We’re extremely fortunate to have with us this morning two of my favorite pipe experts to deepen our understanding of what—apart from Natural—is the rarest of all K&P’s standard finishes, the Ebony. Adam Davidson, one of the world’s great pipe artisans as well as Estate Manager at SPC, will give us some history on wood ebonizing as well as DIY advice about how to create and restore this type of finish. Sykes Wilford, whose name you may be familiar with, is on board to tell us about current production of ebony pipes by the major players as well as Kapp & Peterson’s own current work. But first a word a contextualizing word or two.
Sillems Peterson Ebony 03 Spigot before restoration
I confess I never gave ebony pipes much thought one way or another until restoring a an ebony Spigot 03 back in 2018 (Post #81). Documenting some of Mario Lubinski’s creations for Peterson not too long afterwards, I got interested in his fascinating Gaelach Dubh (“Black Irish”) line.
This original bent-apple shape B42a is still available at
I knew that the acrylic F/T stems of the GD and I would never get along, so like Chuck Jones’s remarkable Ralph Phillips, I dreamt up my own P-Lip Ebonys, the Trom Dubh (“Chubby Black”) quartet for April Fool’s Day of the same year (Post #85). Although Peterson never contacted me about the brainy idea of a black-on-black pipe with its anodized black aluminum bands and ferrules, I feel fairly certain this was only because it was a dark post and they never saw it.
The Trom Dubh Strutcard (2018)
And so everything went along for about 200 posts until last April, when everything went dark. I had long since given up on ebony Petes, consoling myself with the thought that ebony was “a Dunhill thing” and that ebony pipes were probably too difficult to maintain in any case. Then in one of those “Can this really be happening?” moments on eBay I saw a long sought-after grail pipe, the Sherlock Holmes System Original. It was in ebony, but my PPAD (Peterson Pipe Acquisition Disorder) being what it is, I had no choice (Post #277).
The Sherlock Holmes Ebony System Original (1990)
It wasn’t but a few months before CPG Chris Mendoza’s “Postcards from Madrid” appeared (Post #306). I remembered when K&P had last done a big release of ebony Standard Systems around 2010 or so—and there filling one of the trays in the display case of R. Moreu’s beautiful shop, were several Standard ebonys. And one of them was—could it be? Not surely a 309? Moreu’s wasn’t equipped to sell that pipe to me, but fortunately another CPG, Brandon Labudde, read Chris’s post and wrote me to say there was a 309 ebony at Stag Tobacconist in Scottsdale, AZ. . . . Can you detect a trend here?
309 Ebony System Standard, c. 2010
I said a minute ago that for decades I’d always thought of black smooth-finish pipes as “a Dunhill thing” and to be sure in so many ways we are indebted to Dunhill. According to Dunhill’s website, their smooth black finish was introduced in 1973 as “Black Briar,” and renamed “Dress” in 1979. The Dress line seems to appear without sterling mounts, with exotic mounts, with silver bands and as incredibly beautiful double or even triple-bead spigots.
Dunhill Black Briar 4125
Whether or not Dunhill was the first to issue a black spigot is something I can’t tell you. But I can say that in 1979—the same year the Dunhill Dress line appeared—Kapp & Peterson launched their own Ebony Spigot:
The first catalog appearance of the K&P Ebony (1979)
The spigot seen above is what I call the “modern,” as opposed to the “traditional” beaded spigot which introduced at almost the same time. From 1979 until now many Pete lines have been given the ebony treatment (and one more to be added quite soon).
In the big Peterson book, Tony Whelan, Jr., who was then factory manager, explains a bit about it: “For the ebony pipes we use an epoxy glue and mix a bit of gluten powder with it into a paste, apply it and twenty-four hours later sand it down. We always put more in than we need because we want to be sure to completely cover the flaw once it’s sanded down. The most difficult pipes to fill are the ebony, because they can’t have a single blemish when they go out. Sometimes a black pipe will be recycled [taken back through production] six times before it’s ready to go out the door.”
The 2010 MT Set in Ebony: just a knock-out
As for the bowls used on ebony, I’m sure you can guess: they need to have as few flaws as possible. None is actually the ideal. Grain? They don’t need it. And given the nature of ebauchon briar, yes, there sometimes occur blocks with practically no grain. Same goes, by the way, for production at any other pipe maker on the planet: Dunhill, Castello, whoever. It’s a criminal waste to cover good grain with ebony (on the one hand) and a shame to deny ebony-lovers with ebony pipes (on the other). So the yin-yang works out.
