A New Stem and New Life for an English Army-Mount Billiard

I found this pipe on eBay a while ago, had a quick look at it when it arrived, then added it to my refurb box and forgot about it until recently. You may understand my initial lack of enthusiasm after looking at these pics of the pipe as found.

As you can see, the pipe was looking really tired when I started work on it. The finish was very worn and patchy, there was white paint lodged in the sandblast finish, the nickel shank cap was dull and tarnished and the end of the stem had been chewed off completely. The pipe had also been “improved” at some point with the addition of an ersatz White Spot on top of the stem.

The shank cap is a slightly oversized aftermarket piece with faux hallmarks. The only stamp on the stummel is a “Made in London” over “England” mark on the flat underside of the shank.

I twisted the old stem out of the shank, noting in the process that the tenon was cylindrical instead of tapered. This faux Army mount style is certainly easier to fit a stem to, but it’s another indication, along with the generic stamping and shank cap, that I was not dealing with an expensive pipe.

I gave the shank cap an experimental tug and it came off in my hand. Notice the amount of glue used to secure it originally – the installer had to fill the gap between briar and band.

I picked the old glue off the shank with a dental pick, then had a closer look at the damaged stem. I extracted the aluminum innertube from the stem using a bit of heat and a pair of pliers. I don’t think I’ll reuse this part on the new stem but I’ll add it to my parts bin in case it can be useful later.

My dental pick also confirmed my theory about the “White Spot” on the stem, which consisted of nothing more than a dab of white paint in a shallow depression in the vulcanite. So much for delusions of grandeur!

Next up was fitting the new stem. I dug through my stems and came up with an old but unused Army-style stem that would suit. It has an orific bit – meaning that the airway is a simple round opening instead of the modern slotted bit. It’s old-fashioned for sure – this style of stem fell out of use in the 1920s – but the Army-mount Billiard always reminds me of World War I-era pipes, so perhaps it is fitting.

A quick minute with the PIMO tenon-turning tool adjusted the stem to fit the shank mortise.

The cotton swabs in the above pic were used to clean the mortise before fitting the stem. There wasn’t much dirt in there but fitting a stem to a dirty shank is a recipe for a loose stem after cleaning the pipe.

Speaking of cleaning, it was high time to address the stummel’s internals properly. I reamed some hard old cake from the tobacco chamber and tidied up the walls with sandpaper wrapped around a marker. The chamber was in surprisingly good condition.

I then used cotton swabs, pipe cleaners and alcohol to clear the accumulated tars and debris from the mortise and airway. When the pipe cleaners had removed as much gunk as they could, I set the stummel up with a salt & alcohol treatment and left it to sit overnight.

For new readers, the salt & alcohol treatment dissolves and removes stubborn, deeply ingrained tars, oils and odours from the briar. The shank is plugged with cotton wool and the bowl is filled with Kosher salt. High-proof alcohol (I use 99% isopropyl alcohol) is then added to the bowl until the cotton wool in the shank is damp. As the pipe sits, the alcohol dissolves the contaminants in the pipe, which are drawn into both the salt and the cotton.

I left the pipe to sit overnight. When I came back the next day, the salt and cotton wool had both turned from white to brown.

I dumped out the salt and removed the cotton wool from the stummel and ran a pipe cleaner through it to clear any rogue salt crystals. Then I used a scrap of sandpaper to smooth out a nick on the inner edge of the chamber rim. The nick was deeper than I had originally thought, so I sanded a small bevel into the briar to restore the roundness of the rim.

I followed up the internal cleaning with a scrub of the stummel’s exterior with Murphy’s Oil Soap and a toothbrush. Quite a bit of the old stain came away, along with accumulated dirt, grease and old wax, but the paint remained, embedded in the nooks and crannies of the sandblast.

Neither alcohol nor acetone had much effect on the old paint, so I settled in for what turned out to be close to 30 minutes of careful, tedious work to remove the paint manually. I used my dental pick to loosen the drops of paint, then scrub the area gently with a brass bristle brush. A final wipe-down with alcohol on a cotton pad cleared away the remaining dust and debris.

Before staining the now clean briar, I wanted to address an odd groove cut into the side of the shank. The mark is clearly an error as it cuts through the ridges of the sandblast finish. I hoped to be able to improve the pipe’s overall appearance with some restoration magic.

To accomplish my goal, I first overfilled the damaged area with thick CA glue mixed with briar dust. I let he patch cure completely before using a small carving burr in my rotary tool to remove the excess patch material and blend the repair into the surrounding sandblast.

A quick hit with the wire brush and a bit of sandpaper took the sharp edges off the freshly carved patch and blended it further into the surrounding briar. I then applied a generous coat of Fiebing’s Black leather dye to the repaired stummel. When it was dry, I hand-buffed the briar with an old towel to remove the excess dye, then applied a coat of mineral oil to inject some moisture and deepen the finish.

Just before heading to the buffing wheel, I cleaned up the shank cap with a jeweller’s cloth and glued it in place on the end of the shank.

I finished this restoration by buffing the new stem with both Tripoli and White Diamond compounds before giving the entire pipe several light coats of Carnauba wax to shine and protect the new finish, taking are not to pack excess wax into the sandblasted finish.

This old English basket pipe is transformed by its time on the worktable. The briar, clean and refinished, glows with vitality and the new stem, besides being complete and undamaged, shines invitingly next to the polished shank cap.

Imperfections remain, of course. The shank cap has a few small dents and dings, and the outer edges of the rim have been knocked down a bit in places, but I think some signs of age and character are acceptable in this case.

If anyone would like to add this English faux-Army Billiard to their rack, it is available on the Pipe Inventory page now. I think it would make a great first briar or a great companion for shop or yard work.

Thanks for following along with me on this estate pipe refurbishment. Until next time, Happy Piping!

Here’s the finished pipe.