Tag Archives: cleaning a pipe with a retort

An Exceptional Bjarne Hand Made Freehand

Blog by Robert M. Boughton

Copyright © Reborn Pipes and the Author except as cited

He could have been an ambassador for his country, but instead he became an ambassador for Danish pipes.

— Jan Anderson, author of Scandinavian Pipemakers (2012)


Jan Anderson was speaking of Bjarne Nielsen, the great Danish pipe maker, who finished his studies at the University of Copenhagen with an MBA in the early 1960s and went to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the export division.  Nielsen made his first pipes when he was 16 and gave them to friends then and later at the university, and of course he continued making pipes as a hobby.  Whether he knew it or not, he was bitten by the bug.  Call it Pipe Makers Disorder (PMD), if you like.  Bjarne was considered a likely candidate for appointment as ambassador to a foreign country, but he gave it all up to pursue his real ambition, which will come as no surprise to anyone with creative leanings was to form his own business.

Bjarne may never even have imagined turning his pastime into a career, but fate, if there is such a thing, is powerful.  The freehand pipe movement was first building speed when Bjarne was at the Ministry, and he was often asked to help find foreign buyers for the style of pipe that was more popular abroad than in Denmark, where it started.  Many older smokers, deeply rooted in the English tradition of the classic Dunhill style, considered the new direction outlandish, crazy and worst of all, ugly.  And every source Bjarne knew had orders for such pipes up the wazoo.  I’m sure he used more diplomatic words.

Then, out of the blue, again if there is such a phenomenon, Bjarne had the idea to send photos of some of his pipes to a few of those same foreign distributors.  I’m sure he put it out of his mind and wasn’t watching the pot until it started to boil over with so many positive responses he had to decide whether to stay with the Ministry or pursue his innate talent.  Not being the average man, fearful of taking such a huge risk – or, rather, being the typical young man he was, still full of dreams – Bjarne embarked on the journey that would make him a legend, meaning most of the world has never heard of him.

The hand-made Danish freehand in this blog has three lines of clear block nomenclature on the bottom of the shank, below the stem: BJARNE/HANDMADE/ IN DENMARK.  The stem also bears a mark – a lower-case b sitting in the curl of a lower-case j.

Courtesy Pipephil

This means Bjarne did not make the pipe himself, but instead delegated the job to one of three master carvers who were and are in business for themselves and did special work for him.  They are Mogens “Johs” Johansen, Jes Phillip Vigen Jertsen (Ph. Vigen) and Tonni Nielsen.  These pipes were sold by Bjarne as lower-grade pieces than those he carved and on which he ascribed his full name, in cursive script, above HANDMADE/IN DENMARK.  The pipes Bjarne carved himself also bore a grade of AX or A-J.  The man’s self-appraising standards were refined to the extreme.  They bear no mark on the stems.

Bjarne Nielsen Bulldog Grade O, photos, courtesy abel2antique on eBay

I didn’t mind that my new Bjarne, whichever of the fine craftsmen above made it, came with a box and sock as well.

RESTORATION Three long years ago, before I learned lessons beyond count and, more than anything else, that the process never ends, I wrote a blog here called “Ben Wade and the Chamber of Horrors,” in which I recounted the restoration of a huge BW poker with cake so gnarly it took me hours to repair.  As I can think of no better words to describe the terrors of uncovering layer after layer of hardened old carbon, only to reach a patch of almost perfect smoothness and then reaching spiraling new veins and lumps, I’ll give a brief quote from the BW blog.

“The ongoing task of removing all of the cake, every time I thought I achieved smoothness all around, only uncovered still more hidden holes, like microcosmic pits and craters on the moon, only black…the evil chamber walls in spots felt like the bowels of a volcano.”

But this pipe was so much worse, it took me days of concerted effort to get to the bottom of the years of iron-like cake.  I am certain that had this pipe come my way three years ago, I would have been forced to set it aside in the to-do pile.

