Tag Archives: sanding horn stems

My Process for Repairing and Polishing Horn Stems

Blog by Steve Laug

I recently worked on repairing a horn stem and thought I would document the process. I have found that when working with horn a conservative approach is the best. I do not change the profile of the stem or thin the button. I do not change the taper or thin the bit at all. I only want to bring it back to its original shine and gloss and make it look as close as possible to what it was like when the original owner purchased the pipe that carried it. I also want to make the surface smooth and unbroken again so that it does not soften with further use.

The horn stems I have worked on have all had tooth chatter and bite marks for up to an inch from the button. Unlike tooth chatter on vulcanite or Lucite the chatter on a horn tends to splinter or break through the soft surface of the material. It leaves a rough feeling behind and if not taken care of will splinter away from the marks. It will also soften as the shine and polished surface has been broken and it can become spongy. The trouble with a stem that has worn that far is it is very difficult to bring back. In the case of this stem the surface was broken and in the centre of each rough area there was a deep tooth mark – only one that was almost round in shape.Terminus12

Terminus13 My first step in the repair process and the eventual polishing is to sand the rough area smooth and clean up the area around the tooth marks. I sand with 220 grit sandpaper folded and minimally work over the area to its furthest reaches. In this case I worked the area into a rectangular shaped pattern. I feathered the rough surface into the surrounding stem. Then I wiped off the surface with tepid water on a soft cotton pad.

With the stem surface smoothed and the roughness removed and blended into the surface it was time to repair the two tooth marks – one on each side of the stem. Over the years I have used clear super glue to make these repairs in horn stems. I find that the translucency works well with the warmth of a polished stem and though the repair is visible it is smooth and seals the surface around the roughened tooth marks. The fact that it is sealed keeps the horn from further splintering and softening. The high ridge on the button allowed me to patch both sides simultaneously without the glue sticking to the worktable while it dried.Terminus14

Terminus15 When the super glue has hardened/cured I sand the patches with 220 grit sandpaper to smooth out the small bump that is made by the patch. I work the sandpaper to smooth out the patch with the surface of the stem. In this case I sanded both sides. In the photo below you can see the two rectangular spots on the stem surface. These are the spots where the patches were placed. The tooth marks are gone. All that remains is to do some more sanding to blend the rectangle into the stem.Terminus16

Terminus17 The next step involved sanding the stem with a medium and fine grit sanding sponge to further feather in the patch to the stem surface. I wanted the patch to be seamless with the horn so that when I ran my tongue or finger across the repair it would be unnoticeable to touch. Once I had finished with the sanding sponges the surface was smooth. The scratches left behind by the 220 grit sandpaper were gone. The rectangular patches were disappearing.Terminus18

Terminus19 The next step involved sanding the stem and polishing it with micromesh sanding pads. I wet sanded the stem with 1500-2400 grit micromesh pads and dry sanded with 3200-12,000 grit pads. In between each set of three pads I rubbed the stem down with Obsidian Oil. The oil was absorbed into the surface of the horn stem and lubricated the surface and provided a bite for the sanding pads. The repairs have ceased to be rectangles and now were small patches over the tooth marks in the stem. The surface was smooth even though the damage could be seen through the clear patch at this stage in the process.Terminus25

Terminus26 Each successive grit of micromesh smooth out the surface, deepened the shine and feathered the patch into the finish.Terminus27

Terminus28 The final set of three pads really brought a deep shine to the stem. The patch though visible is smaller than any of the previous pictures.Terminus29

Terminus30 When I had finished with the 12,000 grit pad I gave the stem a light buff with White Diamond on the buffing wheel and then gave it multiple coats of carnauba wax. Buffing a horn stem takes a light touch. You do not want to press the stem into the wheel too hard as the heat generated will cause the horn to separate. (I speak this from experience after having done it and having to start over with my sanding process.) The finished stem is shown below. It is smooth and the variations in colour of the stem make it really look living. The colours and stripes almost undulated as it is turned over under a bright light or outside in the sunshine (uncommon in Vancouver in January).Stem1



Stem4 I really enjoy working on horn stems and also smoking them. They have a feeling in the mouth that no other stem material even approximates. They are not for a clencher or a biter that is for certain. They need to be cared for – wiped down after each smoke and given new coats of wax regularly. But this one and others in my collection have survived far more years and in better shape that I have. I am always on the lookout for another horn stem to work on. If you have not restored one or smoked one – you really need to give it a try.

