155. Reconstructing a P-Lip Mouthpiece on an Early-Republic Rustic System

Okay, I bought this pipe because it was a good deal, it included a PIMA set, it’s my favorite Peterson shape—and the rustication just flat out rocks. Take another look:

That’s not only as good as the famed Pebble Rustics of the late 1980s and early 90s, it may very well be better. I mean, how did they do that?

What makes it unusual, in addition to the amazing rustication (at least for admirers of this iconic shape), is the pronounced “chin” effect (think of Castello’s signature 55 here) created by smoothing off the underside back of the stummel:

Dating the pipe is easy—and should be getting easy for you if you’ve read your copy of The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson. You can see—if you squint as little, because it’s so faint—the Republic era stamp above the 309, so you know that’s 1949 to … oh maybe 1990? 1995?

But then you see the nickel marks—the clover, wolf hound and round tower—and you know that’s before c. 1963.

So: 1949-1963, or what you, as an acknowledged Pete Geek, now call “The Early Republic Era (1949-1969).” I’m going to place it in the late 1950s, because of the wonky mouthpiece and the nickel mount marks. Seeing the darker portion at the tenon end makes me wonder if it is even original.

I figured it was just another Franken Pete, where the wrong mouthpiece ended up on the pipe, given the high shoulder and the peculiar angle of the bend. It just didn’t look quite right. But then I saw this 309 on eBay a few days ago:

The two aren’t an exact match, and the smooth 309 is at least a few years newer, perhaps mid-1960s, as it lacks the nickel mount marks. But they’re close enough to make me think maybe, just maybe, the stem on this rustic 309 could be original, but has been pushed out by debris in the mortise.

Damage Report

Bowl: I know I’m up to challenge of the bowl, although the rim will test my skill set, as the rustication has been flattened by someone, indicating there must’ve been some substantial lava there.

Chamber: The chamber floor is also interesting—it’s the thickest carbon cake on a chamber floor I’ve ever seen, not covering the airhole, but right up on it. This shouldn’t be a problem, although the wood underneath might hold some surprises.

Mouthpiece: Yikes! This is a wreck. If I hadn’t seen Charles Lemon do this on the BPL 80s, and asked him for help, I’m not sure I’d even attempt it. And if I can’t rescue it, I do have late-model, thick-buttoned vulcanite P-Lip that could be pressed into service.

Tenon Mortise: I’m not sure this is the original stem. And it certainly doesn’t cinch up like one. What to do?

Measurements before attempted restoration:

Length: 5.77 in. / 146.6 mm.
Weight: 2.05 oz./58 g.
Bowl Height: 2.05 in. / 55.2 mm.
Chamber Depth: 1.41 in. / 36.00 mm. [5 mm shallower than average]
Chamber Diameter: 0.73 in. / 19.00 mm.
Outside Diameter: 1.31 in. / 33.50 mm.
Stem Material: Vulcanite

 

The Work

You probably know the basic restoration drill, at least if you follow the almost daily posts from Steve Laug’s RebornPipes consortium or the weekly posts from Dads Pipes.

 External Bowl, Chamber, System Reservoir & Mortise

I’ll try to skip over the obvious, but have to remark that never in my limited restoration experience have I come across a pipe with such a deep carbon cake on the chamber floor. My PipNet reamer took out 5mm of cake before getting to bare wood, restoring the chamber depth to 39.9 mm, which is about ‘ballpark’ for a 309 (which in a smooth can run as deep as 42.5 or so).

As I said, The crown of the bowl’s rustication had been flattened a bit by some over-zealous reaming or knocking out, so I used the tip of a small drill bit on my variable speed drill to just lightly drill out some of the shallower grooves. A thorough brushing with a wire brush pulled out the remaining tear-away from my bit, leaving the crown in much better shape:

Just a small bit in a hand-held drill using low rpm, dug out what I needed to give the crown a crusty look.

Take-away: I also took the scoop-end of my dental pick and spooned & scraped out the debris in the bottom of the reservoir—there was quite a bit. This is one part of a System’s restoration that I don’t believe I’ve seen others do, but as Rick Newcombe, the Apostle of Pipes, avers, an internally clean pipe is a sweet-smoking pipe, and this is one of the sour spots in a System.

I also took some 220 grit wrapped around a pencil and gave the inside of the mortise a light sanding to remove any debris that might be interfering with the fit of the mouthpiece. That helped quite a bit, although the Morse taper—the angle of the mortise and the corresponding angle of the mouthpiece—isn’t correct and there’s a bit of wobble until its cinched up tightly.

The bowl was then submerged in a jar of 91% isopropyl for an overnight soak. I know many DIYers are content with a salt & alcohol sweetener, which takes about 3 days in Texas (depending on humidity levels), or the less finnicky even resort to treatment with cotton balls soaked in alcohol.

But but since I’m going to smoke this pipe, I want it to be exorcised from all possible tobacco ghosts. I’ve even done this submerged soak with—prepare to be horrified!—estate Dunhills—with little loss in stain color. But please don’t tell anyone.

In staining the bowl, my goal was to approximate the classic Peterson black & burgundy contrast stain seen on so many great rusticated Petes over the years—the Connemara, the early SH rustics, the Dublin Millenniums, et al—where the burgundy is prominent on the ridges and smooth surfaces, while the black occupies the grooves. I talked to Charles Lemon about how to achieve this, and he wrote back:

My approach to this type of finish is one of removal, so to speak. I first apply the red stain to the entire stummel, let it set/dry, then apply the black topcoat.

Revealing the red underneath the black is a matter of removing a bit of the black from the high spots of the stummel (the top of the ridges in the sandblast), either by rubbing the stummel with something like steel wool or by wiping with alcohol.

The final effect is black in the grooves & red on the ridges. A drop of oil rubbed into the finish can give it depth.

As I had removed much of the original stain in sweetening the bowl, I first applied Fiebing’s burgundy at full strength (“Nooooo!” I hear you say), then used several thoroughly soaked 91% isopropyl cotton pads to remove a bit and make sure it was uniform.

As I looked at the stummel I remembered a mistake I sometimes make: if I want the smooth area where the stamping is on the bottom of the stummel to be burgundy, I need to coat it with petroleum jelly. So I did that, and then (in a moment of likely inanity) decided to coat all the ridges as well and see if the diluted black Fiebing’s stain would be repelled in the same way, coating only the grooves.

Then came the Fiebing’s black, diluted about 1 part dye to 5 parts alcohol. So after giving the black stain an hour or two to dry, I wiped down the bowl with cotton pads, then went over it with an alcohol pad, leaving the entire bowl not the contrast I’d hoped for but a uninspiring black cherry!

I rubbed Halcyon II wax (for rusticated bowls) onto it with my fingers, buffed that with a nail brush to get down into the grooves and had—shiny black cherry. Jeez.

Then I recalled Charles’s words about steel wool. With nothing to lose, I took a fresh pad of #0000 and began giving the ridges a wipe-down. Magic! I’m sure artisans and the craft folk at Peterson do this on a wheel, but the #0000 works just fine, as you can see:

 

Stem Reclamation

Moving on to mouthpiece restoration, which has been uppermost on my mind now that Peterson isn’t even selling System mouthpieces in vulcanite, I first passed a soft flame from my lighter over the button to see if I might ease out a bit of that massive chomper-made compression. It helped a little, but of course not much.

I’ve been intrigued by the hard rubber deoxidizer sold by La Belle Epoque as “Before & After Solution”, but the cost and the results I’ve seen from those who use it haven’t wholly convinced me that the expense is worth it. I will try it, but for now, it’s into the nasty chlorine bleach for a 20 minute dip followed by a few hours’ soak in Oxy-Clean. In between the bleach and Oxy-Clean baths, I wet-sanded the mouthpiece with a 500 grit pad.

You can see the scars at the tenon-end in the photo toward the top of this post, where the metal on the ferrule lip bit into it. I hazarded the Foredom lathe with a 500 grit pad to see if I could remove these, at a fairly low rpm. By this point, I didn’t think the mouthpiece was original, but it’s still more authentic-looking than the new fat-lip if I can repair it.

Stem bend: I’m almost ready to begin the process of reshaping the button with CA glue and powdered charcoal, but before I begin I stopped to give the stem a little more bend to resemble the smooth 309 seen in the photo above. A heat gun is a marvelous tool, and easy to abuse, as the little red scar on my forearm attests.

So with long sleeves and a bowl of ice water handy, I rebend the stem, keeping it inserted in the stummel. It takes a little while, but if you watch, the vulcanite will begin to unbend all on its own—your cue to rebend it (of course you’ve got a garden glove or some kind of protective glove on). Then a quick dip in the ice water, a visual reference, and if it’s correct, back into the drink for a complete cool-down. I overbent it a little the first time, so went back to get it right, which I did on the second go.

This type of bend is what in the Peterson book I call a “Larrigan” (after Paddy Larrigan, who preferred it) with a hard 45° angle about 2/3rds the way up. It’s really comfortable to clench, by the way.

Stem reconstruction: If you haven’t checked out Charles Lemon’s piece on the B.P.L., you might begin there, as he’s quite detailed. To that, however, Charles provided me some additional instructions, which you may which to copy-and-paste to your own reference manual:

Re CA & charcoal, if you use “CA charcoal” as search terms on the blog you’ll get a list of posts. I’ve been looking through some of them, and am realizing that I haven’t really done a detailed tutorial on the subject. Might be time for a new post!  (In the meantime, this post isn’t too bad.)

As far as mixing ratios go, I tend to simply eyeball it. I’m guessing a 2:1 CA to charcoal mix is about right for the products I use, but will likely shift a bit depending on the exact brand and viscosity of the glue and how finely ground the charcoal is. Too much charcoal will cause the glue to cure too quickly, sometimes even before I can get it to the pipe stem. Too little and the patch stands out as a shiny spot against the vulcanite.

I’d suggest experimenting a bit on a donor stem to find out what works best for you. I can also offer a few other tips:

  • Re CA glue, I use mainly clear glue, though I have black on hand as well. For stem repairs like the BPL, I use Gorilla brand CA glue and charcoal powder out of Swiss Naturals capsules (available at my local pharmacy). The Gorilla CA is fairly thick so it fills gaps more readily than thinner glues. I use original Krazy Glue CA for skim coating and filling small areas.
  • Apply more patch material than you think you need. It’s much easier to remove cured patch mix than to add more.
  • Shape the fully cured patch (I leave mine overnight at least) with needle files and sandpaper to get the profile you want. I use dry sandpaper in 220 & 320 grits, then wet sand with 400, 600, 1000 and 2000 grits. A buff with Red Tripoli and White Diamond compounds finish things off.
  • Expect to go back over the repair with either clear or black CA glue to fill air bubbles that form as the glue cures. I often retouch a repair 2-3 times or more depending how stubborn the bubbles are. Don’t rush the glue. Let it cure completely each time.

So off I go. I think it took three passes, but maybe four. It’s a new process for me, so I thought I’d share what you can expect if you undertake to reconstruct one for yourself:

Lower lip, first pass.

First pass dried. Notice the gray flakes made by the charcoal.

First pass, top of P-Lip, cured for 24 hours.

Second pass application. You can see where I used fairly aggressive needle files the first pass.

Second pass, cured 24 hours.

Second pass, lower lip, cured 24 hours.

Eventually everything comes together and the repair blends nicely into the surrounding stem material, but it takes five days, practice, patience and a bit of grace from above:

You can see the shelf on the bottom isn’t uniform. And the camera also caught the brown haze on the upper surface of the P-Lip that I didn’t see with the head-loupe. Clenched, however, it works well enough, despite having the hardness of acrylic (due to the CA glue).

Apart from the button, however, the rest of the stem came out obsidian, which is always my goal:

I think this is why many restorationists prefer to fit a new stem instead of repairing an old one. It’s a lot less work, to be honest, but sometimes saving the original stem makes sense – a rare logo, unique shape, etc.

Mortise-tenon air leak.

While I was pleased with the way the pipe looked, the first smoke was a severe disappointment. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” as the 1605 proverb goes, or in this case, the proof of the pipe is in the smoking. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected there was a problem in the seal between the tenon and mortise. A P-Lip mouthpiece offers much more resistance than an opened fishtail or even a regular fishtail, and this one didn’t. The smoke was thin and there was too little resistance.

In the System pipe, which is an army-mount pipe, the tenon-end of the stem needs to be tapered to align with the angle of the mortise. Remember at the beginning I had feared the stem wasn’t original. So I smoked another bowl, then removed the stem. Condensate should be found on the tenon-extension of the stem, but not up where the stem and mortise clench. Close inspection, however, revealed little beads of moisture right where the stem and mortise met. Problem identified.

So I wrote to Sensei Charles to see if anything could be done to save the mouthpiece in which I’ve invested so much time. He wrote back:

A couple ideas come to mind. First, has the pipe gone unsmoked for some time? It could be that the briar has dried out and shrunk, causing the annoying air gaps. You could try applying a bit of water to the inside of the mortise, let it soak in briefly then refit the stem. If it improves, the pipe simply needs to be smoked so that the briar can absorb some moisture from the smoke stream and expand back to its original size. Second, heating the tenon end of the stem and allowing it to cool may also tighten the fit – it could be that the vulcanite has become compressed over time. Heating it will allow it to “remember” its original shape. I’ve used this trick several time on loose push tenon stems. I see no reason why it shouldn’t work on a military stem.

A third idea that came to mind was beeswax – admittedly not a permanent fix, but a thin coat of beeswax on the tenon will fill any small gaps between the tenon and mortise walls. A good secondary treatment if the briar simply proves to be dry as explained above. The wax will hold the stem in place until the briar rehydrates with use.

So I placed the mortise in a small dish of water, just up to the end of the ferrule for about four hours:

After shaking the water out, I pushed the stem in tight and let it sit 48 hours while the briar dried.

I then had a flash of brilliance everyone else probably thought at the outset of the problem: I placed my finger tip over the air hole at the base of the chamber and applied suction at the P-Lip. To get a sense of how a normal System’s airflow works, I tried it in a well-seasoned System, where there was none at all.

I thought there might still be a tiny bit of air leakage, and because patience seemed to be the primary tool for this entire project (as well as  a virtue I need to continually practice), I repeated the entire water bath procedure two days later. Everything had tightened up so much this time that I couldn’t suck any air at all through the mouthpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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