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 carver. 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.
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:
- How hot does the oil need to be in the initial immersion and heating?
- How long does it take in the immersion for the amber to lose its brittleness?
- How can you tell if it has lost its brittleness? Does the appearance or feel change?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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