403. Two More DIY Studies Using Iron Vinegar Dye: A 309 Standard and a 307 Premier System

Back at the end of October in Post #367 I finally came out of the closet and told the world I love Ebony Petes.  It wasn’t an easy decision but my therapist said it would be for the best.  What he didn’t tell me was how much he charged for that enlightenment or how susceptible I’d be to adding more Ebony Petes to my rotation. Sometimes it’s best not to know these things.

During the course of my therapy, Adam Davidson, the renowned artisan as well as head of SPC’s estate restoration department, suggested a formula for making our own ebony pipes using the ages-old natural iron-vinegar dye recipe used from earliest times to seal doors, cabinetry, handles for hammers, hatchets, shovels, and other tools.  Certified Pete Geeks being what they are (intelligent Thinking Men), science teacher John M. Young CPG (Post #370) and machinist par excellence Fletch Hiner (Post #374) took up the gauntlet and made their own iron vinegar dye to create their own Natural Ebony Petes, which shows what lengths we go to in our love of Peterson pipes. I owe all three giants a deep debt of gratitude, because without their assistance and help along the way, I would not be presenting two more studies this morning.

As with most things, I’m a slow learner and got off to a miserable start.  I could make excuses about having The X Pipe to finish for the Chicago Pipe Show, but the larger truth was simply that it took me weeks and weeks just to figure out which pipe I wanted to submit to the possibility of an epic fail.

Feb 13th: Gearing Up

Feb 13th: I’m going to skip over November, December and January, months I had extremely good intentions of getting my project underway but actually did absolutely nothing, and begin with the real action in mid-February.  As you can see, I’ve got all my gear—coffee cup heater, steel wool, vinegar, cheese cloth, canning jar with convenient date printed on the lid. How could anything go wrong? The American Way (for those of you in other parts of Pete Geekdom) is simply to buy all the gear, as in, “Want to be a marathon runner? Buy the shoes. Buy the clothes. Buy the sports watch.” Then the rest just somehow magically … happens.

The first thing I did wrong was to pack the jar with #0000 steel wool, poor vinegar over it, seal it up tight, and leave it. And leave it. And leave it. Nothing happened. Finally I contacted John Young (science teacher), who said the stuff needs air. It’s a chemical reaction sort of thing. D’oh.

So I unscrewed the cap a little, and as it was in my study / man cave / workshop, whew what a stench. I was in a pickle factory. Still, I bore up for a week or two, when examining the stuff, I noticed (surprise!) nothing was happening.

That’s because, Fletch Hiner told me, “You also need to degrease your steel wool before putting it in the vinegar. It comes from the manufacturer with a coating of oil to prevent rust. This oil coating will neutralize the vinegar if not removed. While I degrease with Brake Kleen, washing it with dish soap will also work, just be sure to rinse and dry it well afterwards. The finer the steel wool the better, I use 000 or 0000.” Ah! Degreasing.

So, a warm bath with a lot of dish washing detergent, patted and dried between paper towels, and finally dried, dunked into the jar and filled to the top, leaving the lid slightly open. Nada.

Feb 15th: A Little Heat

Fletch: “A little heat won’t hurt, but keep it low. Don’t go over about 180F. Heat is not necessary but it will speed up the process.” Fletch achieved this by using a coffee cup warming plate. More gear? Yessir, that’s got to solve the problem. So I bought a warming plate for about $17, plugged it in, set the jar on the top and left. An hour later I came back and the stuff had bubbled over the top, onto the coffee warmer, onto the counter, soaked up under the warmer, and fried the circuits. End of coffee warmer. “Go slow like a pro, not fast like an ass,” as Ken Sigel always reminds me after I do something like this.

Too much steel wool, as in 30 minutes later the reaction had caused the vinegar to bubble over again. Took out more steel wool, then more again, then topped up the jar to just 2/3rd, leaving quite a bit of air at the top. And, just because I was getting tired of being pickled, I punched a whole in the lid to allow the thing to breathe and tightened the whole thing down.

Feb 14th: Eureka Bubbles

Feb 14th: Eureka! My first success. “It’s breathing and bubbling. “It’s Alive!” Now, to wait.

The 309 Standard

Feb 15th: First Briar Selection.  With the vinegar-iron solution part of the project completed, it was time to fix on which pipe or pipes I could bring myself to use. The first one, as you saw in the top photo, was a 309 Standard that Chris Mendoza CPG sent me in November of 2023. As you can see, the briar isn’t bald by any means, but the grain is a bit problematic.

Poor Chris little suspected that I have mastered the power of procrastination over years of disciplined practice. Nor did he know that once the project was completed, I just couldn’t part with the pipe. Chris is such a stand-up guy that he gave me the pipe with the proviso that if ever I came across a De Luxe Shape 4, I’d let him know immediately.

(So here’s the commercial announcement: I’ve been looking daily for a decent 4s since Chris made his noble gift, but haven’t found one yet. If you, dear reader, have one you’d care to part with or know of where we can lay our hands and dollars on one, please write.)


