(IN) Craftsman obsessed with the building of long rifles


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Drizzt
May 9, 2005, 12:17 AM
Stick to your guns

Craftsman obsessed with the building of long rifles

By Dell Ford

For The Journal Gazette

Lowell Black has an obsession. Guns. More precisely, flintlock long rifles. Even more precisely, long rifles he builds.

Black, who works in purchasing/sales for Kendall Electric Inc., has been building long rifles for more than half his 61 years. The finished products are truly works of art.

Although he doesn’t recall playing with any particular toy gun as a boy growing up in Albion, Black does know that as a Marine from 1961 to 1965 he fired M-1 and M-14 rifles. His interest in building long guns, he says, began with membership in the Fort Wayne Rifle and Revolver Club but really took root in Friendship, a small town in the hills of southern Indiana.

Explaining the path that led him from shooting (and he does still shoot) to fashioning long rifles from band-sawed hardwood stock blanks, Black says he “used to shoot black powder ... muzzleloaders. Target shooting. I don’t hunt,” he notes without apology. “I wouldn’t kill an animal for anything.”

As a member of the gun club, and a participant in its monthly shoots, Black “mingled with people interested in black powder. Jim Holley and Harley Winkleblack, a couple of boys in the club, went to Friendship, home of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association. “I started going to Friendship in the early 1970s, and that,” he says, “is how I really got exposed to gun building.”

Black still goes to Friendship at least twice a year for the spring and national championship shoots. Black began building black powder flintlocks 35 years ago. The first was a .54-caliber “Colonial American, I guess you could call it. The first guns I made I shot; they’re all fully functional, and I shot (them) for a number of years.”

Today he does not shoot them and he does not sell them. What Black does with his long rifles is gently place them in fleece-lined gun socks and put them in a closet.

Since that first Colonial American, Black’s preference has turned to English and German style long rifles. He prefers European firearms “principally because of the quality of workmanship ... engraving ... the finish work. There was a lot of nobility throughout Europe, and they could pay for a lot of nice engraving. In the American Colonies, firearms were made by and for the man who had to put food on his table and defend himself.”

Claiming to be neither a TV viewer nor a sports fan (“is the basketball the big round one?” he wonders aloud poking fun at himself), Black’s time centers on family – Rose, his wife of 15 years, and their two little dogs, toy English spaniels Missy and Wesley. “I’m a family man,” he says.

Free time finds him busy in the yard of their suburban home shaded by tall hickory and elm trees. Or, at a small work bench on one side of the two-car garage. This place, in the garage, alone – save for music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, is where he goes to build the muzzleloaders. He’s there “a couple of hours” evenings and weekends – more so in winter when the lawn doesn’t need mowing.

Black has spent as long as a year working on a long rifle and has about 15 in his arsenal. “I wasn’t real active in the 1980s,” he says, explaining why there are only 15 guns in more than 30 years.

What makes Black’s long rifles unique is the handwork tediously crafted with an assortment of engraver and carving tools. The only power tools he uses are a drill press and bandsaw.

“Basically,” he says, “it’s all hand work.”

And it all starts with a stock blank, a piece of hardwood (American walnut or sugar maple – wood typically used to make early firearms) roughly the shape of a rifle. The wood is bought from dealers who come to Friendship.

“There’s a generous amount of wood that allows you to create the style you want,” Black says of the stock blank.

He first cuts the barrel in. He uses a router to cut excess wood out of the barrel channel.

One of the last jobs, which can take up to two weeks, is finishing the wood, and for this he uses a hand-rubbing linseed oil with pine distellents. The object is to seal the wood. He also stains the wood to darken it. When the wood is finally sealed, all the gun parts are assembled.

In Black’s opinion, the most challenging task in gun making is finish work: engraving and incised carving.

About eight years ago, the Fort Wayne gun maker spent a weekend with another gun maker who gave him basic instruction on engraving: technique and tool-sharpening.

“My decision then,” Black says, “was I needed to improve finish work; practice more on carving and engraving.”

Carving normally is done on the cheek piece and the breech tang area. The harder the wood, Black says, the better it is for carving. And this means carving tools have to be “really sharp.”

As for engraving, he says it “basically is how to sharpen the tools, how to handle the tools (extremely hard chisels and a chasing hammer) and beyond that it’s practice, practice, practice. Every engraver has his own technique. What makes engraving a challenge is the curves and irregular lines on the rifle.”

Black does “a lot of design work on paper first. I practice as much as I can. I actually have some sheets of scrap steel; I screw a piece to a block and put my design on it in pencil. Or I transfer it on. The hardest thing to do is cut a straight line. You can hide a lot of mistakes in a busy pattern.”

The patterns, or designs, come from several sources. One is “a lot of visual memory – from looking at originals I see in Friendship and other places.” Another source is reference books he owns. If he sees something that pleases his eye, he modifies it to suit how he plans to use it.

“Down and personal” is how Black describes finish work, adding, “I get my face in my work.” He pauses. “Just joking,” he says.

But to Black, gun building is no joke. It’s dead serious, and he loves it all beginning to end.

Rose Black chuckles when asked to comment on her husband’s work.

“He spends a lot of time at it, so he has to be dedicated.” Nodding toward the garage, she says, “He’s out there when it’s freezing.”

The gun maker has the last word.

“I have a very supportive wife, of my hobby.” He pauses, smiles, and adds, “Of my obsession.”

http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/journalgazette/living/11590262.htm

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