Daily Archives: February 23, 2013

Restemming and Refinishing an Imported Briar Italian Billiard

Today I took another bowl out of my box of pipes to restem. I had previously turned the tenons with a Pimo tenon turner and fit it to the bowl and shank. I had not fit the stem when I started. The diameter of the stem was larger than the bowl. This bowl was a real mess. It is stamped Imported Briar in an arch over Italy on the smooth left shank of the pipe. It had originally had a band but that was no longer present with the bowl. The finish on the pipe was in bad shape. It was almost a yellow varnish that was chipping and peeling away. The rustication was filled with grit and grime and the colour of the bowl was an ugly yellow colour under the varnish. The bowl was still round and the reaming had already been done and it was pretty clean. The rim had some build up of tars and oils and a few dents. Looking it over I decided I would have to top it to clean it up.


The tenon was a good tight fit. I stepped down the end of it to sit in the stepped mortise in the shank. I needed to remove a good deal of vulcanite from the saddle portion of the stem to bring it to the same diameter as the shank. I used my Dremel to do that work. The next series of four photos show the process of removing the material from the stem. I use a Dremel with a sanding drum to do the work. I run it at a medium speed that allows me to float it over the stem without digging to deeply into the vulcanite. I find that a slower speed gives a very rough finish and a faster speed is harder to control the work.


The next series of three photos shows the finished fit of the stem. I have finished sanding it with the Dremel. The photos show that it is relatively smooth with no deep gouges or scratches in the surface of the saddle. I also used the Dremel to sand down the castings on the button and on the sides of the stem. You can also see the place on the shank where the band was previously.


One the stem fit well against the shank I decided to top the bowl. I set up my sanding board with the piece of sandpaper I use. I hold the paper on the board (it is a fine grit emery paper). Then I place the pipe on the paper and sand it by working it clockwise against the sandpaper. The next two photos show the bowl against the paper and the finished topping of the bowl. The final photo in this threesome is one of the brass bristled tire brush that I use to clean rusticated bowls. This one was quite easy to work as I could work it along the grooves of the rustication and work it until the bowl was clean.


After scrubbing the pipe with the brass brush and some alcohol it was ready for a new band. I sorted through my bands and found one that fit the shank well. The next three photos show the shank before banding and then after I pressure fit the band to the shank. The emery paper and the fine grit sanding sponge in the pictures was used to sand the stem and begin removing the scratches and make a good fit against the band.


The next series of four photos show the fit of the stem against the banded shank. More work needed to be done on the stem to remove the scratches and refine the fit against the shank. Once the scratches were removed from the stem then I would work on the fit. I wiped down the bowl with acetone on cotton pads to remove the finish. I scrubbed it with the wire brush a second time and then wiped it with acetone again. I also sanded the bowl surface with the sanding sponge to remove the finish from the shank and the high points on the rustication.


At this point in the restoration I decided to restain the pipe with a dark brown aniline stain mixed 2:1 with isopropyl alcohol. I applied it and flamed it, reapplied and reflamed it. I gave the rim two extra coats of the stain to match the colour of the bowl. The next series of three photos show the stained bowl. It was darker than I wanted for the end product so I decided to lighten it.


I wiped the bowl down with isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad to lighten the stain. I wanted to see if I could clear it off the high points while still allowing it to remain in the grooves for contrast. The next three photos show the pipe after I had wiped it down.


When I had finished wiping it down I took the pipe to the buffer and buffed the bowl with Tripoli to remove some of the dark stain. I wanted to remove it from the high surfaces of the bowl while leaving the dark stain in the grooves of the rustication. The next four photos show the pipe after I buffed it with the Tripoli. I also buffed the stem with Tripoli and White Diamond to give it a bit of polish and see what I needed to do with the sandpaper.


I then removed the stem and wet sanded it with the micromesh sanding pads in 1500 and 1800 grits. I use fresh warm water and dip the sanding pad in the water and then sand the stem. I also used the Maguiar’s Scratch X2.0 after sanding. The next photo shows the stem after sanding and polishing.