Feb 23rd: Swirled, Not Shaken

Feb 23rd: Swirled, not Shaken. “Everything is coming along nicely. I couldn’t resist the urge to stir the mixture around a bit, which clouded it up as you see it in the photo above. Thinking about it, this would seem to be a good idea, as it will loosen any particles from the steel wool and allow them to disintegrate more quickly.”


XL307 Standard (Early Republic)

307 Standard (Late Republic)

XL307 Premier (Late Republic, HM “s” for 1983)

Feb 24th: A Second Choice. I was so encouraged with the progress of the iron-vinegar dye that my next thought was that I wanted to try it on one of my own Systems, which was more difficult than I thought. I finally settled on my little rotation of 307s: an XL307 Standard (Early Republic), a 307 Standard (Late Republic), and an XL307 Premier (Late Republic, HM 1983).

The photos don’t do any of these pipes much justice, aside from an eye-popping display of birds eye that is jaw-dropping by the standards of today’s lackluster bowls. Seen in normal light instead of under the magnification of my phone’s camera, the Standards are much more interesting, with their bold birds eye, and despite a few fills. They also smoke better, so I thought, if I’m going to risk a bowl, I’ll go with the Premier.  Just in case everything actually turns out well, I thought I’d recondition the inside of the bowl—alcohol soak and scrub, ream the airway with a tube brush.

Just Waiting. While I was waiting, and not knowing how long it would take for the vinegar to dissolve the iron, I began thinking about earlier Peterson ebony or ebony-like finishes, and came up with three:

K&P’s glorious Ebony in a recent matt-finish HAND-MADE (House Pipe)

  1. True Ebony. The first, of course, is the true ebony, which K&P released in 1979, the same year that Dunhill released their own “Dress” line. I was originally hoping for a true natural ebony, but given the outcomes of John and Fletch’s DIYs and the work-arounds they used, I began to doubt whether this was possible. And recall that for me, the whole point of the exercise was to follow Adam Davidson’s suggestion of a natural ebony dye, as something to accompany the concept of the natural vergin finish bowl like that seen on the Natural Rusticated (Post # 315), the Premier Barley Systems (Post #365), and other recent Peterson releases.


D15 Churchwarden in gray (2015)

  1. Silver Gray Lacquer. The second was the silver gray lacquer finish seen on the D15, D16, and D17 Churchwardens in March of 2015, which in studio lighting is difficult to assess but seems quite beautiful (see Post #247).

Here I wondered: “What if I gave the bowl a solid application of Fiebing’s black dye, then sanded it off to reveal the black grain and topped that with the iron-vinegar dye?  Would that produce something akin to the gray / silver of the 2015 Churchwardens?” I discarded the idea because, of course, it violates my desire to create a truly natural dye finished bowl.

Fermoy line, shape 68 (2009)

  1. The third and most convincing candidate for what the iron vinegar dye might look like is the short-lived Fermoy line from 2009, which you probably don’t remember. It never comes up on the estate market, which is no wonder as K&P had begun the now-established policy of releasing what I call “annual lines”—like the 2023 Short Army (Post #349), which we’ll probably never see again. Annual lines (and I’m supposing here) are never meant to be more than a splash, then they’re gone. Sometimes, I’m sure, sales are so terrific that they are brought back, but usually subsequent editions are like the later reprintings of a book—not quite the same thing, either in finish, rustication, or whatnot.

Fermoy B10

Fermoy 150

The Fermoy, as you can see from the SPC photos of shape 68, B10 and 150 above, is chameleon-like: is it brown, dark brown, gray brown, or what? Going to the color shape charts, you can see what we’re dealing with:

Grey Brown

What I like about the HEX code  Grey Brown chart is that it allows me to visualize the unstained briar as it becomes darker, never to absolute ebony, but in an evolving sort of way.  I’m thinking what the natural dye will achieve is probably something like one of these colors.

Soup’s On: Steel Wool Has Dissolved

Mar 17th: Soup’s Ready. On March 17th, I unscrewed the canning jar just to see how things were going, and was met with the a thick soup. The steel wool had completely dissolved in four weeks, from February 14th to March 17th. Notice the thick sediment around the rim.

Mar 17th: Straining the Dye.  Straining with the cheese cloth was undertaken in the next steps:

  1. Cut a single layer of cheese cloth to fit over the top of the canning jar and screw the lid on.
  2. Then I poured the soup into a Pyrex beaker and throw the jar away (okay, I could have gone outside and rinsed it out, but I wanted to observe the jar as the iron oxide residue dried, which took over a month).
  3. Rinsed the cheese cloth under running water, then poured the clarified liquid back into a clean canning jar.
  4. Repeat the process, covering the jar with the cheese cloth, then pouring the liquid into the Pyrex, now rinsing the jar (no need to throw it away this time) and rinsing the cheese cloth.
  5. Repeat the clarifying process. I did this ten times, when I noticed the cheese cloth wasn’t really catching any debris anymore.
  6. Wait the iron-vinegar dye to clarify.

The clarified solution still contained some very fine sediment on the bottom of the jar, but the cheese cloth couldn’t catch it. I was simply careful to dip my brush into the solution without stirring up the sediment.


