It’s important to understand that firearm “conservation,” for the purposes of our discussion here, is very different from “restoration.” Restoration is the process of bringing an old, damaged, or rusty gun back to factory new condition (or better), and is something that you’ll need years of training, expensive tools, and lots of time to accomplish. Restoration is best left to professionals like Turnbull Restoration, and it won’t be cheap. In fact, in many cases, the price of a professional restoration will far exceed the value of the firearm—even compared to purchasing an identical, unrestored, original firearm in nearly new condition. But for heirloom firearms or other guns that have personal or sentimental value, restoration can be worth it. Turnbull will make even the crustiest old beater look and function better than new.
Conservation of firearms, on the other hand, is something that most home hobbyists can do with a minimal investment in tools and equipment. If you can detail strip (or even field strip) your gun and safely remove any metal parts from wood stocks and forends, you can conserve your firearms. Conserving a firearm is simply the process of stopping any existing corrosion or rust in progress, properly treating the metal and wood surfaces, and maintaining the gun in working order (if it already is to begin with), to keep what value and utility it has. We aren’t refinishing any metal or wood surfaces. We may not even choose to repair a non-functioning firearm if it’s a true antique or heirloom and may not be safe or desirable to fire. Conservation is a much less involved process compared to restoration, and if you do it correctly, it shouldn’t cause any damage to your valuable (either in a monetary or sentimental sense) guns.
So we want to think about this process as conserving, then preserving, rather than “restoring” these guns ourselves.
This Winchester 1894 has crusty rust lurking below an oiled surface. Left untreated, it will eventually destroy the gun.
How to conserve or “convert” your firearms, including the tools and items you need
We’ll dive deeper into the process below, but the steps for firearm conservation are fairly straightforward:
- Research how to properly disassemble the gun without damaging it
- Fully disassemble the gun using the proper tools (see below)
- Boil metal parts in distilled water
- Card off any converted oxidation residue using 0000 steel wool or soft carding wheel
- Immerse the converted/cleaned parts in kerosene, diesel fuel, or non-detergent motor oil to “set” the finish
- Wood parts should be wiped clean and appropriately hydrated with boiled linseed oil, Danish Oil, or another suitable oil
- Wipe everything clean, apply appropriate finish-preserving compounds, reassemble, and store in a humidity-controlled gun safe)
First, do no harm
As in the original Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, anyone setting out to conserve and preserve vintage and antique firearms should start out by making a promise to do nothing that causes additional damage to a firearm. Aggressive cleaning chemicals, steel-bristle brushes, sandpaper, coarse steel wool, wire wheels, improperly fitting screwdrivers, chewed-up punches, and incorrect disassembly methods are definite no-nos.
Important tools and tips
The most important part of the conservation process is to first do the research and learn how to properly and safely disassemble any firearm you wish to conserve. Some guns have specific disassembly procedures that prevent damage to fragile wood stocks, as well as the loss or breakage of internal parts. Get a manual if necessary, or consult a knowledgeable source. If you don’t know what you’re doing, STOP before you break something.
Next, make sure you use good, properly fitting, hollow-ground screwdrivers. Typical hardware-store flathead screwdrivers are wedge-shaped, and the sides of the blade flats are not parallel to each other near the tip where it enters the screw slot. This places all of the force at the sharp, top edges of the slot and will ruin your gun’s screws almost instantly. Chances are, you’ve seen more than one gun with mangled screws. Don’t do it.
This Winchester has a badly damaged screw from someone using the wrong screwdriver.
Hollow-ground screwdrivers are “scalloped” near the tip, so the flats are parallel to each other and the driver can fully engage the screw all the way to the bottom of the slot. A good set of gunsmithing screwdriver bits or an assortment of hollow-ground bits that exactly fit your gun’s screws is a must-have.
If necessary, purchase a good set of metal punches, including roll pin punches and starter punches. Make sure any standard punches are smooth on their faces if driving out solid pins.
Any hammers you use should either have delrin/polymer heads (if impacting directly on a gun’s metal surface) or, if metal, the hammer face should be polished to a mirror sheen to avoid transferring any dings or marks in the hammer face onto the firearm.
Do your research, and disassemble the firearm correctly
Never pry on wooden stocks or handguards. Avoid putting torque on thin stocks when removing rifle or shotgun actions. Don’t scrape sharp barrel bands against the barrel or stock when removing.
It’s a good idea to take photos of any large assemblies before you begin, and throughout the process of removing parts, to help remind you where everything goes.
For disassembly, it’s generally unnecessary and inadvisable to remove peened-over or staked-in parts, pins, and screws. You may not wish to fully disassemble some types of bolts or trigger groups, or other assemblies requiring “gunsmith-only” or “armorer-only” processes. These parts or assemblies can be properly conserved as-is.
Kroil or another penetrating oil can be a godsend for removing rusty old screws. Don’t let it touch the wood surfaces, but a small drop of penetrating or “creeping oil” on the head of stubborn screws, left to sit for an hour, and some light taps on a fully seated driver bit, can help break them free. Don’t use impact drivers. If you’re not sure about what you’re doing, consult a gunsmith.
If your action or stock liner requires special tools to remove it from the stock, buy or borrow the proper tools or leave those parts alone. Don’t try to improvise a tool and end up gouging your wood or scratching your metal hardware.
Take detailed photos as you disassemble a gun so you remember where everything goes.
Converting red oxide using boiling water and carding off the residue
Once you have your firearm and its components appropriately disassembled, you will need a way to boil all the metal parts in distilled water for approximately 45 minutes per cycle (you may need to do this process more than once, depending on the level of rust). Captured rainwater will also work, but don’t use typical treated tap water as it usually has chlorine, salts, and other chemicals in it, which can cause unpredictable results on metal finishes.
