Daily Archives: November 18, 2014

Ben Wade and the Chamber of Horrors – Robert M. Boughton

Guest Blog by Robert M. Boughton
Member, North American Society of Pipe Collectors
Photos © the Author

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” —J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (1998 U.K.)

Never has one of the quotes with which I like to begin my blogs spoken with more directness to the heart of the matter at hand than the words of J.K. Rowling above. At the risk of kicking a dead horse, I must point out how the choices of the prior owner of the Ben Wade Tall Poker (Made in London England) effected this description of its harrowing restoration. I am sure the individual lacked not in ability, only decision-making. But where do I begin? Ah, the stem pops into mind.Rob1 Just try to take in the scope of the mauling the perp inflicted on the bit and downward, from these photos alone: the complete gnashing away of the bottom lip and the gash in the upper side as shown on the left, and the chips in the top of the bit and great flat plain below it on the right. The only true cure for this degree of chewing, like a single piranha in frenzy that has been chased away by a bigger fish with no interest in pipes, is total replacement.

I believe someone even re-stemmed this pipe at some point during the old owner’s possession of it, as the bottom of the bowl is flat with ample room to stabilize it in a canted position yet the stem’s weight topples it. But that probability only serves to compound the undeserving person’s culpability. After all, imagine the debasement the original stem must have suffered. However, with another replacement in mind for the future, for now I took the mayhem as a challenge for some serious Black Super Glue practice.

Then there was the liberal, to use a kind adjective, distribution of deep pits and scratches covering the bowl and shank.Rob2





Rob7 And at last, I come to the reason for the name of this blog: the chamber and rim.Rob8 When I first saw this angle on the site where I ordered a three-pipe lot of Ben Wades (one of which, when it arrived, was a tall billiard with a huge crack extending down the side of the bowl that required amputation and is therefore now undergoing the trauma of drastic re-shaping, and the other a small apple, which I restored with success and already blogged), I thought the rim would be the biggest challenge of the project.

Although the rim did indeed present considerable obstacles to overcome, the greatest battle proved to be with the chamber of horrors itself, from which I emerged, torn and bleeding, but victorious – if there can be any genuine victory in war.

Following my initial structural inspection with a couple of bristly cleaners soaked in Everclear 190-proof that I ran through the stem and shank, I concluded the pipe somehow was intact but filthy almost to the point of total clogging with black resinous goop. In fact, when I looked at the shank opening as shown in the second to last photo above and then tried to blow through it only to meet extreme resistance, I got my first clue that many sturdy cleaners would make the ultimate sacrifice before this BW was fit to enjoy.

I proceeded with the part of the restoration that has always been my first step: reaming the chamber. But this time, after about an hour of sweaty, hand- and arm-weakening cranking, I only prevailed, with repeated efforts applying the reamer at different levels and angles of attack, in dislodging multiple layers of cake that slowly made a pile of fine carbon amounting to more than half a dozen bowls. Even sanding with 80-grit paper only added another few bowls of carbon to the growing heap. It’s too bad all the pipe cake out there waiting to be converted to powder by folks of my persuasion isn’t recyclable as tobacco, but then again, there seem to be plenty of another kind of folk who enjoy the taste of massive congestion from carbon and other nasty accretions.

Deciding, based on the horrible pocks and craters remaining in the chamber, that the hallowed space would take work throughout the restoration process, I launched a concerted offensive on the rim, at first believing with reason based on experience that I would be able to salvage the nice inward curve of the briar there. However, after another considerable chunk of time flew away with each level of char I banished, all that I had done was reveal wounds so deep and close-spaced along the inside curve of the rim and several bad wounds at the top of the bowl that I knew I would have to level the rim.
Drastic situations call for equal measures, and so, not having a power sander, I chose the best weapon I possessed, said tool being a metal rasp. Thus began another arduous labor removing the once elegant curve of the rim, with heavy mental protest. I was filled with sadness as I applied the rough edge of the rasp with slow care to the rim and watched the slope disappear more and more over time.

That stage finished and the rim flat, I sanded the well-grained wood with 220-grit paper followed by 400 and then micro-meshed using 600, then 800, 1000, 1500, 2400 and ending with 3600.Rob9 Even this view does not reveal the insidious nature of the cake buildup inside the chamber from hell. The ongoing task of removing all of the cake, every time I thought I achieved smoothness all around, only uncovered still more hidden holes, similar to microcosmic pits and craters on the moon, only black.

I decided the time had come to remove all of the dings and other rough spots in the bowl and shank and used 220 paper again for the worst areas, then 2400 micromesh followed by 3600.Rob10



Rob13 Seeing the nice, lighter wood that lay beneath, but suspecting the dark stain was used for a reason (e.g., hiding fills), I nevertheless embarked on a removal of the original stain by hand using 400-grit paper.Rob14



Rob17 I know, I know! I see here and noted at the time the scratches left by my removal method, but careful, even sanding and then buffing with several levels of micromesh took them off quite well. Two important goals were accomplished by this roughness. One, I satisfied my curiosity about the potential for fills. Yes, as you can see, they are present, but nowhere near to the extent that I anticipated. Two, I removed the dings, divots, dents and most of the other defects. Of course, some might reverse the order of significance of these resolved issues.

