For the love of walnut
Money does grow on trees, says Chris Batha, who provides an insight into the slow process of growing, harvesting and selecting walnut for gunmaking.
Yes, money can actually grow on trees. Well, technically, not on the tree, but in the tree, when the produce is harvested, be it fruit or timber. But the process takes time, sometimes hundreds of years. The expression implies that money is a resource that must be earned and is not easily acquired, and this is especially true when it comes to exhibition-grade walnut stock blanks.
I have just returned from IWA in Nuremburg, Germany. I attend the show every year, as do many other European and American gunmakers, specifically to purchase walnut stock blanks. The show has the largest number of Turkish walnut exhibitors in one place at one time in the world, and is the best opportunity for gunmakers and independent stockers to make judicious purchases of stock blanks for future use, selecting for optimum strength, stability, figure, colour and contrast.
The show runs from Friday through to Monday, but the early bird catches the worm – those buyers who are truly serious about securing the best pieces of walnut get there on Thursday to ensure first pick of the best blanks as they are delivered from the trucks to the dealers' booths.
But there is a lot more to the selection and buying process than the simple matter of choosing stock blanks with great colour, contrast and figure. By going through the selection and buying process, I hope to explain why a single stock blank measuring 20 x 8 x 3" can cost £1,600 or more. Not to mention matched pairs and trios of blanks which demand a premium of 20 or 30 per cent. So to better understand this, I am going to take you on the long journey from nut to tree to a precious stock blank in an exhibition booth in Germany.
Major Sir Gerald Burrard wrote: “We have in walnut an ideal wood which is not only tough, hard and not given to splitting, but is also frequently figured in a beautiful manner which is a joy to the eye.”
Walnut's colour comes from the composition of the soil. The amount of definition and figure develops from extreme changes in temperature – a combination of very cold winters and very hot summers produce the best grades of walnut. Today, the best conditions – hence the majority of the world's finest walnut – are found in Turkey.
(The late Daniele Perazzi & wife Lucia with an impressive walnut root ball)
The average walnut tree harvested for the gun trade is around 200 years old, although some have been harvested as old as 350 years old. The trees are dead when harvested and the root ball will have been subterranean for the majority of the tree's life. This period of time underground, combined with bearing the sheer weight of the tree for the same period, results in the root ball having a greater density than other parts of the tree. And it is the composition of the region's soil that gives the wood its individual colour and figure. Trees grown in loamy, rich soil consisting of a mixture of sand, clay and decaying organic matter will produce lighter-coloured walnut, while dark, rich soil with higher concentrations of organic matter will result in darker walnut.
Walnut trees are found in remote rural areas, often miles from any passable roads, and grow on the sides of hills and the lower slopes of mountains. The root balls can weigh up to six tonnes and so the logistics in harvesting, transporting and cutting the wood, then storing it to air-dry for up to eight years makes up a significant part of its final cost.
Once at the mill, the root ball is cut into vertical slices, in the same manner as slicing an apple, and wax is applied to all surfaces to slow the drying process. The initial cuts are oversized, up to 50 per cent larger than the final size of the delivered blanks. This allows for movement during the drying process. During the four to eight years it takes for the wood to dry correctly, the stock blanks can split, crack, distort and shrink. The initial oversized cuts allow the blanks to be recut or trimmed to the normal size, removing any defects revealed during the drying process.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to speed-up the natural drying process. Many have tried to dry stocks in kilns, but this can cause discoloration and shrinkage. The famous Browning salt wood was a curing process bought by Browning in 1965 from the Morton Salt Company. I have also heard of attempts to speed-dry walnut using microwaves, pressurised steam and oil, and even decompression chambers.
But the bottom line is this: to ensure that your stock will not shrink from the metal or warp when it is heated and shaped to the gun, it must be dried in the traditional manner – and that takes time. Like all good things, the best stock blanks come to those who are willing to wait for them.
