The Gourd Calabash pipe, in its current form with gourd body, rubber stem and meerschaum or clay bowl, has been around since the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). According to this article on smokingpipes.com, the war led to shortages of briar in Cape Town, pushing pipe makers to find an alternative material. Gourds had been used by the indigenous population as smoking instruments since the 1600s, so it was natural for European pipe makers to start experimenting with this local commodity.
The Gourd Calabash caught on with British soldiers, who brought them home after the war ended. Initially considered a novelty and passing fad, the Gourd Calabash became popular in the early 1900s, celebrated for both its unique look and excellent smoking qualities. Hollywood connected the Gourd Calabash pipe with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, cementing the pipe in the public imagination despite the fact that the Gourd Calabash does not appear once in the Holmes stories.
In the early 20th Century in Canada, most pipes were imported from established European makers and the Calabash on the bench today is no exception. Marked “HBB” for the Toronto distributors Heyes Bros, Limited, the pipe was definitely in need of some TLC when it arrived in the DadsPipes shop.
As this initial series of images shows, the pipe was missing its meerschaum cup and the cork gasket that held the cup in place on top of the gourd. The Bakelite stem was missing about half its length, though it looked like I might be able to salvage and reuse the original bone screw tenon. Interestingly, the case, also marked with the “HBB” logo, was clearly not designed to accommodate a meerschaum cup, which may explain how the original piece was lost.
The left flank of the gourd is stamped “HBB” in an oval over “Special”.
The sterling silver shank band is also marked with the HBB logo, as well as the letters “HMM” over a trio of silver hallmarks. The third hallmark, the date letter, is worn to illegibility, but the first two identify the band as English silver (Lion Passant) assayed in the city of Chester (three Wheat Sheaves and Sword).
Though the crucial date letter hallmark is unreadable, it is still possible to assign a date range for this pipe. Heyes Bros, Limited operated from Toronto, Ontario from at least 1898 until the First World War. Allowing time for the popularity of the Gourd Calabash to spread after the end of the Second Boer War, we can say with reasonable confidence that this HBB pipe was made sometime between about 1905 and 1915.
Now that I had some idea of the history of the pipe on the table, I got stuck into the cleanup. Keeping the alcohol to a minimum to avoid softening the gourd, I used cotton swabs and pipe cleaners to remove the accumulated tars and debris from the shank and airway. Thankfully the pipe’s current steward had already done some cleaning, so this step didn’t take me very long.
With the airway clear, I used sandpaper wrapped around a dowel to dress off the interior of the gourd body. This removed some tarry buildup and charring inside the pipe, and also cleaned away the remnants of old glue left behind when the old cork gasket was removed.
With the cleanup done, I turned my attention to replacing the broken stem. The first part of this task was to salvage the original bone screw tenon. A bit of heat softened the glue holding the tenon in place, allowing me to unscrew the part from the stem face.
I had a couple of stem options that I thought would suit this old-timer. Shown below are two stems, one made of amber acrylic and the other of Vulcanite. Both have a simple orific bit instead of the modern slotted airway. Either would be appropriate for this pipe as the orific bit was in common use until the early to mid 1920s.
The pipe’s current steward selected the amber acrylic stem. It came from my small supply of used stems, and would need some refurbishment to bring up to snuff, but I have to agree that it is a handsome choice. This pic shows the stem after fitting it to the old bone tenon but before glue-up.
Now that the new stem was well in hand, I switched speeds and focused on fitting a new cork gasket to fit the equally new meerschaum cup conveniently sent to me along with the pipe. These replacement cups are available in a range of sizes and almost always require adjustment to fit properly.
Before heading out to find cork gasket material, I took careful measurements of the cup’s outer diameter and the gourd’s inner dimensions.
Doing the math, there was a 9.26mm (roughly 0.36 inches) difference in diameter between the base of the meerschaum cup and the inner wall of the gourd. Dividing this in half, I knew I was looking for cork no thinner than 4.63mm or 0.18 inches.
