You can’t judge a book by its binding.
— From the journal American Speech, 1944
The Dr. Grabow easy bent smooth billiard I came by in a foolish case of mistaken identity on eBay looked normal enough on the outside, other than an apparent crack that wasn’t visible in any of the seller’s few photos. The zigzag flaw extended from the top front of the bowl almost halfway down, which of course was not a good sign in a pipe when the intent was to sell it – and I definitely did not want to keep it for my own collection. The dubious pipe came as part of a lot with two others of its ilk; an old Karl Erik box; two very nice choice sleeves – one that was also for a Karl Erik and the other for a Butz-Choquin – and two Revelation Smoking Mixture tins of indeterminate age. Venturing a guess, I’d say they’re no newer than the pipes.
My haul, minus the Dr. G, Yello-Bole and MedicoMy impression from the poor photos provided online was that one of the pipes must have been a Butz-Choquin. You see, the only descriptions of the pipes given in the listing were that they were “vintage,” and you guessed it, I fell for the deliberate obfuscation, and Buy Now to boot. As the only measure of self-defense I can muster, at least I only paid about $10, with shipping included. They turned out to be this Dr. Grabow and two Yello-Boles, one a Spartan. The Spartan did clean up purty compared to how it was.The Dr. G. is six inches long but otherwise very small. The height is 1.5” and the inner bowl diameter is ⅝” x 1” As a rule, unless the particular pipe is very old or has some other special attribute, I shy away from this name and Medicos and the like, although I’ve found almost anything will sell to someone who is a fan of a given brand. In fact, just last week at my monthly pipe meeting I sold the Spartan with a stem logo of a yellow Y in a circle to a friend who happens to be my best customer.
The friend has accumulated some great pipes from me – such as a late 1930s Kaywoodie Super Grain and a Ropp last month – and an amazing collection of antiques including a few KB&B beauties, but he admits to having a weakness for vintage Yello-Boles. I estimated the Spartan dated to the 1960s, and my friend somehow traced it on his cell phone to 1966. That’s what I call a Yello-Bole devotee.
At any rate, the Dr. G. billiard remained quarantined in a box for more than a year with others that are so tragic I’m sure I’ll end up using them as examples of pipes never to buy. In short, only when it was the last pipe I had to work on did I gather the gumption to go for it.
But as I already noted, all outward appearances showed nothing I couldn’t handle without too much effort, including the odd zigzag on the bowl. The inside turned out to be a different matter altogether, one for the books as far as I’m concerned.
I wanted to get the pipe in a basic clean order before tackling the crack. Starting with the light rim char and cake in the chamber, I used super fine “0000” steel wool on the rim to begin and a pen knife around the walls of the chamber that was too small to insert a reamer – meaning the one size I have. Then I sanded the rim with 1000-grit paper and the chamber using a pinkie and 150- and 220-grit papers. I cleaned off the old blackness from the shank opening with the same steel wool and wiped down the entire stummel with purified water on a paper towel.Now the crack I mentioned is apparent. Knowing it wouldn’t get rid of the crack, I sanded the outside of the wood with 1000-grit paper to remove the other small but pervasive blemishes. With the pipe more or less spiffed up, I could see the crack was hairline, so to speak, not penetrating the bowl in any visible way. That was a relief as I knew I could make it go away altogether with sanding. I tried 150-grit paper, and that looked like the end of the ostensible crack. I followed up with 320-, 400-, 600- and 1000-grit papers.A full micro mesh progression left the briar looking absolutely fabulous, or abfab, as British interior designers like to gush about wood. To be serious, though, which I often try not to be, knowing it drives some readers nuts but keeps me sane, the micro mesh step – if I had to choose just one from all of the routine tasks in a pipe restoration – is my favorite. Seeing the resilience of wood, or briar anyway, that allows it to bounce back from ruin is to me what sunshine was to John Denver. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. The front shot above, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t show how pale most of that side was even after micro meshing. Suffice it to say, a spot stain was necessary with Lincoln brown leather dye. I took a little more joy in staining and flaming it. Looks like everything is going great, doesn’t it? That’s rhetorical. Only after thinking I was almost finished did I commence the part that turned into a singular horror the like of which I never before experienced. Without exaggerating at all, I admit I was sure I had found a pipe that could not be cleared of all impurities, no way, no how. I’m sure this sounds like more of my melodramatic foolery, but for once I am being as serious as I get. I suspect I may have some kind of world record, if people registered such statistics, but no doubt Steve, if perhaps no one else, has a worse story or stories to tell. I’d love to hear them!
To wit, I found myself at the point of having to deal with the inside of the billiard. Nothing prepared me for the almost human resistance and downright orneriness I encountered, not to mention the smoking implement’s physical manifestation of the common human psychological condition of filthiness.
The pictures that follow, showing the pre-cleaning, retort and aftermath of all that, with nine pipe cleaners, a nylon bristle cleaner, two cotton plugs and a wasted (in the colloquial sense) candle, don’t approximate the work and time already expended on cleaning and sanitizing the inner passageways of the pipe. I included the Tupperware with spent alcohol as a clue to how much I boiled through the guts of the thing, with the wholly unsatisfying and unacceptable final Pyrex tube as dark as every other, but it still isn’t sufficient to understand my frustration, so I’ll tell you. I had already used up 13 tubes of alcohol, getting nowhere.I knew I could use any number of pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol on the shank and it would do no good. And so I started again, with a fresh retort (and candle and two more cotton plugs). After nine more tubes boiled through the pipe – that’s a total of 22 – I at last achieved a clear enough result that didn’t get darker after three trips through the bowels of the Grabow.I don’t know, maybe this isn’t so unusual. Or maybe I need a better retort system, as I’ve been looking forward to buying, something like the first one below, probably self-made by my friend Chuck Richards, or even the other I found online.
And now for the stem, starting as it appeared when I got it and after the various phases of smoothing and buffing. And here is the finished pipe, the stem machine buffed with red and white Tripoli and the stummel with White Diamond and Carnauba. That’s a Medico filter in the stem, BTW, because it’s all I have and it fits! Besides, whoever buys the Grabow will probably toss it.
This was an unusual restore for me for a couple of reasons. One, I set out thinking the big deal was going to be fixing a bad crack, and two, the real problem ended up being hidden within. My previous record for the number of Pyrex tubes of alcohol I had to run through a pipe was nine, for a pipe I haven’t blogged yet. I thought that was bad until I was faced with the harsh reality of this dainty little Grabow! It’s the right size for most women (no sexism intended but I’ll probably get flack for that), but only a man could have smoked a pipe for possibly 40 years without ever really cleaning it. Maybe that will get me off the hook with any female smokers who read this.
Oh, yes, a note about Revelation Pipe Mixture. Never having heard of it and suspecting it’s out of production, I found I was correct about the latter part. It was blended by House of Windsor, which still makes about 20 mixes, mostly aromatics, in the U.S. Revelation was a coarse-cut (based on the photo I found, despite the description as ribbon cut) American blend of bright flake and red flake Virginias, cube cut burley, Kentucky, latakia, perique and “citrus/misc.” It seems to have been somewhat popular given a 3.1 out of 4 rating at TobaccoReviews.com. Legend says this was Albert Einstein’s go-to mix, so it couldn’t be all that bad. It seems a reincarnation of this tobacco is being made in bulk form and true ribbon cut, from the same ingredients. The link to the source is below for anyone interested. Revelation was made by Philip Morris Co. Ltd. Inc. and distributed by Continental Tobacco Co. I guess the tins are pretty old because companies aren’t named like that anymore.