Reworking a horn stem on a Regent Pipe

Blog by Steve Laug

I restored this old horn stem on June 9, 2012 and fit it to an old horn-shaped bowl I had in my box. The bowl is stamped The Regent arched around a star. I wrote about the restoration of the stem and the bowl previously in this post: https://rebornpipes.com/2012/06/09/refurb-on-an-old-the-regent-fit-a-horn-stem-7/ I love the translucence of the horn material. I trimmed off excess horn material to fit the end of the shank. The first photo shows the stem when I started.Regent1 The next three photos show the stem after I had trimmed it to match the diameter of the shank band.Regent2


Regent4 This holiday season I find that I am out of pipes to restore – I have finished the last of the ones in my box. So during the doldrums of no pipes to refurbish I spent time looking through my collection. I took on the horn stem pipes to look at. I posted on PSU – Pipe Smokers Unlimited – Forum about horn stem pipes. I have quite a few in my collection as I really like the look and feel of a well restored horn stem. I posted the above photos and really did not like the overall look of the stem. It did not seem to flow with the lines of the bowl. In those days I was just starting out on restoring horn stems and I was fearful of ruining the old stem so I did not shape it as aggressively as I do now. I don’t know if it fearlessness or just stupidity but I still am not careless in the work.

I took the pipe out of the cupboard and reworked the stem. I sanded the stem with 220 grit sandpaper to match the angle of the shank – top and sides. I wanted to take out the bulging look, the pinch at the shank stem union. I took off quite a bit more material until the flow looked better and the bulge was gone. I worked to also straighten the sides of the stem from that junction to the button on the end of the stem. I sanded it with medium and fine grit sanding sponges and a fine grit sanding block to flatten angles from shank to button. I finished by wet sanding with 1200-3200 grit sanding pads and then buffed the stem with White Diamond. I took it back to the work table and dry sanded it with 3600-12,000 grit micromesh sanding blocks. I rubbed it down with Obsidian Oil and then gave the bowl and pipe several coats of carnauba wax. I finished by buffing it with a soft flannel buff until it shone.

The finished pipe is shown below. I like the new look of the stem far better than the previous fitting. The pipe is sitting on my desk now and will be in my rotation for this weekend.Regent5




Refurb on an Old “The Regent” – fit a horn stem

Just finished up with this pipe. I had a lot of fun with this one! It is an old horn shaped pipe. It is stamped The Regent and has a sterling silver band on it. The hallmarks are the reclined lion (sterling silver) the Anchor (Birmingham) and a mystery stamp – a five point star (no date sign like that on the British sterling sites). I was reading in Gary Schrier’s Calabash book this evening and came across a calabash with the same hallmarks. He said it was a Faux Birmingham made pipe. The calabash he had was a Manhatten made in New York City. The question is do I also have a Faux Birmingham pipe??

It was dirty and I reamed and cleaned the bowl and shank. It had a thick cake and a bit of cob webs in the bowl and shank. It also did not have a stem. It came to me as a bowl without a stem. I had an old horn stem in my can of scavenged pipe parts that was that right shape and whose tenon fit perfectly. It was about a 1/4 to large in diameter. I used my dremel to bring it close to a fit and then sanded it until it was a perfect fit. While I worked on it I removed the silver band in order to get the stem fit to be flush with the briar. When I was finished with the fit I polished the horn stem until it glowed with 400 and 600 girt wet dry sand paper, micromesh pads up to 4000 grit and then Tripoli and white diamond. Then I reset the band with a bit of superglue and then put on the stem and gave the silver a polish and the pipe a buff.

I have included a pic of the stem first to show you the look of the beautiful old horn stem. It has an orific button (single round hole in the button). It seemed to match the age of the pipe in terms of look.


The rest of the pics are of the finished pipe. Thanks for looking.


