This FAQ discusses the tools and methods for polishing and restoring briar pipes and their stems:
vulcanite or acrylic. The same methods are used for removing small scratches from the briar bowl as well as restoring the shiny black surface to stems suffering from varying degrees of oxidation (which produces a dull surface, tinged with brown or green as the oxidation deepens).


by Serge L. Dasara

© 2010

2010 Preface

have not re-edited this eight-year-old FAQ, but rather added this short
introduction. At the outset I should tell you that there have always been a few
who have been put off by the detail of this little FAQ that I wrote about eight
years ago. By way of apology, I am a craftsman: a jeweler and luthier as well
as an amateur home machinist.
Considering that it takes over 200 hours to build an acoustic guitar,

used to the kind of slow,
fastidious work that produces a near-perfect result.

I’m also the kind of guy that tediously details his car —
and have been doing so since I bought my first electric buffer back in the 70s.

however, let the amount of detail in this FAQ scare you off; while this FAQ can
teach you how to produce that “wet-look” shine, there is no necessity
for you to do so — the reason for the detail is that you should know how to
accomplish it even if you’re not going to use it.

My advice is, after you have read this FAQ, and familiarized
yourself with the techniques, decide what level of detail is appropriate for
you and go only that far.

I first wrote this FAQ, the Chinese buffers that were available were of poor
quality: shafts that were out-of-round and bearings that were

In the ensuing years
that has changed; and while a Chinese buffer will never be as good as a Foredom
or a Baldor (which are industrial-quality, ball bearing machines with
precision-machined shafts), they are certainly serviceable as long as one
remembers not to use them on sharply-defined edges: the wobble in the shaft
will produce some distortion. My buffer of choice is still the Foredom: a
precision buffer with an infinitely-adjustable speed control, that is the
standard in the jewelry industry, and will last you for a lifetime; likewise I
still recommend the same polishing compounds that I did eight years ago.

the ensuing years since I first wrote this, micro-abrasive abrasive sheets have
become much more readily available, being sold that many Home Depot and other
large hardware stores.

addition, 3M Imperial Lapping Film Sheets, (mylar-backed abrasive sheets),
manufactured down to 1/2 micron can now be purchased online or in some of the
same stores.

the FAQ I mention specific products or vendors; let me state clearly that I
have no financial connection whatsoever with them.

I am simply a satisfied customer and

they are products and vendors that I
have used and found to be most satisfactory and highly recommend.

in conclusion, please remember that while you should review this FAQ so as to
learn the steps necessary to produce an “wet-look” finish, you do not
necessarily have to produce one: you can stop at the point when you find the
shine pleasing to you!

Serge Dasara, March, 2010



This FAQ discusses
the tools and methods for polishing and restoring briar pipes and their stems:
vulcanite or acrylic. The same methods are used for removing small scratches
from the briar bowl as well as restoring the shiny black surface to stems
suffering from varying degrees of oxidation (which produces a dull surface,
tinged with brown or green as the oxidation deepens).


I’ve written this FAQ
for those who have little or no experience in machine buffing and/or using
micro-abrasives, and the techniques presented are aimed at this audience.
Further the information provided in this FAQ is based upon my personal

as well as from what I
have learned from working both in the jewelry industry and as a luthier. This
FAQ is not intended to be the definitive work on the subject, but rather a
helpful guide for pipe smokers who want to learn how to buff and polish their


By way of background,
I first used a buffer/polisher over 50 years ago, having been trained as a
jewelry fabricator and watchmaker, then as a luthier (guitar-maker); and
although I do not work in either field today, both have been serious



I’d like to make a
few points at the outset, and separate them from the rest of the text so that
they are neither lost nor overlooked. These points address the most common
mistakes that I see beginners make.

BUFFER? Without mincing words, I recommend the Foredom BL-1; it will be a tool
that you can use for life; it is small and compact; it has infinitely variable
speed; and it is well made. You can slow it down for your first work sessions,
and gradually speed it up as you become more comfortable with the tool and the
process. It is the buffer of choice for the jewelry industry – hundreds
of thousands of them are in use today polishing rings, earrings, pendants and
the like in thousands of jewelry factories around the world.

