207. Reverse, Restore, RePETE: A Cautionary DIY Tale

Welcome to another episode of This Old Pipe, where the restorationist gets a crazy idea, throws caution to the wind, measures once and cuts twice and then walks away with expletives, a few tears, a lesson learned and two pipes back in fighting trim. I had not intended to write up this experience so there aren’t many process photographs, but there are one or two instructive points, both cautionary and otherwise that I thought you might find interesting.

This morning we’re looking at my two oldest Petes, my first Peterson, a System 309 (1979) and my first De Luxe (1981). I won’t tell you how many times I’ve renovated these pipes, not because I’m ashamed but because I really don’t remember. Common to both is 40 years’ smoking and the kind of affection and abuse that comes with that kind of mileage.

The 309 has been the better smoker overall but both have been languishing for some time in the rack in need of some beautification. Last summer’s success with a De Luxe 11A inspired me recently to think I might carry out a similar renovation or “reverse and restore” on these two by removing the original stain with Micro Mesh pads then buffing with carnauba. What could go wrong? Maybe just one thing: I forgot about bowl grades.

About every other month I see a surly comment about dark stain on K&P’s pipes. I’ve never read one about a Castello’s dark stains or Dunhill’s or even BriarWorks, but for some reason if every pipe Peterson sells isn’t a perfect unblemished Natural it seems to irritate someone. If you know one of those people, direct them here for some illumination.

Simply put, K&P grades their stummels by grain and flaws. At one end there’s a very, very few with stunning grain and no flaws. At the other end—well, you get the idea. And generally speaking, the lighter the color, the better the stummel quality (grain + flaw condition combined). Price, of course, enters into this equation and to expect a fantastically grained new Pete for $100 is a bit unrealistic (although I own some). Add to this the fact that fashions in pipe colors have changed over the decades. There were times when natural colors were preferred—one thinks of the Shamrock blondes of the 1950s and the NATURAL Kildares from the same decade. There have also been periods when fairly dark stains were used on top-quality grain: the Centenary commemoratives in 1975 and the De Luxe pipes in the early 1980s come to mind. But as much as we look on K&P as one of the great benefactors of the World of Pipes, it is nevertheless imperative that when they buy raw materials like stummels, they make a profit on them. And for us that simply means that we can always hope to find a Peterson that we can afford.

1982 De Luxe 11s

I’ve bragged about this pipe before, as my young bride couldn’t wait for Christmas to give it to me late one night while I was doing my bit as a radio dispatcher for Oklahoma Natural Gas Co.  The pipe has had some difficulties in the past, primarily to do with the chamber, but I was concerned here to see if I couldn’t do something about the exterior. So I put masking tape over the stamps and mounting on the stummel then begin at 400 grit and work up to 12,000 with the pads. If you’re wondering, beginning at 400 doesn’t strip all the stain. There’s still a deep memory of that in the wood. Anyway, with the sanding completed, I buffed the bowl with carnauba (having already restored the space-fitting mouthpiece) and you can see the result:

The reverse features my favorite type of K&P grain—birds eye, not the strongest “paisley” but very pleasing nevertheless. What you can see in the photo but probably wouldn’t notice if holding it in your hands is the area I covered the stamp and an area on the top of the shank at the mortise that I didn’t sufficiently sand. But I was pleased—this is far more attractive than it was before.

The obverse is just as striking, with the birds eye in the center and grain radiating out from it in all directions. In the photo you can see where I masked over the stamp, but it isn’t too noticeable and so far, so good.

Here’s the problem, on the bottom of the bowl. I had wondered when doing earlier work on this pipe if these two dark patches were heat-related, if the bottom of the bowl was burning out either from the inside or outside. I determined that it wasn’t a burn out from the inside many years ago, but it wasn’t until sanding it this time and buffing it that I could tell for certain that the dark bands are simply grain where the undercoat of black stain took hold originally. An orange stain in 1982 would have worked because there is no black undercoat. But once you put that black on—which was done here—you’ve got to go to a medium brown at the very least.

All in all, I still like this better than before, especially since I’m not looking at the underside while I’m smoking the pipe. And if it gets annoying, it’s easy to return it to a darker shade, as you’ll see with the 309 below.

309 (c. 1979)

This pipe has been with me almost since I began smoking. It’s possibly the ugliest-grained briar you’re likely to encounter, the grain running horizontally around the bowl. I’ve smoked it so much and for so long that it is seasoned to perfection, despite my best efforts to mess it up over the years. One thing I did when first under Rick Newcombe’s “open up the airway” spell was mistakenly enlarge the airway a bit. Even that didn’t mess it up too bad, although I do have to smoke it slower than my other Systems. At least I can now say with conviction that you should never, ever have to open up a System’s airway.  If you’re having troubles, the problem is usually that the airway needs a good scrubbing and gentle reaming. I’ve also swapped out mouthpieces at various times, thinking I needed the one it had for some other pipe. The one it’s got now at least looks right and cinches up correctly. It even has an aluminum tenon extension, a proven bonus in its smoking qualities. It is a bit shorter than the original, but with its classic bend it still looks every bit the part of a great 309.

What I did not show you here was that I gave the crown a very light topping (maybe 1 or 2 mm) to bring it into square. I have no idea why DIYers and even estate dealers don’t do this routinely, especially on Petes with sharp edges, but they don’t, and it’s one of the best things you can do to give the pipe a new look.

After taping off the stamping, I sanded it from 400 to 12K. This is another great things I’ve learned in reconditioning Petes in the last five years, as it gives the bowl a softness and patina that carnauba alone can’t give. I suppose estate dealers don’t do it because it takes time to do the sanding, but in my opinion it can make all the difference in bringing back a pipe to new life.

You can see that the reverse is actually quite striking:

Of course I forgot to factor in the fact that this was originally a dark-stained pipe. I could have probably looked a little closer at the pipe before I did all this, but I guess I just wanted to be sure. “Measure once, cut twice” as my Dad always said to me in an ironic and accusatory voice when I’d just bungled something. More to the point, it’s wise to remember that a smooth pipe usually has dark stain for a reason. You can see where the black stain took—not only the horizontal grain swirls, but that large patch at the front of the obverse side.

I don’t know how much sanding would have to be done to eliminate all the black stain—maybe John or another artisan maker could tell us? Is it even possible?

Anyway, while the reverse looked lovely, I knew I’d never pick this pipe up again looking at that Big Spot of Ugly. After a few days, I knew what to do—restain it, of course. You might think putting Feibing’s Medium Brown over it would be the thing to do, but what I in fact did was apply a 1:4 dilution of black dye three or four times until it looked pretty close to the current “System Dark”—an effect I think I achieved.

So both stories have a happy ending. I like the way the 309 came out, which is actually a bit darker than it was originally. The “blonde” grain is more pronounced. The Ugly Spot has disappeared. And now I’m reaching for it again on a regular basis. And I like the golden hues of the 11s as well. As for take-aways? Reversal isn’t a bad idea in restoration if you’ve looked closely at the grain underneath the grime and older stain. Restoration is sometimes the best thing you can do to keep a good pipe in your constant rotation. And RePETE? Well, this whole blog is about that, isn’t it?


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