Space Age Technology for a Better Smoke?

Blog by Aaron Henson

There is a small antique store located along highway 195 in Eastern Washington that I have driven past many times on my way to job sites or family functions but never had the opportunity to stop. This past week I had little spare time on my way home and took the opportunity to stop in.  Sitting on a table by the door were the only two pipes in the shop: a matching pair of white billiards – one bent and one straight – both in good exterior condition.  Both pipes, and the stand they were on, came as a set and the price was such that I could not pass them up – I would have paid list price for just the stand.  I knew nothing about the name stamped on the shank– the pipe – but I thought I would take the chance…. What could go wrong?

Once home, I was able to do a more thorough review of their condition.  Both pipes were in about the same condition, the rims were covered with a heavy crust of lava and the bowls had a nice thick cake built up on the sides.  And they both had a strong smell of aromatic tobacco.  The outside of the both bowls were in very good condition considering the painted finish; no worn spots, dents or discolorations.  The straight billiard has a very small chip in the rim and had two pin-point sized flaws in the paint but the paint on the bent was flawless.aaron1 aaron2 aaron3The stems are nylon and had some tooth dents around the button.  The dents were deep but not to the point of needing filled.  Both airways were clear, but were restricted with a thick layer of tar.  Removing the stem revealed an o-ring set in a groove in the tenon.  Looking into the shank I saw no briar only plastic. aaron4Even more intrigued now, I searched for the pipe on-line and I found the following on Pipedia:

In 1963, Super-Temp Corporation began making plastic pipes with pyrolytic graphite bowl liners. They were called the pipe. In 1965, Super-Temp contracted to market their unique pipes through Venturi, Inc., the company which sold Tar Gard cigarette filters. Colors and stripes began to be offered circa 1967. About 1970, THE SMOKE pipes were added to the line – they were non-traditional shapes with a less expensive bowl liner. Venturi pipes were added around 1972 – they had no liner in the bowls at all. The pipes were out of production by 1975.

Plastic pipes?  Pyrolytic graphite bowl liners?  Granted, I missed out on the 1960’s, but I did get to live through the aftermath and I remember the cultural fascination with space-age materials as they tried to find a place in our daily lives… but I had no idea they made space-age pipes.  An ad in the December 1967 issue of Esquire, captures this fascination. aaron5I felt that I needed to do a little more research and found that the pipe has a small following of dedicated fans.  I eventually came across a web site authored by Billie W. Taylor II, PhD that is dedicated to the history and novelty of these pipes.  He has amassed what could easily be called the definitive work on the pipe:

While there is no way I could (or would) share all the information in Dr. Taylor’s website, there are a couple of things I think worth sharing.  The first is the pipe’s unique anatomy.  The body is made of compression molded Bakelite stummel with a graphite bowl insert.  There is an insulating air gap between the bowl insert and the bowl body.aaron6Pyrolytic graphite has been manufactured since the 1950s and is used as heat shields in rockets and reactors, it being an excellent conductor of heat.  As the story goes, in 1963, a machinist at Super-Temp was machining graphite rods into cups to be used in the nuclear power industry.  Being an avid pipe smoker and seeing the cups were about the size of his pipe, he made one that fit into the bowl of his pipe.  Finding that is smoked well, he took the idea to his management and the pipe was born.

Early stems for the pipe were made of nylon while many stems made after the first year were made of Bakelite – addressing complaints that the nylon was too soft.  The tenon has an o-ring set in a groove to ensure a seal between stem and stummel.aaron7Although it was originally offered only in black, in 1967 the pipe came in nine different shapes and offered in standard red, green, blue and white.  The pre 1970’s pipes were coated with a two-part epoxy paint while those after 1970 used an acrylic paint. Additional colors and color schemes were offered throughout the life of the brand but some of the ‘unique’ colors were the result of fading of the acrylic paint.

Other than stem material, I did not have much to go on to date these two pipes.  But because both stems are nylon I will estimate that they were early runs and date to the mid-1960’s.

After what I read, I assumed that the typical briar pipe restoration techniques would apply.  I was worried about damaging the graphite liner and not sure what chemicals might do to it.  I also assumed that the bowls should not be scraped or sanded.  Since both of the pipes I had bought had nylon stems, using alcohol on them was out.  I kept researching and found a 1969 magazine ad that gave me an idea:aaron8Putting the pipes in my wife’s dishwasher was out of the question… I didn’t even ask!  Additional reading through website I found a cleaning guide that began with a soak in warm water with a small amount of mild dish soap.  This began to loosen the hardened tars and lava.aaron9

I used the paper stick of a cotton swab, cut at an angle, to remove much of the buildup in the corners of the mortise and the airway. The remainder of the buildup required half a dozen soaks in soapy water and a lot of cotton swabs and pipe cleaners.  I finally got the internals cleaned and in the end I didn’t use anything more abrasive than a paper towel.aaron10The shank still had the ghosts of the old tobacco.  So I went back with an alcohol soaked cotton swab and wiped down the inside of the shank again.  Surprise, surprise, it came out dirty.  Nothing seems to cut though the old tobacco oils and residue like alcohol.

I also soaked the stems in warm soapy water.  Using a small nylon bottle brush I was able to soak and scrub repeatedly until the bulk of the crud was removed.  I continued on with bristled pipe cleaners but even after the pipe cleaners came out clean I could still smell the old tobacco smell.  I could not figure out where it was coming from until I removed the o-rings.  I didn’t think about this at right away, but of course there was a lot of build-up in the grooves.aaron11To raise the tooth dents, I placed the stems in some near boiling water.  I have tried to use direct flame or a heat gun in the past but have found them to be too hot and they melt the nylon.  The hot water did raise the dents some but it also straightened the stem of the bent pipe.  Another dip in hot water and molding the stem over a large diameter dowel restored the stem’s shape.  No pictures of this…. I am afraid that both hands were busy.

To completely remove the tooth marks I needed to sand them with 220 grit paper.  I removed the deeper scratches of the 220 grit with 500 grit and 1000 grit paper.  I finished up the stems by wet sanding with 1500 – 2400 micro mesh pads.   The nylon is soft and the scratches hard to remove.  Several times I had to drop back to a courser pad to remove a stubborn scratch.  I finished polishing with the 3200 – 12000 pads and a light amount of mineral oil. aaron12 aaron13 aaron14 aaron15I took the pipes to the buffing station and used red diamond on the stems only, – I didn’t want to risk damaging the paint with even a light abrasive.  Dr. Taylor’s website suggested auto wax as a finish but I opted for the more traditional three coats of carnauba wax over all.

The end of the pipe of occurred in about 1975 with complications of corporate business plans and a lack of following.  Estimates say that approximately three million units were sold during the ten year life of the pipe. My own inexpert opinion, nothing will ever truly compete with briar for a good smoke.aaron16 This is the best pictures I got of the graphite bowl liners.aaron17 aaron18 aaron19



4 thoughts on “Space Age Technology for a Better Smoke?

  1. Aaron Henson

    *** FOLLOW UP ***
    I after this was posted I was still having an issue with residual ghosts of the old tobacco. I finally tracked it down to the o-rings. The rubber had absorbed the smell. I tried cleaning them again, this time in a vinegar solution but with little success. I eventually solved the problem by replacing the o-rings with ones purchased the hardware store for $0.50 each. The new o-rings were an exact match to the originals.

    1. Aaron Henson

      Thanks Charles! I realize they are not quite “the thing” but they have an interesting story – I only briefly touched upon it. Hopefully someone finds the info useful should they end up with one in their restoration box!


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