I thought it was time to discuss the issues around restoration and repair, and perhaps offer some simple advice to beginners who find themselves in possession of an antique gun, or more subtle questions posed by collectors who want to enhance their guns, or put right old damage or botched repairs. It is very presumptive of me to offer this advice, but I get a steady stream of questions from people who visit this site – occasionally after they have already made ‘unfortunate’ decisions and done potentially devastating damage to their guns….
I suppose one way to approach the subject is to offer some ‘rules of thumb’ about particular issues – so here goes….
Doing nothing generally does no harm and is the low risk option. Sometimes it is necessary to halt deterioration by storing in a dry place or halting the attack of woodboring beetles or rot, but go no further without careful consideration. Poorly done restoration may loose almost all the value of an old gun, keeping it as it is won’t.
Don’t do anything to the gun until you have spent a long time ( ? half an hour) turning it over in your hands looking for clues to its origins and potential problems – does it have open cracks, do they open and close when you flex things? Does the metalwork fit, what is the finish. Do an internet search for the maker, look on Holt’s auctioneers website archive to see if any have been sold, or if all else fails send me a message and a photo via this website!
Don’t do anything until you know what it is you have in front of you – is it valuable as a high quality piece or by virtue of its rarity. Even a wrecked gun might be valuable if its very rare, and anything that destroys evidence of its origins and construction or finish may diminish its value, or even render it worthless.
If in doubt DON’T do anything, find out more or ask someone who knows antique guns!
Taking guns apart may look easy, but the potential to do damage is always there, anything from spoiling the heads of screws (‘nails’ in gunspeak) to breaking chunks off a stock or bending or breaking metalwork, or just letting the screwdriver slip and scoring the wood deeply. It is often VERY difficult to put a gun back together without leaving signs that it has been stripped down to its parts.
This applies particularly to the pins that hold furniture and barrels on flintlocks before about 1780 – they are fitted directly in the wood and will almost certainly have rusted, so that when you try to knock them out they may pull a chunk of the wood out with them if you are not very careful. Often your punch will slip past the end of the pin and make a much bigger hole in the wood. Leave this to experienced gun restorers if you want to preserve the stock in best condition.
The metal parts of the gun (the furniture) is inlaid into the wood very precisely – the better the quality of gun, the better the inletting. Its quite possible that the edges of the metalwork have rusted over the last couple of hundred years, so that removing parts that are inlet may spoil the precision fit between the wood and metal – in these circumstances it is very difficult to get the furniture back as it was. Sometimes bits of the surrounding wood come out with the metal.
Ordinary household or workshop screwdrivers are NOT suitable for taking guns apart – you need many screwdrivers with a variety of blade thicknesses so that you can choose one that fits the screw exactly OR YOU WILL DAMAGE the screwhead as sure as eggs is eggs…. A proper gun restorers bench will have at least a dozen screwdrivers, and often one will be ground for a particular slot.
Screws can be unstuck by the application of heat – use a heated rod rather than play a flame on the head! You can occasionally loosen a screw by screwing it IN a fraction to break the adhesion, or by alternating IN and OUT forces. Often the head will give a better grip in the IN direction because it hasn’t been graunched so badly!
Breechblocks can usually be unscrewed with the application of heat – up to wood scorching temperature, a quick cool of the hook in water for a second, very good, quick and careful clamping in a vice and application of force with a long lever with a carefully machined slot for the hook. Once the face contact is broken they will usually unscrew easily. Double barrels present more of a problem, partly because of the proximity of the two hooks means a difficult job mmaking a spanner, and partly because clamping the barrels and applying force can twist the barrels apart – they are almost certainly only soft soldered at breech, muzzle and ribs, and some of that may be defective. Again best left to an experienced person – and even that is fraught!
All the possible ways of removing rust have the potential to do harm, and some of the more aggressive ways can render metalwork worthless.
Sandblasting is NOT an acceptable derusting technique! ( If you think I’m inventing that one, I wish it were so!).
Emery paper or wet and dry in anything coarser than 240 grit is too coarse for surface refinishing and will leave deep scratches – The use of paper or cloth runs the risk that you will round surfaces, unless attached firmly to a flat backing – as a way of cleaning up an old gun, this is definitely the last option to try!.
Electrolytic derusting is one method that doesn’t harm the underlying metal surface BUT it will destroy oxide layers, browning and patina which may well be an essential part of the character of the gun. (It may also damage some high strength steels, although these are not found in old guns). If you do derust this way it will leave a fairly neutral grey surface that will probably need refinishing in some way, depending on condition and what it is – often I finish lock plates, breech blocks etc. by electrolytic derusting followed by brushing on a fine rotary wire brush, and they don’t need any further treatment.
Chemical rust removers may work, but don’t seem to be much used on guns?
If in doubt either leave it alone, or just use a very fine steel wool (Grade 0000) and proceed very gently. Sometimes rust can be scraped off with a blade but it is easy to mark and scratch the surface – still, used very carefully and slowly it is a valuable way to get light rust off otherwise clean bits.
