An Interesting Shape and an Amazing Transformation – An Italian Custom Shape

Blog by Dal Stanton

There are times a pipe gets your attention just because it has an interesting twist, a surprising shape, or it is just different.  This one falls under this category.  I remember acquiring this pipe when my wife and I were in the US for several months and we joined our son and daughter-in-law for Christmas in Dearborn, Michigan – just a stone throw from Detroit, a new, vibrant city in many ways.  It was December 30th and I was sitting next to the blazing fireplace in their beautiful home that was built by well-known icon, Henry Ford.  From this home, back during those turbulent years, Henry Ford and his press secretary would air their radio broadcasts that reached the entire country.  A very nice place to celebrate Christmas.  I was tooling through the eBay offering on the app in my iPhone and saw this interesting looking pipe. I think what attracted me to the pipe was the stout, get-a-hold-of-me bowl and the shank/stem shape.  The shank flared out from the bowl and rose to the fancy stem, and then the stem tapered away with a gentle bend.  It was marked with a non-descript ‘Italian’ over ‘Import’ and to the right ‘Italy’.  The pipe looked newer and the seller said it had been lightly smoked.  I won the auction and with free shipping, I was pleased with my unique looking acquisition.  The Italian Custom Shaped pipe made it back to Bulgaria with me and waited patiently in my ‘Help Me!’ basket until a fellow colleague saw him along with two other pipes.  The shape also attracted Taylor’s attention.  Taylor commissioned the Italian Custom along with another Italian, a Savinelli Oscar which I found in Athens, Greece.  I already restored the Oscar and Taylor and I enjoyed a few bowls together for that inaugural smoke on my Man Cave – 10th floor balcony!  In queue also for Taylor is an Amphora Bent Bulldog of Holland.  Taylor has started his collection of pipes and I’m glad to add to it!  Of course, each pipe I restore for Taylor benefits the Daughters of Bulgaria, women and girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.  Thanks Taylor!  When I get the Italian Custom on my worktable, I take a few more pictures to take a closer look. The pipe is in good condition.  There is very little cake in the chamber and little tooth chatter.  I do detect some oxidation on the upper side of the stem.  The finish on the briar stummel is dark and cloudy.  The question that comes to mind is the dark finish hiding fills in the briar – what is being intentionally masked?  I look and see one apparent fill on the front of the bowl, but no others are obvious.  I’ll look forward to simply cleaning the bowl and to see if removing the grime will brighten up the finish.  There are normal nicks and small dents on the briar surface.  I begin the restoration of the Italian Custom for Taylor by putting the stem in an OxiClean bath to rise the light oxidation from the vulcanite.  I leave it in the bath overnight.While the stem is soaking, I turn to the stummel.  The cake is very light, but I want to clean it out for a fresh start.  I use the Pipnet Reaming Kit to do the job.  I only use two blades and follow with using the Savinelli Fitsall tool to scrape the walls of the chamber.  I then sand the chamber using a piece of 240 grit paper wrapped around the Sharpie Pen.  Finally, I wipe the fire chamber using a cotton pad wetted with isopropyl 95%.  The chamber looks good – no problems detected. Now, to clean the external briar I use undiluted Murphy’s Oil Soap to clean using a cotton pad.  I take a couple of pictures to mark the beginning point – I want to compare before and after the cleaning.  I clean with Murphy’s and a cotton pad and when finished I rinse the stummel with tap water.  Well, I can tell that the surface is cleaner, but the finish is not improved.  It remains a dull and not very exciting, and I wonder again if the briar underneath the finish is in bad shape and if the dark stain was intentional to cover the imperfections… I switch now to the internals of the stummel.  Using pipe cleaners and cotton buds I clean the mortise and the airway.  As I was cleaning the mortise and airway, I began to take note that the pipe cleaners and cotton buds were coming out with a reddish hue.  It appears that the stain used to color the stummel was also in the internals – that I don’t think is a good situation.  I wouldn’t want to be smoking a pipe with the normal moisture that happens in the pipe mixing with the heated stain….  Not on my watch!  I decide to put the entire stummel into an alcohol soak to clean and to remove the stain residing in the mortise and airway walls.  Time to turn out the lights.The next morning early, I get up with the birds and look at the two bottles on my workbench – one an alcohol bath and the other an OxiClean bath.  I decide to fish the stummel out of the alcohol bath and have a look.  The dark stain on the stummel weathered the alcohol bath and I run a cotton bud in the mortise to see if there was any color.  There wasn’t.  The primary purpose of the alcohol bath was accomplished.  Next, I fish the stem out of the OxiClean bath and take a few pictures to show the raised oxidation.  I adjust the aperture on the second picture to reveal better what I can see with the naked eye.  I then take the stem to the sink and wet sand the raised oxidation with 600 grit paper and following this with 0000 grade steel wool.  The minor tooth chatter I detected earlier on the bit was removed during the process of removing the oxidation.  The fancy stem looks good.I look back to the stummel.  