Tag Archives: Custom-Bilt Pipes

Reviving a Custom-Bilt Rusticated Panel


Blog by Dal Stanton

I acquired this Custom-Bilt Panel in the Lot of 66 which I won on the eBay auction block some time ago.  The Lot of 66 has been good to me as it has produced many good, collectible pipes.  Stephen,from Bowling Green, Kentucky, saw the Custom-Bilt in my For ‘Pipe Dreamers’Only! collection on the website and sent me an email asking to commission the Custom-Bilt as well as a very nice Comoy’s Made in London, England Bent Bulldog. In the email Stephen wrote,

I actually have a Tinderbox pipe (by Comoys) on that shape, although at some point it has had a new stem put on. It’s a terrific smoker. And I have several Custom-Bilts from various eras, and love the pipes. Looking forward to seeing the finished pipes down the road!  I enjoy getting to know the pipe men and women who love pipes and I’m happy that this Custom-Bilt Panel, that snagged Stephen’s attention, will also benefit the Daughters of Bulgaria, our work here in Bulgaria helping women and girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.  Here are a few of the pictures that got Stephen’s attention in Pipe Dreamers. The nomenclature is on the lower smooth panel.  On the underside of the shank is cursive ‘Custom-Bilt’ with the hyphen separation.  On the underside of the bowl is stamped ‘IMPORTED BRIAR’.  After looking at the pipe on the work table, I also found a ‘O’ stamped on the upper right side of the shank, bordering the stem.  I’m not sure what this is if anything – an anomaly or the rustication tool gone awry!  On a hunch, I look back at Pipephil.eu and I see what I missed the first time I looked.  The circle in the picture above is a marking listed as having appeared on some Custom-Bilt pipes.  It does not indicate which period or production lines each marking indicates. The information from Pipephil.eu about the multiple transitions in ownership of the American pipe name, Custom-Bilt was to the point:

Chunky bowls with rough carving or gouges.

Tracy Mincer stopped making Custom-Bilt pipes in the early 1950s. The trademark was successively bought by Leonard Rodgers (1953), Consolidated Cigars (1968) and Wally Frank Co. (early 1970s). The later began to produce again his version of the pipe in 1974 or 1975 at Weber pipe factory (NJ). In 1987, the pipes were made out of the Butz-Choquin factory (France) and then Mexico until the late 1990s. Currently (2010), the Custombilt name is owned by Tobacalera of Spain which is part of Altadis.

It is generally admitted (but not proved) pipes stamped “Custom – Bilt” (with the hyphen) are from the Mincer era. The name might have changed from Custom-Bilt to Custombilt (without the hyphen) in 1946.

If this information is accurate regarding the inclusion or exclusion of a hyphen indicating the period of manufacturing, the Custom-Bilt in front of me could be from the Mincer period and if so, could be dated from 1946 or earlier.  This is helpful information regarding the dating.

The pipe itself seems to be in solid condition.  The characteristic rustified, roughed-up surface of this Custom-Bilt pipe is darkened from grime and needs a thorough cleaning.  The chamber looks good with a thin cake build up.  The rim is in good shape but is darkened from scorching over the years.  The stem has mild oxidation and light tooth chatter and a compression on the lower bit, next to the button. I notice too, that the stem fitting may be a bit loose.  We’ll see how that shapes up after cleaning.  Overall, no major challenges are detected. 