Very light rust and surface dirt can sometimes be removed using a very fine wire brush mounted on a shaft such as a grinder – the wire of the brush should be steel with a diameter of 0.08 inches (?? check??) or less – it will clean and polish the surface without removing significant metal, and, if used lightly, won’t round off corners – but DON’T use it on anything where the finish or engraving is particularly crisp as it will very slightly blur very sharp edges. In that regard it is sometimes useful for aging metalwork that looks too new!
Serious refinishing of e.g. of pittted barrel flats is done by draw filing to keep flat surfaces flat. Draw filing involves running the file along the flats while holding it at an angle of 45 degrees to the direction of motion. Use only a fine, clean file and be careful to keep cleaning it with a file card to prevent bits of metal being caught in the file and scoring the surface – I often lubricate the work with soapy water or talc to stop bits of metal getting embedded in the file, but you do need to check the file surface frequently. You will need to inish off with Round barrels can be sanded with 1 inch wide strip in 240 grit, finishing off with 400 grade, wrapped round 180 degrees and pulled back and forth. I finish off with 1000 grit and polish with 2000 grit
Excessive oil may get into the woodwork and will discolour it and could spoil an otherwise nice gun. If the woodwork is in reasonable condition avoid flooding the gun with oil.
Don’t think its a good idea to go over the woodwork with sandpaper, or even worse, a sander – it isn’t – you might as well throw the gun away and save time! See the FINISH section for more details.
There are often internal cracks and weaknesses within antique guns, sometime all held together by the metalwork – look at the grain pattern – where are the weaknesses? Don’t glue up splits and cracks unless you have established where they start and stop and know if they are structural or just cosmetic.
Splits near edges that can’t be glued back up invisibly with superglue ( most can’t) are best cut out on a miller and a matching piece of wood inserted – in general, to make a good job its best to get rid of the damaged area and let in a carefully matched piece of wood that is cut to be an EXACT fit.
It is difficult to let in a new piece by handwork unless you are skilled – a milling machine will cut straight sides that can be fitted to exactly. New wood must fit with no gaps or the glue line will show.
Any replacement wood should be carefully matched for species, colour and pattern and grain direction – probably type & grain direction being the most important – glue lines always show up unless they are very narrow.
Dings and dents can be raised by steaming to a certain extent, but only if they result from the wood being compressed, in which case steaming swells the wood back to somewhere near its original volume – BUT you will almost certainly loose the finish. Steaming has no benefit if wood has been lost.
Filling holes and cracks with filler or glue mixed with wood dust doesn’t work except occasionally in gaps against furniture or the barrel.
One important thing to remember about the stock is that when the gun was put together the stock and furniture were married together BEFORE the final shaping, so that the finished shape of the stock and furniture was done together to ensure a perfect fit. Unless you are intending to take the gun back to a similar level and reshape both together, you need to preserve the shape of both EXACTLY.
The finish of the wood and the metal is an essential aspect of the appeal and value of the gun , and removing or damaging either will be very difficult and time consuming to rectify and get the gun back to an acceptable appearance. Removing any significant amount of wood by sanding will spoil the patina of age and give the gun an entirely artificial appearance, as well as probably leaving the metal furniture standing proud of the surface and rounding sharp corners on teh inletting – ensuring that it looks like a very amateur job.
You should only attempt to refinish the stock if there is a real and inescapable necessity to do it – and then proceed with great care using the gentlest technique that will just do the job. Ingrained dirt and very minor damage can be removed using medium or fine grade steel wool, possibly with a little raw linseed oil to lubricate it.
If you need to insert a new piece of wood take great care that you don’t reshape any of the surrounding wood – you may think that you can get away with minor errors by subtly reshaping the existing woodwork, but it will almost always stand out a mile if you do this. Its very easy to take too much off…..
There were two finished used on old guns – many high quality guns used an oiled finish, in which repeated coats of various oils were applied and then wiped off when partially polymerised by exposure to air. This is the way best guns were and are finished and it takes many many coats to get the best quality finish. Alternatively guns and pistols were varnished with a natural substance dissolved in a solvent, often alcohol ( methylated spirits in the UK) – the ost common was probably shellac, derived from beetles, that is the basis of French polish. None of these finishes is a tough and durable as a modern varnish, but both give a more authentic finish. Both oil and shellac can be applied with a rag and more or less wiped off again – lots of thin coats are better than a thick treacly coat.
Metalwork needs careful review before you touch it – if you look at auction descriptions of guns for sale they almost always specify how much of the original finish remains – take this as a warning that removing original finish will reduce the value of the gun!
Metalwork also needs sensitivity in refinishing – electrolytic derusting followed by a light brushing with a fine steel rotary brush may be all that is necessary for rusted metal, but as above, NOT if there is still any original finish left.
Any attempt to file down the surface of the metal parts, e.g. the lock plate will almost certainly reduce the value and aesthetic appeal of the gun, and the only thing worse than filing the surface is going at it with a Dremel, which will probably leave it looking like the rolling hills of Wiltshire – fine as a geological feature but not as a gun part! I often see locks that have obviously been ‘Dremelled’ and they look terrible – much worse than previously rusty locks that have been gently derusted.
