The Pipe Whisperer - Part I

22nd January, 2008: Posted by glpease in Pipes

For quite a few years, this little Charatan Special has been hiding in its box, feeling bad about its broken stem. It had one of those peculiar Charatan “Double Comfort” mouthpieces that had gotten its fingers slammed in the glove box or something, snapping it right at the junction between the first and second comforts. Truth be told, I’ve never really liked this style of mouthpiece. It’s always seemed like a lot of extra effort in an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. The result is a stem that is neither particularly comfortable, nor particularly attractive, and the removal of so much material makes it demonstratively weaker at the junction of the additional “step.” (For those who don’t know what the “Double Comfort” mouthpiece is, it’s a stepped saddle-bit, cut quite flat, with the thinnest section just behind the button where the smoker’s teeth clench it, and a thicker section making up the balance of the saddle.)

I’ve known George Dibos for a while, and was excited to learn that he was starting a pipe restoration business, Precision Smoking Pipe Rejuvenation & Repair. I’ve always been impressed with his knowledge and his apparently fanatical attention to detail. We’ve talked at length about line and form, about restoration versus refinishing, about how important it is, when replacing a mouthpiece, not to mess up the original shank. We’ve chatted about airways and mouthpiece shapes and the differences between acrylic and Vulcanite, and all the subtle variables that a lot of people don’t ever notice, but that make a noticeable difference in the end result. He told me a little about how he replaces mouthpieces without touching the wood of the shank. He talked the talk well enough; what better way to see if he could walk the walk than to send him some pipes to “fix.” This little Charatan would be first at bat. It needed a new mouthpiece, and a new mouthpiece it would get. I sent it off.

How did it work out? First, indulge me in what may seem a momentary digression. It’s easy to get a mouthpiece replaced. The pipe is sent off, the “repair guy” grabs a molded stem blank close to the one that was originally on the pipe, hacks it to length, cuts a tenon on the end, then shapes and turns the mouthpiece to fit the pipe. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this is it in a nutshell. It’s the last step that has always bothered me.

When a pipe maker creates a pipe, the mouthpiece and the shank are, in a sense, made as one. They’re worked together, and, therefore, a perfectly flush fit is all but ensured. When it’s necessary to replace the mouthpiece, most repair guys will do something similar - turning down the shank and the new stem blank until they fit flush. Then he’ll refinish the shank’s end to match, and the pipe is declared fixed. Perhaps some of its stampings have suffered from the surgery, but at least it’s been made smokable, and will look acceptable to all but the most critical eyes.

I’m a bit more picky. I really don’t want the shank sanded down by anyone other than the guy who made it. I do not want wood removed, or the edges of the stampings softened. In other words, I don’t want my pipe modified to fit a new mouthpiece, but want the mouthpiece cut to fit the pipe. (There is a minor exception to this rule which will be revealed in a later article.) It seems not so many guys do this well, at least not quickly, and not for a reasonable price. When, during the course of our conversations, I learned that George could both do this, and that he could do it relatively quickly and inexpensively, I decided to give him a go. Off went the pipe.

When he got it, he sent me a note telling me of some other small issues the pipe had, and asked if I’d want them corrected. There were some dings around the edge that he felt he could minimize, and the recessed “beading” was caked with the accumulated gunk of the ages. Sure. Do what you think needs to be done. We then talked about the mouthpiece itself. I told him I’d like acrylic, nicely open for a good draught, adding that as long as it wasn’t going to be original, and since the pipe had little intrinsic value as a collectible, it might as well look great. I specified a smoothly tapered profile, rather than the original saddle-bit. “Beyond that, do what you think is right or necessary.”

He went to work, and I paced the floor. Soon enough, a few days later, I got an email with photos, and a description of some of what had been done to the pipe. After removing the gunk from the beading, using a pair of jeweler’s magnifying specs and a custom scraper he’d made specifically for this pipe, he’d found that the finish inside the grooves was uneven. He’d touched it up with tiny brushes. (Truth? I’d probably have never noticed this, as I’m not in the habit of looking at these grooves through a loupe, but he did.) He’d honed the interior of the bowl to the thickness of an index card, cleaned the pipe thoroughly, “lightly faced the bottom of the mortise,” (his words), presumably so the new stem’s tenon would fit flush, and reamed the airway.

He then cut a beautiful, swan-like mouthpiece, reminiscent of that of a patent era Dunhill CK, and matched its airway to the shank’s. He explained that the whole pipe was “moderately opened,” due to the fairly small size of the tapered bowl, and the short length of the pipe, overall. It was clear he’d approached it as the system it is, rather than applying some rigidly dogmatic formulae. (I’ve always maintained that there is no single, airway diameter that will work optimally for all pipes, that each must be approached more organically, taking the entire pipe into consideration. George, obviously, understands this.)

Finally, he’d applied a very light coat of wax, per my request. I don’t care for the ultra-gloss of an overly waxed pipe, but prefer the patina to come through, and it does. Beautifully.

The pipe, obviously, is back in hand, and I can report I’m beyond satisfied with the work. It smokes better than I can remember, and is certainly more pleasing on the eyes. He managed to give the clunky little thing some grace and elegance, without losing any of its charm, and the invisible, internal stuff he did clearly works.

Of the pipes I’ve subsequently sent him, this was the one that required the least effort. In future installments, I’ll discuss a couple of the more challenging tasks I offered up, all accomplished with skill and alacrity.

High marks all round.