Blog by Steve Laug
I have actually come to enjoy the process of cutting a new button on a stem. It has taken a lot of practice but I can honestly say that I am getting better at it. I still have more to learn; as I am sure will always be the case. But the method I use now can be fine-tuned and personalized by others who choose to use it. That is why I thought that for this article I would walk you through the steps I take when cutting and shaping a new button.
1. A stem that is unrepairable and has sufficient meat to it that if I remove the first ¼ inch or less still has material above and below the airway in the end of the stem. This is a candidate for reshaping and reforming a button. I often take a picture of the remaining button and angles before I trim it back.
2. I cut off the damaged end of the stem using a Dremel with a sanding drum. I know others use various other tools for cutting it off – saws, carving tools, knives, Exacto knives and a variety of others. The idea here is to remove the damaged material just far enough back on the stem to leave a solid base to recarve the button. At this point the goal is to cut off the material and leave a straight line at the end.
3. Once I have the straight edge I often trim the corners and round them slightly. My goal is to match the original button as much as possible.
4. I use a sharp, straight rasp or a needle file to cut the sharp edge of the button being careful to align the top and the bottom sides of the stem. At this point I am merely marking the button area. The key here is not to make the button to broad but to aim for the original width from the end of the stem to the edge of the button.
5. I use the same needle file to carve back the stem angle from about half way up to reduce the angle to the button and give more depth to the button. This involves using the file like a draw knife and working it from mid stem to the edge that you cut with the file.
6. I generally start with the top of the stem and then work the underside to match the angles of the top. You have to be careful not to draw too deeply with the file as you work it. The end product of the cutting is a gentle taper that when sanded out looks natural. This process also give shape to the button.
7. When I have the taper trimmed and even I work it over with a folded piece of 220 grit sandpaper to remove the file marks. I continue to work and shape the stem. I try to crown the flat blade of the stem slightly by sanding the edges to give the stem a thin profile. This also gives shape to the button.
8. I use the sandpaper to also shape the button in a flattened oval or eye shape. If there is room above and below the airway I also gently slope the button toward the end. I am always using the stems and buttons that I have that like as models for the final look of these reshaped buttons.
9. I use three different needle files to open up the slot on the end of the button. I first use a round file to open the airway and start to cut the funnel in it. When I am done with this first file the airway is beginning to look oval. I then use a slightly oval needle file to further shape the funnel and widen it toward the outer edges of the button. The third file is a flattened oval that gives me the ability to open the edges of the slot and the funnel so that finished airway has a flattened oval or eye shaped look to it. In general I work so that the slot has a shape similar to the shape of the button.
10. I sand the inside of the newly cut airway/funnel with folded sandpaper until it is smooth. I have also used emery boards that I found in the cosmetics department of local drug stores. They are commonly used on fingernails but work well for the inside of the slot.
11. I fine tune the slope of the taper with medium and fine grit sanding sponges to make sure that the slope top and bottom matches. I also work on the sharp angle of the inside edge of the button to give it distinction from the slope of the stem.
12. I sand the stem with micromesh sanding pads from 1500-12,000 grit to polish and bring back the deep shine. I use these on the end of the button and on the edges of the airway to make sure that the slot is smooth.
13. I buff the newly cut button and stem with White Diamond and then give it multiple coats of carnauba wax to protect and preserve it.
14. At this point the stem repair is complete and the new button looks like it was designed for the pipe it graces. (In the first photo below the Perspex stem is pictured next to another identical stem in vulcanite. Compare the two buttons.)