A Fresh Breath of Life for a Unique Creation by “John Bessai”


Blog by Paresh Deshpande

The next pipe that I decided to work on, and duly approved by Mr. Steve, is a pipe that was carved by an iconic pipe carver from USA who had carved pipes in the back room of his tobacco shop by hand. This pipe carver was lost to history, being marginalized and lost to the world, since his creations were in very small numbers and restricted to local sales only. This pipe carver is an integral part of American pipe making history and is now being revisited and revived by some experienced and knowledgeable pipe restorers and pipe collectors, notably Mr. Andrew Hross, who has carried out a detailed mapping of the pipe maker, his creations, dating his pipes based on stamping and pipe models. Mr. Steve has himself worked on a couple of these rare pipes and has included them in his personal collection!!!! Well, I think I have been able to rouse enough curiosity regarding this pipe carver in the minds of the reader and now to reveal the name……… The carver that I have been rambling about is John Bessai!!

Since having completed the restoration of an antique 1902-20’s era GBD with Albatross wing bone extension and horn stem from my Grandfather’s collection, I reverted back to Mr. Steve for selection of my next project. I have realized that he always suggests the most unique pipe, from the ones presented to him, for my next project and this time around he selected this John Bessai Rhodesian pipe with a suggestion that I should first read the blog on a couple of pipes from the same maker that he had previously worked on. I did exactly that and I realized that I have in my possession a rare and collectible pipe to work on.

This pipe has the classical Rhodesian shape with a cap which is differentiated from the rest of the stummel by a double ring. It has beautiful sandblast pattern all over the stummel and over the round shank, save for a small smooth portion on the right side of the shank which bears all the identification marks of this pipe, and on the rim top which looks amazing. It is stamped on the right side of the shank as “…BESSAI”, the initial part of the stamping is unclear, over bull’s eye symbol. The shank end is adorned by ½ inch hand rusticated Sterling silver band, which has developed a patina with age. It is stamped as “STERLING” in block capital letters, on the right side, in-line with the shank stampings. It would look classic once cleaned up. The stem is devoid of the trademark “JB” logo. Mr. Steve has researched this pipe maker and would make an interesting read for anyone, even remotely, interested in pipe history. Here is the link to his write ups: https://rebornpipes.com/2014/07/14/restemming-and-restoring-a-john-bessai-special-diamond-shank-bent-brandy/

This is the link to his second John Bessai project: https://rebornpipes.com/2012/08/21/reworking-a-john-bessai-pipe/

These write ups not only helped me in gaining knowledge about the pipe maker that John Bessai was, but also helped me know about dating the pipes that he had created. I have produced relevant extracts, though there is a wealth of information, from Mr. Steve’s write ups which include facts about dating as researched by Mr. Andrew Hross.

John Bessai was a long time pipemaker, repairman and tobacco shop owner who operated his pipe shop at the “Old Arcade” in Cleveland, Ohio. The shop was opened in approximately 1898. It was a small 2-room shop where he hand-crafted his own pipes in the back room and could work when customers were not there. Like so many other shop made brand, John Bessai’s limited production was quickly acquired by regular customers and thus his craftsmanship remained little known outside of Ohio and the Midwest. While his name is known by pipe collectors in the Midwest, his work is seldom seen elsewhere! He died before 1969. Nevertheless, John Bessai left behind a small number of classic shaped pipes; all were made on-site. They are praised worthy of collecting and reflecting skills well beyond most American pipe makers. John Bessai’s logo “JB” appeared as one letter as the “back” of the “J” and the “back” of the “B” share a single line. The logo was stamped on the stem and on the left side of the shank. His son Herb Bessai took over the business and also continued making pipes. He closed the shop in about 1978.

Pipes offered by John Bessai Pipe Clinic:
Most of the pipes that were offered by the John Bessai Pipe Clinic were fairly standard in shape… I would say most of the pipes Bessai offered were smooth pipes. My assessment would be 90% smooth and 10% rusticated / sandblasted…

Stampings and rough dating of John Bessai Pipe Clinic Pipes:
Which pipes did John make and which ones did Herb make/finish? All Bessai pipes carry his standard large JB stamp either on the stem or shank or both. Typically the JB on the stem is within a circle.

