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Pistol Grips - A ‘How To' Guide

Equipment:

  • Jig Saw
  • Belt Sander (Coarse & fine belts)
  • Drill Press
  • Dremel (with cutter attachment)
  • Planer (Optional but nice to have!)
  • Band Saw (Optional - but nice to have for bigger pieces of wood)

Tools & Misc:

  • Brad point drill bits, 15/64th and 9/32nd
  • Transfer punches, 15/64th
  • File
  • Pencil or Fine tip marker
  • Ruler - a good one with 32nds divisions is nice
  • 1/4" Chainsaw File
  • Old set of pistol grips
  • One grip screw
  • Government / Officers model size .45 cal pistol (with grips removed!)
  • Hammer
  • Small wood block
  • Poster putty (or double sided tape)
  • Sand paper (150, 220, 400, 600 grit)
  • Tung Oil
  • Tung Oil Varnish (Optional)

And let's not forget…WOOD!

 

To begin, carefully select some good air-dried or low moisture wood. “SCALES”, which are pieces of wood pre-cut to the approximate dimensions we need are what you should look for. You'll need two scales with dimensions of 4.5” L x 1.5” W x ¼” H. These dimensions are the absolute MINIMUM that you can work with if you're really careful. I prefer 5” x 2” x 3/8” so I have a little room to play with. Our project will be using THUYA, an exotic burl found only in the deserts of Morocco.

Once you've selected your wood, you'll need to take an old set of grips and trace the grip pattern onto your blanks with a pencil or fine tip marker. (Figure 1) Remember there are two grips, left & right, and they are DIFFERENT…make sure you trace the left grip on one scale and the right grip pattern on the other scale. Once you've traced the patterns onto both scales you can cut them out using your jig saw. Make sure you cut outside of the pencil line. Figure 2 shows one of the cut thuya scales. Figure 3 shows both scales after they have been cut. Notice the pencil outlines are still fully visible in Figure 3... we'll get back to that later.


(figure 1)

(figure 2)

(figure 3)

Next you need to get the grips down to their proper thickness, which is ¼”. I do this with a belt sander (coarse belt), and a small wooden block to hold the scale. I use poster putty to stick the block to the scale, or you can use double sided tape. The point here is to get your fingers away from the moving belt, because it will burn them if you accidentally touch it! Pay careful attention as you sand down the scale, and stop frequently to measure each of the four corners of the scale. You want all corner dimensions (and the whole scale in general) to be an even ¼” thick when you're done. Figure 4 shows one of the scales sanded down to ¼”.


(figure 4)

(figure 5)

The next step is to use your transfer punch and mark where the grip screw holes go. (Figure 5) Take one of your old grips (and its matching scale) and place the old grip on top of the scale. Try to line up the old grip with the pencil marks on the scale. I use poster putty here again to keep the grip in place, or you can also use double sided tape. Take your transfer punch and tap it with a hammer to make a mark in the scale. Do this for the other grip screw hole as well. Double check that both transfer punches are in the center of the grip screw holes of the old grips. For a full size 1911 grip the center of the holes should be 3 1/16" apart. If you screw up this step you're going to do a lot of work for nothing since off-center transfer punch marks will cause you to drill the holes incorrectly, and then the whole thing won't fit on the gun when you're finished…so be very careful on this step.

Place the 15/64th brad point bit in your drill press. Place one of the scales on the drill press table and lower the brad bit into the transfer punch hole. I always drill from the top (presentation side) of the scale to the back, or frame side. While the brad bit is holding the scale, clamp the scale down. This centers the brad point on the scale and you're now ready to drill the first hole. Figure 6 and Figure 7 illustrate this step. Repeat this step for the other transfer punch hole. Repeat for the other scale. Don't rush this step either, because off-center screw holes can ruin your day. Try to put the grips on the gun - if your holes are correct it will slide right on. If not, you can take your chainsaw file and slightly enlarge the hole until they fit.

