Tag Archives: Fred Bass

Waiting for Paradise – Fred Bass

The overwhelming majority of meerschaum pipes perform well, regardless of whatever blend you choose to smoke in them. Indeed, this has been one of the big attractions of these white pipes for me. I can avoid having to dedicate pipes to blends, except for some blends like St Bruno Flake, which will ghost any pipe.  Keeping the pipe clean is all that needs to be done to enjoy the clarity of smoking experience they provide and be able to smoke nearly any blend, without a concern for ghosting. This is the general experience for the greater number of meerschaums that you will encounter over a lifetime. This essay is about the rare, finicky pipe that calls to you, like the sirens did to Odysseus. These are the ones that smoke all but the one paradise blend with underwhelming results. Whether it is the result of an association the block used to carve the pipe formed with the clay it was mined from, or the curse of some pipe muse, this will be the most demanding pipe you will encounter. The odds are that you may never encounter one of these pipes, but if you do, then this article will serve you with good counsel. It is a quest that demands patience and firm resolve, beyond that of most Pipemen. The rewards of the successful quest are a smoke of such character and pleasures that words to describe it simply do not exist. 

ImageThe first time I saw this pipe in auction, there was no amount of will power that I could summon to resist the desire to acquire it. The Koncak Meerschaum trademark logo has been an indication of quality in materials and craftsmanship that is found only and infrequently in the vintage and estate pipe market these days. The Koncak dynasty of carvers, which also employed some of the better carvers of the day in their workshop, made and sold pipes to target populations from the frugal to the extravagant. It is wise to elicit any information that the seller can provide, but typically little is known by sellers today about the pipe and its provenance. This Smooth Pot with 925 Silver Faux Spigot is one of the better pipes that I’ve seen that the Koncaks produced. Ephraim and Sedat Koncak infrequently signed their work, while Battal and others who carved for the Koncaks frequently did sign their work. This pipe isn’t signed. Fortunately, I was able to win this pipe, as the sole bidder, which surprised me, as I thought it would attract a lot of attention. Later, others who complimented me on this acquisition admitted that they saw the auction but did not bid because they thought the bidding would go too high for them. Sometimes you just get lucky.   

In a few days, when the postman delivered it, I began to clean it up. It had not been smoked a great deal, which surprised me, considering that it is a quality pipe and meant to provide decades of service. I wasn’t going to complain. The pipe has been carved from heavy, dense block, which is typically what intricately carved pipes are made from. Likely, this choice was made by the carver to give firm foundation to the silver collar on the shank and provide durability for the wet smoker. The patina that age brings meerschaum is something that I find attractive in a pipe, so just a light wipe down with Everclear easily removed the surface grime. Polishing up the bit and the silver collars on the bit and shank was easy work as well.  There was a moderate bit of cake in the chamber and it looked like the pipe had never been smoked to the bottom of the chamber. Again, I wasn’t going to complain. There was no indication that any cheap aromatic had been smoked in it, which gave me reason to be grateful. After replacing the delrin push/pull connector, and giving it a good scrubbing with Everclear, I let the pipe rest overnight to dry from the cleaning. The next day, after smoking the first pipe of the day, to get started, I loaded this pipe with 1776 Tavern blend. My habit is to smoke estate pipes with heavy English blends, until they start smoking with clarity, mostly because they will mask most ghosts and residuals of past fires, while I flush the pipe.  Curiously, this pipe lent a musky aftertaste to the smoke, which I reasoned was because the pipe had never been smoked to the bottom of the bowl. By the tenth or twelfth bowl, I found that this musky taste was still in the smoke, when I would have expected it to be smoking with clarity. My theory about this taste being easily purged from this pipe had been overly optimistic. What did I know anyway? I smoked another half dozen bowls, using Hal O’ the Wynd this time, reasoning that the hotter burning blend would exorcise this musky character in the smoke.  Then I tried a succession of blends from Burley, Orientals, Balkans and Scottish mixtures, with no success of purging the pipe of this ghost. By this time, I began to understand why the pipe had not been smoked to the bottom of the bowl before. It had to be the musky flavor. The experience had become frustrating and my determination began to falter.

