ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: How do I strip a finish from a pipe?


Blog by Steve Laug

I have been asked how to strip a finish from a pipe more times than I can tell you. So this Answers to Questions blog is written to talk about how I remove the finish from a pipe. On first glance this seems like a very easy thing to do. You just need to sand the bowl until the finish is removed correct? That answer is certainly describes one method that has been used with success. But there are other ways to do the job that are less intrusive and less damaging to the bowl and shank. When sanding the pipe it is easy to damage the stamping and modify the shape. Both of these are undesirable in restored pipe. So how do I go about doing the job? I want to take time to present the options for removing finishes. I will differentiate between smooth, rusticated and sandblast bowls in the process of explaining each method. (I know that opinion varies on each of these coats and I only speak from my personal tastes and experience.)

Removing stain from the briar/wood bowl.
1. Removing stain from a smooth finish is actually quite straight forward. You need to understand that once you remove the stain you may well reveal more issues – fills, flaws and less than perfect briar. You have to be okay with taking that chance because you never know what you will find under the stain. To carefully observe what is underneath the stain coat I wipe the bowl down with isopropyl alcohol. I find that the alcohol makes the stain more transparent and blends the colours together in a way that is much more conducive to seeing the grain. Wiping off the stain may well reveal fills underneath the stain. They will need to be dealt with but that does not bother me too much. I really like a more transparent stain so it is worth the extra effort.

If I want to strip the stain from the bowl I wipe it down with acetone. Some have used fingernail polish remover which contains acetone and this works very well. However, I like to use a product that contains 100% acetone that I buy in the nail polish removal area of my local pharmacy. Acetone strips the finish back to almost bare briar. Repeating the process will bring more and more of the stain to the surface of the briar. Once the pipe is clean it can be restained and polished with micromesh sanding pads and/or a buffing wheel.

2. Removing stain from a rusticated or sandblast finish is different from removing it from a smooth finish. Alcohol works very well but needs to be almost washed over the bowl. I have used an alcohol bath to remove the finish. I fill an airtight container with isopropyl alcohol and drop the bowl into the bath overnight or at least for 3-4 hours. I find that it removes the finish very well from both sandblast and rusticated bowls. If you are reticent to soak the bowl, remember the isopropyl alcohol I use is 99% alcohol and evaporates very quickly. It does not stay in the briar. Besides that, you will be thoroughly cleaning the pipe afterwards.

You can also wipe the outside of the bowl down with very wet cotton pads that are almost dripping alcohol. It has the same effect. Remember you want the alcohol to reach down into the grooves, nooks and crannies of the finish. An interesting effect can be obtained by merely wiping down the high spots on the finish and leave the depths untouched. You can then restain it with a contrasting colour and get some beautiful finishes.

Removing shellac from the briar bowl.
1. Shellac is a shiny top coat that is often applied by a pipe maker or manufacturer to give a pipe a permanent shine. It is much easier to remove than the other topcoats that follow. On a smooth finish, it is very simple. Wipe the bowl down with isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad. I repeat until the shine is dull once the bowl dries. I touch up the shiny spots with more alcohol. If you want to restain the pipe afterwards then you can wipe it down with acetone instead of alcohol. Both do the job but acetone also strips more of stain coat than alcohol. I finish the pipe with several coats of carnauba wax buffed to a shine with a clean buffing pad.

2. Removing shellac from a rusticated or sandblast finish is done in exactly the same way as removing stain from this finish spelled out above. I use either an alcohol bath or a very wet cloth of alcohol and wipe the finish down. Both work very well as they work deep in the grooves and nooks and crannies of the finish. The idea for me is to remove the shiny coat because to be honest I really don’t like it. I have had it come off on my hands when the pipe heats up. Therefore, the shellac coat has to go.

Removing varnish from the briar bowl.
1. Varnish is more resistant to alcohol than the other top coats I have talked about so far. For smooth finished pipes, I tend to use acetone on cotton pads to remove the varnish finish off. It takes some scrubbing to remove it but it will come off. I scrub the bowl until there is no more shine once it dries. Check carefully in the junction of the bowl and shank and in the stamping on the shank as the varnish in those spots can be very stubborn. Wipe down the end of the shank as it is often varnished. I don’t worry about using acetone on the exterior of a pipe as it also evaporates very quickly into the air leaving the bowl dry. Once the finish is flat, it can be waxed and buffed.

2. Removing varnish from a rusticated or sandblast finish is harder. I use a brass bristle wire brush (it has soft bristles and is available in auto parts stores or Walmart type stores). I work over the entire bowl, carefully working around the stamping and any smooth portions. I find that the soft brass bristles loosen the varnish in the grooves and crevices of the finish. I wipe it down afterwards with acetone on a cotton pad making sure to get the acetone deep into the grooves. Sometimes I have to repeat the process to remove all of the ‘offending’ varnish. Once it is gone I wax the bowl with Conservator’s Wax and polish it with a horsehair shoe brush. I find the method works well for me.