I started with my Junior Reamer, which, due perhaps to the curve of the freehand chamber, made almost not even a dent. The coarsest sandpaper I had was a small old finger-length strip of 180-grit that has stood by me for years and is most often the roughest I need to get with a chamber’s walls.  A half-hour or so of that left my hand aching, my fingers burning and one of them torn open, as was the case to a much more serious degree with the BW chamber of horrors.  I put the chamber ordeal on pause and decided to see how awful the shank’s airway might be.  I admit my attitude sucked by then, but also that I was pleased with the relative ease of clearing the shank of grime with alcohol-dipped regular pipe cleaners.  The first one took some finagling to break on through to the other side, but only four cleaners were needed for the preliminary cleaning. I girded for another go at the chamber with the following armaments.I hoped I would not have to resort to either (and certainly not both) blades, but I was going to be prepared for anything.  As it turned out, the Dremel I used in the BW chamber of horrors case would have come in handy, but I had to borrow it and didn’t want to take the time.  The task was longer and more arduous than I can detail in photos, but here are some time lapses – during the first day.  I hope they show the bulges and veins that appeared hither and thither with each new attack.  Indeed, both the pen and utility knives were needed throughout the three-day process of perfecting the chamber. Another problem I’m sure has not gone unnoticed was the rim burn that was fairly bad, but on the plateau area of a freehand presented greater than average problems.  I did not want to use sand paper or even spot-soak the rim in alcohol, if black stain was under the char.  After debating the options available to me with my resources at hand, I opted for an approach that may seem unusual but I knew from experience would leave any black paint intact.  I submerged the entire stummel in alcohol for several minutes at most, and when I removed it I thought I had the desired result of eliminating the old stain and excess char. Scrutiny of the outer wood showed a perfect piece of briar, free of any blemishes or even a single scratch.  The only other such experience I recall after alcohol-stripping a stummel was with my previous blog about a Capitello Jonico Dublin.  I tried to tell myself the remaining blackness on the rim was natural or maybe left-over stain.

Other than the final sanding, which tore through the final layer of uneven cake, the time for micro-meshing had arrived.  Giving the stummel a final inspection, I overrode my misgivings about the dull murkiness that pervaded most of the rim, with random rays of nice red wood making it through the gloom. I remembered a Ben Wade by Preben Holm I restored and had to re-stain the rim black, and I’ve never quite been happy with it.  The whole approach to this project was to restore the freehand to a better look than it may ever have had, if I may be excused the apparent impertinence.  Still, I proceeded with the micro-mesh, which only confirmed my gut instinct. Before I return to the rim, there are a few minor wrap-ups to make.  First, look at the discoloration of the wood at the top of the front view above.  I figured Super Fine 0000 steel wool should do the trick, and it did.Then there were the stains on the tip of the Lucite tenon and inside the button of the stem.  I scraped out the difficult to reach crud from the button with a mashed end of a pipe cleaner dipped in alcohol and sanded clean the open end of the tenon with my trusty 180-grit fragment of paper.The retort went well, requiring only three Pyrex test tubes of alcohol – the first that was sucked up into the cotton stuffed in the chamber, the second coming out moderately dirty, and the third, after boiling through the pipe four times, was clear.The last step I imagined before the final wheel buffing – there would be no stain – was to fill in the congruent bj etching on the stem that had not been worn away.Unfortunately, the curl of the b is completely faded away.

I just could not see proceeding with either of the courses that presented themselves, leaving the dull, scorched earth look of the rim as it was and trying to make it shine or buying more black stain and hiding the beautiful wood I was sure was hidden.  And so, I gave the rim a spot-soak in alcohol to see what lay beneath.The result was a very pale rim, but I knew that would change with another, focused full course of the micro-mesh pads.  The semi-final result as I headed for the buffers was just what I wanted.  I buffed the stummel with brown Tripoli and a heavy coat of Carnauba, and the stem with Carnauba.