SAFELY. No loose clothing, no ties. Roll up your sleeves. Remove jewelry and
watches. Wear a heavy apron that covers your chest to protect you from work
that may be flung from your hands and shot into your chest at high speed. Wear
safety glasses. And get a good cartridge respirator; one made of soft rubber
that completely encloses your nose and mouth and uses “filter cartridges”. You
do NOT want to inhale minute pieces of cotton, abrasive, vulcanite and the
like; those paper nose-cones held on with a rubber band are next to useless.

I suggest the

22R20.01 (available by head size as .01, .02 and .03) from
Lee Valley at:
If you can afford it, get a ventilated hood for your buffer; if you
can’t afford one, study the photos of them on various web-sites, then at a Home
Depot or Lowes find pre-made sheet-metal parts in their HVAC section that look
like a hood, and cobble one together with a short length of pipe to mate to
your shop vacuum. You now have a poor man’s ventilated hood. Ready made or home
made, line it with 1/2 inch foam: it will absorb the shock of the work that will
inevitably be snatched from your
hands by the spinning wheel. Move all other tools, pipes and other loose
objects off of the bench top. Remember the speed of the wheel: anything it
catches will be hurled at YOU at that speed. Be wary, work safely!

SLOWLY. One of the most common errors of the beginner is “accidentally”
removing too

much of the material
being polished: edges and contours are flattened, stamped or engraved lettering
is removed and the like. Use a small wheel (four inch diameter), and read
– then re-read – the section on how to calculate the designated speed for
these operations: Surface Feet Per Minute. The ideal speed for a beginner is
750 to 1000 SFPM: you will not easily remove edges and contours or remove stock
at this slow speed; yes, it will take you a while to buff a pipe with a
slow-turning motor, but a nice crisp edge or a button can be flattened in a
split-second at higher speeds, so why not take your time?

THE WHEEL DO THE WORK. Or more realistically, the outer 3/16 or so of the wheel
(the “loose” threads on the surface) is what is doing the work.

push or – worse yet – lean into the wheel

: you only need to press the
workpiece to
the depth of the loose threads, never any deeper. It is these
threads that “catch” the polishing compound, and which are “brushed” over the
surface of the work that does the polishing. You should


be slowing the
motor down with pressure; You should


be distorting the wheel with

THE WORKPIECE MOVING. Never stop while it is in contact with the wheel. Shall I
say it again? If you do not, you will end up with a wavy surface or ruts.

HIGH-QUALITY COMPOUNDS. You use so little, buy the best, either from jewelry or
machine-shop suppliers or the like. Avoid the stuff you can get in home-supply
mega-stores or hardware stores; they are generally made for less-demanding
applications (such as chrome-plating industrial fixtures) and rarely produce as
good of a finish as those made for the jewelry, optical or show-car industries.

on a junker pipe if this is your first time using a power buffer. You’d be
surprised at how easy it is to create a wavy surface or remove edges, contours
and buttons!



The polishing process
requires that the surface be repeatedly abraded with finer and finer grits of
abrasives until the subsequent scratches are so fine that they appear
non-existent. This is the crux of this FAQ, and I will repeat it many times in
many ways –

it’s that important


scratches with an abrasive compound on a wheel (on a buffer) is called
“cut” or “polish”, while removing smaller scratches with a


2.5 micron abrasives and smaller) is
called “color” or “buff”, and is the step to get a smooth,
bright, high luster final finish. (It is called “color” since the
color of the compound will affect the finished color of fine metals such as
hi-carat gold or platinum). Obviously, there will be some overlap of compounds
and processes, and it is up to the operator to choose where to start, how large
of a step to take between compounds, and when to stop: e.g. there is no need
polish a pipe stem using the micro-abrasives used to polish an eyeglass lens.



