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How to: Barrel Browning

August 14, 2010
By

In this “How To” I’ll be explaining how I go about browning a set of damascus barrels. There are plenty of other ways of doing this I am sure but this way I know, and it works, so I thought I’d get it down in a step by step for people to use, read or disagree with. As with just about every task one undertakes in gunsmithing and restoring old shotguns the quality of the job will be determined by a good start on a clear site (a phrase my first boss used to use in farming and true in anything you undertake). In this case it means getting the barrels as clean and shiny as you can;

Step 1 – Barrel Strike Up
Use a fairly course wet and dry or emery cloth of about 180 to start. Make sure you try and get as much of the corrosion out of any of the barrel areas. It’s good to use water and this takes time. Move up to about 240 or sometimes 320 grit no need to go any finer and make sure that you sand the barrel length not around the barrel (Thanks Chris forgot to make this clear). Once you are happy the barrels should look at least like ths;

Step 2 – Copper Sulphate Bath
I think an important step. Many people don’t but once you have seen the results of this you’ll never NOT do it. I use warm water in a window box (without holes obviously) and about 5-6 heaped tablespoons of copper sulphate. Make sure it’s all dissolved and when ready drop the bunged (don’t forget to make those ends water tight. I use corks wrapped with plumbers pipe lead tape) barrels into the bath and leave for 30 minutes. Once they’ve been in there for 30 minutes remove the barrels (use rubber gloves please!) and thoroughly rinse under a running tap. Hey presto superb pattern is back right? Sure is. Next dry the barrels and you are ready for the next step.

Step 3 – Applying the browning solution

Once the copper sulphate phase is completed and the barrels thoroughly washed and dried I sometimes just go over the barrels with ethyl acetate to remove any residue. Then it’s on with the browning. I’ve tried two; one from Peter Dyson which works well but is quite slow rusting and another from a gunsmith mate which seems to be quicker. I’m trying noth across these sets of barrels. The top barrel is from my new Wesley Richards muzzle loader and the other two are for muzzle loaders for a friend. I leave the browning solution on for 1-2 days and then onto the next step.

Step 4 – Repeat process
The process now repeats itself. The basic “carding down” (I use the lightest of wire wool or sometimes just a wet towel) of the barrels and then re-applying of the browning solution. This process usually goes on for two weeks, sometimes a little longer. Once you have reached the stage where you think enough of the twist is browned then it’s onto the final stage. No two barrels are the same. For instance if you look at the Joseph Lang barrels, recently finished, you’ll see they are qute brown and dark. If you now look at my Westley Richards percussion gun barrels you will see that they are brighter but just as beautiful. The barrels will tell you when they are ready.

Step 5 – Hot Wax and Finish
I use an old recipe of bees wax to finish the barrels and protect them. After the final carding I make sure that the rust stops by cleaning them off with acetone. Once this is done they are ready for the barrel waxing. I use a traditional method of warming the barrels and then applying the wax. This takes time and the whole barrels are waxed, heated (with a blow torch) VERY mildly and then waxed. The heat is applied to the wax just enough for it to melt and give a gloss (whilst it’s hot) to the barrels. I do this twice over the barrels. Then they are left to cool. Once cooled take a drying towel (one that your partner/wife/boss has of course allowed you to take) and polish away. I have differing grades of wax. A very hard wax that is used for the majority of the barrels and a softer bees wax which I use for the grooves and in the case of the percussion gun inside and around the rod guides. Here are some pictures of the finished barrels.

27 Responses to How to: Barrel Browning

  1. Chris Buckingham on August 9, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Tony,
    One thing you forgot to mention on your clean up sequence is that when striking the barrels always use the wet or dry abrasive, along the length of the barrel,and never round the barrel,it is also a much easier task on your fingers if you make up simple wooden blocks to the contour,or simlilar to that of the barrel.( I usually glue the paper on to the wood,as the paper becomes more worn it then gives a finer finish).
    Chris,
    France.

  2. Doug on August 30, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    Very nice article Tony…well written…………thanks for posting…others will benefit for sure….

