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2023 Blog Index

- Aussie Grown Walnut, Australia Day

2- Making An ACRS "Lee Enfield PH" Bespoke Pattern 

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Australian Walnut

 Australia Day

It's Australia Day, and like most of the warmer months I was up and out the door before 6 in the morning, making use of the best part of the day. 

Late yesterday, I washed and rinsed the detritus from just 42 blanks I cut in 2008. I've done a lot of that lately, and the numbers soon add up. The seasoning and storage conditions which ACRS blanks are subjected to are very deliberate. So far as I have witnessed and discussed the process is probably unique nowadays. One consequence of the process is an accumulation of muck on the outside of the blanks. At some stage after a decade or two, the blanks must be cleaned up to present for sale. This layer on muck is best washed off, gently but thoroughly, or the planer and thicknesser blades don't stay sharp long. Too, if this is not done, the cast iron in-feed and out-feed tables will be wallowed out soon enough. Like most of my blank production process, it could be done quicker, easier, more efficiently - but quality would suffer.

In the warmer months, blanks are washed in the late afternoon as the sun goes down, and left standing overnight. Drying of the blanks is best done fairly slowly. If it's windy the blanks are covered with a layer or three of hessian, as is deemed necessary, to slow the drying right down. The blanks have been through hell and back over many years during seasoning, but at this late stage, even with a wash literally with water from the mighty River Styx, one does not want to go looking for trouble. In cooler weather, the blanks can take a full day or more to dry out - but done right it does them no harm except for the near-freezing water temperature affecting the hands for hours on end! Whilst that little detail is hardly a vital step contributing to the production of these blanks, it is a small insight into the work involved.

Up and about this morning, the latest washed and dried blanks were yet again double handled into a neat pile next to the planer and thicknesser and dressed off. It's an interesting time, seeing each blank full dressed after all this time. The operation is not without some skill, particularly because one side must be planed flat first, and if this is not done with consideration, precious wood can be lost in a few moments which ought to have been left. Ditto the thicknessing. It all took a long time to grow, cut and season and yet the wood can be lost forever in an instant.

Like any morning, the majority of these blanks made my machines growl. Fresh, sharp blades are needed (and expensive) and you'd think a blank that is only 8" or 9" deep on average at it's deepest end would be a joke to a good 20" capacity machine - but no! - not even 40 thou at a time with many blanks. Some need half that per pass, and the slowest feed position selected in the feed gearbox. This walnut cuts freely enough, generally to an exceptional finish - but yet it is deceptively resilient to sharp steel. It still surprises me today, but it also makes me smile. The reasons for such resilient walnut are the deliberate choice of walnut trees milled, and the myriad of production techniques that profoundly influence the quality of the wood.

Australian-grown European walnut is much celebrated, and the best of it is generally regarded as some of the best stock wood ever cut. However, much of it I won't touch. Walnut trees often grow too fast in mainland Australia (I'm talking seedling trees, not irrigated orchards). Where they grow commonly, I find a combination of vigourous genetics, enough water and reasonable soil. On top of that, crucially most areas have a too-long growing season and if all of these factors combine, a walnut tree will grow like a weed. I don't like to see that, unless I'm looking for the nuts and not the wood. Many trees lay down a LOT of wood each year, but my experience is that much of the wood laid down by walnut trees in Oz tends to be on the "hard, brittle and porous side of the spectrum of acceptable for stock wood". Irregular seasons produce wood of irregular texture, which is also not a good thing for the stocker. That too, is a problem in Oz in some areas. No matter how pretty it be, I walk from such trees and look for something closer to what I know is ideal. Stock wood needs to be resilient. Workable, but tough and yet not too heavy. In some areas, the genetics, soils and climate collide in such a way that more ideal trees grow for stock wood. Such trees are very rare in Australia, and the  vagaries of distance and economy in Australia preclude any notions of competing with nearly all suppliers w.r.t. price. Value, on the other hand, is a more relative term. What are you really buying for the price?

The trick is to only cut those walnut trees that are best for stock blanks, and then process them to best advantage. The production process, which also profoundly affects the quality of blanks, is an equally profound input cost. It is ruinous of time, money and body - but it's been strongly reinforced to me through repetative experience that the rewards are worth the heavy price paid. Corners just cannot be cut without sacrificing too much. The blanks might seem expensive, but considering what goes into them, and the quality, I honestly reckon they are a standout bargain.