can be found in many forms, shapes and hardnesses but the two forms we will
discuss are either glued (to a paper or Mylar film backing) or

mixed with a sterate (wax), then packed
in a bar or tube as a soft solid. The latter are generally referred to as
“compounds” and are applied to a spinning cotton buffing wheel. Some
abrasives – particularly those found in nature as minerals – possess a quality
referred to as “friability”, which means that they continue to break
apart, constantly exposing fresh cutting surfaces that are smaller and smaller,
somewhat accomplishing cut and color in one operation. Some of the most common
abrasives are the natural ones such as: emery, Tripoli, diamond or rouge; and
the man-made, such as: silicon oxide, aluminum oxide and silicone carbide. All
of these abrasives have advantages and disadvantages, and the most important
difference is the particle size. In natural abrasives (such as Tripoli and
Rouge), particle size can vary considerably in a given batch; consequently, it
is most important that the particles be “sieved” and separated into batches of
a uniform particle size before they are glued to a backing or compressed into a
bar; how carefully and uniformly this is done impacts the cost of a given
compound. Always buy the best is my advice.

particles tend to have a more uniform hardness and shape which allows them to
be sized more accurately than natural abrasives. It is important to note that
sieve sizes between different measuring standards vary. Consequently, an
abrasive with a 400 FEPA sieve, may not be the same as a 400 ASTM sieve size.
In addition, other abrasives, (film or compound) are sold by sizes expressed in
“microns”. One micron is a metric unit of length equal to one
millionth of a meter and

approximately equivalent to a 14,000 sieve size. A one-micron finish will
produce a very nice finish luster. One of the better products on the market for
buffing stems is the white compound sold under the proprietary name of
FABULUSTER; it is very uniform in particle size – in addition, it is a friable



papers or films can be purchased in grits from 1000 to .3 micron (+/- 20,000),
but for our purposes we will use sheets from 600 to 8000, although it is good
to have up to 12,000 on hand. For finer polishing, we will use the
polisher/buffer, and anything rougher is outside of the scope of this article
and in the realm of woodworking. For ease of use, these micro-abrasive sheets
are best used by gluing them to a stiff foam block with contact cement. Many
hi-tech auto-body shops sell these abrasive papers and films, as do machine
shop suppliers, and hobby shops sell the MICRO-MESH brand, which I recommend.
Micro-Mesh sells the “Craft Kit” which is comprised of two-inch
square foam pads as well as one-inch by six-inch foam paddles (both are 1/4
inch thick) to which their abrasive films have been pre-glued. Micro-Mesh also
sells loose sheets, and various sizes of foam blocks. I have found that the
closed-cell foam insulation strips (about one inch square and three feet long)
which are sold for insulating around window air conditioners make excellent
sanding blocks. Simply cut off a 3 or 4 inch piece, and use contact cement to
glue the sandpaper/film to one surface of the “block”. Beauty supply shops sell
similar products in the nail section. The problem is that the grit size is
rarely marked, and often incorrectly marked. However, once the reader is
familiar with the “feel” of the Micro-Mesh products, it is easy to
sort thru these “nail buffers” so as to find ones suitable for pipe



are many different polishing and buffing compounds. Often manufacturers – or
worse yet, distributors – separate them into additional categories with 3 or 4
different levels of polishing and buffing. The nomenclature becomes more
complicated because the compounds are used for different reasons by different
industries depending upon the desired outcome and the surface itself – not to
mention the time one wishes to invest in a project. For example, the optical
and custom/show car industries will use the same types of abrasives in
different packaging, yet the resulting finishes are often remarkably alike.

of the difficulties in using and understanding abrasive compounds is that each
manufacturer uses their own formulation in manufacturing a line of polishing
abrasives. For example, there are two types of aluminum oxide used as a polish,
sometimes called “A” and “B”, and the size of the particle
of each designation is quite different: Aluminum oxide “A” is 0.3
micron in size and Aluminum oxide “B” is an extremely small micron
size of 0.05. To put this into perspective, 50,000 sieve is +/- .5 micron. A
micron is a metric unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter.

difficulty is how carefully each manufacturer screens the abrasive that makes
up a compound. Some manufacturers will sell a bar or tube of compound that is
comprised of (for example)


micron abrasives, while another manufacturer may have a


of particles from 2 to 5 microns in their compound, with
the “average” being 3 microns. This is a very important distinction, because
you will obtain a much finer finish with the former. Let the buyer beware.

