Blog by Dal Stanton
When I saw this pipe on the eBay auction block, I was drawn to it first by the grain. The dark veins of grain were an anomaly and immediately the questions that came to my mind were, “Is that natural or were the darker veins introduced through the manufacturing processes of GBD? Or, are they discolorations that came afterwards through aging? The questions raised my curiosity enough to stand back and look at the pipe itself – a GBD Americana half Bent Billiard. The grain beyond the dark veins were interesting – one side of the stummel was almost exclusively a pattern of peacock feather eyes – bird’s eye grain, but larger and flowing. The other side appeared as a tree flowing up from the heal of the stummel and fanning out midway to the rim, with more bird’s eye grain taking the form of the foliage of the tree. Unapologetically, I’m a briar grain addict! Well, with the winning bid cast, the GBD made its way from the United States to my “Help Me!” basket here in Sofia, Bulgaria. Here are the pictures that first got my attention on eBay – the black vein grain and the flowering tree: This attractive Bent Billiard has markings on the left side of the shank of, “GBD” (oval encircled) over “Americana”. The right side of the shank bears, “Made in London” (circular lettering) over “England” with the shape number “508” immediately to the right. The bottom of the shank has “M” imprinted standing alone. The traditional brass GBD rondel garnishes the stem. The story of GBD pipes is an interesting one starting in France in 1850 with an unexpected partnership, not coming from businessmen, but fellow pipe makers who felt they could make a go of it. This excellent article, Finding Out Who Created GBD – Story of a Pipe Brand – Jacques Cole was reposted on Reborn Pipes and is an excellent read for framing a historical appreciation for a pipe name and its development – GBD.
Who were these creators? Ganneval, Bondier and Donninger were three ‘Master Pipemakers’ who got together in Paris in 1850 to manufacture meerschaum pipes. It was a bold decision as these were troubled times in France. Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte has returned after the 1848 revolution and become President of the Republic. Following a coup d’etat in 1851, he made himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. He was incidentally a keen pipesmoker and may well have owned one or more early GBDs.
The pipe of Emperor Napoléon! Does it get much better than this? The picture to the left bottom is not Napoleon depicted, but with pipe in hand, the ‘charge’ gives one an image to imagine! The focus of the ‘GBD’ enterprise in the late 1800s was primarily the production of meerschaum pipes but in the 1850s, with Saint-Claude’s discovery of briar and its special qualities for making lasting, heat-resistant pipes, GBD adapted and added briar to its list of materials. GBD boasted in the end of the 19th Century as having 1500 models that customers could choose from – though Pipedia’s article on GBD clarifies this unbelievable number as counting each shape three times due to three different stem materials used. GBD straddled its French identity and its adopted English identity through various acquisitions and changes in ownership, yet, keeping the initials of the founders firmly in place. Pipedia’s history is helpful to understand these historical iterations:
There is a very simple explanation for GBD’s program to turn more “British”: GBD became a British company soon after the turn of the century! In 1902 Marechal and Ruchon sold GBD to A. Oppenheimer & Co. in London. Charles Oppenheimer had founded this successful trade business in 1860 as an import-/export house. His brothers David and Adolphe and brother-in-law Louis Adler soon joined him. Adolphe took over when Charles went to Germany as British ambassador. Briar pipes were among the first products traded. The business relation to GBD in Paris began as early as 1870. Being the most important customer in the English-speaking world, Oppenheimer & Co. were designated as sole distributor for Great Britain, the USA and Canada in 1897.
Though English owned, pipe production continued in Paris and soon Oppenheimer acquired two factories in Saint-Claude in 1906, increasing its production. Also during this period, Oppenheimer continuing to expand, built a pipe factory in London, but this operation failed to live up to expectations until the genesis of WW I when demand for pipes increased for the front line and production fell in the French factories as men were called to the front lines. The shift of GBD being identified more distinctly as a British pipe emerged after the close of the war even though production continued in London and France through the 1920s. I find the next Pipedia excerpt interesting because it marks well how GBD had fully transitioned from its origins, the handshake of 3 French pipe makers, to a macro-business continuing through the 1900s.
