Blog by Paresh Deshpande
At the beginning of this month I had posted a write up on a briar calabash pipe with a bone stem (Resurrecting A Dreary No Name Briar Calabash Shaped Pipe | rebornpipes) that called out to Lance Dahl (remember the three beautiful cased D.P. Ehrlich Co, Boston Made Meerschaum that Steve had restored last month?). While exchanging emails, I shared a couple of pictures about the pipes that were seeking new ownership and Lance selected one. From what I have seen of Lance, he is one person with an exquisite taste for unique and quality pipes.
The pipe that Lance has selected and currently on my work table is stamped on the left of the shank as “TILSHEAD” over “ENGLAND”, all in block capital letters. The right side of the shank surface bears the stamp “MADE BY HAND” The high quality vulcanite tapered stem is without any stamp/ logo.I knew TILSHEAD to be the entry level pipe from James Upshall, but that was all I knew about the pipe company!! To get a better understanding of the brand and this grade in particular, I first visited James Upshall – Pipedia.
The entire article makes for an interesting read; however, I have reproduced only the relevant information on the grade of the pipe from the pipe company and particularly the grade of the pipe on my work table:
Grading & Sizing Information
James Upshall pipes are graded by various finishes, i.e. bark, sandblast, black dress and smooth etc. Then by cross grain, flame grain, straight grain and, last but not least, the perfect high grade, which consists of dense straight grain to the bowl and shank. The latter being extremely rare. In addition, the price varies according to group size, i.e. from 3-4-5-6 cm high approximately Extra Large. We also have the Empire Series which are basically the giant size, individually hand crafted pipes which come in all finishes and categories of grain. All our pipes are individually hand carved from the highest quality, naturally dried Greek briar. In order to simplify our grading system, let me divide our pipes into 4 basic categories.
- It begins with the Tilshead pipe, which smokes every bit as good as the James Upshall but has a slight imperfection in the briar. In the same category price wise you will find the James Upshall Bark and Sandblast finish pipes, which fill and smoke as well as the high grades.
- In this category we have the best “root quality” which means that the grain is either cross, flame or straight, which is very much apparent through the transparent differing color finishes. This group will qualify as the “S”- Mahogany Red, “A” – Chestnut Tan and “P” – Walnut. The latter having the straighter grain.
- Here you have only straight grain, high grade pipes, which run from the “B”, “G”, “E”, “X” and “XX”. The latter will be the supreme high grade. Considering the straightness of the grain the latter category is also the rarest. Usually no more than 1% of the production will qualify.
- Lastly, we have the Empire Series. These are basically Limited Edition gigantic individually hand crafted pieces, which again are extremely rare due to the scarcity of large, superior briar blocks.
Believe you me Readers, the slight imperfections which destined this pipe to be categorized as TILSHEAD has me in awe of the very high quality standards set by the pipe company. There is not a single fill in the entire stummel surface and the grain is beautiful all around. All in all, this is a beautiful pipe with a quality that would equal or surpass any of the highest grades of line production pipe!