purchasing a bar of abrasive compound, the color alone will not reveal the
concentration of abrasive compound used or the size of the particle used in
manufacturing the compound. The ranges of abrasives used by one manufacturer in
their green oxide compounds used is from 5% to 90%, a significant difference;
and of
course, the resulting finish from each bar will be significantly
different. And too, there is no accepted color code to abrasives; it is simply
a myth that one color is used prior to or after another color, so let me

there is no system of
color-coding for abrasives!

have seen “black rouge” for sale that is not rouge at all but emery, and would
remove rust from steel! These variables can vary greatly from manufacturer to
manufacturer. I would suggest finding and staying with one supplier when
selecting your abrasives.
this can cause unpredictable results, and make the purchase of compounds
difficult. Buying at tool shows, hardware stores, flea markets and the like is
risky, IMO: I have seen bars of red compound that are 800 to 1000 grit and sold
as jewelers rouge, stating that it is “suitable for use on precious
metals”. That product would damage high-carat gold or fine plastic in a
fraction of a second.

add to the confusion, different suppliers describe buffing and polishing
compounds differently and many different brands are identical for all intents
and purposes. Not all red compounds are jeweler’s rouge, as many believe.
Jeweler’s rouge is made with ferric oxide, which gives it the red color. The
word “rouge”, is French for “red”, and even though it is
then semantically incorrect to call green or white polishing compound rouge,
some do it anyway. As a final note, also remember that a bar of green compound
is more than likely chrome oxide, and not rouge!

speaking, I can tell you that the Tripoli that I use is the equivalent of +/-
7000 sieve and the rouge

that I
use is slightly finer than 1 micron (keep in mind that they are both friable,
and break down to smaller and smaller particles as one buffs).

Both, however are sold in unmarked
wrappings, and your finding the same ones that I buy is highly unlikely. Before
we get too caught up in sizing abrasives, please remember that it is extremely
difficult to sieve particles finer than 12,000, and that methods other than a
sieve are used to sort micro-abrasives. Further, the smaller the particle, the
more difficult it becomes to assign a micron size to a corresponding sieve size
and vice-versa; there are no true equivalents between micron and particle sizes,
just “educated guesses”; consequently, when I speak of an equivalence between a
sieved particle and a particle measured in microns, it is just that: an
educated guess.

HOW TO JUDGE ABRASIVE SIZE. Now that you are aware of the fact that a given bar
of compound marked “Tripoli” may be comprised of abrasive particles finer than
another manufacturer’s bar of “Rouge”, you will want to be able to judge the
relative size of the abrasives in any given compound for yourself. Let me give
you a tip. You will need a one-inch by two-inch piece of sterling silver, 10 or
12 gauge; you can buy it at any lapidary or jewelry supply shop. On a large
piece of plate glass (a glass table works well) lay a sheet of suitable
abrasive: if you want to test rouge, use a sheet of 3M Imperial 1-micron
lapping film (+/- 14,000) or Micro-Mesh 12,000. Using a continuous supply of
water, lap the silver back and forth over the abrasive sheet until you have a
flat, even surface. You now have a test piece with a know surface finish. Using
a high quality masking tape, mask off 1/2 of the piece of silver, pressing down
with your fingernail so that you have a tight, straight edge. Charge a


wheel with the abrasive you are testing, and polish the exposed
surface of the silver. Now remove the abrasive from the silver with soap and
hot water, peel off the masking tape, and using a 25X loupe or magnifier,
examine the silver closely in a strong light. You will immediately be able to
tell if the compound on the wheel is finer or coarser than the previously
prepared surface. By a process of elimination, you will be able to number all
of your compounds, and if you stay with one manufacturer, you will never have
to repeat this experiment! (We use glass as a flat surface, inasmuch as it is the
flattest surface available except for specially ground stone “flats” made by
Starrett; sterling – though expensive – is soft enough to lap and
polish quickly, and that piece should last for years).


