stock was re-finished ASAP, one to two coats per day in the drying cabinet. Not ideal, especially when the second is applied at midnight or later. The finish was hand-rubbed oil ordered with a hint of gloss. The owner realises it can create a bit of glare when hunting - but simply likes the extra depth of colour it gives, so accepts this compromise.
When it came to checkering, the job was to keep the main hallmarks of the Kimber pattern, but do my best to do a proper job of it. The original borders were formed not by the angles of the diamonds, but rather just a border pattern cut and filled with checkering. This makes the checkering easier/quicker to accomplish, but is generally regarded as a hack job. The wood was obviously kilned, or otherwise force-dried - but in this case it hadn't had the guts knocked out of it's texture and it checkered OK.
I wrapped it for freight at 3 a.m., 2 days late. I'd put more into the job than I originally anticipated. It bolted straight up (the inlet of the re-located tip may have needed minor re-working).
This is an insight into re-working a factory stock. With rare exceptions (like restoration of a rare vintage piece that fits the owner perfectly) I won't just copy something when I can see it can be substantially improved. The metalwork and original stock shaping dictated an "Anglo-American" design , and I reckon the rifle carries it well enough. The owner who is one of the most experienced big game hunters I've met, reckon its handling is much improved. Other than the top deck of the stock, there is not one line on the stock that was not re-worked, for the most part substantially. I've done a fair bit of this sort of work, but made very few patterns from the job. Normally, I'd rather start from scratch and not suffer any slight compromises. In this case I decided I would.
It's not a custom stock. It's what is I refer to as a Re - Dux. No point wasting a stock if it holds the potential for much more after a re-work.
29 November 2020
That Dargo Sparkle
That Dargo Sparkle
A few weeks ago saw a heavy load of walnut gun and rifle blanks being hauled out from what to me, is hallowed ground - Dargo, Victoria. It was the closing of what is for me, a significant chapter in Australian walnut milling.
Around 2003, Geoff Slee invited me to Dargo. Geoff had cut the blanks himself over a period of some years. After a few earlier ventures, he'd partnered up with a local bloke who could source walnut trees. Geoff explained he liked the texture of Dargo walnut very much. In his opinion, it was hard to go past. He'd gone into the arrangement not so much for profit - but because of problems with many blanks he'd used in his business - inconsistent stability being a big factor. We'd had many discussions about this, and also about the common problem of poorly cut blanks - poor grain flow and layout. Geoff was in a position to have worked thousands of blanks from all over the world, and he seemed to have that rare natural ability to really be able to assess a blank. I've met very, very few stock makers anything like as good at judging a blank - let alone freeing it from a tree in a suitable way. I told him I was a little nervous, as it seemed like I was onto trees which held slightly better colour. I've never forgotten how Geoff countered smoothly with " Ahh, but Dargo walnut has that sparkle about it."
So, off I went.
The first trip to Dargo was to buy blanks direct from Geoff's milling partner. I got around 50 good blanks shipped back home that August. Knowing I was keen for more blanks, a follow-up offer was made: I was invited to cut blanks with them - If I worked hard cutting blanks, I'd get blanks at the same price as Geoff. The deal was that Geoff needed nearly all the low and medium grade blanks for his machined stock business - plus enough of the better blanks for his custom work. However, there was an excess of the better grades. I'd soak those up as best I could. When planning the second trip, I was told I could expect to be gone for several weeks as we'd be cutting a lot of blanks. It was February and the weather was very hot, but together we processed the slabs in just 6 days, cutting hundreds of blanks for the trip. Blank cutting was done under the shade of a walnut tree canopy, with any re-sawing, sealing and dressing of blanks being carried out in a lean-to next to a shed where blanks were stored. As time went by I made more trips to Dargo, and more of this walnut made it's way back home with me.
In time I learned more about the partner we cut those blanks with, and he's the reason I've written this. Brian "Barney" Websdale was born at Tabberabera and raised on the family farm. Barney got just one years schooling at the Tab school before it shut down. He completed the rest of his education by correspondence. He chose to cease schooling at age 14, and went trapping rabbits to earn a wage, as well as working on the family farm. He sold to rabbit export giants J.A. and G McCraith, and made good money. The day he took me to the remote farm where he grew up, I got a bit green-gilled. Not because 3 sambar grazed unconcerned on the hillside opposite us in the late morning sunshine - the history of his early life was the source of my envy. Barney wed his lovely bride Leslie, moving to a family home in Dargo. Ankylosing Spondolytis hit in his early 20's but it didn't stop him raising a family. Hard graft falling high-country Eucalypt paid the bills for around two decades. There was a decade working the Dargo pub, too. It seems to me Barney became one of the main ingredients of the glue that held Dargo together. His wife, too.
Part of the history of the Websdale residence in Dargo, was that a keen hunter by the name of Geoff Freeman had milled a tree from the property some time beforehand. It's wood was spectacular. Brian had seen the wood made into one or two stocks owned by Mr Freeman, and he still reckons he's never seen fiddle-back so stunning. The striking walnut wood stuck in his mind. Walnut timber recovery for Barney started out after he'd been told to help himself to a couple of dead trees upstream from Dargo. He'd remarked it seemed a shame that they'd died and good timber might be left to rot. The first year, the mobile mill owner Barney employed was sent home before he'd finished the first tree - too rough! Graeme Berry from Portland replaced him and did a good job with his bandsaw mill. Barney told me his son Murray moved a large bandsaw there for re-sawing, some time in the mid-late 1980's. He'd been going before then - we cannot place the year exactly.