I then dry sanded the stem with the remaining grits of micromesh 2400-12,000 and then gave it a final polish with the Maguiar’s. The photo below shows the stem after sanding with the 3600 grit sanding pad. The shine is beginning to rise on the surface of the stem. I rubbed it down with Obsidian Oil and let it dry. The final four photos show the finished pipe. I buffed the stem with White Diamond and then polished the bowl and the stem with carnauba wax to get the shine.


The pipe has come a long way from the stummel that was sitting in my repair box. I am happy with the finished pipe and the contrast stain. It feels great in the hand and will make a great smoking pipe for someone.

What Is The Amber Used in Pipe Stems and How Do You Bent It?

Blog by Steve Laug

Over the past years I have learned about and written a variety of blog posts on bending both acrylic and vulcanite pipe stems. I have used a variety of methods to heat the stems – from using a candle, an alcohol lamp, a heat gun to placing them on a cookie sheet in the oven and bending multiple stems at  the same time. But over the years I have always wanted to know how to bend amber – or even it was possible. I had looked on line for information on bending amber and even posted on several of the forums to see if anyone had experience with it or had information on how to bend it. No answers were forthcoming.

Then one day I decided to contact Fred Bass, who is the moderator on the All Things Meerschaum Forum on Smokers Forums http://www.smokersforums.co.uk/. We have been emailing and sending pms back and forth on Smokers Forums for a long time. We have read each other’s writing and done editing work. Fred has become not only a good friend to me but also a go to source for information on all things pertaining to smoking and repairing Meers. Whenever I have questions about cleaning up or refinishing a meer, I write Fred and he has inevitably had the solution on the tip of his tongue. So I asked Fred about this topic. He sent me an email with information that he came across on amber stems while reading a reprint of a 1906 Scientific American article, entitled Meerschaum and It’s Manufacture into Pipes. In the article was a paragraph on preparing and bending amber stems for meerschaum pipes. He sent it on to me and I have had it saved on the hard drive so that one day I could post it on the blog. I have incorporated this paragraph and some of my own research into this article in order to get a deeper understanding of amber and how to work with it. It is my hope that in putting this online that others who have experience with amber stems might fill in the gaps and share their knowledge with us so that we can be more informed about this stem material.

What is Amber?

Amber is found in many parts of Europe and America, but in largest quantities along the coast of Germany. Amber is the fossilized tree resin (not sap) of now-extinct coniferous trees which grew millions of years ago. Sap is primarilycomposed of water and sugars within the heartwood which nourish the tree. Resin is a fragrant substance composed of acids and terpenes which flows just under the bark and is released to protect and seal wounds when branches are broken or pests bore into or damage bark. These resins were released from trees in response to disease and physical attack, and over millions of years have hardened into a solid substance which, unlike traditional mineralized fossils, still remains an organic substance instead of having been mineralized. For this reason, amber is classified as an ‘organic gem,’ along with pearls, coral, ivory and jet. It is not a mineral. Amber occurs as irregular masses, nodules, or drops that are transparent to translucent and have a yellow color, sometimes tinted red, orange, or brown. It may be clouded by innumerable minuscule air bubbles or contain fossilized insects or plants. It is relatively soft (2-3 on the Mohs scale), lustre resinous, and its specific gravity is 1.05-1.09 g/cm³.


Because it is soft it can be easily scratched. By the same token it polishes easily. If dropped on a concrete or ceramic tile floor it may break, chip or shatter. A drop on a wooden or asphalt tile floor should not result in any damage. It is at least partially soluble in many chemicals – alcohols, chloroform, acetone and others. It has also been known to reduce to powder over time if exposed to ultraviolet light. There are often fossilized materials in the gum itself. I have seen ants and other insects as well as plant matter inside amber.

Colours of Amber

All amber falls within the color spectrum of yellow-orange-red with pale yellow to yellow orange being the most common, orange tinged or cognac amber being more valuable and rarer, and true cherry red amber being the rarest and thus most highly valued. There is also a buttery white to pale yellow opaque amber that occurs in the Baltic region, and there are ‘black’ ambers caused by heavy inclusion of organic materials. There are no solid colored ambers outside of this color range that occur naturally. Cherry red material is the result of formation near the surface of the Earth, with iron salts leeching into the outer crust of the amber forming a thin (1-4mm on average) layer of true red material. Rarely does this coloration continue through the piece unless it is very small. Cabochons can be cut from this material but solid red amber plugs are not physically possible.



