Reviving a Custom-Bilt Rusticated Panel

Blog by Dal Stanton

I acquired this Custom-Bilt Panel in the Lot of 66 which I won on the eBay auction block some time ago.  The Lot of 66 has been good to me as it has produced many good, collectible pipes.  Stephen,from Bowling Green, Kentucky, saw the Custom-Bilt in my For ‘Pipe Dreamers’Only! collection on the website and sent me an email asking to commission the Custom-Bilt as well as a very nice Comoy’s Made in London, England Bent Bulldog. In the email Stephen wrote,

I actually have a Tinderbox pipe (by Comoys) on that shape, although at some point it has had a new stem put on. It’s a terrific smoker. And I have several Custom-Bilts from various eras, and love the pipes. Looking forward to seeing the finished pipes down the road!  I enjoy getting to know the pipe men and women who love pipes and I’m happy that this Custom-Bilt Panel, that snagged Stephen’s attention, will also benefit the Daughters of Bulgaria, our work here in Bulgaria helping women and girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.  Here are a few of the pictures that got Stephen’s attention in Pipe Dreamers. The nomenclature is on the lower smooth panel.  On the underside of the shank is cursive ‘Custom-Bilt’ with the hyphen separation.  On the underside of the bowl is stamped ‘IMPORTED BRIAR’.  After looking at the pipe on the work table, I also found a ‘O’ stamped on the upper right side of the shank, bordering the stem.  I’m not sure what this is if anything – an anomaly or the rustication tool gone awry!  On a hunch, I look back at and I see what I missed the first time I looked.  The circle in the picture above is a marking listed as having appeared on some Custom-Bilt pipes.  It does not indicate which period or production lines each marking indicates. The information from about the multiple transitions in ownership of the American pipe name, Custom-Bilt was to the point:

Chunky bowls with rough carving or gouges.

Tracy Mincer stopped making Custom-Bilt pipes in the early 1950s. The trademark was successively bought by Leonard Rodgers (1953), Consolidated Cigars (1968) and Wally Frank Co. (early 1970s). The later began to produce again his version of the pipe in 1974 or 1975 at Weber pipe factory (NJ). In 1987, the pipes were made out of the Butz-Choquin factory (France) and then Mexico until the late 1990s. Currently (2010), the Custombilt name is owned by Tobacalera of Spain which is part of Altadis.

It is generally admitted (but not proved) pipes stamped “Custom – Bilt” (with the hyphen) are from the Mincer era. The name might have changed from Custom-Bilt to Custombilt (without the hyphen) in 1946.

If this information is accurate regarding the inclusion or exclusion of a hyphen indicating the period of manufacturing, the Custom-Bilt in front of me could be from the Mincer period and if so, could be dated from 1946 or earlier.  This is helpful information regarding the dating.

The pipe itself seems to be in solid condition.  The characteristic rustified, roughed-up surface of this Custom-Bilt pipe is darkened from grime and needs a thorough cleaning.  The chamber looks good with a thin cake build up.  The rim is in good shape but is darkened from scorching over the years.  The stem has mild oxidation and light tooth chatter and a compression on the lower bit, next to the button. I notice too, that the stem fitting may be a bit loose.  We’ll see how that shapes up after cleaning.  Overall, no major challenges are detected. 

