In the dreary Virginia winter of 1996, I had just finished the oral defense of my Ph.D. I found myself cast adrift on the icy seas of unemployment with no job prospects. Not even a commencement exercise to give me symbolic closure to what had been some terrifically difficult years. Leave it to my best friend and wife to make the best of an intolerable situation to surprise me with a remarkable graduation present far beyond our means: a Sherlock Holmes Watson. It was my first SH pipe and it was—and is—a favorite.
This is the 1st-issue 1991 HM Marie gave me. Aren’t the lines of the original Watson gorgeous? They’ve changed a bit in bowl and stem since it was first introduced, haven’t they?
I dedicated the Watson to smoking all manner of English, Balkan and Orientals for the next twenty years or so—eventually finding employment—and it delivered some great smokes. Then a year came when I underwent some seismic vocational stress, enough that I look back now and call it trauma, and my taste for those types of tobaccos simply vanished. Like many, I had smoked my Balkan Sobranie and Bengal Slices during the cooler months, but now I found I couldn’t stomach anything that didn’t offer the sweet solace of virginia—2015, St. James Flake, Blackwoods Flake, Dark Star, FVF, Christmas Cheer and more. So Poor Watson languished, gathering dust, tarnish and oxidation, until one day I woke up to the fact that I might simply clean the bowl with the old-reliable alcohol soak and try smoking virginias in it. Which I did, only to discover to my horror that the pipe smoked wet and, what’s more, suffered from a wet heel. What happened?It seemed that in switching from English and Balkans to virginia and vapers, the higher sugar content of the latter weren’t playing friendly with the Watson as it was engineered. Condensate from the virginias drawing up from airway into the graduated bore of the P-Lip found nowhere to drop and so spilled over the dimple divot in the mortise, down the airway into the heel of the chamber. As I understand it from what I’ve read in Chuck Stanion’s article on tongue bite and elsewhere, the moist tobacco in the heel not only caused more water vapor but hotter temperatures and more relights. What to do? And I could hear Holmes saying to me, “Think, man! Convert it to a System!”Since the Watson is a full-bent P-Lip pipe with a thick shank, it is certainly System-ready. Moreover, there are for historical precedents for this in the long history of K&P engineering:
First, most of the “Navy” mount (traditional tenon & mortise) three-quarter or full-bent P-Lip Petes before the 1960s that I’ve examined have not only step-down deep tenons reservoirs. I call these Sub-Systems in the Pete book, because they operate just like the traditional System but without the army mount.
Second, in 1990 K&P issued two SH Systems, as most self-respecting Pete Geeks can tell you: the Baskerville and the Original (okay, really the 05, not the XL11 bowl).
My 1991 Watson’s home-made reservoir, well-used as you can see.
The conversion not only worked but Watson and I have renewed our friendship on the same footing as before, but this time with vapers and virginias. It is now what I describe in the Pete book as a “Sub-System,” meaning in this case that it lacks an army mount (which was never part of the original Patent but is so inextricable from it that we don’t remember that the Dunmore Premier Systems don’t have army mounts, either).
I was afraid at the time of the conversion that because the air hole was a few mm above the chamber floor the wet heel would continue. I need not have worried. You’ll hear everyone and his dog tell you that unless the air hole is drilled at precisely the bottom of the chamber floor and in exactly the center, you’ll have problems. That’s not a bad rule of thumb, except that it doesn’t apply to Peterson Systems and never has. I had never even thought about the chamber’s airway drilling in 40 years of System smoking until I began ready about this problem. None of my Systems has ever suffered from wet heel, and I don’t believe any of them have an airway that comes right to the floor. Moreover, they all smoke to the bottom. Either I’ve been miraculously spared of this trouble or it’s never really been a problem with Systems.
I began to wonder if there weren’t other SH pipes that might benefit from a conversion. Here’s what I found out.
POSSIBLE SHAPES FOR CONVERSION
I decided for this post to go forward with a System conversion on my SH Rua Spigot, because, well, I’ve always wanted a Watson Spigot System. And ever-mindful of the readership, I thought this would be a great opportunity to illustrate the process. And, you know, I knew with 98% certainty that it would not smoke worse but—given my tobacco choices—actually smoke better. And now, a dozen or so bowls in, I can report it’s been fantastic.
