Daily Archives: January 4, 2023

Restoring a Classic Custom-Bilt

Blog by Kenneth Lieblich

Next on the chopping block is this handsome and rugged Custom-Bilt Oom Paul. I acquired this pipe with Steve at one of those antique fairs where the term ‘antique’ is most loosely applied. Editorial comments aside, the fair was good fun and Steve and I enjoyed ourselves. This pipe piqued my interest because I know that there are many admirers (or should I say ‘fanatics’?) of Custom-Bilt pipes. Clearly, this one had had an active life and looked awfully tired now, but I felt I could bring it back to its best. As you can see, the pipe has the classic Custom-Bilt rustication on it. These marks are reminiscent of Tracy Mincer’s original work and are seen as something of a hallmark of the brand, nowadays. On the left side of the shank, the markings were as follows: Custom-Bilt [over] Imported Briar. No markings on the right side and no markings on the stem.The history of Custom-Bilt pipes is an interesting one and the most comprehensive source of information comes from The Custom-Bilt Pipe Story by Bill Unger. By all the accounts that I’ve heard, it is a very good book. I haven’t had the chance to read it myself, but it would appear to be the fount of knowledge on these pipes. If you’ve got a copy of Unger’s book that’s you’d like to get rid of, please drop me a line!Pipedia’s article on Custom-Bilt consists primarily of review’s of Unger’s book. It offers a cursory view of the markings and their approximate dating. My pipe’s markings correspond to “Stamp Number Three” as seen below, even though the markings on my pipe are not identical to that one. Thus, this pipe seems to be from the Wally Frank era.Pipephil provided a bit more information on the brand, although not strictly related to my pipe.Finally, the pipesrevival.com website has yet more information on Custom-Bilt pipes. This page seemed to confirm that my pipe is from the Wally Frank era, but my interpretation of the photos, etc. is that this is from the early part of that era – probably the early 70s. It is difficult to be sure, but that seems reasonable. In any event, if you are interested in these pipes, I recommend reading all three websites.I figure that this pipe must have been a good smoker because it had been thoroughly used and there was plenty of wear from its long life. This wasn’t a difficult restoration, but there were a lot of steps and it took longer than usual. The stem was heavily oxidized. There were a few minor scratches and a couple of notable tooth dents, and the inside was definitely dirty. However, the real issues were on the stummel. It had accumulated much dirt and debris over the years. The bowl had tons of cake inside and the rim was coated in lava (and potentially burn marks). The front edge of the rim was damaged, presumably from banging out dottle on a hard surface over the years. The grooves of the rustication were embedded with debris and there was a notable burn mark on the back-right part of the bowl, near the shank. Meanwhile, on the left of the bowl, there were a couple of fills (including a major one) that would need addressing. I haven’t even mentioned the miscellaneous scratches, dents and other marks all over the place! Let’s get restoring. The stem was first on my list. I wiped the outside with Murphy’s Oil Soap on some cotton pads. I also took a BIC lighter and ‘painted’ the stem with its flame to lift the few bite marks and dents. However, it did not do much. Then I cleaned out the inside with pipe cleaners and isopropyl alcohol. Given the amount of oxidation, this one needed the usual overnight Pipe Stem Oxidation Remover bath. The following day, I cleaned all of the de-oxidizing mess off with alcohol, pipe cleaners, et cetera. The oxidation had migrated to the surface and I scrubbed with SoftScrub on some cotton pads to remove the leftover oxidation. With that done, I built up the dents on the top and bottom of the stem with black cyanoacrylate adhesive and let them fully cure. I then sanded the adhesive down with 220-, 400-, and 600-grit sandpapers to meld seamlessly into the stem. I then used all nine Micromesh pads (1,500 through 12,000 grit) all over to bring out the lovely black lustre on the stem. I also used Obsidian Pipe Stem Oil in between each pad scrubbing.You may notice that the stem looked odd – well, you are right. Over time, it gradually straightened itself out. I wanted the end of the stem to be roughly parallel with the rim of the bowl, so I brought out my heat gun and heated the vulcanite stem to make it malleable. The heat gun is very powerful – it doesn’t take long! When soft, I gently curved the stem over a wooden dowel. The dowel provides a firm surface and a proper curve. Once I had the bend I wanted, I left the stem to cool and set itself in place.

