Blog by Steve Laug
The seller had marked this little pipe an Imperial ITC Silver Mount Birmingham 1934. Something about the gentle bend of the stem and shank, the shape and wear on the bowl made me want to have this diminutive pipe as my own. I bid on it and was the only bidder picking it up for about $22 Canadian. I think the seller wet down the stem and bowl for the photos because it is far too shiny looking. When I see an old pipe like this I immediately begin to wonder about the gent who owned the pipe. What was he like? What did he smoke in it? When did he purchase it and what did he smoke in it? Many of those questions can of course be answered by the pipe itself. The date in this case was suspect and would be formalized once I had it here. The vulcanite stem appeared to have an older rounded button that let me to surmise that it has an orifice button – a single round hole in the end of the button rather than a flared airway. The bowl was obviously well smoked telling me that it was a good smoking pipe. The stem unchewed telling me that the owner had cared for it well. Other than that I was left wondering about the last owner, was he the purchaser? How had the seller come into possession of the pipe? Questions for which I will not have an answer. When the pipe arrived I opened the box and excitedly cut through the layers of tape that held the pipe captive in the bubble wrap that protected it. I was proven correct in my assumption regarding the state of the pipe. The finish was indeed wetted for the photos of the seller as the pipe did not glisten like the photos. The bowl was in decent shape, the finish worn and tired. The rim was shot with built up tars and damage from tapping the bowl out. The silver had multitudes of dents and pock marks in it that showed its carriage in a coat or vest pocket and was tarnished. The stem was clean a lightly oxidized but showed no tooth damage. The bowl was caked with a thick build up of carbons but did not have a sweet or smokey smell so it was likely a Virginia pipe. The curve of the stem matched the curve of the bowl. The stamping was clear and readable – Imperial in script at an angle with ITC underneath the underline of Imperial. There was no other stamping on the briar.
I wanted to check out the date given by the seller as I suspected it was somewhat earlier than the 1934 date given by the seller. The stem and button shape and the threaded bone tenon all pointed to an earlier date in my opinion. The hallmarks on the silver band would allow me to do that with some precision as they were not badly worn. I wiped down the band with a silver polishing cloth to remove the tarnish enough that I could read the stamping. To the naked eye it appeared to have a W.H. in an oval followed by an anchor, a lion and a lower case k. I brought home a magnifying glass from work that had a built in light. I put the pipe under the lens and turned on the light. I lifted it to get the clearest magnification I could get on the silver hallmarks and what I had seen was indeed correct. It was a WH in two interlocking circles and the three hallmarks were correct.
I took this information to one of my favourite websites to process the information and gather what I could from the stamping http://www.silvercollection.it/englishsilverhallmarks.html. There I found the following data. The anchor stamp told me that the pipe or at least the silver band came from Birmingham, England. The lion told me I was dealing with sterling silver. And the k told me the date – 1905 not 1934. The pipe was significantly older than the seller had noted. That excited me as I love these older briar pipes. I also wanted to know what the W.H. in the oval could tell me about the pipe. I dug a little deeper on the English silver marks page and found more information. The maker of the silver band was a William Harrison who was active in London. Various copies of Harrison’s marks in Chester Assay Office were registered by Imperial Tobacco Co between 1907 and 1916. The mark above shows a Birmingham 1908 hallmark. From that information I gathered that the W.H. was William Harrison and that the Birmingham Assay Office had stamped the band in 1905.
The rim would take some serious work to get it back to workable condition. I set up a topping board and carefully worked the top of the bowl against the sandpaper. The surface of the rim was not even so this took some care so as not to angle the rim. I sanded the rim until the surface was flat and the damage was removed. There was still some darkening to the briar but I chose to leave that rather than to remove more of the briar from the rim.
To remove the spotty and damaged finish on the bowl I wiped it down with acetone on cotton pads and was able to take it back to the unfinished briar. The brown patina of the briar was not removed in the process and once finished would clean up well and still show some age. I wanted to take photos of the stem and tenon so that you could see the age and shape it was in. It was a bone tenon, threaded to match the threads in the shank. The end of the tenon has a funnel or tube that is part of the tenon to capture the smoke and bring it into the airway. The other end of the stem is the rounded orific button that I have come to expect on pipes from this time period.
Once the exterior surfaces were clean it was time to work on the interior of the shank and stem. I put the pipe back together and set up a retort. I filled the test tube with 99% isopropyl alcohol and put the stopper and apparatus in place. I stuffed a cotton ball in the bowl to keep the alcohol that was boiled through the pipe in the pipe and not all over the desk top. I use a small tea light candle to heat the alcohol and boil it through the pipe. I repeat the process twice, changing the alcohol between procedures to remove the tars and oils from the shank and stem. Once I removed the retort I cleaned out the shank and stem with pipe cleaners, cotton swabs and isopropyl alcohol. It takes far less pipe cleaners once the retort has finished its work.
I decided to stain the briar using the stain pens instead of the usual aniline stains. I wiped down the surface of the bowl with alcohol and then used the stain the medium brown stain pen to stain the bowl. When applied the stain is streaked but that is easily taken care of with a quick buff with a cotton cloth. I also cleaned the silver with a silver polish and a jeweler’s polishing cloth to remove the tarnish and bring up the shine. I removed the stem and sanded it with a medium and a fine grit sanding sponge to address the light oxidation. I then sanded it with micromesh sanding pads – wet sanding with 1500-2400 grit pads and dry sanding with 3200-12000 grit pads. I rubbed down the stem between each set of three pads with Obsidian Oil. When I finished sanding with the 12000 grit pad I also gave it a final coat of Obsidian Oil and when dry took it to the buffer and buffed it with White Diamond and then carnauba wax to protect the stem.
I decided to rub down the bowl with a light coat of olive oil. I find that on these older pipes it brings out the patina nicely. I put some oil on a paper towel and then rub down the pipe, wipe off the excess and repeat the process until it shines.
When the olive oil was absorbed and the bowl was dry to touch I took the pipe to the buffer and lightly buffed it with White Diamond. I gave the entire pipe several coats of carnauba wax, buffing the silver with a very light touch so as not to damage the hallmarks and stamping. I finished by buffing it lightly with a soft flannel buffing pad to raise the shine. The finished pipe is shown below. It is ready to go back into service. I intend to enjoy it for many more years. I always enjoy smoking these old timers and only wish they could tell their stories. It is amazing to be able to load a bowl and smoke a pipe that is almost 110 years old. Speak to me, I am listening I want to hear your stories… and add my own to the saga you could tell.