Finishing Military Rifle Woodwork

Military rifle timber has a pretty hard life! From the moment that it is issued to its first user it is all downhill. Foul weather, rain, snow, freezing temperatures, tropical heat, dust, sand, mud and saltwater spray are only part of the ordeal. Add to these knocks and dings, abuse and neglect, and it soon becomes apparent that military rifle timber is in need of a pretty resilient protective finish if it is to survive more than a year of service without rotting or falling apart, added to which it needs to be comfortable to hold and use and not slide out of the soldiers grasp the moment he starts to sweat!
    Civilian rifles lead a comparatively sedate life by comparison. Often their finish is determined by the need of the manufacturer to have a shiny commercial finish to attract the buyer in the shop, if that finish can be quickly applied by a machine then so much the better.
    There have been many trials over the centuries to determine the best way to finish rifle woodwork. Of these the top contender is in many ways the simplest. Used by the British Army up until modern plastics took over from expensive timber, it is adaptable, dependable and above all durable. The number of 100 year old plus rifles still using their original furniture testifies to that.
    The method involves protecting and sealing the surface of the wood using linseed oil. To obtain the desired surface texture this is used in conjunction with steel wool. The effects can be gauged from the picture used to head up this article showing the Enfield No4 butts for sale in the Enfield section of the site. The top butt is straight from the original factory box. The lower butt has been worked on for less than 15 minutes just to demonstrate the technique.
    Safety; First things first. Some of the materials used may be considered to have hazards, toxic or otherwise, associated with them. I would always advocate the use of personal protective equipment when handling chemicals or substances which may have adverse effects associated with them. When obtaining these substances always read the information on the containers and any leaflets provided for them and abide by the instructions. I would recommend the use of disposable gloves at all times, change them as necessary, you can always buy more gloves, skin is a little harder to get renewed! If there is a danger of getting splashes in the eyes wear protective goggles or similar. The fine wood dust produced by the steel wool is bad news if you breathe it in in any quantity. Keep the work area as clean as you can and consider wearing a dust mask. Wear protective overalls, or if not change and launder your clothes after doing the job, don’t keep wearing contaminated clothing. Lastly, whenever possible do the job in a dedicated work area away from children and pets. If you must do the work in your kitchen or sitting room firstly (and, as pointed out at great length by my wife, most importantly) consult your partner, there is nothing worse than a sudden attack with a frying pan when you are trying to concentrate! Next, protect the area with oil proof sheeting or similar and clean up afterwards. Whatever your feelings on whether we over protect ourselves these days, eating linseed oil, mineral oil and steel wool fragments is really not a good idea!  Cleaning up includes disposing of contaminated rags etc. Although rare, it is not unknown in certain conditions for rags soaked in linseed oil to spontaneously combust after a period of time, do not leave them lying in a big heap in your house! 

Materials and tools.  
    You will need:
1.    Raw linseed oil.
2.    Boiled linseed oil.
3.    Clean lint free rag (cotton is best, man made fibres such as nylon are useless).
4.    Fine steel wool (in the UK this is sometimes graded as ‘00’).

You may need:
5.    Fine glass paper.
6.    A cabinet maker’s scraper.
7.    Spray penetrating oil (WD 40 or similar).
8.    Methylated spirit or other alcohol based spirit.
9.    Suitable coloured wood stain.

