A Taste of Walnut

Article & Photography by Terry Wieland
What’s involved in stocking your dream.
From the February/March 2008 issue.

Figure. Grain. Symmetry. Strength. Marblecake, fiddleback, feather-crotch burl. Slab-sawn, quartersawn, heartwood, sapwood. English and French, Turkish, and Circassian.

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Pour me another one, Sam. I don’t have a clue.Lovers of fine guns are also lovers of fine walnut. Looking at catalogs, it seems easy to pick a beautiful piece of walnut for a stock, but many a first-time (or even eighth-time) buyer of a custom gun, struggling to choose a suitable stock blank for that once-in-a-lifetime purchase, is overwhelmed by the jumble of terms, claims, and counterclaims. Then there’s the bill. A thousand dollars? Two thousand? For that money, you want to be sure.
Like beautiful women and birds on the wing, walnut blanks are all the same and all different. Since grading systems (to which prices are attached) vary from country to country, dealer to dealer, and even minute to minute, they are, shall we say, of limited value. Pictures, on the other hand, tell the story. Or at least a small part of it. And that’s all most of us can ever hope to know about the fascinating, baffling, intoxicating world of walnut.

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Two rifles, two very different blanks. The bolt action is a .375 H&H stocked by Bill Dowtin, a gunmaker of 30 years and importer of walnut blanks from central Asia. The blank was selected for hardness and uniform figure. It has very smoky black figure, but more important for a heavy-recoiling rifle, it has perfect grain flow through the grip. The grain is subtle—ghostly, like smoke rising in a dark room. Bold, more clearly defined figure is generally graded (and priced) higher. This type appeals to some, not to others.
The Winchester 1886 was made in 1900 and restored by Doug Turnbull in 2007, using a blank from central Asia chosen to replicate the color and grain patterns typical of a high-grade Winchester of a century ago. Turnbull and Dowtin succeeded in spectacular fashion. This gives an idea of how specific choosing a blank can be.

A fine blank for a sidelock shotgun. The grain flow through the wrist and up to the head is nearly perfect for its purpose. Because sidelocks lack a through-bolt to add strength, it’s particularly important to have perfectly symmetrical grain through the wrist, flowing evenly out through the head. In this blank, the grain converges and appears bundled together as it flows through the grip. This is as strong as it gets. Recognizing this quality, Dowtin laid out the pattern to take full advantage of it.

A classic magazine-rifle grain layout, Dowtin says, and nearly perfect. The grain of a quarter-sawn blank like this one runs perpendicular to the grain of a slab-sawn blank, and every tree yields some of each (roughly two slab-sawn for each quarter-sawn). The shimmering vertical lines are fiddleback that becomes a mirage, and the fiddleback runs the entire length of the blank. It is “hard as concrete” and would be perfect for a .500 Jeffery or similar rifle. In terms of grain layout and hardness, this blank is as stable as walnut can be—which is extremely stable indeed.

This blank, suitable for either a shotgun or a rifle, is an example of high-contrast figure and color coupled with perfectly symmetrical grain. “If you were an artist and were going to draw the perfect gunstock,” Dowtin says, “this is the way the grain would be, following the lines of the actual stock.” When it does this, the stock is as strong as it can be, and in the view of Bill Dowtin as beautiful as a stock can be. But in gunstocks, beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, and Wieland finds it a trifle uninspiring.

An ancient (circa 1890) French walnut stock on a shotgun by E.M. Reilly of London. Dowtin calls this stock “classic,” and typical of wood originating in France during that era.
“I expect it is a product of the great Teyssier gunstock mill in Brève, France. For four generations, if I remember Mr. Teyssier’s explanation accurately, this mill was a major source of walnut gunstocks for the English trade. This particular stock has a very bright golden color, with distinct black veining through the butt section. This type of wood is classic on an English sidelock or boxlock gun. The two were made for each other. It speaks of autumn days and birds on the wing as nothing else can.”

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A.450 Ackley stocked in American black walnut by Siegfried Trillus, a brilliant German gunmaker of the old school. Trillus cut down the tree, sawed and air-dried the blanks himself, then fashioned the stock with hand tools. With such a powerful rifle, grain flow, strength, and hardness are paramount. Of this stock, Dowtin says, “It has perfect grain flow for a heavy caliber rifle—ideal for its intended use.”