In 1920 Oppenheimer had purchased BBB (Blumfeld’s Best Briar, formerly A. Frankau) and little later Loewe & Co. and large shares of Comoy’s of London. The economic crisis in the early 1920s induced the foundation of Cadogan Investments Ltd., named for its seat at Cadogan Square in London. The Cadogan group was a superordinated holding company, in order to tune all activities of Oppenheimer’s brands in the pipe industry. Whereby an extensive independence of the single brands was preserved. Remember, the Oppenheimers and Adlers weren’t pipe specialists, but rather sales people who depended on their experts in the British and French plants.
This link is to a 50 page catalog featuring Oppenheimer’s product line – it is fascinating. The index page is pictured below. In 1952 the Paris factory moved to Saint-Claude and since the 1980s most GBD pipes come from London. The higher-end GBD pipe lines are of good quality and many feel they stack up well against the array of Dunhill offerings yet more affordable. The Pipe Phil history of GBD says that the Saint-Claude pipe factory closed in 1981 leaving only London as the producer of GBD pipes.This list comprises the better grades of GBD pipes in descending order: Pedigree, Pedigree I, Pedigree II, Straight Grain, Prodigy, Bronze Velvet, Virgin, Varichrome, Prestige, Jubilee, New Era, Prehistoric, International, Universe, Speciale Standard, Ebony, Tapestry, New Standard, Granitan, Sauvage, Sierra, Penthouse, Legacy, Concorde.
According to the José Manuel Lopes, the Americana before me now is a GBD second associated with L&H Stern, Pioneer, and Appleby. The closest indicator of dating of this GBD Americana comes from Pipe Phil that GBD’s metal stem rondels were discontinued after 1981 when GBD merged with Comoy. After seeing Reborn Pipes’ contributor, Al Jones’ comments in several GBD discussion threads, I sent him a note with some questions and pictures about this Americana. His response was helpful and his description of ‘Odd Duck’ helps me place this pipe in context:
You’ve got an odd duck!
Typically, the stamping used on pre-Cadogan pipes is the straight line COM, “London, England” stamp (see attached) combine with the brass rondell stem logo. Cadogan era pipes (made after 1981) have the round “Made in London” (with England under) COM, as shown on your pipe. But, they typically have stamped stem logos. I see these pipes occasionally, and my assumption is they were made after the merger, until the brass rondell inventory was exhausted. One common denominator on these pipes is a single letter. I have no idea as to what it may mean, but M is frequently used. These pipes also had many more finish names, like your Americana, that were not seen before. Comoy’s started doing the same thing, adding lines and letters just after the merger. I’ll look forward to seeing the restored pipe, it looks like a good candidate.
Al With Al’s ‘Odd Duck’ description in place, my best summation of this GBD Americana, is that it is placed after 1981, but in the early 80s, after the Cadogan merger, but before the brass rondel bucket emptied which more than likely indicates a cost-saving measure that may indicate a lowering of GBD quality – perhaps, only my guess. I took a quick look in the early 80’s GBD catalog listings on Chris’s Pipe Pages, perchance to find a listing for an Americana, but came up empty.
With a greater appreciation for the name and history of the GBD Americana pipe before me, and the other GBDs waiting in my “Help Me!” basket, I take additional pictures on my work table to fill in the story and take a closer look. I like the appearance of this GBD Americana bent Billiard. The cake build up in the chamber is thick and will need to be removed to the briar for a fresh start. The rim is covered with lava flow and will need cleaning before I can see what lies beneath. I’m interested to see what happens with the dark briar veins on the stummel surface when I clean it up with Murphy’s Soap. I detect some pits and dents on the stummel surface – normal wear and tear. The stem shows significant oxidation coupled with moderate teeth chatter and some dents on the bits. The first thing I do to begin the restoration and recommissioning of this GBD Americana is to plop the stem into an Oxi-Clean solution for a good soak to raise the oxidation. After soaking several hours, I pluck the stem out of the Oxi-Clean bath and the solution did the job of raising the oxidation. After I take a picture, I wet sand the stem using 600 grit sandpaper that takes the mother-load of oxidation off. I continue using 0000 steel wool to remove more oxidation and work the grooves around the button. I also work around the GBD rondel with the steel wool, working on the oxidation and shining the brass as well. The pictures show the progress.I then take pipe cleaners dipped in isopropyl and clean the internals of the stem. There was not too much resistance and the pipe cleaners returned clean very quickly.