Restoring Horn Stems

Blog by Steve Laug

I have had the pleasure of working on over a half dozen horn stems on some old pipes I have purchased and been given. Each of them presented a different challenge in terms of restoration. Several had the normal tooth dents and chatter that come as a normal part of the stems of many old pipes while other stems had been gnawed to the point of changing the profile of the stem forever. Horn is significantly different to work with than vulcanite or Lucite stems. In many ways it is softer and more pliant than either of the other materials. When it is in good order the sheen is almost translucent and there is deep almost internal warmth to them. In this article I want to talk about the process of reworking horn stems and restoring them to their former glory.

The first issue with horn stems I had to learn to work on was the tooth dents and tooth chatter that often covers the last half inch or more of the stem just ahead of the button. When I first attacked this I did it with a bit of fear and trepidation as I had all kinds of concerns about the laminate of the horn separating or delaminating. However, through the help of several of the folks on Smokers Forums, an online pipe smoking community, many of my concerns were alleviated. Here are some pictures of this first issue with horn stems. I took pictures of the top/side profile and the bottom/side profile of this particular stem as it highlights the issue.


Looking closely at the stems above you will see the tooth marks along the button area of the stem. This area was rough to the touch and was dry and almost flakey feeling. I was concerned that the horn had softened from the breakdown of the outer coating and wondered if it could be brought back. They were shallow though so I went to work on them with multiple grits of sandpaper to smooth out the surface. I used 240 grit to smooth out the roughness and then worked my way through 400 and 600 grit wet dry sandpaper. The trick with the latter two was to wet them as I sanded the stem. Each progressively higher grit smoothed out the roughness until it was smooth to touch. The wetness of the sandpaper made the grit really bite into the surface of the horn. I then used micro-mesh pads beginning with 1500 grit followed by 1800, 2400, 3200, 4000 and 6000. By the time I got to the 3200 the scratches in the surface were virtually gone – even under a bright light. Again the trick is to work with a bowl of water near at hand to wet the pads as you sand the stem. When I finished with the 4000 and 6000 there was a good sheen to the stems.

At that point in the process I took them to my buffer to finish the work. I used White Diamond polishing compound on the buffing wheel to give it a deep gloss finish. Then I gave a polish with carnauba wax and buffed to a glassy finish.

Here are some pictures of the finished stem minus the tooth chatter. The original issue had been addressed and the stem returned to its former beauty.


One quick note that I should mention is that horn will stink as you work it. Its smell has been likened to the smell of a tooth getting drilled by the dentist or burning hair. I found though, that as I worked with it I got used to it.

The second issue with horn stems that I had to learn to deal with was more serious. It involved deep tooth dents and a chewed stem. The stem pictured below was a real mess. The previous owner obviously gnawed it and clenched it so the horn was dented and chewed with the profile changed. The question for me was whether I would be able to raise the tooth dents and smooth the surface while reworking the profile of the old stem to make it look as much as possible like it did when it came out of production. Here are three pictures to give you a look at the stem in its state of disarray.


Looking closely at the stem pictured above you will see the depth of the tooth dents in the second and third picture and the serious loss of shape in the stem profile in the first picture. The profile shows the pinched look of the stem in front of the button and how thin the stem had been squeezed by chewing. My concern was whether there would be enough meat on the stem at that point to restore it without breaking through into the airway. The second and third pictures show the stem from the top and the bottom. In those two pictures you can see how deep the dents are in the surface of the stem. Also notice the virtual loss of the lip on the edge of the button. The stem appeared to be a loss.

From Chris Askwith, a talented young British pipe maker I learned a few tricks that I was anxious to try out on the stem (http://www.askwithpipes.com/). I had used the same tricks to lift dents out of the rims and sides of briar bowls so I was looking forward to seeing the process work as described by Chris. I steamed the dents and lifted the major depth of them by using a damp cloth laid on the surface of the dents and then heating a butter knife on the gas stove and applying the hot blade to the wet surface of the cloth on the stem. The gentle hiss and the presence of steam assured me that the steaming was working. You have to be careful as you work this process, checking repeatedly as you apply the knife and steam to make sure not to scorch or split the horn. Most of the deeper dents rose significantly and the more shallow ones came out completely.