The overnight alcohol bath lightened the finish slightly, but it is not to my liking. The fogginess of the finish is the problem – I like to view the grain not fuzz.  The stummel also has normal signs of wear – bumps, small scratches and some small dents.To remove the finish and nicks and dents I use sanding sponges.  Starting first with a coarser sponge I sand the stummel staying clear of the nomenclature stamping on the shank.  To guard the stamping from the sanding, I apply acetone with cotton pads to remove the finish.  It takes a while to break down the finish, but it eventually does the job.  I follow the coarse sponge with a mid-range sponge and then finish with a light grade sponge.   The pictures show the sponge sanding process. With the use of micromesh pads, I then wet sand the stummel using pads 1500 to 2400. Following this, I dry sand using pads 3200 to 4000 and 6000 to 12000.  Pray tell!  Look what was hiding beneath all the fuzzy, foggy finish!  The grain is coming out nicely!  I feel like I’m on a roll with this pipe – just a makeover, no major issues!  These easier projects are nice when they come.  I have been thinking about the finish.  I want to bend the tint of the stummel to the original darker brown, but I don’t want to go real dark.  I’ve been going back and forth in my mind about using Fiebing’s Saddle Tan Pro Dye, which would keep it closer to the natural briar color I’m seeing now.  Or, I’ve also considered Fiebing’s Light Brown Leather Dye that would cast the hue in a brown direction.  Both dyes are aniline based, or alcohol, and gives the flexibility of lightening either dye by wiping the dyed surface with an alcohol wetted cotton pad.  I decide on Fiebing’s Light Brown because it will be in the same scheme as the original color. After getting all the setup tools out and mounting the stummel on a cork to serve as a handle, I wipe the bowl down with alcohol to assure that it is clean.  I then heat the stummel over a hot air gun which expands the briar grain thus making it more receptive to the dye.  I then apply Fiebing’s Light Brown Leather Dye to the stummel using a folded pipe cleaner.  I make sure that the entire surface is covered.  I then flame the wet aniline dye which combusts the alcohol in the dye setting the pigment in the grain.  After a few minutes, I repeat applying more dye to the stummel and then firing it.  I set the stummel aside to allow it to rest – thus helping to ensure that the dye will not later come off on the hands when the newly restored stummel is heated up during use.  The pictures show the staining progress. While the newly stained bowl rests, I return to the stem.  Using micromesh pads 1500 to 2400 I wet sand the stem.  Following this, I dry sand using pads 3200 to 4000 then 6000 to 12000.  After each set of three pads, I apply a coat of Obsidian Oil to reinvigorate the vulcanite.  The stem looks great!  It’s been several hours since I dyed the Italian Custom’s stummel and it’s time to unwrap the bowl!  I like this part because it is always a question as to how the grain receives the dye.  I mount a felt buffing wheel onto the Dremel dedicated for use with Red Tripoli compound.  I set the speed to the slowest and I first purge the buffing wheel with the Dremel’s adjustment wrench – cleaning the wheel of old compound.  I then use the Tripoli and the felt wheel to ‘unwrap’ the fired dye crust revealing the briar beneath. I take a picture of the ‘unwrapping’ – and my, what a kaleidoscope of grain is revealed!  I’m amazed at what I see!  After I complete the ‘unwrapping’ with Tripoli compound, I wet a cotton pad with alcohol and lightly wipe the dyed surface of the stummel.  My goal is not so much to lighten, because I like the shade of browns I’m seeing.  The purpose is to blend the dye more evenly over the surface and remove any excess dye on the surface. I follow by applying Blue Diamond to the reunited stem and stummel.  To do this I mount a cotton cloth buffing wheel to the Dremel and increase the speed of the Dremel to about 40% full power.  After the compounds are completed, I give the pipe a wipe down with a felt cloth to remove the compound dust from the surface.  I then finish by applying a few coats of carnauba wax with another cotton cloth buffing wheel mounted to the Dremel at the same speed.  Then I give the entire pipe a brisk hand buffing with a microfiber cloth to raise the shine more.

When I began the restoration of the Italian Custom Shape, my expectations of what this pipe might look like at the end in no way matched the result.  The briar on this pipe is a brilliant kaleidoscope of grain swirls, circles and tunnels.  It is mesmerizing to look at what was hidden underneath the old finish – God’s beauty in creation.  Not an old pipe, it appears that the manufacture simply aimed to produce an interesting shape without an appreciation for what this pipe could be and what it now has become.  This Italian Custom was commissioned by Taylor and he will have first dibs on it when I place it in The Pipe Steward Store.  This pipe will benefit the Daughters of Bulgaria – helping women and girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.  This pipe earns a ‘before and after’ shot – what a transformation! Thanks for joining me!   

2 thoughts on “An Interesting Shape and an Amazing Transformation – An Italian Custom Shape

  1. ThePipeSteward - Dal in Bulgaria

    Thanks, Terry. This pipe came out surprisingly well given what was hidden underneath the heavy finish.

  2. Terry Jacobs

    perhaps your best I’ve seen in three years of looking at your work … !!! Terry in Minnesota


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.