Prep: Isopropyl & Sanding.

Taping the stamps and metal, cleaning with isopropyl

Sanding to 400 grit

I went over each bowl with a cotton pad and isopropyl alcohol to clean off any dirt, carnauba or white compound might be on them. Afterwards, I masked the ferrules and bowl stamps then briskly sanded both bowls with 400 grit. While I might have sanded the wood on up to something like 12K, I left the wood at 400 for two reasons: first, Tony Whelan, Sr. told me on my visit in 2011 that 400 grit was as high as the craftsmen were sanding at that time. I’m sure things have changed since then, but these are both older bowls. Second, leaving the bowls at 400 grit kept the wood’s pores more open than a finer sanding would do.

Mar. 21st: Staining the Bowls. The next question was how to open the pores of the wood to accept the stain. I’d thought to use isopropyl alcohol, but it turns out I was 100% wrong. In one of my very rare moments of “measure twice, cut once” (aka “go slow like a pro”), I sought help from the internet on how to open wood pores for staining.  One of the violin maker’s forums, an artisan writes, “Hot water is the only good method I know to open wood pores—I know alcohol will readily close pores up,” and another seconded that advice with “Repeated wetting and drying seem to open things up nicely.” So—hot water it is!

After the hot water dip, I coated each bowl with iron vinegar until it was saturated and afterwards thought, “Oh boy—another goof! No color.” When I returned in 20 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised:

Staining in process

Several hours later I returned and applied a second coat. This time the stain beaded on the surface, like water on a recently waxed car paint—it didn’t absorb. Continually brushing the stain over the surface, however, finally allowed the stain to soak in. This time, however, I applied an additional coat about ten minutes later before the first had completely dried.

About four hours later, I returned for another round. The beading was more intense this time, but repeated brush strokes penetrated and soaked the surface. Again I allowed ten minutes to elapse, then painted the stain on again.

On the 307 bowl, I decided to soak the bowl in hot water before going on with more stain. I imagined some of the stain would be removed in the dunking, but my hope was that the pores would again open and allow the iron vinegar to penetrate the grain.  It seemed to take the dye much more readily than the 309 and I was able to set it aside as complete for several days while continuing with the 307.


Finishing the 309.

309 Hot Water Staining Progress

The 309 just didn’t absorb the dye the way the 307 did, so while the 307 seemed ready to proceed to the next step, the 307 didn’t.  So I set the 307 aside, I simply persisted in recoating the 309 for another two weeks, dipping it in hot water for a soak at the beginning of a session, then applying two coats, letting it dry, then reapplying. I lost count of how many coats, but I’m sure it was at least 50.

309 stained and sanded to 1500 grit

I went over the 309 dye coat with a 1500 grit Micro Mesh pad, hoping this open up the dye coat to let it “take” the white compound. I didn’t want to use the harsher Tripoli or rouge, as I wanted as much of the dye to remain on the bowl. Afterwards, pretty happy with the results, I applied a judicious coat of carnauba:

309 bowl finished

Grey Brown HEX #181510 is called “Wood Bark” by one paint maker, which seems to capture Natural Ebony quite well. It’s certainly not a true obsidian, and for that reason I was at first disappointed. The longer the pipe sat on my desk, however, the more I liked it. There is something decidedly natural, as in organic, tree-like, outdoorsy, in how the briar takes the stain. When you look at the photos above, the bowl seems to shift from one color to another depending on the light, as do most tree barks.

One thing I forgot to photograph (not seen above, but in the final photos below) were the three places where the hot water and repeated application of dye had popped out some of the filler putty, which was a terracotta. On these I used a Micron 05 archival marker, which filled them nicely without being obvious.


Finishing the 307.

Returning to the 307, as I knew what to expect by sanding with 1500 grit and following that with white compound and carnauba, I thought I’d see what would happen if I took off most of the stain. Despite its original lackluster appearance, it does have some excellent grain. And if what I found wasn’t anything great, I could simply reapply the dye and go from there. So I sanded the bowl with 400 grit.  Here’s what I found underneath the dye:

After sanding with 400 grit

I was totally surprised. And delighted. So I thought I’d take it one step further and buff it with white compound on the buffer, followed by carnauba. Again, if it didn’t appeal, I still had a jar of dye and could go back and dye it again. Here’s what I found:

After buffing with white compound and carnauba


And that’s the end of my very long story and a long process.  It didn’t turn out to be difficult to do, once I knew the steps.  Stumbling on a way to make a truly awesome contrast finish was an unexpected moment of grace. I know it wouldn’t have done much on the 309, where the natural ebony worked really well.  Finally, as numerous difficult life events have intervened to make getting this written up take even longer, I can report that both pipes smoke extremely well, which is very gratifying after spending so much time on each one of them.

And don’t forget, if you’ve seen a 4s for sale around the internet, or have one you’re willing to part with, drop me an email. I owe Chris Mendoza a pipe!





Parting Shot: the 309 coming up out of the hot water dip

Continue Reading403. Two More DIY Studies Using Iron Vinegar Dye: A 309 Standard and a 307 Premier System