192. Prepping Your Estate or New/Old Stock Pete for its First Smoke

What follows is a speculative segment of what may eventually be included in The Pocket Peterson: A Field Guide. I am in hopes that whatever your experience in pipe-smoking and however different it is from mine, you will consider offering your opinion. Your comments will help me revise or discard this piece from the final book. Preparing your New/Old Stock or estate Peterson for its first smoke should be as easy as stuffing it with choice leaf and lighting it. Or so we think as young pipe smokers. But after more than forty years’ devotion to the art, I became so disenchanted with that first smoke—of even new pipes—that I found myself putting it off in a cold sweat of anticipatory dread to turn back to the trusty comrades already in my rotation.

The first smoke is far more important than many pipers realize. If it goes well, the smoker will return the following night and many nights in succession, marveling at how his favorite mixture has reached new heights of flavor. If the smoker is less impressed, he may return a few times in the following weeks, appreciating the visual or tactile aspects of the pipe and  wondering how many more bowls it will take until it begins to taste right. But if the first smoke is downright bad, the smoker will eye the pipe with uneasiness, disdain or even hostility. The brand, the chamber, or the condition of the pipe (if an estate) may be blamed, when the real culprit may simply have been the lack of adequate preparation.

The dread of the first smoke has nothing to do with whether the pipe is new in the box, an estate purchase or new-old stock from decades ago. In has nothing to do with Peterson as a brand, per se, but everything to do with the unpleasant experience common to breaking in almost any pipe.

Bowl coatings come in many varieties. The worst in my opinion is the impenetrable substance known as water glass (sodium silicate and water) which literally melts onto the chamber walls, preventing any wood taste whatsoever from penetrating. Close to that is when stain is applied to the inside of the bowl, which Peterson did until about twenty years ago and still does on their highest grade pipes. The best I’ve ever encountered is the one Peterson currently employs on darker stained pipes, a recipe of food-grade gum arabic with activated charcoal powder and water. Their coating produces an almost neutral and perhaps slightly sweet taste, creating a very rapid cake. But as it seems to blossom during the first few smokes, it may raise a bead of sweat for the uninitiate looking into the chamber of their newly-smoked pipe for the first time. Never fear, just be patient and all will be well.

Most artisans claim to use some kind of closely-guarded secret bowl coating concocted of organic, safe-to-ingest substances of varying degrees of palatability. I’ve paid $400 and more for a new artisan pipe only to smoke it a half-dozen times and give up on its unpleasant taste, convinced it’s the briar that’s to blame.

There are a number of bowl coating recipes that DIY restorers use on the internet, and in the past, I’ve restored pipe chambers by lightly rubbing maple syrup on the walls of the chamber, then filling it with activated charcoal powder, pouring out all the powder doesn’t adhere and letting it dry for a few days. This works well enough, if not quickly as Peterson’s recipe. But no matter what coating you use, the underlying problem remains: the burning tobacco is not coming into contact with bare wood.

Rick Newcombe, the Apostle of our hobby, has written about the necessity of a clean pipe for a great pipe smoking experience, advice which many ignore and then wonder why their favorite pipes have become so surly.* I will add that if the pipeman begins with a clean, bare and uncoated chamber, he’ll have the best chance of falling in love with a pipe from the beginning. With each new satisfying smoke, the pipe will move from strength to strength, easily entering the ranks of his rotation and fostering contentment in the very thought of smoking it. On the other hand, pipes with coated bowls are like car insurance for perfect drivers—promising security while making regular withdrawals from their bank account.

I believe an uncoated bowl is not nearly as risky as pipe makers and dealers would have the public believe, and I say that as someone who has probably burned out out more pipes than most. The benefits, on the other hand, are great enough that I sometimes wonder if makers and merchants push bowl coatings more to keep us dissatisfied with old pipes so that we turn to new pipes than in any altruistic motive to protect all parties from burnouts. Which is not to say burnouts can’t happen.

There are always two pipe-makers, as Fred Hannah reminds us: Mother Nature and the artisan or factory. That means there is always the chance that beneath the wood’s surface there lurks a tiny air pocket or impurity which can trigger a burnout, no matter who turned the pipe or how much it cost. These can be sudden and dramatic, especially if located in the lower half of the chamber or around the draft hole, or they can happen over a half-dozen smokes, slowly creating a pit in the side of the chamber. It can even happen from the outside in, as once happened to me. It can happen in a new pipe or an estate pipe, and it will in all likelihood happen to one of your pipes at some point. Bowl coatings are supposed to prevent this but in actuality they sometimes don’t. In fact, of all the burnouts I’ve had, not a single pipe had an uncoated chamber. In the end, the risk of an occasional burnout is a small price to pay if you end up enjoying your pipes more, isn’t it? And there are ways you can minimize the risk.

