by Terry Wieland
For the better part of two centuries, the term “London oil” has been acknowledged as the finest and most beautiful finish a walnut stock can have. It’s also the standard by which all others are judged.
Leaving aside such outrages as varnish and polyurethane, which are good for hardwood floors and yacht railings, but quickly turn from garish to mangy on a walnut gunstock, various concoctions have been offered over the years to compete with London oil. Most base their sales pitch on being almost as nice as hand-rubbed London, but quicker and/or easier.
The best English stockmakers are notoriously reticent about individual formulae for finishing oils, as well as their methods for applying it, but most run something like this: The basic oil is linseed (usually boiled but occasionally raw) cut with a bit of turpentine to make it flow, or varnish or tung oil to aid in drying, along with tail of newt or eye of bat. This is usually applied in multiple microscopic coats, requiring considerable hand rubbing in between, as well as ultra-fine sanding before and during. The finish slowly builds up to a warm glow with a depth that brings out every exquisite nuance of the wood’s color and grain.
It has the added benefit that, if you get a scratch or a dent, you simply steam it out, rub in a little more oil, and gradually the blemish disappears. Try doing that with a thick, plastic synthetic, and see how far you get!
You’ll read in many places that an oil finish is not suitable for “hard hunting” guns, and that some sort of plastic is called for to keep the wood from absorbing moisture. It’s difficult to imagine an environment harder on wood than the Scottish highlands in November, with sometimes torrential rains in the midst of a grouse drive, but London oil has been proven, over and over, to provide all the protection the wood needs. And, it is easily renewable. Surprising to some, a stock can get soaking wet and, given the chance, dry out and return to normal all on its own.
As a teenager, mildly addicted to the Herter’s catalogue — anything was preferable to algebra —I became familiar with a range of different products, sporting names like Linspeed and Tru-Oil. I’m going from memory here, since I no longer have a copy of the catalogue, and any temptation to wander down that particular memory lane is headed off by the astronomical prices old catalogues are commanding on eBay. If I recall correctly, however, Herter’s had a formula of their own, over-sold and wildly exaggerated in their usual fashion. I once asked my old friend and gun restorer, Edwin von Atzigen, his opinion of the Herter’s product, and he just rolled his eyes.
This brings me to a relatively new finish, TimberLuxe, developed by stockmaker Brian Board, put on the market in 2012, and sold through his own website, www.timberluxe.com. It’s easy to use, and instructions can be found on his website. There are also YouTube videos demonstrating its application.
Like London oil, it’s a hand-rubbed finish applied with the fingertips. It has a nice smell, but not, alas, redolent of linseed, which is second only to Hoppe’s No. 9 as an aromatic aphrodisiac for a jaded gun guy.
There’s not enough space here to talk about all its ins and outs, such as the possibility of applying a stain over the TimberLuxe — highly unusual for you wood-stain fans out there. (I’m not one, preferring my wood, like my blondes, natural.) Also, TimberLuxe can be applied on top of other oil finishes, for repairing blemishes, or, for example, blending a new finish on a stock extension with the oil on the original stock.
I have TimberLuxe finishes on several pieces, including a reworked grip on a Browning pistol, an ebony stock extension on a W&C Scott pigeon gun, and the stock of a reclaimed Stevens Model 44 single-shot rifle, all of which work Brian performed.
Brian lists endorsements from venerable companies like Griffin & Howe and Perugini-Visini. As a further affirmation, I asked gunmaker Lee Shaver for his opinion, which was quite simple:
“It’s the best hand-rubbed oil finish I’ve ever used,” he told me. From a gunmaker of Lee’s standing and experience, it hardly gets much better.
Gray’s shooting editor regards linseed oil, Hoppe’s No. 9, and the acrid scent of fresh-sanded walnut to be in the same league as Chanel No. 5 and, in the long run, a lot cheaper.