Changes I have seen in the pipe refurbishing craft

Blog by Steve Laug

I was sitting this morning with a hot cup of Nepali coffee that I was gifted on a recent journey to Kathmandu and reflecting on the state of our refurbishing hobby. I remember when I started buying my first estate pipes and stumbling through the process of cleaning them up. I joined several online forums and sent incessant emails to pipe carvers for help with my questions. There just was not a single resource out there to help the pipeman who wanted to purchase and clean up estate pipes themselves. On top of that there were few repairmen out there who I knew of. I talked with Dave Wolff at Walker Briar Works, Ronni Bikisan at Night Owl Pipeworks, Tim West at Lowes Pipemaking supplies and a few scattered others for help when I ran into something I did not know how to tackle. I called pipe makers like John Calich, Steve Downie, Mark Tinsky and bugged Rad Davis at the few pipe shows I went to as well. I spoke with online estate pipe sellers like Tom Myron to pick their brains on what to do with the pipes in my hands. Categorically, these gentlemen were always willing to help me in any way they could. There was no unwillingness to share what they had learned of their craft with me.

Throughout the years most of what I have learned I learned like most everything else in my life worth learning – the hard way through mistakes and much practice. Trial and error, through more trial and error led eventually to most of the methods I have learned today. I have never been afraid to ask questions from those who are far better at things than I am and to learn from them. I generally have to make it my own just because I don’t have access to a lot of tools or a good shop. I work on a worktable/desktop that serves as a multipurpose piece of furniture for me. I have added a few tools over the years – buffers, Dremels and modified many others from my tool box to make up my work kit. But the point is that through the majority of those years there was nowhere to go to learn the craft. It was a matter of hunting down those willing to teach and working to know what to ask them when I got a hold of them.

Even three years ago when I started rebornpipes blog there was not a lot of information available. Most of the online forums had a section dedicated to restoration/refurbishing/repair where a lot of show and tell happened and some were gutsy enough to give constructive critiques of people’s work. I have always learned from that so I appreciate good constructive observations bent on helping me do it better. A criticism for the sake of criticism from someone not doing the work is a useless expulsion of noise and air in my opinion. I prefer the way I am doing it wrong to the way they are not doing it at all. Thank you very much.

However in the last three years there has been significant change. There is a growing community on You Tube that provides ongoing videos on all the aspects of pipe refurbishing and repair. These are visual demonstrations of the work of refurbishing with descriptive monologue as the work is done. Many are excellent resources and some are even humourous and a delight to watch. I never laughed as hard as I have at some of these You Tube videos. They are doing a great service to the community. There are also several blogs on most of the pipe repair sites such as Rebornbriar and Briarville giving simple how to methodologies for cleaning up your own estate pipe. Additionally new bloggers are popping up across the web with how to photos and steps in how to repair and refurbish your own pipe. There is no end to material available to a person who wants to repair a stem, restem a pipe, refinish or just spruce up one of their own.

Along with this is a bit of a down side – the cost of estate pipes has gone up considerably. Even the most worn out broken down low end pipe often costs more than a new pipe on eBay. Care must be exercised when looking at estate pipes there. One of the plagues that to me are increasing is the new descriptor that I am seeing more often there is “fully restored and ready to smoke” on pipes that look merely polished. I have bought a few of these over the last few years and found that they are actually more work than the old foul smelling awful looking pipes I used to pick up for very cheap prices. Along with that is the fact the “refurbisher” will often do irreparable damage to the stamping on the shank. They damage the fit of the stem – rounding the edges at the shank stem union. They “paint” the pipe with a shiny coat of varnish and in the worst case urethane to give it a shiny new look. All of these make my work and that of any other refurbisher who truly loves the craft difficult indeed.

The craft has become more accessible through the windows of the internet but with it have come some drawbacks that must be understood and observed if you are to continue to learn and develop a skilled craft. But then again you have found your way here and probably are reading other blogs and checking out You Tube videos on our craft so you do not need to be warned. Help carry the commitment to doing the work well to others who want to learn and give freely of what you have learned from others. Pass on the craft to all who ask – never hesitate to help where you can and teach others what you know. In doing this we will see the craft we love passed on to the next generation of pipemen who are already entering the community.

Truly that is my commitment with rebornpipes. That is really the only reason we are here. Thanks for being a part of this growing community of refurbishers. If you have learned something here please submit a write up of your work to share with others. If you have added a trick or a tool that came through trial and error write it up and share it with the community. The blog is yours and will only be as good as the work that we each contribute. Thank you.

14 thoughts on “Changes I have seen in the pipe refurbishing craft

  1. Tim McComb

    If a pipe finish has to be taken completely down how on earth can I save the stamps? I lightly sanded and only with 1500 and up, but the stamp was light and I lost some of it. I want the stain to be even so I felt I had to sand over the stamp. I scrubbed with acetone and alcohol prior to sanding because I wanted to protect the stamp. Any advice would be wonderful.
    Great article! Taking all of it to heart.

  2. Lone Star Briar Works

    Great article Steve. Like everyone else commenting, I learned a little here and there until I found your blog. I can’t believe how confident I am restoring pipes because of all your articles here. You are MY guru, and I spread the gospel of to all newbies just dipping their toes in the resto pool. Thanks again!!