This restore was one of the biggest surprises I’ve had in the few years I’ve been learning a few of the myriad techniques and resources available.  Thinking at first it would be done overnight, three days later I knew never to underestimate the opponent each new pipe presents as.  I struggled with the question of to sell or not to sell, and gave in to my P.A.D.  All I have to say is, I’m glad I did, because, as the title says, this is one extraordinary freehand.



Re-stemming a Hardcastle Pot – Andrew Selking

Blog by Andrew Selking

I picked up this nice looking Hardcastle pot, but when it arrived I realized that it did not have the proper stem.Hardcastle1

Hardcastle2 Fortunately Steve bailed me out and sent a couple of likely replacements. The stem that I settled on had a slightly smaller tenon diameter and the outside diameter was noticeably bigger. This was going to be a fun challenge. I covered the shank with painter’s tape and started reshaping the stem with 100 grit sand-paper.Hardcastle3 Here is a shot after getting to about 80% completion.Hardcastle4 Next, I took the painter’s tape off and replaced it with Scotch tape (since it is thinner) at the end of the shank. At this point I was using 400 grit wet/dry without water.Hardcastle5 Once I completed that step, I took a rubber washer and placed it on the tenon to protect the end of the stem and shank. I used 400 grit to finish the last little bit, frequently taking the washer out to check the fit.Hardcastle This is what the pipe looked like once I had the stem sanded to fit.Hardcastle6



Hardcastle9Next I turned my attention to the bowl. I used the largest reamer to get almost to the bottom and finished it with the next smaller one.Hardcastle10 I used OOOO grade steel wool to remove the tar from the rim.Hardcastle11 Once the bowl was clean, I used my retort to clean the shank.Hardcastle12 This is why I am a firm believer in the retort, pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol came clean, but all this gunk was still inside.Hardcastle13 I used the retort on the stem. Although this picture does not show it, always plug the end of the stem to prevent the retort from boiling over and spitting nasty tobacco juice everywhere (ask me how I know this).Hardcastle14 After the stem was cleaned, I worked on polishing it. I started with 400 grit, then moved to 1500 through 2400 grit micro mesh with water.Hardcastle15 I used the 1500 grit through 2400 grit without water on the bowl, then finished both with a progression through 12,000 grit.Hardcastle16 Now the pipe was ready for stain. This time I used an aniline dye (light walnut) from Pimo Pipe Supply. I diluted the dye by 50% with denatured alcohol, applied it with a cotton ball, flamed it with a lighter, and repeated until I had the coverage I wanted.

After an uneventful trip to the buffer, where I used white diamond and carnauba wax on both the stem and bowl, this is the result. I am really happy how this turned out. Thanks again to Steve for his generosity in providing the donor stem.Hardcastle17





Comoy’s The Guildhall London Pipe Liverpool Renewed

Blog by Steve Laug

The Comoy’s pipe pictured below was one of the pipes I picked up at an Antique Mall in Edmonton, Alberta. It was by far in the best condition of the three pipes I purchased that day. It also had the highest price tag – $30 of the three. It is stamped on the left side of the shank The Guildhall over London Pipe and on the right side it is stamped Made in London in a circle over England. The shape is stamped as 30. The grain on it is very nice with a few bald spots on the sides and front on the lower portions of the bowl. The contrast stain that is on these older Comoy’s pipes is extremely well done and it is what always draws me to them. The top of the bowl rim was covered with a little tar. The bowl itself was partially caked and a few tobacco remnants sat in the bottom of the bowl. The stem had tooth chatter and slight oxidation. When I picked it up the stem was on upside down so the three metal lines that were stem logos on these pipes was not visible. I was able to rotate the stem but it was tightly stuck in the shank. I did not want to damage the shank so I left it until I got home.