    Cheers,
    Doug
    USA

  3. Hugh Lomas on September 21, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Re mixing up your own “Birmingham Black” Angiers c10k. I have been doing this for years and have a fair amount of knowledge on this.E-mail me with a phone number or if you prefer call me USA 920 876 3745 (UK +6hrs)I’m in the shop 9am-noon and 1-4:30.I’ll be happy to share knowledge but I’m a little reluctant to spread it all over the Internet as it involves chemicals that do require some care in handling. Will explain when we talk.
    Regards Hugh Lomas

  4. Tony on September 25, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Hi Hugh, thanks for the comment and as discussed you are in the USA so I can’t get any of your magic formula! :)

  5. Graham on January 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    A truly excellent article – well written and to the point. I have an old pair of Thoma Wild damascus barrels that need refinishing and I will be trying this method
    Regards
    Graham

  6. timre01 on May 19, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I did the copper sulphate etch on a fine twist barrel, it is really effective. I suggest using shellac varnish (sold as button polish) to paint on bits that you don’t want to be etched or browned – like the faces of the breeches if you have the plugs out, or the nipple seats. It also works on the barrel bungs but doesn’t stand up to boiling water. I etched at around 30 degrees C for 30 minutes and its very bold and striking!
    I used a ferric chloride solution for browning – it was some diluted stuff that had been used for etching printed circuit boards so has some copper content. It worked well and quite fast – I put the barrel above a piece of plastic guttering containing water on the back of the Aga stove at about 30 – 35 centigrade and made a tent over it – it took about 30 – 40 minutes per rusting and the whole job was done in about 6 – 8 hours – the result was a little uneven but looks exactly as if it is the original slightly worn finish. I ‘scratched’ with 0000 steel wool. Rubbing with old 2000 grade paper will slowly create slightly lighter patches for places where it would be handled. Very rewarding – but watch the copper sulphate – its surprisingly powerful especially if warmed, and don’t get the shellac where you want to etch!

    Regards
    Tim

  7. Tony on May 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Hi Tim, thanks for sharing your process. Please send me some pictures to tony(at)treadwell.me.uk if you have time.
    Cheers
    T

  8. Tom on May 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    I etched a cracked 8-bore barrel as a test before I plan to do a British .69 percussion SxS. I followed your directions and got a faint twist pattern. This isn’t a fine twist barrel, either. I put two applications of Laurel Mountain Forge barrel brown and carded with some coarse, wet cloth. Now the twist pattern has been covered up by the brown. I’m thinking I didn’t card enough of the brown off? This is a new process for me, so I’m proceeding cautiously….perhaps too much so.
    Thanks,
    Tom

  9. jeff on June 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I JUST WONDERED IF ANYBODY NEW HOW MUCH MY W.M. LARGE BARREL IS WORTH. I GOT IT FROM MY GRANDPA I DONT EVEN KNOW WHAT CALIBER IT IS
    BUT IT HAS NEVER BEEN SHOT AND ALL I HAVE IS THE BARREL ITSELF.
    FROM WHAT I HERE HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST BARREL MAKERS IN THE 70′S
    AND 80′S. STARTING OUT IN THE 70′S AND ONE OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS OF THE NMRA

  10. Tom on June 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Update – I tried this on a set of fine twist British SxS percussion rifle barrels the other day. The results were amazing! I think the difference in the results from my previous attempt was the attention to detail in regards to the preperation of the barrels. I put a lot more effort into the SxS barrels and the results speak for themselves.
    Thanks,
    Tom

  11. Tony on June 20, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Hi Tom, great! It’s pleasing when the end result looks great eh? :)
    Regards,
    Tony

  12. Tom on June 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    One thing I did notice was a yellowish tint to the barrels. Is there any way to remove this without diminishing the Damascus pattern that the etch produced?
    Thanks,
    Tom

  13. Tony on June 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Send me a picture…not sure what you mean. Cheers
    T

  14. Darren on August 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for this “tutorial”, I’ve been restoring and old single barrel damascus that I recieved from my late step father, I believe he started the process (he rubbed all metal back to silver! Argh!!!) but never finished so I have no idea of the condition when he bought the gun, and I havent been able to find out any information on it, the hammer mech seems to be stamped “R D Womach” but is difficult to make out and no info at all on this maker, it’s a 12 bore, 2 1/2″ chamber, reproofed in 1951 for smokless, I believe the gun is circa 1840-60.

    Still, following the process you have given, it took quiet an amount of trial and error before I started seeing reasonable results (may I say that a picture showing the barrel after each step would be most helpful), first the barrel came out dark brown with no pattern, so I reworked it and found I had to be much more aggressive with carding after each brown, now the barrel is a deep brown with slightly lighter pattern, but the colour is still very dark, unlike your barrels which have come out a very light brown.

    I’ve ordered some more browning solution and will card back even more this time to try and bring out more contrast, which is where I’m having the most trouble. Still, I don’t understand the process enough to know why my barrel is a dark brown whilst yours are a very light and contrasting brown. Fingers crossed that I can achieve somehting more like yours when I re-brown again next week.

    Thanks agin for this guide!