At this juncture, I became resolved to eradicate the stubborn, troublesome cake no matter what it might take. The determination was born not only of my own obdurate nature that exceeds that of any piece of wood, but from the fact that the Ben Wade Chamber of Horrors had managed to destroy my Senior Reamer – no joke. Not wanting to discard the fallen reamer, which had been so faithful to me until it met The Chamber That Must Not Be Named, by such callous means as tossing it in the garbage, I chose rather to retire it to a place of honor on my bench. But now I had to avenge my defeated brother in restoration, not to mention buy a replacement. I already ordered a new-in-box Castleford Five-Piece Multi-Fit Reamer Kit and a full set of micromesh pads (no more paper for me) online for just more than $30, postage included.

With no small sense of retribution fuelling me, I girded myself with an entire large sheet of the coarsest sandpaper I had and cut off a few small strips before bending one into the right shape to begin the ugly but necessary task with a vengeance. Unbelievable amounts of carbon spilling from the demon chamber every time I emptied it, and my fingers blackened with soot, I kept at it with gusto, thinking I must have made progress. My left index finger was developing scrapes and calluses.

Still, the evil chamber walls in spots felt like the bowels of a volcano. In desperation, I turned to a Dremel I borrowed for the amputated Ben Wade Billiard’s re-shaping. I changed the Dremel bit to a small, fine rounded piece of sandpaper and, at the slowest speed, began making circular turns around the chamber walls.

As some of you with more experience might imagine, this approach almost led to disaster, but instead turned the tables in my favor. Granted, the Dremel (not I) left several new chinked spots where none existed before. But these occurring after the power tool caught a scent of the pure briar, the cake crisis was solved with a bit more rapid sanding that also repaired the new nicks.

With the chamber vanquished of the dreadful cake as well as it ever would be, and the hollow area covered in blackness, and the shank still needing to be purged of its mess, I plugged the shank opening with several small squares of cotton and flooded the chamber with Everclear. I set the big chunk of briar aside for about 20 minutes.Rob18 In the meantime, I felt a keen sting in my right index finger and noticed that under the True Coat of soot there appeared to be some blood and loose skin. I thought it wise to scrub my hands forthwith, with soap and water as hot as I could stand, and this ordeal ended up lasting about 15 minutes. When I was done, I realized I had no hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the cut caused by so much sanding of the wicked chamber.

But I did have Everclear, the pouring of which onto my already burning sore did not excite me. Better safe than sorry, I just got it over with.

Oh, my gosh, did it burn!Rob19 I pulled the cotton plug from the shank and let the remaining coal-black liquid ooze from it like a suppurating wound, and began the still serious business of running both ends of so many bristly cleaners dipped in alcohol through the shank that I lost count. While the darker part of my brain, made meaner by the frequent sting of more Everclear running onto my exposed wound, whispered that the little hole would never come clean, the rational side assured me that before I knew it the job would be done.

But it wasn’t happening fast enough, and so I resorted to digging through my growing and a bit disordered supplies for the wire bristle brush I knew was there. At last I found it buried in the bottom of a drawer and at once started the repetitious but effective process of wetting it with alcohol, scrubbing the inner shank, rinsing it in a shallow bowl of alcohol that grew fouler each time, squeezing the bristles clean and dry, and repeating all of these steps over and over. Of course, my reward did come when I switched back to a normal cleaner soaked in alcohol and it came out clean.

Somewhere along the line, I finished the stem work by sanding down the excess Black Super Glue and smoothing the Vulcanite with vigorous rubbings of three grades of micromesh.

After inspecting the briar for any missed flaws I could fix and finding none, I gave the bowl and shank a final purified water bath, which proved to be necessary from all of the black powder that had transferred from my formerly dirty fingers.

Ready for the final countdown, I opened a brand-new bottle of burgundy-colored Lincoln boot stain and coated the entire outer area of wood using the small, damp applicator. As fast as I could manage, I flamed it all over with my Bic, reveling in the great poofs of blue flame that rose and dissipated as the alcohol in the stain burned off.

I rubbed off the char with a piece of 2400 micromesh until I could see the good grain through the fresh, dark red stain and then put on my magnifier glasses to do the finish work with 3600. It looked good to me, so I put it aside with the stem on a thick cotton cloth for about a half-hour.

That was all I could stand before taking the pieces to my bedroom/office/shop and focusing on the two buffing wheels I use to bring out the ever-anticipated shine. Taking a deep breath to steady myself for the always risky business of touching anything fragile to the high speed wheels, I turned them both on.

Starting with the stem, I turned it with all due respect and care first on the red Tripoli wheel and looked it over as I rubbed it with the cotton cloth, then the white Tripoli wheel on the other machine, and back to the first for the final coat of White Diamond. Much better, I thought and set it aside.Rob20 To the wood I applied quick, thorough coats of white Tripoli, White Diamond and carnauba.I looked it over, noticed a spot that was duller than the rest and repeated the process there.Rob21




Fixing this pipe took me the greater part of a week, by far the longest I have spent on a project since my first real restoration two years ago. That is the reason why the concept of being finished with the Ben Wade Tall Poker is still taking time to sink in. After all the time I have spent with the BW – before the project began to make a plan of action I ended up throwing out the window, during the circuitous restoration itself and now afterward, writing about the experience – I have grown attached to the curious example of pipe craft. I would like to keep it to myself, to add it to my growing collection of Ben Wades. I have no doubt it will smoke at least as well as the others.

But I have decided to let someone else discover the accuracy of that prediction.