Keep the 15/64th brad bit in the drill press. Take the first scale you drilled and flip it over (on its back side). Lower the brad bit until it goes in the hole you just drilled then clamp down the scale. Now change to your 9/32nd brad point bit. Carefully drill down approximately 1 mm (yes, 1 millimeter). You can use a spare grip screw to check the depth - you want the head of the grip screw to sit flush in the hole you just drilled (I put the screw in upside down so just the screw head goes in the hole while I hold the threads). Place the 15/64th back in the drill press, center it on the other hole, and clamp it down again. Put the 9/32nd back in, and drill down again to 1 mm. Repeat this step for the back side of your other scale. DO NOT drill the screw counter bore on the front of the grips yet…we'll do that later.


(figure 6)

(figure 7)

At this point you can do a quick check and put your scales on the gun. The grips should go over the bushings, but should not go all the way down to the frame yet. If for some reason you didn't drill the holes right, you'll see it here. You may be able to save the project by trying to redrill. If not, get a box labeled “firewood” and chuck the scales in it. Go back to Step I.

Now go back with your belt sander (fine belt) and “shape” the scales down to the pencil mark lines. We're not rounding the grips yet, so only shape the top, bottom, left side, and right side. Once I have them close to the pencil lines, I usually hold the scales together so the sander will make both scales even on every side. Pay careful attention to the top of the scales and the bottoms. If the tops are not right, the safety on the gun may not fully depress; if the bottoms are off, there will be an ugly, uneven angle line between the grip and the bottom of the magazine well.

Now take the left grip (if the gun is in your hand, it's the grip on the left side of the gun) and get your Dremel & file. Figure 8 shows the notch that you need to cut (this is why this grip would not fit down to the frame in Step VII). Use your old grip as a guide. I usually “dremel” it down, then take the file to make the angle smooth & even. You will know when you're done because the grip will now fit snugly and should slide down onto the frame completely.


(figure 8)

(figure 9)

If you have an ambidextrous safety, you will need to cut into the back of your right grip. Using your old right grip as a guide, mark the right scale where you need to cut. I use a dremel for this step as well…and remember you don't need to cut this area too deep. Figure 9 shows this cut. At this point, both grips should fit snugly down flush on the frame, your safety should be able to fully depress on both sides, the grips should look “even” from all angles.

Now we'll round the grips using your belt sander (fine belt). Using a rolling motion, shape and round the grips. Keep in mind that standard grips are ¼” at the screw holes, and can taper down on both sides to almost nothing. Figure 10 shows an unshaped Amboyna scale on the left, with both shaped thuya scales on the right. Again, watch your fingers in this step.


(figure 10)

(figure 11)

Next take your 150 grit sandpaper and sand, sand, sand & sand. You'll notice that the belt sander left some nasty gouge marks…you'll need to make sure you sand all of those out. Once you've removed the gouge marks and nicely rounded and smoothed, you can go up to a finer grit sandpaper and repeat. I usually start with 150, then go up to 220, then up to 400, and finish at 600 grit. I've found that I usually spend at least an hour per scale until they reach the desired smoothness. They should feel as smooth as glass and have no scratch marks. Figure 11 shows a completely sanded thuya (left) and an unsanded thuya (right).

 

Now we head back to the drill press to drill the final front side counter bores for the grip screws. Using your 15/64th brad bit as a guide, clamp the grip so that the brad point will be centered. I use an old piece of scrap wood between the clamp and scale for this step (remember all that sanding you just did??) to protect the scale surface. Now change to your 9/32nd bit and drill a 1 mm deep hole just like we did in Step VI. Change bits and center the 15/64th on the other hole, clamp, then change to 9/32nd bit and drill a 1 mm hole again. Remember to use a grip screw head to check the hole depth so it sits flush. Repeat for the other scale. (Figure 12)


(figure 12)

(figure 13)

Next step is to apply Tung oil to both grips. There are several sources of Tung oil, but make sure you get 100% Tung oil. If Tung oil is not available, you can also try Teak oil, or boiled Linseed oil. Figure 13 shows the oiled grip (left) vs. the unoiled one (right). Let the oil dry overnight and repeat. I usually try to put 3 coats of Tung oil all over the grip, letting it completely dry in between coats. When dry, you can apply a varnish (Tung oil based) or polyurethane, depending on the finish you like.

Figure 14 shows the finished grips with 4 layers of tung oil varnish applied.


(figure 14)

I hope this guide has helped you with your pistol grip project. If you have any additional tips or tricks that I've missed please let me know so I can add them here.

Thanks, and best of luck with your grip-making!!

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