ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS – What do I look for when buying estate pipes?

Blog by Steve Laug

I remember when my brother got bit by the pipe hunting bug and just about picked up every pipe he saw because they looked good, or were unique, or just because… I remember doing the same thing when I first started going through antique malls or rummage shops. I just purchased what I found because they were there. Jeff and I sat down and talk through what I looked for and how to sort through all the brands of pipes that are in the sales. We spoke of brands and my process for sorting through the options. I don’t remember how long we took but he wrote down the brand names that I look for and asked questions about the details of knowing what was workable and what was not. This for me was the part of the process that was not logical it was merely a matter of preference. I have a lot of pipes to work on so I have become very selective over the years as the bins and boxes have filled up.

Since we had talked about this it dawned on me that it might be helpful to walk those of you who are interested through my process. It is here for you to use if you want to. If you don’t want to, just skip this blog and carry on. You will eventually develop your own hunting regimen and methodology. This one is mine and it has worked for me for many years now.

When I look at estate pipes, whether online, on eBay or in person at an estate sale, auction or in my visits to antique shops and malls, I have an internal checklist that I work through. I used to have to think about it and methodically work my way through the process but no longer. It is now a part of the warp and weave of my thinking when I am in the pipe hunting mode. I had to step back and think through it again as I write this blog because I just automatically do it now. Here is my list.

  1. Who made that pipe – my first question is one of the ways I eliminate pipes from my purchase. I have become more selective, as I mentioned above, so I quickly move through the pipes in a display. After a while you learn to recognize shapes, markings, finishings etc. so it is pretty quick. If the pipe is a drugstore pipe (think Medico, corn cob), then I skip over it. If is an older one – Kaywoodie, KBB or KB&B, Yell-bole I will often put it aside or add it to my mental list. Personally I pass up many Medicos, Carey Magic Inch pipes, Grabows and Willards. I skip most is not all of the Imported Briar no name pipes and all no name Italian pipes that have flooded the inexpensive baskets by pipe store cash registers.
  2. What is the general condition of the pipe – Again this review is almost automatic. Last weekend my brother was in an antique mall in Montana and we Facetimed for a bit and he showed me pipes. It seems I can see cracks, nicks, holes, breaks, wrong stem and misfit stems with broken tenons without taking a lot of time. I look at the rim top and check for lava, damage to the inner and outer rim, burn marks and charred areas. I quickly eye-ball the finish and see if there is a heavy varnish coat of varathane coat. I typically do not take a pipe apart at this point. I am merely eliminating the ones that I am not interested in working on. The ones I want are now added to my growing pile to be examined more thoroughly.
  3. Let’s take it apart (if I am able) – This is the time for a closer inspection of the pipes in hand. I scrutinize them at all levels in this step. I look at the stamping to see if it is readable and/or damaged. I look at the stem to check if it is original and the markings match the shank stamp. I remove the stem if I am able without breaking the pipe and check out the internals. He I am examining the inside of the mortise, holding it up to the light to see if the shank is clogged. I look for broken inner tubes or stinger apparatuses in the shank or the stem. I check the shank end to see if there are any signs of cracks that don’t show up on the exterior of the shank. I look for burn marks internally in the mortise as I have seen burn through areas even there. I check out the inside of the bowl as much as I can and the outside looking for burn marks or checking or charring. I am not too worried about fissures in the bowl I am more concerned with the condition of the wood around them. Those that make this final cut are the ones I purchase the rest are left behind. I do not hesitate to walk away from these pipes. Even the chosen few can be left behind if the price cannot be agreed upon between the seller and me.

Often folks will assume that I will not buy damaged pipes – broken shanks, cracked shanks, stems that are chewed up, etc. That is not necessarily so. I assess what work will need to be done and if it will reduce the value of the pipe or if I am not in the mood to work on that kind of issue (yes there are times that I just don’t want to look at another cracked shank). If the pipe is repairable and will look good when fixed then it remains in my purchase pile. Oh, there is also another exception I tend to also scavenge pipes for parts – stems, bands even briar for other repairs so some of the pipes I purchase may be for my bone pile. I gather my purchases, pay my bill and add them to my restoration bins.

I thought it might also be helpful to some of you to have an idea of the brands I look for on my hunts. I know that this highly subjective (at least to some degree) but I think it illustrates a point in terms of how my head works when I am hunting. The brands that make up this list are not exhaustive as there are many that may have escaped my memory as I write this but you will catch the pattern. I have organized them by region in the list below.

  1. Danish or Scandinavian – these include Stanwell, Kriswill, Jarl, Nordings (I have found many of each of these brands on my hunts).
  2. English and Irish – Dunhill, BBB, GBD, GW Sims, Barlings, Comoy’s, Charatan, Lowes, Petersons and all of the sub brands and seconds of each of these (check out the site to figure out these).
  3. French and Belgian – Hilsons, GBD early pipes, Comoy’s, Butz Choquin, Chacom and some of the earlier St. Claude made pipes (again check the site).
  4. Italian – I have found that other than Savinellis the estate market on these is limited. I have picked up some nice Castellos, Brebbias, Acortis, Radicis, and even an occasional le Nuvole pipe. I leave behind some of the other brands such as Lorenzo or Lorenzetti as well as the no name basket pipes that bear the Italy stamp.
  5. North American – Tracy Mincer, Custombilt, Custom-Bilt, CPF, National, Manhattan, Linkmanns, older Yello-Boles, KB&B pipes, KBB pipes, Kaywoodies, SM Frank, some Wally Frank pipes, Canadian made Brighams, Trypsis, Calich, and even the occasional artisan pipe from both countries – such as Tinskys, von Ercks, Wests, Buraks and the list can go on.
  6. Meerschaums – Generally I am not a big fan of facial meerschaums. I like classic shapes, lattice meers and sometimes well executed faces. I probably pass over more meerschaum pipes than I purchase. If I take one I want the carving to be really well done. I really dislike poorly carved faces with poorly executed features.

I am sure that each of you who are reading this could add more to the list but this is a bare bones list that I work with. It is meant to be a starting point. Add your own brands to the list as I am sure I will as more come to mind. I think that summarizes my thoughts on the original question. As with most things in our hobby there are questions behind the questions. There are multiple levels of answers but at the same time it really boils down to what you individually want to do. It comes down to your aesthetic and your willingness to take the time to work on an estate pipe. What I find ugly and worthless may well turn your crank and be on your wish list. No problem with that because that is what makes this hobby the amazing thing it is. Hopefully you have found this blog helpful as you make your own choices. Thanks for humouring this old pipeman in his ramblings. Cheers.



2 thoughts on “ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS – What do I look for when buying estate pipes?

  1. Dominic

    Great advise! I agree with you and Charles 100%. When I got bit by the “Pipe Bug” I was like a rabid dog on eBay and etsy buying everything that caught my eye. Being new to pipes and wet behind the ears I got a lot of duds but also a few gems. And yes I have to admit I did get caught up in a few bidding wars on eBay also. Now I am also a lot more selective on my buys and will do more homework and research on pipes of interest before buying or bidding on the. Also I always go into a eBay auction with a top bid set in my mind. If it goes past that set amount, I stop bidding and walk away from it. I now know that there are so many pipes out there, and honestly I’m still amazed at how many, if few get away from you, your odds of getting another gem are pretty damn good.
    As always thank you Steve for sharing your thoughts and knowledge!

  2. Charles Lemon

    Great post, Steve. I recognize a lot of my own process in your description. Your advice to walk away from a purchase if something’s not quite ticking the boxes is bang on. Especially in competitive situations like auctions, it is all too easy to get caught up in the moment and overspend or buy something sub-par just to win the bidding war. (Maybe don’t ask how I know this!)


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