An Herbal Root, London Guns, and Hue It all started with an 1885 W&C Scott that my Dad found in a trash bag at an estate sale; literally. It had been stored for what looked like generations in an old lambskin case. Over time and humidity, the wool bonded with those old Damascus barrels and corrosion was so extensive in appearance I thought for sure all was lost. There was a nice piece of walnut under the reddish stain but the grain was a mystery due to dirt and again a few generations of time under its belt. W&C Scott may not be a London “Best Gun” but this was most certainly the finest gun I ever worked on. It was a true side plate hammer gun, it had carefully executed scroll engraving and it was by far the lightest 12 bore I had held. It was a “Gentleman’s Gun” and it was my desire to bring it back to life. I needed to figure out what gave the stock that reddish color, or a better choice of words, would be the word; “hue”. Gun makers in the 1800’s used what was available to them and in many cases it was the same materials used, even at that time for hundreds of years, and that is what should be kept in mind when searching the past. For answers I posted on Shotgun World’s gunsmith area and a gentleman was kind enough to tell me it was Alkanet without question and I asked him where to get some and he said; “he had no idea.” I read some piece meal information on something called Slackum, I also found that Purdy’s was selling some alkanet at a high price to mixed reviews. Some gun stores simply sold stain labeled as; “Red Oil” or “Red Stain”, but being the person that I am I needed this gun to be; “correct”. A quick search of “Alkanet” led down the herbal highway. It’s a place of candle makers, soap makers, traditional dye makers and of course holistic medicine. Alkanet comes from a number of places in Europe, Middle East, and France is a large producer of it. With the exception of the finest of guns it is almost extinct in its usage in stock finishing. In a day when any gun manufacturer can acquire rapid application, rapid dry times and minimal cycle times Alkanet was destined to follow rust bluing into the great unknown. Alkanet has had a long history; first arriving on the scene in Egypt in the latter half of its 3000 years of the country’s glory days. As I stated earlier if you want to learn what the old craftsman used it’s important to look at what others were using in the time period. Alkanet among its other uses was used as a pigment in paint. It would be only natural for a stock maker who yearned for a color in the 1800’s to turn to oil painting for a solution. By the 1800’s alkanet had already been in use as such for hundreds of years and lies within all the great paintings of our time. Alkanet played its role along with many other ingredients that the earth provides now and at that time. The old masters didn’t have Home Depot to turn to; neither did the cabinet makers, the violin maker, the painter, the blacksmith (more on this in a minute). They each, in many ways, had the same tool box to turn to, learn from, and basically refine for their specific needs and outcome. I knew where I could get alkanet, it’s readily available from a variety of sources, but that is only one component; one piece of the puzzle. In looking at any gun finish there are facets that must be considered that go into the recipe. Alkanet gives the medium the color, and is the focus, but what is the carrier oil going to be? How long will it take to dry? How will it flow? How will it settle? How easily will it possibly run? How long can the user work with it before the very hands using it become the enemy of its beauty by it tacking up too fast? What can be added to improve its flow, its gloss and most importantly; what did the old masters most likely use? Linseed oil which is used in oil paints has been around for centuries, in its natural state it takes forever to dry. Boiled linseed oil isn’t boiled at all it simply has some chemical additives added to aid in accelerated drying. It is readily available, easy to apply and easy to repair. Like alkanet, it too, had been used in the oil painting trade forever and it’s these facets and common history that keep us on the trail of what guns were carrying around on their surface and what components can make up; “alkanet oil”. Turpentine is a true solvent of linseed oil and when I say true I mean once blended they shall never again part from each other. Many people confuse dry time with what I call tack time. My objective with any finish is to assure one coat per day can be applied. The reason this was a target is because I have read that the old makers would put a coat per day for 30 days. Based on my experience “happyland” for linseed lies between 12 and 30 coats; the quality of the finish is subjective but I find that in my use that band is pretty common. Customers of any product like to complete that effort in some rational level of time and making fine guns was a process that took time and quite frankly; was expected to. Many activities were taking place in parallel to that 30 day application process in the fabrication of a firearm. Although in many ways Spirit of Turpentine may be a great choice it has a nasty smell to some people and also has some health issues that can be significant with use; certainly prolonged use, so my decision after extensive trials was to use mineral spirits which is much safer; as OSHA notes, "turpentine is a skin, eye, mucous membrane, and