Comparing Gun Checkering Tools
Ever since wood was first mated to metal and called a firearm, gunsmiths and firearms owners have been decorating, thus personalizing, firearms.
Checkering’s main function and its real, practical advantage is that it provides a non-slip gripping surface. That’s why checkering at the grip and on the forearm has evolved as an aid in steadying the rifle. Beyond this function, checkering is a matter of taste.
As a result, many styles of checkering have evolved, from the crosshatch pattern seen on old flintlocks to the 31⁄2-to-1 ratio pointed diamond now popular on modern custom rifles.
Checkering is measured by the number of lines per inch that are cut when forming a pattern. Two-, three-and four-line spacing cutters are available in tools that cut 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, and 32 lines per inch (lpi). Single-line cutters are available that will cut lines at 60-, 75-, and 90-degree angles; These are normally used to finish a pattern to full depth.
There have been reams of articles written on checkering and even a video or two put out on how to checker a gunstock. The fact of the matter is, no one can teach you how to checker—we can only show you tools and tell you about some of the pitfalls involved. You, and you alone, can learn the intricacies involved with each individual piece of wood you checker. You will learn that there are hard and soft spots in stockwood, so at times, you will have to adjust cutting pressure. With checkering, you will often find that the lesson comes after the test, and that becomes experience. So to learn about checkering, practice, practice and then practice some more.
For practical purposes, the most functional type of checkering for a rifle stock is 20 to 24 lpi. If you see checkering done at 28 or 32 lpi, pick up the stock and see for yourself if you think this fine-line checkering will provide a good grip in a snowy, wet deer woods.
The type of wood you choose for gunstock material will dictate to some extent the lpi you will be able to get away with. For example, a quarter sawed stock of American walnut cut from a limb section of a tree is going to be very coarsely grained and porous. Trying to cut 24 lpi will have you frustrated in short order because the tops of the diamonds may pop off before they can be pointed up. With the more open-grained woods like American walnut or Claro walnut, you will be better off cutting checkering to 18 or 20 lpi. With the denser walnuts like French and California English, and the hard maples or stockwood that came from the dense stump of the tree, you are more likely to get by with 24 lpi checkering. A good rule of thumb on how many lines per inch you will be able to get by with can be found in the finishing of the wood. If it takes you a long time to seal the pores with finish, then you have an open-grained stock, so go with the coarser checkering. If the pores seal up after three or four applications of finish, then you have a good, dense piece of wood that will accept finer checkering.
There are three readily available brands of hand-checkering tools. Brownells of Montezuma, Iowa, stocks tools made by Dem-bart, Gunline, and handles made by W.E. Brownell. They also have replacement cutters for the Dem-Bart and Gunline brands.
Following are more detailed descriptions of what’s available:
This company offers two sets of checkering tools, a starter set that consists of three tools: a two-line cutter, a single-line cutter, and a spacing-guide tool. The Dem-Bart master set comes boxed with six tools: a single-line cutter, a two-line cutter, a left-to-right guide cutter, a right-to-left guide cutter, a finishing cutter, and a short cutter for tight corners. Extra cutters are available for $2.50 each.
Their spacing cutters can be had in 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, and 32 lpi. The spacing cutters and the finishing tool are all made to cut 90 degrees.
These cutters have very shallow teeth in them, like a smooth-cut file, and they load up with sawdust quickly. The problem I had with these cutters is keeping them cutting straight. When the teeth pack up with sawdust, they do not cut properly and tend to jump out of the master guide line. The angle of the teeth permit cutting on the forward stroke only.
The tool shanks are 1/8-inch square steel that are split on the end with a through hole that holds the cutter in place with a crosspin. These tools have a tendency to chatter once they load up, and that does not contribute to good tool control.
The Gunline brand can be purchased in two sets. The Leader set comes with four tools: a two-line spacing tool, bordering tool, a V-edger, and a finishing cutter. There’s also a 6-inch plastic ruler and layout gauge that has lines per inch marked on it.
The second offering is the Camp Perry set, which comes with six complete tools: a two-line spacer, a three-line spacer, bordering tool, a V-edger, a 90-degree finishing cutter, and a veiner gouge for tight corners.
This set also has the plastic ruler guide. Extra cutters are available. The spacing cutters have a 60-degree angle that cuts your lines when laying them out on the stock. The finishing cutters are at a 90-degree angle.
