There has got to be a Swan in there somewhere – doesn’t there?

Blog by Steve Laug

Sometimes you are handed an ugly pipe. This one came to me from my brother and was part of a lot from an eBay seller who claims to be restoring estate pipes. Let me tell you, this guy should be shot for what he does to old pipes. My brother picked up four of his pipes. From his photos they appeared to be okay. But when they arrived they were absolutely awful. He had a lovely Stanwell sandblast billiard that he hacked the blast off of. He had a nice looking Dublin shape that he glued what appears to be coffee grounds around the rim from the top down about ¼ inch of the side. The third was butchered as well. Then there was this one – it must have been a nice Rhodesian but he had sawed it off below the rings and then left a very rough rim. He had drilled out the bowl and left it rough and out of round. To my thinking this one had been a GBD Rhodesian. The stem was stamped with the characteristic FRANCE across the joint of the shank and stem. There were remnants of a shape number on the right side that was illegible. There was also a very faint part of the oval on the left side of the shank. He had ruined a very sought after pipe. Added to that he had not even bothered to open the airway as it was plugged with thick black tars and I could not blow any air through it.

To top it all off he even pictures the final insult – in his sales he shows a can of shellac and proudly says he coats all of his work with shellac. Well the amount of dried, runny shellac on these bowls was astonishing. Under the shellac there were even hairs and dust permanently encased in a coat of the thick shiny mess. They all looked awful. The dried runs, the scratches and grooves left much to be desired. Even the stem had not escaped his savage attempts at restoration. There were sanding marks and large dings along the surface of the top and the bottom. The tooth marks that had been there were still evident. A large part of me wanted to throw them all away. But there is always that part of me that wants to see if I can reclaim these hack jobs and make something useful and beautiful out of the guy’s mess. I decided to tackle the cut off Rhodesian first. Time would tell if I could redeem the pipe and make it usable and beautiful once more.

Here is what it looked like when it arrived. Understand that the photos do not begin to give an idea of what the pipe looked and felt like I person… the best that they can do is give you a sense of what was there.Author1 Author2 Author3The first thing I decided to do after looking at it was to reshape the bowl. I used a Dremel and sanding drum to round the edges of the top to make it look more like a prince. It was a lot of sanding with the Dremel to reshape the bowl. The photos below show the process of shaping from the beginning. The first two photos show the first steps in the removal of briar to give the pipe some shape. Was the swan starting to appear? Not sure at this point.Author4 Author5I gave the sides of the bowl more of a curve toward the rim and reduced the size of the rim with the Dremel and sanding drum as shown in the next photos.Author6 Author7 Author8At this point I decided to top the bowl and get rid of the deep scratches on the rim top. The bowl after topping was beginning to take some stately shape. Maybe the swan was beginning to appear.Author9 Author10There was still too much width on the rim and not enough curves to the sides of the bowl for my liking. I sanded the bowl with 220 grit sandpaper to further shape it. I used acetone to remove the shellac and the messy finish on the remaining part of the bowl and shank. The pipe was quickly becoming mine rather than the work of the “hackster”.Author11I tried in vain to blow through the shank. The airway was blocked. I used an unfolded paperclip to break through the thick blockage. I poked and probed until I was able to blow through the airway. Once it was opened I used the drill bit on a KleenReem pipe reamer to unblock the airway. It took a bit of pushing and twisting to get it through the hard tars that lined the airway. Finally I was able to break through. I cleaned the shank and airway with pipe cleaners, cotton swabs and alcohol.Author12 Author13 Author14I put the pipe away for the night. In the morning I was still not pleased with the curvature of the bowl top so I used the Dremel and sanding drum on it once again and gave the bowl more of an upward slant toward the rim. I reduced the width of the rim top to almost nothing. Once I had the bowl shape better defined I sanded the bowl with 220 grit sandpaper to shape it further. I then went to work on the rim. I decided to bevel the rim inward to try to clean up the shape of the bowl. I folded a piece of 220 grit sandpaper and worked on the rim until I had a nice rounded top and beveled inner edge.Author15I sanded the bowl with a medium and a fine grit sanding block to remove the scratches. To me the swan is finally emerging. This piece of briar has some beautiful grain that was hidden beneath the dirty finish and the overcoat of shellac. I am liking the look of the pipe more and more.Author16 Author17 Author18 Author19The stem was actually more of a mess than I had initially thought. In sanding out the bite marks as much as the hack had done he has changed the slope of the stem. Now the angles of each side were different and the marks he had left behind were quite deep. I sanded the stem with 220 grit sandpaper to remove the marks and to try and reclaim the shape of the stem. Author20 Author21Once I had the shape of the stem repaired I sanded it with micromesh sanding pads – wetsanding with 1500-2400 grit pads and then rubbing it down with Obsidian Oil. I dry sanded with 3200-4000 grit pads and gave it another coat of oil. I finished with 6000-12000 grit pads and gave it a final coat of oil.Author22 Author23 Author24I sanded the bowl with micromesh sanding pads at the same time. Each successive grit pad from 1500-12000 gave the bowl a deeper shine.Author25 Author26 Author27 Author28I finished by buffing the pipe on the wheel with Blue Diamond polish and giving it multiple coats of carnauba wax. I buffed it with a clean buffing pad and then gave it a final hand buff with a microfibre cloth. The finished pipe is shown below. The grain on this old timer that has been given a new life is amazing. What do you think did the swan emerge from this ugly duckling? I think so but I am curious as to what you think. Thanks for looking.Author29 Author30 Author31 AUTHOR32 Author33 Author34 Author35


8 thoughts on “There has got to be a Swan in there somewhere – doesn’t there?

  1. Aaron

    Very nice save, Steve! I don’t think there are many folks that would have been able to see how this one could have been saved. You have give the poor thing back its dignity. I am sure I would have walked away from and given it up for lost.

  2. William

    Wonderful work as usual Steve. I have followed your blog for several years now and have worked on about a hundred pipes. As time passed I was very frustrated not being able to achieve the same results as you. You make it seem so easy. I forged on though and one day something you wrote made me realize that you have been doing this for around fifteen years or more to my understanding. Prior to that I had thought you were relatively new at the game yourself. Now I am a little more capable but not disappointed if I fail. I am exceeding grateful for everything you have shared and derived a great deal of pleasure in my hobby. I also need to know where to send a box of pipes etc. as a small sign of my gratitude. I believe you can see my e-mail address. Please contact me as I have been meaning this for a long time.
    Thank you,
    William R.
    P.S. I still hate working on stems. :>(

  3. Al

    You truly are an artist, Steve. The swan has emerged in all its splendor. Very impressive work on the bowl. The shaping of the crown made this pipe your own.

  4. Troy W

    Nice job fixing up that poor pipe.
    I cant tell you how many times I’ve sighed in disgust at people “restoring” pipes with such ignorant techniques. I have seen many old and rare pipes just ruined from way too much buffing and coated with shiny garbage.
    If any future pipe sellers are reading this, just sale them old and dirty . Let us pipe collectors do our own restoring. You will sale more pipes at a better price and make everyone happy.
    Its like me restoring a old painting . I’m not a artist and don’t know anything about painting.


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