Waxing Meerschaums

Blog by Fred Bass

This is another short piece that Fred Bass wrote on waxing Meers. Once again this was saved on my hard drive. I am glad that Fred sent me these pieces and that I can now pass them on through rebornpipes. — Steve

I’m not sure how the wax functions to color Meerschaums, but I do know that coloring a Pipe requires wax, tobacco & heat. The Meerschaums that I’ve seen in the advanced stages of coloring get a sticky surface, especially while being smoked. It’s as if the Block is near total saturation and cannot contain the by-products of smoking as efficiently as new Block, so these resins & moisture migrate past the Pipe’s surface. I remember seeing older Pipe smokers in Pipe & Cigar shops having to smoke their Meerschaums while being held with a cloth, to catch the ooze that was fairly dripping from deep brown colored Meerschaums. That was years ago, when I was called “Kid.”

True Lattice Pipes (ones that allow light to pass thru the ‘windows’ are demonstrations of the Artisan’s high level of skill. They are functional art! I suspect that much of the same skills and technique are used in Figurals that are undercut so that light can pass thru the details of the carving. Admittedly, I’m drawn to the display of Patina these Pipes produce as they are smoked. Rewaxing presents more of a challenge, which I address by using the most refined Bee’s wax I can get (for better absorption) and only in sparing amounts. What I’ve discovered by doing this, is that it’s important to err on the side of caution… Better to use too little an amount of wax, than too much. This allows me to better gage how much wax the Pipe will absorb in a single application. I have better control of this if I paint molten wax onto the Pipe rather than immersion in a liquid wax bath. The key is not to get in a hurry.

The undercut Lattice Meerschaum is truly a reflection of the Carver’s skill and art! Most likely, the discussion of rewaxing them has been going on for as long as they have been smoked. I appreciate the knowledge and experience of Deniz on this topic. The literature does not make a distinction between Lattice and undercut Lattice (or undercut Figurals for that matter) when discussing rewaxing. In the Spring ’03 issue of P&T, Rick Newcombe’s article (How to Color Your Meerschaum Pipe: A Quicker Method Explored) rewaxing is discussed. His 3 points are: 1 – smoke the Pipe; 2- blow smoke on the Pipe and 3- melt beeswax into the Meerschaum. The method, of daubing melted wax onto the Pipe & then using a hair dryer or heat gun to melt the excess off, Rick credits to Beth Sermet of SMS Meerschaums. The Pipe shown in the pictorial displays is a Lattice, but it is not undercut. One thing that Rick does not mention, is that the bit & connector should be removed prior the application of the heat to avoid damage to them. The Pipe’s newly acquired color that results is likely to fade, but with repeated smoking, additional rewaxing and time the color will become permanent. It is possible to crack a Meerschaum with heat, if there are unseen flaws in the Block, but I’ve not experienced this or read of it from others.

Another method was employed by Sailorman Jack. He would rub highly refined beeswax on his Meerschaums while smoking them. This would melt the wax & promote absorption by using the heat of the Pipe created by smoking. I’m not aware if he made a distinction in this method when coloring true Lattice Pipes. The discussion of rewaxing will continue for as long as there are Pipesters that smoke Meerschaum Pipes. It’s an interesting topic, but should not become more important than the main event of actually smoking the Meerschaum. I enjoy looking at Meerschaum art as much as anyone, but I enjoy smoking them more.

I’ve found that quilter’s use high grade Beeswax to give their thread strength, so a fabric store is a good resource. Regarding your question: “Is it better to use 100% beeswax?,” it all depends on what you want to do. This is an area of the Meerschaum crafts that is most guarded by Carvers. Additives can be tallow, different grades of Beeswax, whale oil, lacquers, solvents and pigments. If you find out anything in this part of the arts, I suspect that I’m not alone in wanting to know more. I’ve even seen fire used, for effect. Either suspending a Meerschaum above a fire or wrapping the Pipe’s bowl in wax soaked rags & setting it on fire are done for effect.

What has worked well for me is to wax the Pipe while it’s being smoked. The wax will absorb according to the porosity of the Block and will stop when saturation has been achieved. The excess will wipe off with a clean cotton cloth and will enhance the gloss of the finish. This combination of wax, heat and the by-products of combustion that accumulate within the Block all work together over time to color the Pipe. The amount of wax absorbed by the Block is proportional to it’s porosity. Some Pipes will take a large amount of wax and others will take only a bit at a time. The length of time that the Pipe’s been smoked is also a factor. When I’ve applied wax to Pipes that have been in long service, with little attention paid to waxing, the coloring is darker with wax application & tends to persist for longer periods of time, eventually resolving into a darker color that is permanent. The quality of Block is the most important factor in this waxing for color technique, but other factors that will influence the result are also to be considered. The Pipe’s shape, size & mass present variables to coloration. I’ve read where Cavendish Tobaks will color a Meerschaum faster, due to the high content of oils. I cannot speak to this, as I prefer to smoke Tobaks that I enjoy, which do not generally include Cavendish blends. For me, the smoking experience that the Meerschaum affords is most desirable, while the coloring is secondary. Another factor will be the ambient air temperature. It seems that the Meerschaum breathes more efficiently on warmer days. On colder days, the Pipe’s surface will cool faster and this seems to slow down the absorptive qualities. Indeed, I’ve read of one Pipester’s experience of smoking his Meerschaum from start to finish in subzero temperature, which resulted in the Pipe’s color turn to a mottled grey. In general, it seems that the combination of wax, heat and the by-products of smoking the Pipe lead to coloration, over time. Maintaining a clean surface on the Pipe also seems to matter. The waxing serves to protect the Pipe’s surface, in addition to being a factor in coloration. It has been years since I’ve used the CAO Antiquing Compound, but from what I remember, it was a Beeswax. It may have had other additives or not.

The technique of hot wax application to a Pipe, followed by melting off the excess with a heat source, is one I employ less frequently. It’s just much easier & convenient for me to wax the Pipe as I smoke it. This practice of cold wax application also afford opportunity to finish it even after the Pipe has cooled following a smoke. Sometimes, the Pipe’s finish will be a bit rough, as it has absorbed all of the wax applied to it, leaving the surface unprotected & textured, like the inside of a bowl of an unsmoked Meerschaum. I’ll go ahead and apply more wax to the Pipe and then follow by buffing it with a white cotton cloth. The variations of waxing Meerschaums by the Pipe smoker are many. There are most likely as many technique styles as there are Pipesters. It is an area where individual preference and creativity combine with experience to result in habit. It has been the topic of discussion, for centuries, wherever Meerschaums are smoked. The goals of the Pipester differ from those of the Carver. While the Carver employs Beeswax for product quality, the Pipester uses it for coloration and protection of the patina. I cannot speak to the Carver goals of using signature wax finishes for effect, as I have little understanding of this part of the art. I can speak to the Pipester, from my own experiences… I say, smoke the Pipe & wax as you wish. Let the course of nature proceed over time, but enjoy the smoke while you wait.

1 thought on “Waxing Meerschaums

  1. Norman

    Steve – i owed you a huge thank you for posting all of these articles by Fred! keep them coming! Thanks my friend!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.