Blog by Charles Lemon
I was just putting the finishing touches on this pipe refurb when Steve Laug invited me to write a guest blog for rebornpipes. Timing couldn’t have been better, as the restoration of this old Fletcher billiard epitomizes for me the spirit of rebornpipes – taking an old, worn pipe and creating from it a beautiful and functional smoking companion.
Thanks for having me drop in on rebornpipes, Steve. I hope you and your readers enjoy this restoration journey.
I’ve had this old billiard pipe in my refurb box for a while now, so I decided that it was time to do something with it. It’s stamped “Fletcher, Genuine Briar, 4” on the flat bottom. A search online turned up absolutely nothing about the brand, though I can surmise that it was made somewhere in the USA circa 1950 to 1970 or so.
The bowl had a worn sandblast finish, and though covered in dirt, appeared to be in decent shape. There was a bit of cake buildup and tar on the rim that would clean up easily enough, but the stem was another matter. At some point in its history, the button had broken or been bitten off, and the remaining stem had been crudely “MacGuyvered” to allow the piper to continue smoking it. A file had been used to roughly gouge a line across the top and bottom of the broken bit to give at least some purchase in the teeth, and it had been left like that until the piper again bit through the stem, this time removing a chunk from the bottom of the “new bit”. This guy was a real pitbull!
I decided that, with about 3/4 of an inch missing, the mangled stem was too far gone to attempt to save it so I dug about in my stem box and came up with a replacement that fit the bill. This stem is brother to the one I used on my first parts pipe. They were both salvaged from estate pipes with ruined bowls, and both have the large silver dot on the side. The tenon on the replacement stem needed only a bit of tweaking with sandpaper to fit snugly in the mortise. As you can see in this pic, the shank diameter is a bit larger than that of the stem, so there will be some reshaping to do to get the flow right from bowl to button, but I like the shape of things to come. With the stem problem sorted, I got to work cleaning both stem and stummel before I got too far ahead of myself. I used my Castleford reamer to take the cake in the bowl back to bare wood. Luckily there was no damage hiding underneath, so I moved to the exterior, scrubbing the sandblast finish with Murphy’s Oil Soap and an old toothbrush. This lifted an inordinate amount of gunk from the stummel, leaving the briar quite patchy in places. I decided that a complete stripping of the old finish was in order, so I dropped the stummel into an alcohol bath, the stem into a Oxyclean bath, and left them to soak overnight.
The following day I retrieved the stummel from its soak and rubbed it in an old towel. To my surprise, most of the black topcoat came off on the towel! My guess is that our intrepid DIY piper “fixed” his pipe’s worn finish with a liberal application of black shoe polish….. I wiped the stummel down with acetone to remove as much of the loose colour as I could and then finished the basic cleanup of the stummel by scrubbing the airway and shank with alcohol & pipe cleaners.
The stem cleaned up easily enough after its Oxyclean soak with a run of 600 – 2000 grit wet sandpapers and a few pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol. Removing the built-up wax and dirt from the stummel had revealed a flaw in the briar. A “fault line” of sorts wound its way across the lower front face of the bowl. There was no indication that the flaw extended through to the tobacco chamber, but I flowed some CA glue into the line anyway. This may or may not have been necessary, but at least this way I hope that the line won’t expand to a crack the first time I light the pipe.
I also found a small flaw in the rim, which I filled with CA glue and briar dust. I topped the bowl lightly after the fill cured to sand it down flush with the rim and remove a few small rim dents at the same time.
As I pondered how to refinish the pipe, I worked on the shank with various grades of sandpaper to reduce the diameter to match that of the stem and generally improve the flow of the shape from shank to stem. This smoothed out the sandblast on the shank, so I decided to rusticate the entire stummel to replace the texture and hopefully disguise the stabilized fault line on the bowl face. For this I used a round carving burr mounted in my rotary tool, working my way around the stummel until the entire surface had been carved, eradicating the sandblast. I then made a second pass with the burr, carving deeper lines and pits into the briar to give a chunkier finish and help blend in a few deeper pits left from the sandblasting process. I finished up the new rusticated finish by going over the entire stummel very lightly with a wood rasp to knock off a few sharp points and rough edges.
I left the stummel at this point and went back to the stem to address a few issues there. The bite area had several deep tooth dents top and bottom and the button was quite worn. I dealt with both issues by mixing up some CA glue and activated charcoal powder and layering this mixture onto the stem, filling the tooth dents and building up enough material to carve a new button.
This repair always looks plain nasty at this point, but quickly improves once the CA has cured and I can get at the rough lumps of material with a file. I start by cutting the sharp leading edge of the button. This establishes the demarcation point between button and stem. After I have a nice sharp line all the way around the stem, I use files and sandpaper to remove excess material and create an even button height that matches the curvature of the stem.
Now in the home stretch of this restoration, I cleaned up the dust generated by the stem repair and set up my workbench for staining the pipe. I applied a two-step finish to the briar, starting with a diluted mixture of Fiebing’s Saddle Tan and Brown leather dyes. This matched the original colour of the smooth area on the bottom of the stummel, which will help tie this area in with the new smooth area on the bowl rim. When the first stain coat was dry, I rubbed off the excess colour with an old towel and applied a topcoat of stain made with Dark Brown and a little Black dye mixed together. I let this dry fully before scrubbing the stain off the high areas with 0000 steel wool. This exposed the lighter tan colour underneath, but left the black in the low areas of the rustication.
I finished the staining by wiping the stummel with mineral oil to add depth to the finish and moisturize the briar. Then it was off to the buffer for a run of White Diamond and several coats of Carnauba wax. This old Fletcher pipe is unrecognizable as the pipe I started with. I rather like the chunky rustication and the new stain. The grain on the rim and flat bottom really pops. A side benefit of old briar like this is the light weight. The pipe tips the scales at a mere 32 grams or 1.1 ounce. This rejuvenated old soul will be a comfortable all-day companion to its next piper. Here’s the finished pipe: