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260. A DIY on Bare Chambers & Precarbs

Juan Delacroix likes to say that “God leads every pipeman by a different path,” and in that spirit I thought I’d share a few DIY thoughts. The first, from Prof. John Schantz, CPG on how to create a bare chamber in a new K&P that has the “new” bowl coating; the second, an update on how you can replicate K&P’s pre-carb bowl coating for yourself.

 CREATING A BARE CHAMBER

A bare chamber can be a dangerous thing, leading to scorch marks, spider webbing and (shudder) even burn outs. That’s why virtually no pipe maker offers one. They’d rather provide the insurance of a precarb or glass-impregnated and impenetrable bowl coating, which keeps them from economic loss and a bad name and the pipe smoker from anger and frustration.

However.

For those with a taste for adventure and pipe nirvana—and I am not recommending you try this for yourself so please don’t send me hate mail—there is a special bliss that that can be experienced when breaking in a pipe with a bare chamber, a heavenly taste and otherworldly smoke. I suspect it has to do with the nothingness of everything, but that’s a theological (or philosophical) discussion best left for another time. I can only testify—along with Prof. John, who is the True Believer here, that when I’m up for the thrill of it, it’s amazing, if also a bit dangerous. It doesn’t last forever, but the strange thing is, that a pipe broken in with a bare chamber just seems to smoke better and better with repeated use.

John makes everything look easy. This is his 4AB with the precarb removed.

Caveats

The big danger factor comes in the fact that I’m not nearly as self-aware as I ought to be when breaking in a new pipe. I get all excited about the process, promise to retard my cadence, slow down and concentrate on sipping through the first few bowls. But it’s me that tends to be retarded, as I forget what I’m doing, get caught up in the book I’m reading or movie I’m watching (even worse), and before I know it I’m chuffing away as per normal and look up to ask my wife if she smells something burning.

A second danger factor concerns those who, like myself, adore virginias and va/pers. With their rich sugar content, these tobaccos burn hotter than aros or English mixtures, and as the ember of tobacco burns down, can cause some hot times that are best avoided.

Method

The pipe I’m working with today is one of my favorites, the Rathbone from the SH Return series, in the (for me) drop-dead gorgeous and wonderful-to-hold new rustication as featured in the 2021 Christmas pipe. I’ll turn this over to Prof. Schantz:

John:

  1. If it is the new water based coating, I just use a 1/2 sheet paper towel and fold it and twist it to chamber size.

  1. Then I run it under some hot tap water and squeeze out the excess. If your tap water isn’t almost as hot as you can stand, you might try heating water on the stove, as the heat of the water greatly helps the process.

The “before” shot

  1. I have learned to be careful about not getting any water on the outside or even on the rim if I can help it.
  2. I corkscrew the damp towel around a few times, then follow it with a dry towel and repeat the process until I am satisfied that no more bowl coating is coming out.

After a first wipe. Notice I managed to pick up some stain. Not from the bowl rim, as you can see, but underneath the precarb.

After 4 or 5 wipe-downs, there are still some dark patches along the upper half of the chamber, a combination of pre-carb and vestigial stain.

  1. I finish with a lightly damp alcohol towel and may even carefully touch fire to the inside of the chamber to burn off the alcohol and dry out the briar some. I want as small an amount of water soaking into the briar as possible.
  2. If there are still some stain patches, I may wipe them out using Everclear, 100 proof Bourbon, 91% isopropyl alcohol, whatever is handy.

Scrubbing with an isopropyl-damped cotton pad removed much of the remaining stain in the chamber. It also removed the stain around the inner bevel! John warned me about this.

I understand Mark had some difficulty (no surprises there!) and resorted to 150 grit sandpaper. Sometimes I have to do this myself. He says working the sandpaper on the dowel (pencil) up and down is a beginning, although the paper seemed to remove more stain with a side to side sanding action.

I like to wrap 150 grit around the eraser-end of a pencil, taping it securely. I sanded up and down at first, but found that side-to-side took off more stain.

Mark: Having cleaned the chamber to the best of my patience, I thought I might use Orlik GS for the first smoke, because it’s a virginia (which many pipemen use to break in a pipe), because it’s a cool-smoking virginia (I think it’s a va/bur, although many will disagree) and because to my palette, it’s an extremely subtle tobacco, one with flavors that only fully emerge in one or two pipes in my rotation. I gave myself the Self-Awareness While Smoking award this time, sipping slowly and letting the pipe go out every five to seven minutes to cool off a bit before relighting. The Rathbone is what I call “Peterson Stack” with a chamber height of 49mm, so I enjoyed a full evening’s smoke and managed to quit before getting near the air hole. I wanted not to smoke it to the bottom the first few times, as a bare chamber can sometimes burn at the air hole.

This is the completed project, including the restained inner bevel. 90% of the stain has been removed and all the precarb. For the bevel, I applied full-strength Fiebings dark brown on the tip of a Q-Tip, wiping away excess.

John: With bare chambers, I take a 4mm drill bit and hand turn it along the upper half to third of the air hole in the chamber. What this does for bent pipes is eliminate the thin wedge of wood there that is highly susceptible to heat, creating a tiny shelf. It doesn’t need to be much, just enough to combat the heat while breaking the pipe in.

Mark: Not having the thingummy-tool (John told me what it was) that you insert the drill bit into for hand turning, I resorted to my slot file (a very sharp, tiny round file used for the air hole at the button end of the stem). I could just work it with enough light and magnification to do the job with control.

 

Results

All the effort of creating the bare chamber turned out to be fully worth it. I will use this method again and may in time become as devoted to bare chambers as John.

K&P fishtails don’t always play friendly when I smoke virginia tobacco, but this was one smooth ride. I’ll think it’s because of those bare chambers (which really do taste different than anything you’ve ever tried, I promise you). It could, of course, have something to do with the wood, the chamfered tenon, the improved acyrlic button and just the joy of still being alive. I prefer, however, to attribute it to the bare chambers & have designated my Rathbone Christmas Rustic an Orlik pipe.

 

 

 

MAKING YOUR OWN “K&P”-STYLE PRECARB

 

The word is slowly getting out that the precarb bowl coating K&P uses is absolutely fantastic, offering a pleasant, neutral flavor and quick break-in time. Unlike every artisan pipe maker and most factory pipe makers, K&P has revealed the formula, which is a combination of food-grade gum arabic and activated charcoal powder (this latter is used orally by many folks to clean teeth, etc).

Last April I wrote about my attempts to recreate the formula and the many reasons why I thought it might be useful. While it isn’t a replacement for pipe mud as a chamber-floor filler and a corrective for burnouts and spidering, it is perfect for use on vintage, estate and NOS pipes. Every NOS pipe before 2018 will either have a vegetable-base paint or (before the early 1990s) stain.

After sanding out the stain or paint, the precarb offers a safe and pleasant way to break in a pipe. I sometimes get anxious when first smoking pipes like the 1309 NOS pictured in the banner, because I know that bowl was cut 80 years ago and I don’t want any kind of excitement or adventure breaking it in. I also don’t want to taste 80 year old stain. I do want a safe, tasty break-in that will keep me reaching for this pipe. But even with a more recent pipe, especially if it’s a difficult shape to come by, or anytime that a completely safe break in is desired, K&P’s precarb is fabulous.

A NOS Mark Twain with the DIY K&P pre-carb coating

Someone at K&P told me they use Smart Solutions activated charcoal powder. I pass this along to you because the powder I was using in the blog post from April isn’t quite the same thing and doesn’t perform quite as well, for whatever reasons. I can’t imagine the brand of food-grade gum arabic powder matters, as bakers the world over use this stuff.

Directions

Mix the two powders at a 1:1 ratio. 1 tsp of each will make plenty of precarb for 2-3 bowls.

Add water using an eye dropper, just a few drops at a time. The consistency of the slurry should be thick, but neither runny nor like paste.

I use a square-end stiff bristle No. 8 paint brush to apply the mixture.

Begin at the bottom of the bowl and work up the sides. Use enough light to make sure you don’t miss any areas. Also make sure you don’t close over the air hole. I push a bristle pipe cleaner just to the opening, then after painting the chamber, push and pull the bristle tip just enough to make sure the draft hole is open.

Let dry for 48-72 hours.

Note that the first smokes, just as on a new K&P pipe, will produce a bit of charcoal up the airway. There is no taste and you might get whiter teeth, who knows? The precarb will melt and flake just like K&P’s. Sometimes a bit of tobacco will become fused with the forming cake. No worries. You can either smoke the bowl down 4-6 times or just smoke the bottom half of the bowl, whichever you prefer. By the sixth smokes, you will have an amazing carbon cake.

 

 

THANKS
to my friend and pipe sensei,
Prof. John Schantz, C.P.G.

 

BANNER:
A 1309 Made in England with
NOS bare chamber (left) and DIY K&P Precarb (right)

 

 

Parting Shot

Giacomo Penzo, Peterson’s Pipe Specialist,
sent me this photo of his POY 2021 production prototype,
which Adam O’Neill photographed for the book,
available exclusively at Smokingpipes.com
.