For handguns, this is easily accomplished in a cheap stainless steel pot (turkey fryer pots are good for this). Don’t use one of your kitchen pots, as the grease, rust, and grunge that is removed from your gun will be deposited onto the pot.
Small parts and screws can be easily contained and boiled within stainless steel mesh tea strainer balls so they don’t get lost.
For longer rifle or shotgun actions/barrels, you’ll need to rig up something that can keep the entire piece immersed in boiling water. The easiest and cheapest way is to trim a section of metal roof gutter a bit longer than the barreled action, seal the end caps with RTV or high-temp silicone, and let it cure. Then you can set up your custom “trough” outside using a propane turkey fryer (or two, if necessary) and/or camp stove, fill it with plain water, and immerse your parts to boil. Be careful and make sure everything is secure and stable.
After a 45-minute boil, remove your parts (carefully… they will obviously be boiling hot), blow them dry, let them cool, and examine. There will likely be a powdery, bright-orange residue covering the surfaces where red or brown rust has been converted to black oxide. This orange powder needs to be carded off using a specialized super-soft carding wheel (NOT A STANDARD WIRE WHEEL) or 0000 steel wool that has been degreased with a little acetone and allowed to dry. You can also use a clean nylon toothbrush for internal, hard-to-reach parts. Remember you’re not aiming to remove any of the remaining original finish; you’re just removing the leftover orange residue that remains after the red rust oxidation has been converted and stabilized.
After you have steel-wooled or carded off the orange residue, you may need to undergo the process of boiling again, depending on how badly rusted your gun was. If you degrease, dry, and still see brown, red, or orange rust in the crevices or pits of your metal surfaces, simply boil them again for another 45 minutes, dry, card, and examine. In our experience, 3 cycles is the maximum any firearm has needed. Once you stop seeing rust residue, you’re ready to “set” the finish by immersing the metal parts in kerosene (if you can swing it… it’s not as available as it once was), diesel fuel, or a non-detergent engine oil like 30W small engine oil. Mineral oil, WD-40, or gun oil can also work, but the former options are better and cheaper. Even used motor oil can work well. You’re just soaking the parts to displace any water and to prevent them from oxidizing after being so thoroughly degreased and carded.
Any parts or assemblies you weren’t able to fully disassemble should be moved/manipulated/exercised within the soaking liquid to drive out any water and help lubricate any internal springs or plungers. After a good soak in kerosene/diesel fuel/oil, wipe or blow off the excess very well, and you’re ready to add your favorite metal surface preservative, such as Renaissance Wax, and reassemble.
A note on soft carding wheels: You can steel-wool the entire gun, action, and parts, as it has the same effect, but it takes a considerable amount of time and effort. If you have access to a buffing machine and a super-soft carding wheel, it can save a lot of time, but isn’t necessary and may not be economically feasible.
Removing rust is different from removing valuable patina
Patina (correctly pronounced either puh-TEEN-uh or PAT-in-uh; we like the former) is just another name for “rust” in some people’s view. As blued, “in the white,” or browned metal surfaces age and are used, they may change color due to UV or air exposure. On the other hand, they might acquire a hardened layer of skin oils, gun oils, powder fouling, carbon, and oxidation. Patina or color change resulting from age, air, and UV exposure can be acceptable and harmless, but a combination of rust, oils, and fouling left untreated will eventually destroy your gun, no matter how good or “authentic” you think it looks.
So don’t be too attached to the patina on your guns if it is indeed the result of decades of improper maintenance. A good way to check is to degrease the metal parts with some electrical contact cleaner, blow them dry, and examine them under a strong light. You may find that the “patina” you’ve been so proud of is simply orange, red, or brown rust disguised under a layer of grungy oil. This needs to be safely “converted” if you want your guns to last. Again, if your gun is potentially historically significant or valuable, consult an expert before you do anything.
Conserving wood stocks, forends, and other furniture
While the metal parts are boiling or soaking, you can gently clean up and rehydrate any wood furniture. If you desire, any locations where a stock’s original oil finish has been worn away and has left a visible, shiny “edge” can be softened with 0000 steel wool, but this isn’t a necessary step. You can examine stocks and forends for any cracks, and decide whether you want to try to repair them with epoxy and brass screws or leave them alone. If your gun is for display/collection only, you don’t need to repair any cracks unless you want to. If your gun is a shooter, you definitely need to repair any cracks before they get worse, so read up on that process or consult a knowledgeable gunsmith for help.
Grungy old stocks can be cleaned by wiping them down with a soft towel moistened with boiled linseed oil (BLO) or pure tung oil (PTO). This will help remove grime and hardened, dirty old oils, but it won’t remove any original finish or harm the wood (quite the contrary). Dry stocks can be wiped down by hand with BLO or PTO, left to sit for 20 minutes, and then any excess can be wiped off with a soft, clean rag. This helps hydrate the wood so it doesn’t dry out and crack, but won’t hurt the existing finish or discolor the metal where it touches (you can also safely apply BLO to metal parts if you desire, though we prefer Renaissance Wax).
Danish Oil can be used in place of BLO or PTO on wooden stocks, and if you choose one with a color that matches the wood, it can help hide any minor nicks or light scratches in the wood. Remember, your aim here is not to strip and refinish the wood (which is far more invasive and can remove historical or arsenal markings), but rather than simply to remove grime and provide the necessary oils to prevent the wood from shrinking, drying, and cracking.
Here’s a good video overview of the conservation process.