ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: Topping or not topping a bowl – that is the question

Blog by Steve Laug

Often I am asked how I decide whether or not to top a bowl. Like the other questions in this series of Answers to Questions this has a multifaceted answer. I wish sometimes that the answers were black and white – very straightforward. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a template that says when a rim top looks like “this” – top the bowl? Sadly there is no such template. For me the decision is really a process of elimination. I look at the condition of the rim and consider the various options putting them aside one by one until I come to a conclusion. I may use a combination of steaming and topping to bring back the rim top. There are times when I have had to rebuild portions of the rim top to get it level and smooth. Whatever, method I use I spend a fair bit of time examining the pipe before moving forward. Here is my process for deciding to top the bowl or not to top it.

Examine the rim top. The first thing I do when I bring a pipe to the work table is assess the damage to the bowl and shank. Focusing on the rim top, I look for damage to the outer and inner edges of the rim and damage to the rim top itself. At the worst these damages include one or more of the following – deep gouges, marks, burned and charred areas. At the best they may include dings, nicks and dents. Sometimes you can guess at the condition of the rim at this point – you get so you can tell quite quickly over time. Other times the examination has to be done after the initial cleaning of the exterior of the bowl. Generally I can draw my conclusions quite quickly just by looking, the extent of the damage (this is one of the perks of having worked on pipes for over 20+ years).

Dents, nicks and dings. This is the best case scenario in terms of rim damage. If this is what I find then I seek to remove or minimize these issues. Dents and dings can be lifted with steam. I use a wet cloth and hot knife to create steam and lift the dents and dings. I repeat the process until I am happy with the results. Others use an iron and cloth. Choose what you are comfortable with because both work well. For nicks along the edges – inner or outer – I try to steam them to raise them but have found that this is often pretty useless in addressing issues where a nick has a sharp or cut edge. In that case I use a small folded piece of sandpaper to smooth them out. I follow that by polishing the sanded areas with micromesh sanding pads. I rarely top a bowl with this kind of damage to the rim top. I have found that these issues generally can be remedied with steam and little bit of sanding magic.

Nicks, cuts, gouges, road rash. There are definite issues that call for the use of a topping board. For me topping tends to be the last resort after I have tried other means of dealing with the damage on the bowl. But if the following scenarios are true then I top the pipe. If the pipe has been used like a hammer to knock out the dottle and the outer edges of the bowl a broken down or rounded over. If the surface of the edge is very rough with broken fibres of briar. If the inner edge is damaged to a point where a light topping will remove the damage. If the top surface of the rim is gouged, cut or rough to the touch. All of these are signs to me that the bowl should be topped.

Once you have made the decision that the rim needs to be topped then the next question comes into play. How much of the top needs to be removed from the surface of the rim? To me this is as important a decision as that of topping. Once again I am a bit of a minimalist in my approach. I only remove as much as is necessary to reduce the footprint of the damage. In some cases it is very light and I work over the edges of the bowl independently to minimize the damage in those areas and blend the sides into the topped rim. In other cases it requires a bit more work to remove the damage and I have to remove more material. I always keep the idea of minimal in mind as I do the work.

In terms of the actual process, I use a cutting board with a piece of 220 grit sandpaper attached to it. I work the bowl on the sandpaper in a circular motion as I find it makes the scratches in the briar less noticeable that when I work from side to side or front to back. The circular motion sandpaper marks are also more easily removed. I sand and check, sand and recheck, and repeat until I am satisfied with surface of the rim and the edges. Sometimes all of the damage is removed and other times it requires some hand work to fine tune the edges of the bowl. The key to the process is the repeated checking to make sure that you have removed enough of the briar to deal with the damage but not too much to ensure that the profile of the pipe remains the same. . I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep the rim top flat against the topping board as it is very easy to give the top an unwanted slant in the process. A good topping job should be unnoticeable. You work to blend the rim top into the flow of the bowl and then match the stain.

My rule of thumb is always to aim for removing the least amount of material from the rim top as possible. I want to minimize the damage and bring the rim back to a “near new” condition. I want the rim to match the normal wear on a pipe of its age. There is nothing worse in my opinion than having crisp edges on a rim top when everything else about the pipe has been softened with time and use. Once the rim is topped and the damage is removed if any dents remain I will steam them out. If you top a sandblast or rusticated rim top then your work just begins with the topping. You will need to decide if you want to leave it smooth as a contrast with the finish around the bowl and shank or work over the rim top with a Dremel and burrs to match the original finish on the rest of the bowl. That of course is a matter of your own comfort with process and your own aesthetic as well.

I think that summarizes my thoughts on the original question. As with most things in our hobby there seems to be questions behind the questions. There are always multiple levels of answers but at the same time it really boils down to what you individually are comfortable with in terms of the topping. Hopefully you have found this blog helpful as you make your own choices. Thanks once more for humouring this old pipeman in his ramblings. Cheers.

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