Choosing a blank
Choosing a good stock blank requires experience. In the past, I have purchased blanks that looked fantastic, with amazing figure and colour, but, on delivery to my stocker, I was told that they would only be good for firewood. You can imagine how I felt! There have been other similar experiences over the years and I have learned a great deal from these expensive lessons. I am now the equivalent of the Christmas Grinch when examining and buying stock blanks and I am definitely not too proud to ask for help or advice from other professional stockers. After all, when it comes to picking stock blanks, two heads are definitely better than one.
But there is a delicate balance between spectacular figure and strength in each piece of walnut. If you look at older best guns, they very rarely have well-figured stocks. Stockers in the late 1880s and early 1900s chose strength in the blanks over what they would have considered risky, well-figured stocks.
The mid 1970s saw a steady decline and closure of many of the well-known gunmakers in the UK, but the continued production of best guns was effectively saved by a handful of enthusiastic collectors. Their passion and knowledge demanded that the best gunmakers still in business achieve excellence in order to secure their patronage. I would consider many of the guns and rifles made in the last 40 years to be of exhibition quality and, although many shotgun enthusiasts prefer to collect pristine vintage guns, I would argue that modern best guns are of superior quality.
We buy with our eyes, and the first thing that draws our attention when we look at a gun is the stock and fore-end. On closer inspection we will admire the engraving, look for the fit and finish, the hallmarks of a best gun, but it is the wood that first captures us from a distance. Indeed, if the action could be considered the metal canvas for the engraving, then the stock and fore-end should be considered the picture frame that emphasises and properly displays it.
Fantastic figure in walnut comes at a price, so the main consideration should be strength – in density and straight grain. The contrast and figure comes in many patterns: marble cake, burl, feather crotch, bird's eye and fiddle back, but beauty is totally in the eye of the beholder. Some prefer light, honey blondes while others are drawn to dark, rich colours – chocolate with hints of port, rusts and reds. But all must have rich, dark, swirling figure and grain that, when shaped and finished, appears almost three dimensional.
Never accept the seller's protestations that the wood has been dried for eight years. I have been told this about a piece that was so green and wet that if you put it your nose it, you could smell the sea! It is therefore advisable that you avoid buying blanks for immediate use, unless your supplier is someone you personally know and trust. Otherwise, purchase for the future with an agreement from the seller that if the blank warps, cracks or there is an internal flaw, they will replace it.
The only way to be absolutely certain that a blank is dry is to double check it yourself. To do this, you need to weigh the stock and write the weight and date on it with a crayon or pencil. Then repeat this process monthly until the stock maintains a consistent weight. The storage area should be dry, dark and with a constant average temperature.
Choose your wood by the layout of the grain and figure, avoiding busy figure in the grip area, unless a stock bolt will be used. You can learn more from the ends and edges of a blank than from the sides. You need to look at the flow of the grain from the top edge to the bottom – it should run in a straight line from grip to butt. If it curls off to one side or the other, it should be avoided. However, if the stock blank is thick enough and the grain is better on one side, the stocker may be able to use the straighter side.
A stock template is used to achieve the best combination of strength and figure. The optimum layout is straight grain and figure flowing with the shape of the wrist, then blooming and flowering into a rich combination of contrast and figure. This template should be marked on both sides and compared for grain, figure and contrast. Then the top edges and ends should be examined to ensure that it matches and supports the proposed stock shape for strength.
Walnut blanks come in grades from 1 to 5 and are priced accordingly.
Grade 1: Utility, plain with little if any figure.
Grade 2: Some colour with 10 per cent figure or better.
Grade 3: Good amount of figure and improved colour – a minimum of 50 per cent figure.
Grade 4: Superior figure and colour contrast – a minimum of 75 per cent figure.
Grade 5: Often referred to as exhibition quality – very rare blanks, especially in pairs and trios, with superb colour and contrast and 80 to 90 per cent figure. One piece in a hundred is considered Grade 5.