 

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Stephen
Stephen
11 months ago

Hi Mark, Thanks for another interesting and informative article. Certainly a better approach than the ashes and honey mixture I used in the ’80s. On a totally unrelated matter, (please excuse me if you have covered this before!) I received my gorgeous pub pipe last week and began to build a cake. As you have noted above, I too get distracted and start puffing like an old locomotive. This time I was very careful, but I noticed that the stain was coming off onto my hands. After some internet research I learned that this is not a rare occurrence. The… Read more »

Richard Roberts
Richard Roberts
11 months ago

Thank you for this step by step method, which I feel even I could attempt. Your tin of Orlik tobacco bears the caption ‘cogito ergo fumant’ translated as ‘I think therefore I smoke’. What little I recall of my schoolboy Latin suggests that ‘puto ergo fumigant’ might be a better translation. I shall now go and hide from the cries of fury from pipe smoking classical scholars and smoke my new POY ’21,… Richard

Richard Roberts
Richard Roberts
11 months ago

Stop the press! I have just looked at this again and find I was wrong. Mea culpa. Now I really am going to hide. Richard

Martin
Martin
11 months ago

Thank you for doing this Blog entry. Now I´m feeling prepared to coat a DeLuxe I want to smoke for a long time. I probably recoating a NOS 312 also. Hope Peterson didn´t change a thing on the recipe because its awesome.

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
11 months ago

I must confess – my POY arrived yesterday and before smoking, I took a piece of wet t-shirt cloth and cleaned out the coating. If I had read this blog first, I might have chosen not to do so. I have another new Peterson arriving Tuesday, so I’ll give it a try with the coating intact. Thanks for sharing this detailed information.

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
11 months ago
Reply to  Mark Irwin

Mine is smoking great. It also has beautiful grain and the stem is a knock-out. I look forward to smoking the Heritage Wednesday, and will leave the coating as-is.

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
11 months ago

Also, I highly recommend Mark’s book – I received my new copies yesterday (got an extra for a gift), along with the POY, and thoroughly enjoyed reading the new pages with Giacomo Penzo’s description of how the pipe was designed and produced. It gave me a new appreciation for what went into the process, and to know that it was Penzo’s project.

Douglas Owen
Douglas Owen
11 months ago

Hi Mark, great advice on the precarb, some of the factory coatings can be fairly thick and I always wonder if they actually impede the break in process rather than help it. I was lucky enough to obtain a natural finish pipe of the year this year designated #3 of 500. That one is going into my rack but I have 3 resticated and 3 sandblasts in the series so if anyone is interested and missed out on obtaining one have them email me and I will sell them at suggested retail.

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
11 months ago
Reply to  Douglas Owen

Lucky guy! I’m kind of glad I didn’t see any Naturals, as I would have spent dough I didn’t have – just too rare an opportunity to pass up. Very nice of you to offer a pipe to those who missed out.

John Schantz
John Schantz
11 months ago
Reply to  Scott Forrest

DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and may or may not reflect the views of petersonpipenotes.org. You can boot me off, chastise me severely, or just hate my guts for calling it as I see it for my following thoughts. Sorry friends, but I have to say this. It might have been nicer had Doug left those six pipes for others to buy in the first place, just say’in. I seem to recall that Doug may be a retail tobacconist, so I understand if that is his business, but maybe he could have waited until the feeding frenzy was over?… Read more »

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
11 months ago
Reply to  John Schantz

John, the retailers got theirs in advance. I doubt they realized how few were going to be made available to SP’s retail customers, which is what led to the ‘frenzy’.

John Schantz
John Schantz
11 months ago

I apologize Doug Owen, I realize that it is your business to make a profit. I wholeheartedly believe in supporting anyone keeping a shop open and profitable in this business for us. Thank you.
John H. Schantz Jr., C.P.G.

Alexander Goad
Alexander Goad
11 months ago

I might give the precarb treatment a try on a Nassau St 999 I got last year . There are “flaws” in the inner walls that have made me wary of a burnout . A shame really as I would’ve liked to smoke it in its natural state .

Hank Lawrence
Hank Lawrence
10 months ago

I restore and repair pipes at my small shop in Philadelphia. I always apply a bowl coating to any of the pipes I work on. For years I used a bowl coating of activated charcoal and sour cream. 2/1 ratio of charcoal to sour cream gives you a pretty durable coating that allows to you build a nice cake in no time. I generally use the activated charcoal they use for fish filters. I find in my case it reacted better with the sour cream, rather than dental grade charcoal.