The pipe sat in its case for a couple of weeks before I became interested enough to resume my purge of the pipe. Frankly, I was a bit put off with my lack of success in exorcising the musky quality of the smoke delivered by the pipe. At least there was no remnant of any past fires with a nasty aromatic, like some of the pipes I had cleaned up in the past. I began to consider that maybe the block itself was the culprit. Had the sepiolite leached minerals from the surrounding clay that it had been dug out of? Had the pipe been mistreated or neglected in some way by a previous owner? Could the pipe be capable of providing the smoking pleasures I wanted from it? I found fresh conviction from these questions and became recommitted to my mission of getting this beauty to smoke well, even if it had never done so, which I suspected might be the case. I became convinced that the previous owner must have been lacking in strength of conviction. I was determined to succeed where he had failed. My politically incorrect assumption that the former owner was a man is a logical assumption from knowing that the majority of pipe smokers are men and the fact that I’m an old guy. The adage is that if you want to make a pipe smoke well, then smoke the blazes out of it. I would burn the defiance out of this rogue pipe and bring it into submission. After a week of smoking this pipe almost exclusively, while allowing myself the exemption of smoking another pipe as the first smoke of the day, I no longer suspected that it had been found at the crossroads after midnight, left behind by Robert Johnson while running from the hounds of hell. It was smoking wet by this time, which I reasoned was because of the high density of the block that it was carved from. At this point, I set the pipe down, with the intention of letting it dry out for a week or two, which is what I did after a good scrub, just as I had been doing during the time of purging I put it through.  Again, it sat in the handmade case that had been provided for it after the carver was finished. I had been successful in my work to get it to provide a smoke that no longer had the musky character to it. Whether the musky taste had happened because the pipe had never been smoked to the bottom of the chamber or it had been in the block before it was carved was no longer important. The pipe was smoking with clarity now.   

Another week went by before I loaded the pipe with Our Best Blend, from Smoker’s Haven, which is a full and rich blend of good character, similar to an early incarnation of Balkan Sobranie. This blend has always been a stellar performer for me, but this time, even though the pipe smoked with clarity, it was a lackluster performance, at best. Past experience had taught me that the majority of meerschaum pipes smoke well with just about anything you choose to burn, but a few pipes had been temperamental, performing well with certain blend types, like English, Balkan, Burley or Virginia blends. This pipe had served notice that I would need to continue my quest to find out what it was destined to incinerate.

ImageThe search was started for blends that would perform best in this pipe. I keep a fairly large open rotation of blends, so I put the pipe into my lineup of frequently smoked meerschaum pipes, hoping to solve the mystery through the process of elimination. The low key aspect of this quest became somewhat mythical in character, as I was only smoking the pipe about once every seven to ten days, while I worked through my open tobacco blend rotation, that is somewhere between twenty to thirty different mixtures. After a couple of months, I was no closer to solving this mystery than when I started. Then I opened a tin of Reiner Long Golden Flake, a favorite of mine that I usually kept an open tin of in the rotation, but had simply overlooked, while trying out some new-to-me blends. Throwing caution to the wind, I loaded a bowl in the Koncak meerschaum and fired it up. It was a stellar experience of mystical proportions. Everything came together as only a peak experience can and I hoped that this wasn’t a fluke. I loaded a second bowl and picked up where I had left off with the first bowl. This was it – the big payoff for my work!  I can only speculate as to why a small number of meerschaum pipes are this particular in their smoking demands. I suspect that there are a good many of them sitting in a drawer for the lack of a determined pipe smoker who will discover what will be the pipe’s choice for paradise for the lucky man who finds the right blend to smoke. The important thing is to make the commitment to discover what the pipe performs best with by smoking it, and not be one of the guys who put it in a drawer. Just be prepared to wait for paradise. 


Cleaning Up Estate Meerschaums – Fred Bass

Blog by Fred Bass

Fred Bass, who is the moderator of the All Things Meerschaum Group on Smokers Forums, wrote this article and has given permission to have it posted on rebornpipes. Thanks to Fred for his continued work in educating many of us to the joy and delight of the meerschaum pipe.