When I was done, I noticed some unusual “stretch marks” on the stem where I’d bent it. Then I asked Steve about it and learned that it does happen occasionally. Suffice it to say, it was extremely annoying as I had to go back and sand that section again. Lesson learned: bend the stem before sanding it!All that finished, I set the stem aside and I began work on the very dirty stummel. Firstly, I decided to ream out the bowl. I used both the PipNet Reamer and the KleenReem to remove the built-up cake and followed that with 220-grit sandpaper taped to a dowel to eliminate as much as I could. I took the chamber down to bare briar, as I wanted to ensure there were no hidden flaws in the wall. Fortunately, there were none. As the photos show, there was quite a mound of debris. I then proceeded to clean out the insides of the shank with Q-tips, pipe cleaners, and lemon-infused isopropyl alcohol. It was ridiculously dirty and took up the country’s supply of cotton to get it clean. I followed that up by cleaning the insides with some dish soap and tube brushes. Next, I used cotton rounds and a toothbrush to scrub the outside of the stummel. Due to the lava on the rim, I carefully used a knife to scrape away as much as I could. All that scrubbing accentuated some very ugly fills which had been repaired with typical red putty.To exorcize the ghosts of tobaccos past, I decided to de-ghost the pipe. I thrust cotton balls into the bowl and the shank and saturated them with 99% isopropyl alcohol. I let the stummel sit overnight. This caused any remaining oils, tars and smells to leach out into the cotton. Although it helped, the de-ghosting was not as successful as I hoped. As a result, I plopped the stummel in my alcohol bath overnight. This removes old stain and cleans debris, odours etc. As you can see, after the bath, the stummel looked rather naked but much cleaner. I next used a dental pick to dig out the awful putty in those fills, as I felt I could do better. I redid the fills with a mixture of cyanoacrylate adhesive and briar dust. The main fill on the back of the bowl was in an awkward position for sanding and making it consonant with the surrounding wood was tricky. In any event, I used some miniature files and various grits of sandpaper to make it look good. Next was the burn on the backside. I took some oxalic acid, used several Q-tips, and rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. The burn dramatically improved and any stain I would later apply would cover it up. Fortunately, the burn was very superficial and did not affect the integrity of the wood at all.To remove the nicks on the rim, I “topped” the pipe – that is to say, I gently and evenly sanded down the rim on a piece of 220-grit sandpaper. This effectively removed the damage, without altering the look of the pipe. However, since I did not want to top the pipe too much, the bashed-in front edge of the pipe would have to be addressed differently. I dug out my iron and a damp cloth to attempt a repair. The hot and moist steam can often cause the wood to swell slightly and return to shape. There was some movement – not a lot, but it was better than doing nothing. I opted to ever-so-slightly round the rim of the pipe in such a way that looks both natural and handsome. Then I sanded the stummel down with all nine Micromesh pads (1,500 through 12,000 grit). The smooth areas got all nine pads, whereas the rusticated areas on received only the last four. Although almost all of the nicks were removed, a hint of a couple of wounds remains. This is part of the story of this pipe – it is its history. Due to all the necessary work for this pipe, I needed to restore the colour, so I stained it with Fiebing’s Medium Brown Leather Dye. First, I brought out my heat gun and spent a couple of minutes thoroughly heating the wood, so it would be as receptive as possible to the stain. I needed the brown to penetrate well into the wood, to give the best results. I applied dye with a cotton dauber. I flamed it with my BIC lighter, let it set, then coated it again with dye, flamed it again, and let that set too. I decided to let the pipe sit overnight. This dye is alcohol-based, so I used isopropyl alcohol to wipe down the pipe and remove excess stain. My intent was not to create a new look for this pipe, but rather to restore the original colour. Finally, I took it to the buffer and used some White Diamond and a few coats of Conservator’s Wax. This pipe took a lot of work, but it was worth it. This Custom-Bilt looks fantastic again and is ready to be enjoyed again by the next owner! I am pleased to announce that this pipe is for sale! If you are interested in acquiring it for your collection, please have a look in the ‘American’ pipe section of the store here on Steve’s website. You can also email me directly at kenneth@knightsofthepipe.com. The approximate dimensions of the pipe are as follows: length 4¾ in. (120 mm); height 5⅛ in. (130 mm); bowl diameter 1½ in. (38 mm); chamber diameter ⅞ in. (22 mm). The weight of the pipe is 2⅜ oz. (69 g). I hope you enjoyed reading the story of this pipe’s restoration as much as I did restoring it. If you are interested in more of my work, please follow me here on Steve’s website or send me an email. Thank you very much for reading and, as always, I welcome and encourage your comments.

Adding Two More Jack Howell Pipe to my Collection – a Pair of Early Birthday Presents

Blog by Steve Laug

The next two Jack Howell pipes that I added to my collection also came to me from Robert Lawing of Lawdog’s Pipes. They were listed on a post I was reading from Robert on Facebook regarding some pipes he worked on that were for sale. There were two beautiful Jack Howell pipes – sandblast Bent Billiard with a taper stem and an unsmoked smooth fancy Bent Billiard with a shank ring that was made of acrylic horn I believe. I saw them a few weeks before my December birthday and they caught my eye. I was very interested in adding them to my collection. I have several of Jack’s pipes that I enjoy already so adding two more is a pleasure for me. I have included the link to my review of the Howell Pipes that I have in my collection if you have not seen many of Jack’s pipes (https://rebornpipes.com/2015/04/27/a-review-two-pipes-by-jack-howell-an-acorn-and-a-lovatnosewarmer/). I have also included a copy of the blog I wrote on the Straight Billiard I had purchased from Robert earlier (https://rebornpipes.com/2022/10/15/adding-another-jack-howell-pipe-to-my-collection-a-great-looking-straight-billiard/).