Some recommendations.
Let me give you two source of quality supplies such as wheels and compounds,
who sells jewelry tools and supplies commercially:

. I have no
affiliation with either except as a customer, but I can assure you that they
sell high quality supplies to the jewelry and gunsmith industries. Foredom’s
rouge, #40041 is one of the best sold, and their Tripoli is quite good also.
Their wheels are excellent. For the stems, I suggest FABULUSTER, though WHITE
DIAMOND (two grades are available) and ZAM are similar. I prefer FABULUSTER,
and in a pinch it can be used for fine metals and other hard materials. Another
source of supplies is:

[for buffing compounds, click on “Polishing Compounds” which will
take you to that page] who sells both VIGOR and GROBET polishing compounds as
well as Fabulustre, (two excellent ones) and all of the other supplies
mentioned here.

those who wish to go the extra mile, many micro-abrasives are available to the
show-car industry as well as the optical industry. The abrasives used on
plastic eye-glass lenses are as fine as .03 micron – try that on your
tamper or fountain pen! I have asked my optometrist to buy .03 micron compound
from his lab for me, and he has; you can do the same. It is supplied as a
slurry, and I have found a foam sponge to be the best medium for its
application. The shine is spectacular!



Buffing wheels come
in a variety of styles and sizes. With the standard polishing motor, the
smallest buff possible should be used to obtain the optimum working speed.
Choices should be confined to the stitched buffs, either treated or
non-treated. The unstitched buffs generally lack the stiffness to generate
sufficient friction at the interface to allow the surface to flow and fill in
the micro-scratches necessary to yield a high luster. A separate category of
buffing wheels are hard felt “bobs”. These are used to maintain a
perfectly flat surface, or perfectly sharp edge or contour, since they do not
“give” as the workpiece is applied to its surface. In addition,
complex or inside curves can be easily polished by shaping the hard felt wheel
to the exact shape or contour of the inner curve. Be advised, however, that one
can ONLY use hard felt bobs with a “polishing lathe” as described
below, never on a home-made buffer or an Asian one; and the technique and
control needed requires a LOT of skill and practice, so practice with a felt
bob on old pipe stems! If you have no local supplier, Foredom and Kingsley
North sell a complete line of polishing wheels.


A buffer/polisher can
be made from a double spindled motor but at about this price point one might as
well buy a proper polishing lathe manufactured for the dental, jewelry or
optical industry. Such a buffer should ideally be of sealed construction and
have a precision ground motor shaft, turning on self lubricating ball or needle
bearings. They are called polishing “lathes” because they are made to extremely
close tolerances, with a precision ground motor spindle, turning on needle or
ball bearings, with microscopic run-out. What this means is that as the motor
turns, the buffing wheel will (once trued) turn accurately and concentrically
to the center of the spindle. Wavy surfaces and the loss of edges and contours
on the workpiece are a result (if not of operator error or inexperience)

wobble and run-out from an
inexpensive buffing set-up as described in the next paragraph – as the wheel
wobbles – even if
only by hundredths of an inch – it causes the ripples and
waves, and makes it


to maintain a crisp edge. And all Asian buffers and
home made equipment have a LOT of run-out! Again, let the buyer beware.


One can also purchase
an inexpensive grinding unit made in Asia from companies such as Homier or
Harbor Freight Salvage. Such grinders can usually be bought locally for between
fifty and one-hundred dollars. One may also rig up various arrangements of
pulleys and belts with a discarded washing machine motor or a similar motor.

really discourage the use of either.

First, a
grinder’s motor is


the same as the motor made for a
polisher/buffer in that a grinder is a high torque, and generally high rotation
motor designed for removing large amounts of material quickly; neither is a
washing-machine motor made for spinning a buff. The quick removal of stock is
not the purpose of a buffer, and buffers generally have much less torque and a
bit less horsepower. It is that unnecessary torque that will fling the pipe
that much further (or break your finger) that much more quickly. Avoid

In addition, the Asian units
have a great deal of run-out because they are not precision-made, and turn on
inexpensive bronze bushings in place of bearings. This introduces a great deal
of off-center wobble, and can cause surface ripples in the finished work
– so that one can not easily maintain a sharp edge or contour with a
machine like these.

