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What's With All These Laminates?

What’s With All These Laminates?

A laminate is just flat-out better at being a gunstock than the traditional one-piece chunk of wood.

By Jon R. Sundra

Pick up any recent rifle catalog and chances are you’ll see not just one but several models in sporter and varmint configurations wearing stocks of wood laminate.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon.

It was more than 20 years ago at the 1987 SHOT Show that Ruger, Savage and Winchester showed examples of their respective bolt-action centerfire rifles wearing laminated stocks. Never before had a major production rifle manufacturer, let alone three, displayed such colorful and unconventional stocks. All had alternating layers, veneers actually, of white birch dyed brown, gray and green.

To say these guns attracted attention would be a gross understatement, but folks either loved ’em or hated ’em. There was no in between. With each veneer being only 1/16-inch thick and oriented vertically, the shaping of the stock cut across the layering was not unlike the annular rings of a tree cut at acute angles.

Depending on the number of colors involved, the visual effect seen on a finished stock can range from gaudy to conservative. If the veneers are all dyed the same color, say brown, the results are subdued enough to placate all but the most traditional gun enthusiast.

What’s With All These Laminates?It wasn’t just coincidence that all three manufacturers were showing similar stocks, because they had all been turned from laminated blanks supplied by the same company. Rutland Plywood Corp. of Rutland, Vt., was already a well-established manufacturer of wood laminates — specialty plywoods mostly — for all sorts of industrial applications. The company’s CEO, Jack Barrett, was a shooter and hunter, and in the mid-1980s, he began work on developing a gunstock-quality laminate.

Gluing multiple layers of wood together to form a stock was not a new idea. When the needs of a re-arming Germany exceeded the supply of suitable wood for its Mauser rifles, white birch laminate was used. Because the layers were relatively thick, about 5/16 inch and of a natural color, you had to look closely to see the seams. And despite being used out of necessity, laminates proved stronger and far more stable than the one-piece stock. And therein lies its greatest attribute.

In the 1960s, our largest gunstock suppliers, E.C. Bishop & Sons, Reinhart Fajen and Herter’s, offered semi-shaped and inletted stocks of wood laminate. Like the Germans, they used thick layers of about 5/16 inch, so the typical stock consisted of only six to seven sheets of wood. The big difference, however, was in the type of wood used — slabs of dark brown walnut and vanilla colored maple. The result was a brassy zebra-like look that in no way evoked the same visual effect as the thin veneers used in today’s laminates.

Though I was only in my mid-20s in 1965, I had already embraced wood laminates, as all of the few personal rifles I owned at the time were so stocked. For the next 10 years or so, sources for laminates were spotty. Sometimes the various sources for do-it-yourself stocks could only get the walnut/maple, and I much preferred all-walnut. There were even times when neither was available, and only furniture-type laminates consisting of 5/16-inch layers of walnut stacked horizontally were to be had.

What’s With All These Laminates?My original 7mm JRS rifle wore just such a stock; all you saw from the side were the edges of each slab. The result was a stock utterly void of cosmetic appeal. Anyway, Jack Barrett and his engineers went to work, and over the course of about three years, developed the laminates we so take for granted today. The process is constantly being refined, but has not changed substantively.

It all starts with select white birch logs cut into short pieces about 40 inches long, then put in a steam room for a couple of days to heat and soften the wood. These short logs are then put on a massive lathe and spun against a cutting blade. Once the log is trued up, a uniform sheet of 1/16-inch-thick veneer peels off at the rate of about 15 miles an hour. In less than a minute, a 20-inch-diameter log is reduced to a broom handle. The continuous sheet passes under an optical comparator that triggers a blade and cuts out any sections containing flaws like knots, checks, voids, etc. That’s why the rejection rate for laminated stocks among gun manufacturers is virtually zero. There are no defects that emerge as the stock is being shaped from a blank.

The blemish-free veneers are now placed in a huge conveyor oven. Because they are so thin, the veneers emerge after just a few minutes with a moisture content of just 4-5 percent — lower than is possible with a one-piece stock, even after months of drying. At this point, the sheets are cut into the rough size of the finished blank — about 12"x38"x2-1/4" — from which two rifle stocks can be made.

What’s With All These Laminates?The next step is the coloring process. Stacks of veneers are piled into an autoclave, in which the atmosphere is evacuated and a dye introduced. The pressurized environment forces the dye into the wood to a greater degree than could be achieved by simple soaking. At this point, all that remains is for the veneers to be arranged in the desired color combination, then coated with a special epoxy and stacked to the required number of layers.

From there, the stacks are placed in huge hydraulic presses with heated platens. Compressed under tons of pressure, the stacks are then heated at the same time to speed the bonding process. All that remains now is to trim the blanks to final dimensions and ship them off to the various gun and stock makers.

As touched upon earlier, laminated stocks can not only be highly distinctive and colorful, but also are far stronger and stable than one-piece stocks. That’s because, with the grain structure and orientation of each veneer being different from that of its neighbor on either side, any tendency to warp and change zero is negated.

As to strength, you can take a chisel, orient it parallel with the layering of the veneers, and whack it all you want with a hammer; it will not split along the seams. The veneers themselves will rip apart rather than split along the glue seams.

Subscribe Today!I’ve submerged Boyds’ laminated stocks (fashioned from blanks supplied by Rutland), up to five days in a swimming pool, after which there was no measurable swelling. They were treated with Boyds’ standard stock finish, which is extremely durable and waterproof.

Bottom line: A laminate is just flat-out better at being a gunstock than the traditional one-piece chunk of wood. Not only is it much stronger and extremely stable, but it also has tactile warmth about it that no synthetic can match. It feels like wood because it is wood. Yes, fiberglass stocks are even more stable, but they sure leave a lot to be desired when it comes to aesthetics. As for visual appeal, well, that’s up to the individual, but this individual likes ’em . . . a lot!

Reprinted from the July 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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