  3. WayneD

    A very nicely written article and I whole heartedly agree, Steve. I appreciate what you and others post on these blogs. Reborn Pipes was my go-to site when I started working on pipes. There is a wealth of knowledge on here. If one takes the time to read, a lot of questions can be answered. When I started working on pipes, I never asked questions. Sometimes I wish I would have but, I always have to try it for myself first. I have gotten to know more people now and feel more comfortable now asking questions. Thanks again to you and all who post their work on these blogs. Special thanks to Troy W who always has answered my questions.

  4. Al

    Steve, a well written and significant article. There are many paths being taken by so called restorers. Some do an excellent time consuming job, and others do the polish and ream only job. The problem is that it is very hard to tell the good from the bad unless you have purchased a pipe from them. I’ve bought some that looked good, only to find they hadn’t cleaned the stem and stummel with anything other than a dry pipe cleaner. I purchased a ready to smoke Peterson System estate pipe that I thought was from a reputable brick and mortar. Well, after the third time filling and lighting the pipe I got an awful taste from it. I had, after the third smoke managed to melt the crud that was in that pipe’s sump. It took many runs of a retort and Q-Tips and pipe cleaners to clear it out. Plus, I found a hairline crack in the outside bottom of the bowl. Never dealing with them again.

    The only place I have gotten true and useful information on restoration without amassing a fully equipped shop, is here. I have learned so much about restoring stems alone that I never would have found anywhere else on the Internet. Everyone’s blog that is connected in one way or another with yours does show an honest restoration. No shortcuts to turn a profit. I’m doing this as a hobby for only about a year now, and I don’t like looking at most of the videos. I’m old school and rather read it and see photos.

    I hound flea markets and garage sales and sometimes buy lots off eBay. Yes, the prices are rising. There will always be a good buy here and there, but it requires a lot more shoe leather than before. I guess it’s the same with any antiques that tell the history of mankind. I find it fun and fascinating. There are also many characters to be met out in the wild.

    Sorry for the long rant. Please, keep serving up the good stuff for all of us who are here to learn. I know I appreciate it, and by the responses, so do many more.

    Best wishes,

  5. Dave G

    Great article Steve. I’ve had this discussion with Troy and a few other friends. The estate market is a double edged sword. Estate pipe prices are skyrocketing. It’s hard to get a clapped out pipe for under $30 anymore. I’ve seen so many great old pipes ruined by being “restored.” Granted we all must start somewhere when trying our hand in restorations, but in my case, I hacked my way through at least a dozen no name borderline firewood junkers before I attempted to even restore a decent looking Grabow. There should a Hippocratic oath in the pipe community. First, do no harm. I think we should be more honest with each other in the aspect of restorations. We all say “atta boy” when someone cleans up a pipe, but are less likely to offer a truly honest opinion for fear of offending someone. Constructive criticism should be encouraged and it will make restorationists better at what we do. These old gems are getting harder to find as time goes by. With every Tom, Dick, and Harry that has a pocket knife and a can of lacquer “restoring” pipes nowadays, historical briars are becoming an endangered species.

  6. Anthony

    I love this post, Steve! Thanks for sharing. I was recently looking back over some old photos when I realized that the one year anniversary of my first restoration completion will be coming up in mid-November (no, I don’t want a cake … I’ve seen quite enough of that since then). So, I’ve been at this for less than a year; a babe in the tobacco field really. It’s nice to get the historic perspective from a veteran of the trenches.

    I have been immensely grateful that so many sources of learning have been available to me during that time. I have benefited from many of them, but I still hold rebornpipes up as the gold standard of restoration information. If it’s not here in some shape or fashion, it’s likely that nobody has done it yet.

    It’s also funny that you should mention the “fully restored and ready to smoke” pipes that turn out to be not nearly so. I just posted a mini-rant on this subject a couple of days ago on social media. It’s a problem that I’ve seen several times. I wish that those who are putting that kind of work out there would realize that it’s not just about stunning, gleaming, post-resto photos. It’s about doing quality work inside and out, stummel to stem.

  7. Pingback: Changes I have seen in the pipe refurbishing craft | Baccy Pipes

  8. upshallfan

    How long have you been at this Steve? I think that I started following your posts on the old about four years ago.

  9. Pingback: Changes I have seen in the pipe refurbishing craft | Baccy Pipes

  10. Troy W

    Good write up Steve.
    I too agree with your positive and negatives of the pipe refurbishing hobby as a whole .
    There is even more guidance online than when i started in the estate pipe hobby a short time ago.
    I have seen a rise in great old pipes that have been ruined by someone over buffing a pipe just to make it a shiny for resale , Its a crying shame. I can’t even count the pipes that would have been a prized pipe in my collection that i have passed on because of greed and negligence caused by someone claiming a “restored” or ready to smoke pipe.Most of the time its just a over buffed pipe that was not even cleaned or sanded properly.
    I would rather have a dull all original pipe than a shiny mess.
    Pipes can only be original once . Once material and finish are removed it is gone forever.
    I”m not the best pipe refubisher in the world by a long shot but i try to show that you don’t need to strip every pipe or goop some shiny junk on a pipe in order to have a good smoking pipe that still shows its history.A lot of old pipes did not come with a 6 foot shine on the briar so there is no reason they need one now.


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