When I returned home from my trip and things settled down I took the pipe to the work table to refurbish it. I decided to take it apart to begin the process of cleaning it. The stem was tight in the shank and I needed to use the freezer technique to loosen it easily. The tenon is often easily snapped if you try to turn it when it is stuck. I put it in the freezer for 15 minutes and then it came out very easily. When I pulled it out of the shank it brought a lot of chunks of tar and oily buildup with it. The cloth on my worktable was littered with the black pieces that fell out of the shank. Once I had it out of the shank there was a stinger contraption that I have found is common in the older Everyman and Guildhall pipes. This one was covered thickly with tar and oil. It was pressure fit into the tenon but was tightly bonded to the vulcanite. I used a pipe cleaner with alcohol to scrub the inside of the stem and to also work around the exterior of the stinger. I scraped at the gunk that held it to the tenon and was able to remove much of the grit with a dental pick. I grabbed it with a piece of cloth and twisted and pulled at the same time. I kept the stem level during this process as I did not want to damage the tenon by pulling up as I tried to remove it. It finally broke free of the tenon and I laid it aside on the table top. I do not put the stinger back into a pipe that I intend to use. I tag the stingers and save them should I decide to sell the pipe in the future.
I then cleaned out the shank and the stem with pipe cleaners and Everclear. It took a lot of pipe cleaners to remove the oils and tar from the stem and the shank. I cleaned it until they came out only stained but not covered in grime. I intended to use a retort on this pipe so my purpose was only to remove the heavy buildup on the surface in the stem and shank.



Once I had the interior relatively clean I took out my retort and hooked it up to the pipe. The retort is made up of a test tube and stopper with a permanently inserted brass tube to which a piece of surgical tubing is fitted on the end of the brass tube. The tubing fits over the stem. I put about ¾ of an inch to 1 inch of isopropyl alcohol in the test tube. I stuffed the bowl of the pipe with a cotton boll to stop the alcohol from coming out of the top of the pipe when I heated the alcohol. I lit a candle to heat the alcohol and boil it into the stem and shank. I began with a large candle to do the heating. The next series of seven photos show the first boil of the alcohol through the pipe. I let it boil for several minutes and then removed the test tube from the heat. As it cooled the alcohol was drawn back into the test tube. It was dark amber in colour and smelled strongly of old burned tobacco.






I removed the tube from the flame, and once it had cooled I emptied the alcohol from the test tube, rinsed and refilled it. This time I chose to use a small tea light to heat the tube. It gave a better angle on the test tube and pipe. I boiled it again and when it cooled let the alcohol return to the tube. The series of five photos below shows the second boil and the amber fluid that filled the tube. I ran the retort a third and fourth time until the alcohol came out clear and then I knew the shank and stem were clean. I continue to boil the alcohol through the pipe until it is clean. The retort leaves a pipe smelling brand new once the alcohol smell has dissipated and the pipe dried out.




I removed the retort from the stem and the cotton boll from the bowl of the pipe. Once it was removed I ran pipe cleaners through the shank and stem to remove any of moisture that may have been left behind and the pipe quickly dried out. It was time to clean the top of the rim of the pipe. Early on in the process I had examined it and found that the tars on the top were on the surface and that a good scrub with saliva on a cotton pad would remove the buildup quite easily. The next two photos show the cleaning of the rim with the cotton pads.

Once the rim was clean I buffed the pipe with White Diamond and gave the bowl and shank a first coat of carnauba wax. It was then time to work on the stem. I sanded the stem with 340 grit sandpaper to remove the tooth chatter and small dents in the surface of the vulcanite. I then wet sanded the stem with 1500-2400 grit micromesh sanding pads. The next two photos show the stem after the initial sanding with the 340 grit sandpaper.

The next two photos are randomly taken after I had sanded with the micromesh sanding pads 3200-12,000 grit. I dry sanded with these grits and the stem developed a shine and a depth to the blackness of the vulcanite. When I had finished sanding the stem I rubbed it down with Obsidian Oil to preserve the finish and then buffed it with White Diamond and finally multiple coats of carnauba wax.

The final four photos in this essay show the finished pipe. There is a bit of ghosting around the three bars in the photo that appear to be oxidation. The oxidation is gone. Rather what is happening is a reflection off the metal bars. In natural light the stem is a deep and rich black.