ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: Do junk pipes have any redeeming value?

Blog by Steve Laug

I don’t know how many time I have been asked about the value of junk/no name or worn out pipes for the refurbisher. The question has been posed in a variety of ways but the gist of it is always the same. I thought it would be good to take a bit of time to address that question and give my rationale for my answer. I will start with the rationale and then proceed to explain the value of each old pipe.For me every pipe has a purpose for my work. From the most expensive artisan or factory made pipe to the most lowly basket pipe all were made for the purpose of smoking – that part is obvious and needs no argument. But to me a not as obvious answer is that every pipe that comes across my worktable is part of my education as a repairer/refurbisher. Each one brings a different challenge to the table that needs to be thought out and addressed with care because it is or was someone’s cherished pipe. That is always the first thing in my mind and it is important to keep that in place when I address the hard chores that the pipes bring to me.

For example, I have a Big Ben that I am working on now. It is an absolute mess – the bowl is almost closed off with thick, stinky cake. The stem was made for a 9mm filter that never was used and is almost completely closed off with sticky, smelly tars and oils from the button to the airway in the bowl. The stem has been chewed and the button is missing on the top side. You might shake your head at what many call pipe abuse but that is not the whole story. When the pipesmoker dropped this pipe off at my house for work he said he only had two pipes. Both needed work but he could only part with one at a time. He talked about it not smoking as well as it used to and he was unclear why that was so. He looked sadly at it as I told him what I was going to do. He was a bit happier when I told him it would not take too long. You see, he cherished the pipe. He had no idea that he was abusing it and reducing its usefulness. He just smoked and enjoyed this pipe. It was by far the favoured pipe of his pair.

With that fresh in your mind always remember that what appears to be a worn out and tired looking pipe was or is someone’s favourite one. Treat it accordingly.

But apart from those opening comments what is the value of a worn out old pipe. I purposely used to buy as many old no name or drugstore brand pipes as I could from thrift shops, yard sales and online because I was going to learn from them what I needed to know to be a pipe refurbisher. Practicing on tired old low priced pipes would allow me to make mistakes that did not ruin someone’s beauty. All the mistakes could one day be repaired anyway so they were really an investment in my education in the hobby.

I bought and went through a lot of old beat up bowls that had been knocked about on walls, floors, car doors, ash trays and even a boot. From these I learned how to top a bowl to bring it back to flat. I learned how to round the outer and inner edges of the bowl. I learned how to pick out and replace or repair damaged putty fills. I learned how to strip off finishes that were hidden under a wide variety of top coats – varnish, lacquer, shellac and even plasticized finishes like urethane. I learned how to restain a bowl and blend stains for colours. Learned how to hide or mask fills in the bowl with contrast stains. I learned how to rusticate a bowl that had too many fills and too much damage. I created and designed various tools to help with the rustication. Each one provided opportunities to fine tune my rustication skills and create a variety of patterns. I learned to match sandblast finishes on rims using a series of bits on my Dremel tool. I learned how to drill out a burned out area and replace it with a fresh briar plug. I learned how to make bowl coatings and pipe mud to protect a newly reamed bowl. I learned what reamers I liked best and what to use in each type of bowl. I learned how to pressure fit bands and repair cracked shanks. I learned to open airways in shanks. There were probably many more lessons learned on these worn pipes but you get the idea. I could practice until I learned the skill then move on to make it my own.

I went through a lot chewed up and missing stems to learn how to do stem repairs and replacements. I fit tenons with files and a Dremel and sanding drum to get close to a fit and finished the fit with sandpaper. I graduated and bought a PIMO tenon turning tool and learned to use it on preformed stems or older stems that I could repurpose. I learned how to rework stems – first cutting them off and reshaping a button and slot and later learning to rebuild them with super glue and charcoal. I experimented a lot with needle files to learn to shape and cut button ends on these old stems. I learned to shape stems to fit the shank of the pipe and how to make round stems square! I learned to bend them with boiling water in the microwave, on a cookie sheet in the oven and later over a heat gun. Each step I learned was added to the refurbishing skill set for later applications.

I bought old cracked shank and broken shank pipes to learn how to repair them. I went through learning how to band a shank, make a stainless or Delrin insert in the cracked shank and even cutting the cracked part of and reshaping the shank. I learned how to rejoin broken shanks to the bowl with pins and then with a Delrin or stainless tube. I even learned how to cob together diverse parts to create a totally different pipe. I learned how to join shank extensions to the existing broken shank. Eventually I learned to use a microdrill bit to stop a crack in the shank or bowl from spreading.

I went through a period where I bought some cracked bowls to recreate or repair the pipe. I shortened billiards to make pots and cut off the broken parts and rejoined a different bowl part to the top of the cut of bowl. I used pins and pegs to bind the two parts together. I learned to drill and stitch cracks in the bowls along with Charles Lemon of Dadspipes. I learned to repair interior cracks in the bowl with a variety of methods.

You could say that every pipe I purchased is part of my education. I can also tell you that very few pipes are ever thrown away in my shop. Even the old cast offs provide briar for repairing burnouts or cracks. I currently have a box of parts that go for that. I have two large coffee cans of stems that one day need to be separated by size but  I purchase lots of stems on eBay or from flea markets or shops around town. I have scavenged bands from all kinds of broken pipes and will often buy a broken pipe just to keep the band or stem. I currently have a box of pipes to restem that I have picked up around the globe. One day I will get to them but as it is now I slowly chip away at them.

So the short answer to the question I began with is simply that every pipe, no matter how bad was once someone’s cherished possession and should be treated well. Second, each pipe is a contributor to your education and skill set as a refurbisher and repair person. Never pass up the opportunity to learn from these often despised pipes. They have much to teach if you are willing to listen to them.




7 thoughts on “ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: Do junk pipes have any redeeming value?

  1. ThePipeSteward - Dal in Bulgaria

    Thanks, Steve. I appreciate what you have described, that I’m also discovering a bit at a time – a very rewarding process of education as well as restoring special ‘friends’ to pipe men and women!

      1. ThePipeSteward - Dal in Bulgaria

        Oh yes! I have done some and found a few gems. I can’t wait to get back to Bulgaria to work on a Karl Erik freehand that I found at a roadside antique/second-hand store. After your recent restoration of a Karl Erik….made me a bit impatient :-). Hanging in there.

  2. Miqe

    Good and educational!

    It sounds a little like myself. Only that I am not as far “on the road”, as you, Sir.

    Thank you!


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