Initial Visual Inspection
The pipe that is currently on my work table has a Dublin shape (though not a classic Dublin but more of a freehand, the carver’s take on the classic shape while following the grain of the briar block) with thick walls. The stummel has a natural stain and is covered in dirt and grime through which beautiful angel hair grain can be seen all around with loosely packed Bird’s eye grain over the rim top surface. There is a thin layer of cake in the chamber and the outward sloping rim top surface is clean. The rim’s inner and outer edge surfaces is pristine. The vulcanite tapered stem is oxidized with severe damage to the bite zone on either surface. The buttons on both surfaces show bite marks with the upper half button missing. The following pictures will give the Readers an idea of the overall condition of the pipe as it sits on my work table. Overall, the thin layer of cake and excellent condition of the stummel are pointers to the fact that the pipe seems to be well looked after, though the stem damages are a proof of the previous owner’s cavalier chomping of the stem. It should be an easy restoration project, unless some gremlins pop up during the process. Detailed Visual Inspection
A thin and even layer of cake is seen in the chamber; however, the cake is very hard. The rim top surface is sans any overflow of lava, dirt, dust and grime, though a number of dents and dings (indicated with pastel blue circles and arrows) can be seen on the outward sloping rim surface. The exact condition of the inner walls of the chamber will be known once the cake has been taken down to bare briar. The chamber odor is strong and should be addressed to some extent once the cake has been taken down and the shank internals have been thoroughly cleaned. The stummel feels solid to the touch and I do not foresee any major issues with the condition of the chamber walls. To be honest with you, this pipe being at the start of the ascending order of grading for James Upshall pipes, I had expected to find a few fills and some non-descript graining on the stummel briar. However, I was surprised to note that there are absolutely no fills on the stummel surface and it boasts of some beautiful angel hair flame grains around the sides, front and aft of the stummel surface while loosely packed Bird’s eye adorns the outward sloping rim top. The stummel surface is covered in dirt and grime giving the stummel a dull and dirty appearance. The stummel surface shows a few dents and dings (indicated by yellow arrows). It does have a quality which is seen on some very high end pipes. The mortise shows accumulation of old oils and tars which would need to be cleaned. The dents and dings to the rim surface and over the stummel surface would be addressed by steaming and sanding the surface. A nice polish with micromesh grit pads will bring a nice shine to the stummel and highlight the grains. The vulcanite stem is oxidized and severely damaged. The bite zone on either surface shows some severe tooth indentations with deformed button on either surface. The upper stem surface has a portion of the button lip missing (encircled in green) and would need to be built up again. The lower surface has a very deep bite mark, the causative pressure of which has resulted in a crack (indicated with yellow arrows) that extends over the lower button edge and up to the horizontal slot. The tenon and slot end are clean. All in all, the stem presents the most major damage on this pipe.The Process
Since the stem on this pipe was most severely damaged and would demand most efforts, I started the restoration process with the stem repairs. I ran a pipe cleaner dipped in alcohol through the stem airway and was pleasantly surprised to find a nice clean pipe cleaner emerge from the other end. There is no doubt that the pipe was kept nice and clean by the previous owner. I flamed the bite zone of either surface over a lit candle to heat and expand the tooth indentation to the surface. It was well worth the try and the surface evenness is much improved than earlier.This step was followed by sanding the entire stem surface with a folded piece of 220 grit sand paper to remove the oxidation from the surface. I wiped the stem with a cotton pad and isopropyl alcohol to clean the surface in preparation for reconstruction of the button edge. I placed a triangulated index card, which has been wrapped in cello tape, into the slot. The tape prevents the superglue from sticking and makes for easy extraction after the glue has cured. I mixed CA superglue with activated charcoal and applied it over the area to be rebuilt / repaired. I set the stem aside for the mix to harden before I could further work on the fill. Little did I know at this stage that this stem was to be such a pain to restore and would lead to a delay of many a day…and yet the end result is not what I usually achieve with my stem rebuilds. While I was working on the stem, Abha cleaned out the chamber of the stummel. With a fabricated knife, she scraped the chamber walls to remove the thin, hard carbon deposits and also scraped out the lava overflow from the rim inner edge, though there was not much! Once the cake was reamed back to the bare briar, she used a 220 grit sand paper to remove all the traces of remaining cake and also to smooth out the inner walls of the chamber surface. Finally, to remove the residual carbon dust, she wiped the chamber with a cotton pad wetted with 99.9% pure isopropyl alcohol. 