Restoring my grandfather’s Custom-Bilt pipe

Blog by Paresh Deshpande

Now that the WDC Bulldog with Bakelite stem and gold band has been sent to Mr. Steve along with one Linkman’s with Pat Number and one Barling Ye Olde Wood, I suddenly feel relieved off the pressure of messing up with the restoration of these sentimentally valuable old pipes of my grandfather. It always pays to have someone experienced to fall back on in case something goes awry, the way it did with the WDC mentioned above. I am sure that those of who have previously read about the restoration of the Pete System # 31 will be curious to know what exactly went wrong with the WDC that I have mentioned it twice!!! Well, I definitely intend to share this story with you, but all in good time!!!!!

The next pipe from the collection which I decided to work on was a huge Custom-Bilt briar pipe. The large size of the bowl, thick shank and large saddle stem, lends this pipe a weight which I particularly enjoy holding in my hand.The pipe has deep and large vertical rustications along the entire length of the shank and height of the bowl. Within these large vertical rustications are very thin, closely stacked horizontal lines which give this pipe its unique appearance and are its trademark!!! I absolutely loved this pipe. These large rustications end half a centimeter below the outer rim of the bowl giving it the semblance of a rim cap. The rim top is covered with the same thin, closely stacked lines as seen between the vertical rustications.The pipe is stamped on the left side of the shank as “Custom-Bilt” on a plane surface. There is also a five-pointed star on the right side of the shank where the shank and stem meet (this star was revealed later after cleaning the pipe!!!).I searched the internet for information in order to date this pipe. Pipedia has  a lot of information about this pipe and just typing in Custom-Bilt in the search bar of the site will reveal the required information. There is an interesting review given by Richard Esserman  on a book written by   William E. Unger, Jr., PhD, which deals with the study of Custom-Bilt pipes. The author authoritatively states, after a lot of research and study that the stamp as seen on this particular pipe dates it from between 1938 – 1946!Initial inspection of the pipe revealed the following:

There is a thick layer of cake in the bowl. Though the cake appears thin, the sheer size of the bowl makes it appear so.The rim is covered in the overflow of lava, dirt and grime. The outer edge of the rim appears to be in good condition with no damage. The condition of the inner edge will be determined only after removing the cake.

The large vertical rustications are filled with dust, oils, dirt and grime to such an extent that the horizontal lines lying within are barely visible. Same goes for the rim top.  The stem is firmly stuck to the shank and will not budge. However, there is only one light bite mark below and above the stem near the lip. This is a big surprise since all the other pipes are heavily chomped up!THE PROCESS

Before I could start the work of cleaning the pipe, I kept it in the freezer overnight so as to separate the stem from the shank. Come morning, I removed the pipe from the freezer and tried to remove the stem, but it still did not budge! I let it rest outside for an hour and after applying considerable force, the stem came free, revealing an aluminum tenon fixed permanently into the shank.My first impression was that of having broken and ruined the stem. Further examination of this protrusion confirmed two airways, a larger one above a smaller one, both with the same draught hole at the other end.There is also a gap between the end of this aluminum protrusion and the airway hole inside the stem. This gap is covered in oils, tars and gunk. My guess is that the smoke drawn is swirled and the turbulence results in a cool and dry smoke. Any confirmed inputs will be highly appreciated.Using a Kleen Reem pipe tool, Abha, my wife removed all the thick cake from the bowl. She further cleaned the bowl down to the bare briar using a knife that I have especially fabricated for cleaning pipes. It may not be as classy as a Savinelli Fitsall knife, but performs efficiently to our satisfaction.A sanding down of the insides of the bowl by a 220 grit sand paper made the inner surface of the bowl nice and smooth. Abha had sanded down the inside of the bowl down to its briar. On close scrutiny of the insides of the bowl, I saw what appeared to be cracks in the bowl and that had me in sweats!!! Immediately forwarded pictures of the same to my mentor and Guru, Mr. Steve who laid my fears to rest by assuring these were not cracks and that further sanding should take care of these things. These lines which appeared like cracks disappeared after sanding down with a 220 grit sand paper.Thereafter, using Murphy’s oil soap ( undiluted ) and a hard bristled toothbrush on the exterior of the bowl, shank and rim, the pipe was thoroughly cleaned and rinsed under running tap water. I immediately wiped it down with a soft cloth. The long vertical rustications and the horizontal lines within were now clean and the briar looked clean and solid. I then left the briar to dry out. This product, I find to be very easy to use and the results are really amazing. The briar takes on a new look and a new shine. While the briar was drying out, I turned my attention to the stem. Since there is only one small, light bite mark on both the sides of the stem near the lip, I felt that it can be addressed by holding it over a Bic lighter and during sanding down using a 220 grit paper followed by micromesh sanding pads. Since there is no stamping on the stem, the work progressed relatively faster. After a 220 grit sanding, I wet sanded it with 1500 – 3200 micromesh sanding pads and dry sanded with 3400 – 12000 grit sand paper. In between each micromesh pad, I wiped it down with extra virgin olive oil, which I find is a perfect substitute for Obsidian oil which is not available in India and olive oil also tastes great! The stem is now nice and shiny. However, the light bite marks on both upper and lower sides can still be seen even after the using the Bic lighter and the sanding down process. This should have been addressed right at the beginning by either filling it with black super glue (which I do not have) or by using activated charcoal as suggested by my Guru, Mr. Steve. Well, this was a lesson learnt during this project.

Once the briar had dried out completely, I rubbed in Before and After Restoration Balm deep into the rustications as well as the rim top. The bowl was then wiped vigorously with a soft cloth and buffed with a horse hair shoe brush. The result is very pleasing and satisfying to the eyes! I am happy with this progress. This balm is a fantastic product for infusing a new life into the briar and giving it a new lease of life.While on a FaceTime call with Mr. Steve, I had conveyed that I do not have a buffing wheel and other waxes. He advised me to use boot wax which is readily available with us, it being an inescapable requirement in my profession and believe you me, it works wonders. I can rely on his vast experience to come up with such simple, uncomplicated and practical solutions, specifically tailor-made for you. Thank you, Sir.

The finished pipe is as shown below. I enjoyed working on this large Custim-Bilt pipe belonging to my grandfather. There are still a number of pipes which I have to work on and the next one is an old Stanwell, de-Luxe # 482 with Regd number 969-48 and a KRISWILL “CHIEF” #20. I have to work really hard and fast so as to complete as many pipes as possible before my leave ends!!!!

3 thoughts on “Restoring my grandfather’s Custom-Bilt pipe

  1. Pingback: Restoring my Grandfather’s………what the..….. A Kaywoodie????? | rebornpipes

  2. Pingback: Restoring a Wally Frank Era Custombilt Sitter #633 | rebornpipes

  3. andrew stangl

    Nice clean up. The aluminum tube is part of a filter system that was patented by Tracey Mincer. They talk about it in bill unger’s book. Yo may be able to find the patent. There is a red rod that runs through the shank I can see it in one of pictures you posted


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