Guest Blogs, Pipe Essays, Uncategorized

The When and Zen of Pipe Restoration

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Charles Lemon lives in Eastern Canada and Steve Laug lives in Western Canada. Connecting them across the distance is a common passion for restoring old pipes. Both men find beauty and pleasure in the work of restoration, and share their work on their respective blogs. Charles started and maintains DadsPipes – exploring the art of tobacco pipe restoration and Steve started and maintains rebornpipes – reclaiming old and worn estate pipes. The two restorers sat down recently over Skype for a discussion about their shared hobby. Here is an edited version of that conversation. We invite you into the conversation and to comment at the close of the blog. Let’s carry the dialogue beyond the borders of Canada!

“Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.” 
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. This is Zen. This is my motorcycle maintenance. ” 
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Steve Laug: When has a pipe reached the point that is not repairable or restorable in your opinion? In my experience the answer to that question changes all the time. In the past there were many pipes that I did not pick up because I thought they could not be brought back to life. One thing I have learned over the years is that the definition of no-return has changed as my skills have changed. I have learned new tricks that keep me even taking old bowls and broken shanks and recrafting a new pipe from them. So I would say that my definition of what is not repairable is in a state of flux all the time. How about you?

Charles Lemon: I agree – I’ve tackled some restorations lately that I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole a year ago. I still ask myself if a restoration is worth it, or advisable, though, even if I know it’s possible. A few situations come to mind. A pipe with great sentimental value to its owner may sometimes be best approached as a preservation effort rather than a restoration. All pipes can benefit from a good cleaning, but I’ve left the pipes inherited from my father in otherwise original condition, tooth dents and all. I don’t smoke most of those pipes, so they’re more memorial items in my collection.

On the other end of the stick, a highly collectible pipe can be devalued by an overzealous effort to return it to as-new condition.

SL: True enough Charles. To ask whether a restoration is worth it or even advisable though, is a very different kind of question as to whether it is possible. I think that the cases that you give are good testament to the fact that there are various layers of restoration. To me preservation is also restoration at some level. Think of a beautiful work of art that is cleaned and restored. It is not restored it is merely brought back to the creator’s intent plus the passage of time. I too have left special pipes from good friends as they came to me in honour of their memory and the gift they were to me. Somehow to remove the dents and dings on them reduces the impact of the gift to me. I smoke them but less frequently than others. The time of smoking is kind of a memorial in fire/smoke. For a moment I join with the person who gave the pipe to me and is no longer present. Those are special times. I leave them for times when there is nothing pressing in my life.

I think the other scenario you put forward is that of the highly collectible pipe. For that I agree with you. Nothing is worse than an overzealous resto that leaves the stamping reduced and the beauty diminished. I sometimes have the feeling that the restorer who does that really removes the personality of the original. Maybe they should restamp it as their own!. LOL.

When I look at a pipe I first ask the question, “Can I restore this?” From there I move to “Should I restore this?” To me once I know it is something that I can tackle then it is easier to choose not to do so.

“An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.” 
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

CL: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key. If a project is beyond my grasp I will pass it to someone else or put it away for a while and have another look in a few months or longer. Maybe my skills have caught up, maybe not. When IS a pipe no longer restorable? It seems every time I think I’ve found the limit, I see another refurb online where someone’s done something clever and raised the bar.

SL: I do find that I use junk pipes – those with no inherent value – as training ground for doing work on pipe that matter to me. If I screw up the junk pipe I can laugh and call it education. Far better to learn on those than on ones that matter. One of the first burn outs I tackled was on an absolutely worthless Tinderbox Monza. It was fire wood but it gave me the opportunity to practice cutting briar plugs and fitting them in the bowl. This adds another category to what or what not to refurb. I have learned to tackle even useless pipe as part of my pipe repair university course.

CL: There’s a reason I keep buying auction lots of estate pipes – they provide a fairly steady source of pipes with wide-ranging damage and thus repair needs that I can tinker with more or less risk-free.

SL: The trick is having the eye to know when to do what. That is the hard part to learn I have found. The learning is that old concept of “when less is more”.

