Blog by Aaron Henson
Several years ago when I was first getting into our hobby, I stopped into a local antique store looking for practice pipes. This particular store did not have much and what few they did were dirty, heavily caked and $25 each. The dirt and the heavy cake didn’t bother me but dropping 25 clams on an old briar pipe for practice was not going to happen.
A few weeks ago, one of my jobs happened to take me past this same store. It had been two years since I had been in so I thought it might be time for another look. After my last visit I wasn’t expecting much. When I asked the gentleman behind the counter about pipes he directed me to the same old display case at the back of the store. The same pipes were on display but this time the price tag had been changed. Clearly the pipes had been in inventory too long and he wanted to move them because now they were two for $10. Not one to pass on a deal this good, I selected four large bowl pipes including the Marxman below (shown second from the top) as well as a large caliber Emperor and an unmarked Custombilt look-alike. The Marxman is a truly large pipe (and not the largest of the three) with a bowl diameter of 1 1/2”, chamber diameter of 1” and a depth of 1 5/8”. The shank is a whopping 7/8” in diameter and the bit is that same width. The following page from a 1946 ad for Marxman calls the large size a “Jumbo” but I do not have any way of telling what letter size it might be.For background, Marxman only made pipes from 1934 until 1953 before being bought out by Mastercraft. But Bob Marx’s short run made an impact on Hollywood and on US pipe makers in general. Pipedia has a short article on Marxman.Taking the pipe to the work bench I started by cataloging the things that needed to be done. The bowl had a thick cake built up. So much so that I had to start with the smallest head on my Castleford reamer (and the largest head was too small to be effective to finish reaming the bowl). The rim had a significant buildup of tars and a couple burn marks. The outside of the stummel was grimy and had some dents but nothing too devastating. On the bottom of the bowl there were two dark burn marks. They were located on the bottom side of the shank which made me think they were not burn-outs but with the bowl cake so thick I could not be sure. When I removed the stem, I could see that the end of the tenon, the stinger and the inside of the shank were all coated with a heavy tar. This was going to be an arduous cleaning job. For as much build up as there was in the stummel there was little in the way of tooth chatter or marks on the stem. One small tooth dent on the top side of the stem was all. The button was quite small but the slot was nicely formed. Aside from some oxidation, all in all the stem was in great shape.
I set the stem to soak in an Oxiclean bath to loosen the oxidation and the tar build up in the air way and turned my attention to the stummel. First I reamed the cake out of the bowl. I could not believe just how much there was! I took it back to clean briar to make sure there was no burn through. After the largest reaming head, I still needed to finished off the chamber with 80 grit sand paper wrapped around a dowel. There was a slight loss of briar about half way down the bowl but no burn through. If I had to guess, the previous owner may have been in the habit of half loading the pipe early in its life.
I shaped a soft wood stir stick into a narrow spatula shape and used it to clean out the caked gunk in the shank. I also need a short piece of wire coat hanger to open the air way. I finished scrubbing the internals of the shank with bristled pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol and cotton swabs until they came out clean.
Now that the insides were clean I turned to the outside of the pipe. The rim was heavily coated with crusted tar/lava. I had hoped to clean up the rim without needing to top the bowl but that was not the case. There were some burn marks in the rim under the tar build up that were best removed at the topping board. When topping a bowl, I use 100 grit paper on a smooth flat surface and work the bowl in a circular motion. I have recently started rotating the bowl a quarter turn every 10 passes. This helps me keep the topped bowl level by ensuring I don’t put too much pressure on one side of the bowl all the time.I started cleaning the outside of the pipe by wiping down the briar with acetone. This removed the wax and grime build up. I had hoped that the burn marks on the bottom of the shank were superficial and would be removed with a light sanding but I was mistaken. I am not sure what happens to the pipe but it appeared to have been exposed to a significant heat source because the burns were deep. The wood was not damaged, that is to say there was no charring. After a significant amount of sanding with 220 grit I had removed as much of the burn as possible without significantly impacting the shape of the pipe. I was careful to sand the entire area around the burn to blend, or feather, the repair. Even so, it did not completely remove all of the burn mark.Next I steamed out dents by wrapping the bowl with a wet terrycloth rag and applying a clothes iron. The important thing here is to keep your fingers away from the steam and the iron away from any stamping.
I finished the bowl by sanding the outside with 1500 – 3200 micro mesh pads. I also took the liberty of beveling the inside of the rim which I thought gave the large bowl some visual character.Even though I sanded the chamber back I could still smell some ghosts of the old tobacco so thought I would give the pipe a salt and alcohol soak. I let sit for 24 hours but there was still a residual odor. Before I was done with the restoration, I had to run three tubes of grain alcohol in a retort through the pipe before the pipe was truly clean (sorry no pictures).
The original finish was very light colored, almost a natural. To hide the remnants of the burn I decided to go with a light brown stain and contract the worm grooves with a slightly darker stain to make them stand out. This would also help hide the burn.The stem was an easy clean for a saddle bit. The Oxiclean bath had loosened the crud in the airway and a few passes with bristled than soft pipe cleaners took care of the internals. The outside I sanded with 1500 grit micro mesh then added a small drop of black super glue to the one small tooth mark and a another dent that I didn’t want to sand out. I had tried to raise both with heat first but with little success hence the super glue. Continued sanding with micro mesh pads up through 12,000 grit. I kept the pipe assembled during this process in order to keep the shank-stem connection flush.
With sanding and polishing complete I coated the entire pipe in mineral oil and let sit overnight. The mineral oil seems to help hydrate the briar and vulcanite of the stem.After 12 hours I wiped off any remaining oil and took the pipe to the buffer. I went over the whole pipe with red diamond then applied multiple coats of carnauba wax. As a finishing touch I decided to apply a bowl coating to the chamber. I wiped the inside with maple syrup then add a table spoon of charcoal powder. Placing the heel of my palm over the rim I shake the pipe until the charcoal evenly coats the inside. I let the pipe dry for a week before dumping out the excess charcoal.