I for one am very happy that the few pioneers who planted the majority of trees I've milled, did what they did so well. Without them, I'd have been without the raw resource from which to cut my supply of blanks. We have some fine native timbers in this country, but my own experiences tell me that they (sadly) just don't begin to compare with the best walnut on gun and rifle stock applications I was going to take a few photos of some prime blanks to promote them a bit - but decided it was not a worthwhile thing to do. Why? A stocker cannot tell much from a photograph about the way a blank will work, or how stable it will be. Photos can promote an obsession with appearance over more important aspects of a stock blank, so I decided against photos for this post. I feel that too often, photos bait folk into buying pretty blanks based on appearances alone. That has become a main focus of most traders, buyers and stock makers. Photos like that are easy to do. Walnut that works well and is stable is however, the best bait for accomplished stockers and discerning shooters who demand more than skin-deep aesthetic thrills. Good walnut with excellent texture and working qualities is difficult to obtain, so that is not often a focus for suppliers and buyers have been conditioned against any strong focus on such. That's what I see, anyhow.

Stock blanks are nowadays much harder to market locally. It's true that the market is awash with rival offerings, though in reality it always has been and diversity in itself ought never to be discouraged. What has changed, in my honest opinion, is that folk who are able to accomplish high quality work and who really know good walnut and how to work it to advantage, well they are getting increasingly less common - and they have always been rare anywhere. 

I'm looking forward to working as much of this walnut as I can. It's character is distinctive, and it's working qualities are profoundly good. It appears I'm likely the last bloke left standing in the trade who is stalwart to the grand nature of the best Aussie walnut blanks, no matter the cost. A newcomer in the scene who does good work, and predominately in high quality local walnut blanks, would be a fine thing to see and a long time coming.

26 January 2023

Making An ACRS "Lee Enfield PH" Bespoke Pattern.

This post offers some insight on a Lee Enfield "PH" butt-stock pattern taking shape. It is one of a fair few of the SMLE/MLE family of patterns I have made to date.

I chose a decent XXX grade walnut blank to make the pattern from, seasoned such that I will always have confidence in it's stability. It was also firm in texture and will prove hard wearing under the stylus/followers of the duplicator. 

For me, the first stage in making a stock like this is a technical design drawing, which lays out all the nitty-gritty. Essentially, it's a blue-print of the design. 

This pattern was to be made to the customers bespoke order. The customer, an iconic PH from a "rival" outfit, required a pattern created specifically for his requirements as to stock fit, balance but still in the PH style he admired.  Naturally this added to the time/expense of the job - but then what is the point of a stock if it doesn't fit well? One major advantage of such a pattern is that the customer has the opportunity to handle the job, and any adjustments can be made such that the pattern is "just so". That is money well spent. So many customers concentrate one a general style and are fixated on the beauty of the blank chosen - rather than the fit and balance of the completed stock/rifle/gun.

Once the specifications and drawing were complete, and with the metalwork ready to stock, the following stages of  work (in brief) were as follows:

The stock blank was band-sawed to profile, but somewhat oversized. Then it was inlet, which is quick to write but no small feat. In the case of the Lee Enfield butt stock, the labour included the deep-hole drilling and counter-boring for the draw-bolt (through-bolt or stock bolt). The draw-bolt was carefully checked for run-out of the threads c.f. it's main axis - most are nothing like true. This was the long No1 type bolt. In my opinion, the common short ones are not really suitable for most sporting stocks. The wood in the grip is often very thin in critical areas if the short bolt is used. Crooked draw bolts are only suitable for those who want to muss up. They push the stock around in a cork-screw fashion as the stock is tightened. We want it to be true, for a number of reasons that should be pretty obvious. When required, a replacement which is concentric can be made, or a good one found (increasingly rare). The standard draw bolt limits the cast somewhat, though a new draw bolt can be made to sneak some more cast in. The above photograph was taken after the blank had been fully inlet, but not shaped. Once the socket inlet was completed, the draw-bolt used for this job could be screwed fully home and tightened, with the new butt pattern showed no movement at all while doing this. One good trick is to machine up a concentric mandrel that screws into the draw bolt hole, that is the same outside diameter as the clearance hole in the stock, less a few thousandths. This allows a really true inlet to be had, with almost zero wiggle when inserting or withdrawing the blank from the socket. Not vital, but a really grand idea when working "from the block" or with a stock cut from a dedicated pattern. The variability of the original socket machining versus a machined stocks socket can make such a slave bolt more problematic if there is much of a difference. My own experience is that I've personally never had an issue fitting such jobs up, but my strong experience is that many others find it tough and I've seen some badly botched jobs. I've also seen some superb ones - it all comes down to aptitude, skill, experience and patience.