Early on, the wood was milled for furniture use. Barney recounted to me that it was Tim Lee (rural journalist) who suggested to Barney that Geoff Slee might be keen on some walnut for gun blanks. That's how their blank co-cutting started. Brian enjoyed the finding and recovery of the trees, and Geoff had previously done a lot of blank cutting from walnut trees milled by others - including the famed "Dargo Pub Tree"(s). Both blokes loved the anticipation of hunting down trees, and the thrill of finally seeing a good tree opened up. They milled a fair few trees around Dargo, then got access to fine old walnut trees along the Crooked River. Trees were milled on-site along the Crooked River, and the slabs generally trucked back to Barney's place in Dargo. Barney is such a gentleman, I doubt he got refused too often if he expressed an interest in milling an old walnut tree!
Dargo walnut can be pretty plain in colour. A lot of blonde and honey-coloured walnut grows there, though the texture, density and pore size is superb. Geoff and I considered it better in it's working qualities than most walnut cut from mainland Australia - and that is saying something because Aussie walnut has long been highly regarded. Rich and contrasting colours in walnut wood can be had in the area, but the odds are against you getting it and the termites get the lions share. It really is hard won stuff. Geoff and I developed techniques cutting, seasoning and drying blanks that to the best of our knowledge were not commonly practiced in Oz or NZ before - and we did it because it gave us more stable blanks.
Barney and Geoff reckoned the best tree they ever got, was milled on a Melbourne Cup day out at Crooked River in earlier times. What a majestic setting, but the day was stinking hot with a howling wind. Difficult conditions to keep wet slabs free from checking, which will happen in the blink of an eye in such conditions without the right hands around. Geoff made the stock for perhaps his favourite personal deer rifle from one of the best three blanks - but saw to it that the wood was offered to other makers. The best two blanks - a spectacular matched pair of genuine Exhibition Grade rifle blanks - were sold out to another maker when, really, Geoff would have been far better off working the rarest blanks himself.
Fast forward to December, 2020. Cutting the last two old trees into blanks had been postponed by various hurdles, CV19 not the least. I cut two decent sized flitched trees into blanks in two days, with a bit of help. Both trees were atypical in colour for the area, which was a change - but they still had that intrinsic Dargo magic sparkle in them. After a decade of seasoning and correct storage, they'll be just as stable as any that I've used from there.
There is still a little bit of walnut left in Dargo, but most of the best of it has been milled and cut into blanks. These last few years, the Australian market has been flooded with cheap, young but cute imported blanks sold as equivalent to properly seasoned locally cut blanks of generally superior texture, layout drying and seasoning. When it came to the Dargo walnut, I'd tried hard but ultimately we'd not found a reliable third party to soak up what Geoff couldn't take after his death, or even the excess that existed before it. As with blanks I've cut outside Dargo, there have been too many non payers, late payers, and work of indifferent quality done that made me cringe at the fate some of the blanks have suffered. I no longer supply raw blanks because of this, except to a few good folk. That's not such a bad fate. The best of Dargo blanks are a joy to work with, not just for their texture and stability.
So what about the magic sparkle? That's easy to answer. I've never seen so much, and such fine fiddle-back. Other than being wonderful walnut to work with, Dargo walnut has a singular sparkle that I've never seen in such proliferation from other areas, except rarely. I've had better colour - but no better figure. All but the plainest Dargo blanks have a kind of personality about them, and it's the sort that belongs on a gun or rifle. Geoff had a few fairly derogatory terms for the "over the top" super-fancy walnut that folk wanted to put on otherwise plain, vacant factory guns. I'd best not print them. Grin. Real stock makers can make an exhibition grade stock from a plainer blank, after all. In General terms Dargo blanks have a quality about them that is hard to define - but easy to smile about. It's that sparkle Geoff spoke of. Fine, bold tiger-stripe or fiddle-back. No matter the real reason, it's as if those trees somehow trapped in their timber only the brightest rays on the brightest days, the sparkling light reflected from the riffles and ripples on the Crooked River and others like it. The areas walnut timber has it's own spectacular showy sunbursts, and fiddle-back cascading often the full length of it's own flow.
I opened this post by commenting that our blank cutting in Dargo had been a significant chapter. It's significant to me because a lot of good quality, well laid out blanks were recovered by a small group of dedicated blokes. The blanks helped end a reliability-of-supply problem for Geoff Slee and myself, and we developed a system which gave the maximum quality blanks with minimum investment in grandiose tools, machinery and facilities. For us, our best option was to cut blanks ourselves. As far as the Dargo area went, it was Brian who made it possible and many magnificent and iconic old trees were saved from rotting into the ground once they were near the end of their natural lives.
I hold massive respect for Barney. A few minutes before I left Dargo, he offered a statement: "Gordy, I'm sorry - there can't be any more walnut". This was no let-down to me. We shook hands, hopefully not for the last time. Barney holds the same spark that one finds in the Dargo walnut we mined together. Now in his eighties, he has earned his rest from the hard work of milling walnut. I don't think folk can get much better than Leslie and Brian Websdale.
26 December 2020