One of the most common and challenging jobs a hobbyist may face is the installation of a new recoil pad on a finished rifle or shotgun buttstock. There can be any number of reasons for replacing an existing recoil pad–the old pad may be too long or too short, it may have hardened or deteriorated with age, or you may simply want a new style or color.
As a gunsmith I much prefer to install a new pad on an unfinished stock. This is done by grinding the sides of the pad down close to the surface of the stock and then finishing by sanding the surface of the stock and the pad at the same time. This results in a single, smooth, even surface for both the pad and stock. The pad is then removed, and the finish is applied to the stock.
With a finished stock there is a bit more of a challenge. When fitting the recoil pad you have to be extremely careful that you do not scratch–or even touch–the finished wood, yet you still want to have the surface of the pad as perfectly even with the surface of the stock as possible.
Recently the owner of an old Browning Citori 20-gauge over-under skeet gun decided he needed a new recoil pad. The original factory pad was worn, hardened with age, and had developed a fairly slick face that allowed the gun to slide and slip a bit on his shoulder. A new Pachmayr Decelerator pad would resolve all of these problems, but the owner was in the middle of his shooting season and, though the stock also needed refinishing, he could not afford to lose the use of the gun for more than a day or so. Consequently, I had to fit the pad to the finished stock. The owner may not have the stock refinished in the future, so there could be no blemishes on the stock finish from the pad installation.
While this is a challenging job, with a bit of care and patience almost anyone can do it. The only specialized equipment needed is a disk or belt sander. Almost any size sander can be used. In fact, I once watched a fellow fit a recoil pad using an abrasive sanding disk mounted on an electric hand drill clamped in his bench vise!
There are a few basic points to keep in mind in order to have a properly fitted pad. You absolutely have to have a pad large enough to allow for the extension of the toe and heel line of the stock. When placed on the end of the stock prior to fitting, the pad should overhang the sides and heel or top of the stock by at least 1/8 inch. Down at the toe, or point of the stock, the pad should generally extend about 1/2 to 3/4 inch beyond the stock. You need this extra pad material to account for the angle of the toe. If you don’t have excess material down there, you’ll end up with a flat spot on the tip of the finished pad.
Given that you have a big enough pad, the next step is to check the location of your attaching screws. It may be that your new pad has exactly the same spacing for the screw holes as the original pad; then again, it may not. If it doesn’t, you may have to plug the old holes, mark the location of the new screw holes, and then drill pilot holes slightly smaller than the diameter of the new screws. On this Pachmayr pad, the diameter of the new screws is about .166 inch, so I would drill pilot holes of about .116 inch using a #32 drill. This would give me a “bite” of about .025 inch on each side of the screw for a good secure attachment. Fortunately, the screw spacing for the new pad matched the old pad.
Tricks Of The Trade
A lot of folks don’t realize it, but the contact surface of most pads where they bear against the stock is not flat. Most pads are molded, and I suppose there is a certain amount of warping and shrinking as the rubber or plastic cools. To ensure a good fit, don’t rely just on your attaching screws to pull the pad down against the stock and straighten it. Instead, carefully sand the bottom of the pad so it is as perfectly flat as possible. I use a piece of old plate glass on which I have taped a sheet of sandpaper. A few minutes sanding is generally all it takes to make the pad smooth and perfectly flat.
Many recoil pads, such as this Pachmayr, do not have screw holes in the rear face of the pad. The rubber face of the pad is solid. How do you get the darn screws in the pad? Again, it’s easy once you know a trick or two. Take a 7/32-inch flat-faced punch and insert it from the bottom or stock side of the pad. With the pad over your bench and the top end of the punch resting on the bench, press the pad down so that the end of the punch pushes up on the inside surface of the face of the pad.
Allow it to rise up about 1/4 inch or so. While this rubber is stretched nice and thin, use a sharp razor knife to slit the rubber in the center of the outline of the end of the punch. Repeat for the other screw hole. You can now remove the punch. With the face of the pad back in its normal position you should have to look darn hard to even find a trace of your two screw slots.
We want to keep it this way and avoid tearing of the face of the pad as it is attached to the stock. Torn, ragged screw holes in the face of a pad look really bad and are not indicative of good craftsmanship. A trick gunsmiths have used for years is to use a drop of liquid soap on each slit to lubricate the passage of the screw. Also, check the heads of the new screws for any burrs or sharp edges that might tear the rubber. If you find any, polish the heads so they are nice and smooth. It’s also a good idea to use screwdrivers with smooth shanks and to lubricate the shanks with a bit of liquid soap as well.
Before installing the new pad, wrap the butt of the stock with at least two layers of mask
ing tape to protect the finish. The tape should lay flat with no wrinkles. If the tape extends over the end of the butt because of the taper of the stock, don’t worry about it. You can always carefully trim excess tape with your razor knife. Make sure your tape extends back at least 3 inches from the end of the stock.
With the tape in place, attach the new pad to the stock. Thread the screws into the newly cut slots up to the screw heads then quickly push the heads though the face of the pad with a Phillips screwdriver.
For grinding the pad I use a 12-inch disk sander with a 60-grit sanding disk. I generally grind the heel and toe areas first and then blend in the sides. I work slowly and never try to grind away a lot of material quickly. There’s no magic involved. It’s slow, dirty work. Keep the surface of the stock parallel to the surface of the sander as you work. Sand the pad down until the disk just lightly touches the top layer of masking tape.
Once you have done this all the way around the stock, stop and remove the outer layer of tape. Now carefully sand the side of the pad down until the disk just barely touches this last layer of tape. Don’t get heavy handed and grind through the tape and scratch the stock. When you have the side of the pad even with the tape all around the stock you are ready to move to the next step.
Remove all the remaining masking tape. You should be able to feel a “lip” on the recoil pad where it meets the stock. This lip is about equal to the thickness of the masking tape, which is approximately .004 inch thick. To remove this lip without scratching the stock, apply a single layer of Scotch tape around the stock next to the pad. This tape is about half the thickness of the masking tape and will allow you to further reduce the lip on the base of the pad to about .002 inch.
You can go back to your grinder, but I would encourage you to do this final sanding with a strip of 120-grit sandpaper backed by a file. While you may want to stop at that point, if your hand is steady you can remove the tape and make one last pass or so without any protection for the stock. In the end your pad will be an almost perfect match to the stock with no perceptible lip or overhang.
The more pads you install, the faster, easier, and more attractive your work will be.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!