Early last October I woke up and after saying my J. R. R. Tolkien prayer (“Thank you, Lord, for another 24 hours to smoke my pipe”), I began wondering how hard it would be to replicate K&P’s current bowl coating formula. It’s just a mixture of activated charcoal powder, food-grade gum arabic and water. How hard could it be?
As soon as I’d made my first batch and literally tasted a bit of success, I began to wonder if this stuff might not be a kind of universal bowl panacea, a genuine “all purpose bowl coating” (APBC), something that would do these six things:
- correct potential burn-outs;
- fill and patch “spider-webbing” (the veiny lines sometimes seen in the reamed bowl of an estate pipe indicating heat damage);
- raise a chamber floor where high drilling is causing “wet heel” (extreme dampness in the bottom of the bowl, resulting in a hot smoke and unsmoked tobacco);
- freshen estate Petes with dirty or ghosted chambers;
- use as pre-carb for NOS Petes with stained chambers (whether new Naturals or new/old stock);
- use as pre-carb for NOS Petes with chambers treated with K&P’s old vegetable-base paint.
I treated and smoked at least two pipes in each category (although some were overlapping) to determine whether the APBC was an unqualified success, qualified success or simply didn’t work. I know this isn’t science, but it gave me enough data to determine whether I was on the right track in each scenario and report to you for your consideration and advice. In what follows, First, I’ll detail each of the problems and what kind of success I had, then conclude with the recipe, preparation steps I used and some overall observations.
Routine Chamber Problems
1. Potential Burn-Outs. Most everyone knows I used to be known as The Human Torch, King of Burn-Outs. I’m safely past such problems, but one thing hundreds of hours on the therapist’s couch hasn’t cured me of is my distaste for cigar ash pipe mud. The taste was fine when I smoked English tobaccos and I can still get through it with something like MacBaren Mixture Flake, but with virginia tobaccos it’s a last resort for me.
I made two attempts to use the APBC on potential burnouts with one success and one failure. Both chambers had a smallish gray spot which, with my keenly trained eye, I’ve come to recognize as a potential pipe killers. On both pipes, when I applied the APBC directly to the burnout patch, the coating burned away revealing the burnout spot after just one bowl.
This shape 4 had multiple bowl issues. An original burn-out spot had already been treated with cigar-ash pipe mud. The cake had become quite uneven as well. My first attempt—applying APBC just to the potential burn-out spot, failed. Sanding out the entire chamber revealed not one, but three problem areas. APBC only remedied two of the three.
Here as in the other jobs, I sanded out the entire chamber, leveling the chamber wall where the soft patch was as well as possible, then applying APBC. One of the two pipes came out perfectly with no recurrence of the potential burn-out. On the other pipe, the most egregious burn-out patch emerged after three or four bowls as a small divot. No gray spot, but there was enough cracking to let me know it was time to reach for the cigar-ash pipe mud. Damn.*
2. Spider Webbing on Estates. Most estate pipes seem arrive with a darkened chamber, often with a bit of charcoal powder and olive oil rubbed inside. The chamber will look inviting but without telling you what’s underneath. The wonderful XL307 Standard pictured above had a bit of carbon in the bowl, but I opted to use it for my research. Here’s what many estate pipes reveal when the carbon cake is removed:
I suspect this type of webbing, at the back rim of the chamber above the air hole, is fairly common in System pipes, as that’s where they take take their greatest heat. It’s when the webbing covers much or all of the chamber that the smoker notices the bowl being consistently hotter to the touch than other pipes.
This kind of veining or webbing is probably not a big deal for most pipes. It’s not deep and it doesn’t cover the entire chamber. Anyhow, in my first attempt I applied the APBC directly to the chamber as it was. The bowl coating cracking and fell out while I was smoking the first bowl.
For the next attempt, I sanded out the bowl as well as I could with 120 grit, cleaned out the wood dust with a cotton bowl soaked in isopropyl alcohol, then applied the APBC. Happy Smokes have followed ever since for this XL307.
3. Raising the Chamber Floor. There are a lot of folks, especially the high-dollar crowd, who will tell you that the draft hole has to come out exactly on the bowl floor or the pipe won’t smoke properly. In my experience—and it’s just my experience—this isn’t the case, at least with bent System pipes and Petes more generally. So this isn’t a knee-jerk kind of fix when the pipe may not in fact even have a problem. But I have a Watson that my wife gave me as a graduation present decades ago that I have smoked less and less and only in the past year or so figured out the why: it has a wet heel. That is to say, when I finish smoking the pipe, the very bottom of the chamber is wet and of course the final bit of tobacco is unsmoked and wet. Wet heel also causes the pipe to smoke hot.
This photo was taken after three or four smokes. You can’t tell the floor has been raised. The roughness on the back wall is normal for the charcoal / gum arabic mixture at this stage and disappears in six smokes or so, burning away to leave a flat carbon wall.
So I decided to use APBC to raise it. I know there’s restorationists who fill the chamber floor with JB Weld and those with engineering skills like Professor John have made special discs to insert not dissimilar to meerschaum coloring discs. my skill set is limited and I want something organic (ruling out JB Weld) that will also just turn into part of the carbon cake. So I drizzled APBC into the floor of the chamber until it seemed to be just below the airway hole.
