On Bending and Straightening Amber Stone Stems


Blog by Robert M. Boughton

Copyright © Reborn Pipes and the Author except as cited

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right.  A single experiment can prove me wrong.

— Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born theoretical physicist and winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, received in 1922 (don’t ask why – the answer in some ways is more complex than Relativity)

THE POWER OF PERSUASION

This is the most difficult pipe restoration blog I’ve ever written, for the things about which it is not.  It is not about an antique gold-banded KB&B Blue Line Bakelite, c. 1910-1914.  A friend of mine won that distinguished, classic shaped pipe from the pre-Kaywoodie era for a very low price on eBay, and I offered, for a small fee, to restore it.  It is not about the still older gold band CPF Best Make turned lion’s head meerschaum, c. 1898, that only lacked a bone tenon to be complete.  As much as I dislike the cliché, I poured my heart and soul into that pipe since 2013 in a true labor of love to return the 19th century treasure to its original structural form.  The simple act of restoration was – and remains – intended as a tribute to the man most of the readers here know as my good friend and mentor, Chuck Richards, who gave it to me.

It is not about either of these things, or the writing between the lines as it were, but some choice details are relevant.  For example, the connection between the two pipes named above is their stems.  The Blue Line’s is Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic, which could be colored dark brownish red.  The Best Make’s genuine dark red amber stem comes from wholly organic-based resins from exotic, extinct trees that were washed away by large bodies of water and fossilized into mineral form 10-100 million years ago.

The focal point of this blog is the immediate but temporary solution to a series of events that still has not been resolved.  Never in my wildest apprehensions, during the last several years of taking some truly ruined pipes and making them whole again, did I conceive that something seeming to be simple could become so bloody banjacked , as the Irish might put it with good cause.  At first, I intended to include the details as usual, in a single account of the finished project.  And so, with a little help from a friend, I adapted my thinking, draft after draft, to write this aspect of the overall restoration into a single blog.  To be brief, here is what happened.

My friend (the one who owns the Blueline, Daryl Loomis), holds the status of co-top buyer of my pipes, numbering five so far, with someone else who came and went in short order.  Daryl also let me restore one of his own pipes before, a gorgeous Redmanol Socket system pipe related to this one by its maker, KB&B, and the Redmanol of its construction that was consumed by the General Bakelite Co. in 1922.  Thereafter, Redmanol was classed as Bakelite despite certain superior qualities.  For extensive details on Bakelite’s origins and development, see the fourth link in my Sources.

At any rate, without going into details that will be covered in my eventual blog on the full restoration of the Blueline, there was a mishap – oh, the understatement! – wherein the bone tenon was crushed.  The photo below was taken after I Super Glued the bits and pieces of the shank end of the tenon, minus the powdered remains, as best I could.This catastrophe was followed close on its heels by a second calamity that left the Bakelite stem ruined, as far as I am concerned., other than for use with some unforeseeable shop pipe.  There is no way I will place a stem I broke, or anyone else did for that matter, on a paid restoration, even though, for obvious reasons, I’m refunding the small fee.  And so, with the immediate goal being to return the Blueline in a condition that it can be smoked as soon as possible, I am left with no alternative than using the genuine cherry red amber stem from my Best Make pending the acquisition of a Bakelite replacement.  Here is the Bakelite stem after I was done with it, in the negative sense of the expression.

Top view Bakelite stem

Bottom of Bakelite stem, broken

Open end with both sides of the break shown on either side

Steve wrote an excellent blog called “What Is the Amber Used in Pipe Stems and How Do You Bend It?” in 2013, but had never tried the theoretical guidelines proposed.  He still has not had occasion to attempt the unusual process.  In other words, it occurred to me, I would be the guinea pig to test the theories.  The prospect was not appealing given the potential for destroying my 119-year-old amber stem for the sake of “progress” in this obscure field of pipe restoration.  Steve’s blog is a trove of information about amber in general and the article from Scientific American on how amber stems were once custom-crafted and bent per the specifications needed for a specific pipe.  Steve raised some good questions in his fine blog that can be read at the third link below.

ABOUT BENDING AMBER

Having spent a great deal of time pouring over every word of Steve’s piece as it related to bending amber, from the viewpoint of having an immediate job to do so, I was left with still more troubling questions.  The key concerns were:

  1. Since amber stems were made and shaped for specific pipes, could they be re-bent later for replacements on other pipes? After all, bending a stem once is one thing, while bending it back is another.
  2. If so, what might be the effect of age, which tends to make amber more brittle, on a stem?
  3. Was my hope that the answers to the first two questions just that, wishful thinking, or put more plainly, a crock?

WARNING AND DISCLAIMER: The method I am about to describe, although it worked beyond my wildest dream, does not follow the better, safer steps set forth in the article upon which Steve’s blog is based.  Read his blog and, if you already possess or have the means to acquire the equipment described, or the wherewithal to fashion your own versions, please do so.  Also follow the other procedures described.  I am taking responsibility for my own mistake(s) that made this drastic measure necessary but will not be responsible for anyone else’s misfortunes!

