Something from Nothing – Creating a Mini Warden from a Junk Meerschaum Stummel

More than a few years ago now I was involved with an unfortunately short-lived local pipe club which held, among other things, a few swap meets where members could trade pipes, tobaccos etc. That is how this rather unloved-looking meerschaum pipe came to live in my box of refurbs-in-waiting.

I have pulled the pipe out, looked it over, mentally catalogued the scope of the job and put it back in the box several times over the years but decided that this was the time to see what I could do with it. This first series of pics shows what I was up against – this once handsome Block Meerschaum stummel had, at some point in its history, suffered a broken shank. Rather than toss it, some enterprising individual roughly squared off the broken end of the shank, installed an aluminum tenon and jammed a stem on to make the pipe smokable again.

Apart form the DIY repair, the pipe had been rather heavily used and somewhat neglected. The rim was an uneven mess (it was originally worse than it looks in the pics. I had smoothed it out slightly before i took the shots.), and the chamber showed a decent buildup of cake – something a meerschaum pipe does not need. In fact, a heavy cake can split a meerschaum bowl as the carbon and meerschaum expand and contract at different rates. A large chip of meerschaum was missing from the shank, and the shank face was coated in what turned out to be glue of some sort – probably smeared on when the aluminum tenon was installed. I’m not even going to mention the hacked stem, as I quickly tossed it in the bin.

After tossing the old stem, I heated the aluminum tenon until the glue bond broke, allowing me to unscrew it from the shank. The smear of glue on the shank face bubbled up from the heat, which at least made it easier to remove.

Working gently, I reamed the chamber to remove the old cake and followed up with sandpaper to remove as much of the residual carbon as I could. Underneath it all the meerschaum was in surprisingly good shape .

With the chamber clear, I finished what I had started and topped the rim enough to remove the damaged meerschaum and restore the wall thickness.

Now I had some decisions to make on how to proceed with this pipe revival. The shank clearly needed some help, and cutting it down further to remove the chipped area wasn’t going to work. Should I add a shank extension? Could I find or make a stem large enough to fit the rather stout proportions of the existing shank?

In the end, I decided that the overall shape of the stummel was, at least to my eye, rather clunky and awkward. I thought it might look more refined if the shank diameter was reduced to match the smaller smooth area of the re-cut shank face visible in the pic above. The longer I considered this option, the more convinced I became that an elegant stummel was hiding inside this rather blunt instrument.

To soften the meer in preparation for its cosmetic surgery, I soaked the stummel in water for about half an hour. When I pulled it form the soak, I found that I could carve the block meerschaum reasonably easily with a razor knife and various files. I didn’t photograph my progress here as I wasn’t at all certain that the end result would be worth blogging, but snapped the following pics when I had the new, slimmer profile of the stummel roughed out.

If you compare the pics above with those at the top of the blog, you will see that I focused on removing quite a bit of bulk from both the shank diameter and the underside of the bowl. I retained the (more or less) Apple shape of the stummel while fading the original rustication diagonally into the new smooth finish.

For the record, I highly recommend wearing a respirator while working with meerschaum as it creates some very fine, and rather irritating, dust. This pic shows the pile of detritus left on the shop floor under my chair….

I continued to refine the new shape of the stummel with increasingly finer grades of sandpaper, finishing with a full course of micromesh sanding pads. I enjoyed watching the sanding scratches disappear and the shine build as I got closer to the final sanding pad at 12000 grit.

Despite the reshaping, there was still a small divot missing from the shank where the original large chip had broken free. To both cover the damaged spot and square up the shank face, I glued on a slim brass shank cap. This band would also help protect the shank from cracking as I worked to install a new push-pull mortise insert.

Installing the mortise insert takes a bit of doing. A push-pull tenon set, made of nylon and Teflon, is threaded at both ends – a mortise must be drilled and threads tapped in both the shank and stem to make it all fit together. This pic shows the stummel and both halves of the push-pull set.

I opened up the shank mortise by degrees, stepping up the size of the drill bit incrementally until I had arrived at the correct size. This is a safer approach than simply bulling through with a large drill bit, as the meerschaum can easily crack under pressure. A tap followed, cutting threads into the meerschaum.

And in goes the insert! I had to countersink the face of the mortise to accommodate the larger ring at the end of the insert but eventually it fit flush to the shank face.

As you can see from the last pic above, I chose to use a Delrin tenon for the stem instead of the second half of the push-pull set. This was simply a logistical decision, as both the shank mortise and stem airway were slightly off-center, resulting in a poor overall alignment. A threaded tenon is an unforgiving thing, locked in one position in the stem, whereas a Delrin tenon can be shifted slightly in the stem face in any direction by removing a bit of material.

And speaking of the stem, this shot shows the stummel and the roughly five inch long acrylic chair-leg stem I selected for this project. Its wide face and turned shoulders, which remind me of a chess pawn, fit the shank face well and provide the extra length needed to balance out the overall shape of the pipe.

After opening the stem’s airway to accept the tenon, I applied a bit of epoxy to both tenon and mortise and mounted the stem to the pipe. A bit of painter’s tape helped to hold the long stem in position while the epoxy took hold. To ensure that the glue was fully cured before I mucked about any more with it, I left the pipe clamped gently in the padded vise overnight.

When I came back to the shop the following day, I got my first look at the nearly completed mini churchwarden. After tweaking the fit here and there, I began polishing the stem, wet sanding the acrylic to 2000 grit. I love the way acrylic takes a shine, and it won’t oxidize like Vulcanite will when exposed to sunlight.

I completed the stem’s polishing on the buffer, treating the acrylic to a run on the Tripoli and White Diamond wheels to erase the last of the sanding scratches and give it a glass-like shine. I gave the stem a gentle bend, and while I had the heat gun set up, I warmed the stummel and applied a good amount of beeswax to the stummel.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts about waxing meerschaum pipes, you won’t be surprised to hear that the white Turkish meerschaum turned a rich, honey-brown as the melted beeswax penetrated the porous meer and pulled the colouration to the surface. When the stummel had absorbed its fill of beeswax, I set it aside to cool and then hand buffed away the excess wax with a bit of terry towel. With both stummel and stem now shiny and fresh, I took the final set of pictures, shown below.

Thanks for joining me for this estate pipe restoration. It was a fun and highly educational project for me. I learned a lot about working with meerschaum and had the satisfaction of returning a pipe to useful service that would otherwise have been thrown out. The finished mini churchwarden, which measures just shy of 7-1/4 inches long, isn’t perfect, but I think a few small flaws here and there are acceptable signs of the pipe’s long life, which should now extend for many more years to come.

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