Considering Checkering

Those who’ve done it will attest that it is an unsettling feeling to pick up a gun whose stock is devoid of checkering. Though uncheckered guns exist, they are the exception and not the rule, and those uncheckered guns are typically wanting in other areas too. It’s safe to say that nearly all fine guns exhibit intentional and well-executed checkering, and the historical record would indicate that as soon as man invented anything that might marginally be considered a firearm, there was some sort of checkering on the wrist and forearm. The purpose of checkering was and is plain: In checkering the contact area of a tool that might move in the user’s hands, a high-friction surface makes for a more secure grip. And as in all things fine-gun related, this practical application has become a canvas for artistic expression as well.

Early checkering saw lots of variation. Flintlock and percussion guns often were fitted with decorative patterns of nails or tacks whose heads protruded above the gunstock surface and made the surface grippy. In Bavaria and Belgium a fish-scale pattern of checkering was for a time en vogue, and it was cut into gunstocks with a purpose-made chisel that positioned the relieved edge of each scale facing rearward. A basketweave pattern was employed by gunmakers and stockers in different parts of the Continent but, though it took a high degree of skill to cut the layered pattern, the result was coarse and never adopted in a substantive way. Late in the flintlock era a convention began to emerge, and the majority of guns started to exhibit a foundation based on a diamond pattern relieved into the stock. This proved the most desirable and artful basis for gunstock checkering.

The use of a relieved diamond—i.e., one cut in two dimensions to create both depth and breadth—makes ergonomic sense. Diamonds generally cut in a 3:1 or 3½:1 pattern (3 or 3½ times as long as it is wide) can create an effect like a series of little pyramids, or teeth, that in turn nearly doubles the contact-surface area. Not only are the diamonds pointy (high friction), but the hand also has twice as much material to grip, with the overall effect being satisfyingly tactile. The checkering also serves to keep the gun securely in the grip of the shooter under recoil.

Where shotguns are concerned, we generally differentiate between two predominate styles of checkering. One is Point Pattern checkering, seen frequently on best-quality guns. This style utilizes a layout that displays compounding diamonds, the sides of which remain parallel throughout the entirety of the checkered area. In this style every line intersects at the same angle, meaning that the V-shaped intersections of the border lines create the exact same angles as the intersecting interior lines that create each tiny diamond. The diamonds (or the Vs that their intersections create) comprise the overall shape of the checkered area, albeit laid across a contour of the wrist or forearm. The other style is more common in American guns. It is called Regular Patterned checkering, and in it the outside line of the checkered area is drawn wherever the stocker chooses. The border of the checkered area may curve, display fleur-de-lis patterns or otherwise have varied irregular architectures forming the outline of the checkered area. Because the border lines do not correlate to the interior lines that comprise the checkering, there is a significantly higher “fudge factor,” as the stocker need only fill in the defined area with regularly spaced and consistently oriented lines. 

Point Pattern checkering exhibits none of the ornamentation of Regular Patterned checkering and, by comparison, can seem quite humble, almost plain. It is, after all, just a series of triangular intersections that generally frame the top tang and trigger-guard tang, aligning on each side to frame the drop points or side panels. Upon closer consideration, however, excellent Point Pattern is the pinnacle of the stockmaker’s art and, done well, can be considered a differentiator between a nice gun and a work of surpassing quality. Consider this in assessing a classically checkered British best gun: In one uninterrupted panel comprised of a regular frequency of lines (generally 20 or 22 lines per inch), the stockmaker must have the points of the borderline Vs align with structures on the sides, top and bottom of the gun’s wrist and forearm—structures spaced intermittently over the complex curves that are the wrist or forearm. What looks to be a simple feat is incredibly difficult. Continuity of diamonds and borderline Vs that begins on one side must wrap around a curved surface and “land” at the same position and in the same angle on the other side—basically tilting in pattern on an axis both vertically and horizontally and lining up symmetrically. This superimposed pattern must be cut into a stock structure that is more often than not asymmetrical, what for the realities of cast, palm swell and so on that make one side different dimensionally from the other. In Point Pattern checkering everything can change with one subtle bend of a line or slight-off-angle layout, compounding as each line is laid beside the one before it and rotated around the wrist or forearm. Clean execution of a visually simple checkering pattern is an exquisite gesture of precision and understated elegance, and it isn’t done well terribly often. This is mind-bending stuff undertaken by those with a heightened sense of complex symmetry.

A rough description of the checkering process may oversimplify its complexity, but it is informative nonetheless. When author Del Whitman sets out on a checkering job, he generally does so once the stock is at final dimension and initial finishing is complete. To start, he accurately marks the top and bottom centerlines of the wrist, the bottom centerline for the forearm, and the centerline up-and-down as seen in profile. Using a diamond-shaped mylar template of a predetermined size and proportion, he orients the point where the rear of the diamond terminates and where points of the diamond terminate, typically behind the top tang. He extends those lines into what would be an X, and then ensures that the points of intersection occur symmetrically when extended from the top to the bottom tang, extending forward to frame the drop points or panels. On the forearm these initial lines must frame the escutcheon perfectly, leaving symmetrical uncheckered space on every side of the diamond-shaped escutcheon. Confusing, yes, but look at a fine gun and imagine how the patterned area would be laid out to fall into correct orientation. The magnitude of the feat will readily present itself. (By the way, if there is no escutcheon, often the checkerer will leave an open diamond in the center of the forend pattern anyway, to give the impression that there is one. This illustrates the concept of using positive and negative space to create the aesthetic of the pattern.)

Once the layout is set, Del cuts master lines with a single-line cutter, which resembles a short section of a triangular file affixed to a handle. Master lines are cut freehand with short strokes of the file following a scribed line. Once the master lines are extended and the points of each exterior V are established, a two-tooth cutting tool is used to lay in the successive lines. The structure of the cutting tool and depth of cut determine the number of lines per inch (lpi) of the pattern, with the majority of best guns exhibiting 22 to 24 lpi and 26 lpi being the “tightest” pattern (after which the fine size of the diamonds fail to serve their intended gripping purpose). One tooth follows the existing master line, and the second tooth cuts the line beside it. This process is continued until the terminal lines are established, and then the intersecting lines are cut at the angle determined in the layout, creating the tiny interior diamonds. Because this process of successive cuts implies the potential for compounding error, lots of linear measurements are taken throughout and intermediate marks are made to ensure that each line of the advancing checkering proceeds on track.

Checkering properly requires a series of passes with tools of different cutting angles. The master lines and first pass of cuts are made with a 70° tool that, at the prescribed lpi, will not head up each vertical diamond to a sharp point. Once the pattern is established, a second pass is required with a 90° cutter that, although it cuts the channel with file-like teeth, almost burnishes the surface of each diamond. On occasion the cut has to be chased in the opposite direction to eliminate “fuzziness” of retained wood fiber, but in the end each diamond should be symmetrical and sharp. The checkering can then be tidied up, brushed out and sealed with a thinned coat of stock finish. The checkering should be brushed out regularly when the gun is in use, and touch-up finishing should be done exceedingly sparingly, as the utility of the checkering requires that the cut channels do not get filled in. 

So there you have checkering. Like so many facets of the gunmaker’s art, it is a composite of form and function that, done well, is as simple as it is complex. Oft overlooked and surely underappreciated, checkering deserves a bit more consideration. Checkering done well deserves far more than that. 

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