There are an abundance of ideas about how to clean up used meerschaum pipes and return them to active service.  Some of these ideas are good while others can generate problems of greater magnitude than those you sought to remedy. I don’t have all the answers and my repair skills are limited by spartan equipment and my lack of finesse with the tools that I do have. Just the same, many of the meerschaums in my collection were smoked by others before I acquired them and cleaned them up, using simple methods to get years of further use from these old soldiers. I’ve written essays and articles on the pleasures of smoking the seasoned meerschaums I’ve acquired, and which I continue to enjoy smoking. This can be done by anyone who cares to invest a bit of time and patience in acquiring vintage meerschaums to resurrect, and cleaning them up so that they can provide you with years of smoking pleasures as well. I don’t claim to be an expert or an artisan, but using the scraps of knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, as a student and devotee of these pipes and their cultures, has been a benefit to me and it is my pleasure to share what I’ve learned. These are things that I would like to pass along, not as the perfect example that should be followed, since there’s already plenty of that from all of the persona in the pipe community, but as something that I can contribute to the body of available knowledge, while not perpetuating myths and hearsay that are commonly held to be fact. The opinions and preferences of meerschaum pipe smoker are as numerous and diverse as the people who smoke them, and I have no intention to slight or refute them. If you read something in this essay that you think might be useful to you, then I will have achieved my intent to provide you with viable information.

ImageLarge Bent with scalloped underside, Amber mouthpiece, 7″ overall length

I will discuss things to consider prior to purchase of a vintage pipe, which means a pipe that is less than 100 years old, assuming that you don’t already have a pipe that you want to clean up; the basics of removing the debris of past use; routine cleaning to maintain a pipe that will smoke with clarity; and the choices you will need to make about the general appearance of the pipe. I have my own opinions, like everyone else, which you will find throughout this essay, but I will not tell you something that is outside of my experience without giving notice that it either speculation or something someone else has discovered by trial and error. If this sounds like it is something that is worth your time to read, then this is for you. Hopefully, you will find these old veterans of past fires to be as worthwhile as they are to me.

When considering the purchase of a used estate pipe or fixing up a meerschaum that you already have, it is important to get an idea of how much it will cost to fix the pipe, prior to a purchase and/or investing the cash, time and materials that will be required before it can be smoked again. Any good discussion about cleaning up estate pipes should take the value of the pipe and the cost of getting it back in service into consideration, as the two issues are linked to each other, unless you plan to use it for display in its’ current condition. It is best to be able to examine the pipe yourself, which is not always possible since many estate pipes are sold in online auctions.

ImageKoncak Andreas Bauer Paneled Billiard

First, determine if there are any cracks, dings or break lines in the block, because if the block isn’t sound, then there is no reason to consider the pipe as being a candidate for future use. Online sellers should be able to provide this information, even if they don’t know a whit about pipes and have poor skills at photography. Reputable sellers are happy to answer your questions. Repairs to damaged block meerschaum are difficult, costly and generally not worth the investment. The presence of a metal band on the distal portion of the shank, where it meets the bit, may be there because of a repair, which is not a good sign for continued block integrity if you intend to smoke the pipe. Metal bands that adorn the pipe for effect don’t present this problem, but it is wise to consider how easy it will be to maintain a bright finish on them without creating problems for the block. Personally, I prefer to avoid having to clean metal on a pipe, especially around the bowl’s plateau, or to have to deal with the metal getting hot while discoloring the block during the smoke.  Another aspect of the condition of the block is how much it has been smoked. Yes, well developed coloration is attractive but the more use a meerschaum has provided, the greater the possibility of diminished strength in the block’s integrity, especially in the older pipes, which are prone to being brittle. This is more of a consideration for Turkish block than it is for African block, because Turkish block is softer and hasn’t been strengthened by a calcification process, commonly used by factories that produced African block meerschaum pipes. That rich patina might also be there because the previous owner smoked a cheap aromatic blend and never spent a cent on a pipe cleaner, so you could be spending years trying to exorcise the ghosts from the pipe. I’ve been fortunate in that most of the estate pipes I’ve purchased were smoked by someone who enjoyed virginia blends, but the few that I discovered had been used to burn cheap aromatics were a real trial to clean up. Remember, you can’t use a retort or the salt-alcohol treatment on a meerschaum pipe. I know a few meerschaum pipe smokers that have drilled out the chamber and shank on pipes that have seen decades of abuse and neglect, but I don’t have the skills to do this. Others have used denatured alcohol as a cleaner but I prefer to rely on the FDA standards that Everclear must meet as a food grade solvent. The alcohol concentration is 95% with Everclear and I don’ need to be concerned about what the remaining 5% has in it, which is likely water. You should scrape the cake down to the block and clean the shank with Everclear, a shank brush and plenty of pipe cleaners before the first smoke, but you will need to repeat the cleaning between every smoke until the pipe starts smoking with clarity. Once the block has flushed the debris left by the last guy from burning his blends in it, the pipe will smoke well and it is up to you to keep it clean if you want it to remain smoking with clarity. After you scrape the cake out of the bowl’s chamber, then use a doubled over pipe cleaner with Everclear on it to get more of it out, and a paper towel to ream it. I don’t recommend using a pipe reamer because the force that is required to use one might crack the block. The shank brush with Everclear will help you clean the pipe’s draft, and it might take more than one to do so because a fouled draft can destroy a good number of them before the job is done. When the pipe cleaners start coming back white, then you will know that the pipe is clean. Smoking the pipe will cause more of the trash to migrate out of the block, so be prepared to use a lot more pipe cleaners, shank brushes and Everclear. Some of the abused estate pipes I’ve cleaned up have made a pint of Everclear look like engine sludge with the first cleaning. This isn’t the fun part of cleaning these old pipes up, so it deserves your consideration prior to a purchase or a decision to clean up that old meerschaum that’s been in the family for generations.

