When Repair Doesn’t Work, Make a New Stem

The art of estate pipe restoration is constantly evolving as creative restorers come up with inventive techniques and test new products, but sometime the pipe has other plans. The patient on the worktable today is a good example of the pipe leading the restoration.

The pipe in question is a Don Carlos “two note” grade handmade briar that had been purchased online by its current steward and sent to me to prepare it for use. As the pictures below show, the pipe was in rather good estate condition overall – the stummel was cleaner than most, the rim showed some darkening but was more or less free of carbon “lava” and there were no obvious cracks or other issues with the briar.

The pipe is stamper “Don Carlos” over “Fatta a Mano” over “In Italia” on the left shank, The right shank carries the musical grade stamp of two eighth notes. Don Carlos pipes are graded on a one to three note scale, so this particular pipe is a mid-grade specimen.

The story gets interesting when I took a closer look at the original acrylic stem. An oval saddle arrangement, the stem had a curious blemish running up the centre of the stem on both top and bottom sides of the saddle. Resembling an electrical burn pattern or lightning bolt, the depressions ran straight up the line of the airway.

This peculiar pattern of damage was a new one for me, so I consulted with a few other pipe restorers to see if anyone knew what may have caused the problem. The consensus was that the stem had been overheated, probably during an attempt to widen the airway. Drilling acrylic at too slow a speed can create friction that heats up and softens the material. A pipe cleaner run through the hot stem would grab at the soft acrylic, pulling material from the thin top and bottom areas and creating this odd pattern.

I was half expecting to find bits of pipe cleaner bonded to the inside of the airway, but the stem proved to be squeaky clean and unobstructed inside.

I have had good luck repairing acrylic stems with CA glue in the past. As the materials are related (CA stands for CyanoAcrylate), super glue bonds well to acrylic and the patches often blend invisibly with the original material. Wishing to salvage the original stem if possible, I roughed up the upper and lower surfaces of the saddle and applied a line of black CA glue to the depressions, overfilling slightly to ensure a complete fill. The saddle stem was quite thin (more evidence of previous work) so simply sanding out the blemish was not an option.

As I waited for the stem patches to cure, I worked on the stummel, first reaming a light amount of carbon from the tobacco chamber before cleaning up the rim with a scrap of worn 600-grit sandpaper and some 0000 steel wool.

A scrub with Murphy’s Oil Soap removed the surface grime and old wax from the briar.

I refreshed the finish with a light application of leather dye to even up the colour and bring out that stunning grain.

After the dye dried, I hand buffed away the excess to reveal the refreshed stummel. Shiny!

With the stummel ready and waiting, I turned my attention back to the stem. I used needle files and sandpaper to remove the excess CA glue, but as you can see, the repair wasn’t exactly invisible, with areas showing white or light grey against the black acrylic.

I spent several days fiddling with this stem, picking the CA glue out of the lighter places and reapplying more black glue, but every time I sanded the patches smooth the lightning bolt pattern reasserted itself. In retrospect, I should have listened more closely to the material after the second repair attempt, but in the end the stem had to practically shout at me before I reassessed the situation.

As this image shows, the stem’s tenon snapped off, or rather gave out, along the line of a previously glued repair. Then, as I was roughing up the bottom surface of the saddle for yet another application of CA glue, the dental pick went right through the stem into the airway. This was, metaphorically speaking, the stem’s way of crying out “Enough is enough!”. The saddle was simply too far gone to effectively rebuild it.

After consulting with the pipe’s steward, it was decided that this Don Carlos would get a new hand cut stem made from Eldritch Resin rod. Still a relatively new material for me, Eldritch rod is made in England and available in North America through in both solid colours and some pretty edgy swirled patterns.

Working with basic black rod stock here, I used the original stem as a template for cutting a section of Eldritch rod to length.

Mounting the rod in the lathe, I began the multi-step process of drilling the airway and mortise, beginning with a 1/16″ spotting drill to dimple the centre of the rod.

Next up, a long 1/8″ bit created the rough airway, drilling most of the way through the rod but stopping about 5/8″ short of the far end.

I chased the 1/8″ airway with a taper-point 9/64″ bit to both widen the airway and taper it down to a sharp point at the far end. This point acted as a guide for the last long drill bit, this one 1/16″ in size, that completed the end-to-end drilling of the airway.

The last drilling operation for the stem was to create a 7mm mortise for a Delrin tenon.

Before gluing in the tenon, I turned the rod stock to size, leaving it slightly larger than the widest part of the stummel’s oval shank. The button end of the rod was left a few millimeters larger to facilitate shaping a fishtail stem.

Finally, in went the new Delrin tenon. A live centre mounted in the lathe’s tailstock makes a great clamp for holding the tenon in position while the epoxy cures.

I left the stem in the lathe for about an hour to make sure the tenon was well and truly secure, then moved the piece to the drill press to cut the rough slot at the button end. This little cutting wheel does the job quickly. Notice the masking tape on the other end of the rod stock. This beefs up the smaller end so that the rod sits flat on the drilling jig.

And here is the slot after cutting. It’s bang on line with the 1/16″ starter airway, but a bit off-center. I would adjust it later when I finished the slot.

Regular readers will recognize this next image of the “proto-stem” mounted to the pipe shank. I applied guide lines of masking tape to the rod to mark out the depth of the saddle, the button and the line of the airway.

A belt sander makes short work of bulk material removal, though speed can sometimes work against the inattentive. In this pic, the shape of the saddle had been roughed out and the rod was beginning to look like a pipe stem.

From this point on, all the work was done by hand using a series of files and sandpapers. Starting with coarser files, I refined the shape of the stem and created a curved upper and lower saddle surface.

While the stem could still sit relatively flat on the table, I widened the rough-cut slot and cut the V shaped opening that tapered the airway from the outer edges of the slot down to the central airway.

With the slot complete, I could continue to refine the shape of the saddle stem and remove the excess material from the button. These pics show the progress, though there was still some work to do at this stage.

I used digital calipers to make sure that the height and depth of the button was consistent side to side and top to bottom. When I was happy with the shape, I sanded the stem to 2000-grit to remove the file marks and prepare the stem for final polishing. Note the masking tape on the pipe shank in this shot, applied to protect the stamps from errant file marks.

After adding a slight bend to the stem to match the original, it was finally time to take the complete pipe to the buffer for a run on both the Red Tripoli and White Diamond wheels followed by several light coats of Carnauba wax to shine and protect the refreshed pipe.

This renewed Don Carlos hand made pipe is now looking great after its time on the bench. The briar is clean and fresh with its new finish, and the Eldritch Resin stem could easily be taken for the original except for the missing original white bar logo. Better yet, the pipe’s new steward can rest assured that the new stem is structurally sound and ready to provide decades of smoking companionship.

Thanks for joining me for this estate pipe restoration project. Besides being a lovely pipe, this story serves as a reminder to restorers and repairers to pay attention to the materials as work progresses. Sometimes the pipe will tell you what it needs.

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

8 thoughts on “When Repair Doesn’t Work, Make a New Stem”

  1. Charles, I enjoyed seeing the step-by-step process of fashioning a new stem. Very nice results. It will take a few more expenditures for me to graduate into this level of restoration with the lathe and all! Thanks!

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      1. Well, I just picked up a VINTAGE Atlas Drill press from an estate sale – it’s probably older than I! It didn’t work when I got it home, so that’s another project. I really didn’t know what a pen vice was and looked it up – interesting. How is it different from a regular vice??

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