Duckling into Swan

12th December, 2003: Posted by glpease in Pipes

This is the story of the transformation of a pipe. Perhaps the title is a little misleading. The pipe was never ugly. In fact, it is, and always has been, quite lovely, but beneath that beautiful skin beat a heart as black as the cake I scraped from its capacious bowl.

When the pipe arrived, a classic old Preben Holm from the 1960s, it needed a little help, a little makeover to reveal its true beauty. I reamed the bowl a little, cleaned the burned, black tar off the bowl’s top, steamed out a small ding, removed some toothmarks from the stem, and polished everything nice and shiny. The wood is beautiful, and the shape is very subtle - almost conservative for a freehand of this vintage.

The cosmetic surgery now behind me, it was time to see how the thing would smoke. I filled it with a fairly stout Latakia mixture, and set it to smoldering. A harsh, acrid, stinging sensation concentrated upon the center of my tongue, and, almost instantly, the pipe began to gurgle like a boiler in heat. Clearly, more attention was required.

I rarely resort to the salt/alcohol treatment in a pipe, but desperate times require desperate measures. I plugged the draught with a folded, fluffy pipe cleaner, filled the bowl with pickling salt, saturated the salt with 95% ethanol, and set it aside for the brew to bubble. Within minutes, the salt had taken on a burnt umber apearance, rimmed around the edges with black. The pipe cleaner also turned nearly black, and was quickly replaced with a fresh one. As nasty as this appeared, it was a sign of hope that the pipe would, once rid of its ages old residues, smoke a little better next time.

The next day, the alcohol nearly completely evaporated, I scraped out the salt cake, cleaned everything thoroughly, and set it aside again to dry. Once dry, I’d try the same tobacco, and see how the patient fared.

The experiment wasn’t exactly a success. While this time, I could actually taste something of my tobacco, there was still the flame-thrower like attack on my tongue, and the instant and incessant gurgling. More drastic steps would have to be taken. What do racing car engines and pipes have in common? Both have to breathe. Both require the smooth passage of air in order to operate efficiently, to deliver their best performance. Since I’ve spent many hours polishing and porting cylinder heads, why not a pipe?

The internal design of this pipe was dreadful. The draught hole was tiny, and, though drilled correctly to the bottom center of the bowl, it was poorly aligned with the stem’s airway, which was horribly off center, and also very small (approx. 2mm). Fixing the bowl would be the easy part. Using progressively larger drills, I opened the draught to my preferred 4mm, as a starting point. The tobacco chamber of this pipe is quite large, at 25mm across the top, so a larger draught may be warranted, but since it’s easier to take wood away later than to put it back, I decided to stick with the 4mm drill for the time being.

My attention then turned to the stem, which would present more interesting challenges. The tenon’s diameter is about 6mm, with the 2mm airway drilled dramatically offset, leaving only a 1mm wall at the close side. I’d have to work very carefully to center the airway, and open it up to match the draught. I used a round needle file to do the work, stopping frequently to examine the progress. Once centered and evened up, I worked to deepen the funnel slightly, to make a good path for a tapered drill bit, which I’d use to smooth out the walls. Then, measuring carefully, I drilled in as far as I could, checking progress frequently, to get a nice flow from the tenon’s end to the stem’s previous airway. At this point, the opening at the tenon’s end was a nice, round, concentric 4.5mm. I then rounded the end of the tenon, and polished everything up a bit, to get a good look at how things were progressing. Nice!

Next, I used a flexible file to open the rest of the airway a little. The right way to do this would have been to straighten the stem, do the work, and rebend it, but being somewhat lazy, and always afraid that I’ll never get the curve quite right again, I generally do this sort of thing with some tools that I’ve made for the job. When I was satisfied with the overall flow of the airway, I tuned the stem’s exit funnel a little, smoothing the transition from the slot to minimize the possibilty of fuzz from a pipe cleaner getting stuck there. I blew everything out, and checked my work by probing with a fat cleaner. Quite an improvement, since, before, I could barely stick a skinny one through it!

All that was left at this point was to ensure that a cleaner would make the passage from stem to stern without a hitch. This required just a little chamfering of the bowl’s draught hole, and was done in a couple minutes. After final polishing, the pipe was ready to smoke.

I filled the bowl with the same weed, expecting something of a difference, of course. But, WHAT a difference! The blow-torch effect was completely gone, I could taste the tobacco clearly, and there was not even a hint of gurgling. In fact, the tobacco smoldered to the bottom effortlessly, and not a single cleaner was required during the smoke! Once the tobacco was finished, I ran a couple of fluffy cleaners through it; the first emerged a light tan, the second, almost completely white.

This isn’t the end of the story, however. The previous owner of this pipe had smoked something lightly aromatic in it, and the marriage of his blend with my own was not a salubrious one. I knew it would take many bowls before the ghost of tobaccos past would cease haunting the hollowed walls of this lovely pipe, but I knew there was hope.

I’ve since smoked several bowls in this pipe, and each is better than the last, delivering a cleaner taste, a smoother smoke. The dreaded gurgle has not even hinted at a reappearance, and the pipe smokes cool and effortlessly. This sort of project is not for the meek. At every turn, there’s the possibility of irreparable damage. In this case, the operation was a success, and the patient will live a long and happy life, always being given only the finest tobaccos, and always being smoked with loving appreciation. It was a lot of work, but it was well worth the efforts.

Besides, it gave me something to talk about.