May 11, 2023
By Reid Coffield
This post was originally published in January 2011, and was most recently updated in May 2023.
I well remember the day I bought the first brand-new gun I ever owned. I was 16 years old and a man of independent means. I had a job baggin' groceries at the local Winn-Dixie and had amassed what to me was a virtual fortune to "invest" in a shotgun. After much deliberation and countless hours studying gun catalogs, I bought a new Remington 870 12 gauge. It had a plain 30-inch Full choke barrel, and as I recall, it cost me the princely sum of $90. It has been a great old shotgun and has traveled with me many a mile. The only thing I don't like--and never really cared for--is the checkering.
Back when I bought it Remington had just started producing the guns with impressed checkering. In this process a heated metal die in the shape of the checkering pattern was pressed into the finished stock. The result was a stamping of the checkering pattern. Unfortunately, the points of the individual diamonds were reversed. Instead of the diamond sticking up, there was a diamond-shaped hole pressed into the stock. It was fast and cheap, but it was less than effective as a gripping surface, and in my opinion, it looked awful. Fortunately, Remington got away from this and now has machine-cut checkering that is both attractive and functional.
Over the years I considered replacing the stock with a newer one with cut checkering and better wood, but that old stock is like an old friend. It stuck with me for years, and I just didn't feel comfortable discarding it. Besides, I'm a tightwad and just couldn't bring myself to spend money on a new stock.
Fortunately, there's a way of converting most negative impressed checkering to positive cut checkering. Very few tools are required, and it's a project well within the capabilities of most hobbyists. Heck, you don't even have to know how to checker! And for all my fellow tightwads, it's a darn cheap way to upgrade your old stock.
A beneficial but little-known feature of impressed checkering is that the process actually compresses the fibers of the wood. Regular open-grained walnut as was used on my Remington stock would normally not be suitable for anything but coarse checkering of about 18 lines to the inch. Now that the wood has been compressed and made denser, it'll take finer checkering with more lines per inch. In this case, it's about 20 lines per inch.
All you need to do the job are a few tools such as a razor knife, a DEM-Bart S-1 checkering cutter, a DEM-Bart Jointer checkering tool, and a couple of tiny chisels made from razor knives. Oh, yes, you'll also need an old toothbrush or similar soft brush. I used a regular checkering cradle to hold my stock, but you can accomplish the same thing by placing your stock on a folded towel on your bench. However, if you're at all interested in checkering and think you'll want to do more later on, I'd definitely encourage you to buy or build a checkering cradle.
Before we get started let's look closely at impressed checkering. The first thing you'll notice is the points of the individual diamonds pressed deep into the wood. As you recut the checkering, the bottom of these points will become the bottom of the individual lines separating the new diamonds.
Next, you should look at the partitions or walls of wood that separate the individual impressed diamonds. Where these "walls" cross or touch one another will become the tops of your new cut diamonds. As you cut your new lines, never allow your checkering cutter or razor knife to cut into or over the point where these lines come together. If you do, you'll damage the points of your new diamonds.
Some folks would have you just start in with a checkering cutter making lines. I think that's a mistake. I start by using a sharp razor knife to trace along each line. I am basically just "connecting the dots," which in this case are the deep points of the impressed diamonds. You don't have to bear down or cut deeply with the razor knife. All you need to do is "breach the dam" and cut through the wood partitions separating the impressed diamonds.
Using A Single Line Cutter
Once you have done this to all the lines in your pattern, you then go back with your single line cutter and trace over the razor knife cut. This knife cut will allow your checkering tool to more easily follow a straight line. Go slow as you work. I recommend using the DEM-Bart S-1 tool. This short, fine-cut tool cuts only on the pull stroke. It is more than adequate to remove the small amount of wood necessary in our conversion. I would also encourage you to pick up a Gunline Jointer tool. It is a long, single line cutter that is useful for straightening any of your lines that might have a bit of a curve. Both tools can be found at most gunsmith supply houses. I got mine from MidwayUSA, Dept. ST, 5875 W. Van Horn Tavern Rd., Columbia, MO 65203; 800-243-3220; www.midwayusa.com.
When you buy your checkering tools you will have the option of cutters that have a 90-degree "V" cut or a 60-degree cut. I prefer the 90-degree cutting tools as this cut will result in individual diamonds that have slightly larger or wider bases. True, they won't be as high, but they'll be stronger and less likely to break off the stock.
Another benefit from the way Remington did its impressed checkering is that the pattern is normally pressed pretty deeply into the stock. This results in the checkering being a bit recessed into the stock with a ledge all around the pattern. That will make it a lot easier for us to avoid "runovers" or having our checkering cutter slip outside the pattern. The ledge serves as a natural stop for our cutting tools.
On the other hand, there is another problem with impressed checkering that you need to be aware of. When the die is pressed into the finished stock it is under tremendous pressure. This sometimes results in tiny
cracks in the wood along the edge of the checkering pattern. There's not much you can do about that short of sanding and refinishing the entire stock. Even then, many of these tiny cracks will still be visible. I just ignore it. It's not pretty, but most folks won't notice 'em, and the overall effect of the cut checkering is still a heck of an improvement in the looks of the stock.
As you do your cutting, use your old toothbrush to constantly brush out the wood dust that you create. The cleaner you keep your lines, the easier they'll be to follow.
Make one pass on all the lines going in one direction first. Do not try to cut the lines to full depth at this time. Then make a single pass on all the crossing lines. Again, just make one pass. If you cut your lines too deeply, you'll have the devil to pay trying to cut across these deep lines with the crossing lines. It'll be worse than trying to drive your car across a freshly plowed field. Generally it takes me about three passes or so to fully "point up" my diamonds. You'll know when you're finished when all the individual diamonds in your pattern have nice sharp points.
The little short lines in the corners of the pattern are a problem for everyone. Even a short cutting tool like the DEM-Bart S-1 is just too long. However, we can deal with that! Get a couple of razor knives and carefully reshape the blades. Grind the tips of the blades into tiny little chisels. I have two. One has a blade point only .053 inch wide while the other is closer to .100 inch (that's 1/10 of an inch wide). With these little chisels I can literally cut in a single diamond in the corner of a pattern or finish up those nasty little lines.
The Finishing Touch
After you have completed cutting your lines and all your diamonds are fully pointed, you are ready for the final step. Use your toothbrush or another small brush to work a few drops of stock finish into the checkering. On my Remington 870 I used Miles Gilbert Classic American Gunstock Oil Finish that I picked up from MidwayUSA. It's an oil-modified polyurethane-type finish that penetrates the wood and helps to seal it. Don't use so much that you build up finish in the checkering. All you want to do is to just seal the wood, and a few drops is all that's needed. Any splash or drops of finish that get on the stock around the checkering pattern can be quickly wiped off with a clean cotton cloth.
That's about it. It's basically a simple process to upgrade your stock into something much more attractive and useful. And as a side benefit, it'll give you some darn good experience using your checkering tools.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!