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 draught hole and on the walls of the mortise. I finished the cleaning by running a few pipe cleaners dipped in isopropyl alcohol through the mortise. I shall continue with further cleaning of the shank internals when I clean the internals with cotton and alcohol bath and further during external cleaning of the stummel surface.I continued the cleaning of the chamber and shank internals with a salt and alcohol bath. I used cotton balls which are an at par substitute as I have realized over the years. I drew out a wick from the cotton and along with a folded regular pipe cleaner; inserted it into the mortise and through the draught hole into the chamber. Thereafter, I packed the chamber with cotton balls to about quarter of an inch below the inner rim edge and soaked the cotton balls with isopropyl alcohol up to the brim. About half an hour later, the level of alcohol had gone down, having being absorbed by the cotton. I topped it up once again and set it aside overnight. By next morning, the cotton and alcohol had drawn out all the remaining oils and tars from the chamber and mortise, fulfilling it’s intended task. I removed the cotton balls and ran pipe cleaners through the mortise to clean out all the loosened tars and gunk and further cleaned it with alcohol and q-tips. The chamber now smelled clean and fresh. I set aside the stummel to dry out naturally. With the bowl internals clean, I moved to clean the exterior of the stummel. I used a hard bristled tooth brush and Murphy’s Oil soap to scrub the stummel and rim top. I rinsed the stummel under running warm water with anti oil dish washing detergent till the stummel surface was clean and dried it using paper towels and soft cotton cloth. I simultaneously cleaned the shank internals with the detergent and hard bristled shank brush and set the stummel aside to dry out naturally. Now that the stummel surface was nicely cleaned up and the beautiful angel hair grains exposed, the flip side was that the damages too are exposed! The dents and dings to the rim top surface were now plainly visible and I marked the areas with black sharpie pen as it helps in identifying and placing of the towel while steaming. I steamed out all the minor dents and dings by heating my fabricated knife on a candle and placing it on a wet towel covering the dents. The generated steam pulls the dents to the surface. Most of the dents have been raised to the surface, however, a couple of ones that remain, will be addressed by sanding with a folded piece of 320 grit sand paper. With this, I handed over the stummel to Abha for further polishing and turned my attention to the stem repairs. The stem repairs had hardened considerably over the past 18 odd hours. I used a flat head needle file to achieve a rough match of the patch with the rest of the stem surface. I further evened out the patch with a folded piece of 220 grit sand paper. And it was at this stage in the restoration that my nightmares began! The sanding had revealed what every pipe restorer fears during stem repairs and that is air pockets in the repaired patch. Also I could clearly make out the crack over the button edge on the lower surface of the stem. I had to mix CA superglue and activated charcoal again and apply over the repaired area with a hope and prayer that the air pockets are filled. In all, I had to repeat the process five times and even changed the glue as well as charcoal powder. I even went through the entire process of sanding with sandpapers and polishing with micromesh pads. However, the repairs were not up to my acceptable standards. The following pictures will give the readers an idea of the entire process. After I had been through the entire process of sanding and polishing, the issues of air pockets and visibility of the crack on the lower surface were still apparent and I went to town filing away the repair work with needle file till I reached the bottom of the patch. I reapplied the mix of CA superglue and charcoal powder for the sixth time. On sixth attempt I decided to accept the minor flaws in the aesthetics of the repairs as long as the repairs are solid and lasting. The stem after sixth attempt at repairs is shown in the last two pictures after it was sanded and polished. During the course of my battle with the stem repairs, Abha had been unobtrusively working on the stummel. She sanded the entire stummel with a piece of 320 grit sand paper to remove the minor dings and scratches from the rim top and rest of the stummel surface. She followed it up by wet sanding the stummel with 1500 to 12000 grit micromesh pads to a nice even shine. She wiped the stummel with a moist cloth after every grit pad to remove the sanding dust left behind by the pads. This also helps in monitoring the progress being made and provides an opportunity to take early corrective action, if required. Next, she rubbed a small quantity of “Before and After Restoration Balm” into the briar with her finger tips and worked it deep in to the surface 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 angel hair flame grains and Bird’s eye grain patterns over the rim top, on full display. The contrast of the dark browns of the grain with the light natural hues of the rest of the stummel adds an interesting dimension to the appearance of the stummel. She further buffed it with a horse hair brush to further deepen the shine. To put the finishing touches, I mounted a cotton cloth buffing wheel on to my hand held rotary tool and polished the stummel and stem with Blue Diamond compound. This compound helps to remove the minor scratch marks that remain from the sanding.Next, I mounted another cotton buffing wheel that I have earmarked for carnauba wax and applied several coats of the wax. I mounted a clean cotton cloth buffing wheel and gave the entire pipe a once over buff. 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 on its way to Lance, all ready for its long second innings with him. P.S.- I had tried my level best in addressing and blending in the repairs to the stem with the surrounding surface but to no avail. It would be immensely helpful if our esteemed readers could share a trick or two that I could learn and adopt.
However, I feel the repairs are solid and Lance, if you are reading this, should the stem give you any troubles, just send the pipe back and I shall replace the complete stem at no cost, including shipping! I hope you enjoy the pipes that have traveled across the seas…
Praying for the health and safety of all the readers and their loved ones in these troubled times…