In this Summer 2018 article, Jason Herbert recounts his journey to put some life back into an old Stevens 12-gauge shotgun.
By Jason Herbert
I wasn’t really looking to pick up a new gun, or a new project, for that matter. Blessed with four children and several hobbies, I’ve always got plenty to do. But as I tried to explain to my wife, “…this gun found me.”
I was at my buddy Tim’s house one night admiring the new collection of firearms he acquired from a family friend who was recently widowed. “Wow,” I said. “I wonder what stories this thing could tell.” With spots of rust and scratches on the barrel, character marks in the wood and even some white paint on the forearm and stock, I could tell this gun had done a bit of living. “I’d refinish this if it were mine. I bet that would be a fun project. I’ve always wanted one of these,” I said.
Rendering me speechless, Tim handed me the old single-shot Stevens 12-gauge. “Well, then, it’s yours,” he said with a smile. “Let me know how it turns out. I’m glad you’re going to bring it back to life.”
I’m a man of my word, so at that very moment, because I had declared aloud that I would like to refurbish the gun, I was committed.
The first thing I did was tear the gun apart and give it a good cleaning. I saw a YouTube video of a guy using a Rubbermaid tote as a holding container/rack, and I thought that was a good idea. I got myself a clear tote and a big white sheet (to keep my table clean and my wife happy). Everything popped apart easily until I got to the stock. When I removed the butt plate and tried to unscrew the stock, I felt a bit of resistance and heard an audible, splintering “crack.” Somehow, while trying to unscrew the stock, I widened an existing crack and made it worse. Right then and there I had a realization — it was almost as if it were speaking to me: This gun is not perfect, and it will never be new again. In fact, the old break-action 12-gauge is perfectly imperfect, I thought to myself. From that point on, I decided to do my best to give this gun a facelift while still allowing its scars to show. I was determined that I would help this gun shine again while proudly displaying its history.
I have never done this sort of a project before, and my gut told me that because I could not get the stock off the action without doing further damage. I would just restain the stock and blue the metal while they were still attached, I thought. It seemed wise at that point to stop for the evening. The stock would have to stay attached, and I would just use masking tape to avoid cross-contamination when bluing or re-finishing.
So, with my adjusted plan of giving this gun a facelift, I needed to start stripping off the old rust, bluing and varnish. After a good clean up, I was ready to get started. My youngest son helped me clean the gun, but the chemical odors of the rust and blue remover were too strong to be in the house and Mama Bear commented that we needed to go outside. At that point, my son bailed out to go play Legos, and I was alone again with the gun. As I quietly worked the remover into the metal, I tried to notice every scratch and scar. I couldn’t help but wonder what tales this thing could tell. I know this gun came from Northern Michigan. Was it used to fend off a bear attack? Did someone depend on it for survival? Was it kept in the corner of an old farmhouse, ready for whatever challenges of rural life arose? Did the stock get cracked by giving some burglar a whack on the forehead? Or, was it simply neglected — tossed around, and never really given its chance to shine?
After the bluing was removed from the barrel and action, I dried everything off and went right to work re-bluing everything. I quickly learned that bluing metal is a delicate art. I used the cotton-ball-style brush that had been included in the prepackaged gun refinishing kit I got to apply bluing over all of the metal. Thankfully, I planned on a nice, dark finish and was OK with the fact that I had to apply several layers of the treatment. I was amazed at how quickly the bluing worked. In fact, I figured that if a minute of bluing looks this good, I couldn’t wait to see what an overnight of bluing would look like! Well, I made a rookie mistake, ignored the instructions, and left the bluing treatment on the barrel all night. It ended up turning an ugly brown in spots. I swear, the next morning when I went to look at the barrel, it looked worse than it did before I started! That junk took a while to rub off. Lesson learned. All in all, the re-bluing worked out pretty well, and I was ready to move on to the wood.
I found myself developing a personal connection with this gun and often wondering about it throughout the day. I have a very active mind, so random thoughts do not intimidate me at all. This, however, was different. Did some young boy or girl shoot their first duck or squirrel with it? Was this gun the envy of all the guys at the trap and skeet club? Where did the paint come from? How much did it cost? How many shots have been fired through it? I almost wish I would have just cleaned it and left it alone; however, I was in too deep now. I wanted to at least give the gun a facelift and make it look proud like it deserved.
Stripping the Wood
When I got a chance to dedicate a few hours to tear the finish off the stock, I was thankful that the process went by fairly easily. I took everything outside again and sprayed one side of the stock with the finish remover. The spray got quite bubbly, and I decided to let it sit for a bit while I took the time to play fetch with my dogs. When I came back, I scraped off a coating of brown slime and varnish with a plastic putty knife. I then dried it, flipped the stock over and repeated the process. I did the same thing to the forearm and ended up applying two coats of stripper to all of the wood. Once the wood was clean, I took a heavy-grit sandpaper, working with the grain, and sanded everything down until smooth. Then I switched to fine-grained sandpaper and polished things up until the wood was almost shiny. It was important to me to get the crack out of the stock that I created when I tried to remove it from the action. Other than that, I was fine with any of the gun’s scars and blemishes. It came to me with them, and each had a story. I pretty much left them alone. Once the wood was all sanded down, it was time to call it quits for the evening.
Re-oiling the Stock
Reapplying an oil finish was actually pretty fun. The directions in the kit recommended sticking my finger in the oil and rubbing it on the stock and forearm. I felt like a kid finger painting in preschool again. I hung both wooden pieces in the garage to air dry. Days later, I applied a few layers of stock sheen and conditioner. This process reminded me of waxing a car because the directions said to rub the conditioner into the stock, let it sit a while, and then rub off the excess. After the stock and forearm were nice and shiny, I gave the whole gun one more last cleaning with a rust-preventing wipe and then screwed the butt plate back on.
All of a sudden, I came to the sad realization that I was done. I have to admit, as busy as I am in life, crossing something off my list is a good thing. Oddly, this one seemed different. I was going to miss my evening rendezvous with the gun.
Now what? I thought to myself. Shoot it? Hang it up? Lock it in a case? I honestly don’t know what the future holds for the gun. I had fun working on it, and I feel honored to bring it back to life. I think I’d like to find some way to proudly display it in the house. Maybe someday I’ll give it to my first grandchild, who knows.
First and foremost, I’m not going to quit my day job and go into gun refurbishing full-time. Second, when taking on a project like this, I learned to set reasonable goals. When I first started, I wanted this thing to look like new. But, as I got to know the gun, I learned to appreciate the nicks and scars because they each told a story. To most, my refurbished version of this old Stevens 12-gauge looks like it needs a facelift now. But to me, it’s perfect. Perfectly imperfect, as I like to say.