By Larry Teague
Carving over a gun’s existing checkering improves the appearance and the gripping qualities.
Craftsmen who are masters of their profession tend to be secretive about the tricks of their trade, methods that help them work faster or produce a better result.
Pennsylvania stock carver Robbie Anderson is different. He shares his stock-carving knowledge with just about anyone who’ll listen.
He’s a man on a mission because stock carving, like making lye soap or hammering iron into nails, is on the verge of becoming a lost art. New practitioners are needed to keep it from disappearing.
Fortunately, Anderson is an affable teacher and his carving style isn’t difficult to emulate.
“You don’t have to be an artist to turn an ordinary gun into a family heirloom,” he says. “Anyone can do it with a minimal investment and a bit of practice.”
Anderson frequently demonstrates his “power carving” techniques at building-supply stores in the Keystone State. As his Dremel tool whirs, putting the scent of new wood in the air, passers-by can’t resist coming in for a closer look.
And when they see it’s not a piece of scrap lumber he’s Dremeling, but a fine gunstock, they are transfixed, unwilling or unable to move. Most people wouldn’t intentionally scratch a good gunstock, much less sink a rotary-tool bit into one.
“You won’t find a more satisfying hobby than power stock carving,” Anderson tells the onlookers. “Once you get good at it, you can do a game scene in about an hour. And in addition to gunstocks, you can carve custom jewelry boxes, window casings and one-of-a-kind furniture, too.
“It’s ideal for teenagers, retired folks or physically impaired people who are looking for something to do. Yessir, you’ve got to try this!”
Anderson caught the stock-carving bug himself in 1954. A finely carved Steyr-Mannlicher rifle that appeared on the cover of “Shooter’s Bible” that year mesmerized him. Photographed on a polar bear rug, that walnut-stocked gun had oak leaves carved around the grip and fore-end and a red stag prominent on the buttstock.
Anderson, then a 13-year-old farm kid with a hole in his pocket, checked the price of that fine rifle. It was way out of his reach, so he decided to carve one himself. He purchased a set of Japanese wood chisels and went to work on a beat-up rifle his dad owned but seldom used. The gun was in such bad shape, any change to the stock would have been an improvement.
Onto the stock, Anderson traced an outline of a moose. Then, tapping the long-handled chisels with a mallet, he began carefully chipping wood from around the pattern. Doing the relief work was quite a challenge. When the carving was done, it was hard to tell if the moose was right-side up or upside down.
The result didn’t matter. Anderson was hooked on carving. Soon, friends and relatives brought their rifles and shotguns in to be carved and were pleased with the results.
It only takes Anderson about 45 seconds to carve a single oak leaf. He outlines the leaf with a cuts-all or “Christmas tree” bit, adds depth to the leaf using a ball cutter, then puts in the stem and veins using the No. 7117 inverted-diamond cutter.
In the early 1970s, Anderson traded his mallet and chisels for a Dremel tool and a few specialty bits. Scenes that used to take a day and a half to complete could now be done in about an hour.
Exquisitely carved and engraved guns were once reserved for European royalty. Commoners certainly couldn’t afford them. Hundreds of years later in this country, few frontiersmen had gunstocks that weren’t crudely carved, inletted, initialed, adorned with brass or personalized in some way. Native Americans and mountain men of the 1800-1850 fur-trading era used upholstery tacks to create distinctive patterns on their cap-and-ball guns.
Today, every major rifle manufacturer offers synthetic-stocked models, and more of them, it seems, with each passing year. Injection-molded stocks are cheaper to produce and don’t warp like wood stocks can. Still, millions of hunters and shooters prefer the looks and feel of walnut.
Last year, Anderson was delivering a carving to one such customer when he spotted the Buckmasters headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. He decided to stop and introduce himself. Inside the corporate office, he met Russell Thornberry, the executive editor of this publication, and asked if he had any guns he’d like carved. Thornberry handed him an old blackpowder rifle that hadn’t been fired in years.
A week later, Anderson returned to Buckmasters with Thornberry’s finished stock and a van full of carving equipment. He spread his tools on a picnic table outside the office and proceeded to carve stocks for anybody who wanted it. Four days later, he ran out of stocks to carve and headed home.
That Alabama carvefest was the genesis for a stock-carving video produced by Buckmasters and hosted by Thornberry. On the hour-long DVD, Anderson shows viewers how to carve a bedded whitetail scene and clusters of oak leaves on a Remington Model 700 rifle. The video costs $29.95 and is available through the Buckmasters website. Included with the DVD are patterns that can be enlarged or made smaller to accommodate different stocks and other gun models.
Anderson makes power carving look easy, and swears it is, with practice. He cautions beginners to practice on scrap wood until they’re pleased with the results. He says most tyros start to get the hang of it in a day and can carve their own stocks, using a pattern, in a week or less.
Anderson uses the Dremel tool like a pencil. He’s been at it so long, he doesn’t need a pattern. I was amazed by the speed with which he is able to complete a game scene or a cluster of oak leaves. Doing a single oak leaf takes him about 45 seconds.
He controls the Dremel by anchoring his pinky on the stock and gently pushing or pulling the tool, letting the bit do all of the work. Force or hurry the bit, and it’ll get away from you.
Anderson finishes the carvings with inexpensive, fast-drying lacquer applied from a spray can, available at most hardware stores. A spray of black enamel, followed by a thorough wipe with a mineral-spirit-soaked cloth, adds depth to the scene. The top coat is a clear lacquer that matches a gun’s existing finish.
Results on a beat-up stock are particularly impressive. One Buckmasters coworker brought in an old Savage rifle that looked like it had been dragged across a field of barbed wire. “Those are the ones I like doing,” said Anderson, who carved over the scratches to give the Savage an impressive facelift.
Transforming old guns into heirlooms is a crowd-pleaser during demonstrations. After Anderson’s carving clinics, stores sell a lot of Dremels.
In addition to North American and African big game scenes on rifles, Anderson carves quail, pheasants and turkeys on shotguns. He can also stain the oak leaves in shades of browns and greens to create a camouflage effect, which looks especially good on turkey guns.
Anderson also checkers stocks, but he’d much rather wrap a grip in nature’s finery or show a newcomer how it’s done.
As he’s working, he’s likely to talk about how carving can keep young people off the streets or lift the spirits of a disabled hunter. He might also quote scripture from a well-worn Bible he has close at hand. The world’s most famous craftsman, after all, didn’t keep trade secrets.
Reprinted from the July 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine