Restoring a Custom-Bilt Small Pot from my ‘Mumbai Bonanza’

Blog by Paresh Deshpande

It seems that my grandfather loved Custom-Bilt pipes!! I say this with certain amount of conviction as there are quite a few of them in his collection that I have inherited. All the Custom-Bilts in his collection have, apart from the trademark rustications developed and mastered by Tracy Mincer, large size (more like humongous, I say!). Thus, when Abha, my wife sent me pictures of the Mumbai Bonanza lot, I instantly recognized a Custom-Bilt. I confirmed from Abha on Face time that the stamp was spelt with a hyphen between Custom and Bilt confirming the vintage. I was surprised to say the least, not at the fact of finding a Custom-Bilt in the lot (which incidentally contains many collectible pipes), but surprised at the size which stared back at me!! It was small, but small when compared to the size of the other Custom-Bilts that I have inherited. This is the pipe that is now on my work table, my first restoration work after rejoining my work place.

For those readers who have missed out on my previous work, I was fortunate enough to have heeded the advice of my dear friend and mentor, Steve, and struck a deal for 30 pipes with a junk collector from Mumbai. He did not know what he was selling and I did not know what I was buying as we reside in different cities!! The argument that Mr. Steve presented was that if not anything, I shall at least have some spares and this was logical. I struck a deal and here are pictures of the pipes that I received in this lot. This lot contains some very nice collectible pipes, a few well known brands and some mediocre brands. Overall, with seven Dunhill pipes, a Preben Holm #1 FH, a couple of “Made in England” Pete System pipes, a couple of  Charatan’s Belvedere, Custom-Bilt, Stanwell and other assorted pipes, I would say that I had struck a decent haul!! This is indeed my “Mumbai Bonanza”.

The 12th pipe that I decided to work on from this find Custom-Bilt small pot shaped pipe and is indicated in magenta colored arrow in the picture below. It is stamped on the left side of the shank as “Custom-Bilt” in sentence form with a hyphen between Custom and Bilt. The pipe or stem is devoid of any other stamping.Now coming to the research of this brand and line/ model in specific, I referred to and as expected there is an extensive research on this pipe. I searched the internet for information in order to date this pipe. Pipedia has a lot of information about this pipe and just typing in Custom-Bilt in the search bar of the site will reveal the required information. There is an interesting review given by Richard Esserman on a book written by William E. Unger, Jr., PhD, which deals with the study of Custom-Bilt pipes. The author authoritatively states, after a lot of research and study that the stamp as seen on this particular pipe dates it from between 1938 – 1946!With the dating of this pipe confirmed, I move on to the next step of carrying out initial inspection of the pipe as it appears. This not only provides me with an opportunity to closely look at the pipe (more like ogle at it!) and identify the issues that need to be addressed but also plan on the sequence and processes that would be required in restoring the pipe.

The pipe has deep and large vertical rustications along the entire length of the shank and height of the bowl. Within these large vertical rustications are very thin, closely stacked horizontal lines which give this pipe its unique appearance and are its trademark!!! The deep large rustication on the stummel is covered in dirt, oils, tars and grime of 70 plus years of its existence. At this stage, the briar looks filthy, dry and lifeless, but this should clean up nicely. However, there are two issues which may prove to be a challenge to address. On the front left side of the bowl, there is a dark burn mark, probably scorched by a burning cigarette lying in the same ashtray (marked in a yellow circle). The second issue is also towards the left side of the stummel, but at the back. There is significant darkening in that area as compared to the rest of the stummel, and is marked in a yellow circle. The exact nature of this darkening will be known once the stummel surface has been cleaned. A thick layer of cake can be seen in the chamber. The rim top is covered with the same thin, closely stacked lines as seen between the large vertical rustications and is covered in thick overflow of lava, dirt, dust and grime. The condition of the inner walls of the chamber and rim top surface will be known once the cake has been taken down to bare briar and the rim top crud has been scraped off completely. With the inner rim, I suspect burn/ charred surface at the back in 6 ‘O’ clock direction and is encircled in red. The extent and severity of the damage, if present, can be ascertained once the cake has been removed and the rim top is cleaned. The outer rim edge appears to be in a decent condition. Only once the stummel has been thoroughly cleaned that I can be sure of my initial appreciation. In spite of the thick cake, the chamber odor is, surprisingly, not strong and should be addressed once the cake has been taken down to the bare briar. The mortise is blocked with dried gunk, adversely affecting the airflow. A thorough clean up with alcohol and pipe cleaners should address this issue.The vulcanite stem is heavily oxidized and has calcification marks for about an inch over the bite zone, probably a result of using a rubber bit. The stem surface on either side is peppered with nicks and dents along the entire surface. There is one deep bite mark on the button edge on the upper surface. The tenon is covered in dried oils and tars and ash. The air way in the stem will need to be cleaned for a free and smooth draw.THE PROCESS
Along with the stems of other pipes in line for restoration, I immersed the stem of this Custom-Bilt in a mix of one part Hydrogen Peroxide 20% with one part hot water after I ran a couple of pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol through the stem air way. A couple of hours later, the stem oxidation on all these stems were raised to the surface. After I had fished out the stem from the Hydrogen Peroxide bath, I scrubbed it with Magiclean sponge and followed it up with a wipe of cotton swab and alcohol. The loosened and superficial layer of oxidation was easily removed and revealed not one but two tooth marks on the upper button edge and the nicks and dents on the surface are now more apparent. However, the deeper oxidation that was pulled to the surface would require more abrasive techniques.Staying with the stem, I cleaned the internals of the stem using hard and normal bristled pipe cleaners and isopropyl alcohol. I addressed the deeper oxidation by sanding the entire stem with a folded piece of 220 grit sand paper. Once the oxidation was completely removed, I wiped the surface clean with a cotton swab and alcohol. I flamed the damaged button edge and the nicks and dents with the flame of a lighter. This helps the vulcanite to rise to the surface as it has an inherent property to regain its original shape when heated. I spot filled the damaged spots with clear CA superglue and set it aside to cure overnight. Thereafter, I started with cleaning of the stummel as I was keen to know the condition of the walls of the chamber. With size 3 head of a PipNet pipe reamer, I took the cake down to bare briar. Using a folded piece of 180 grit sand paper, I sand out the last traces of cake and expose the walls of the chamber to ascertain that there are no cracks/ heat fissures. I wiped the chamber with a cotton pad dipped in isopropyl alcohol to remove the carbon dust left behind by all the reaming and sanding process. I was happy to note that the walls of the chamber are in pristine condition without any heat fissures or pits. I used my smaller of the two fabricated knife to gently scrap away at the overflow over the rim top surface while being careful not to damage the thin wired rustications on the rim top. I was pleased to find the inner and outer edge of the rim intact and without any burn or char marks which I had feared to be lurking under the heavy overflow of lava. Next, I cleaned out the internals of the shank and mortise. Using my dental tool, I scraped out all the dried oils, tars and gunk that had accumulated in the shank airway and mortise. The mortise was so clogged with the old accumulations of gunk that I had to use the drill piece which comes in the Kleen Reem pipe reamer!! The amount of crud that was scrapped out and the condition of the pipe cleaners that were used leaves no surprise why air flow through it was restricted. I finished the cleaning by