CL: I was just thinking the same thing! I’ve had so many “firewood grade” pipes come out of the estate lots around here that I tend to forget that some pipes are actually well cared for and won’t need the Terminator approach to refinishing.

SL: Exactly! The restoration process often is like this conversation, back and forth, debating with yourself and the briar what is needed and then starting. Then more debate and then continuing. It is a dance with the wood. We have similar experience with the firewood grade pipes I think. But that is what builds the creativity for me and gets the juices flowing. What can be done with this piece of kindling.

“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.” 
― Robert M. Pirsig,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

SL: The more I think about it, the longer I have been in the work of refurbishing the defining feature for me regarding the restorability of a pipe is whether I want to do it. Sounds persnickety but I think it’s really what I have come down to. There seems always to be a work around to bring a damaged pipe back to life. What do you think about the idea that critical functional feature in restorability is not the ability of the repair person but the desire? Once you have the basic skills mastered the ability issue disappears from the equation for me. It rather becomes an issue of desire. Do I want to restore this? Either as a part of my ongoing education or as a piece of pipe history or beauty. What do you think?

CL: You’ve got something there, Steve. The basic skills are, well, basic – anyone with a will to learn can figure out how to use sandpaper, glue and stain to restore a pipe. Or a coffee table for that matter. Desire or drive is what keeps us doing what we do. I’ve spent more hours than I can count working on a restoration, knowing full well that the resulting pipe, even if functional and maybe even beautiful, will have no greater value than when I started. But I did it anyway because something about the pipe intrigued me – a shape, a maker, a different style of rustication, or just because I wanted to do it. I’ve also got a few pipes in my rack that I know would have turned out better if I had put a little more care, attention – or desire – into the work while it was on my bench.

I also find that restoring a pipe is an organic process. I sometimes have an idea of how the finished pipe will look going in, but usually the pipe decides on its own how the restoration will proceed. Just reaming the bowl of an old estate pipe can reroute a restoration drastically – hey look! A burnout! How’d that get there? And if you’re lucky, that PITA pipe repair is also the job in which you hit the magic and elusive perfect combination of stains that turns an ordinary pipe into a stunning piece of briar.

SL: I don’t know about you Charles, but I have gone back to the rack and redone those I did early in the learning curve. I have reworked them – some of them two or even three times before I am finely happy with them. To me it is like reading a favourite book – I go back to it again and again and there is always something more. Same with reworking a favourite pipe.

I agree the process of restoration is organic – it develops with each stem that you take along the way. I work on trying not to preset the outcome – other than clean and functional. The rest just happens. I think that is why I am willing to take on seeming disasters – the sheer joy of seeing what is reborn in the process – like finding treasure. I think that mysterious happening is part of the charm that keeps me hunting for pipes to refurbish.

“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.” 
― Robert M. Pirsig,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

CL: There is an undoubtedly spiritual/psychological aspect to restoration work. People talk about being in the groove when they are immersed in the work. Restoring a pipe is oddly restful for me – it’s both a tactile, physical activity and an intellectual pursuit that requires a high degree of focus. On a related note, I find it nearly impossible to be angry or agitated while smoking a pipe, so smoking a pipe while working on a pipe is cheaper than therapy!

SL: The act of restoration is definitely therapeutic. To restore a pipe after work gives me the space to decompress from my day and actually finish something. Sometimes the more complex the restoration is the better it is for me in terms of disconnecting me from the rest of the day. The act of restoration is spiritual at its core it seems to me. The very act of bringing life to a broken and abused thing is spiritual in nature. To me it takes our craft and lifts it to a deeper level. Maybe that is why I find it hard to neglect a sad old pipe that shows promise.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow…..We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”….”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The conversation wrapped up at this point, but the collaboration will continue with a shared restoration project. Watch for that very special post, in which Steve and Charles put a LOT of miles on an old pipe, coming soon to both rebornpipes and DadsPipes!

Thanks for joining us for this discussion. If you’d like to share your own thoughts and opinions on the craft of pipe restoration, we invite you to continue the conversation through the comments section below.