The Ebony is something I’d call specialty finish. It’s not for everyone, any more than vergin naturals or rusticated Petes are. But I’m glad K&P makes all of them. The Ebony, as we’ll see, takes a little more care than other finishes,, but for me it’s worth it.
I didn’t know what percentage of Ebony pipes K&P runs, but expected it to be maybe 8-10%. It turns out I was wrong. But I knew who to ask: Sykes Wilford.
SH Ebony Milverton
Sykes: Ebony finished pipes stand at about 3% in the past year. It was higher previously, but never (since we’ve been involved, at least) more than 5-6%.
Black finishes–really black–on smooth bowls, are hard. There are a couple of ways of going about it, and each has its strengths and drawbacks. In our experience, it’s the most labor intensive and fiddly finish we routinely use (the contrast stains on Rua and Iora are probably more time consuming, but those combined are less than 1% of production). Black finishes require a lot of work to apply, come out wrong a high percentage of the time (and so need to be reworked), and just show off every little surface imperfection, in a wood that is replete with tiny surface imperfections. Whether it’s Dunhill, or Castello, or Savinelli, or Peterson, I’ve seen more slightly troubled black pipes as a percentage of production than any other finish. Notably Savinelli basically doesn’t do it anymore (note that the Bianca isn’t actually black, but very dark brown) and Castello does it (the Perla Nera) only rarely.
And similarly, as we’ve progressively tightened up quality standards over the past five years, we’ve been making fewer black stained smooth pipes. There’s not some sort of plan to discontinue them (though we did decide about a year ago to stop making System Standard Ebony), but getting them as right as we want to get them is painful enough that we’re just not putting as many through the factory as we once were, and using more of those bowls for other things.
Something more than a rarity: the Molly Malone (2011)set in Ebony
Mark: So with this information in hand, I was still curious about how to maintain an ebony pipes, especially after handling and restoring two Sillems-Peterson pipes a few years back and marring the rim of a newly-acquired 2023 POY ebony. I turned for help here to Adam Davidson.
Adam taking a few well-deserved minutes away from the shop
Adam: I can give you some interesting history about ebonizing wood. It was done not only for the beauty, but also a way to protect it. Any wood that has natural tannins can be ebonized. This was done with oak and similar woods for centuries.
I discovered this when I was going down the rabbit hole more than a decade ago to figure out how Tom Eltang did his black contrast and knew it was a chemical reaction, but never discovered where to get it. The few pipe makers I know who acquired the two-part solution don’t even use it. They did a few times, but gave up. Tom doesn’t even use it anymore.
Back to what I discovered, craftsmen for centuries have dissolved iron in acid to get a solution. The way I did this was to simply put a piece of 0000 steel wool in a mason jar and cover it with white vinegar. It sat there in my shop for weeks and slowly dissolved. You can cram probably three or four pieces of steel wool–or more–into a jar and cover it with the vinegar. The more steel wool, the higher concentration. The acid in the vinegar dissolves and absorbs the iron. I strained this through coffee filters to remove the rusty parts and was left with a solution that didn’t have much color. Centuries ago they simply dissolved iron scraps or nails or whatever in vinegar to do the same thing, but of course it took much longer.
I have some reproduction smallish tomahawk axes that soldiers carried during flintlock days. My handle was made from oak and was unfinished. I simply dipped a rag in the iron vinegar and wiped it all over the wood handle (making sure to not dip the rag back into the jar, which would cross -contaminate it). I wiped the handle many times to soak up the iron vinegar. There was no color other than it just looking wet. But…when it dried, it turned grey. Then I wiped on more and it became darker. Doing this a few more times turned it almost black. The reaction happened because the iron solution (which was rather clear or a little yellowish) reacted with the tannins in the wood and oxygen in the air. It was really cool even though it wasn’t pure black. But…very dark gray (like charcoal almost), but wiping any oil on it made it look wet and it was black.
Craftsmen did the same thing with chairs, dressers, tool handles, and anything else. It makes it look nice and–to some degree–made bugs not want to nibble on it. This is also why barns are red! That’s basically just a bunch of rust and a few other things mixed into milk paint. Bugs don’t want to eat the iron.