running a few pipe cleaners dipped in isopropyl alcohol. I also wiped the shank with cotton buds and alcohol. With this cleaning, all old smells in the pipe are history. The pipe now smells clean and fresh.With the internals of the stummel now clean, I cleaned the external surface using a hard bristled toothbrush and Murphy’s Oil Soap. I diligently scrubbed the crevices formed by the sandblast to remove all the dust and dirt that was embedded in the large vertical rustications and thin wire rustications between them. With a soft bristled brass wired brush, I removed the overflowing lava from the rim top surface and cleaned the internals of the shank with a shank brush and dish washing soap to remove what little crud remained in the shank. I rinsed it under running tap water and wiped the stummel dry with an absorbent soft cotton cloth. However, I was not very satisfied with the way the rim top surface had cleaned up. There were visible traces of the lava overflow embedded in the rustication giving it a dirty and unclean appearance. I vigorously cleaned the rim top surface again with the brass brush, following the direction of the thin rustications till the overflow of lava was greatly reduced. What little grime that remained was carefully scraped out with a sharp dental pick. Another scrub with a toothbrush dipped in oil soap and I was very pleased with the way the stummel had cleaned up. The stummel looks absolutely gorgeous. At this point in restoration, I observed tiny specs of white. They appeared to be paint flakes but I am not sure. Very carefully and painstakingly, I removed each spot with the pointed dental pick.The other thing which highlighted itself was the burn mark and darkened surface at the front and slightly at the back of the stummel respectively. I cleaned the burned spot of all the charred briar with the sharp end of the dental spatula until I reached solid briar surface. The spot has lightened considerably. Next, with a pointed dental pick, I tried to pick in to the remaining darkened surface and was surprised to find that the area had been filled and that the old putty now came away easily (shown by a red arrow). Having discovered one fill, I closely checked the entire stummel surface for any other fills. Sure enough, there was a small fill at the shank end, just below the stamping (red arrow mark). I cleaned out the loose fills with a dental pick. I refreshed these fills with a mix of briar dust and superglue and set it aside to cure.While the stummel fills were set aside to cure, I worked the stem fills which had by now cured sufficiently. Using a flat head needle file, I reshaped the button and roughly matched the fills with the rest of the stem surface. I followed it up by further sanding the stem with 320, 600 and 800 grit sand papers to achieve a perfect blending of the fills with the stem surface and a crisp button edge on either side of the stem. Using the micromesh pads, I complete the polishing cycle by wet sanding the surface with 1500 to 12000 girt pads. The stem looks great with the fills nicely matched with the rest of the surface. I rub a little quantity of Extra Virgin Olive oil in to the stem surface and set it aside to be absorbed by the vulcanite. Once I was finished with the stem repairs, I turned back to the stummel fills which had cured. With the edge of a flat head needle file, I roughly matched the fill with the rustications on the stummel. Thereafter, using a tightly folded piece of 150 grit sand paper, I worked the fills to a perfect match with the rest of the rustications. I used a sharp dental tool and tried to roughly carve out the thin wire like rustications in to the fills, though without resounding success. But it turned out quite okay to my eyes.Next, I rub a small quantity of “Before and After Restoration Balm” in to the briar with my finger tips, work it deep in to the sandblasts and let it rest for a few minutes. The balm almost immediately works its magic and the briar now has a nice vibrant appearance with the beautiful sandblast patterns on full display. I further buff it with a horse hair brush. To complete the restoration, I mount a cotton cloth buffing wheel on to my hand held rotary tool 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 looks amazingly beautiful and is now ready for its long second innings with me. I only wish it could share with me its life story of the past 70 plus years while I enjoy smoking my favorite Virginia blend in it!! P.S. I was not very pleased with the appearance of the front of the stummel, what with the ugly burn mark now all the more visible. I discussed with my mentor, Steve, and he suggested that a little oxalic acid diluted with water when applied over the burn mark should significantly reduce the black mark. This will be applied in practical once I am back on leave to my home town. I shall post an update on the end result of this process.

There are three more pending write ups which I shall be tackling before I undertake any new restoration. I am eagerly waiting to start my next project, which I wish to assure readers, is going to be an interesting one. It’s a pipe which my dear friend and mentor, Steve, had sent me about a year back with the intention of providing me an opportunity to test my own skills. I wish to thank each one for sparing their valuable time to read through and any inputs or advise is always welcome.



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