Blog by Greg Wolford
As I undertook this project I had no idea that Steve was writing and posting an article on tightening a loose stem. But when I saw it I figured that since this was a little different fix, and the pipe was already blogged about here, I would go ahead with the article.
If you have read the story of Big-Ben then you know I had to restem it. It was the first time I’d done this and the first use of my new tenon turning tool, too. So, in my haste and excitement I made a goof, one that Ric Farrah was kind enough to comment on: I had not cleaned the shank out real well before fitting the stem, leading to a loose new stem.
I tried beeswax and “smoking it in” but neither of these worked on this particular problem; as Steve noted often an application of beeswax and use will tighten up an estate pipe stem. But I suppose since this was just a goof on my part and the stem had not been for properly these solutions weren’t going to work.
I was aware of the tools sold for stretching a tenon, the pluses and minuses that Steve mentioned. But I wasn’t really inclined to buy one at this point, especially since I had another idea on what might work: a drill bit! So, since the two easy fixes failed I went down to the shop to try out this new-to-me idea.
I removed the stem from the pipe and checked the size of the air-hole against my set of drill bits. I thought I had drilled it out to 5/32 so this is where I started. However, I soon realized that I had drilled it at 9/64 so I took both of these sizes and the stem to the heat gun set up.
I almost always use leather gloves when I use my heat gun; things can get real hot, real quick. And since I was using steel drill bits I definitely wanted the hand protection. So, I donned the gloves and turned the heat gun on low to start stretching!
Now, the first thing I need to say here is when doing this you are inserting the blunt end of the bit that normally gets chucked into the tenon. The sharp end is the turning end, in your hand for this procedure. This part is very important.
I began to heat the tenon slowly, checking every several seconds on the progress; I only wanted it warmed enough to be slightly softened, not so soft that it could easily be deformed or badly bent. Keeping the tenon moving, I would take the smaller bit and try to insert it in the air hole until it went in. At this point I worked very gently to get the bit inside the tenon the entire length of the tenon, removing the bit/tenon from the heat. I kept the bit turning slightly while it was inside the hole so it wouldn’t stick. After about a minute I gently removed the bit and allowed the tenon to cool a few minutes before checking the fit, which ended up being too loose still. So, I picked up the larger bit and began the whole process over, this time resulting in a perfect fit: good and snug with no “play” or slipping but not too tight either. Finally, the new stem was fit properly!
I left of overnight and loaded it up the next morning, checking the for again; it was still perfect, like it had been made for it (a little humor there)! The pipe smoked good before the adjustment but it now smokes very well with a good fit on the stem, part of which I’m sure is in my head, not fussing or worrying about the bowl falling off.
I found this fix very simple and expect to use it again in the future: it was done with tools/items I had on hand and only required a bit of patience and slow going to do right. Of course if I’d applied that idea to turning the tenon to start with I wouldn’t have had to refit the the stem. But then I’d not have had the opportunity to try out this fix if I had done it right to start with either: I suppose that is the silver lining in this cloud of errors!