Time to work on the stummel. I begin by removing the moderate cake build up in the chamber. I first put a paper towel down on the work space to collect the carbon dust and then take the Pipnet Reaming Kit and I use two smaller of the 4 blades available. Starting with the smaller blade, I turn it until the crunchy resistance of the carbon cake is absent, then I move up to the next larger blade removing the cake. Following the reaming blades, I use the Savinelli Pipe Knife and fine tune the reaming by scraping the chamber walls removing even more carbon. Then, I roll 240 grit sanding paper around a Sharpie Pen and sand the chamber walls. Finally, I use a cotton pad wetted with isopropyl 95% to remove the residue carbon dust and clean the chamber. Inspecting the wall of the chamber, all looks good – no problems detected. The pictures show the progress. I like working on a clean pipe so I turn now to the internals of the stummel. Using pipe cleaners and cotton swabs dipped in isopropyl 95% I attack the mortise and the airway. The tar and oils are not putting up too much resistance and the pipe cleaners and swabs start coming through clean. Later, I will give the internals a salt/alcohol soak to clean the stummel further and freshen the pipe. With the internals clean, I now turn to the external surface. I’m anxious to see what the Murphy’s Soap does regarding the dark veins on the surface – I’m not sure if it’s actual dark grain color or something else. I use undiluted Murphy’s Soap with cotton pads and bristled tooth brush to scrub the surface and remove the grime. To clean the rim, I also employ use of a brass bristle brush which will clean but not damage the wood. Without a doubt, I am looking at an amazing piece of briar with dark, blackish veins in the grain – unique and striking. The surface itself is in good shape. I detect very small fills but they are solid and will easily blend. The rim shows damage on the front-left edge – possibly scorching from lighting the pipe over the rim. There is also a bevel on the inner rim. To remove the damage to the rim and to reestablish crisp lines, I will lightly top the GBD – only taking off as much as needed. I use a chopping board on my work table with a sheet of 240 grit paper over it. I invert the stummel and rotate the stummel in a circular motion – careful not to lean to the softer damaged area of the rim. I take a picture mid-way to show progress. After removing enough of the top, I then switch to a 600 grit paper and give the rim a few more rotations on the topping board, primarily to smooth the rim. Burning and discoloration remain on the inner rim after the topping. I take 120 grit paper, tightly rolled, and cut a new inner rim bevel. I follow with 240 grit paper rolled, then a 600 grit rolled paper to complete the bevel. The pictures show the rim’s progress. With the stummel before me, I decide to proceed with sanding the externals. I first use a light grade sanding sponge, followed by the micromesh pads from 1500 to 12000. In sets of three, I wet sand using micromesh pads 1500 to 2400, followed by dry sanding with pads 3200 to 4000, and then concluding also dry sanding with pads 6000 to 12000. The grain in this GBD Americana is unique and the way the grain emerged through the micromesh cycles was striking. The pictures show the sanding process. I now clean and freshen the internals of the stummel more and I use kosher salt and alcohol to soak the stummel. The kosher salt will leave no residual taste as will regular iodized salt. I first stretch and twist a cotton ball to stuff down the mortise acting as a wick to draw out the tars and oils. I then fill the chamber with kosher salt and set it in an egg carton where it will have the right angle and be stable. Then using a dropper, I fill the chamber with isopropyl 95% until it rises above the level of the salt. I top it off after a few minutes because the alcohol is drawn down initially into the mortise and the cotton wick. I then set the stummel aside for several hours to soak. The pictures show the progress.With the stummel soaking, I start the stem polishing process. I first work around the GBD rondel using a small piece of Mr. Clean Miracle