Lines-per-inch spacing on these cutters is available in 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, and 28 lpi.
The teeth of these cutters is more open and deeper than those on the Dem-Bart tools and will drop the sawdust more readily without excessive buildup. This helps the tool cut better and stay on track, producing straighter lines and avoiding tool chatter.
The face angle of these cutters is such that cutting is allowed only on the forward stroke, hindering your ability to go up to a border, place the tip of the cutter into the border, and cut back away from it. With the deeper tracks in these teeth, you can get a knife-edge needle file in between to sharpen the teeth when the need arises. All of the teeth cut on the two-, three-, and four-line spacing tools. This allows cutting from left to right or right to left without having to change cutters.
These tools’ handles are made of American walnut with tool shanks constructed of 1/8-inch square steel stock. The cutters are attached to the tools’ shanks with a steel rollpin that slips through a hole in the tool shank and cutter.
These are the premium in hand-cutting checkering tools. Handles and cutters can be purchased individually, and spacing cutters can be had in 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, and 32 lines per inch. All of the spacing cutter teeth cut and are made at a 60-degree included angle. The single-line cutters are available in 60-, 75-, and 90-degree cutting angles.
In my view, there are several unique assets found on this brand of checkering tool, such as the bifurcated tool shank and the ability to adjust the angle of the cutter.
Also, the forked or double shank on the tool gives better visibility at the back of the cutter, and this is where border overruns can occur. It also gives strength to the tool shanks, which helps dampen chatter.
The wrist or pistol grip area of a rifle stock offers some compound curves that causes the back of the handle to bump against the stock. With an adjustable cutter head the cutter angle can be tipped to raise the front or lower the rear of the cutter with just a few turns of the two adjusting screws. This will bring the rear of the handle up, avoiding contact with the stock when getting into tricky curves.
The fillets between the teeth on W.E. Brownell cutters are open enough to drop sawdust and are cut perpendicular to the cutting edge. The teeth will cut on the forward or the back stroke. With this versatility you can cut up to a border, tilt the cutter so that the front tip touches the border, and then cut backward. There’s no danger of slipping past the border like there is with a one-direction-only tool.
The teeth can also be sharpened with a knife-edge needle file. Because all the teeth cut on the two-, three-, and four-lpi cutters, you can cut right to left or left to right with these cutters as well. Another advantage these straight-teeth cutters offer comes when the front teeth become thin from resharpening. Instead of your having to buy a new set, they can be swapped end for end in the shank and you have a virtually new cutter.
These cutters cost more than the Dem-Bart or the Gunline cutters, but their advantages make them a bargain. The full-view checkering handles list are available from Brownells.
With 22-lpi or finer checkering spacing I have been using the 75-degree single-line cutter to point up the diamonds. This cutter gives more depth to the checkering and only takes another pass or two to finish up the pattern. Cutters are available directly from W.E. Brownell.
The veiner is actually a small “V” gouge used to clean up tight corners and edges that are impossible to get into with a checkering cutter. Cutting in the curves, as in a fleur-de-lis pattern, is where the veiner shines. Veiners are available from Dem-Bart or Gunline in 60 and 90 degree instruments and cost about $10. The main concern with this tool is keeping it razor sharp. This is a must, or the tool is useless. It takes a little practice to master the veiner, but once you get the knack, it is another one of those invaluable tools you’re always glad you have.
Electric Checkering Tools
Miniature Machine Co. markets an MMC-brand checkering outfit through Brownells, but even with your shop discount, it is quite pricey. I had one for about 18 months, but just never took the time to master it.
The folks who checker the stocks on Ruger rifles use this setup to finish the factory stocks from Ruger.
The outfit comes with a Foredom motor, flexible shaft, handpiece, and foot-operated speed control. The handpiece has a rotary carbide cutting wheel with an adjustable guide to set the line-per-inch spacing you want. Thus, since the cutter guide is on the right side of the cutter, you can only cut from right to left. Replacement cutters will set you back about $90 each, so if you only checker a few stocks a year, payback will take many moons.
Once developed, your checkering touch can become one of the most enjoyable parts of the gunsmithing craft. This is one of the few places on a gunstock where you can exhibit the artistic talent you have. But as with many other aspects of gunsmithing, if you don’t have the proper tools on hand, it can be very exasperating.