All pipes created by John Bessai’s hands reportedly contain the miniscule ‘jb’ stamp on the shank or body of the pipe. I have older pipes in my possession that do not contain this stamp (condenser, old stamps, etc) that were clearly shop made pipes. I feel he started using the tiny ‘jb’ stamp in the 50s to early 60s.

Dating / Circa era Bessai Pipes:
If the pipe carries a stamp stating Cleveland, O U.S.A. it’s considered an older production pipe (pre1960s). I’ve not seen any newer pipes with that stamp.

Bullseye stamping usually indicates an earlier pipe as that stamp seems to have been abandoned pre1960 as well.

Thus, from the above information, it is safe to suggest that the pipe presently on my work table is fairly rare as only 10% of the pipes made by John Bessai were rusticated or sandblasted and was made prior to 1950s as this one too does not have the famed “JB” stamp and bears the “Bull’s-eye” stamp on the shank.

INITIAL VISUAL INSPECTION
The bowl is nicely rounded and wide at the rim with a depth of about 1 1/5 inches. The chamber is so filled with cake that I am unable to reach the bottom of the bowl with my little finger. The build-up of the cake is more heavy on the bottom half of the bowl. The condition of the inner walls of the chamber can be commented upon after the cake has been taken down to the bare briar.The mortise is full of oils, tars and gunk and air flow is restricted. The rim top is also rusticated which can be seen through the overflowing lava. The inner and outer edge of the rim appears to be in pristine condition with no dings or dents. However, exact condition can be ascertained only after further cleaning. As is commonly seen on rusticated or sandblasted pipes with some serious age on them, the crevices in these are always filled with dust, dirt, oils, tars and grime from all the years of smoking and storage. This one is no exception to this observation. The grooves of the sandblast are filled with dust while the small smooth right side of the shank which bears the stamping is covered in dust and grime. The fact that the grooved patterns are dusty and filled with dirt is accentuated more due to a very dark reddish brown stain on the stummel and the shank. The briar is looking lifeless and bone dry and has taken on black hues. The twin bore, ¾ bent vulcanite stem is so heavily oxidized that it appears brown in color!! Some heavy tooth chatter is seen on both surfaces of the stem towards the lip with one deeper bite mark on the upper surface. This issue should not be a major headache to address. The lip edge on both sides is badly chewed off with heavy bite marks and would need to be reconstructed and reshaped. However, the quality of vulcanite is superior to other vulcanite stems that I have handled before.The hand rusticated sterling silver band has developed a patina due to oxidation. This will have to be addressed.