Eraser. I detect left over oxidation ringing the rondel in the vulcanite. I do not want to bear down on the rondel with an abrasive so I’m hoping that Mr. Clean will do the job and the result confirms this. Previously, when I removed the oxidation with 600 grit paper, it cleaned the button area of teeth chatter very well. I detect on both the upper and lower lip edges residue oxidation that was shielded by the lip overhang. I fold a piece of 240 grit paper to create a sharp blade/edge and sand the lip edge. This removes the oxidation as well as sharpening the button definition. I follow doing the same with 600 grit paper and then buff the bit, upper and lower with 0000 steel wool. The pictures show the fine-tuning stem work. I’m ready to begin the micromesh pads polishing process. First, using pads 1500 to 2400, I wet sand the stem, followed by pads 3200 to 4000 then 6000 to 12000, I dry sand the stem. After each cycle of 3, I apply Obsidian Oil to revitalize the vulcanite and take a picture to mark the progress. The GBD stem rondel has a pop with the black backdrop of the newly revitalized vulcanite stem. The pictures show the progress. Back home after a day at work, I’m looking forward to finishing and recommissioning this GBD Americana for service to a new steward. The salt and alcohol soak has had all day and there isn’t that much discoloration of the salt – hopefully this means there wasn’t that much left to clean! I thump the bowl on my palm to dislodge the used salt and dump it. I then take a dry paper towel and wipe out the excess salt from the chamber and after removing the cotton wick, I use multi-sized round bristle brushes to remove excess salt from the airway and mortise. Then I complete the job by wetting a cotton swab and a pipe cleaner with isopropyl 95% and plunge them, only to discover that the internals were indeed cleaned and ready to go. With the stummel cleaned and stem waiting in the wings, I reassemble the pipe to get a bird’s eye view of things. It does not take long to decide not to apply a stain, but to leave the natural finish on this striking and graceful Bent Billiard. The color combinations of the black veins and black stem, the golden briar and the brass stem rondel are eye-catching. This is one nice looking pipe! I use white diamond compound with a felt wheel mounted on the Dremel at the lowest speed. Before I apply the compound, I purge the wheel of old compound using the edge of the Dremel’s adjustment wrench. I apply the compound to both stem and stummel. I rotate the wheel over the surface, not applying much downward pressure on the surface but allowing the RPMs of the Dremel and the compound to do the work. After the White Diamond, I mount a cotton cloth wheel at the same lowest speed, and apply Blue Diamond compound to both stummel and stem. With the compounds completed, I buff the pipe with a flannel cloth not so much to shine it but to remove the excess compound dust before I apply wax. With the carnauba wax I mount the cotton cloth wheel, increase the speed one notch faster, 2 with the fastest being 5. I apply several coats of wax to stem and stummel. I finish the polishing process with a hand buff using a micromesh cloth to deepen and bring out the shine.
This GBD Americana Bent Billiard has perhaps the most striking briar grain I have yet to see. The black veined grain gives a marbling effect that draws the eyes to look closer. When one looks closer the grain is a myriad of shapes and bird’s eye swirls that make me ponder again one of God’s little creations. Then, the black grain on the left side of the stummel, dips underneath the heel, and emerges on the right side as straight vertical grain resembling a mature tree, beginning with the roots, then trunk, replete with foliage fanning out above as it reaches toward the rim – a virtual canvas. If I decide to sell this pipe (I’m conflicted, this one may indeed be a keeper!), you will see it in the store at my blog site, The Pipe Steward. All the profits of pipes that I sell go to help the Daughters of Bulgaria – the organization we work with here in Bulgaria helping women and children who have been sexually exploited and trafficked. Thanks for joining me!