Stippling: An Easy Alternative To Checkering
January 04, 2011
I love checkering. It doesn't matter if the pattern is plain vanilla or if it's complex with lots of curves and advanced design elements. It makes no difference if it's cut 16 or 30 lines to the inch or if it has a border or is borderless. Well-executed checkering is something that can make me forget about any other part of the rifle or shotgun. Yep, that's pretty extreme, but it's true.
Attractive, professional-looking wood stippling can be done with nothing more sophisticated than a hammer and a common nail.
Although I love great checkering, I have to admit that my own checkering is, shall we say, functional at best. It's darn hard for me to always have all the lines of my checkering stay perfectly parallel and evenly spaced no matter how long I work at it or how hard I try. There is very little likelihood that I will be asked to join the Custom Gun Makers Guild based on my checkering.
Over the years I've talked to a lot of folks about checkering. Some have tried it and have done quite well. Others have had problems. It seems that no matter what they do, their attempts at checkering just don't work out well. That's unfortunate, but that doesn't mean they are condemned to plain stocks for the rest of their lives. There are alternatives for those of us who are "checkering impaired." In fact, even folks who can do beautiful, flawless checkering might find an alternative useful from time to time.
One of the simplest alternatives to checkering is stippling. Stippling generally refers to a coarse, textured surface treatment of the wood. In a pinch, it can be done with nothing more than a couple of slightly modified common nails and a hammer! Stippling is basically closely spaced, random indentations in the surface of the wood. It can be used on rifles, shotguns, or handguns to enhance the gripping surface. For many years some high-dollar European competitive small-bore rifles and air guns used stippling in place of checkering. It's fast and easy, and it's just about impossible to make a mistake when applying it.
Reid modifies the points of the stippling nails to add variety to the stippling pattern. He uses the shallow tapered point for the bulk of his wood stippling.
With this in mind, let's take a closer look at the tools you need and the basic procedure. Keep in mind that it is best to always practice on a scrap piece of wood before undertaking any work on your favorite rifle or shotgun.
The nail is held so that the fingers act as a spring to allow it to bounce back after each strike with the hammer.
The most basic tool for wood stippling is a common, run-of-the-mill 4-inch nail. It can be used as is, but I like to modify mine a bit. I usually have about four nails with different shaped points, including a diamond, a chisel, a shallow blunt point, and a sharper, thinner point. This variety of points allows me to vary the texture and look of my stippling, though I tend most often to use the shallow blunt point. Any of these shapes are easily ground on a standard bench grinder or belt or disk sander. There is no need to harden the stippling tools as they will only be used on wood.
The other essential tool is a small, light hammer. I use a 4-ounce ball-peen hammer and occasionally an even lighter, smaller brass hammer. You don't need much of a hammer because all you want to do is make a fairly shallow impression into the wood. In fact, a heavier hammer is a liability because the added weight can drive the stippling tool too deep into the wood.
I use a grease pencil or marker to define the area to be stippled. I follow up by using a small "V" gouge to cut a border along this line. You can also use various types of cutters as used with standard checkering tools to form attractive and interesting borders. Borders can range from that simple "V" groove to parallel double lines, a scalloped border, etc. As with so many crafts, you are limited only by your imagination.
After drawing a 1.5-inch-diameter circle on the practice board, use a small "V" cutter to form the border.
A more contemporary method of stippling involves using a Dremel or similar electric hand grinder along with a very small, spherical cutter. The cutter can be almost any size but, generally, the smaller the better. I use one that's .052-inch in diameter. Larger cutters can form depressions in the wood that look more like the dimples on a golf ball than stippling.
Now let's take at look at the actual process. Again, it's best to first practice on a wood scrap. Don't even think about stippling your favorite rifle or shotgun until you are absolutely delighted with the results of your practice. I'm using a scrap of walnut board I keep around just for such occasions. The first step is to draw a circle about 1.5 inches in diameter. Next take a small "V" gouge and cut along the outline. We now have a defined area, or panel, and a specific border. This border will help us learn to control our movements as we stipple only the selected area.
If like me you're right-handed, hold the stippling tool in your left hand between your thumb and forefinger about two inches from the business end of the tool. Your other three fingers should rest against the shank of the tool. Adjust the position of the tool so the bottom of your little finger extends slightly beyond the point of the tool. Please note that I said "beyond" and not "under" the tool point!
The stippling should be random. Don't try to make a precise, evenly spaced pattern.
Hold the tool firmly. When struck by the hammer it'll penetrate the wood and rebound or bounce back. Your fingers act as a spring to lift the tool after it's struck. If y
ou hold it too loosely, the tool can be driven into the wood and stick there. If the point of the tool is too far above the surface of the wood, then it won't strike with sufficient force to properly roughen the surface. The amount of penetration can be adjusted by how you hold the tool as well as how hard you strike it.
Place the point of the stippling tool in the center of the test panel and rapidly tap the head of it with the hammer. As you do, move the stippling tool around inside the panel in a random manner. Don't try to evenly space your stipple marks. Keep tapping and moving in a random fashion until the surface is uniformly roughened. There should be no smooth, untouched areas within the wood practice panel.
It's important to strike the stippling tool with consistent force each and every time. Avoid light strokes and heavy strokes. A consistent, uniform strike will ensure that your stippling tool moves easily across the panel and results in a uniform, attractive pattern.
As the stippling begins to fill the pattern, the marks from the nail are not in any specific order or pattern.
For the folks more oriented to machines, the use of the Dremel is an alternative. Draw a 1.5-inch circle on the practice panel. Again, cut a border along the line you have drawn. With the Dremel running at a high speed and with a small ball cutter in place, carefully tap the cutter against the surface of the wood.
Don't allow the cutter to grab or cut across the surface of the wood. You want to form a random series of overlapping dimples that are about half the diameter of the cutter in depth. Keep doing this until you have the surface inside the circle completely covered with the stipples.
One problem when using this "high-tech" method of stippling is the tendency of the cutter to move to the side as it cuts into the wood. You have to be very careful that you don't lose control of the cutter--and that can happen in a flash. Also, you want to make sure your cutter is sharp. If it's dull, it tends to tear rather than cut the wood. This results in a ragged, fuzzy look to the dimples.
One possible advantage of using a ball cutter is that you don't compress the wood; you cut it away. Some folks contend that this makes the stippling more permanent and less likely to smooth out over time. However, I've never experienced this or seen it happen.
A small round cutter can be used with an electric hand grinder for a more contemporary form of stippling. The round cutter forms a stippled surface that looks almost like the cratered surface of the moon.
Once the stippling has been completed, go over it with an old, worn toothbrush to remove any fragments of wood or dust. As with regular checkering, you will need to seal the wood. A few drops of thinned stock finish brushed into the stippling with the toothbrush will normally complete it. Very little finish is needed. If you use too much, you'll fill it and lose the positive gripping characteristics of the stippling.
That's about it. Stippling is a fast, simple, and easy alternative to checkering that can provide an attractive and secure gripping surface on a stock.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!