The next thing to consider is the bit and the bit-to-shank connector. I prefer derlin push/pull connectors and bone screws.


The Delrin connectors are easily replaced, providing that the threads in the bit and the shank are intact. The bone screw connectors in some of my pipes have lasted for 35 years or more. The downside to them is that they must be kept clean or they can foul the smoke and they can require advance skills in the use of a pipe cleaner. I’ve never been able to appreciate the taste that metal connectors impart to the smoke, so I avoid them. If the bit and the connector need replacing, then either I’ll do it or send it to a pipe repairman if it requires more skills than I have in order to fix them.  In the past, I have sanded and refinished bit that were badly oxidized. These days, after discovering that it involved a lot of work, I prefer to just have them replaced if they are in poor condition. There are guys that are happy to work for days on restoring a bit. I’m not one of them. If I can’t clean the bit up using Everclear, a shank brush, pipe cleaners and bit polish, then I send it to Floyd Norwood. If the bit is light colored so that the lumen of the draft is visible, then I’ll use hydrogen peroxide to help remove old stains in the plastic, which is a timely process because I use a shank brush to scrub them in my routine cleaning and do not let the bits soak in the hydrogen peroxide. Get used to the fact that everything about meerschaum pipes is a slow process. If the pipe has an amber bit with chunks missing, I will have it replaced with and a new acrylic bit. Amber is expensive and many artisans will not work with it.  Amber is fragile and the ‘cultured amber’, which is made from the dust and chips left over from cutting and polishing the raw material, is the most fragile. I use regular pipe cleaners, Everclear and bit polish on them. Shank brushes and bristled pipe cleaners should never be used to clean amber bits, as they are brittle and break easily.

The general appearance and condition of the block’s exterior must be taken into account. Dirt and grime on the block can be removed by using a clean, white cotton cloth, moistened with Everclear. In a recent reply to my e-mail inquiry to S.M.S. Meerschaums about re-waxing meerschaums, Beth Sermet replied as follows:

Rewaxing a Block Meerschaum
Preparation: 100% beeswax cakes — confectionery quality
Old towel or cloth — to prevent hot wax from dripping or spattering onto other surfaces
Hair dryer — multiple temperature and fan settings
Cotton swabs — for brushing the melted beeswax
Polishing cloth — soft white terry cloth towel or white flannel

STEP 1: Use a hair dryer set to hot temperature setting, but low air speed. Heat the beeswax cake to consistency of lip balm. Hold the pipe by the stem. Smear onto the bowl directly from the beeswax cake like lipstick. Do not touch the bowl with your fingers during any of the steps.