New metal parts need to be given compatible finishes – not to ‘fake them up’ but because otherwise they distract from the harmony of an antique. In general this means colouring them by chemical or oxidation processes. Case hardening powder applied to red hot metal will darken it and take off the bright shine, and heating it to a temper heat will give a coloured oxide layer whose colour depends on the temperature it is taken to. Blackley’s colour case hardening powder followed by half an hour on the hotplate of an AGA is my standard finsih for screws etc.
For a quick and dirty job, shiny screws can be toned down with a proprietary cold blue solution.
Often the engraving on antique guns is worn as part of general overall wear and there is a strong temptation to have it recut to restore it to its original clarity. This applies particularly to the maker’s name if maker was well known and likely to enhance the value of the gun – while there may be people who like an antique with ‘normal’ wear and tear to have a disproportionately sharp and clear name, for many collectors it is a BIG turnoff! One reason for this is that if the name has clearly been recut there is no guarantee that that was the name originally on the gun, and therefore there may well be cause for suspicion concerning its origin.
Thee are occasions when I would think it acceptable to recut engraving – for instance if the gun involved is not by a well known maker and is in overall poor condition such that you are obviously doing a lot of restoration work on it, it would be acceptable to recut the engraving on the furniture over the top of the existing engraving to freshen it, or it parts of the name are worn away so that it is more or less illegible a light refresh is in order, but try to keep one example of the makers name in its original worn state so that the provenance of the gun is not obliterated – guns with a gold poinson have the advantage here in that they have a more or less indestructible name. Recut engraving is usually easy to spot – modern engravers have a slightly different style, and its usually too sharp and too deep to be original. The best way to detect recut engraving is to compare the wear on all engraved surfaces – its extremely rare for anyone to recut all the engraving on a gun to the same extent!
One problem to bear in mind when considering recutting the engraving on a gun is the state of hardness of the metal – while some parts of the furniture are normally soft enough to be recut directly e.g. the trigger guard and finial or the barrel, it may be that the part you want to recut is hardened and will have to be annealed before the graver can make any impression – this is often/usually the case with lock plates. Annealing can oxidise the outer layer of metal if you don’t do it in a special furness, and will lead to loss of finish and a slight loss of metal thickness.
If you do decide to have the engraving recut, it will ideally need to be done before the parts are finally finished – the cut surfaces will show if done after finishing because the cuts will show up as brighter metal. Engraving tends to throw up a small burr round the edges that needs to be removed by either rubbing over the surface with a flat block with worn 3000 grit paper, or a light pass through the fine steel wire brush – both of which may damage the existing finish..
There is one situation I’ve come across where I think recutting of engraving is permissible;- where a gun or pistol has disproportionate wear on the barrel, or the barrel has been been struck up and rebrowned and as a consequence the original engraving has lost its sharpness. I have seen a number of guns and pistols where the engraving on the locks and furniture is absolutely mint and untouched and the gun is perfect except for the barrel which is either in a relatively poor condition through rust and scratches or has been enthusiastically refinished, in either case leaving then barrel engraving looking disproportionately worn, often almost unreadable. I am not sure how guns get into this state, but I guess the locks and some furniture are case hardened and so don’t wear to any significant extent – I also suspect that the are quite likely to be handled by the barrel and so get finger marks that rust. As detailed in a couple of the posts on this website, the lettering on these refinished barrels is often illegible because its filled with rust and a skin has formed over the top – in which case it is, in my view, perfectly OK to VERY carefully go over the lettering with a graver to remove the skin and rust and get it back to its original surface, which will almost certainly make the lettering readable again. How far one goes in cleaning up the lettering is a matter of personal choice, but it could be anywhere between just removing the skin and loose rust ( possibly aided by the very fine wire wheel ) and recutting to remove most or all of the inevitably rusted surface of the lettering cuts to leave lettering as sharp and deep as original.
This barrel recutting is ideally done prior to any planned rebrowning – if the barrel is to be ‘struck-up’, i.e. filed or papered down I would usually go over the engraving with a light recut before any other work on teh barrel so ensure no lines are lost, then after the striking up etc I would go over and possibly recut again. Only when I had reached a state I was happy with would I start to brown the barrels.
If the barrel you are dealing with is already nicely browned and there is no reason to re-do it, it is possible to recut the lettering on browned barrels, but this will probably result in a metallic shine from the fresh cut surfaces that will detract from the appearance ( and shout RECUT !) – there are a couple of possible remedies for this;-
- A brown felt pen wiped over the lettering and then wiped off
- A wipe over with ‘brown gunge’ of some sort to partially fill the lettering – it can then be removed but will tone it down a bit.
- A very careful touch-in with a minicule amount of Birchwood Caseys Super Instant Blue using a very fine brush to put an instant blue ( really grey) on the cut surfaces.
Notwithstanding the above, please take note of the warning at the top of the home page on this blog – its very easy to make a mess of restoration work, with the net result that you won’t increase the value of the gun by as much as it cost to restore, or you may indeed reduce its value.
These posts deal with recutting barrel lettering;-
Bales of Ipswich restoration
Chas. Moore restoration
Westley Richards restoration