The SH conversion can be performed on either the original SH models or the SH Rua Spigots—the determining factors being (1) a P-Lip stem, and (2) the amenable shape. Of the 14 SH pipes, there are only 4 that I feel comfortable saying a conversion might (might!) benefit them, depending on the smoker’s tobacco choices:
We all know the Original will work because it IS also in the System range—the XL5—not to mention being issued as the very first SH System back in 1990.
Next of course is the SH System Baskerville, which also appeared in 1990. My Pebble Rustic Baskerville, an original-issue from 1989, is a Sub-System as some of the first-issue SH pipes apparently were—which is to say that it had a reservoir in it from the beginning. It’s always been one of my favorites. I hasten to add that I’ve never drilled a reservoir in my 2020 Baskerville Natural, which was not drilled with a reservoir and has never seemed to require it.
The Lestrade is the third pipe—a full-bent like the Original and the Baskerville—that might work well with a reservoir. I say might because I haven’t come to terms with my own Lestrade yet. It’s got a shallow, wider chamber than I seem to require and I haven’t found the right tobaccos that work for me. I’m still working on it as I’ve always had great affection for this shape.
WHY NOT TO CONVERT
So the first and most important rule converting certain Sherlock Holmes P-Lip pipes to Systems is not to do it if the the pipes smoke well for you. Nearly all my SH pipes are great smokers and have never shown any need to be modified. I’ll go further and say that if you smoke English or burleys I’d be surprised to hear that these pipes ever present a moisture problem for you.
But if you smoke the high-sugar virginias, va/pers or aromatics that produce a lot of moisture and you find the SH pipe accumulating so much condensate that you hear it hissing in the bottom of the chamber or taste it smoking really wet, it may be that a conversion can rescue the pipe for you.
First Caveat: Note I earlier said “P-Lip SH” pipes? That’s because no pipe will perform like a System if it has a non-graduated fishtail bit. The hobbled “Systems” that are currently marketed with fishtails are not Systems, despite any stamps on the shank testifying otherwise. You’ll get a hot, harsh, wet smoke from one of these “neither fish nor fowl” pipes. Try it and see, if you don’t believe me. That’s why K&P wisely introduced army mount pipes back in 1906—they do a fantastic job (with a P-Lip) with any type of tobacco, a good job with non-virginias even with the fishtail (!).
Second Caveat: I certainly wouldn’t suggest you attempt a conversion if you’re not comfortable with a variable-speed hand drill or lack sharp drill bits. I realize there are lots of readers with considerably more expertise and savvy in the shop than I who have equipment and hands-on experience to do this without going the simple route I’m going to suggest. CPGs like John Schantz, Gary Hamilton and many others probably don’t even need to bother reading this. But for those with some experience at refurbishing pipes, this can turn a suitable SH that’s not performing as well as it might for you into a really great smoker.
Materials: You’ll want a headset loupe, strong small flashlight, strong work light, blue or green masking tape, variable speed hand drill, sharp bits and a caliper with an extension to measure the depth of the mortise at the divot’s lowest point. I chose one drill bit for the pilot hole, a 16th, and three incremental bits for the reservoir: 9/64ths, 3/16ths and 5/16ths.
A clear head and steady hand are required. Probably best not to try this with too much caffeine or alcohol in your system. You might take a look at other Systems in your rotation just to get an idea of their depth. This will vary from one pipe shape to another and the vintage of the pipe. The depth will also differ a bit, but common to them all is the ability to swab them out with the twist of tissue.
You can see the soft dimple or divot at the bottom of the OEM Rua Watson’s mortise.
Before you begin, take a look and see how these four convertible SH pipes are engineered: you’ll notice the airway in the stummel is drilled above the mortise hole and that that base of the mortise already has a small dimple or divot in it.
Step 1. Measure the depth of the mortise at the lowest point of the divot, in the center. This is your starting point. You’ll want to drill about BLANK centimeters to give your System reservoir enough room to work.