    Darren

  15. Tony on August 13, 2011 at 7:25 am

    Did you take the copper sulphate step? It’s quite important to bring the twist out. Always make sure you wear gloves too. I’ve done a much more detailed process instruction as part of my book. Available for interim review as it is being written on the top right of my blog. Please email me at tony (at) gameshadow.com if you would like access to the book.
    Regards,
    Tony

  16. Darren on August 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Hi Tony

    Yes I did use copper, and as with you the barrel turned brown but showed no pattern, so after rubbing back I went with hydrochloric acid to etch the surface. This took a few days but once done the copper sulphate worked well. The problem seems to be more when I come to brown, the barrel goes very dark and although the pattern is visible the contrast is very low unless I card back very aggressively, but this then makes the barrel look more metalic grey rather than brown. If I card back less aggressively the contrast is very low and dark brown. Trying to get it to a lighter tone is where my problems really seem to lie now.

    I notice that in your last set of 6 images my barrel has quiet a similar pattern to yours, but in your first image of 6 the colour is quiet dark and similar to mine after heavy carding, yet your final images show that the colour became very light, surely that colour change wasn’t achieved purely by waxing? The instructions for the Peterson slow browning tell my to use linseed oil, which I did (I was going to beeswax over that if I was happy with the colour), but after the linseed oil the contrast although slightly better was still overall dark and not light as yours.

    Thanks for yout patience Tony, I’ve enjoyed the learning experience of this, just hope there’s a trick I’m missing to bring the barrel colour lighter.

    Darren

  17. Tony on August 13, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Each set of barrels respond differently to the process. Carbon makeup and all sorts is different per set. So sometimes a set of barrels might finish up with an almost black finish. I’ve seen this.

    You should read my book. My new tweaked process is in there and I often don’t wax but use a new method.

    Good luck!

    T

  18. Peter Gosden on August 24, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Hi, how do I register for this site so that I can log in?

    Please let me know via my email address.

    Thanks,

    Peter.

  19. andrew on October 7, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for the tips Tony!

    One thing, what volume of water does your window box take. I have noticed that the Copper Sulphate consentration is very important, too much wrecks the tubes.

    Andrew, South Africa

  20. Tony on October 7, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Who told you too much wrecks the tubes? How much is too much?
    T

  21. andrew on October 11, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Someone, somewhere, (maybe Angier?) said use a saturated solution. Believe me it WRECKS the tubes, will try to find my sample piece and send you a picture!

    Andrew

  22. Tony on October 11, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Lucky I know what I’m doing then. :)

  23. Andrew on October 12, 2011 at 7:29 am

    Yip, you certainly do know what you are doing.

    I’ve checked, it is Angier speaking about the ‘saturated’ solution, he did not try it, but refers to it on page 136

    I found my sample piece. It forms a thick (10 thou?)copper ‘skin’ on the tubes, which is very hard to remove. Under this skin it is etched very deeply, like the old Rigby barrels, but blotchy and unevenly. Can’t wait to try your ‘weak’ solution, got a grant 20BR side lever that wants doing.

    Andrew, South Africa

  24. Greg on November 30, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Hi Tony,
    What a great site,really glad I found it.
    I have been tempted in the past to try damascus barrel rebrowning,but it looked too complicated with many odd sounding chemicals needed.
    Your process looks pretty straightforward ,I will try it first on an old “junker” set of barrels I have.
    Your barrels looked better straight out of the copper bath than some I have seen fully finished!
    I have to ask is the rusting really necessary after this step or does it not stand up to wear well?
    Not sure what browning formulas are available here,are there any commonly available chemicals that can be used?
    How do I register to log in to your site?
    Many thanks,
    Greg.

  25. Tony on November 30, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Hi Greg, thanks. :)
    The copper sulphate bath is just the start to get the contrast really showing…the rusting does the nice browning job. I use Peter Dysons stuff mostly in the past but about to try Mark Lee stuff over the weekend on the Purdey.
    No need to login, unless you want the book password if so, email me at tony(at)gameshadow.com and I’ll give it to you.
    Regards,
    Tony

  26. Will Bradbury on December 3, 2011 at 1:54 am

    Excellent article! I have a quick question about the striking of the barrels. I started my first barrel refinishing job with a set of damascus barrels. I began removing scratches and light pitting with a small file (lightly of course)and then began sanding/polishing but noticed that some small scratches remained. Will these very small sanding scratches show in the final finish and if so, is there a step in the polishing that I am missing? Or do I just not sand enough? Thanks for any insight! Will

  27. Tony on December 4, 2011 at 7:34 am

    Hi Will, I usaully start at 380 paper, got to 600. Then if things look a bit rough I even sometimes go to 900 then 1200. It takes a long time to get them that fine though. Usually 600 is enough just go finer and finer until you are happy with the marks, or lack of them by that point I hope! :)
    T

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