Words by Thomas Howells – a journalist based in London, specialising in culture, craft, food, travel and fine living. He has written for Vogue, Time Out, The Guardian, the Financial Times and Wallpaper* among others.
A Purdey gun is a work of material harmony: wood and metal in functional symbiosis. And while the accuracy of the barrel design and the hyper-detailed engraving of the action might provide the visual fireworks (and, in the case of the former, the literal ones), the real handcrafted ballast of a gun is in its stock.
Richard Bayley is Purdey’s ‘master stocker’. He laughs: it’s an accurate title, but a rather grandiose one. He’s been with the company, on and off, since 1974. His is a role that’s remained nearly identical since James Purdey’s early 1800s heyday. The stocker’s is a rich heritage; Purdey himself was one.
In short, a stocker fashions the wooden parts of the gun and attaches them to the barrels and action. With the exception of a little bandsaw cutting, to rough the shape from the initial block (or ‘stock blank’), it’s all arduous handiwork: chiselling, planing, surforming and sanding to the proper shape. Particularly archaic is the use of ‘smoke black’ to guarantee a perfect fit between the stock and mechanical metal action – soot is applied to the touching parts, showing the stocker exactly where they need to make incremental cuts to the wood.
Like an excellent tweed suit, a good stock is tailor-fitted to the size and shape of your body (and in this case, your face, too). To customise the stock to the dimensions of the individual cast – which bends differently depending on whether you’re right or left handed – the drop and length of the stock are carved into the blank for a perfect bespoke fit.
The difference in Purdey stocks
Purdey stocks are superficially different from those on other guns, with an aesthetic subtlety belying the complexity of the craft. “We tend to sweep the sides,” Bayley explains. “A lot of stocks will be dead flat; ours are very slightly rounded.” Both sides are convex; the face side slightly less so. There’s not actually a practical benefit to the design. “It's just how we've always done it – it just looks a bit nicer,” Bayley says. Watching him plane these curves is startling, and amazingly precise considering the swift fluidity of the work, continually adjusting the curvature with small metal gauges.
Equally intricate is the process of ‘chequering’; creating tight, carved grid patterns on the stock and forend. A chequering tool looks something between a bent chisel and a brush, with two parallel blades. Single lines are cut across the wood; these are traced with the tool, cutting another neighbouring channel, then repeated. The butt has 18 lines per inch; the hand and forend 26. It's exacting work, of filigree delicacy, but with function at its core: “It’s all for grip.”
Our wood of choice
Of course, the stock would be nothing if it weren’t for the material. Choosing a decent blank is a case of seeing the wood for the trees. You might find American stocks in maple, or beech stocks on cheaper air guns, Bayley explains, but walnut has long been the wood of choice at Purdey – specifically, that cut from the subterranean root ball of the tree.
“It’s the gunstock wood,” he continues, effusively. “It's strong, but it's got some flexibility to it. As long as it's seasoned properly it doesn't warp or split. It's lovely looking.” The grain itself – particularly beatific in Turkish walnut, drifting smoke made solid – also impacts the cut of the stock. Bayley looks for a good, straight grain along the hand of the worked blank; around the curvature of the butt-end of the stock, a wilder grain is fine.
Fundamentally, the satisfaction in the job comes from the element of transformation; from taking something organic and finishing with a product of tangible beauty that will last for generations. “It's just nice isn't it really? I love the wood,” Bayley says. “It's something that was alive – you're going from a chunk, to a finished article. When it leaves us, it's a gun; beforehand it's just a barrel and an action.” A pause. “It’s quite satisfying really.”