Daily Archives: March 28, 2019

A Challenging Restoration of my Grandfather’s WDC Stratford Pipe


Blog by Paresh Deshpande

This is the third pipe which I received from Abha, my wife, which has been cleaned, reamed and with no “before” pictures!!

I have inherited a large collection of my grandfather’s pipes; a few of them are unique and quite collectible. There are many WDC pipes in this collection and the one now on my work table is a “WDC STRATFORD” in its original case (in fact there are quite a few pipes in their original cases!). This smallish bent billiards displays gorgeous densely packed straight grain all round the stummel, including the shank and a sterling silver band adorns the shank end. It is stamped on the left side of the shank as “STRATFORD” in sentence case over the trademark “WDC” in an inverted equilateral triangle. The sterling silver band bears the American hallmarks of a STAR, EAGLE AND LETTER ‘D’ over “STERLING”. There are no other stampings visible on the entire pipe. The leather case, though worn by age and weather, is still solid and the inner golden hued felt lining is intact. This lining is stamped in deep red square with black border on the lid as “WDC” in a triangle and “STRATFORD”.INITIAL VISUAL INSPECTION
This pipe is third pipe that Abha, my wife had sent me after she had reamed the cake back to the bare briar and cleaned the stummel exterior and rim top surface with Murphy’s oil soap. She had also cleaned the sterling silver band using Colgate toothpowder. She followed it up with cleaning the mortise and the shank using regular and hard bristled pipe cleaners dipped in isopropyl alcohol. The felt lining inside the case was painstakingly cleaned up by repeated wiping with a cloth and warm soap water. The cleaned up pipe on my work table now, can be seen in the following pictures. It really feels nice to work on a clean pipe; I must admit and cannot help but thank her for doing all the dirty work. Unfortunately, she did not click any pictures of the condition of the pipe before she worked her magic on them. When I enquired about the condition before she had cleaned it, her one line reply was “it was in the worst of condition of all the pipes seen till date!!!” For those who have been reading my previous write ups would recollect that my grandfather never really believed in cleaning his pipes, he would rather buy new ones when the old pipes clogged up and became unsmokable.

The cake was so thick that even her little finger would not go in and there was heavy and sticky overflow of lava all over the stummel and shank. This lovely little pipe must have been his favorite and has been extensively used. There are a few issues which are immediately noticed. Firstly, the stem is shorter than the case and does not sit flush in the mortise. The tenon end of the stem appears to be unevenly cut. Secondly, the brass tenon, though it fits snugly in to the mortise, is clearly not original to the stem. The tenon end is also uneven (circled in violet).Thirdly, there are two dings on the right side of the stummel and this will have to be addressed. There is not a single fill on the entire stummel.Fourthly, the bowl is completely out of round with the left side of the rim and chamber wall thinner than the right side. Topping the bowl rim surface should address this issue to an extent. As regards the comparatively thin wall on the left side, I shall decide once I reach that stage of restoration.Fifthly, the vulcanite stem has a round slot which is correct for the vintage of this pipe. However, from the shortened length, the brass tenon and the fact that the stem does not sit flush with the shank end are all pointers to the fact that the stem has undergone extensive repairs at some point in its existence. My assumption is that this pipe must have fallen down on a hard surface and the tenon must have broken at an odd angle. While fitting a new brass tenon, the repairman had to cut a small portion of the stem at the tenon end, drill a new hole for the shaft of the tenon and fix it afresh. Even though the cut to the stem is not a clean one, the repairs are solid. This, and the assumption that this pipe was my grandfather’s favorite, is evident from the damage to the upper surface of the stem. There are two large gaping holes, one near the lip edge (which is understandable and attributed to clenching) and the other is nearly half way down the stem towards the tenon end (and can neither be explained at this stage!!). The stem is oxidized. THE PROCESS
Since in this project, the stem has the most number of issues to be addressed, it is where I start the restoration. I flamed the surface of the stem with a Bic lighter to raise the tooth indentations and scratches on the stem. The heat from the flame of Bic lighter causes the vulcanite to expand and regain its natural shape, reducing the marks. I wiped the stem surface clean with a cotton pad dipped in alcohol to remove all the dust and dirt from the surface. I had a closer look at the tenon and its fit in to the mortise. I realized that the length of the tenon is slightly longer than the mortise and that is the reason why the stem did not sit flush with the shank end. Also the tenon end was uneven as can be seen in the above pictures (circled in violet). I addressed this issue by grinding the tenon end on a grinding disk, frequently checking the seating joint of the stem and the shank end. Before proceeding with any further stem repairs, I decided to run a pipe cleaner through the stem to clean out the fine dust left behind due to grinding of the tenon end and it was then that I understood the possible reason for the second hole on the stem upper surface. The pipe cleaner did not pass through the airway cleanly!! There seems to be some kind of protrusion in the airway. On further close scrutiny, I realized that the tenon end inside the stem airway was thicker than the airway and thus obstructing the passage of the pipe cleaner through it causing repeated slamming of the pipe cleaner on the stem upper surface. That explained the probable cause of the second hole!!

I decided to smooth out the inside of the tenon to match the stem’s airway. Using a drill bit which was slightly larger than the tenon opening, I increased the tenon bore. With a round needle file, very carefully I filed the tenon end inside the stem till the pipe cleaner passed through it very easily. This was followed by sanding the stem surfaces with a folded piece of 220 grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. I again cleaned the internal and external surface of the stem and proceeded to reconstruct the damaged upper surface of the stem. Once I was satisfied with the internal cleaning, I wiped the stem surface, particularly the damaged area, with a cotton pad and alcohol to remove any traces of dirt and grime. To begin the stem repairs, I smeared a pipe cleaner with petroleum jelly and inserted it in to the stem airway. I prepared a mix of CA superglue and activated charcoal and generously applied it over the gaping hole in the button of the stem and set it aside for curing overnight. While the stem repairs were curing, I decided to address the two dings on the stummel. I wiped the area with a moist cloth to remove the dust from the surface and spot filled it with a mix of briar dust and super glue. I use the layering technique, first fill with briar dust followed by super glue and again a layer of briar dust. I use this method since the moment super glue comes in contact with briar dust, the mix hardens instantaneously. I set the stummel aside to cure overnight and call it a day!!Once the filling of charcoal and CA superglue had cured, using a needle file, I sand the fill to match the surface of the stem. For a better blending, I further sand the entire stem with 220. At this stage, I observed air pockets in both the fills. This is the most dreaded observation for me as addressing this issue costs me more time and repeat of the entire process. Nevertheless, I again coat the damaged surface with clear super glue. While the fill was curing, with a flat needle file, I sand the stummel fill to achieve a rough match with the rest of the stummel surface. I further blend the fill with a 220 grit sand paper. This fill turned out satisfactory. I shall completely blend this fill during the micromesh cycle.Next issue to be addressed was the out of round rim top and the comparatively thin left side of the chamber wall. I approached this issue by first topping the rim on a 220 grit sand paper. This process also addressed the thinning of the rim observed on the left side to some extent. To further even out the inner rim edge, I created a bevel using a 220 grit sand paper. I am pretty satisfied with the way the rim surface appears at this stage. The uneven thickness on the left side is still apparent and to address this I had an option of increasing the thickness by lining the chamber wall with J B Weld followed by coating with a mixture of activated charcoal and yogurt. However, since I am not going to smoke this pipe ever, I decided to keep the appearance as it is, which incidentally does not look as glaring as it appears in the description.The next step in the process was to bring out the shine and highlight the beautiful grain on the stummel. I had an option of using more abrasive 220 grit sandpaper followed by micromesh pad cycle and loose the patina or straight away go to the micromesh cycle. Using the more abrasive sand paper, minor dents and dings would be further addressed but I would lose out the old sheen which the briar has taken over the years.  I decided on keeping the old sheen and went straight for the micromesh cycle. I wet sand the stummel with 1500 to 2400 grit pads and follow it up by dry sanding with 3200 to 12000 grit pads. The stummel, at this stage, looks absolutely stunning with the straight grain popping out from every inch. The natural finish and hues on this pipe is something that I have not seen before on any pipes. The very dark brown hued straight grains contrast beautifully with the dark browns on the rest of the stummel giving it a very antique appearance. I rub 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. I further buff it with a horse hair shoe brush. In my enthusiasm to finish this project, I forgot to take pictures of the results at this stage.

Once the second filling of charcoal and CA superglue had cured, using a needle file, I sand the fill to match the surface of the stem. This time around the results were much more disastrous!!!! The entire filling collapsed in to airway, leaving the same gaping holes on the stem surface. I was so frustrated that I just did not have the heart to take pictures. To cut the rambling, I again repeated the procedure and made a fresh filling for both the holes and set it aside for curing. Once cured, I file the fillings with a needle file. For a better blending, I further sand the entire stem with 220 followed by 600 and 800 grit sandpaper. This helps to reduce the sanding 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 internals of the stem was cleaned out using alcohol and pipe cleaners. The finished stem is shown below. To finish the restoration, I re-attach the stem with the stummel. 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 completed pipe looks fresh, vibrant and ready for its next innings with me. This piece of briar will find a place of pride in my collection, if not as part of rotation, as a part of the memories left behind by my grand old man. If only it could tell me stories it had witnessed and why did my grandfather love this pipe so much?!! PS:  There is one contentious issue which I have deliberately raised and left it open for discussion. I would like to encourage the readers to express their views in a frank manner as it will help me in understanding the minds of the esteemed readers while clearing my own thought process. The issue that I am talking about is my decision (temporary!!!!) to let the unequal thickness of the chamber wall on the left side to remain addressed to the extent I have managed and not address it completely as well as the way I had thought of completely addressing it, if at all I decide to do so. Cheers……….!

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