THE PROCESS
During one of my YouTube surfing sessions on pipe restoration techniques, I came across a video which showed the use of Hydrogen Peroxide and hot water solution as an alternate method to tackle oxidation on a vulcanite stem. I decided to adopt this method to tackle heavy oxidation seen on this stem. Before proceeding with this method to get rid of the oxidation, I wanted to raise the tooth chatter and bite marks to the surface. Using a Bic lighter, I flamed the surface of the stem. This helped in raising some of the tooth chatter and bite marks to the surface as vulcanite has a property to regain its original shape on heating. The remaining tooth chatter and bite marks would be addressed subsequently.I mixed Hydrogen Peroxide and hot water in the ratio of 1:2 in a plastic bowl and immersed the stem of this pipe along with two other stems of the pipes which are in line for restoration. Within two minutes, the color of the stem changed to a dirty greenish brown color indicating that the oxidation is being pulled to the surface. I removed the stems from this bath and scrubbed it clean with “MagiClean” sponge. I followed it up by cleaning the internals of the stem. I used 220 grit sandpaper to sand the stem and removed all the oxidation that was raised to the surface. This step further reduced the tooth chatter and bite marks present on the stem. I addressed the deeper tooth chatter and bite marks by filling them up with a mix of activated charcoal and CA superglue. I applied a slightly thick layer over the lip which I will later sand down to create a defined edge. Once I had applied the mix, I set it aside to cure overnight. While the stem filling was left aside for curing, I worked on the stummel by first reaming the chamber with size 2 of PipNet reamer head, followed by size 3 head. I further scraped the chamber walls with my fabricated knife to remove the remaining carbon deposits. Once the cake was reamed back to the bare briar, I used a 150 grit sand paper followed by 220 grit sand paper to remove all the traces of remaining cake and also to smooth the inner walls of the chamber surface. Finally, to remove the carbon dust, I wipe the chamber with a cotton pad wetted with isopropyl 99%. This was followed by cleaning the mortise with cue tips, pipe cleaners and shank brush dipped in isopropyl alcohol. This further eliminated traces of old smells from previous usage. However, I must admit that I was still not very happy with the internal cleaning of the stummel and shank. The old smell was still prevalent, though greatly reduced. To completely eliminate the smell, I decided to resort to alcohol bath. I packed the chamber, just below the rim, with cotton balls. I stretched a cotton ball into a thick wick, tapering at one end, and inserted it in to the shank and pushed it as far inside as I could, using a straightened paper clip. I topped the bowl with isopropyl alcohol using a syringe. I know that it is generally a practice to use Kosher salt for this procedure, but since Kosher salt is not easily available here, and when available, it’s very expensive, I use cotton balls. I find that cotton balls work just fine in drawing out all the tars and smells from the mortise and the bowl. I topped the bowl with alcohol again after 20 minutes when the alcohol level had gone down and set it aside overnight for the cotton and alcohol to do its intended job.The next day, the cotton and alcohol had fulfilled its intended task. I removed the cotton balls and ran pipe cleaners through the mortise to clean out all the loosened tars and gunk. The internals of the stummel is now clean and fresh. Now, it was the turn of the externals of the stummel to get cleaned up. Using a hard bristled tooth brush dipped in undiluted Murphy’s oil soap, I very deliberately scrubbed through all the grooves of the sandblast, cleaning them thoroughly. I cleaned the groove in between the cap ring with a sharp knife tip. The stummel was dried using paper napkins and soft cotton cloth. I set the stummel aside to dry out naturally. While the stummel was drying, I worked the stem. The fill had cured and with a flat head needle file, I worked on the filling till I had achieved a rough match with the surrounding surface. For a better blending, I further sand the entire stem with 220 followed by 600 and 1000 grit sand paper. This helps to reduce the scratch marks left behind by the more abrasive 220 grit paper. To bring a deep shine to the vulcanite stem, I went through the complete set of micromesh pads, wet sanding with 1500 to 2400 grit pads and dry sanding with 3200 to 12000 grit pads. I wiped the stem with alcohol after each pad and rubbed it down with Extra Virgin Olive oil. The finished stem is shown below. Once I was satisfied with the stem restoration, I started work on the stummel which had dried by now. When I had another look at the stummel after it had dried, I was not very pleased and satisfied with the way the rim top had cleaned up. I again cleaned it with Murphy’s oil soap and scotchbrite pad till the rim top was nice and clean. I rubbed a small quantity of “Before and After Restoration Balm” in to briar and let it rest for a few minutes. The balm almost immediately works its magic and the briar now has a nice vibrant appearance. The only surface on the stummel that remained to be spruced up was the Sterling silver band at the shank end. Abha, my wife, had suggested that I should try using Colgate toothpowder to bring back the shine on the Sterling silver band. She had tried this on her jewelry with amazing results. I rubbed the silver band with Colgate toothpowder and the results are truly amazing.I mounted a cotton cloth buffing wheel to the Dremel (actually it is not the brand machine, but a local machine which is similar).  I set the speed at about half of the full power and applied White Diamond compound to the entire pipe. I wiped/ buffed the pipe with a soft cotton cloth to clear it of any leftover compound dust. I then mounted another cotton cloth wheel on to the polishing machine and applied several coats of carnauba wax.I finished the restoration by giving the entire pipe a rigorous hand buffing using a microfiber cloth to raise the shine further. The finished pipe is shown below. This is indeed a beautiful pipe which feels great to hold in your hand and the classy looks add to its overall appeal. I was wondering how my grandfather, who had never traveled to US, let alone to Ohio, ended up with one of John Bessai’s creations????? If only this pipe could recount and narrate its story from Ohio to India…Thank you for your read and as usual, any suggestions/ comments are always welcome. They help me progress on my journey into the pipe world.

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4 thoughts on “A Fresh Breath of Life for a Unique Creation by “John Bessai”

      1. Alex Kramer

        My Bessai Canadian (gorgeous!) arrived and a straight billiard of his is on the way. I’ll bring them along for show & tell next time I come over.

        Reply

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