I begin what should be a straight forward restoration of this Custom-Bilt Panel by cleaning the stem’s airway using a pipe cleaner wetted with isopropyl 95%.  I then add the stem to a Before & After Deoxidizer soak, along with other pipes and stems in queue.  After several hours soaking, I remove the stem and allow the Deoxidizer to drain and then wipe off the raised oxidation with cotton pads wetted with alcohol.  I follow this with a cotton pad wetted with light paraffin oil that helps condition the vulcanite.I then turn to the stummel and use the Pipnet Reaming Kit to clean the light cake in the chamber.  The chamber is not deep but wide and I use 3 of the 4 blades heads available.  I then transition to the Savinelli Fitsall Pipe Tool and scrape the chamber walls further. Finally, I sand the chamber by wrapping a Sharpie Pen with 240 grit paper.  To clean the carbon dust, I wipe the chamber with a cotton pad wetted with alcohol.  After inspection, the chamber shows now signs of heat damage.  The pictures show the progress. Now turning to the external surface, I use undiluted Murphy’s Oil Soap to scrub the rustified surface.  To get into all the nooks and crevices I also use a bristled tooth brush.  I also use the brass wire brush to work on the rim scorching.  The pictures show the progress. With the externals clean, I turn to the internals of the stummel using pipe cleaners and cotton buds dipped in isopropyl 95%.  Long shank brushes also prove to be helpful.  I scrape the mortise wall with a dental spatula to remove old oil and tar buildup.  Using a drill bit about the same size as the airway, I hand turn the bit and this also removes more buildup on the airway wall.  The pictures show the tools of cleaning. With my day ending, I continue cleaning the Custom-Bilt by giving it a kosher salt and alcohol soak through the night to work on the tars and oils absorbed into the briar.  I first stretch and twist a cotton ball to act as a ‘wick’ inserted down the mortise and airway.  This ‘wick’ draws the tars and oils from the mortise.  I then fill the bowl with kosher salt, which doesn’t leave an aftertaste, and I give the bowl a shake to disperse the salt.  After placing the stummel in an egg cart to stabilize, using a large eyedropper I fill the bowl with isopropyl 95% until it surfaces over the salt.  After few minutes I top off the alcohol which has absorbed into the pipe.  I put the pipe aside and turn off the lights. Rising with the sun, I go to the worktable and the salt and alcohol soak has done the work as hoped.  Both the salt and the wick are discolored with the extraction of the tars and oils.  I dump the expended salt in the waste can and wipe the chamber with paper towel to remove the salt.  I also run a shank brush through the mortise and airway followed by blowing through to clear salt crystals.  To make sure the cleaning is thorough, I dip a cotton bud and pipe cleaner in isopropyl 95% and run them through the mortise again and I’m satisfied all is clean.Looking again at the stummel, I’m not satisfied with rim – still darkened and scorched looking.  To protect and maintain the Custom-Bilt rim’s rustication I don’t want to sand.  I decide to return again to the brass wire brush, without any cleaner solvent and leaving the surface dry, I brush the rim rotating the brush around the rim so that my movement is parallel with the rustication cuts.  This dislodges more carbon stuck in the ridges.  I think it did do the trick.  Pictures show the before and after. Before putting the stummel aside to work on the stem, I apply a coat of light paraffin oil to the rustified stummel surface to hydrate the wood. The oil is thin enough to seep into the crannies of the classic Custom-Bilt rustication using a cotton pad. After thoroughly applied, I put the stummel aside to absorb and dry.I now look at the stem again.  It has minor issues on the lower bit (second picture) with a bite compression on the button and on the bit.  There is also a small bite compression on the edge (third picture). To address these, I first use the heating technique using a Bic lighter and painting the compression areas.  The flame heats the vulcanite, a rubber compound, expanding it and causing the compression to lessen or minimize.  The heating method helps in this case leaving the compressions to be easily sanded out. Using a flat needle file, I file the button area refining the button upper and lower lips.  I follow by erasing the file scratches by using 240 grade paper on upper and lower bit.Following the 240, I erase the 240 scratches by wet sanding the entire stem with 600 grade paper followed by buffing the stem with 0000 steel wool.I move directly to the micromesh process by wet sanding with pads 1500 to 2400, then dry sanding with pads 3200 to 4000 and 6000 to 12000.  