Book review of
THE FINAL TOUCH:
A Complete Course in Gunstock Checkering
by Joel Schafer
Gunmaking as it is currently practiced by the best makers in this country is an integrated whole of several sophisticated skills, any one of which would would take an ordinary mortal a lifetime to master. Even so, most makers tend to specialize a bit, either in woodworking or metalsmithing or engraving. But there are those who deftly practice two or even three of the primary gun arts.
While the Old World may still have universities and sophisticated technical schools with advanced curricula in the gunmaking arts, many there still learn in formal apprenticeships. But in the United States most makers tend to acquire their skills the hard way – by dent of hard work and perseverance. Two-year gunsmithing schools may ground one in the rudiments, but it’s likely that a skilled maker will garner additional inspiration and insight from like-minded friends. A fortunate few may apprentice to a master or receive encouragement from a mentor. The closest thing we have to a professional gunmaking community is the American Custom Gunmakers Guild. It is not a training institution but rather a sanctioning body with established professional standards. Members are admitted after a jury review of their work demonstrates their competence and ability to meet the guild’s standards. While much invaluable information is exchanged among guild members, little of it is permanently recorded for the benefit of students or nascent gunmakers.
Most guild members not only exhibit a professional pride in their considerable skills; they’re also inveterate teachers who wish to share their knowledge if for no other reason than the sheer joy and satisfaction it brings them. Every summer a significant number of Gunmakers Guild members, along with members of the engravers and pistolsmiths guilds, hit the trail to small community colleges around the country to spend a few days passing on their knowledge in seminars. While much lore is transmitted to the next generation of gunmakers as well as to serious hobbyists, little of it is ever recorded in a permanent manner, much less in book form. There is no mystery why this is so. Writing a book on even a narrow topic takes a great deal of life’s scarcest and most valuable commodity – time. For most of us, our waking hours are devoted to putting food on the table, which leaves little time for writing even for those so disposed. That’s why most craftsmen are delighted by the advent of a book on their favorite discipline.
Happily, Joel Schafer, a fellow member of the American Custom Gunmkers Guild, has undertaken to share his accumulated knowledge of gunstock checkering in a book titled The Final Touch. A professional stockmaker of long standing and great talent, Mr. Schafer pays homage to the community of fellow travelers from whom he has learned so much. The foreword to Schafer’s book was written by Jerry Fisher, arguably the dean of contemporary American stockmakers. In his foreword, Fisher says, “For those who are just starting in the stockmaking trade, carefully study Joel’s work. His work is good, his advice profound.” There is nothing to add to that beyond a bit of description of the book.
Each of the seventeen chapters covers in considerable detail everything from the critical checkering cradle to applying finish to the completed pattern. Every one of the hundred and one pages offers some nugget of advice that would make the book worth reading. If you are new to gunmaking and studying checkering for the first time, even reading about the tools and techniques will seem a little daunting. Even if you have some checkering experience, you will still have to cogitate on the material, perhaps rereading and reviewing it several times. As with most complex skills, when it comes to checkering, book learning alone isn’t enough. At some point learning how to checker is going to take some – well – checkering. Until you have put hand to tool and tool to wood, no amount of detached contemplation will suffice. But armed with the insights that Joel’s book provides, you will have a fighting chance of acquiring sound skills with a little informed effort. Most of us who sail solo into uncharted water run aground out of ignorance and inexperience rather than for want of ability.
Short of real, hands-on experience with tools, the next best thing is clear illustration of the subject matter, and that’s where The Final Touch excels. Schafer is a first-class photographer, and he has liberally strewn nearly every page of the book with sharp, well-lighted color photos (more than 230 of them) that almost put you in his shop. Like any serious book meant to be referenced at the bench with hands full of tools, this one has a spiral binding that allows it to lie flat and open without a brick on top of it.
No single book can answer every reader’s every question, but this one comes close. Serious students of gunstock checkering will find most of the answers here. Even experienced practitioners will take away some new trick or insight to justify their time and the $75 price of admission.
To order your copy, visit www.jschaferstockmaker.com.
P.S.: Joel Schafer is also working on a book devoted to gun photography. Appealing gun photographs, like checkering, don’t happen without a good deal of effort and experience. And like the subject of checkering, little has been written or shared about producing useful, artistic and professional gun art with a camera. As you have seen from Joel’s book on checkering and the gallery at his website, he is as capable with a shutter as he is with a checkering tool. Ask about his photography book manuscript and encourage him to produce another artisan’s bible.