Step 2. Wrap some masking tape over the sterling at the back. Two layers won’t hurt, as you don’t want to risk nicking the sterling with the drill bit or you’ve got a whole different mess to clean up. The tape shouldn’t impede your view into the mortise and will cut out the glare caused by the sterling under your lights.
Step 3. You’ll be drilling just behind the back of that divot dimple, following parallel to the stummel walls. It helps to place each bit by hand into the mortise just to see where it’s going.
Step 4. Drill a small, shallow pilot hole with a 1/16th bit before attempting the reservoir drilling. I know one CPG who accidentally drilled right out the back of the shank (not me this time). The pilot hole will seat the tip of the reservoir bit to keep it from skating across the surface of the divot.
Step 5. Begin with the 9/64ths. Go slow, pausing to see what’s happening and empty out the tear-away wood dust. You don’t have to reach maximum depth here; you’re really just creating a larger pilot hole for the third drilling.
After the 3/16ths bit
Step 6. Move up to the 3/16ths. Go slow. Blow out the wood chips and take a look.
Step 7. Move on the final bit, the 5/16ths. Check your progress. You don’t want to go so deep a twist of tissue can’t swab out the reservoir.
After the 5/16ths. You’re seeing the wood chips and dust that I hadn’t blown out before taking this photo.
You can also see the three different bits I used to create the reservoir in the concentric circles at the bottom.
You’re done. Retire, give yourself a pat on the back, fill and light the pipe. Good job!
For Nevaditude, Mark Hunt, CPG
Stock photos courtesy
Postcards from Galway
Tom Cuffe, CPG, sent me the following two photos. The first features some of his Petes, including some fabulous briar-band Galways that I felt must be shared along with his notes (I will leave you to pick the other amazing and rarely-seen shapes and lines in the photo). The second photo is of pipes Tom has made himself, making him one of the only native artisan pipe makers living in Ireland!
From Tom: The number of pipes I have collected over the past few years is all the fault of Mark’s book and a group of nefarious pipe smokers on Facebook’s PSOI. I got the book and a pipe as gifts from my better half as an anniversary present and was bowled over going through book to find that there were Galway and Claddagh issue pipes. The hunt was on.
Searching online, loads of Galways about but most were all sold on various sites. There was one site in Switzerland that had a plain, so bought it. Next up was a listing for Claddagh, same story. However, there was a site in Russia listing Claddaghs, but I was unsure of its reliability so I contacted Stanislav Potapkin a fellow piper on PSOI and an absolute gent. He contacted the site, and yes, it was dormant. He searched from his side a found a little gold mine from which we both indulged in a buying spree. I think I have 8 pipes from this site including 4 Claddaghs. There are still a few in Russia, unfortunately the situation there now has halt all purchases for the moment.
EBay and an Italian website also yielded some gems. Quite a few of them were unsmoked. I am in general getting the silver-mounts from Italy and the briar bands from Germany. Two special ones are the Italian issues, which I got in Italy unsmoked. An unusual pipe in the collection is the 999 briar band with brass rings, which could be a hybrid, as this combination is associated with the Dunmore briar/band and brass. So who knows?
Big thank you to some of the lads in PSOI group who are always on the look out for each other. My collection has expanded to include Galway related pipes, Dunmore, Corrib, Connemara and Roundstone. Some point in the future I might get an Ashford and an Aran.
Pipe shops in Ireland have dwindled down to 4 shops: Powells Galway, Miss Morans Belfast, Cahills Limerick and Peterson Dublin.
I bought my first pipe in Powells 30 years ago. Back then I only smoked the pipe at Christmas time. Now at the weekends.
Tobacco has become very expensive here, so now I get USA tobacco shipped in small amounts to my brother in the UK and he brings it over when he is on holiday. Irish customs will charge 76% duty and 24%vat.
Miss Morans and one or two Germany online retailers are the new Irish lifeline for the leaf.
My wish would be that there will be a Westmeath line of Peterson pipe, as that is my home county.
I have also started making my own pipes. 4 so far.