I begin what should be a straight forward restoration of this Custom-Bilt Panel by cleaning the stem’s airway using a pipe cleaner wetted with isopropyl 95%.  I then add the stem to a Before & After Deoxidizer soak, along with other pipes and stems in queue.  After several hours soaking, I remove the stem and allow the Deoxidizer to drain and then wipe off the raised oxidation with cotton pads wetted with alcohol.  I follow this with a cotton pad wetted with light paraffin oil that helps condition the vulcanite.I then turn to the stummel and use the Pipnet Reaming Kit to clean the light cake in the chamber.  The chamber is not deep but wide and I use 3 of the 4 blades heads available.  I then transition to the Savinelli Fitsall Pipe Tool and scrape the chamber walls further. Finally, I sand the chamber by wrapping a Sharpie Pen with 240 grit paper.  To clean the carbon dust, I wipe the chamber with a cotton pad wetted with alcohol.  After inspection, the chamber shows now signs of heat damage.  The pictures show the progress. Now turning to the external surface, I use undiluted Murphy’s Oil Soap to scrub the rustified surface.  To get into all the nooks and crevices I also use a bristled tooth brush.  I also use the brass wire brush to work on the rim scorching.  The pictures show the progress. With the externals clean, I turn to the internals of the stummel using pipe cleaners and cotton buds dipped in isopropyl 95%.  Long shank brushes also prove to be helpful.  I scrape the mortise wall with a dental spatula to remove old oil and tar buildup.  Using a drill bit about the same size as the airway, I hand turn the bit and this also removes more buildup on the airway wall.  The pictures show the tools of cleaning. With my day ending, I continue cleaning the Custom-Bilt by giving it a kosher salt and alcohol soak through the night to work on the tars and oils absorbed into the briar.  I first stretch and twist a cotton ball to act as a ‘wick’ inserted down the mortise and airway.  This ‘wick’ draws the tars and oils from the mortise.  I then fill the bowl with kosher salt, which doesn’t leave an aftertaste, and I give the bowl a shake to disperse the salt.  After placing the stummel in an egg cart to stabilize, using a large eyedropper I fill the bowl with isopropyl 95% until it surfaces over the salt.  After few minutes I top off the alcohol which has absorbed into the pipe.  I put the pipe aside and turn off the lights. Rising with the sun, I go to the worktable and the salt and alcohol soak has done the work as hoped.  Both the salt and the wick are discolored with the extraction of the tars and oils.  I dump the expended salt in the waste can and wipe the chamber with paper towel to remove the salt.  I also run a shank brush through the mortise and airway followed by blowing through to clear salt crystals.  To make sure the cleaning is thorough, I dip a cotton bud and pipe cleaner in isopropyl 95% and run them through the mortise again and I’m satisfied all is clean.Looking again at the stummel, I’m not satisfied with rim – still darkened and scorched looking.  To protect and maintain the Custom-Bilt rim’s rustication I don’t want to sand.  I decide to return again to the brass wire brush, without any cleaner solvent and leaving the surface dry, I brush the rim rotating the brush around the rim so that my movement is parallel with the rustication cuts.  This dislodges more carbon stuck in the ridges.  I think it did do the trick.  Pictures show the before and after. Before putting the stummel aside to work on the stem, I apply a coat of light paraffin oil to the rustified stummel surface to hydrate the wood. The oil is thin enough to seep into the crannies of the classic Custom-Bilt rustication using a cotton pad. After thoroughly applied, I put the stummel aside to absorb and dry.I now look at the stem again.  It has minor issues on the lower bit (second picture) with a bite compression on the button and on the bit.  There is also a small bite compression on the edge (third picture). To address these, I first use the heating technique using a Bic lighter and painting the compression areas.  The flame heats the vulcanite, a rubber compound, expanding it and causing the compression to lessen or minimize.  The heating method helps in this case leaving the compressions to be easily sanded out. Using a flat needle file, I file the button area refining the button upper and lower lips.  I follow by erasing the file scratches by using 240 grade paper on upper and lower bit.Following the 240, I erase the 240 scratches by wet sanding the entire stem with 600 grade paper followed by buffing the stem with 0000 steel wool.I move directly to the micromesh process by wet sanding with pads 1500 to 2400, then dry sanding with pads 3200 to 4000 and 6000 to 12000.  Between each set of three, I apply Obsidian oil which the vulcanite drinks in, revitalizing the stem. With the stem waiting in the wings, I turn again to the Custom-Bilt stummel and take another look.  What’s bothering me I realize is the black ring on the inner lip of the rim.  It continues to carry the charred look to the rim.  Without bothering or diminishing the rustication on the rim, I decide to create an internal bevel to remove the darkened wood thus helping to lighten the rim and make it look sharper.  I first use 240 grade paper tightly rolled to remove the heavy charring then follow with 600 grade paper to sharpen the bevel.  I like the rim presentation much better now.  The pictures show the adjustment. I’ve been learning through my research that the hallmark of the Custom-Bilt ‘look’ is rough and big.  This Custom-Bilt isn’t a large pipe, but he is rough with the classic Custom-Bilt rustication that is a consistent technique used in the C-B manufacturing.  I found it interesting that ‘smooths’ are the rarer and more collectible Custom-Bilts according to the Pipedia article.  Yet, the C-B rough look has a certain appeal.  To me, what causes a rustication motif to look classier is when the patches of smooth briar across its landscape are shined and buffed up in nice contrast.  To me also, every peak of a rustication ridge or ‘mountain top’ is smooth briar, not just the underside nomenclature panel and the shank panels.  To shine the peaks and panels, I take the top two thirds of the micromesh pads (3200 to 12000) and dry sand the entire stummel.  The first 3 pictures mark the stummel before using micromesh pads.  I pad sanding ‘lights up’ the rustication patterns and nuances a bit more softness to the rough look. Next, I use Before & After Restoration Balm to condition the rusticated bowl.  The challenge will be to work the Balm into the nooks and crannies and make sure it is absorbed.  I put Balm on my fingers and work the Balm in the rough briar.  After its covered well, I let it sit for a few minutes then begin wiping and buffing using a microfiber cloth.  Wow!  The Balm does a great job enriching the briar.  It looks great. Next, I reunite stem and stummel and mount a cotton cloth wheel on the Dremel and set the speed at about 40% full power and I apply Blue Diamond compound to the entire pipe.  With the 1-inch buffing wheel on the Dremel, I’m able to navigate through the cuts, crannies and gullies of the rustication flow pretty well.  This minimizes the concern for the compound to ‘gunk up’ in the rustication.  After completing the application of Blue Diamond compound and buffing the stummel with a felt cloth to remove compound dust, I do detect some ‘gunking’ in some of the crannies.  Using a stiff plastic brush, I brush the stummel to dislodge the compound.  To make sure the stummel is clean and ready for wax, I use a small felt buffing wheel to work into the nooks and crannies of the rustication – this does a great job and further buffs up the briar.  Nice.Again, I mount the Dremel with another cloth buffing wheel, increase the speed to about 50% full power. This is a little more RPM than normal for waxing.  I want to generate a little more heat than normal with the additional RPM to be sure the wax liquifies well into the briar.  This will assure an even application and avoid (I hope!) the wax from gunking up in the crannies.  I apply carnauba wax to the stummel with a light touch.  To avoid wax getting lodged in the rustication, I apply wax sparingly and rotate the Dremel buffing wheel to navigate through the crevices.  I apply several coats of carnauba to stem and stummel and follow by giving the stummel both a good buffing with a microfiber cloth and a brushing with a horse hair shoe brush on the stummel.