STEP 2: Continue to heat the section of the surface of the bowl until the wax becomes liquid. Use the cotton swab like a brush to paint the area with a coating of wax. Push (the) molten wax into crevices and hard to access areas. The swab may unravel as it absorbs excess wax. Coat the entire bowl surface evenly. CAUTION: Try to prevent wax from dripping into the tobacco hole since it will leave a bitter taste.

STEP 3: Heat the bowl again to allow complete absorption of the wax. Set the pipe down on the towel to cool.

STEP 4: After the bowl cools to room temperature. Buff the surface to a high gloss using a towel first then the flannel cloth for the final buffing. If the surface is tacky, too much wax is on the surface. Heat this area again and remove excess wax with a cotton swab and buff again.

STEP 5: Repeat when the surface becomes soiled or dull. Excessive waxing may cause too much wax accumulation (tacky surface and dripping).

ImagePeterson African Block Meerschaum Prince Estate Pipe Made in Great Britain

In the past, I’ve used aggressive methods to clean up the exterior of the pipe. These days, I try to preserve as much patina as I can, which means that I wax the meerschaum while smoking it, using white beeswax, instead of resorting to the heroic measures of the artisan. Sanding the block to remove scratches and stains will change the shape of the pipe and it could be years before the patina returns, anytime you disturb the color progression. If there is a buildup of cake on the scorched plateau of the bowl, then scrape the carbon off as best you can without scoring or exposing the surface of the block. The beeswax will serve to make the black color soften and become more diffuse in time with continued waxing and smoking of the pipe. This is a more conservative approach but I’ve found it to be preferable to waiting years for the coloration to return to the pipe. These pipes will often take a lot of beeswax because they likely have not been waxed since they received it from the carver, which will produce rapid onset of coloration in pipes that have been heavily smoked by others. It is like having the benefits of a professional smoker- a service that the wealthy and nobles have paid for in the past. Here is a bit of history that Ben Rapaport ran across while digging thru the stacks of resources.

There is no doubt that the industry of colouring meerschaum pipes was, and probably is still, thriving in Paris. I remember, when living in one of the streets surrounding the Palais-Royal, to have seen opposite the house in which I lived a man, with his window open, smoking all day long and all the year round curiously elaborated meerschaum pipes. I met him one day, and could not help asking him how he could resist such inhalation of nicotine. He told me he was a professional ‘meerschaum colourer’ for the account of Madame Hubert, an extensive pipe-dealer in the neighborhood. He was paid a yearly salary of 1500 francs, and supplied gratis with tobacco. (“Very Like ‘Smoke,” Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Readers, Etc., Fourth Series.–Volume Third, June 12, 1869, 567)   

These days, I’m more selective about the pipes I take in to clean up. If they look like they are going to be a real trial, then I pass on them. There are guys that enjoy working long hours to salvage the pipes that have been abused for decades.  I’ve discovered that I’m simply not one of them. The additional cash that I might spend on another pipe that is in better condition is worth it to me. I know my limitations. Some of you already know that dwelling in the realms of the White Goddess can be devastating to your bank account. In many ways, the estate meerschaum pipe market offers some degree of respite as long as you think about the hidden costs, such as what it takes to clean these survivors up, and/or repair them. In The Thrill of the Hunt (PipesMagazine.com, 10/19 2010): http://pipesmagazine.com/blog/put-that-in-your-pipe/the-thrill-of-the-hunt-a-guide-to-estate-meerschaums/, I wrote about some of the realities of this market and expanded on it in Time Travelers (PipesMagazine.com, 6/2012). It pays to do the homework before playing with the past glories of this seductive mistress because the rewards can be great.  Whether you have found grandfather’s old meerschaum, while rummaging thru the attic, or have acquired the vintage pipe of your dreams from an auction, knowing that returning these old veterans of past fires to active duty will take time is just another of the many lessons in delayed gratification that the White Goddess teaches. Come with me and discover for yourself why these pipes have been so highly prized for the past 300+ years. Care to join me in a smoke?

Fred Bass founded the All Things Meerschaum Group on October 14, 2008 for anyone interested in meerschaum pipes, carvers, culture & history, and the care & maintenance of meerschaums. If you have an interest in, or are curious about the meerschaum experience, you can contact Fred at FBass16117@aol.com or on Smoker’s Forums, http://www.smokersforums.co.uk/