Making Repairs to a Cased 1876 BBB Briar & Gutta-Percha Pipe

Just before the COVID shut-downs hit I was sent a box of 25 estate pipes to repair. Many were straightforward tenon replacements and the like, but among the more interesting repairs was this BBB briar and gutta-percha pipe.

Here is the pipe as it looked when I brought it to the worktable.

As you can see in the above pics, the pipe consists of a briar bowl with a gutta-percha tenon that fits into a mortise on one end of a gutta-percha base (the black U-shaped piece). A straight briar shank, banded on both ends with sterling silver, fits on the other end of the base, and a large bent stem with a bone screw tenon attaches to the upper end of the shank.

The last pic above shows the problems – the stem, an acrylic replacement to what was most likely a genuine amber stem, was snapped in half and the tenon on the bottom of the briar shank was snapped off in the gutta-percha base.

To date the pipe, I worked off a few clues. First, the case is marked on the outside with “A Clubb & Sons” over “49 King St West Toronto”. A Clubb was a successful cigar and tobacco shop established in Toronto in 1878.

The second, and more obvious, clue was the date hallmark on the sterling bands, which are marked “L-B” (for Louis Blumfeld who took over the management of the Adolph Frankau Company in 1856) followed by three hallmarks, an Anchor, a lowercase “B” in a gothic style, and a Lion Rampant, and finally the BBB diamond logo.

Decoding the hallmarks, I learned that the bands were assayed in Birningham, England (the Anchor) in 1876 (the lowercase B) and are certified .925 Sterling (the Lion Rampant). My thanks to Steve Laug of Reborn Pipes for his help matching hallmarks and identifying the Gutta-Percha for me!

Now that I knew what I was working with, I had a closer look at the damage. The stem break was relatively clean, with only a few edge chips missing. Judging by the residue, a previous owner had tried to glue the two halves back together with CA glue but the fix had not held up to use.

The other major damage was the briar shank. The tenon had broken off the bottom end of the shank, probably as a result of the same accident that broke the stem. Here too, the previous owner had attempted a repair, but instead of gluing the tenon back onto the briar shank, he had instead succeeded in gluing it into the mortise of the Gutta-Percha base. Whoops! The silver bands on either end of the briar shank were also loose and would need to be re-glued.

I decided to start repairs by working on the stem. I knew glue alone would not be sufficient to bond the parts back together. The stem would need physical reinforcement as well. I dug through my supplies and found a section of thin metal tubing with a 1/8″ interior diameter that matched that of the airway. I enlarged the airway on either side of the break to allow me to slip a short section of tubing into the stem, spanning the break.

I had my hands full juggling parts and glue so failed to take pictures during this process, but I used thick CA glue to set the metal tube in place in one half of the stem, then applied more glue to the other end of the tube and both faces of the break and pushed the parts together. I lined up the break and held the stem in position until the CA glue set.

As these pics show, I was not shy with the glue. There was a fair bit of squeeze-out when I assembled the parts, and I added more glue on top of the squeeze-out to ensure that all the small chips along the edges of the break were filled.

I set the stem aside to let the CA glue cure completely. While I waited, I worked on the shank repair.

Try as I might, I could not extract the broken briar tenon from the Gutta-Percha base. Presumably, the previous owner used either CA glue or epoxy for his abortive repair. I could have drilled out the briar, but as the inner edge of the mortise was already chipped, I decided not to risk damaging the Gutta-Percha further.

Instead, I had another rummage around my parts bins and came up with some aluminum tubing that fit inside the airway of the broken briar tenon (the new de facto mortise).

I had to drill out the shank’s airway slightly to accomodate the outer diameter of the aluminum tubing, but that was a quick job. A bit of epoxy secured the tubing into the end of the broken-off shank, and a bit of smoothing and polishing tidied the entire repair up nicely. A drop of CA glue inside the sterling bands fixed the pair firmly back into place.

Moving back to the stem, the task now was to file and sand the lump of CA glue flush with the outer surface. It took a while to get things flat and recreate the original lines of the acrylic stem, but the results were very good. The repair is visible on close inspection, but the stem is smooth to the touch all the way from stem face to button. This series of pics shows the progress.

As you can see in the last two shots, I took a few minutes to tidy up the button while I was at it. I also tested the stem’s airway by sliding a pipe cleaner through the repaired stem. No problem.

With all the structural repairs accomplished, I took the stem to the buffer for a run on the Tripoli and White Diamond wheels. A light coat of Carnauba wax finished it off. I also lightly polished the shank and Gutta-Percha base while I was at it.

For those of you wondering why I didn’t do any work to the bowl of this pipe, the answer is simply that it was outside my brief. The pipe’s owner wanted only the necessary repairs made, not a total restoration. (I did cheat a bit and gave the exterior of the bowl a light buffing.)

And so this 1876 BBB pipe is ready to go back to its owner. I enjoyed working on it – I don’t often see pipes of this vintage on my worktable – and I can take satisfaction in knowing that it is in much better shape now than when it arrived at my door.

Thanks for following along with this interesting pipe journey. I hope you enjoyed the trip. Until next time, Happy Piping!

Here’s the finished pipe.