Blog by Steve Laug
This summer I am celebrating 24 years of working on pipes and I thought it would be helpful for me to reflect a bit on why I started refurbishing pipes and what happened to make it what it is today in my life. I also thought that I would post it here as a blog for those of you who might be interested in knowing a bit more about this old codger! There was a time when pipe refurbishing moved from being a side hobby that I did solely out of interest in getting some quality pipes in my own rack to being a lifeline for me that brought back lost abilities due to a personal physical crisis. I thought it would be interesting to at least some of you to read about my journey with pipe refurbishing and how it has been more than just a hobby in my life. It has become a passion because of what it has done for me. So here is the story.
I started refurbishing pipes shortly after I moved from Surrey to Agassiz, British Columbia, about 2 hours from Vancouver, in 1992. By that time, I wanted to add some more pipes to my pipe rotation but did not have the coin to buy the pipes that I really wanted. I spent time flipping through pages on eBay to find the pipes that I liked. I found that there were many of the ones I wanted there for an “affordable to me price”. It did not take long before the bug bit and I was picking up pipes that I liked. The problem soon arose, that I am sure many of you found with eBay, I was hooked on the thrill of the hunt and the adrenalin of the “auction”. I purchased more pipes than I needed and I purchased ones that looked great online but turned out to be real junk once they arrived. Some of them may have been fixable but I could not fix them. So there was nothing to be done but either throw them away or start to stockpile them in a box. I chose the latter hoping that one day I would be able to work on. But I knew I needed to learn how if that was going to happen.
The day soon came that the box of “junk” became my training ground for learning how to clean up and restore estate pipes. There were enough of them that I could practice for a long time and I could not help but learn. I figured I could make the mistakes on the truly junk pipes and then use what I learned from working on them with those I wanted to keep. That is what I did and that is when things started. It was slow and tedious work and I wondered if I would ever learn what I needed to know but I kept working on them. I did not go overboard in purchasing more pipes to work on, at least to my mind. Those that came out well I either sold or gave away to friends and other pipe smokers. Slowly but surely I reduced the stockpile of pipes and learned much in the process.
This education in pipe refurbishing went on for 8-9 years (though to be honest it is still ongoing). I learned a lot of methods and tricks about working on pipes through the progress of those years. When I got stuck I would call other restorers or post on the online forums for help and it never failed that one of the father’s in the hobby would give me help. I never saw myself as a pipe restorer, I was just a pipe smoker who wanted to learn to work on his own pipes. My method was simple, I would choose an area to work on and then buy pipes that needed that kind of work. Because of my chosen learning methodology, I bought a lot of what appeared to be junk pipes. I would work on their common issue until I was satisfied with the end product. If it was bowl topping I bought bowls that needed that. If it was rustication then I bought bowls that needed that. If it was stripping, refinishing and staining that I wanted to work on then I bought bowls that needed that… you get the drift. I worked on something until I felt I had a basic mastery of the process. In this way the box of old junk pipes became my school of pipe repair. In those days if you had seen what I worked on you and where I did the work you would have laughed. I sat at my desk in my study in our house in Agassiz and worked after office hours and often into the evening to learn how to do something. I never had a lot of tools to work with so it was pretty simple in those days. Things that I was not ready for, I avoided – things like learning how to fit a new stem or add a replacement tenon to a stem. Those would take more work and when I tried to do it the results were frustratingly poor.
When I moved to Vancouver, we rented a basement suite that was furnished and I had to put away and put off my pipe repairs. I was looking forward to having a little shop in the new house to dedicate to pipe work. In December of 2003 my world came to a sudden halt. I had a serious stroke and lost use of the right side of my body. It was a rough time for our family and for me personally. I could no longer walk without assistance and had to be bathed, dressed and cared for by my wire. She had to tie me into a seat to keep me from falling. We bought our Vancouver home after I had started physio-therapy to relearn using my hand, caring for myself, walking and balancing.