Then I experimented by wiping the iron vinegar on a pipe multiple times. It worked. I still had to sand it down to get a contrast, which worked because the wood grain reacted to the chemical alteration. However, when I put a top coat of yellow on it, it was still greenish (which is what all pipe makers do when they dry black stain, sand, yellow stain). Yellow and black makes green even though the iron solution doesn’t mix with the black but sits on top. So I tried it the same way but just oiled it after sanding the black down. It looked better, but I noticed tiny little spots of rust all over the pipe, plus some black and some gray, so I never did it again.
As for ebony briar pipes, it’s possible pipes made in the 1800s had an iron vinegar finish and were just oiled or polished for the same look, but I’m not sure. What I do know is that 99.99% of pipes with an ebony finish are just stained with black dye–which Peterson does as well. To make it look blacker, some makers would just wipe oil in it before letting it dry and buffing it. Peterson doesn’t do that, but instead, after staining the pipe black and letting it dry, they simply spray the finish on top of it. Your POY2023 Ebony has a spray finish with a medium luster. Some Peterson pipes have (and had) a spray with more shine to it. Personally I think the medium luster usually looks better.
Silver Cap Ebony XL90 Spigot
(photo courtesy Pfeiffen Online Shop)
Now, as for maintenance and restoration. If a maker stains the pipe black, oils it, and then polishes it and waxes it, later on it can just be put back on a buffing wheel with wax to bring the shine back. Because Peterson (and others) spray on a finish, if it bubbles, flakes, peels, or burns off, restoration involves more than simply stain, oil, polish and wax.
I can think of two possible ways to go about restoring the bubbles, flakes, peels or burns. One is to use a Q-tip dipped in a mixture of black stain and Danish oil. Wipe the concoction on, rub and afterwards wax. Another is to try dipping a Q-tip in black stain so it’s soaked and then dipping the soaked Q-tip in a few drops of Danish oil and rubbing it on the rim. Even so it’s probably not going to match.
After all—you can have an outfit of black shoes, black socks, black pants, black belt, black t-shirt, black dress shirt, black tie, black jacket, black hat, and black sunglasses—and black dye for your beard—and none of it will be the same black. The only exception would be if dress shirt, pants and jacket were all cut from the same bolt of cloth. You get my meaning.
The Ebony & Ivory Collection (2010 catalog):
An X105 briar and a 69 meerschaum
Mark: With this information from Adam and going back to look at what I’d done with the Sillems spigot, I have a few thoughts. First, when I completed the Sillems back in 2018, I didn’t seal it with Danish oil but just buffed the dyed pipe with carnauba wax, leaving little in the way of protection for the ebony finish. It seems to me the best protection would b–if I’m understanding Adam correctly–to top the Fiebings black dye with danish oil then buffing with white compound and carnauba. And here’s a case in point: my lovely 2023 Ebony POY:
Rim of my Ebony 2023 POY
I can’t be sure how I did this to the rim, but I suspect myself of loading the tobacco to the rim (never a good idea) and / or using a Zippo. Probably I shouldn’t blame the Zippo, since I’ve been placing the pipe insert Zippo down on the rim for several months now on other pipes and never had an issue. But something hot got on the rim. So what to do?
The plan—and I write this before the attempting the harrowing task—is this: lightly sand the rim top with Micromesh, just enough to remove the bubbles. Carefully, carefully, carefully daub a Fiebing’s black eye – Watco danish oil half-and-half mixture onto the rim. Let dry. Polish carefully carefully carefully with white compound on the buffer (having taped around the extremities of the chamber), then see how badly (or well) it all turns out.
1. Topping the rim. So “lightly topping” didn’t work. 1800 mesh didn’t hardly touch the surface. I went to 600 grit and it took off the spray finish without disturbing the underlying stain:
2. Then I applied the half-and-half mixture of danish oil and dye. That didn’t work (I suppose you’d need to find a black danish oil; I used “natural”).
So: I applied the black dye black dye with a Q-Tip, being very careful not to load the cotton tip so as to cause dye to slip over the rim onto the side of the bowl (this wasn’t difficult; I just went slow). I did six coats, spacing them out about 30-45 minutes apiece or until the wood appeared dry and the dye didn’t rub off (much) on my finger. I could have done another six, I’m sure, but I got impatient (blog deadlines and all). The photo below is at 4 coats of the 6.