The only mistake I made is that I didn’t give it sufficient time to dry. Being 2 or 3 mm thick, it probably needed a week or so, but I hurried it. This made the bottom spongy after the first smoke. I kept smoking the pipe every few days and eventually the floor hardened. And yes, it smokes really well. So I consider the APBC a real pipe saver in this regard.
4. Precarb for Dirty or Ghosted Chambers. With an estate Pete, the only thing you know for certain is that you really don’t know what’s inside, even when it’s from a reputable dealer. Even if it passes the Nose Test, there may be lurking some sturdy old ghost back behind the carbon cake, up in the airway or down in the reservoir ready to be a haunting. So if you’re willing to take the time to do it, the APBC may be a remedy that goes beyond (because it includes) the alcohol-soak method.
The APBC has scored a clean-tasting smoke on every pipe I’ve tested it on since October, significantly beyond what I’ve achieved with the isopropyl alcohol soak method. Why this should be so I can’t tell you. There have been some differences between APBC-treated pipes in terms of flavor and temperature, probably due in part to the briar and chamber geometry, so I can’t claim absolute uniformity, but all in all I’m impressed and will continue with this method until I find something better.
When my 9AB returned from an overseas voyage, I noticed I wasn’t smoking it much. It just seemed sour. As I thought back, I couldn’t remember the last time I did any type of thorough cleaning. So I sanded out the chamber, gave it an overnight soak with isopropyl-soaked cotton balls, then applied APBC. Notice in the photo above I dried it rim side down (the coating is thicker at the crown).
I suspect the activated charcoal acts as an additional sweetener by allowing the chamber to absorb the good flavors of the fresh tobacco while simultaneously masking the ghost underneath.
5. Precarb for NOS Pipes with Stained Chambers. I get nervous on new and expensive Pete naturals. They’re rare and (for me) expensive. The APBC works not only as insurance, but tastes far better than the stain applied to the Natural chamber. Of course you have to sand out the stain, but I think it’s worth it. I’ve tried this on two different Naturals and it works really, really well.
I knew I would never smoke this NOS Antique Collection 1905 Natural without some insurance. It was just too awful to contemplate a burnout on a rarity of this magnitude. I also knew it wouldn’t taste great for the first 10 or 12 smokes, maybe more. So—APBC to the rescue. It smoked like a dream from the start. (Don’t you just love seeing those old chuck marks?)
6. Precarb for NOS Pipes with K&P’s old Vegetable Paint Chambers. I don’t know the exact year K&P quit staining and dip-staining the inside of their chambers and switched to the vegetable-base paint, but I think it was sometime in the mid to late 1990s. The APBC worked quite well with these NOS pipes as well, although the sanding took a few more minutes. Beneath the paint there is sometimes a bit of stain spill to sand out as well.
This Dublin era’s “bowl paint” was the standard vegetable-base used for many years. It was usually very sparingly, just enough to darken the chamber, as seen in this one-off, a B35 Kaffir with a custom band made by the legendary David Blake at the factory when he was learning to solder sterling emblems onto pipes like the Castles Collection, the Founder’s Edition and others. That’s a chalice and host, so yeah, this is a “Holy Smoke.”
I think everything you need can be bought locally and if you do any DIY with your Petes, you probably have most of the equipment on hand.
Activated charcoal powder (there are numerous grades and brands available, as it is used for a variety of homeopathic remedies)
Food-grade gum arabic (this is used in baking and is likewise available at some shops locally but easily found online)
Two small dishes for preparation: one for water, one for the mixture (I use tea light holders, which are heavy and made of glass and so easily used and reused)
Sanding rod (I use a large pencil taped at both ends with 120 grit sandpaper)
120 grit sandpaper
For all six jobs, I recommend creating a clean, bare chamber before application of the APBC. It doesn’t adhere to an already existing carbon cake, as I discovered. It will crack, flake and then fall out.
This estate had some carbon-cake in it. I suspect the APBC was also mixed too wet.
On another estate pipe, the top half of the APBC more or less crumbled out midway through the first smoke.
The first thing to do for a new/old stock pipe is to remove the chamber stain. Sanding by itself won’t do the job, so it’s wise to remove as much stain as possible by soaking it out. To do this, place cotton balls in the chamber, saturating them with isopropyl alcohol, and leave it overnight. With moist balls, you can remove even more of the stain the following day. Be careful about the rim not to allow the alcohol to drip on the outer bowl surface. Especially on vintage pipes, this may cloud or remove some of the stain. You should be able to see bare wood in the chamber of a NOS pipe, but depending on how it was stained, a black undercoat stain may partially remain.
A black cherry-stained NOS 1309, Made in England sometimes during the Eire era (1938-48). The chamber was darker than the outside bowl, but it had not been dip-stained and came out bare.
This Amundsen from the Great Explorers Collection (2010) obviously had the black undercoat stain applied to the chamber (which can’t be removed, seemingly). Notwithstanding, it was one of the best tasting smokes of the entire dozen pipes from the very first bowl after applying the APBC.
The first thing to do for a smoked pipe is to remove the carbon cake. This is always a fun job, at least to me. You can usually begin with a Senior reamer, but a PipNet is almost always needed at some point to get down into the chamber floor. On many occasions I follow up with the sanding rod to get out especially difficult carbon. By wrapping the sandpaper over the eraser tip of the pencil, you can twirl the end of it on the chamber floor without risking damage.
When the cake is removed, swab out the bowl with an isopropyl-soaked cotton pad.
When I say “bare wood,” of course on an estate you will encounter some blackened areas and very likely spidering. The spidering will sometimes partially sand out, but be cautious and don’t allow yourself to sand a depression or divot into the chamber wall.
The second thing to do is clean the bowl. I pull apart cotton balls then layer them into the chamber, using the eye dropper to saturate each piece before placing the next on top of it. Be sure to watch the mortise of your pipe and make sure you haven’t overfilled the chamber with alcohol. If it looks like it’s going to overflow, use the eyedropper to remove and discard it.
Mixing and Application
I tried different proportions of the two powders, ranging from half and half all the way to 1 : 4 parts of one or the other. I’ve settled on a 1 : 2 mixture of charcoal powder to gum arabic powder. Here’s my recipe, which will coat 3 or 4 bowls easily:
½ tsp activated charcoal powder
1 tsp food grade gum arabic powder
add water with dropper slowly, mixing to an almost cake frosting consistency
I didn’t have much success with mixtures that were too runny or too thick. It needs to be sticky enough to apply, but not so thick that it won’t level out on the chamber walls and floor. I’d say the best applications were thicker than house paint but not quite as thick as frosting.
You will not have consistency from one batch of APBC to another if you keep changing proportions the way I did, that’s why I say that, at least in my experiments, I found 1 part charcoal to 2 parts gum arabic seemed to work the best.
I mix the dry ingredients a glass votive candle holder, as you can see, then use a #8 square tip paint brush to apply. The bristles are fairly rigid and can handle the APBC and give some control in its application.
I apply the coating from the chamber floor up, then use a penlight to insure I’ve got everything covered. This is important unless you have really strong light.
Set the bowl rim side up to dry. Dry to touch seems to take less than 24 hours. If you see a shiny spot on the chamber floor, you know the APBC is still drying there where it has settled. If you’re raising a chamber floor, I’d let it cure week or ten days, depending on how much APBC is applied.
If you dry the chamber it with the rim side down, you will create a thicker edge of APBC around the rim. While I didn’t have a problem on any of the three pipes I dried in this manner as far as smoking went, on this XL307 Premier a “crown” broke away and fell out during the first smoke!
I just kept on smoking the pipe, and since little carbon normally accumulates for me at the top of the rim, I haven’t experienced any difficulties.
Smoking the First Bowls
While some of the APBC-treated bowls have tasted better than others, none was unpleasant (and I use that word in its highly-technical, industrial-certified and scientifically approved sense as meaning everything but the heavenly taste of a favorite pipe tobacco in a fine briar pipe) or disappointing. Usually second or third bowls were better than the first, but a few times it was perfection on the first bowl and those afterwards as well. Here’s some final observations:
You may sometimes notice that after drying, the coating displays some cracks in the chamber floor. I went ahead and smoked these pipes (three of the twelve) with no adverse results in the development of the new carbon cake.
The “best” applications seem to have a shiny appearance with a few sparkles hither and thither.
For best results, fill only half the chamber for the first two or three bowls, and smoke with a consciously quiet or slower cadence. The smoke should be pleasant and sweet. There will probably be little flaking at the bottom of the bowl, but if there is it will burn away in the next few smoked bowls. While the APBC doesn’t flake as wildly as K&P’s own remarkable recipe, it does flake or seem to expand some, especially in the lower third of the chamber.
During break-in, you’ll notice some charcoal powder on the tenon extension of a Premier or De Luxe when you clean the pipe. That’s the beauty of the System—it catches the debris and won’t allow it up the airway. And if you’re using APBC on a Classic Range, no worries if the charcoal gets in your mouth, as many people use activated charcoal powder to brush their teeth. (I will add that I don’t recall ever feeling the charcoal grit on my tongue while smoking the four Classic Range pipes used in this experiment.)
Don’t try to pry out the lumpy-looking bowl coating as you break in the pipe. It will soon burn away, leaving a beautiful (and wonderful tasting) carbon cake in its wake.
You can see how the tobacco fuses to the lower chamber walls and floor when the chamber is filled and smoked completely. This doesn’t affect the taste. It can be avoided by simply filling half the chamber for the first two or three smokes. Or (and this is what I did the first four or five experiments) just keep smoking the pipe and finishing the bowl. Again, this is strictly visual and doesn’t seem to relate to the taste of the smoke.
October 2nd, 2020 – April 8th, 2021
*I want to post separately on various recipes of pipe mud, and already have one from Scott that doesn’t rely on cigar ash. If you have additional recipes, please share with everyone—either write me directly or respond in the comments section.