This probable 1940s/50s Custom-Bilt Panel came out much nicer than I was expecting. I’m drawn to the mountain-like landscape of the stummel. Cleaning and hydrating the briar along with bringing the rustication through a polishing regimen resulted in transforming an interesting pipe with rustication into an eye catching classy piece of sculpted briar – that just happens to be a Custom-Bilt, thank you.  One additional small change that made a big difference in the final look was the internal rim bevel.  The residual darkened rim from former scorching was helped immensely not only by the rigorous cleaning, but also cutting a simple internal bevel.  In the finished pipe (as shown in the first picture below), that bevel’s high polish now sets off well the rusticated rim – to me, a very classy addition for this Custom-Bilt Panel.  Stephen commissioned the Custom-Bilt Panel to add to his collection of C-Bs and will have the first opportunity to acquire it in the Pipe Steward Store.  The best part is what follows – that this C-B benefits the Daughters of Bulgaria – helping women and girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.  Thanks for joining me!

 

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Finishing the Restoration and Restemming a Custom-Bilt Billiard


Blog by Steve Laug

Not long ago I was speaking with Paresh and Abha on Facetime and they showed me a second pipe that they wanted me to finish for them. This one was a Custom-Bilt billiard that had come to him from the estate of his Grandfather. It had a threaded tenon stem and a shank that had no threads. I have never seen a Custom-Bilt with a threaded mortise and tenon so it was a fair assumption that the stem was not original. It had been wrapped with glue and tape to make it fit in the shank and the fit was awful. Paresh wanted me to fit a new stem on the pipe for him. Abha had done a magnificent job cleaning the pipe so it was really a simple restoration for me – just fit a stem and finish the bowl. The briar was clean and lifeless so it would need some attention to breathe life into it again. He wanted me to pick up where he had left off and finish the pipe for him. The pipe was stamped on the left side of the shank Custom-Bilt and on the underside it was stamped Imported Briar. It would be interesting to see what I could do with it. When the pipe arrived this is what it looked like. You can see the remnants of wrapping and glue on the metal threaded tenon. There were tooth marks in the surface of the vulcanite stem on both the top and underside near the button. The first photo below shows the rim top and the inside of the bowl. Both were very clean and the rustication was in great condition as were the inner and outer edges of the bowl. The second photo shows the end of the shank with the glue on the inside of the mortise and the lack of threads that would be present if the tenon that was on the stem would work with this pipe.I took some photos of the stamping on the left and underside of the shank. The left side reads Custom-Bilt and the underside reads Imported Briar.I took close up photos of the stem. You can see the metal tenon on the end of the stem. There is some oxidation and there are the tooth marks on the stem top and underside.I wanted to refresh my memory on the history of the brand. I knew that his one was one of Tracy Mincer’s pipes because of the hyphenated name stamp. I looked on Pipedia and read Richard Esserman’s write up on Bill Unger’s Book. He gives a great summary of the history there. I quote a section of it below. (https://pipedia.org/wiki/Custom-Bilt(Rich Esserman))Tracy Mincer started the original Custom-Bilt pipes it appears in 1934. Bill meticulously details the start of the Company, how it was financed, the changes in the original ownership, how the company distributed its product, the manufacturing process, certain patented items, and other interesting stuff.

Mentioned briefly in this chapter was the fact that Custom-Bilt was producing big, carved pipes using Algerian briar for production up to WW II. One important employee, Hetzer Hartsock, stated: I can tell you something about that rough texture that Custom-Bilt had. One reason rough textured was used was not only for looks but it could hide flaws in the briar. [The process gave] A very uncontrolled cut. Then he [Tracy] would buff it out. [page 25]

Custom-Bilt pipes retailed between $5.00 and $15.00 in the 1940s. According to an ad, standard Dunhill pipes were selling for $12.00 and $13.50, Parker pipes $7.50, GBD for $6.00 and Comoy’s $7.50. Not mentioned was that special Dunhills could retail up to $100 and certain Comoy’s up to $25.

In 1946, the name was changed to Custombilt after Mincer began an association with Eugene J. Rich, Inc. There were some big changes in advertising and distribution. The slogan “AS INDIVIDUAL AS A THUMBPRINT” began at this time as well.

In the early 1950’s, Tracy Mincer developed severe financial problems that caused him to stop making the Custombilt, and he lost the name. In 1953, Leonard Rodgers bought the company and emphasized tobacco pouches and butane lighters. (However, it appears Mincer was working on his new pipe, the Doodler.) In 1968, Rodgers sold the Company to Consolidated Cigars. In the early 1970s, Wally Frank Co. bought the Custombilt trademark and began to produce their version of the pipe in 1974 or 1975. Hollco Rohr owned the Weber pipe factory, located in New Jersey, and produced the Custombilt pipes there. In 1987, the pipes were made out of the Butz-Choquin factory (France) and then Mexico until the late 1990s. Currently, the Custombilt name is owned by Tobacalera of Spain.

I set the bowl aside and decided to work on the stem. The diameter of the stem was perfect for the pipe so I needed to remove the metal threaded tenon and replace it with a Delrin tenon. I heated and scraped away all of the glue and tape on the threads of the tenon and those that bound it to the stem. I held it tight with vise grip pliers and turned the stem. It would not come out no matter how I turned or pulled on it. I decided I would have to use more drastic measures. Using the vise grip pliers as a vise I set up my cordless drill to drill out the tenon. I started with a bit slightly larger than the airway in the tenon and drilled it. I was hoping it would catch and pull the tenon out. First bit was a failure. I worked my way up to a bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the tenon and worked on it. The extended portion of the tenon broke off and I was left with the piece in the stem. I drilled it out with a bit and the bit grabbed the piece and it all came out.Once the metal was removed from the stem I cleaned out the hole in the stem with alcohol, cotton swabs and pipe cleaners to remove the debris. I smoothed out the threads to leave grooves in the tenon insert. Once I had it smoothed out enough I tried it in the stem. The fit was perfect. I cut deeper grooves in the tenon with a file and coated it with black super glue. I pressed it into the stem and lined it up so the fit was straight.  I set it aside to let the glue cure. While the glue cured I worked on the bowl. I scraped the glue out of the inside of the mortise using a pen knife. The glue had hardened so it took repeated scraping to get rid of it and bring the mortise back to bare wood.When the glue cured I tried the fit of the stem in the mortise. The stem fit well on the shank. I put it in place on the shank and took photos of the pipe at this point in the process. I rubbed down the briar with Before & After Restoration Balm. I worked it into the smooth surface of the briar with my fingertips and into the rustication patterns with a horsehair shoe brush to clean, enliven and protect it. I let the balm sit for a little while and then buffed the bowl with a cotton cloth to raise the shine. The following photos show the bowl at this point in the restoration process. The grain is really starting to stand out. I polished the stem with micromesh sanding pads – wet sanding with 1500-2400 grit pads and dry sanding with 3200-12000 grit pads. I wiped the stem down after each pad with Obsidian Oil to remove the sanding dust on the vulcanite. I wiped it down with a final coat of Obsidian Oil and set it aside to dry. I polished stem and bowl with Blue Diamond to polish out the remaining small scratches. I gave the bowl and the stem multiple coats of carnauba wax. I buffed the pipe with a clean buffing pad to raise the shine. I hand buffed it with a microfiber cloth to deepen the shine. The pipe polished up pretty nicely. The natural oil finish works well when polished to really highlight the variety of grains around the bowl and shank. The polished black vulcanite stem works together with the beautiful grain and worm trail rustication in the briar to give the pipe a rich look. The finished pipe is shown in the photos below. The shape, finish and flow of the pipe and stem are very well done. The dimensions are Length: 5 3/4 inches, Height: 1 3/4 inches, Outside diameter of the bowl: 1 1/2 inches, Chamber diameter: 3/4 inches. I will be sending the pipe back with the others that belong to Paresh. I have one pipe left to finish for him. Thanks for walking through the restoration with me as I worked over this well-made Tracy Mincer Custom-Bilt. 

Restoring my grandfather’s Custom-Bilt pipe


Blog by Paresh Deshpande

Now that the WDC Bulldog with Bakelite stem and gold band has been sent to Mr. Steve along with one Linkman’s with Pat Number and one Barling Ye Olde Wood, I suddenly feel relieved off the pressure of messing up with the restoration of these sentimentally valuable old pipes of my grandfather. It always pays to have someone experienced to fall back on in case something goes awry, the way it did with the WDC mentioned above. I am sure that those of who have previously read about the restoration of the Pete System # 31 will be curious to know what exactly went wrong with the WDC that I have mentioned it twice!!! Well, I definitely intend to share this story with you, but all in good time!!!!!

The next pipe from the collection which I decided to work on was a huge Custom-Bilt briar pipe. The large size of the bowl, thick shank and large saddle stem, lends this pipe a weight which I particularly enjoy holding in my hand.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!!! I absolutely loved this pipe. These large rustications end half a centimeter below the outer rim of the bowl giving it the semblance of a rim cap. The rim top is covered with the same thin, closely stacked lines as seen between the vertical rustications.The pipe is stamped on the left side of the shank as “Custom-Bilt” on a plane surface. There is also a five-pointed star on the right side of the shank where the shank and stem meet (this star was revealed later after cleaning the 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!Initial inspection of the pipe revealed the following:

There is a thick layer of cake in the bowl. Though the cake appears thin, the sheer size of the bowl makes it appear so.The rim is covered in the overflow of lava, dirt and grime. The outer edge of the rim appears to be in good condition with no damage. The condition of the inner edge will be determined only after removing the cake.