3. Danish oil application. So now I used the directions on the Watco can, aside from applying with a Q-Tip, which offered me more control than trying to use a piece of cloth and my fingertip. After shaking the can, I simply dipped the Q-Tip into the cap lid. This stuff isn’t as viscous as you might think, so you need to press out a drop on the tin cap before applying to the rim surface. No real odor noticeable, at least in such a small quantity. Again, try not to overload the rim. I applied 2 coats, waiting 45 minutes between, then allowing the rim to dry overnight. Here it is wet, after the danish oil has uniformly soaked into the wood. As you can see, the 600 grit left the rim porous enough to soak in the oil. I was afraid if I went very high–say 1200 or above on the wood–the pores of the wood might not allow the dye and oil to penetrate very well. Better DIYers than I will know if I might have sanded to a finer grit before dye and oil.
4. Danish oil dry. Uh-oh, you’re saying, the rim (in the following photo) doesn’t look like it soaked in well enough. Perhaps not, but I thought I’d go ahead with the Watco directions before peddling back for a do-over with more coats of Danish. Easy enough to remove the white compound and carnauba and do a light sanding.
5. White compound. Here’s the rim after hitting it at a 45 degree angle with white compound on the Foredom. As you can see, the white compound following the danish oil is brought up the black and the shine to a low-medium luster.
6. And now, the grand finale with carnauba. With the eye alone, I couldn’t tell where the original finish on the side of the bowl ended and the rim finish begins. It appears seamless to me:
Two final tips: after smoking an Ebony, you may see a crescent of discoloration at the back of the rim from the tobacco smoke. I notice it occurs on my 309 but not on my SH System 05. With your finger, rub a bit of saliva on the discoloration and wipe with a microfiber rag after smoking. It should lift off. Mine does.
All done and ready for tonight’s smoke
The second tip—and here you ought to do what I say and not what I too often do—don’t load the chamber to the rim. It only makes the tobacco smoke hotter, anyway, as Shane Ireland has said. But by loading it only to the 80% mark, you also prevent the tobacco heat from coming so near the edge of the rim. And, if you want to add more precaution, use the more directed soft flame butane like your Peterson Old Boy when lighting instead of the wandering flame and harsher intake required for a Zippo.
And that’s it! Even if you remain skeptical about ever adding an Ebony to your rotation, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit about the finish, how Peterson creates it and how the Pete Geek can enjoy and maintain it.
…and coming soon, in case all this has piqued your interest:
Thanks so much to Adam Davidson and Sykes Wilford for their contributions
and to Smokingpipes.com for stock photos. . .
and to Kapp & Peterson for the sneak preview of an upcoming release!
THE NATURAL EBONY DIY CHALLENGE
and win the No Prize Merit Badge
I’m offering a No Prize for anyone who cares to take up the Natural Ebony DIY Challenge with me. I’ve got an estate System on hand and want to try my hand at creating a genuine “Natural Ebony” using some of Adam’s iron vinegar finish. If you want to join me, I’ll run your post separately. Here’s the idea:
- Use an estate P-Lip System
- Remove the old finish
- Create your own iron vinegar finish using Adam’s instructions (no Fiebings Black Dye allowed)
- Use danish oil or other polish to bring up the shine
- Document your work with photographs and your procedure
- Submit photos and write-up to receive your No Prize
I don’t know how long the iron vinegar finish will take to create. I’ve got mine started just today. There’s loads of information on creating this type of finish available on the internet. Re-read Adam’s advice for how to get started.
Looking for a Silver Gray-Charles Peterson NAP?
Linwood Hines has for sale one of the original 17 NAP System pipes made for Peterson Pipe Notes in 2019. If you know Linwood (Doctor of Pipes, founder of CORPS, the Richmond Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers some 40 years ago), you know he takes immaculate care of his pipes. This is #6 of 17 Silver made. It has been smoked just a few times, as you can see from the detail of the reservoir. If you’ve never smoked a NAP and call yourself a Pete Geek—well, now’s the time to remedy that! Price: $495. Direct your inquiry to Linwood Hines, email@example.com.
The Texas Pipe Show is Saturday, November 11th. I know CPGs Mark Dominguez (Lone Star Briar), Gary Tarman and Mike Austin will be attending. I’ll have a Peterson presentation table set up with a few bits and bobs of Pete history as well as some copies of a few of my books. A 2023 Texas Pipe Show merit badge will, of course, be added to the CPG for anyone who attends. For more info, check out the show HERE.
The Celtic Ebony (HM 2016) seen in the top banner
was one of the last Mario Lubinski – Peterson creations, although it was sold in all markets.
An XL90 P-Lip is seen next to a 2007 genuine Peterson Zippo.
You guessed it. It’s “Peterson Time”!