As for the
home-brewed machines, IMO, they are

just plain dangerous

in addition to
being difficult to work with and have all of the faults of the cheap, Asian
machines. Or let me put it this way: you wouldn’t stick a soda-straw into a
walnut shell to use for a pipe – would you? Then why maintain and restore fine
pipes with a jury-rigged outfit?


The three most
popular polishing lathes are (in descending order of power and size): Baldor,
Red Wing and Foredom; the Baldor lists for about $325; the Red Wing about $289
and the Fordeom about $199. The internet prices are lower, but not by a lot
inasmuch as these buffer/polishers are designed for industrial use and
purchase. I own one of each, but will tell you that the Foredom BL-1 will be
just perfect for home maintenance and restoration of smoking pipes – it can be had
for about $175.00.


DREMEL. In a word:


Don’t even


of using one on a
pipe! They spin

way, way

too fast (15,000 RPM) and that little buff
concentrates a lot of power on a very small surface. It has sharp edges and can
run away from you and nick and gouge the workpiece before you can recover
control. The Dremel was not made for buffing a pipe, and you can do a


of damage with it in a very short time. They are very good tools and quite
useful; I own two, but not for buffing and polishing!


Be certain that you
purchase an appropriate tapered arbor (right or left hand) for the direction of
rotation of the spindle for the buffer you use. If you get a tapered arbor from
a machinists supply, be forewarned that it will run less accurately than a
narrower jeweler’s tapered arbor because it has a very wide taper and so can be
used with lower priced buffs from the hardware store which have a large center
hole. Jeweler’s buffs are purchased from a jeweler supplier and are made with a
smaller hole; they are more expensive, and require a smaller jeweler’s tapered
arbor. They are also more accurately cut, and give a finer finish. Foredom and
Kingsley North sell jeweler’s buffs: for Tripoli, I use a coarse-weave (60
tpi), four-inch diameter muslin buff with three rows of stitching (though some
prefer the even stiffer yellow-treated buffs); for FABULUSTER and for carnauba
wax, I use a fine-weave (80 tpi), four-inch diameter muslin buff with three
rows of stitching. For the final buff (using no wax or compound on the wheel) a
loose-stitched (usually 1 row) flannel or even a man-made chamois buff, turning
at a low speed (under 1000 sfpm).


SPEED. You can
improve the effectiveness of the polishing operation by operating in the
optimum working speed range for the grit being used. This is measured in
distance over time and is always expressed as SFPM, or “surface feet per
minute”. This is the speed that the outer surface of the wheel is turning
at, and NOT the spindle speed – and this is an


distinction! To obtain the SFPM, the formula is: spindle speed x diameter of
buff x pi/12
= SFPM. For an automated calculation of SFPM, go to:

example, the optimum working speed for Tripoli is 1500 to 2000 SFPM, and a 4
inch wheel turning at 1725 RPM spindle speed will produce the optimal speed on
the surface of the wheel. I use and recommend a four inch wheel; larger wheels
simply produce an excessive surface speed that is dangerous to the operator and
material, and one has less control with a larger wheel. Trust me when I tell
you that 8-inch wheels can break fingers as well as propel a stem into your
chest or a bystander at a high rate of speed. I have seen photos of European
pipe-makers using giant wheels on huge, slow-turning motors. I simply do not
understand why, and attribute it to custom or unavailability of the buffers
sold in the U.S. I have used such set-ups to buff guitars, and know that Gibson
uses them on its production lines; but in my opinion, that are unsuitable for a
small object such as a pipe, and it would be too easy for it to be snatched out
of your hand and propelled into a wall, or worse yet, you! Stick with a 4 inch

would suggest working at 750 to 1000 SFPM, and that would be with the dial at
about 1/3 on a Foredom polishing lathe. Yes, it is slow, but at that speed bad
things happen slowly, and you can sometimes recover from a mistake that you
could not were the motor turning faster. In addition, you will be less likely
to buff off too much stock, or stamped lettering at that speed. Once your
confidence and skill level increase, you can speed up.


