Have you ever noticed the button on a pipe can sometimes make or break your enjoyment of it? Back in the 1990s I really wanted to like Missouri Meerschaum pipes. At the time the company utilized an inexpensive stem that, when I clenched it, caused a gag reflex in my jaw muscles. I have no idea why, but I had to give up on MM.
At the other extreme, I’ve long admired Castello’s design language and tried a few times to get one into my rotation. My most recent experience was with a beautiful, seldom-seen orange acrylic stem on a Sea Rock oom paul. The button stymied me: the lip (clenching wall) felt like I was putting a dental appliances in my mouth for an x-ray. It felt that enormous. While the pipe smoked really well, I kept having the sensation a root canal was dead ahead and finally had to pass that pipe along. “The first three-quarters-of-an-inch at the button,” says artisan Jody Davis in Chuck Stanion’s recent article, “is one of the most important parts of the entire pipe because, basically, if it doesn’t feel good in your teeth, no matter how much you love the pipe, you will not gravitate to that pipe for smoking. You might smoke it a few times, but then it drops out of rotation because it just doesn’t feel great in the teeth.”
02 Donegal Rocky, c. 1945-50
02 Auld Erin (the line is documented from 1953-1957)
So enter two beautiful Pete 02 oom pauls, both Early Republic, both technically “sub-Systems” as they have reservoirs. The Donegal probably dates from 1946-1952 (late Éire to Early Republic) and the Auld Erin is first seen in a 1953 Rogers catalog. The stems are nearly identical, although the Auld Erin has a better-engineered step-down tenon (curious, since it’s the less expensive pipe).
I only recently acquired the Auld Erin—one of my “grails”—having seen only one other like it a few years back, which I think Brian 500s now owns. I don’t normally hold on to a pipe that I don’t enjoying smoking, so I knew when it arrived that it would need some modifications.
The slots are so narrow that while I can press the tip of a B. J. Long fluffy cleaner into it, I can’t push it much further. (I’m curious to know if other factory pipes from the mid-20th century had similar slots—if you know, please comment.) Chuck Stanion describes what is probably true of the smoke channels in these stems: “Internally, the smoke channel was stepped down from one diameter at the tenon to a smaller diameter in the center and even smaller by the time it reached the lip button. . . . There was little sanding or polishing of the smoke channel — the shoulders left at each reduction in diameter caused turbulence and moisture accumulation. The pipe stems did not smoke to their potential and were often clunky in the teeth and uncomfortable in the mouth.”
Donegal (L) and Auld Erin (R) slots
The buttons are a bit clunky and while not horribly uncomfortable, the squared-edges showing no consciousness on the part of the designer for the smoker’s tongue or mouth.
I don’t know how to assess whether the airways in these 02s have Stanion’s bumps or shoulders causing turbulence or how I could eliminate them, but I do know there are three home remedies that might fix the stems well enough to enjoy smoking these pipes on a regular basis:
- Chamfering the tenon
- Opening the slot
- Polishing the slot channel inside the button
CHAMFERING THE TENON
Donegal (L) and Auld Erin (R with chamfer modifications
If you haven’t learned how to chamfer a tenon, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive. Professor Schantz has given great instructions in Post #236.
OPENING THE SLOT
Before I move on, let me provide a caveat here, one from the Old Peterson Handbook: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Here’s a case in point:
Amundsen (Great Explorers 2002)
The pipes from the 2002 Great Explorers set, which I smoke on a fairly regular basis, have no problems with slots. As you can see, they’re small. Not as small as the oom pauls, but small. Why they should be among my best smoking Petes I don’t know. Never hot on the tongue. Little resistance in sipping the smoke. Maybe it’s a better smoke channel, maybe it’s the factory chamfering, but I wouldn’t change a thing about them. So just be sure you really have a problem before you set to work.
My goal for these button slots, as Stanion says in his article, is for them to be “ovaled and funneled and polished.” I’m not going to pretend I can come within a thousand miles of what an artisan can do with two hands tied behind his back, but at least this gives me an aspirational direction.
The first thing I do before embarking on a new a potentially hazardous modification to ask Prof. John Schantz, CPG what to do. His tutorials always give me scope for independent practice and he’s great with follow-up critiques.
John: I would use the slot funneling tool from Vermont Freehand ($4.50). Mainly using pulling strokes when cutting and bending the wire to flare the bit. I have used this tool many times to open a button that won’t pass a normal B.J.Long fuzzy pipe cleaner. I have only had a couple of pipes where the bit airway was too small to even get the slot tool started, then I had to drill a small hole in the slot to get the wire started.
If it is too much of a bend at the stem curve to accommodate bending the file wire, you can straighten the stem, file it, then bend the stem back again.
The slot tool also works to open and flatten the slot channel or aperture of the button. To do this, gently insert the wire into the stem without cutting just until it stops. Then pull the slot tool out slightly bending it in the direction you want to open the bit. There is enough flex in the tool to profile the edges of the airway into the funnel shape you like. After you get it close to where you want it, you can file in/out, back and forth with light pressure to smooth it up.
The tip of the tool will cut and scratch inside the airway, that is why I try to cut only while extracting the tool unless it is in a straight part of the stem only.
The slot funneling tool cuts fast and deep, especially on vulcanite. Start slow and get a feel for how much it cuts. It can work quickly with pressure on it.
To flatten the top and bottom walls of smoke channel or aperture inside the button you can also use a small file. I have used the file on my Leatherman Squirt P4 to square up and open buttons, but it is slow and one has to be careful not to chip out the bit.
Mark: So taking John’s advice, I got myself Vermont Freehand’s amazing slot funneling tool, then pulled out a flat needle file (third from the bottom in the Amazon picture above). I have a few sets of these as they always come in handy. This one at Amazon is $8, although you can spend quite a bit more and buy a set at any hardware store.
After opening the slot with the slot tool, I followed John’s advice and worked mostly by pulling the wire out but doing it in a crosswise motion, so that it was running back and forth on the upper or lower lip of the slot. The goal is to keep the upper and lower edges as dip or gouge-free as possible.
I did find myself excavating the inside of the slot a bit, simply pushing the wire into the slot about half-way and out again with as even a stroke as I could. I wasn’t trying to create a taller inner area, just a more open one, funneling into the airway at the back of the channel down into the stem. This was fairly easy and I never felt like I was out of control.
After getting the smoke channel rough shaped with the slot funneling tool, I used the flat needle file to create the edge, floor and ceiling of the smoke channel. By using just a little pressure I was able to create an elongated oval.
POLISHING THE SMOKE CHANNEL
This is where the rubber meets the road insofar as turbulence is concerned, and I wondered how things might turn out.
My sandpaper collection (such as it is) allowed me use the following grits: 220, 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1200 and 1500 wrapped around the flat needle file. This gave the paper stability and gave me control of my sanding. I used a gentle, circular motion to evenly go over the surface. I’m not trying to make the slot any bigger at this point, just smooth it to remove air resistance. While this obviously isn’t artisan-level work, it’s satisfying to see that things looks pretty smooth in there.
I followed the sandpaper with short lengths cut into spears from Micromesh circular pads. These pads have heavy fabric on the back and when folded in two and cut to a point, allowed me to insert them into the smoke channel with the rigidness necessary for sanding. I used 1800, 2400, 3200, 3600, 6000 and 12000. Again, I used a gentle, circular motion to go evenly over the surface.
As for the smoke channel itself–the area from the end of the inner button to the tenon end, Jeffrey Howell gives some good advice in the comments below. He writes, “I have had luck in the past polishing the interior of a stem using an extra long bristled pipe cleaner secured at one end and running the stem back and forth on the pipe cleaner. I start with automotive valve grinding compound and finish up with Flitz ™. You’d be surprised what a good polish to the interior of a stem does to the draw.” This sounds like a winner to me and I’ll be trying it on my next go round with kind of project.
MODIFYING THE EXTERNAL BUTTON
With the inner surfaces of the smoke channel done, I turned to the outer button. As Shane Ireland said in Post #314, “Mouthpieces are an extremely important part of the pipe. It’s the part that a smoker becomes intimate with, yet we tend to undervalue it.”
What motivated me to attempt this modification was, at first, just the realization that the button on the Donegal was oxidized. I find this happens a lot with estate pipes—I get them and the stem appears black, then after one or two smokes, instant oxidation. I suspect that a dip in Briarville’s Stem Oxidation Remover, while a good start, won’t really cure the button problem if the button hasn’t been Micromesh sanded afterwards.
As I was looking at the button, it occurred to me that as long as the Micromesh pad was folded, I ought to go over the front of the button with the creased pad to soften the edges. So yeah, eureka moment. I got a little more aggressive then, going over all the button edges, from 1500 to 12,000.
The gentle softening of the hard lines seen above after polishing to 12,000 grit make a tremendous amount of difference when the button comes in contact with tongue, mouth and tongue.
Following up the Micromesh sanding with a spin on the buffer on a fairly low speed using white compound allowed the cotton buff to slip into the new smoking channel and buff it back a few millimeters, as seen above (the white area is the dust blown off by the compound where the wheel didn’t reach).
02 Donegal Rocky button slot
02 Auld Erin button slot
You know, I usually get to the end of these DIY posts and give myself a B- or sometimes even a B+. This time—and remember I’m a special needs student—I gave myself high marks. Not just because I was pleased with the way these look, but far more importantly, the way they smoke. The smoke channels are free and open but not too open in the way a good pipe’s airway should be (viz., not like having the front door open on a Texas summer day). The reservoirs full correctly. No, they’re not P-Lips but yeah, these are a great addition to the rotation.
Thanks, Prof. Schantz!
IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
This first is a sandblast from 1974: one of the special-issue Hallmark Silver Cap & Chain pipes from the Late Republic era. It’s almost beyond belief, so deep and regular are the blast rings.
This 4s SPECIAL, HM 1980, is also extraordinary. It ranks with the best grain I’ve ever seen not just on a Peterson but on any pipe.