Often when we think of family heirloom pipes what comes to mind is Grandpa’s collection of Patent-Era Dunhills or a complete set of Peterson Sherlock Holmes pipes, but the truth is that the vast majority of pipes sold during the Golden Age of pipe smoking (roughly the 1950s through to the 1970s) were relatively inexpensive, factory-produced pipes. Two such inherited briar smoking companions arrived at the shop recently – today’s Medico VFQ Foursquare Pot, and an LL Bean Bent Billiard I will cover in another post. Both pipes had belonged to the current steward’s father.
The VFQ line was a mid-grade pipe in the Medico catalog, made by the SM Frank Co, originally from imported briar and later from Brylon, a blend of briar dust and synthetic resin developed by SM Frank in 1966. The example on the bench today is made from briar, which helps date its production to the 1950s to early 1960s. The stem is nylon, another “material of the future” created by DuPont in the 1930s.
As you can see from this initial series of photos, the pipe had been around the block more than a few times before it was sent in for restoration. The rim of the bowl was completed crusted over with carbon “lava”, and the gloss topcoat on the stummel was cracked, peeling and more than a little dirty. The nylon stem, softer than Vulcanite, showed a patch of tooth chatter and a few larger dents on both the top and bottom surfaces of the bite zone. Both the shank and stem were speckled with flecks of white paint – this pipe had obviously been used as a shop or work pipe by its previous steward.
The pipe is stamped (poorly) with “Medico” over “V.F.Q.” over “Imported Briar” on the left shank, with a matching “V.F.Q.” mark, double struck, on the left flank of the stem. The stem and shank were also drilled out to accommodate the classic Medico paper filter.
Following my usual protocol, I began the cleanup of this Medico VFQ by reaming the old cake from the chamber and tidying up with some sandpaper wrapped around a dowel. The briar was in good condition underneath.
I used a pile of pipe cleaners and cotton swabs dipped in 99% isopropyl alcohol to remove a respectable amount of tars and debris from the shank and airway.
A few more swabs and cleaners took care of the stem’s airway.
The carbon crust on the rim of the bowl came off in flakes when scraped carefully with the blade of my pocketknife. With most of the old lava removed, I set the stummel up with an alcohol treatment, packing bowl and shank with cotton wool and then filling the stummel with alcohol. This pic shows the Medico stummel on the right, propped upright in an egg crate for the night.
When I came back to the shop the following morning, the alcohol had clearly done its work. The cotton had absorbed the residual tars dissolved by the alcohol, turning from bright white to a dull yellow/brown in the process.
I removed the cotton wool and ran a fresh pipe cleaner through the stummel to remove any last stray traces of tar. The it was time to sort out the scarred and uneven rim. I topped the bowl gently on some 320-grit sandpaper to remove the last of the carbon crust and smooth out the dents and dings.
As this pic shows, the edges of the rim were a bit downtrodden from being knocked against hard surfaces. I’d sand the edge smooth again in a bit, but first I had to remove the flaking and cracked lacquer coat.
Thankfully, lacquer is easily dissolved with acetone, the primary ingredient in nail polish remover. A few cotton pads wet with remover did the trick. As I scrubbed the exterior of the briar, the acetone dissolved the remaining lacquer and lifted the surface grime as well. Under the janky lacquer, the briar was actually in excellent shape.
Switching gears, I mounted the nylon stem onto the shank and used files and various sandpapers to smooth out the tooth chatter and remove the paint overspray from the stem. I prefer to sand out rather than fill dents in nylon stems, as the stem is much softer than any patching medium I have tried so far. Nylon stems, due to their relative softness, scratch easily and never really get as smooth and glassy as Vulcanite pipe stems. The trick to achieving best results, in my experience, is to use a light touch when sanding with 220 through 2000 grit sandpaper. This helps avoid making deep scratches in the nylon, especially early on in the process.
Here is the stem sanded to 2000-grit. Not perfect but not bad!
After sanding the stem as smooth as it was going to get, I made a close inspection of the pipe before moving on to final polishing. This proved prudent, as I discovered a small, tight crack in the shank. To stop it from creeping up the shank to the bowl, the crack would need to be glued and banded.
A quick dig through my supplies produced a nickel shank band of the correct diameter. After lining up the maker’s mark on the band with the stamps on the side of the shank, I pushed the band as far up the shank as I could with my hands. To seat it completely and clamp the crack shut permanently, I heated the band over the heat gun to expand the metal, then positioning the pipe shank downwards on a soft cloth, I pushed the band all the way home.
Rapidly approaching the end of this refurbishment, I sanded the dented outer rim edge smooth, then added a drop of clear CA glue on top of a sunken fill on the side of the bowl. After the glue had curd, I sanded the patch smooth, then took the complete pipe to the buffer.
The entire pipe was buffed with Red Tripoli and White Diamond compounds to smooth out the last stray sanding marks and bring up the shine. A few light coats of Carnauba wax provided a layer of protection to the refreshed briar and gave the entire pipe a nice shine.
This Mid-Century Medico VFQ is barely recognizable as the rather shabby pipe that arrived on the worktable a few days previously. The carbon crust and decades of dirt have been replaced by fresh briar buffed to a high gloss. The nylon stem is noticeably free of overspray and tooth chatter, and its deep black colour is nicely set off against the shiny nickel shank band.
I’m happy to report that this inherited pipe has been returned to its current steward, who was very excited to add it to his rack and rotation.
Thanks for joining me for this estate pipe restoration project. I hope you enjoyed the rather dramatic transformation as much as I did!
Until next time, Happy Piping! Here’s the finished pipe.