370. Ebony Finish of a Peterson Estate Pipe Using Vinegar & Iron Solution


Written and Photographed by John M. Young

On October 9, Mark posed the following challenge: “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. Challenge accepted!  Being a retired science teacher and Certified Pete Geek, I couldn’t pass on this challenge.

Step 1) Make the solution.

The basics here are to put steel wool and vinegar into a 1 quart canning jar and wait.  Never having been a follower of “Keep It Simple Students” (KISS), I had to add a step.  I applied a bit of Dawn dishwashing detergent to two pads of 0000 steel wool.  The pads were then agitated with warm water and the soap to remove any oil on the steel wool.

Rinsing and rinsing removed the oil and most of the water.  The 2 pads were put into a 1 quart canning jar and 800 ml of vinegar (store brand, apple cider flavored, 5% acidity) was added.  This solution was allowed to sit for 36 hours with the lid loosely fixed on top.  Keep the lid loose as the reaction produces hydrogen gas.

Speaking of reactions, what exactly is the vinegar doing with the steel wool?

The reaction of iron and acetic acid is:

Fe        +   2 CH3CO2H   →    Fe(CH3CO2)2         +   H2
Solid         aqueous solution   aqueous solution          gas

After 24 hours, I was curious as to the effectiveness of the solution, so I applied a little bit on an unfinished piece of quarter round oak.  I applied a wetting coat to the oak and waited.  Overnight the wood had darkened significantly.  See figure below.

I allowed the solution to react for an additional 12 hours and filtered the solution through a coffee filter and strainer.

Equipment used for first filtering.


First filtering of solution.


Residue from first filtering.


The solution was then filtered through a second and subsequently a third coffee filter and funnel.

Second and Third filtering with funnel and coffee filter.


Step 2) Select and prepare a pipe.

While the solution was developing I needed to find a worthy victim, I mean a worthy subject.  I have a few Peterson estate pipes so this shouldn’t be too difficult.  I settled on one of the first Peterson pipes that I purchased.  A System Standard 312 with a P-lip.  I originally won it at an auction and restored it years ago.  The stem had been cleaned with rough pipe cleaners so many times it had a very slight groove cut all the way through the stem ahead of the button.  I repaired this with cyanoacrylate.  The wood was in great shape.

The first step here was to remove any finish from the stummel.  Originally, I had sanded this pipe all the way down to bare wood and worked it from 220 grit to 400 grit sandpaper then from 1500-12000 grit micromesh pads.  The wood was then treated with Restoration Balm (Lbepen.com) and buffed with carnauba wax.

This finish had to be removed.  I used cotton make-up removal pads with 99% ethyl alcohol to remove the wax.  I followed this up with a vigorous rubbing of acetone on a make-up pad.  I allowed the stummel to dry overnight.

Step 3) Solution meets pipe.

After the vinegar iron solution had been filtered, as described above, I set up a portable vice as a drying station.  A cutting board was used to keep any drips off the countertop.

Time for the first application.  I decided to use a cotton swab as an applicator for the vinegar iron solution.  This also allowed me to photograph the used swab in frame to keep track of the number of applications and the corresponding photo.

Stummel after application 1 while it is still wet.


Stummel after application 1 had dried.

At this point I wondered what the stummel looked like under that film that was on the stummel.  I used a cotton handkerchief and gently buffed off the film.  The stummel had darkened up a bit and showed what looked like a contrast stain.

I then used a fresh cotton swab and reapplied the vinegar iron solution.  I allowed this to dry for 30 minutes and applied a third coat.  Below are the photos taken with each of the second and third coats.


After application 2 wet.


After application 2 dry.


After application 3 wet


After application 3 dry.

This time I decided to let the vinegar iron solution do what it was going to do for several hours.  Each time I applied a fresh solution the pipe appeared to have a walnut color stain.  Perhaps I needed to allow it time to oxidize or react with the wood to develop the “black” color goal.

Four hours later I was curious about the state of the wood beneath that hazy film.  I again used a cotton handkerchief to buff away the film.  Wow, it is much darker this time.  For the Peterson aficionados out there, it looked like a Peterson Heritage finish.

The above two photos are after 4 hours and buffed with cotton cloth.

I applied the vinegar iron solution for the fourth time, allowed it to dry for 30 minutes and reapplied it.  This brought the total applications of solutions to five.  I decided to let the pipe sit overnight and to examine the color in the morning.  Well, that was the intent, I decided to give it one more coat before I went to bed thus, bringing the total to 6 applications.


Now, I’ll wait till morning.


Morning came and the Peterson 312 looked remarkably the same as it did last night.  I buffed off the hazy residue with a paper towel and the cotton handkerchief.  The color had darkened very slightly.  When examining the results in sunlight the color appears to be a very dark brown with the wood grain visible.  The below photos illustrate it nicely.