To give a good, weather proof finish with a non sticky grip to new furniture, such as the No4 butts on the site, follow this method. Please bear in mind that this is the ‘ideal’, as you become familiar with the technique you will find your own shortcuts and be able to judge when you can move on to the next stage without spoiling your results.
Before applying any form of sealing it is important to prepare the surface. Assuming that the timber is dry and free from old grease and oil, continue as follows (if there is contamination see further on in the article).
Tear off a loose ball of steel wool about the size of a tennis ball. Hold the timber so that one end rests on the work bench so that you can apply a reasonable pressure to it without it slipping, and begin to rub the surface down with the steel wool. Always work along the grain rather than across it and keep the strokes as long as possible, lift the steel wool off at the end of each stroke and start from the beginning again applying a firm pressure. The steel wool will act as hundreds of tiny plane blades which shave down the high points of the surface giving it a smooth finish. You will soon notice that a fine powder is produced, this is the wood dust that you are shaving from the surface. Try to keep this from taking over the work surface by cleaning it up regularly. This dust will also clog the surface of the steel wool making it less efficient, the steel wool should be turned over frequently to expose a fresh piece to maintain efficiency, if necessary help yourself to a new chunk as required.
Monitor how you are doing frequently by running you hand over the surface of the timber. The better the original surface is the less work will be required to give a good smooth texture. The more the wood is worked, the greater the colour change will be as more of the original stain is removed from the surface. For this reason try to work the whole of the piece to more or less the same degree to avoid patches of light and dark. At this stage do not be tempted to try and obtain a glass smooth surface, stage 2 will raise the grain anyway.
Once you have obtained an even surface finish over the whole piece (or set) which is to your satisfaction, you can begin to treat the timber. To clean the wood dust from the grain wipe the surface along the grain with a clean rag dampened (but not wetted) with either clean water or methylated spirits. As the rag gets dirty expose a clean piece until you have done the entire area.
At this stage (while the timber is still damp) take a critical look at your timber. If there are any light or dark patches consider whether you need to stain it to obtain the even colour that you want. If so now is the time to do it.
Allow any dampness to dry off, and then taking a piece of clean dry rag, make it into a loose ball and wet the surface with a little raw linseed oil. Describing how much is ‘a little’ is tricky, probably about a teaspoon full, but you will know soon enough. Wipe down the timber with the raw linseed, if the oil lays on top like a tanker disaster you are using too much (wipe it away with a dry rag) if the timber does not get an even coat and there are dry patches, add a little more and go again. Some people just paint the surface with the raw linseed and after a minute or so wipe away the excess with a dry rag. It is up to you, I suppose it depends on how much you are paying for the linseed and how long you can wait for it to soak in.
Once you have done the whole surface, allow an hour or so for the timber to absorb the linseed. You may notice when you check that the surface is rougher than before you oiled it. This will be due to the softer fibres of the timber absorbing the linseed and swelling up from the surface. Using a fresh piece of steel wool, wet it slightly with raw linseed and work the surface as you did when it was dry. This will remove the swollen fibres, giving a really nice surface. It is important that once you have done this that you then wipe the whole piece down with clean rag to remove excess oil, wood shavings and strands of steel wool from the piece, do not allow them to dry on or be incorporated into the last stage.
Finishing is done with boiled linseed oil. Using a clean fresh piece of rag, and a little boiled linseed, (see above) wipe over the whole of the piece using even strokes and light pressure. Start by rubbing the oil into the surface across the grain of the timber, and finish each piece by wiping along the grain. When you have finished the timber should show a sheen of oil over the whole surface.
Allow a couple of hours (or overnight if time allows) for the timber to absorb the boiled linseed into the surface and then buff the surface to a high sheen with a soft lint free cloth. If desired this can be repeated to give several layers of linseed on the surface, which eventually will fill the grain completely.
This finish gives good protection to the timber from the effects of rain and damp and also gives a pleasing appearance which is non slip. Should the timber get dirty or dull it can be cleaned using a little raw linseed and then re buffed with a soft cloth. If your rifle sees a lot of range time or foul weather, to maintain the finish give it a treatment with boiled linseed about once every 6 months otherwise you can leave it for a couple of years before retreating it. The more you handle the timber the better it will get. If the rifle is left in the sun you may find that the wood exudes small beads of linseed. This can be wiped away with a soft cloth easily; eventually your timber will acclimatise to your local conditions and the appearance will let you know when to retreat it.

Treatment for timber which has been sitting in store for years!
If you are trying to revive timber which has been in store for years, you may well find that the surface is covered in filth and 50 year old grease. Before treating your timber you will need to remove this otherwise you will never get a decent finish. Old grease is best removed by judicious use of a spray penetrating oil such as WD 40. Remove as much of the grease as you can without damaging the timber by scraping it off with a steel ruler or similar. Once the chunks have gone spray the surface with penetrating oil, give it 20 seconds to soak, and then use plenty of clean rag and elbow grease to clean down the grain. Only treat a small area at a time (about a 30 cm or 12” section is more than enough), and do not use more of the penetrating oil than necessary. Once you have removed the grease use a spirit, such as meths, to wipe as much of the oil from the timber as possible. The timber should be left in a warm place for a couple of days and as oil exudes from it it should be wiped away at least a couple of times a day. Finish by wiping down again with spirit and allow to evaporate off before treating as above with the linseed. NOTE: If you are treating rifle fore-ends, especially those off of their rifle and those intended for shooting weapons, be cautious about how you place them if they are to be ‘sweated off’. A warped fore-end is nigh on impossible to correct once it has warped!

Notes on timber with armourers patch repairs!
You may well find that you are in possession of a set of timber which has been patch repaired at sometime in its life. If this patch repair is not sound (i.e. it has come loose due to glue failure), this MUST be secured before treating the timber. Few if any glues will stick to an oiled surface. If you can reuse the patch, carefully clean off old traces of glue and re fix in place with a proprietary brand of waterproof wood glue. Wherever possible the patch should be clamped in place until the glue has properly set, time skimped here could lead to hours of work in the future!
Once the patch has set in place, if it is at all proud of the surface carefully sand down the patch until you are just sanding both sides of the join and then use a cabinet makers scraper to blend the contours of the timber for a couple of inches (5 cm or so) either side. Stain as necessary and then use the linseed treatment.