The large vertical rustications are filled with dust, oils, dirt and grime to such an extent that the horizontal lines lying within are barely visible. Same goes for the rim top.  The stem is firmly stuck to the shank and will not budge. However, there is only one light bite mark below and above the stem near the lip. This is a big surprise since all the other pipes are heavily chomped up!THE PROCESS

Before I could start the work of cleaning the pipe, I kept it in the freezer overnight so as to separate the stem from the shank. Come morning, I removed the pipe from the freezer and tried to remove the stem, but it still did not budge! I let it rest outside for an hour and after applying considerable force, the stem came free, revealing an aluminum tenon fixed permanently into the shank.My first impression was that of having broken and ruined the stem. Further examination of this protrusion confirmed two airways, a larger one above a smaller one, both with the same draught hole at the other end.There is also a gap between the end of this aluminum protrusion and the airway hole inside the stem. This gap is covered in oils, tars and gunk. My guess is that the smoke drawn is swirled and the turbulence results in a cool and dry smoke. Any confirmed inputs will be highly appreciated.Using a Kleen Reem pipe tool, Abha, my wife removed all the thick cake from the bowl. She further cleaned the bowl down to the bare briar using a knife that I have especially fabricated for cleaning pipes. It may not be as classy as a Savinelli Fitsall knife, but performs efficiently to our satisfaction.A sanding down of the insides of the bowl by a 220 grit sand paper made the inner surface of the bowl nice and smooth. Abha had sanded down the inside of the bowl down to its briar. On close scrutiny of the insides of the bowl, I saw what appeared to be cracks in the bowl and that had me in sweats!!! Immediately forwarded pictures of the same to my mentor and Guru, Mr. Steve who laid my fears to rest by assuring these were not cracks and that further sanding should take care of these things. These lines which appeared like cracks disappeared after sanding down with a 220 grit sand paper.Thereafter, using Murphy’s oil soap ( undiluted ) and a hard bristled toothbrush on the exterior of the bowl, shank and rim, the pipe was thoroughly cleaned and rinsed under running tap water. I immediately wiped it down with a soft cloth. The long vertical rustications and the horizontal lines within were now clean and the briar looked clean and solid. I then left the briar to dry out. This product, I find to be very easy to use and the results are really amazing. The briar takes on a new look and a new shine. While the briar was drying out, I turned my attention to the stem. Since there is only one small, light bite mark on both the sides of the stem near the lip, I felt that it can be addressed by holding it over a Bic lighter and during sanding down using a 220 grit paper followed by micromesh sanding pads. Since there is no stamping on the stem, the work progressed relatively faster. After a 220 grit sanding, I wet sanded it with 1500 – 3200 micromesh sanding pads and dry sanded with 3400 – 12000 grit sand paper. In between each micromesh pad, I wiped it down with extra virgin olive oil, which I find is a perfect substitute for Obsidian oil which is not available in India and olive oil also tastes great! The stem is now nice and shiny. However, the light bite marks on both upper and lower sides can still be seen even after the using the Bic lighter and the sanding down process. This should have been addressed right at the beginning by either filling it with black super glue (which I do not have) or by using activated charcoal as suggested by my Guru, Mr. Steve. Well, this was a lesson learnt during this project.

Once the briar had dried out completely, I rubbed in Before and After Restoration Balm deep into the rustications as well as the rim top. The bowl was then wiped vigorously with a soft cloth and buffed with a horse hair shoe brush. The result is very pleasing and satisfying to the eyes! I am happy with this progress. This balm is a fantastic product for infusing a new life into the briar and giving it a new lease of life.While on a FaceTime call with Mr. Steve, I had conveyed that I do not have a buffing wheel and other waxes. He advised me to use boot wax which is readily available with us, it being an inescapable requirement in my profession and believe you me, it works wonders. I can rely on his vast experience to come up with such simple, uncomplicated and practical solutions, specifically tailor-made for you. Thank you, Sir.

The finished pipe is as shown below. I enjoyed working on this large Custim-Bilt pipe belonging to my grandfather. There are still a number of pipes which I have to work on and the next one is an old Stanwell, de-Luxe # 482 with Regd number 969-48 and a KRISWILL “CHIEF” #20. I have to work really hard and fast so as to complete as many pipes as possible before my leave ends!!!!

Custom Made Billiard Back into Service


The next pipe in the lot that I refurbished was the top pipe in the centre column in the photo below. It was a Custom Bilt like billiard. It is stamped on the left side of the shank Custom Made and on the right side of the shank Imported Briar. That stamping tells me that it is an American Made Pipe. I cannot find any information on the stamping on the internet but will continue to look and see what I can find.

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Custombilt The pipe was dirty. The bowl was badly caked – meaning that the cake was very crumbly and uneven. The bowl was out of round as can be seen in the photo below. I would need to ream it out completely to reshape the bowl. The finish was dirty in all of the worm trail carving that is found in these old rustic pipes. It looks a lot like a Mincer Custombilt but I am not sure. The rim surface is tarry with build up and the front inner edge of the bowl is burned. The shank looks good in these photos but there is a divot out of the briar on the left side where it will meet the stem. It did not have a stem when I picked it up on Ebay. I will need to make some decisions about what to do with the new stem and the match at the shank.

I went through my box of stems to find one that would fit the shank with little adjustment. I had just the stem there. The fit would be great as it was the same diameter as the shank. The stem was oxidized and dirty inside but there were no tooth marks. There was also a calcification on the stem near the button that would have to be dealt with when I got the stem fit to the shank. The next five photos show the “new” stem. I had to hand sand the tenon to get it to fit snugly in the mortise. The third photo below shows the sanded tenon. I used emery paper to sand the tenon back until it fit in the shank. The fourth and fifth pictures show the fit of the stem to the shank. The divot is visible in the fourth photo. It is mid shank on the left side of the pipe. No amount of fitting the stem would make that disappear. I could sand down the shank at that point to make a cleaner fit but I was not sure that is what I wanted to do. To do the sanding would change the chunky appearance of the pipe. So I decided not to sand the shank. I went on and cleaned the inside of the pipe before I made the final decision on the shank.