We purchased our new home and moved into it with the help of many and soon I had a desk in the basement area. I was able to do stairs carefully and slowly with the help of my cane so that would be workable. I went through my boxes slowly and found my pipe repair supplies and pipes still needing work. I sat and looked at them morosely because the doctors had said that I would not get my fine motor control back. They said that I would never be able to use my right hand like I had before. I refused to believe that and soon began to fiddle with pipe repair. I had the therapist teach me repetitive exercises to learn fine motor control. Things like picking up things translated to picking of sandpaper and pipes. Holding things translated to holding a piece of sandpaper, gripping a cup of coffee easily transferred to hold a pipe bowl between my fingers. When I learned to brush my teeth the back and forth work of that exercise carried over to the work of sanding, and so on. Each thing that had once come naturally had to be broken down and relearned and practiced. It was a lot of repetitive work but with God’s help and grace and a more than stubborn spirit I went to work because I wanted to have those fine muscle controls back. I wanted to be what I had come to call a new normal.
Personally those were some dark days. Progress was very slow and there was not a day that went by that was not frustrating for me. Strokes leave your emotions very ragged and disjointed and responses are often unpredictable. I worked hard with the encouragement of my wife Irene and truly without her patience and faithful love I don’t know if I could have done the work. It took over a year and a half of therapy, 3-5 days a week to relearn what had once been everyday things – walking, balance, feeding and caring for myself and dressing myself. At this point I think I was the only one who held out hope that I would one day return to my hobby – pipe repair. My Romanian stroke therapist, Adrienne was a gift to me; she designed daily exercises for the many different hand and wrist motions that I wanted to regain. She did the same for foot and ankle motions and head and neck motions. She had equipment to teach me balance and how to regain the rhythm of walking. She used massage to untangle my knotted muscles from the spasms that went through my right side post stroke. I was blessed to have found her and she was my lifeline back to self sufficiency. Through her careful training and pushing I was once again able to bathe and toilet myself and even feed myself. I went from dragging my foot and leg to walking with a cane. Eventually I left the cane behind.
Along with her therapy I would sit in the afternoons and evenings resting at my desk or in my recliner working at working on pipes. I worked on sanding bowls and shanks, cleaning up stems and topping bowls. I learned to hold pipe cleaners and push them through stems and airways. Sometimes my old ways did not work and I was left to figure out how to work around something that I could not do. I would also go back to physio-therapy each day with new movements that I knew I needed. I continued to buy more pipes on eBay to keep my schooling and pipe therapy going. Slowly but surely with almost imperceptible daily growth, I was able to gain more control of my fine motor skills and life became more manageable. The side benefit was that the pipes I worked on began to look better. I have told you really the short version of that long year and one half of therapy. There were many struggles and many failures along the way but there was still day by day progress.
Now twelve years later, unless you knew me before, you would not know that I had suffered a stroke and experienced the loss of fine motor control. All the restoration work I do on pipes is still part of my ongoing physio-therapy as well as a means of de-stressing my life. The memories have come back as I have gone back over many of the pipes restored in those early years. I had to laugh at what some of them looked like but then I remember where I was in my recovery when I worked on each of them. They were far from beautiful but to me they were steps back to full function. Since then I have added a lot more skills to my collection. I do not avoid restemming pipes and I replace tenons without fear. I have learned to carve my own pipes with a Dremel. I have learned a steadiness of hand that allows me to work on very finicky spots on bowls and stems with the Dremel and sanding drum. I know that it is not just a matter of hard work and stubbornness. It is also a gift from God to me and I do not take that for granted. The daily work on pipes is an ongoing retraining of my fine motor skills. Today if you spent time with me you might not see the remaining impact of the stroke on my movements but I can still feel them. I am working at about 85-90% of what once was there. I have learned tricks and new habits that have compensated for what is lacking but I continue to push to regain yet more control.
Not long ago I was interviewed by Brian Levine from Pipes Magazine Podcast about rebornpipes and I mentioned that I did pipe refurbishing for therapy more than any other reason. I talked of the work that I do in my real job and the need to finish things and unwind from the weight of what I do. The thing I did not mention was the other side, the therapeutic reason that rebornpipes exists. Pipe refurbishing and restoration will be something I do until the day that I am unable to move any longer because it continues to be my school room for ongoing stroke recovery and it is something of a thanksgiving offering to the Lord who made this renewed ability possible for me. I have written often of the meditative and sacramental nature of pipesmoking but to that I now want to add this concept. In the restorative process of bringing a worn and tired estate pipe back from the brink there is the equally remarkable restorative process of bringing this physically broken person back from a place of frustration and anger to a place of usefulness.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.