Having abandoned myself to the certainty that my efforts would either turn out well or the whole thing would go awry in the most hideous way, I didn’t bother re-visiting Steve’s blog when I reached the desperate state of mind necessary to go through with the “experiment.”  Instead, I winged it.  The following pic shows my beloved 1898 amber stem not only in the bent form in which it was hand-fashioned by some unknown but master CPF meerschaum crafter late in the century before the one preceding the current, but as I still feared would be the last time I saw it in any recognizable form.OK, here’s what I did.  Pre-heating the oven, instead of the 210° or 220° F. temperature I’ve always used for regular stems, on a whim, if you will (since I was throwing everything else to the wind), I cranked it up to 335°.  Steve’s blog states that the process does not even involve an oven and the softening temperature of amber is about 150° C. ((302° F.). I just now confirmed that he was, no surprise, correct.

Therefore, 335° F., or 168° C., was a little high.  Placing the stem on a piece of aluminum foil, I forgot to put anything through the airway to prevent more than likely collapse until about a minute after I closed the oven door on it. 

Snapping to my terrible lapse of memory, I grabbed a regular pipe cleaner and bolted to the oven, where I found the stem very hot already but the airway still intact, and inserted the cleaner through it.

I also checked after only 10 minutes more (thank God), and found the amber stem had straightened itself!  Not only that, but when I touched the stem on the piece of aluminum, it had a bizarre limpness to it.  My heart was racing as I removed the aluminum foil with the stem from the oven and placed it on the counter.  Picking up the stem with care using both hands on either end of the cleaner, I saw the middle sag downward with gravity.

Sure for a few seconds that I would become ill and have to rush to the sink to vomit, I got a hold of myself and moved my hands to both ends of the stem, at which time I found it was so soft it reminded me of the hilarious old cartoons with Bugs Bunny or whatever Toon character flopping a broken arm about like a cooked noodle.  Of course, I didn’t play with the stem, but rushed it to the aforementioned sink and ran cold water over the whole thing until it was firm again and cool.The cleaner came out with no resistance.  Needless to say, I sighed in relief and wiped the sweat from my brow.  The experiment was a success!

Bakelite above, amber below. I know the bone tenon is backward!

And the amber stem with the KB&B Blueline stummel that’s ready for the temporary amber substitute as soon as I have a suitable new tenon.

CONCLUSION

In my most recent, exultant email to Steve, I wrote: “As the attached pics show, I finally got the gumption to go for it, and believe it or not it was the easiest bending material I’ve ever worked with.  Lucite was a dog when I re-stemmed the BW Preben Holm, but 10 minutes in the oven and the amber not only straightened itself but was like Gumby to the touch — no, like a children’s cartoon of someone with a broken arm!”  I attached a couple of photos.

His immediate, doubtful reply told me I was correct in my assumption that Steve didn’t really know what would happen, either.  He wrote, with apparent doubt, “Was the stem a true amber stem or is it the Bakelite one that you sent pictures of?”

I responded that the stem I baked was without doubt amber, then sent this added comment: “PS: I decided to crank the temp up to 335, also, on a hunch.  It may

have been reckless, but it worked perfectly.  I’m planning on writing the process up in my blog on the Blueline.”

Steve wrote back the following words a short time later, and I appreciate them very much, although I don’t know for sure that I “discovered” the process, other than my own oven method.  “Thanks for experimenting, Robert.  That is an incredible discovery.  Do a separate write up on just the bending of amber.  I think that alone will be a must read for those of us who love to restore old pipes.  Thank you for being reckless.”

Until then, I didn’t understand just how risky this little exercise in stem repair was.  But Steve’s power of persuasion being formidable, I took his advice for the blog.

I found the following quote, from a September 1924 Time magazine write-up on Bakelite, amusing in its revelation of the fantastic and egotistic personality of Bakelite’s founder, Leo H. Baekeland, not to mention the influence his company’s PR department must have had in its writing.

“From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush, until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray, and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses, will be made of this material of a thousand purposes.  Books and papers will be set up in Bakelite type.  People will read Bakeliterature, Bakelitigate their cases, offer Bakeliturgies for their dead, bring young into the world in Bakelitters.”

Hubris? Indeed!  But still, it’s amazing stuff.  By the way, the lawyers at Bakelite know something about Bakelitigating from their 1922 Patent infringement suit against the Redmanol Chemical Products Co. and the Condensite Co.

Last, but not least, I wish to thank Steve for his blog and invaluable help throughout the ordeal of my collapsing Blueline restoration, and Troy Wilburn for his wonderful blog on another Blueline and its dating.

SOURCES

http://www.elvenkrafte.com/bakelite%20presentation.htm

https://rebornpipes.com/2015/06/06/spiffing-up-a-kbb-blue-line-bakelite-poker-1908-1914/

https://rebornpipes.com/2013/02/23/what-is-the-amber-used-in-pipe-stems-and-how-are-they-bent/

https://rebornpipes.com/2016/07/05/the-scintillating-antique-kbb-redmanol-pipe/

 

 

 

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