Stippling the M&P – a tutorial
As much as I enjoy steel framed 1911’s, checkered wood and other firearms forged from fire, polymer pistols and accessories are here to stay. As with most stock polymer components, the texture and grip is usually lacking and leaves much to be desired. Like most of you, I’ve been stippling various items for a few years and have thoroughly enjoyed learning from the process of trial and error.
My instrument of choice up till now has been a dental waxer with interchangeable tips and a variable temperature control. More importantly, the actual instrument and working end is about the size of a sharpie marker, which definitely affords control and precision.
Here’s a pic of a basic unit I got ‘issued’ in dental school:
Temperature range is about 170’ – 300’ F and has worked well for most projects including shotgun stocks and grip panels. Here’s a pair of stippled Sig X-5 226 grips – from the factory, Sig grips are pretty slippery.
After purchasing a M&P, I was certain the grips would need some work, as the pistol felt like holding a bar of ivory soap. Did the requisite google search and surfing on the forums to see all variations of stippling done on the M&P, as well as reviewing some of the example put forth by some very competent gunsmiths. Looking at the M&P closely, I knew that because the grip itself was missing some definitive borders, stippling was going to be more of a challenge and would require more careful planning.
Started with the backstrap with the waxer set around 250’ and made quick work of that area.
Now would be a good time to talk about magnification. While a comfortable workspace with good lighting is recommended, I honestly believe that magnification to some degree will make the job easier and produce a better product. Same thing applies to dentistry. Anyway, you don’t need a pair of Zeiss 3.5x loupes, but a magnifying lamp or even the clip on magnifiers that flyfishermen use will be of benefit.
At this point, I attempted to stipple the rest of the pistol and realized the waxer was just not hot enough to dent the plastic. The alternatives were a soldering iron or a hobby wood burning kit. My only issues with these instruments was the lack of a variable temperature control and most importantly, the lack of precise control with a bulky long and fat handled iron which would get ridiculously hot to manage.
Back to google, I discovered that there were wood burning kits available with the working end attached to a handle no bigger than my waxer. Okay, another excuse to buy more tools. Here’s what I found:
Wood Carving Tools & Art Supplies - Greg Dorrance Co. - Wood Burners
They have the best prices for these wood burners if anyone is interested. The kits come with pre-selected tips, but upon request, will swap tips to suit your needs. As you can see in the photo, the pen-like grip is probably the most useful part along with the variable temp control.
Okay, some basics:
1. Do your research and commit to a design or style. I liked what Ben was doing over at Boresight with the addition of the borders to better define the stippling. The straight lines are visually more appealing and breakup some of the wavy curvy borders on the M&P. Also helps keep the stippling straight along the edges and leave little room to second guess where the tip goes next.
2. Make sure you have all necessary tools that work best in your hands. For me, using a soldering iron is like using a dremel to drill teeth. Get good lighting and consider using some magnification.
3. Plan and layout any lines/borders. You can use tape or draw lines with a pencil or fine tip sharpie with a straight edge. Use calipers to ensure symmetry or get a machinist’s rule. Make sure you are consistent on using fixed points to measure off of on both sides of the pistol. Use a rubber band or copper wire over contours like the back strap if you a straight line from one side to the other.
4. The enemy of good is perfect. You’ll pull your hair out chasing perfection. If it’s good and to your liking, let it be.
How to make the borders.
After you decide the overall look you want to achieve, draw your outlines. Note, on the M&P, the location of both the right and left slide release tabs/cutouts are NOT identical. The right-side release is a hair forward of the left-side release. If you are making a line between the mag and slide release, use a fixed point off the mag release area to start the line, using the angle of the slide release frame cut out as a reference for angulation. A small detail, important to me, buy maybe not to others. I used a pencil first, checked symmetry and then followed with a sharpie since I was going to cut a border.
Okay, now the fun/hard part. What’s the best way to cut these borders? Heat? Scalpel? Chisel? Only think that made sense was using a drill but had nightmares about a drill bit skipping across the frame and slide. Decided to try anyway as I was committed to finishing this up in some manner.
I used a benchtop laboratory electric handpiece. Again, a very compact handle with variable speeds capable of 30K rpm. The electric motor is good for consistent torque and figured this would keep me on a straight path. Used a #4 round bur at low RPM (around 5K) to gently score the lines. Again, use magnification. As the borders grew deeper, I increased the RPM to about 20 – 25K as there was already a trough of sorts to guide the bur. It also helped to angle the bur while running along the borders to better define a step in the border, making sure that the shaft was perpendicular to the direction of the ‘cut’. Once done, I cleaned up the hairs of plastic first with a scotch brite wheel, then a felt wheel, ,followed by some scraping with an enamel hatchet. A fancy word for a tiny chisel.
With the borders completed, it was time to finish the stippling. Without a doubt, the precision wood burning kit made finishing the project a joy. I found that using a higher temperature setting made for quick work without leaving too much material lift around the holes. Also, the hotter tip allowed for brush-like strokes in all directions versus the usual stab. For some texture variety, alternate between pokes/stabs and drags/twists with the tip. You can also go back over areas as well.
For now, I’m pretty happy with the results. I still have to run over the stippling with the scotch brite and felt wheels, and will likely smooth out the area under the trigger guard, as well as add a small border to outline the stippling there. I’ve already cut down the bottom of the front strap where it meets the magwell with that ugly protrusion.
Now to enjoy the new grip on the M&P!