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Building a Muzzleloader - Polishing and Bluing

Yet another of the thankless tasks involved in building a muzzleloader - but I like the results!

I'll tell much of the story with photographs, so each page may be a bit slow to load. Click on any photo for a larger image.

More of this Course
Page One: Intro
Page Two: Fitting the Buttplate
Page Three: Fitting the Lock
Page Four: Fitting Barrel to Tang
Page Five: Fitting Barrel and Tang to Stock
Page Six: Installing Trigger Assembly
Page Seven: Polishing and Fitting the Nose Cap
Page Eight: Polishing and Fitting the Trigger Guard
Page Nine: Fitting the Sights
Page Ten: Inletting for Wedge Pin Plates
Page Eleven: Sanding the Stock - Initial Sanding
Page Twelve: Final Sanding & Patchbox
Page Thirteen: Staining the Stock
• Page Fourteen: Polishing and Bluing
Page Fifteen: Finishing the Stock

Page Sixteen: The Tools I Used
Page Seventeen: Conclusion
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Modern Muzzleloader Cleaning

Polishing and bluing the steel parts for the muzzleloader was my next project, after staining the stock. I actually started this while waiting for the coats of stain to thoroughly dry. This step, like most of others, can be quite time-consuming, but it's very important to the appearance of the finished rifle.

Of the steel parts to be blued, the barrel rib was the worst. It came to me in the white (unfinished) and very rough. The holes are punched instead of drilled, so the sides bulged adjacent to each hole. Each hole that was punched bent the rib, so the whole thing was crooked, arcing away from the barrel. The rear end had been sheared off quite roughly, leaving the end crooked. The front end, which had been rounded on a grinder, was out of square.

I operated on each end by placing the rib upright in a padded vise and working it with an eight-inch flat mill bastard file. I straightened it, pretty much, by hand and eyeball. I then used the file, running lengthwise, to remove the high spots from the sides, top and bottom. This took quite a while.

The rear end of the rib, before I operated on it.
(No larger image.)

Rear of rib, after file work. I rounded the outside edge just a tad, due to my dislike of outside sharp edges.
(No larger image.)

After the file work, I used a sanding block and sandpaper, using 120, 240, 400, and 600 grit sandpaper, working lengthwise. Finally, I worked it with No. 1 (medium) steel wool.

In polishing the barrel, I didn't need to do any file work. I used a block and 220 grit sandpaper, graduating to 400, 600, and then the steel wool. The factory "polish" was quite coarse, and if you know where to look you can still see evidence of a low spot on the top flat of the barrel.

Working the barrel, I had to be careful to keep the sanding block flat, to avoid rounding the flats of the octagon barrel. I still managed to round the flats just a fuzz, but I can live with that.

The muzzle was rougher than the rest of the barrel, and I polished it by working in perpendicular directions until all marks from the previous sanding had been removed, then progressing to the next finer paper and finally steel wool. I took off as little metal as possible, and in fact left a scratch that started out fairly deep.

All in all, I could have produced a much finer polish if I'd wanted to, but this gun is not going to be a showpiece -- it's a workhorse. Similarly, if I'd wanted a super-pretty blued finish, I would have taken the prepared parts to a company which specializes in that, rather than using the cold bluing process that I chose.

I debated browning the steel rather than bluing it, but ultimately decided against it. If I'd browned it, I would have used the saltwater rust method outlined in Gunsmithing, but I ruled that out as too time-consuming -- plus it wouldn't have matched the sights. So I used what I had on hand: Birchwood-Casey Perma Blue Paste Gun Blue.

The same tube of blue paste I've been using for years.
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As an aside, I have yet to find a Birchwood-Casey product that's not good stuff. They're certainly not paying me to say so, and in fact I purchased every one of the Birchwood-Casey products used in this project -- they are not freebies.

I started the bluing with the smaller parts, to get a feel for it again. Cold blue paste like this is quite difficult to use on larger parts, as it is extremely difficult to produce an even color. After scouring the surface with steel wool, it needs to be degreased. I used mineral spirits for this purpose, though it's probably not the absolute best and will likely leave trace amounts of petroleum distillates on the work.

I used cotton swabs to apply the blue to these smaller parts, and the process is quite simple. After cleaning and degreasing, you simply sock some paste to it. Leave it on for 30 to 60 seconds per instructions, wipe clean, polish lightly with steel wool and repeat a time or two. Each application will darken a bit, but there's a limit to how dark you can go, as I discovered when bluing the barrel.

After bluing, it's very important to coat the part with a good rust preventative, my current favorite being Militec-1. Bluing is simply a form of rust, and so it must be prevented from advancing once the proper finish is achieved.

After bluing various screws and the barrel rib, I finally got up enough nerve to blue the barrel. This was no small task, for cold-bluing such a big piece has got to be done both quickly and carefully.

Since I needed to blue all of the barrel at once, and I couldn't touch it while doing so, I needed some sort of jig to hold it while I worked. I employed some barnyard logic and improvised such a jig using an old fiberglass CB radio antenna, which I wedged between a plastic chair and my charcoal smoker, on the front porch. Hardly elegant, but it did the job. I simply slid the barrel onto the antenna and went to work, after taping over the rough end of the fiberglass so it wouldn't abrade the bore of my rifle.

The barrel, on the high-tech jig, after the first application of the blue paste.

I used a rag in my left hand so I could steady the barrel without touching it with my skin, which is a definite no-no. I applied the paste with the corner of a clean rag (piece of an old T-shirt), working as quickly as possible while still keeping it even. The biggest problem is applying the paste evenly, because overlaps are unavoidable.

After one coat, I stepped back for a breather, and found it to be quite a task just to straighten up! Bending over the work and working so intensely had stiffened my back considerably. Just goes to show that you're only as old as you feel, and when I was able to move on to the next task, I was a few years younger. I allowed a minute or two for the paste to work, then wiped away the excess with a clean rag (more of the same T-shirt).

This is my right hand when the job was done, after several hand-washings. The blue finally did wear off, but it took a few days.
(No larger image available, who really wants one?)

During the application of the fourth coat, I found that some areas were actually becoming a bit lighter, rather than darker, so I called it quits. The result was a fairly even blue, and considering my methods it was really quite nice.

The barrel after the fourth and final application.

As time goes by, the blue is fading and even becoming a bit brown. I don't mind this a bit, though the finish is so thin in some areas that I may degrease and re-coat it in the future. As it stands, I like it -- I see it as a rustic-looking finish, a compromise between the brown I'd considered and the blue that I reluctantly decided on.

As you can see, this isn't a perfect blue job, but it's just fine by me for this project. A smokepole is supposed to look rustic!

After firing the rifle a couple dozen times during the initial sighting-in, I found that the finish on the drum and on the barrel has been altered due to the heat, which again I don't mind. Again, it helps give the gun a rustic look, which I like.

This shows some of the discoloration of the drum and barrel (look near the nipple) after firing the rifle. It also shows a spot on top of the barrel where the bluing decided to disappear, must have gotten contaminated somewhere along the line.

Next Page - Finishing the Stock

- Russ Chastain

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