A Brief Foray into Metal Pipes with a Pair of Ronson 3-Ways

After a lot of briar refurbishments, here’s one for those “Falcon Friday” metal pipe fans!

I bought this pair of Ronson 3-Way pipes off eBay back in the summer of 2019 and decided yesterday that they had sat in limbo long enough. I have to admit at the outset here that I don’t have a lot of experience with metal smoking pipes. I’ve cleaned up a few Falcon pipes over the years but I’ve never been bit by the metal pipe bug like others have.

Here are the pipes as they looked when I received them. The bowls were in very good shape with only light signs of use. The aluminum shanks were oxidized and dirty, with dust and grime wedged into the creases, especially at the bowl/shank junction. The nylon stems showed the inevitable tooth dents and chatter, but overall these Ronson pipes were in good shape.

A little research online tuned up this information about Ronson 3-Way pipes, posted to SmokingMetal.co.uk:

Ronson, Made in England, Ronson Products, Leatherhead, Surrey or Norham Road, North Shields, Sunderland.
The stem consists internally of two tubes, which in conjunction with the tube extending from the bit, forces the smoke to travel three times the length of the frame, a total of 8 inches
Two versions of bit were available, regular and ‘suregrip’
The bowls have a central pimple and three holes around this
There were 5 bowl shapes which are named differently to Falcon
Dublin (the Falcon Algiers) Apple ( the Falcon Genoa) Bulldog (same as Falcon) and Billiard (large and small) very much the same as the Falcon shape
They were all available in smooth or rustic finish
Absorbent discs were available for the “undertray” which it was claimed soaked up to 7 times their weight in ‘goo’ and it was recommended these were changed daily

A bit more digging placed the production era of these pipes to the 1960s as Ronson’s answer to the Falcon pipe’s popularity.

These pics are an attempt to show the “3-way” system of airflow in the shank. There are two parallel air tubes leading from the bowl. These tubes merge with the central air channel at the end o f the shank right in front of the bit, and the long tube attached to the stem tenon draws the air back up the central channel before it can enter the stem, thus completing its “3 x the shank” trip from bowl to bit.

Now that I had a better idea what I was dealing with, I set to work cleaning the pipes. Both were in similar condition so the pics from here on will show just one pipe to avoid confusion.

As the introductory shots illustrate, these Ronson pipe were not “ridden hard and put away wet” as many estate pipes seem to be. It took only a few pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol to clear out the light film of tars and dust from shank and stem. More alcohol on cotton swabs loosened and absorbed the dirt grease and oils stuck in the cracks and crevice. A light overall scrub with 0000 steel wool removed any stubborn stuck on grime and started to raise the shine on the aluminum.

To finish the exterior polishing, I took the aluminum parts to the buffing wheel and used some Tripoli compound to strip away years of oxidation and give the metal a mirror shine. These shots of the polished pipe (top) next to the unpolished pipe gives you an idea of the difference a few minutes of buffing makes.

For what it’s worth, I do not recommend using a buffing wheel previously used to polish metal to polish other materials like briar or vulcanite. the tiny bits of metal caught in the buffing compound can leave scratches in softer material. I reserve a buffing wheel specifically for polishing metal and switch out buffs before polishing anything else.

The threaded bowls only needed a quick wipe-down with alcohol on a cotton pad to remove surface dirt. They are coated with some sort of gloss finish, so they cleaned up easily.

With shank and bowl ready to go, it was time to turn my attention to the stems, and here is where I got bogged down somewhat. The reason? Nylon stems.

For those unfamiliar, many metal smoking pipes were made with nylon stems instead of vulcanite or acrylic. I suspect the rationale for this choice was twofold: nylon is softer than other stem materials, so a nylon pipe stem is (arguably) more comfortable to clench in the teeth; secondly, nylon was a brand new “Space Age” material when these pipes were first manufactured. What could be cooler than smoking a pipe made of the same stuff used in the Apollo missions?

The down side of nylon pipe stems, at least for the restorer, is that nylon does not sand well, or perhaps it sands too well. Sandpaper easily cuts through the soft material, but because of this same softness it is nearly impossible to achieve a perfectly smooth polished stem afterwards. I took a lot of pics during this process to illustrate each stage in the sanding process. It pays to take your time with nylon stems and use perhaps more intermediate grades of abrasive than when working with harder materials. Here I worked through 220, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1000 and 2000 grit papers and then buffed the stem with Tripoli and White Diamond on the wheel.

As you can see, the stem above came out looking pretty good but there are still some small scratches showing next to the button. I could spend more time trying to smooth these out, but it’s simply not worth the investment in my opinion as the stem will take on worse tooth damage during its first smoke post-restoration. ‘Tis the nature of the beast with nylon.

Now all that was left to do was give the bowls a quick buff and wax on the wheel and apply a bit of Carnauba to the stems as well before reassembling the now completed pipes.

This pair of Ronson 3-Way pipes is certainly looking more inviting now than when they first hit the worktable. The briar bowls are clean and refreshed and the polished aluminum shines like Sputnik in the night sky. The pipes are very lightweight overall, which is part of the ageless appeal of metal pipes, but the briar bowls are heavier than the rest of the pipe so tend to drag the bowl end downwards when the pipe is in the teeth.

If you’d like to add one or both of these 1960’s-era Ronson pipes to your rack and rotation, they are available on the Pipe Inventory page now.

Thanks for joining me for this week’s restoration. Until next time, Happy Piping!

Here are the finished pipes.