Restoring a Gutta-Percha Woman’s Leg Pipe with a Briar Bowl

Blog by Steve Laug

On Friday my wife and I took a drive out to one of our favourite spots near Vancouver to do a bit of walking and hunting. She likes looking for old cookbooks and I of course am always on the prowl for old pipes. We walked about for a while and enjoyed the beautiful day. We stopped by two antique malls and spent some time looking. She found nothing for her collection but I found three old pipes – A Parker Super Briar Bark 345 Bulldog in decent shape, a French Made Algerian Briar diamond shank Billiard and a Gutta-Percha Leg shaped pipe with a briar bowl. It was in the worst condition of the three pipes.The black cast/molded Gutta-Percha base was shaped like a female leg and even had a ballet slipper on the extended foot. The airway came out at the end of the toe. The base was nicked and dull looking with none of the rich glow that I know comes when the material is polished. But by far the worst part of the pipe was that some had dipped the briar bowl in a gold metallic paint rubbed it into the grain and then covered it with multiple layers of Varathane plastic coat. They had even dipped the threads on the nipple that screwed into the base in the plastic coat and painted the inside of the bowl as well. I say that was the worst part because otherwise the pipe was unsmoked. It would have been NOS (New Old Stock) before whoever did this abomination to the pipe. The bowl is normally a rich reddish brown colour in all the variations that I have seen on the internet so the gold and plastic finish would need to go. I took a close up photo of the rim top to show you the way it looked when I got it – I don’t know if some of you like the look – but I don’t. It is like painting an antique wooden piece with crackly gold paint to give it the look of hammered metal. It just does not work for me. I also took some photos of the base to show the condition of the mouthpiece end of the pipe. There were some nicks in the material but no tooth marks or chatter and the orific airway in the end of the toes was undamaged.I took photos of the bowl with it removed from the base to show how it had been painted with streaks to make it look like vertical grain – it was not as the wood was smooth and bits of it peaked through the gaudy gold finish. You can also see the thick plastic coat on the nipple that is threaded into the bowl almost filling in all of the threads. I topped the end of the nipple with 220 grit sandpaper on the topping board to remove the thick plastic coat that was not even smooth on that portion of the bowl. I did the same with the bowl to remove the plastic and metallic gold paint. Those areas definitely looked better to me but the bowl was a long way from looking normal.I tried wiping the bowl down with acetone to break through the plastic coat – no luck. The brown stains on the cotton pad come from the nipple end and the rim top where I had broken through the finish. There was only one way to remove this abominable coat of plastic and that was to sand it until it was gone… not my favourite thing. Think twice before any of you put that stuff on a pipe. It is truly awful and stops the wood from breathing.I sanded the bowl with 180 grit sandpaper and was able to break through the plastic coat and the gold coat. Underneath the bowl was nicked and damaged. The majority of the damaged spots were merely built up plastic coat and sanding them smoothed things out. But some of them were deep gouges in the wood. I sanded, cleaned with alcohol and filled those in with clear super glue and briar dust. When the repairs had cured I sanded them smooth with 180 and 220 grit sandpaper to blend them into the surface of the bowl. I sanded the bowl with a medium and a fine grit sanding sponge to remove the remnants of the repair and the plastic coat. It took a bit of sanding but the finish was finally smooth to touch. I sanded the bowl with micromesh sanding pads – wet sanding with 1500-2400 grit pads to smooth things out more.With the bowl smooth and clean I decided to stain it with the tan aniline stain I have. I am sure that it is mislabeled as it is far too red to be tan. I figured it would work well with this bowl.I wiped the bowl down with alcohol on cotton pads to even the stain coat and make it a bit more transparent. The trouble was that all of the flaws and nicks in the wood showed up then. I gave it a second coat of stain using a Mahogany stain pen to darken the overall surface of the bowl and still leave it transparent enough to see the grain in the wood. I rubbed some Before & After Restoration Balm into the surface of the bowl to enliven, clean and protect the newly stained bowl. I let it sit for a few moments then buffed it off with a cotton cloth. I took photos of the bowl at this point to show how things were developing. I set the bowl aside and worked on the base. I cleaned out the debris of time on the inside of the base with cotton swabs and alcohol. There were not a lot of tars as the pipe was unsmoked. But there was dust from sitting all these years since it was made.I polished the base with micromesh sanding pads – wet sanding with 1500-2400 grit pads and dry sanding with 3200-12000 grit pads. I wiped the base down after each pad with Obsidian Oil and rubbed it into the material. The pictures tell the story as the base begins to develop a shine. I further polished it with Before & After Pipe Polish – both Fine and Extra Fine to remove more of the scratches from the Gutta-Percha base. I rub the polish on with my fingertips and polish it with a cotton pad to raise the shine. I buffed the bowl and the base independently of each other with Blue Diamond on the buffing wheel to remove minute scratches and give the materials a shine. I gave both parts multiple coats of carnauba wax and buffed them with a clean buffing pad to raise the shine. I put the parts back together and hand buffed it with a microfiber cloth to deepen the shine. The photos below show the finished and restored pipe. I personally like the rich brown over the metallic gold on the bowl when I got the pipe. The dimensions of the pipe are petite – the length from thigh to tip of the toe is 5 ½ inches, the height from the knee to the thigh is 2 inches, the outer diameter of the thigh is 1 1/8 inches and the chamber diameter is 1 inch. It is a unique piece of pipe history and joins the rest of the Gutta-Percha pipes in my collection. Thanks for walking through the restoration of this leg pipe with me.


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