I wondered about the sanding I had done to this stummel as part of it’s original restoration.  I had sanded all the way to a 12000 grit micro-mesh pad.  I was concerned that sanding that finely did not allow the vinegar iron solution to penetrate into the wood as well as if the stummel were only sanded to 220 grit sandpaper.  The decision I am now faced with is three-fold:

  1. Apply the Danish oil and see if it “blackens” the finish.
  2. Apply a tannin booster (strong black tea solution) then apply additional vinegar iron solution.
  3. Sand the stummel with 220 grit sandpaper, apply the vinegar iron solution then re-sand to the desired 12000 micro-mesh level of finish.

Faced with the above dilemma, I emailed Mark and asked him the following question:  “Do you think that using a tannin booster, strong black tea solution, is breaking any of the rules of this challenge?”  He replied quickly with the following response:  “John, I think as long as you’re using the iron vinegar in the process, we will leave the rest to you.” (Mark Irwin personal response email).

That settled it for me.  I used 8 bags of black tea with 500 ml of boiling water.  I decanted about 10 ml of the tea into a plastic bowl (green) and stirred it with a cotton swab that I touched to the tip of a liquid dish soap dispenser.  I wanted a touch of soap to break the surface tension of the water/tea.  I applied the tea solution to the stummel of the Peterson 312.  The cotton swab turned black nearly immediately.  There must have been enough residual vinegar iron solution on the stummel to trigger the bonding of the iron to the tannins of the tea.  See the below photo of the very dark cotton swab.

The above photo shows the stummel wet with the black tea solution.  The cotton swab at the bottom of the frame was the swab used to apply the tea.

I allowed the black tea solution to soak in for several minutes.  I decanted about 10 ml of vinegar iron solution into a plastic bowl (blue) so as to not contaminate the jar of vinegar iron solution.  While the stummel was still damp with the black tea solution I applied a coat of the vinegar iron solution.  I allowed this to dry for one hour.

Here you can see the two swabs used, bottom.  The left swab is the black tea on the dry stummel.  The right swab was used to apply the vinegar iron solution to the still damp-with-tea stummel.

After the drying time I used the cotton handkerchief to rub away the hazy residue.  Disappointment!  The stummel was still brown.  A lovely dark shade of brown but still brown.  In the sunlight the brown was even more evident.

Here was my thought process at this point:

  1. I think the high level of sanding created a surface that is not allowing the infiltration of the vinegar iron solution.
  2. I don’t want to go back and sand this stummel from 220 – 12000.
  3. The black tea and the vinegar iron solution together did make the wood darker.
  4. Hot water makes wood expand. Expanded wood would allow greater penetration of a solution into said wood.

New procedure:

  1. Heat black tea to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60C).
  2. Dip the stummel into the hot tea allowing it to soak for 3-4 minutes.
  3. While it is still hot, apply vinegar iron solution.
  4. Allow to dry.
  5. Buff the hazy film off with a cotton handkerchief.

That sounds reasonable.  It doesn’t change or break any of the agreed upon rules.

Okay, do it.   I did and here are the results after I had given the stummel a quick rub with Nordicare Danish Oil and allowed it to dry.

It worked.

Now hopefully you have stuck with this long article and not tried to repeat everything that I have outlined above as a step by step guide.  Kind of like that test you heard about. The one where a teacher said to read every question before starting the test and then the final question says “Write your name on the space provided and turn in the test”.  Don’t do what I did.  If I were to do this whole challenge again I would treat the “estate P-Lip System” from Mark’s rules, as a pipe that you are going to restore.  I used a “estate P-Lip System” that I had restored.  I think my experiment may had been much easier if I had used a stummel which had only been sanded with 220 grit sandpaper.  I do not know this for certain but, I believe that was the cause of my difficulty.  The final 5 procedures, directly above the preceding 2 photos, are probably all that you will need.  Now, the one thing that I am not certain about is sanding the stummel after you have used the vinegar iron solution.  It may be that you sand away some of the ebonized briar leaving a stummel that looks more like a contrast stained piece.  That would require you to re-do the above procedures or, perhaps just reapply the black tea solution followed by a reapplication of the vinegar iron solution.  You may have to do some experimenting to perfect this.

For the final finish of my 312, I wanted something softer than a high gloss carnauba wax finish.  I opted to not use the buffer; rather, I went with Renaissance Micro-crystalline Wax Polish buffed with a shoe shine brush.  I applied 3 coats of this wax buffing between coats.  It gave me the soft finish I was after while still protecting the wood.

I had fun messing around with this challenge.  I appreciate Mark’s posts and his timely response to my questions.  I thank you all for reading the ramblings of an old pipe lover.  If you found any of this interesting I have a few restoration guides at Nebraska Pete Geek.

Finally, here are a few photos of my finished DIY Ebony Peterson System Standard 312:

John M. Young, CPG, blogs at Nebraska Pete Geek. Check out his restorations!



Justin Beal, CPG:


Jeff Wong, CPG:



Lester Mills, CPG, whom most know as “Redcoat’s Return” on YouTube,
has recently put up a video on the big Peterson book. Take a look–



I’ve been doing some preliminary work on a post about the Peterson bulldogs and have two rare ones up this week on eBay, one a first-issue gold band SH Baker Street from 1990 and the other an A1 (a shape from the 1995 Antique Collection) in the Donegal Rocky Sterling, HM 2007. You can see them here.



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