Amber softens at about 150° C, and melts at 250 – 350° C. It is mined extensively from tertiary glauconite sands that are from 40 million to 60 million years old. The components of amber in approximate values are: carbon (80%), hydrogen (10%), oxygen (10%), and small quantities of sulphur. It is refined by heating. The refined amber is classified into two qualities based on refined appearance: the first is transparent amber and the second is opaque or cloudy amber. I would expect that the transparent was the more sought after amber and would be prized for its clarity. Contrary to what I assumed the opaque/cloudy amber is much tougher and, therefore, more serviceable than the transparent amber. It is thus much more useable in crafting pipe stems.

Ambers Healing Properties

Throughout history, people have believed that amber has actual healing characteristics. Also today some anti-rheumatic ointments are supplemented with amber. A piece of raw amber looks like a stone, but when held gives a deep feeling of warmth. When heated, amber will emit a gentle resin scent, and it cleans the environment in which it rests. These sensations make people feel better and believe in the healing power of amber. For centuries amber was used to massage sore muscles, and in powdered form, it was mixed with honey, oil and alcohol into ointments good for almost every illness. Every European pharmacy store in the 19th century offered mystical amber mixtures. Now, of course, they are replaced by sophisticated pharmaceutical products, but many people still believe that an amber bracelet will ease rheumatic pain, and amber coral beads supposedly help in cases of thyroid illnesses. There are other healing effects described in articles dealing with natural medicine: amber helps to cure a sore throat, especially during teething in babies, and if it is kept in water or wine for 1-14 days, the liquid can be used for stomach ache, asthma and as a styptic medication. No one knows how much it truly heals, but it certainly does no harm. Anyhow, it is believed that wearing amber contributes to a purification of the human mind, body, and spirit. It is also believed to activate unconditional love in mankind, stimulate the intellect, and open the crown chakra. Amber is widely used today in traditional Oriental, Arabic and Persian medicine. Astrologically, amber is a stone of the Zodiac sign of the Twins.



Bending and shaping Amber Stems

Once the amber was refined it was ready to be used in different products – fountain pens, pipe stems and other ornamental uses. It needed to be shaped and formed to meet the need of the artist.

For pipe stems the amber is hand tooled to the shape that is required by the Imagecarver. The planes and angles are cut and the surfaces are smoothed and prepared. The stem is drilled to receive the tenon. Then the stems are bent to the required shape. To bend the stems, they are first immersed in oil and heated until they lose much of their brittleness. Then they are held over an alcohol flame and bent as desired. The threaded tenon ends of the stem are protected while bending by an arbour screwed therein. In repairing them I have found that I can sand them quite easily with various grits of sandpaper to remove the bit marks and tooth marks. Care must be taken when using files or knives on the amber as it easily chips, it is better to scrape the amber than to cut it with a file or knife. It polishes nicely with the sandpapers and micromesh sanding pads.

Fred wrote that he found the Scientific American article interesting for both the brief discussion of amber and the knowledge that many of the connectors for these bits were bone screws during this time period.

ImageRemaining questions that I have regarding the process of bending amber

I have yet to try the method recommended so I can speak of it from an experimental point of view. I am on the prowl for some older amber stems that I can try it with before I can say unequivocally that it works. In principle I cannot see any problem with the material.

A few questions that come to mind for me in terms of the process are as follows:

  1. How hot does the oil need to be in the initial immersion and heating?
  2. How long does it take in the immersion for the amber to lose its brittleness?
  3. How can you tell if it has lost its brittleness? Does the appearance or feel change?
  4. How close to the flame do you hold the amber to heat it for bending? Will a heat gun work and how close does it need to be held?
  5. Is there a process to cool the amber once the bend is in place? If it is not cooled will it return to the original straight shape? If it is cooled to quickly will it shatter or break?
  6. What kind of arbour was used to protect the bone or metal tenons? Were they removed for the heating or were they kept in place?

If any of you have practiced bending amber I would love to hear about it. It would be great if someone could write up their experience and post it here so that the rest of us can learn from your expertise.

Web References read and used in writing this post