I sanded the stem and cleaned up the chewed part starting with 240 grit sandpaper as I did with the stem above. I gradually worked my way through 400 and 600 grit wet dry sandpaper clean up and even out the surface. I worked on the profile and cleaned up the sharp edges of the button with a set of needle files to restore the right angles of the button and stem surface. There were still a few remaining spots on the stem where the tooth dents had cut the surface of the horn and would not lift with the steam. I addressed these by filling them with a few drops of clear super glue. The glue dried quickly and left a small bump in place of the dent. I sanded these with the sandpaper combo mentioned above until the surface was even and smooth. Once I had a clean and smooth surface to work with I then moved on to Micro-mesh pads beginning with 1500 grit followed by 1800, 2400, 3200, 4000 and 6000. By the time I got to the 3200 the scratches in the surface were virtually gone – even under a bright light. Again the trick was to work with a bowl of water near at hand to wet the pads as you sand the stem. When I finished with the 4000 and 6000 there was a good sheen to the stems. They were beginning to shine like glass.

I took the stem to my buffer and used White Diamond polishing compound to  buff the surface smooth and shiny. It was truly glassy in terms of look and feel. I finished the stem by applying a good coat of carnauba wax and buffing to polish the wax.

Here are some pictures of the finished stem minus the tooth dents and with a restored profile. Notice the restored profile of the stem in the first and second picture below. Notice the functional button and lip that has been restored. The third and the fourth picture show the top and bottom of the stem and show the way the super glue patch and the work with the steam and sandpaper restored the deep pits in the surface of the stem.


Because of the success I experienced with these two different issues with horn stems I have gone on to bid on others that need work. I have found those that only needed a buff and polish to restore them to their pristine condition and I have found others with similar problems to those shown above. The challenge of restoring them to the original beauty always is a draw to me. To smoke one of these old horn stem pipes is an experience that all pipemen should have. The work to restore them is worth the effort when you put the newly restored stem in your mouth for the first time. There is nothing quite like the feel of a “new” horn stem on your lips as you puff a favourite tobacco. And that is to say nothing of the good aged briar that is on the other end of the stem. Give restoring a horn stem a try. It is a pleasure! Won’t you join me for a bowl full in one of these old timers?

Steve Laug

June 8, 2012

Refurbished another horn stemmed pipe

I just finished the second little horn stemmed French pipe that I picked up recently. It is stamped P. Viou which is an old French brand made in St. Claude. It is a 5 inch long pot that is paneled as well. The bowl was in pretty good shape – I reamed and cleaned it. The finish was rough so I removed the varnish and the stain and re-stained it. It came out a bit darker than the original but it really highlights the grain. The rim is beveled in a bit, chamfered nicely.

The stem was a mess. The previous owner obviously gnawed it and clenched it so the horn was dented and chewed with the profile changed. I steamed the dents and lifted them with a damp cloth and hot knife. Most of them came out. I sanded the stem and cleaned up the chewed part. I then restored the profile and filled the remaining spots with super glue and then sanded and buffed. I like the end product.

Here are some before shots:



Here is the refurbished pipe:


Bruyere Deluxe Horn Stem refurb

Blog by Steve Laug

The two pipes that had what looked like horn stems arrived yesterday. They indeed were horn stems. One of them the little 4 1/2 inch bulldog need some work on the stem as it had some tooth marks. The bowl itself was rough. The varnish (?) was crackling and the lava had overflowed the top of the bowl and stained the wood around it. Fortunately it was not charred at all! I reamed and cleaned the bowl. It was a mess. Then I sent it to the alcohol soak and it lifted some of the tars and stain as well as the varnish. I then reworked the bowl with sand paper and with micro mesh pads. It then was re-stained with a black under stain and then a cherry over stain. I then buffed and polished it.

For the horn stem I heated a knife and used a damp cloth and the hot knife to lift the tooth marks. Thanks to Nigel and others (Chris/Caskwith) who gave that bit of advice. It is the same process that is used to lift dents in the briar. I repeated this process until they were gone and the stem was smooth to touch. I then used micro mesh to sand and polish the stem. Finally I gave it a buff with white diamond and carnuba wax.

Here are the before shots:


The front rim was solid but the tars seemed to have permanently stained the briar. I did not want to take much off as it would change the panel shape of the bowl so I cleaned the wood as deeply as I could and was able to get it so that I can see grain through the dark stain. I may give the entire bowl a dark stain to further hide the top but still considering that…