I copied the photos that Robert sent me to look at. I wrote to Robert and we chatted and I soon was I purchased the smooth pipe pictured below. I went back and looked at them and decided to write him again and take the sandblast one as well. I had him send them to my brother Jeff. Jeff later sent it to me with some other pipes that I would need to work on. The box of pipes arrived today.Everything about these two pipes ticked my boxes. The grain around the smooth pipe and the sandblast on the second pipe were both stunning. The flow of the stem and shank were perfect on both. The acrylic horn ring on the smooth pipe worked well with the fancy turned saddle stem. Both were the size of pipe that I enjoy. They were light weight and comfortable in the hand.The shape of both are Jack’s takes on a classic Bent Billiard shape. The shape follows the grain around the sides and shank and highlights the look of the briar. Both were well designed and really show off the grain. They are beautiful pipes. Robert included photos of the underside of the shanks. The sandblast pipe is stamped Howell [over] JH [over] the year the pipe was made – 2020. The smooth one is stamped Howell [over] JH [over] the year the pipe was made – 2021. They really are great looking pipes. I turned to my previous blog (cited above) and read the information on Pipephil and decided to include it here with these two pipes (http://pipephil.eu/logos/en/logo-h3.html). I included a screen capture of the material there and also included the side bar information. I remember meeting Jack at the 2004 Pipe Show in Chicago. I have included that below.Artisan: Jack Howell begun to be known after his participation in the 2004 Chicago Pipeshow.

I also turned to the article on Pipedia (https://pipedia.org/wiki/Howell) for more information and background. I quote below.

Jack Howell plays clarinet in the Pittsburgh Symphony and makes pipes part time. Except for when the symphony isn’t playing — vacation, say, or a global pandemic — then pipe production goes into gear. For current production, check out http://www.howellhandmade.com. And maybe have a look at the blog.

The following is Jack’s bio from his website:

Jack Howell, Maker

“Every rabbit needs two holes” — Jack’s Dad

I have early memories of watching my uncles whittle things with their pocketknives. I was, I dunno, six or seven years old when I started asking for a pocketknife so I could whittle. My dad said, no, I’d cut myself. But he gave me a file and access to a pile of cedar shingles that we used for kindling and said when I could make things with a file we would talk.

Perhaps that was meant as discouragement because a regular bastard file isn’t much for wood removal, but it’s not much for skin removal either, so there’s that. I set to with the file. Before too long I’d settled on my first oeuvre, a sort of Easter Island head. Which turned into the pommel of letter openers, and before long my dad gave me a knife, a Cub Scout model with one cutting blade and a can opener. I headed straight for the shingle pile, where it took me about ten minutes to cut myself.

Anyway, I’ve been making things for a long time, gradually getting to the point where I used tools with which I could no longer afford to cut myself. Along the way I became a professional musician, my manual skills coming in handy making clarinet reeds. I’ve also made knives, and bamboo fly rods (you can get a book I wrote about that at http://www.thelovelyreed.com), and other stuff. I started making pipes in 1999 and sold my first one in 2004. I went to a few Chicago and Columbus shows, was pretty visible on the old ASP forum, yada yada yada. My production has gone up and down as my musical employment has gone up and down, but for a number of years it stayed around 50 pipes a year. Once I joined the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as bass clarinetist I only made a few pipes here and there on commission, because, well, I was practicing my ass off.

​Recently my dad’s wisdom has become evident. When I went to dust off my website it had come unhooked from my domain host, no idea how long it had been down and nobody had said anything about it, so . . . ​I’m back.

Today the pipes arrived with a box from Jeff. I opened the box and unpacked the pipes that were there and in the middle of the box were the two Howell pipes. I unpacked them and turned them over in my hands. As I write this they are on the desk in front of me now and I am enjoying them both. But I still need to load up a bowl of tobacco enjoy each of the pipes personally. I have set them aside for a weekend smoke. I will probably smoke a bowl of Friedman & Pease Fool’s Cap – a rich mixture of Virginia and Perique that has a fair bit of age on it. It is a blend I thoroughly enjoy. Thank you Robert for making this possible.

Reviving a Kiko Countryman Genuine Block Meerschaum 7 Billiard of TANGANYIKA

The Kiko on the worktable came to me on a pipe picking expedition on December 27, 2019.  My wife and I were still living in Sofia, Bulgaria, where we…

Reviving a Kiko Countryman Genuine Block Meerschaum 7 Billiard of TANGANYIKA

Great restoration on this Kiki and great research. Nicely done.