Restorations, Uncategorized

Pinning Multiple Cracks in an Otherwise Lovely Rattray’s Bog Oak (Morta) Pipe

Smoking pipes have traditionally been made from only a handful of materials – clay and meerschaum originally, then briar and an assortment of fruit woods like cherry and pear. Most recently, Bog Oak, also called Morta, has entered the fray. So what exactly is Bog Oak?

Bog Oak/Morta is semi-petrified oak that has lain under a layer of water and sediment (like at the bottom of a peat bog) for several thousand years. Yes, it is actually millennia old, and due to the light and oxygen-free environment in which it sat for so long, rather than rotting away, the wood has become hard, dense, and, importantly for pipe making, fire resistant due to the high mineral content of the wood.

Bog Oak has been prized for centuries as it is rare wood that is difficult to find and tricky to work. According to Wikipedia, Bog Oak was “prized in the Tudor period for its dark hue, [and] was used to construct the throne of Peter the Great as well in the construction of Venetian palaces and the bedroom suite of Louis XIV.”

The pipe on the table today is a Rattray’s Bog Oak that arrived in very good condition – if you discount two long, vertical cracks in the front and rear of the bowl. A close inspection shows that the cracks follow the natural grain of the wood, so they may have been caused by the wood drying out over time after being carved. According to the pipe’s current steward, the cracks started small and crept across the bowl slowly. Judging by the pics in this first series, it is definitely time to stop them from stretching any further.

I started work on this pipe with a good basic cleaning. I used sandpaper wrapped around a dowel to remove a light amount of cake from the chamber, and a small handful of cotton swabs and pipe cleaners dipped in 99% isopropyl alcohol to clean the accumulated tars from the shank and airway.

I also wiped down the exterior of the stummel to remove the surface dust and any old wax. As these pics show, the alcohol wicked through to the chamber interior, proving that the cracks were more than surface flaws.

To stop them from creeping further down the sides of the bowl, I drilled a 0.8mm hole at the very end of each crack. This acts as a kind of “fire break”, relieving the pressure on the wood below the crack.

After determining where best to insert the metal pins, I sketched the line of the pin shafts on the exterior of the bowl with pencil. The rear crack, the shorter of the two, would get one pin while the front crack would require two pins to stitch the morta back together.

Note the angle of the pin shafts – a pin set straight across the crack could pull loose as the bowl expands and contracts during a smoke. Set at opposing angles, the pins pull against each other as well as the wood; this tension helps to keep the crack tightly closed.

And now to the nerve-wracking part – drilling the pin shafts. I use a blind drilling technique in which only one hole is drilled for each pin. The other end of the shaft remains buried inside the chamber wall, reducing the number of fills needed afterwards. The repair tech really has just one chance at getting the shaft drilled properly, without penetrating the chamber or popping a second hole out the far end of the shaft. The curvature of the bowl and thickness of the chamber walls are key factors here, as are a steady hand and a sharp drill bit.

Here we see the rear crack with the pin material test-fit in the shaft. The second pic below shows that the pin does not poke through into the chamber.

Happy with the shaft drilling, I cut lengths of steel wire to size, making them slightly shorter than the pin shaft. This allows me to completely bury the end of the wire under a fill later. After dipping the pins in more CA glue, I pushed them home in their respective shafts, then filled the holes with a patch mixture made, in this case, from thick CA glue mixed with charcoal powder to match the natural black colour of the morta.

And a few shots of the front crack receiving the same treatment. You’ll see that I also put patch mix along the length of the crack to fill it.

I set the stummel aside overnight at this point to allow the CA to cure completely, then filed and sanded the patches flush with the surrounding wood. I topped up the patches a few times to fill the depressions completely

Morta isn’t typically stained as the natural colour of the wood is highly prized. Here, though, a coat of black leather dye was used to both even out the surface colour and push the fills into the background.

After the dye had dries, I hand buffed away the excess with an old towel, then applied a wipe of mineral oil to the stummel. This helps to set the dye coat, add pop and depth to the finish and injects a bit of moisture into the wood. The oil sat on the morta for about a minute before I removed the excess with the towel.

All that was left to do now was to give the pipe a final buff and polish. The texture of bog oak is such that a high gloss finish is very difficult to achieve; most pipe makers aim for a matte finish on their morta pipes. A light buffing and an even lighter coat of Carnauba wax did the trick.

This Rattray’s Bog Oak pipe is once again ready to provide many years of smoking companionship to its steward, to whom it has been returned. The pins inserted across the cracks will hold the bowl together indefinitely – in fact, if the morta should ever crack again, it will almost certainly be in a different section of the stummel as the glue and pins have made the repaired areas stronger than the surrounding morta. The repairs are also virtually invisible, even under close examination, thanks to the black filler and some careful sanding.

I hope you enjoyed following along on this estate pipe rescue. This Rattray’s Bog Oak would have certainly met a much harsher fate had the cracks been allowed to spread further. Indeed, at a certain point the bowl would have split in two – an event both I and the pipe’s steward were keen to avoid!

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

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