Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
― From “The Graduate” (1967), directed by Mike Nichols; with Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, many others…and Walter Brooke as Mr. McGuire
My mother’s birthday was last Saturday, June 27. I won’t go into the kind of details most women prefer to avoid, even though my mother is by no means most women. She would be the first person to tell you her age, and that is as it should be. But I will tell you about the Japanese hand-painted and otherwise adorned white billiard I bought as part of a pipe lot, thinking it was ceramic, even when it arrived, because of its heft and the thickness of the bowl. I will describe and illustrate this pipe and the work I did to restore it because of my decision to make something unusual and special of the otherwise novelty or gift store item as a late present to my mother for a landmark birthday (I’ll go that far and not a word more).
I only learned of the true composition of the Japanese beauty after I stopped by my Post Office Box to pick it up, along with the regular briars that came with the lot, on the way to my pipe club’s monthly meeting on the third Thursday of a forgotten month last year. And it really is a pretty thing, with its hand painting and what looks to be intricate application of green, red, purple, blue, black and other colored stones of whatever types arranged in the shape of a dragon.
As I recall, I arrived at the meeting a little late and showed it first, as my supposed jewel of the lot, to my mentor, Chuck. He took it in his rough but surprisingly kindly hands and turned it every which way, frowning.
“What the hell have you got here?” I believe were his exact first words. Anyone who knows Chuck understands how he likes to beat around the bush.
“Ummm, a ceramic pipe from Japan?” I tried, feeling my gut sink, rightfully as it turned out.
“I don’t think so,” he said and headed across the room to a table where two professional pipe-makers, Victor Rimkus and Don Warren, sat talking.
I like to think the idea that discretion is the better part of valor stayed me from joining them. Instead I watched and listened from my seat at a safe distance. At least they all seemed genuine in their curiosity and perplexity about the material used to fashion this odd Japanese billiard. At last, Victor whipped out his trusty cellphone to use the flashlight app, but not as I expected. Here is a poor shot I later took replicating his action. I gave it a moment’s thought as I vaguely heard them chortling, and the truth hit me like the bright Christmas ornament Victor had made of my beautiful new pipe: it was plastic!
Chuck walked back to me with one of his big grins and the pipe outstretched in a hand, and as I took it, he asked, “Do you know what you have here?”
“Yes, I figured it out,” I replied, snatching it from him with a bit of motherly protection.
“That’s how you learn,” he said, managing not to laugh outright.
And so I had a marvelous Japanese plastic pipe that I knew right off I could never imagine offering it for sale, even if there might be someone somewhere on the planet who would want to buy it. Yes, I did smoke a bowl in it later that night, for the experience if nothing else, and it wasn’t all that bad; maybe a tad toxic, but not bad at all.
Doesn’t it look like the dragon broke its hind quarters with the bit fully closed at an exact half-turn off? I set the dratted thing away with my broken pipes, all of the others of which had one thing in common, even the cheapest Medicos – they were real pipes, not plastic and Made in Japan, if the fatally flawed tobacco pipe was not in fact made in one of the Koreas.
At any rate, the week before my mother’s birthday, I found myself in line at my Post Office with a card I found there (the USPS is hilarious when it comes to greeting cards), and the idea to send my dear mother the pretty plastic pipe that might have come all the way from Japan first occurred to me. I dismissed the notion out-of-hand as some sort of mental attack of ghastly tackiness.
But as the week passed, somewhere in the echoes of my mind as Glen Campbell sings “Wichita Lineman,” I continued to cogitate on how I might somehow make the perhaps proudest pipe poseur into a worthwhile gift my mother might just love. After all, she has become quite interested in the myriad types of pipes and ways they can go wrong following my blogs on this site, despite the fact that she has never smoked anything – at least not to speak of.
Well, first I had to align the bit, which several of the above photos reveal is half off its screw, in more ways than one. Besides, this was a new lesson I received from Chuck regarding a genuine example of fine pipe-making, a 1930s L&H Stern Park Lane De Luxe Billiard that was about an eighth of a turn off. And so I gathered together my pump pliers, a small cloth and a Bic, and set myself to the task of heating the tenon until it was black. Then I draped the cloth over the tiny screw sticking out of the shank and clamped my pliers over the cloth until the jaws settled and closed shut. With all of my might, I turned the tenon as far as it would go, which turned out to be about halfway, and repeated the process. The stem was in perfect alignment. By the way, not only is the direction to turn the tenon counterintuitive, as Chuck warned me obliquely, but the entire concept of heating metal (which thereby expands it) takes some pondering to get a handle on. But if nothing else, my mind does thrive on theories that seem to defy logic. Consider this: the turning of the tenon, in the direction it is off-set, is made possible by the very expansion of the metal stretching that which surrounds it. The trick is not heating it to the point of cracking the outer substance.
I considered skipping the next step for reasons that will become apparent, but the thought was abhorrent to me, and so I cleaned some stains, light and dark brown, from the chamber using a small cotton cloth square with a little Everclear. There was still a light brown area around the bottom of the chamber. While I was at it, I used the super fine steel wool #0000 on the bit and turned it from a creamy color to bright white. I finished the bit with 4000 micromesh. I happened to have a dark red votive candle that was perfect for my plan. Peeling away the paper label from the bottom of it, I removed the wick and its aluminum base and inserted it in the direct center of the chamber. By now I’m sure it’s clear where I’m headed with this. If not, there is something wrong with the reader’s sense of foreshadowing. At any rate, I bent the top of the wick to a side and melted the rim of the candle into the chamber until it was almost full. I set it aside to harden again and clipped the excess wick. The waxed that dripped onto the pipe’s rim came off easily, and since no buffing on a wheel was necessary or even possible, I was finished.
For the most part, I have no problem with special kinds of plastic being used to make tobacco pipes. I have even said that no real pipe collection is complete without at least one of The Pipe versions, made of pyrolytic graphite/phenolic resin, a high heat and pressure plastic the components of which were created more often for use in liquid rocket fuels. This liberal attitude toward pipe material, in a rarefied and more than a little opinionated sub-culture of human society in general, does not go over well with many pipe enjoyers. But The Pipe models, started in 1963 by the Super-Temp Corporation contracting with Venturi Inc. for marketing, lasted until 1975. They were supposed to be fun, and, after a brief time of distribution of only the pure black “dress pipe” variety, were offered in multiple colors such as yellow and red and were often mixed in wild combinations representative of the good old Hippie Generation that inspired them. The Pipes made no pretense of being anything but a fancy kind of plastic that may have been used in the construction of the Japanese billiard, which was likely bought by or for a collector who discarded it after learning of its material. Here are two The Pipes I own, one of which I will restore for sale on my site and the other that I will keep. I guess all I have left to say at this point is: Happy Birthday, Mom! I hope you enjoy your new, very special Japanese plastic tobacco pipe candle for many years. And remember, you can burn it as often as you like, and I’ll always refill it for you.