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While I was prepping to ream the bowl I took out a nickel band to see what it would look like on the shank. I liked the overall look. I left it on the shank while I reamed the bowl. I used a PipNet reamer – a T handle with various cutting heads to ream the bowl. I started with the one that fit the easiest and then worked up to the third head which was the same diameter as the bowl. I reamed it back to bare wood (Photos 1 and 2). I then heated the band with the heat gun and pressed on the shank to give me a smooth transition between the stem and the shank (Photos 3 and 4).

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I worked on the inner rim with a folded piece of 220 grit sandpaper. I sanded the top of the bowl with the same sandpaper and the fine grit sanding sponge to remove the build up on the rim (Photos 1 and 2). The third photo below shows the inner edge of the rim after the sanding with the 220 grit sandpaper. I was able to get the bowl close to round. I also used the sanding drum on the Dremel to even things out so the third photo shows the finished repair to the inner rim edge.

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I wiped the exterior of the bowl down with acetone on cotton pads. I wanted to clean out the buildup in the crevices of the trails on the bowl. The dirt and finish that came off is visible in the two photos below. Two obvious fills also showed up in the bowl. These would need to be taken care of to hide them under the new stain once I was finished.

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With the finish removed it was time to clean out the shank and airway of the pipe. I used pipe cleaners, cotton swabs and also the drill bit from the KleenReem Pipe reamer to remove the tars and oils that had built up in the shank. I probably could have used a retort but the shank did not smell sour or rank. It smelled like Virginia tobaccos had been smoked in this so I just used a lot of pipe cleaners and cotton swabs dipped in Everclear until they came out spotless. I wiped down the tenon on the “new” stem as well with the Everclear.

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Once the insides were clean I inserted the stem in the shank to see if I still had a snug fit. Sometimes when the grime is removed the fit is not as good as it was before cleaning. I have learned the hard way to leave the stem tight and when it is cleaned the fit will be perfect. I sanded the stem with fine grit emery paper to remove the calcified buildup and the oxidation on the stem. The next three photos show the stem after the sanding with the emery paper.

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I then sanded the stem with 220 grit sandpaper to remove more of the oxidation and also the scratches left behind by the emery paper. The next series of three photos show the stem after sanding with the sandpaper.

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I went back and cleaned the stem with pipe cleaners and Everclear. I should have done that when I was cleaning the shank but honestly I forgot to do so. Never too late however so I did it next. The next four photos show the pile of pipe cleaners that it took to clean the stem. I also wiped the bowl and shank down with Everclear on a cotton pad to prepare it for staining.

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I restained the pipe with a dark brown aniline stain. I thinned the stain with 1 part alcohol to 2 parts stain to get the brown I wanted for a colour. I wanted it dark enough that the fills would blend into the finish but also transparent enough to show the grain through the stain. I used a black permanent marker, called a Sharpie here in Canada to give the fills a dark top coat before applying the stain. I have learned that this method makes the fills blend into the bowl better on these rusticated bowls. I applied the stain with a cotton swab, flamed it with my lighter and reapplied it and flamed it again. It took three applications of the stain to give good coverage to the bowl. The next three photos show the unstained pipe (Photo 1) and the newly stained pipe (Photos 2 and 3).

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Once the stain was dry I hand buffed it with a shoe brush to see if I needed to add any more stain to some of the spots on the bowl and rim (Photo 1). The next three photos show the buffed bowl and the finished colour. The coverage was good so I buffed it by hand and then went back to work on the stem.

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The next series of six photos show the progressive polishing of the stem with micromesh sanding pads from 1500-12,000 grit.

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I took the pipe to the buffer and buffed the stem with White Diamond and then rubbed it down with Obsidian Oil to preserve it. I gave the bowl a coat of Halcyon II wax and the stem several coats of carnauba wax to prevent oxidation. I buffed the entire pipe lightly with a soft flannel buff. The finished pipe is pictured in the last four photos.

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Refinished a Custombilt Scoop in Memory of Bill Unger


Blog by Steve Laug

I just heard the sad news that Bill Unger died today. He suffered from leukemia and that war is over now. Bill touched many lives in inestimable ways and will be deeply missed by all who knew him. It was not long ago that all of us in the NASPC got news of Bill’s illness and his impending end. It was a shock for certain but none of us would have guessed it would end so soon. Bill is the one who got me started into hunting down old Custom-Bilt and Custombilt pipes. I read his book: As Individual as a Thumbprint: The Custom-Bilt Pipe Story and was sold on the uniqueness and smokability of these pipes. I don’t remember the date I read the book, but probably not long after it came out. I immediately went on the hunt. I have about a half dozen of the pipes and several of the Doodlers as well. With that background and Bill’s book I could not pass up this old pipe when I found it in the antique mall last weekend. It is fitting that the first refurb of this New Year happened on the same day as Bill’s death. So Bill I dedicate this refurbishment to you. I raise my pipe to you my friend and will smoke a bowl this afternoon in your honour. RIP Bill.

