A Deep Cleaning and a New Stem for a Large Meerschaum Bent Billiard

This meerschaum Bent Billiard came in to the shop for a new stem, part of the same batch of pipes as the Nording freehand I wrote about last week. If you have read that post, the condition of this pipe when it arrived won’t be much of a surprise.

As this series of pics shows, the pipe looked rather disreputable when it arrived. The meerschaum bowl was covered in a layer of grey dirt, grease and oils, a testament to years of use and handling. The rim was coated with tarry lava and the chamber carried a layer of goopy cake left over from many many bowls of aromatic tobaccos, the sour aroma of which filled the shop.

The Twin-Bore Vulcanite stem was oxidized and had a layer of calcified minerals at the bit, which was bitten through in both channels of the airway. The stem fit was fairly snug, but I had a feeling that it might become loose after cleaning the accumulated gunk from the mortise.

Somewhat incongruous with the pipe’s obvious heavy use, the only area that has developed a patina was a band around the shank just ahead of the mortise.

The airway through the shank was almost completely blocked. Before I could get in there to clean the pipe I had to use a drill bit, turned by hand, to open things up and allow access. When I had a “pilot hole” open, I used shank brushes dipped in alcohol to remove the worst of the crud hiding inside the pipe, followed by just a few pipe cleaners to tidy up the remnants.

I used a sanding sponge and a bit of 1000-grit wet sandpaper to remove the lava from the rim and tidy up the bevel on the inside rim. Note the colour change to the rim in the pics below. This was caused by the small amount of water used during wet sanding. It eventually faded as the meerschaum dried, but was a good indication of what was to happen when I waxed the pipe later in the restoration.

Using my reamer set and some sandpaper wrapper around a dowel, I removed the old cake from the bowl and smoothed the chamber walls and floor. Unlike briar, meerschaum pipes do not need a cake layer to protect them from heat damage. In fact, an overabundance of cake can damage a meerschaum pipe as the carbon and meerschaum expand and contract at different rates, so it’s best to keep a meerschaum bowl clear of carbon buildup.

As you might notice in the pic above, the bevel on the inner rim was a bit lopsided. I took a few minutes to even things out with a bit of sandpaper followed by a bit of light polishing with 0000 steel wool.

While I had it in hand, I turned the steel wool to the sides of the stummel and scrubbed away the layer of grey dirt and grease. I was a bit amazed to find the meerschaum underneath in such good shape. There were still quite a few handling marks to smooth out but the improvement was dramatic nonetheless.

Encouraged by the results so far, I worked on the exterior of the stummel with progressively finer sandpaper from 400 through 2000-grit, smoothing out the handling marks and beginning to bring up the shine. I followed up the wet sanding with a full course of micromesh sanding pads to 12000 grit.

To finish off the stummel portion of this refurbishment, I set up my waxing station comprised of a small Mason jar of melted beeswax on a hotplate to keep it liquid, my heat gun, over which I would heat the meerschaum, and a few pipe cleaners that would serve as mops to deliver the wax to the pipe.

The waxing process is quite simple. I held the stummel over the heat gun to warm the meerschaum and mopped on the wax. The hot meer readily absorbs the beeswax, drawing it deeply into the stummel where it interacts with the colouration absorbed during smoking. Capillary action pulls the colour to the surface.

I kept mopping on the wax until no dry areas were visible on the surface of the stummel. This told me that the meerschaum had absorbed all the wax it could, so I set the pipe aside on a towel to cool, then hand buffed the excess wax from the surface with the towel and brought up the shine. The second pic below shows the dramatic change in colouration – the meer went from white to a deep caramel brown in just a few minutes.

I set the stummel aside at this point to work on the second half of the restoration – fitting a new acrylic stem. The pipe’s owner had specifically requested that I avoid using Vulcanite stems on any of his pipes, a decision with which I agreed. Acrylic is much harder than Vulcanite, so the new stem here and on the rest of the lot of pipes should hold up better under their owner’s powerful clench.

For this pipe I selected a tortoise acrylic stem with a round taper profile. As you can see below, the acrylic blank was somewhat longer than the original stem and came without a tenon. I would need to install a Delrin tenon to fit the parts together.

To make the tenon, I cut a short section of Delrin rod slightly larger in diameter than the mortise and drilled an airway through it. A bit of work with file and sandpaper had the new tenon fitting nicely in the shank.

As you can see in the last pic above, the mortise on this pipe is quite large – nearly 3/8″ in diameter. If I attempted to drill out a similar mortise in the stem face I would have very likely shattered the end of the stem, so instead I turned the stem end of the tenon down to a more manageable size.

I cut the stem blank to length, then sanded the new stem face smooth and drilled it out to accept the Delrin tenon.

Using a small half-round needle file, I cut a series of gouges into the stem end of the tenon to provide a better mechanical bond between the slippery Delrin and the epoxy. I also tweaked the stem alignment by filing the sides of the tenon to allow the stem face to sit flat against the shank. Then I applied a bit of two-part epoxy to both the tenon and the inside of the stem mortise and slid the parts together.

I held the stem in position until the epoxy grabbed hold, then set the pipe aside carefully so as not ot bump the stem out of alignment. I left it overnight to make sure the epoxy had fully cured before I removed the stem from the shank. You may also notice in the second pic below that I funneled the end of the tenon to smooth the passage of air from shank to stem.

After considering both the size of the tenon compared to the shank diameter and the somewhat battered appearance of the shank face, I glued a slim brass shank band in place to add some insurance against a cracked shank. A nice bonus was the addition of a bit of bling to this otherwise plain pipe and provided a pleasant step-down transition to the slightly narrower stem.

The only things left to do on this pipe were to bend the stem and polish it up. Acrylic stems react to heat similarly to Vulcanite stems – heating them over the heat gun makes them pliable. I warmed the stem and bent it to the appropriate curve by the simple expedient of placing the pipe face down on the table and pushing. Note the pipe cleaner in the stem to keep the airway open. I held the pipe in position until the stem cooled enough to hold its shape then set the bend permanently by running the stem under cold water.

Then it was time to take the pipe to the buffer where I gave the stem a run on both the Tripoli and White Diamond wheels to give it a glass-like shine. A light coat of Carnauba wax on the stem completed the work on this Bent Billiard.

The finished pipe is hard to identify as the same dirty, neglected creature that first came to the worktable. The grey layer of dirt and grease has been replaced by deeply coloured and polished meerschaum, and the new tortoise acrylic stem gives the refreshed stummel a classy and classic look, set off by the brass shank band. Better yet, the pipe smells pleasantly of warm beeswax instead of sour old aromatic tobacco.

I am sure that the owner of this lovely meerschaum Bent Billiard will be glad to have it back in his rack and rotation. It is clearly a favourite, and I hope it will provide many more years of faithful smoking companionship.

Thanks for joining me for another somewhat involved restoration. Perhaps it will motivate you to look at your own rack to see if that nondescript meerschaum pipe in your collection might benefit from a good waxing.

Until next time, Happy Piping! Here’s the finished pipe.