Removing lacquer from the briar bowl.
1. Removing lacquer from a smooth finished bowl is quite straightforward. I have removed it quite easily with both lacquer thinner and with acetone. It comes off quite easily and without a lot of fuss. I have found that lacquer has to be scrubbed slightly harder than the varnish coat because of its resilience but it does come off. I use cotton pads to apply the thinner or acetone to the finish and scrub it until it is gone. I find that the makeup removal pads available at most drug stores or pharmacy work really well. They are white so the finish shows up well on the pad as it is removed.

2. Removing it from a rusticated or sandblast finish is harder. It is like the process I use to remove varnish coats. I begin by using a brass bristle wire brush (it has soft bristles and is available in auto parts stores or Walmart type stores) to work over the finish and try to loosen things. I work carefully around the stamping and any smooth portions. The soft brass bristles loosen the lacquer in the grooves and crevices of the finish as I methodically work them over with the brush. I wipe it down afterwards with acetone on a cotton pad making sure to get the acetone deep into the grooves. Often I repeat the process to remove all of the lacquer from the bowl. Afterwards I wax the bowl with Conservator’s Wax and polish it with a horsehair shoe brush. This method has worked over time as I have fine tuned it.

Removing urethane products from the briar bowl.
I have to say that I find this finish the hardest to remove from pipes. I do not even pick up rusticated or sandblast pipes that have been coated with urethane products. I am hesitant even to take on smooth finished pipes. I really don’t like the product on pipes. It is recognizable in that it is a shiny and plastic looking coating that comes in varying thicknesses. It goes by a variety of names – Varathane, Urethane, Polyurethane but all have the same resistance to both alcohol and acetone. The finish seems to be impervious to all attempts to break through with these products. I know others have used a paint stripping product to remove this finish but I really don’t like using this stripper product. The chemicals in the stripper require a lot of ventilation and are really hard on my hands so I try to avoid them.

In place of using the stripper I have resorted to my own method with some degree of success. Sometimes I question the worth or value of doing this when there are so many really good pipes out there that I can work on without having to deal with urethane. But when I do have to, I break through the shine with either a brass bristle wire brush or with a piece of 220 grit sandpaper. Once I have broken through the top of the finish I can wipe it down with acetone and have limited success. It really is a matter of sanding or wire brushing and wiping it down – repeatedly until the finish is gone. I have seen folks sand off the coat but I find that if I can strip it there are less scratches to deal with in the refinishing process. Best case scenario when I find a urethane coated pipe is I clean it up the best I can and give it away.

Removing paint from the briar bowl.
Next to a urethane finish painted finishes is next on my list of dislikes for finishes on pipes. I do not like painted finishes. I actually avoid purchasing them because I have learned the hard way that they are impossible to bring back to the kind of finish I like on a pipe. If there are dents and chips in the finish they are impossible to repair or touch up. I have tried almost every kind of paint out there and not been able to get a match or if I get close, the minute pipe is lit and heated the repairs bubble.

Others have taken a different tactic and sand the paint off the rims and stain the rim to give the painted pipe a bit of contrast look. But to be honest I really don’t like the look. To deal with my own irritation I have resorted to stripping the bowl of all of its paint. I have used a variety of methods to remove paint. I have sanded the bowl down to remove the finish. I have used a paint stripper but I have spoken about my dislike of that above. I think that at times sanding the bowl down is the best choice. It is up to you whether you sacrifice the stamping in the sanding process or whether you strip that area. I have had limited success breaking the shine and wiping the paint down with acetone. It seems that once the seal is broken the acetone does the job but it is really labour intensive.

To top it off once the painted finish is removed I have found that the paint hid a multitude of flaws in the briar that have been filled and masked by the paint coat. It is generally a disappointment to me after all the work on the briar to get to that point. Instead, if I am left with a damaged painted pipe I generally rusticate it and thus remove the issue. I know that the solution may not be acceptable to all of you but it is what I do with this problem.

Conclusion: You can tell from the processes that I have developed to remove top coats from briar pipes that I really do not like them. I like the briar to breathe as I found that without the various top finishes the pipe smokes cooler. I like to finish my pipes with carnauba wax for smooth finishes and with Conservator’s Wax on rusticated or sandblast finishes. When I buy a new pipe this is one of the first things I look for. It is not a deal breaker but the shape has to be one I really like and want before I buy it. Then when I get home the first thing I do before smoking it is to remove the top coat and wax the bowl.

On estate pipe purchases I note which sellers on eBay give the bowls a coat of varnish or worse yet urethane and refuse to purchase pipe from them. Too often, I have bought pipes that have had the varnish coat slopped over the grime on the bowl and even into the bowl itself. It is easier just having to deal with that added issue. When it is a part of the original finish, that is another story and I address it as it comes. When I buy from antique malls and dealers, I specifically talk to them about not putting any shiny coats on the pipes they sell. It may make them look better to sell but it really is an old used pipe so why wreck it with these ministrations.

I think that is it for now. I hope that this series of Answers to Questions blogs is providing information that you find useful. If you have other methods for the various things that I am posting please feel free to comment or contact me. I am well aware that in each case these are my own opinions and that they are not shared by all. I raise a pipe to each of you who enjoy this hobby of ours. Cheers.

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