This old timer needed some tlc to make it a functional smoker again. The finish was shot and very dirty. The rim was caked and the cake was thick and heavy. The tars in the shank were so thick that the airway was virtually closed off. I am not sure how the previous owner could still smoke it. The stem was also clogged and dirty. The outside of the stem was oxidized. There were also some tooth marks and bite marks on the underside of the stem near the button. But something about the look and feel of this old timer in my hand drew me to it. I paid a princely sum of $11.99 to take this one home with me. The first set of photos show the state of pipe when I brought it home. The colour of the briar is correct in the first photo. The other ones are cast in an odd light that I cannot quite figure out but you can see what needed to be done to bring this pipe back to life and usefulness.

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I took the pipe apart on my worktable and began the long process of cleaning out the tars and grime from the bowl and shank. I reamed the bowl with my Pipnet reaming set until it was down to the bare wood. I like bringing the bowl back to a new base to rebuild the cake as I like it. This one has an odd shaped bowl in that at the bottom of the bowl the airway enters quite high in the side of the bowl – about a 1/8 inch above the bottom of the bowl. Below the airway the bowl bottom is cut like a V – not sure if the previous owner cut the channel that way or it just happened for over working pipe cleaners in the bowl bottom. Whatever the cause, I will need to build up the bowl bottom with pipe mud. I cleaned out the grime from the bowl bottom with a dental pick and removed the dottle that had collected in the V. A good cigar will give me the ash I need to make pipe mud to do the repair. It should be as good as new when I have finished that. I used some isopropyl alcohol and then switched to Everclear to clean the inside of the shank. That took some work as the shank was very constricted from the end of the mortise to the bowl. I cleaned the airway with a bent paper clip and then bristle pipe cleaners to open it up. Because of the way the bottom of the bowl was I did not want to risk a drill bit to clean it at this point. Many pipe cleaners later the airway came out clean. I then scrubbed the mortise with cotton swabs and alcohol until it also was clean and spotless.

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After I had finished cleaning the inside of the pipe I put it in an alcohol bath to remove the grime from the rim and the outside of the bowel. I let the bowl soak in the alcohol bath for about an hour. When the time was up I removed it from the bath and scrubbed it with the alcohol from the bath and a toothbrush. I scrubbed the rim and the exterior of the pipe to remove the softened grime. Once it was finished I dried it off and set it aside to dry. The next series of photos show the bowl after the cleaning in the alcohol bath and the scrubbing.

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I went to work on the stem at that point and sanded it initially with fine grit sandpaper on foam backing. This gave me the ability to work the angles and curves of the saddle stem and the area around the button to remove the tooth marks and chatter. Once I had done that I used 320 grit sandpaper to sand out the scratches and remove the remaining oxidation. I then used Maguiar’s Scratch X2.0 to polish the stem. I coated the stem with the polish and then scrubbed it with a cotton pad and repeated the process two more times to give it an initial shine. The next two photos show the stem after the polishing with the Maguiar’s polish.

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I put the cleaned stem back on the now dried pipe bowl to do some of the close sanding around the shank/stem union. I did not want to round the edges of the stem and ruin the smooth fit that the stem had originally. Using micromesh sanding pads 1500, 1800 and 2400 grit I wet sanded the stem. I then used Murphy’s Oil Soap and a tooth brush to scour the pipe bowl and shank exterior. I scrubbed it until the soap was brown and frothy. I then rinsed it in the sink under warm water and dried it off with a microfiber cloth. The next series of four photos show the finished bowl ready for a new coat of stain.

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I then set the bowl aside and worked on the stem for the remainder of the micromesh sanding pads from 3200-12,000 grit. Before beginning with the 3200 grit I coated the stem with some Obsidian Oil and rubbed it into the stem. When it was dried I sanded the stem with 3200, 4000 and 6000 grit sanding pads. The next series of photos show the process of the sanding and the resultant look of the stem at this point.

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I set up my staining area and took out the dark brown aniline stain. I thinned it with isopropyl alcohol 3 to 1 and then applied the stain with a dauber to get the stain into all the crevices. Once it was coated well I flamed the stain and let it set the stain. The flaming burns off the alcohol in the stain and works to set the stain in the briar. I reapplied the stain and reflamed it to set a second time.

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After flaming the stain I let it sit for about 15 minutes to let the stain dry in the crevices of the rustication. The first photo below shows the bowl after the stain has dried to a nice matte finish. I then used a shoe buffing brush to buff the pipe. The second photo shows the bowl after that buffing. I then finished sanding the stem with 6000, 8000 and 12,000 girt micromesh sanding pads and then coated it a final time with Obsidian Oil.

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The next series of four photos show the finished pipe. Once I was done with the stem I put it back on the pipe and took the pipe to the buffer and buffed the pipe with White Diamond and then coated the stem with carnauba wax and used Halcyon II wax on the rusticated surface of the bowl. The entirety of the pipe was then buffed with a soft flannel buffing pad to bring up the shine of the wax. Once I have smoked a bowl in Bill’s honour I will coat the bowl with pipe mud to raise the V shaped bottom of the bowl even with the entrance of the airway.

Now the pipe is ready to load with Virginia and smoke a bowl in memory and honour of Bill Unger. Here is to you Bill. May your bowls always be full as you enjoy the end of all your struggles. My prayers and condolences go out to your family and close friends.

