Go to any gun show or to a local gunshop that sells used guns and you are sure to find some rifles or shotguns whose previous owners had refinished the stocks. Some will be fairly well done, but most will leave a lot to be desired. Not too long ago I was working on an older shotgun whose stock had been refinished. While there were numerous problems with the refinishing, one of the most unfortunate aspects was the manner in which the owner had dealt with the checkering.
The first step in protecting your stock's checkering is to cover it with ordinary masking tape. Use multiple overlapping strips of tape to completely cover the checkering panel.
The stock had handcut checkering. It was nothing fancy, but it was serviceable and reasonably attractive. Unfortunately, the owner had simply sanded over the checkering as he sanded the rest of the stock. This left a series of flat diamond-shaped outlines separated by shallow lines, and in some areas, even the shallow lines and flat diamonds had been removed. This was regrettable because it hurt the stock both esthetically and functionally. Those few remaining flat-topped diamonds would provide little if any gripping assistance when holding the gun. The condition also lowered the value of the gun should the owner ever want to sell or trade it.
It's not all that hard to protect checkering when refinishing a stock. In fact, it's pretty darn easy. All you need are a few simple tools; I use a razor knife, a plastic picnic knife, and masking tape. With just a little time and effort you can protect your checkering from damage while sanding and later when applying finish to the stock.
The first step in refinishing a stock is to remove the action and all metal or plastic components. Don't leave anything on the stock, such as the buttplate, recoil pad, or sling swivel. Once these items have been removed, check the stock for cracks. If you find any, now is the time to fix 'em. All finish removers I know of have chemical components that would inhibit or weaken the bond of glue to wood. Because of this you always want to repair cracks or splits before you use a stock stripper.
Ideally, you want to strip the stock outdoors as the fumes from most effective strippers can be pretty rough. Be sure to do your work over old newspaper. That will make cleanup a lot easier and help to keep from making a mess. Apply the stripper according to the manufacturer's directions. Once the finish has softened, I use pasteboard or plastic scrapers to remove the bulk of the finish and stripper. I then use paper towels to remove any residual stripper and finish.
I make darn sure I work stripper into the checkering because over the years it has more often than not filled with grease, grime, and dirt as well as stock finish. A worn toothbrush is handy for later removing the stripper from the checkering. Now take a single-line checkering cutter and go around the outside edge of the checkering pattern. You want this line or groove to be reasonably well defined. You'll see why in the next step.
Apply A Protective Covering
Once all this has been done you're now ready to begin applying a protective covering to the checkering. This covering will be composed of plain old masking tape. I normally use tape that is about one-inch wide. You can use wider tape, but I've found that the narrower tape is easier to use on the curved surfaces of a stock and it tends to lay flatter with less effort.
A plastic picnic knife with the serrations removed is used to press the tape down into the borderlines of the checkering panel.
Tear off strips of tape that are about an inch longer than the length of the checkering panel. No need to be particularly precise as long as the tape extends beyond the borders of the panel when it is applied. Place the strip of tape over one edge of the panel. Now with additional strips of tape, overlap the first tape strip and gradually cover the entire checkering panel. Don't worry about the ends of the tape not matching the outline of the panel. Use the body of a pencil or pen to smooth the tape over the panel. You should be able to see traces of some lines of the checkering as well as the borderlines around the panel that you earlier deepened.
Take an ordinary plastic picnic knife and file any serrations or teeth off the blade. You want the end of the rounded blade to have a nice sharp edge. Once the knife has been prepared, use it to go over those borderlines around the checkering panel. Use the knife to depress the tape into the borderlines. Don't try to cut the tape, just depress it.
Using a regular hobby-type razor knife, trace over the depressed borderlines that have been outlined in the tape. Don't try to cut into the wood. Use just enough pressure on the razor knife to cut the tape. Once the tape has been cut, pull away any tape that extends outside the checkering panel. If you have done a good job with the razor knife, the tape should come off with little or no resistance. You should end up with a perfect outline of the checkering covered by the tape that remains on the stock.
Leave The Covering In Place
You can now move forward with sanding and refinishing your stock with little or no danger of damaging the checkering. Of course, you still have to be reasonably careful around the checkering, but the masking tape cover will go a long way towards protecting it.
The protective cover for the checkering should remain in place even when the finish is applied. Don't worry about getting finish on the tape. In fact, most finishes will just make the tape stronger and a better protective covering. Using whatever method and materials you choose, finish the stock. It doesn't matter whether you are applying an oil finish or polyurethane; leave the tape covering in place until you have achieved the final finish you want. This includes any rubbing out of the finish with pumice or other stock-rubbing compounds.
When the stock finish is completed, then and only then will you remove the tape. Take the razor knife and carefully trace around the edge of the tape cover. When you are doing this you are cutting through any finish coating that may have overlapped the tape. This will keep from tearing away the finish next to the checkering panel or "lifting" the edge of the finish. This can be especially important if you use a thick, built-up finish with polyurethane, Tru-Oil, or Lin-Speed.
A standard hobby-type razor knife is used to trace over the borderlines made by the plastic knife, and the excess tape outside the panel is pulled away. The checkering is now covered with a protective layer of masking tape.
After carefully removing the tape, you will probably find some bits of adhesive in the checkering. This can normally be brushed out with a toothbrush. If the checkering is at all worn, I strongly encourage you to go over it with a single line checkering cutter. This will clean out the lines and point up any worn or damaged diamonds. Some folks think you can use a multiple-line cutter, but I advise against this. Unless your multiple-line cutter has exactly the same spacing as the cutter used to originally cut the checkering, you will have problems. Let me explain.
Say you have 18 lines-per-inch checkering on the gun and you have a cutter that is also 18 lines per inch. Odds are one or both are not exactly 18 lines per inch. The cutter may be off only .003 inch, which is about the thickness of a piece of paper. No big deal on one or two lines but by the time you have cut, say, 10 lines, you are now off as much as .030 inch, which is very visible! Stick with a single-line cutter and you'll seldom have a problem.
After cleaning up the checkering, you will want to do something to protect the wood. Remember, we applied stripper to the checkering as well as the rest of the stock. Any finish in the checkering was removed. While we want to protect the wood that is checkered, we definitely don't want to fill in the checkering with a thick coat of finish. That looks terrible, and it impacts the effectiveness of the checkering to provide good adhesion when gripping the stock. We want just enough finish on the checkering to soak into and seal the wood. Anything more than that is to be avoided.
If your finish is relatively thin, you can just put a drop or two on the checkered panel and work the finish in with a toothbrush. You will get a little splatter on the surrounding stock, but that can be easily wiped off. If the finish is a thicker oil type, then you may want to thin it a bit with mineral spirits before you apply it to the checkering. It's much better to have the finish too thin than too thick.
Once the finish has been worked into the checkering panels, the job is complete. You should have a nicely refinished stock with checkering that is as good as or better than it was the day the gun left the factory.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!