After a quick internet search, I found a package of 1/4 inch thick cork tiles at my local Staples store; they also carried a thinner version, but it’s always easier to remove excess material than to try to build multiple layers of thinner material. When I got the cork home, I cut a 1cm wide strip off the edge of one tile and trimmed it to length as you see below.
The cork, as you may imagine, was quite dry, stiff and prone to cracking and crumbling. To make it more flexible, I dampened the strip with water and warmed it over the heat gun before carefully bending it to fit the inner rim of the gourd.
I left the cork inside the gourd overnight to dry. When I came back to the bench in the morning, I extracted the gasket, which had taken its new shape rather well.
I installed the new gasket permanently using a smear of wood glue and several strips of masking tape to clamp the cork in place.
I doubled up on drying time by also setting the replacement stem in place using a touch of epoxy for extra security. The portion of the bone tenon that sits inside the stem face is quite short so the glue ensures a strong bond without movement.
I again allowed the pipe to sit overnight to give both glues sufficient time to cure completely before I fiddled with anything. When I eventually removed the masking tape, the cork gasket was looking good but still rather dry. A wipe of petroleum jelly helped to inject some much needed moisture and keep the cork pliable over time.
Moving back to the stem work, the replacement stem was slightly larger than the shank diameter, so I used files and sandpaper to remove the excess acrylic. Note the layer of clear hockey tape on the sterling band to protect it from errant file strokes.
As I got close to the final size, I swapped files for sandpaper and continued to refine the shape of the new stem, sanding to 2000-grit in preparation for final buffing.
As the next pic shows, the stem needed quite a bend added before the pipe would fit inside its case again. With a pipe cleaner slipped inside the airway to hold it open, I warmed the acrylic stem over the heat gun until it was pliable, then used the case as a template, bending the stem until it fit properly.
The bending process has undone much of my finish sanding, leaving the surface of the acrylic with an orange peel texture. Another round of sanding returned it to its previous smoothness and clarity.
Unfortunately, all my fiddling had caused the glue holding the sterling shank band in place to give out and the band came off in my hand. After cleaning off the residual adhesive, I reinstalled the band with a few drops of thick CA glue.
I could just see the light at the end of this restoration tunnel now. The only remaining task before final buffing and polishing was to fit the new meerschaum cup. A test fit showed that the cup would fit as things were, but only just. To ease the pressure on both the meerschaum and the gourd, I filed and sanded a small amount of cork from the gasket. I could have just as easily sanded the meerschaum cup down, but the gasket was easier to work and easier to replace if I messed things up!
And here is the pipe with the meerschaum cup fit. It’s a very close match, but as the closeup shots illustrate, the rim of the gourd was slightly out of round, leaving a larger overhang on the rear side of the bowl than the other sides.
A quick pencil tracing showed how much meerschaum had to come off to give an even reveal all the way around the pipe.
Sanding meerschaum is easy, if messy. I also highly recommend wearing a dust mask while doing the work as the fine meerschaum dust easily stays airborne long enough to inhale it. Yuck.
I sanded and shaped the meerschaum using 150 and 220-grit sandpaper, a 320-grit sanding sponge and some 0000 steel wool, checking my progress regularly to avoid removing too much material.
When I was happy with the size and shape of the meerschaum cup, I gave the piece a full course of micromesh sanding pads to remove the sanding scratches and bring the shine.
Finally, it was time to take the pipe to the buffer where the stem was polished with both Red Tripoli and White Diamond compounds. I also buffed the gourd with White Diamond before applying a light coat of Carnauba wax to add shine and a layer of protection to the gourd.
The finished pipe is barely recognizable as the dilapidated and unloved item that first arrived on the bench. Cleaned and made whole again, this pre-WWI HBB Gourd Calabash is ready to provide decades of smoking companionship to its newest steward. May he enjoy it in good health!
Thanks for following along on this rather involved estate pipe restoration. I don’t get to work on many gourd calabash pipes, let alone a rather early version of one, made within a few short years of its introduction to the pipe market. This project was a lot of fun for me; I hope you enjoyed the journey as well.
Until next time, Happy Piping! Here’s the finished pipe.