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Refurb – A Pair of Custombilt Look A Likes


I just finished up on these two Custom Bilt look a likes. The Rhodesian shaped pipe has no stamping other than Imported Briar. The bent pot is stamped Aged Imported Briar on one side and Ben Rogers on the other side. I am not familiar with the brand. So if anyone has information on it please post it here. I would appreciate learning about the twosome.

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Both pipes needed quite a bit of work to make them smokeable once more. The bowls had a thick cake and each one of them still stuffed with half a bowl of tobacco. The stems were rough and pitted from the oxidation and had a white lime like coat on them. They were very dirty inside and out. I cleaned them with a shank brush, bristle pipe cleaners and finished with fluffy ones all dipped in isopropyl alcohol until they came out clean. I buffed the stems with Tripoli after cleaning them to try and break down the coat of oxidation. It did not do much so I put them both in a bath of Oxyclean to soak. I find that though it does not remove the oxidation it does soften it considerably and makes sanding and buffing it off much easier.

Once they were soaking I turned to the bowls. First I reamed them both to remove the crumbling and uneven cake. I generally take them back to bare wood when they are in this state or at the most leave a thin bit of cake on the walls. I cleaned the rims with alcohol and a soft cloth and sanded it with 600 wet dry sandpaper to remove the tar deposits and carbon on them. Once that was done I dropped them in the alcohol bath to wet them and scrubbed them with a soft bristle toothbrush. I find that on the smooth and semi-rusticated finish of these pipes the tooth brush works very well to remove deep seated grime and loosen oils and dirt.  I then left them to soak while I went back to the stems.

After the soak the stems came clean pretty easily with 240 grit sandpaper, 400 and 600 wet dry sand paper and a finishing buff with Tripoli. I worked on them for a while with the sandpapers and Tripoli and then used White Diamond for the final polishing buff. I was careful to not buff the last bit around the stem edge that would meet the shank. I would finish it once the bowls were stained and ready. Then I would buff them together with carnauba wax.

By the time I was done with the stems the bowls were ready. I took them out of the bath and wiped them down. Once they were dry I restained them both with a medium brown aniline stain, flamed the stain and then buffed them with White Diamond to remove excess stain and give a contrast between the smooth portions and the rustication. I hand waxed them both with Halcyon wax and buffed with a soft cotton cloth.

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Custom-Bilt Saddle Billiard Comes Back to Life


Blog by Steve Laug

It was a pleasure to refurbish this original Custom-Bilt (note the hyphenated title). I have always loved the rugged individualism of Tracy Mincer’s pipes. They are like none of their imitators in terms of character and sheer smoke-ability. They feel great in the hand; have and open draw and generally a comfortable stem. They are nothing pretty to look at yet there is something endearing about their “ugliness”. This old pipe was in very rough shape when I started to work on it. I apologize up front in that I forgot to grab the camera to take pictures of the pipe when I began the work. My words will have to suffice as I tell you about it. There was still a dry and almost petrified dottle of tobacco left in the bottom of the bowl. The cake that was on the walls was filled with cracks and major chunks of it were missing. The only way to remedy that was to ream it. The exterior of the bowl had a very tarred and sticky rim and the finish was gone and flecks of white paint were all over the crevices of the rustication. The stem was dull brownish green with a white crust around the button and up the stem a good half inch. This stuff was like concrete.

I always start my refurbishing process by addressing the issues of the bowl. That way as it soaks I can work on the stem. I scraped out the petrified dottle and reamed the broken cake back to bare wood. I cleaned the inside of the shank with a shank brush and bristle and fluffy pipe cleaners and isopropyl alcohol until they came out clean. I wiped down the exterior of both the shank and bowl with a rub of alcohol. When finished it was dropped in the alcohol bath for most of the morning while I worked on the stem.

I went to work on the stem. I decided to buff it with black Tripoli (coarse polishing compound) to address the hard crust on the front of the stem and the general oxidation on the blade of the stem before the saddle. I did not want to work on the saddle with it off the shank as it is too easy to round the edges and spoil the fit. After buffing it was sanded with 240 grit sandpaper to finish breaking through the white crust. Once it was gone the rest of the stem was cleaned up with my normal list of 400, 600 grit wet dry (with water), and then micromesh pads – 1500, 1800, 2400, 3200, and 4000 grit. I also used the wet dry sandpaper and the pads to careful work on the saddle portion of the stem. Upon completion the entirety was given a coat of Obsidian Oil and then waxed with carnauba.

I set the stem aside and retrieved the bowl from the alcohol bath. As I took it from the bath I scrubbed it with a brass bristle tire brush to get into the crevices on the pipe and the rustication. It was a mess with some paint in the rustication. The alcohol had removed the grime and the wire brush removed the paint flecks. Just a reminder – I use a soft bristled brass white wall tire brush in these instances as the bristles do not damage the surface of the briar. When the bowl was clean I wiped it down with isopropyl on a cotton boll. It was ready to restained with a medium brown aniline stain. I applied the stain with the dauber that comes with the Fiebings Shoe Dye (aniline stain), flamed it and set it aside to dry thoroughly. Once it was dry I buffed it with White Diamond on my buffer and then applied a coat of Halcyon Wax and buffed it by hand with a cotton cloth.

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