Many reputable estate dealers are masters (whether consciously or not) in the kind of legerdemain which proclaims a pipe “ready to smoke” when in in fact the chamber is still stoked with the tars of yesteryear’s unsavory tobaccos. Even worse, there may lurk an unseen cake on the chamber floor (“Horrors!” I can hear you say.)

Materials. What I am suggesting is that you, who already a member of a class more patient than most, devote a bit of time to create as bare and clean a chamber as you can before first lighting up. To do that, a few simple tools are needed. Here’s what works for me:

  • a short piece of dowel or magic marker, ½ inch in circumference
  • a pencil
  • some tape
  • a piece of 150 grit sand paper
  • kosher salt
  • an eye dropper
  • cotton balls
  • q-tips (cotton swabs)
  • 91% isopropyl alcohol or Everclear
  • patience
  • a pen light
  • a PipNet reaming set, or equivalent

Most of this you will have around the house, and if you don’t have a PipNet, you can make do with another brand or even jury rig sandpaper over the end of a dowel or fat marker.

Excavation. The first job is to remove as much of the carbon cake, stain or bowl coating as you can from the chamber. In estate pipes there is nearly always a bit of carbon cake, sometimes quite a bit. Use the PipNet first if the smallest blade will fit. If not, use your ½ inch dowel and sand around the circumference until the PipNet will fit. The reamer will make quick work of nearly all the carbon cake. I concentrate on the walls before applying pressure to the bottom of the bowl. You may be surprised at just how much carbon was there on the floor, and in that carbon lies the worst taste offenders, as all the oils of previous bowls of tobacco have been drawn into it and over it. I often follow up with a light sanding of the chamber walls using the pencil, wrapped at the eraser end with sandpaper.

Bowl coating on a NOS 87 Army Mount hallmarked 1991.

If you find some tiny veins or “spidering” under the carbon of an estate pipe, a little more sanding may be needed. For this, I use the eraser-end of a pencil wrapped in 150 grit sandpaper. There may be times when the spidering is widespread or deep. If so, you will have to forgo this bare walls treatment and judiciously apply some pipe mud before applying a home made carbon cake.* But just as often the spidering will disappear with light sanding, revealing a bare, unblemished wall. If I find spidering in one area, I don’t usually worry about it too much. But if it’s throughout the chamber, there’s a problem with the bowl itself, which has a history of overheating.

Some vestigial stain and/or chamber paint may remain after sanding.

The thing about briar is that it’s so hard you have to really sand in one place to push the bowl out of round. So go slow, look into the chamber often, and move consistently around the inner walls. A eraser-end of a pencil wrapped in 150 grit can help you fine tune your procedure—for example, when you’re trying to determine just how bad the spidering on a chamber wall may be.

Chamber paint on this 2012 Iceberg dublin looked the same as the 1991,
but came out much quicker and was a different shade of gray.

In new/old stock Petersons, depending on the stain color of the pipe, you may find either stain (on a natural bowl) or a dark gray decorative paint, with either bare wood or stain beneath it to sand out. This paint is not, technically speaking, a pre-carbon bowl coating. As Tony Whelan, Jr. told me at the factory, the product was a vegetable-oil based product. Be that as it may be, it’s not a substance I’ve ever enjoyed smoking when breaking in my old Petes and in fact has always impeded my enjoyment to a greater or lesser extent.

I begin with the 150 grit sandpaper wrapped around the end of a magic marker or piece of ½ inch dowel rod. My theory is that the rough grit will rough up the chamber just enough to encourage the carbon cake. You won’t probably won’t reach 100% blonde wood,but you’ll be able to remove most of the paint or stain. Be conscientious in applying the same amount of force one up-and-down strokes, then moving over and sanding again all the way around the circumference. Blow out the dust frequently and take a look at what you’re doing, sometimes running the pad of your finger over the chamber to assure yourself you’re sanding evenly. To sand out the paint or stain in the bottom of a new/old stock pipe, I use the pencil with sandpaper draped over the end, either folding it under the tip or cutting an “x” to fold up the sides, leaving the sanding head area uncut. For an estate with a cake, the PipNet will remove pretty much everything.

Cleaning. With the chamber down to practically bare wood, it’s time to clean. This is done in two stages: (1) Fill the bowl with kosher salt. I usually just dip the stummel into the box and top it up with a spoon. On estate Systems, don’t forget to fill the reservoir—which is where all those tars and oils have been accumulating. On a new System reservoir, you should be looking at blonde unfinished wood, but if you can see traces of stain that have dripped into the mortise, fill it with salt as well. Now carefully use your eyedropper to fill the bowl with 91% isopropyl. You don’t want to spill alcohol onto the outer finish of the bowl, so I suggest you have the bowl securely seated. You can use anything that will hold the bowl in an upright position. I use a single pipe holder with a cotton pad underneath to minimize friction so the bowl won’t turn. Go slowly enough to fill the bowl (and reservoir, if a System) until you can see a slurry—the alcohol having filled the chamber. Don’t go to the top, but close.

Here’s a Shamrock XL263 from the Early Republic Era, which arrived as clean as any estate I’ve ever bought. An alcohol-dipped pipe cleaner through the shank came out perfectly clean. A look into the chamber showed it was without a carbon-cake and I could detect only slightest whiff of tobacco ghosting. Yet this is what the salt solution brought to the surface at the end of 72 hours:

Once the chamber is filled, set the bowl aside for 3 days. This will give the alcohol sufficient time to evaporate, pulling out the old oils and tars on an estate or stain residuals on a (non-Peterson) new or new/old stock Pete. The surface of the salt will be discolored and hard when the alcohol is dry, and when you crack it and knock it out, you’ll see the salt underneath is white and just pours out.

If, after the alcohol vapor has evaporated, you can still smell tobacco ghosting, I suggest repeating the process. I have often done this step three times until I could detect no smell at all.  Here’s Geoff Watson’s 11A De Luxe from the last post, after 72 hrs. It had virtually no ghost and a chamber free of carbon–and look at the reservoir:

(2) There’s a second step you need to take, one I learned just recently: removing the salt ring and taste from the chamber. This isn’t a big deal, but if you’ve only used the salt solution before, you will be glad you added this step. If you’ve never tried it, wet your finger on your tongue and taste the chamber wall before proceeding. You’ll taste salt. I have a friend who never uses the salt solution process because he can taste the salt afterwards. I confess I’d never noticed it before, but a clean pipe is a sweet pipe, right?

Look inside the chamber just beneath the rim and locate the evaporation ring. I blew out the photo a bit so you could see it a little better. This is concocted of saline and tobacco oils and is where most of the salt taste is concentrated. You can remove it by carefully mopping the ring with a few cotton swabs soaked in isopropyl.

The next step is to remove the remaining salt taste from the entire chamber. To do this, pull apart a few round cotton balls and lightly pack them inside the bowl (and reservoir if it’s a System). Again fill the chamber with isopropyl using an eye dropper and being careful not to drip alcohol on the outer surface of the bowl. This time you need only leave it for about twelve hours or overnight, although it won’t hurt if it goes longer. When you remove the cotton balls after the alcohol has evaporated, you shouldn’t be able to detect a salt flavor. And you’ll see the cotton has absorbed a bit more of the remaining tobacco oils or stain as well.

There only remains to begin smoking the pipe. Like approaching any other first bowl in a pipe new to you, you need to do it when you are sufficiently recollected to concentrate on your smoking and not when you’re multi-tasking between a game on TV, your kids in the next room and your cell phone. A slow cadence is recommended. When you feel the walls getting uncomfortably hot, stop for a few minutes and let them cool. You smoke a pipe, after all, and should remember one of our fundamental beliefs: easy does it. If you taste burning wood for more than a few seconds, let the bowl cool. Then proceed cautiously again. If you again taste burning wood, stop. Let the pipe cool and remove the tobacco to see if there’s any light gray spots indicative of a burnout. Many times there’s not, but if there is, it’s best to remedy the situation at once as described in “Burnouts and Your Peterson Pipe.” If not, smoke the pipe again another day and proceed as before until it begins to smoke as it should.

In conclusion, I’d also add that if you have an estate pipe in the rack you’ve never really taken to, one that you perhaps even cleaned up once before with a salt solution, give it another go. I’ve had a 312 Sculpted System with a vintage horn P-Lip for several years now but never smoked it much. I remember cleaning it when I first got it, but it never tasted right. I thought it might have been due to the horn stem, but it’s so beautiful I hated to let it go. I thought I’d give it one more cleaning before giving up on it, this time using the process just described, and it came out wonderfully sweet and clean.**  I should add that I was surprised when my PipNet reamed out a considerable amount of cake on the floor of the chamber! That’s where most of the “sour” was coming from, I’m convinced, because there wasn’t much of a cake on the chamber walls.

An old, new friend

* Rick Newcombe, In Search of Pipe Dreams (Los Angeles: Sumner Books, 2010), 108-15.

** Let me add that for those who heard the “Ask the Pipe-Maker” segment on horn stems between Brian Levine and Jeff Gracik on a recent episode of Pipes Radio Magazine, contra Jeff and Brian’s opinion, a horn stem has no flavor whatsoever (at least, my stem doesn’t). It’s quite neutral. Horn is softer than amber and acrylic but harder than vulcanite. If you’ve learned to “cradle” rather than clench your pipe, there’s no problem at all.


Continue Reading 192. Prepping Your Estate or New/Old Stock Pete for its First Smoke