King of the Brighams – Identifying a Presidential Series A Grade Freehand!

I’ve found most of my estate Brigham pipes on eBay so far. This one caught my eye for two reasons – it was a model/shape that I hadn’t seen before and it was a bit of a mystery! The listing pics were not of the best quality, so it was nearly impossible to make out the telltale Brigham Dots on the pipe stem. So hard in fact, that other potential buyers had asked if the stem was original to the pipe. Here’s the pic from the listing -can you spot the dots??

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This risk factor, I think, affected the bids and I came away the winner at only $40CAD. But would the gamble pay off? In due time, a pipe-shaped package arrived at my door. I eagerly opened it up and had a good look at the pipe for the first time. My eyes aren’t what they used to be but a quick wipe over the pertinent area of the stem revealed, much to my relief, a series of  four horizontal dots, the second of which was noticeably larger than the others.

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So now I knew it was definitely a complete Brigham pipe, though I was still unsure exactly which model I had. But first thing’s first – let’s get it cleaned up! Overall, the pipe was in relatively good shape and showed signed of gentle use and reasonable care. The top was dirty with tars and a bit of char, and there was one larger chip out of the top of the rim. The stem, of course, was very oxidized and the whole pipe felt greasy in the hand.  Here are a few more pics of the pipe as it was when I received it.

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I dropped the stem into an Oxyclean bath to soak and soften the accumulated grime and oxidation while I worked on the stummel . I decided to clean the entire outside of the pipe, and especially the rim, with Murphy’s Oil Soap and a soft toothbrush.  This works very well at getting the gunk off the surface, including all the little hills and valleys of rusticated briar.

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Now that the stummel was clean, it was easy to find all the marks, stampings and any flaws in the briar. In addition to the “Brigham” over “Canada” stamp on the shank, I discovered an “A” stamped into the bottom of the bowl.

The rest of the cleaning proceeded without incident. The internals were cleaned with pipe cleaners and 99% isopropyl alcohol until a fresh one came out clean, and the old manky rock maple filter was replaced with a clean fresh one. After the Oxyclean bath, I used 0000 steel wool and 400-2000 grit wet sandpaper to remove the oxidation and a bit of tooth chatter. Then the whole pipe was treated to a 3-step buffing with Red Tripoli, White Diamond and wax.

Here is the finished pipe:

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With Part One of the mystery solved, it was on to Part Two! I knew I had a Brigham freehand, but what exactly was it? I had initially thought it might be a Brigham Valhalla, a (generally) smooth series of freehands produced in the 1970’s along with their cousins, the rusticated Norseman series. The Brigham website is rather sparse on detail, but I found some great information posted by Rusty on Christian Pipe Smokers

“Other series were made between the 60s and 80s including a selection of hand-mades, the Valhalla and Norseman Series and others. These pipes are typically much larger than the regular series, with freehand bowls in “Scandinavian” shapes. These pipes incorporated the Brigham filter system. The Norseman were fully rusticated and marked with a “9W” followed by a number (indicating its shape) and a horizontally aligned 3-dot pattern with one larger dot in the center. The Valhalla were smooth or partially rusticated in the same shape as the Norseman pipes and with the same pinning configuration.

(R: Correction: The Valhalla’s were offered in three grades (so they had three pinning configurations corresponding to grade, rather than one). Valhalla grading ran from a “Brigham VIP” 3-dot (lowest, the same as the Norseman grade) through 6-dot pinning (highest). The shape number stamping on the Valhalla’s corresponded to the grades from AWn for the 3-dot (lowest) through CWn for the 6-dot (highest) with n being the specific shape style 2 through 7 inclusive that was common to both Valhalla’s and Norseman.

In 1980 (approximately) , the move was made to a 7-grade dot system which simplified the pinning of pipes and made them more easily identified. This is where the 7-dot made its first appearance, and specific names for each grade done away with, as were the vertical and horizontal 3-dot pinning pattern. In higher series, a small number of interesting experimental shapes appeared including those with a carved shank resembling mountains, marked with an “s” beside or near the shape number. No catalogue of these shapes was kept, although we often come across these pipes when they are sent in for cleaning. if you have one of these pipes, it represents an era of experimentation and should be treasured.

The Norseman and Valhalla series were consolidated around this time (1980) and named the “President Series”. These were divided into President A, B, C, D and E grades (A being the highest), indicated on the bowl or shank of the pipe. Both filtered and unfiltered pipes were made in this series, and a designation of 3 dots was adopted. To set them apart from the classic 3-dot configuration, one large dot and two small dots were used, with the largest dot place on the right hand side of the star pattern. Historically, the President series has been a designation given to the pipes of highest quality and workmanship, often in a freehand pattern with larger bowls. The designation has always indicated pipes of a higher grade and therefore there is considerable variety in their form.

R: Following is a pic of the authors pair of Norseman (middle) & a pair of Valhalla’s (top & bottom) that date from 1973 (the 9W3 Norseman dates from ’78). They are shape number stamped (top to bottom) CW5, 9W4, 9W3, & BW6. Note the two different rustication styles on the pair of Norseman – they effectively date each pipe): “

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My Brigham freehand resembles the 1973 Valhalla BW6 in Rusty’s pic above, with the partial rustication and 4-dot pattern on the stem, but my pipe is stamped only with an “A” on the bottom, which would indicate one of the later President Series pipes. My only conclusion is that my pipe is an early “crossover” pipe, likely from late 1979 through early 1981 or so, when the Valhalla and Norseman series were being morphed into the President Series.

Regardless of exact dating, it’s a beautiful pipe made of top-grade briar, without fills or flaws. At some point, I may try to correct or minimize the chip in the pipe’s top, but for now I’ll leave it alone for fear of making things worse. I paid a cheap price, but this is no cheap pipe – a new pipe of similar quality would run me about 10 times the price I paid for this one! Not a bad catch at all.

UPDATE 26 /02/16 – I sent pictures of this pipe off to Brigham and received a reply via email confirming my hunch that this is, indeed, an early “crossover era” President series A-Grade pipe. Chronologically, pipes with these markings fall between the end of the Valhalla years and the advent of the 3-Dot (triangle pattern of small, Big, small pins) President series. My original date range of 1979 – 1981 should be fairly accurate.

 

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5 comments

    • Thanks very much. In this case the clean-up was easy. I spent far more time tracing the pip’s provenance. I for one would be thrilled to see the publication of a comprehensive history of Brigham pipes.

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    • Thanks Troy. I’m happy to report that this Brigham is a fine smoker indeed. Feels great in the hand and the large bowl can burn for an hour or more if you’re careful. 😉

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