In selecting a blank, it’s important to look at the edges and ends as well as the grain on the flat. This particular blank displays perfectly straight grain from end to end and shows that the figure pervades the wood.

Atypical end of a slab-sawn blank. By studying the grain, you can tell that it runs true all the way through the blank: no matter where you cut into it, you will find that figure. This is not a blank that will “go dead” when cut. If you like the figure you see on the outside, you can be sure you will find it on the inside.

This unusual blank is a fantastic piece of genuine burl with the grain arching in symmetry from the comb forward through the grip. Burl usually commands a premium price, but it’s really worth no more than a fine piece of marblecake. Burl, a kind of cancer that occurs in the root of a tree, is popular for veneer, and veneer makers can spot burl in the wild because the tree looks like a freak—a tree that “belongs in Sleepy Hollow,” says Dowtin. Burl tends to be very brittle as well. This particular blank will stock a trap gun, an ideal use because the through-bolt will provide strength the blank lacks. With its sickly appearance and delicate beauty, a burl-bearing tree is the Frederic Chopin of walnut.

A Flues-model Ithaca trap gun, made in the United States in 1919 and restored by Edwin von Atzigen. Bill Dowtin: “Very nice grain flow from the toe of the stock through the grip and head. Beautiful red color and nice crotch grain.” Walnut comes in a wide array of colors, from golden to red, purple, and black. In Europe, the reddish color is prized, and many gunmakers will add a red tint to the finishing linseed oil. But natural red is preferable. Crotch grain, as the name implies, is cut from the junction of branch and trunk. While it is complex and beautiful, feather-crotch is not as strong. It is usable on a trap gun because the stock will be left thicker and heavier than on a game gun, and the steel through-bolt will strengthen it considerably.

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Color in a walnut blank depends on many factors. These blanks were cut from a tree that was swept away in an avalanche. The woodcutter knew the ancient tree (all of Dowtin’s blanks from central Asia are at least 200 years old, and some as much as 400 years), and he went searching for it among the debris. It had been dead for several months when it was finally cut. The color is best described as “pumpkin.” Often, Dowtin says, such dead trees yield highly unusual and vivid color in their blanks.

Two extreme examples of fine fiddleback figure in full-length rifle blanks. Fiddleback is undulating fiber, highly compressed, most likely caused by the tree’s tremendous weight. Thus fiddleback is usually found in very old trees. In these blanks the fiddleback runs the entire length and is uncharacteristically uniform. Contrary to myth, fiddleback neither adds nor detracts from strength. These blanks are exceptionally hard and would be perfect for a matched pair of rifles, regardless of caliber—hard enough to withstand the most violent recoil, stable enough for the finest accuracy.

Ablank for which Dowtin has high hopes. “The symmetry, the color, the fiddleback,” he says. “The fiddleback is highly unusual. It is the brightest orange and highest contrast one is likely to see, with perfect grain flow. This blank is extremely hard, and could probably be checkered as fine as fifty lines per inch, if anyone wanted to attempt such a thing.”violent recoil, stable enough for the finest accuracy.

Not all blanks wear their beauty in plain sight. This perplexing, infuriating, and undoubtedly glorious piece of walnut steadfastly refuses to divulge everything until it is cut, but it is a prime example of the difficulties facing wood buyers. People have binocular vision; a camera has monocular vision. Binocular vision can discern the depths of grain and beauty, but a photographic image shows only one view instead of two. Often the wood’s potential reveals itself only when the blank is moved slowly before the eyes, catching the light from different angles, giving up hints of the mysteries that lie beneath the surface. This blank is destined to become the stock of a single-shot rifle, and what it will finally look like . . . I can’t wait to see.

On the left, a Grulla Armas Windsor Woodcock; on the right, a Pedro Arrizabalaga. Two guns, two very different pieces of walnut, both gorgeous to their adoring owner. But not to Dowtin: “The Arrizabalaga has nice grain flow and color, with lots of interesting diagonal fiddleback; a very nice classic look!” The Grulla, on the other hand, “doesn’t flow symmetrically enough for my taste, but it has a distinctive marbled look that may be a type of burl.” And to its owner? It has the look of real marble—artistic in its lack of symmetry, intriguing in its mystery, as timeless as sorcery, and as luscious as molten caramel.

 
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