I ought to state that depending on the job, some pattern stocks are inlet by hand work alone, and sometimes fully or partly with a duplicated inlet. Duplicated inlets can be a trap, and in short I nearly always one I've done from the block, with rare exceptions. If I've already done a nice inlet on an earlier pattern, I can save maybe half to one days labour by duplicating the inlet and going on from there.  It all depends on the job. In the case of the pattern this article is devoted to, the inlet was duplicated from the pattern I'd previously cut from the block for famous PH Matt Graham (RIP) of Hunt Australia. The inlet has to be spot-on, as close to perfection as possible. 

With SMLE's and their brethren; the actual angle which the socket and draw-bolts' threaded hole is machined at - one or both will often be found to vary from the norm (compared to the bolt/barrel axis). If making a pattern the receiver ought to be made to a carefully assayed receiver known to be very close to "true", and the variability must be known and the ramifications of these various errors contended with. Assumptions will kick you pretty hard, eventually, if you want to do good work. So assume nothing and learn to measure everything -that is no small undertaking. For a dedicated pattern, or when stocking "from the block", this doesn't matter as the pattern must suit only the metalwork for that job.

Back to this Lee Enfield pattern:


With the butt-blank installed on the socket of the barrelled action, critical dimensions from the drawing are carefully measured, marked off and lightly scribed. For the benefit of readers, my very light scribe lines were inked over to better show what is going on in the photographs. The actual lines I work to are much, much finer. 

Next the profile was cut slightly oversize on the band saw, then made out precisely to the scribe lines. From here facets were marked-out and cut, which starts taking the corners off the stock. Once the primary corners are cut away, from then on, each facets corners are re-marked such that the excess wood is divided and progressively recut, leaving only the mid-line that forms an actual countour line in the stock. Each time this is done, the facet numbers double and they halve in dimension. Eventually they become almost non-existent, and the stock can be carefully smoothed. The latter-stage photos of this pattern stock depict the facets not quite half way there, but the stock is clearly taking shape. Taper angles and lines (straight or curved) are critical, and allow wonderful bilateral symmetry to be maintained if the stocker has appropriate skills. This method is quite a different approach and skill set, compared to free-form carving of the shape. Both are particular skills, the latter being very difficult to attain good bilateral symmetry in a stock - but which is a vital skill in rebuilding patterns (such as in my previous post). Both methods are very difficult to approach perfection. A stock struck out to near perfection is one of the hallmarks of best quality workmanship.

Various gauges, templates etc make some of the layout and shaping work a little quicker, and easier to aquire symmetry and repeatability.

It's true that this adds to the labour and expense of a custom stock. I've got no problems at all knocking them out of the block, and foregoing the pattern and duplicator - but I rarely do it on an actual job except to indulge in sentimentality. Those stick-in-the-mud types that proclaim a duplicator is a shortcut, I'd contest that if they actually learned to set up and run a duplicator, properly prepare patterns, they'd find quite a monumental extension to their skill sets is required. That, and it takes some mettle to run a cutter into decades-old blank that is worth thousands. Even a cheaper blank is a great loss to stockmaking if it's a quality, properly seasoned bit of tree. So, why do it then? For pairs, trios etc, it's a no-brainer, but that is but a small part of the full weight of my reasoning:

A bespoke pattern stock allows the customer a unique opportunity to benefit from the opportunity of highly refined stock fit, and the ACRS stock machining methods allow for the very best to be had from each blank when it comes to colour, grain flow and stability as discussed elsewhere on this site. A manual machine gives feedback to the operator, lots of it, and depth of cut, feed and rpm can be chosen for best results. Work demanding of fine tolerances on complex shapes and inlets is very, very demanding machining indeed. I think it's well worth the extra labour.

Do enough of the above, and a maker can end up with an awful lot of patterns if they have the ability to work in a broad array of action inlets and styles. That might be the beginnings of a unique stock duplication service when combined with a large excess of seasoned blanks.

Sadly, it is commonly assumed that a stock duplication/pantograph service is nothing more than a "cookie cutter" business - often one that does not offer a truly good pattern making service. Granted, this is most often the case and there is a fair place for it if it's done well and fairly. The patterns are the Achilles' Heel of most makers, and the volume of work I've done for other makers patterns supports this (immense undertaking). Other than that, a few of us set up to do this work to extend our skills and services, not to make up for a lack of them or to just machine cookie-cutter-customs that are all alike. Most gunsmiths and duplicator owners don't fully understand pattern and duplicating work except for the most basic aspects. That combined with generally very poor journalism has hampered those makers who offer so much more. I've always looked up to denizens of the work such as Hoenig, Echols, Anderson and other legendary makers. It's to that level of accomplishment I aspire - though I'm not sure I'll ever get there.

26 January 2023