upper respiratory tract irritant in humans. It may also cause skin sensitization and central nervous system, gastrointestinal, and urinary tract effects." In many experiments with both I could see no difference that would drive me to a different decision. Mineral spirits, contrary to what some reading this may believe, really didn’t accelerate drying. Mineral spirits is a great thinner of linseed oil but not something that improves dry time significantly or as in “tack time” (dryness to the touch) so another coat can be applied. To think of it another way; my desire was to get the surface of the material to be dry enough so it can be handled knowing that through the process of oxidation the many layers would be “curing” over time; but another coat could be applied. To give you a clear understanding of the evaporation rate of mineral spirits verses a couple of other solvents; mineral spirits evaporates 14 times slower than VM&P Naphtha and 56 times slower than acetone. So as you can see mineral spirits may be an excellent choice as a thinner but it really isn’t the best choice to use as something that will aid in the dry time; water evaporates quicker. The trick is again finding that balance of dry time. If you incorporate an excessive amount of one ingredient over another the working time could be cut down dramatically, the flow and the dry time could be negatively affected. I only reference acetone because most of us are familiar with the blinding speed at which acetone evaporates and I am not suggesting it be used in any linseed oil based finish. I wish there was a profoundly simple solution but there never is it takes experimentation if you desire to find that blend of chemicals and I do use mineral spirits and VM&P Naphtha. There is one last ingredient that is mentioned in many texts regarding the definition of Slackum, as used by the London gun trade; and that is the use of Venice or Venetian turpentine. Venetian turpentine (Venice Turpentine) is made from the resin of larch trees and only larch tree resin, especially those found in the areas of the Alps and Carpathian Mountains but it can also be made from trees in the western United States.. If it comes from anything else, such as a standard pine, it is not Venetian. Venetian turpentine has a natural golden-yellow color and it looks and feels like honey. Venetian turpentine is soluble in acetone, ether and water, and partially soluble in petroleum hydrocarbons. The most common use of Venetian turpentine, particularly pure Venetian turpentine, and not blended with anything else, is in application to horse hooves. The turpentine is applied after shoeing or other foot treatments as a therapeutic measure to help the bottom of the hoof heal. Venetian turpentine is mixed with certain oil paints to increase the paint's flexibility, transparency and gloss. After reading of this one mysterious ingredient listed for a traditional recipe for Slackum it made perfect sense! It isn’t that the old master craftsman invented something new they just looked to painting and fine furniture making for the answers to their questions. What does it look like? Alkanet stain looks like cabernet wine literally and doesn’t affect wood and wood grain quite the same as a traditional stain and honestly depending on the specific piece of wood it may respond differently to it. It is a very “safe” stain to use especially on deeply figured walnut that may have varying levels of porosity. Fine walnut is not just brown it has touches of purple, red, and orange and it may be hard to pick up these colors unless the light is right but it is there especially in crotch feather. It may be literally a sliver of color. A normal stain can at times act to give you the overall color hue you desire but at the same time it may mask the very details, like those subtle colors, that were already possibly hard to see. Alkanet doesn’t do that at all it creates a subtle mahogany hue but instead of masking colors it seems to accentuate them; sometimes dramatically. In addition, walnut will have mixed levels of porosity, again perhaps slivers of it, and what the cabernet color will do is fill those areas with color. It is in these overall yet small changes that an already nice piece of wood becomes an even greater piece of wood because of it. Alkanet was a pigment for thousands of years as was linseed oil. Mineral spirits and turpentine had been around since the crusades and actively used by painters of the day and Venetian turpentine had been documented since the 15th century. Naphtha in its various forms has been around for over 2000 years. In creating my SB McWilliams Alkanet Oil I had no desire to create something new my desire was simply to find the solution in what they had available when my Dad’s 1885 W&C Scott was made with such great care. The key to the solution, in the end, was not really the ingredients; they were just the beginning of a long journey. It is important to understand the detail that the quantity of one ingredient versus another can have an extremely negative or positive impact on the outcome. The ingredients to a cake can be guessed fairly easily but it is the ratio’s that make it a cake that is true to being one. In creating my alkanet I spent months figuring it out using a blends of these ingredients and many others and finally found mine. In any fine restoration details matter because it is the details that make a “Best gun” simply, profoundly and exactly; that.