Between each set of three, I apply Obsidian oil which the vulcanite drinks in, revitalizing the stem. With the stem waiting in the wings, I turn again to the Custom-Bilt stummel and take another look.  What’s bothering me I realize is the black ring on the inner lip of the rim.  It continues to carry the charred look to the rim.  Without bothering or diminishing the rustication on the rim, I decide to create an internal bevel to remove the darkened wood thus helping to lighten the rim and make it look sharper.  I first use 240 grade paper tightly rolled to remove the heavy charring then follow with 600 grade paper to sharpen the bevel.  I like the rim presentation much better now.  The pictures show the adjustment. I’ve been learning through my research that the hallmark of the Custom-Bilt ‘look’ is rough and big.  This Custom-Bilt isn’t a large pipe, but he is rough with the classic Custom-Bilt rustication that is a consistent technique used in the C-B manufacturing.  I found it interesting that ‘smooths’ are the rarer and more collectible Custom-Bilts according to the Pipedia article.  Yet, the C-B rough look has a certain appeal.  To me, what causes a rustication motif to look classier is when the patches of smooth briar across its landscape are shined and buffed up in nice contrast.  To me also, every peak of a rustication ridge or ‘mountain top’ is smooth briar, not just the underside nomenclature panel and the shank panels.  To shine the peaks and panels, I take the top two thirds of the micromesh pads (3200 to 12000) and dry sand the entire stummel.  The first 3 pictures mark the stummel before using micromesh pads.  I pad sanding ‘lights up’ the rustication patterns and nuances a bit more softness to the rough look. Next, I use Before & After Restoration Balm to condition the rusticated bowl.  The challenge will be to work the Balm into the nooks and crannies and make sure it is absorbed.  I put Balm on my fingers and work the Balm in the rough briar.  After its covered well, I let it sit for a few minutes then begin wiping and buffing using a microfiber cloth.  Wow!  The Balm does a great job enriching the briar.  It looks great. Next, I reunite stem and stummel and mount a cotton cloth wheel on the Dremel and set the speed at about 40% full power and I apply Blue Diamond compound to the entire pipe.  With the 1-inch buffing wheel on the Dremel, I’m able to navigate through the cuts, crannies and gullies of the rustication flow pretty well.  This minimizes the concern for the compound to ‘gunk up’ in the rustication.  After completing the application of Blue Diamond compound and buffing the stummel with a felt cloth to remove compound dust, I do detect some ‘gunking’ in some of the crannies.  Using a stiff plastic brush, I brush the stummel to dislodge the compound.  To make sure the stummel is clean and ready for wax, I use a small felt buffing wheel to work into the nooks and crannies of the rustication – this does a great job and further buffs up the briar.  Nice.Again, I mount the Dremel with another cloth buffing wheel, increase the speed to about 50% full power. This is a little more RPM than normal for waxing.  I want to generate a little more heat than normal with the additional RPM to be sure the wax liquifies well into the briar.  This will assure an even application and avoid (I hope!) the wax from gunking up in the crannies.  I apply carnauba wax to the stummel with a light touch.  To avoid wax getting lodged in the rustication, I apply wax sparingly and rotate the Dremel buffing wheel to navigate through the crevices.  I apply several coats of carnauba to stem and stummel and follow by giving the stummel both a good buffing with a microfiber cloth and a brushing with a horse hair shoe brush on the stummel.

This probable 1940s/50s Custom-Bilt Panel came out much nicer than I was expecting. I’m drawn to the mountain-like landscape of the stummel. Cleaning and hydrating the briar along with bringing the rustication through a polishing regimen resulted in transforming an interesting pipe with rustication into an eye catching classy piece of sculpted briar – that just happens to be a Custom-Bilt, thank you.  One additional small change that made a big difference in the final look was the internal rim bevel.  The residual darkened rim from former scorching was helped immensely not only by the rigorous cleaning, but also cutting a simple internal bevel.  In the finished pipe (as shown in the first picture below), that bevel’s high polish now sets off well the rusticated rim – to me, a very classy addition for this Custom-Bilt Panel.  Stephen commissioned the Custom-Bilt Panel to add to his collection of C-Bs and will have the first opportunity to acquire it in the Pipe Steward Store.  The best part is what follows – that this C-B benefits the Daughters of Bulgaria – helping women and girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.  Thanks for joining me!


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