One step that should
never be overlooked in polishing is the necessity of cleaning the coarser
compound from the piece prior to moving to a finer one. Cross-contamination is
one of the biggest problems encountered during the polishing process. If the
binder of an abrasive is allowed to overheat it can plasticize and smear over
the piece. If this material is not removed prior to moving on to the next finer
step, the heat and action produced by the subsequent operation can liberate the
coarser abrasive and intermix it with the finer one. A quick wipe with a cotton


dampened with alcohol works well. And it goes without saying that you should
use one wheel – and mark it – for each compound. Never, never use more than one
compound on a given buffing wheel!


cross-contamination is less of a problem with the sheet or film abrasives, it
is extremely problematic with the buffing abrasives. It is a good practice to
label or color code your buffs to help reduce the likelihood of
cross-contamination. Here the abrasive particle is generally so small that the
size difference is not visually apparent. When the buff becomes clogged it can
be cleaned with a dressing stone, a wheel rake or a piece of hacksaw blade (18
TPI) wrapped in friction tape to protect your fingers. Hold it against the
bottom third of a SLOW spinning wheel and keep it as perpendicular to the wheel
as possible. There are also commercially made buffing wheel rakes and abrasive
stones sold for this purpose.



There are two methods
of using abrasives. For deeper scratches in the briar, and for tooth-marks and
extreme oxidation on t
he stem, one will start with an abrasive film or paper
with a 1000 grit size or finer and repeatedly abrade the surface with finer and
finer grits of abrasives until the subsequent scratches are so fine that they
appear to be non-existent (making certain that the scratches left by the
preceding abrasive have been completely removed!). Once a satisfactory surface
has been obtained – or if the surface is already smooth – one will use a
compound applied to a cloth wheel spun by a motor, and progress from coarser to
finer abrasive compounds in small steps.

most common mistake that I see, from both amateurs and those who should know
better, is to ignore this principle: to
repeatedly abrade the surface with finer and finer grits of abrasives,
in small increments,

certain that the scratches left by the preceding abrasive have been completely
removed!) until the subsequent scratches are so fine that they appear to be

I have repeated this
many times over because it is


important! In fact, one can
usually improve almost any pipe costing under $100 by meticulously sanding it
with 1000 to 8,000 paper, then buffing with Tripoli. Most pipes under $100 are
sanded to 600 or so, then polished with Tripoli because the price point doesn’t
permit meticulous, step-by-step hand sanding with finer and finer grits!

have seen bowls, stems, tampers, jewelry and other objects sanded with 600 grit
paper and then taken to a Tripoli wheel then waxed without carefully and
completely sanding or polishing the surface with each and every intermediate
abrasive. While such a surface appears shiny (only if you squint), it is not as
reflective as it could be because of the intermediate scratches left behind and
not removed. An analogous situation is on an automobile that someone has waxed
without removing the “micro-scratches” that the automatic car-wash leaves: it
looks fine from a distance, but viewed in direct sunlight, those pesky
scratches become visible. Both are indicators of poor workmanship. The practice
of sanding thoroughly with

abrasive one step at a time is such an important concept in obtaining an
“optical quality finish” (i.e. one that reflects as much light as
possible and appears to be liquid) that I can not emphasize it enough. Folks
ask me how I get my stems or my car to have such a lively, reflective shine
– what’s my secret? I’ve just told it to you: the removal of scratches by
meticulously using each and every intermediate abrasive!


Each grain of
abrasive is in reality a sharp, small grain that acts as if it were a tiny
plane, and scratches off a minute bit of surface material; obviously it leaves
behind small “scratches” or grooves the size of each abrasive particle. By
moving to the next screen-size and slowly and thoroughly sanding the surface,
those scratches are replaced with smaller ones and so on until the scratches
are so small that they appear as a highly reflective surface to the naked eye.
At about

1 micron (approx. 14,000
screen) the surface becomes quite reflective, but plastic eyeglass lenses are
polished with .5 micron compounds and high quality optics with .03 micron!



The appearance of
many pipes, tampers and even fountain pens range can be improved by a
run-through with micro-abrasives because the makers rarely will spend much time
on an inexpensive article, and some judicious hand polishing by the reader can
produce a pleasing luster.

this is not the PIPE RESTORATION FAQ, I will not delve into the minutiae of
that process, but for these tips. Before starting, clean the airway of the pipe
with a small bristle brush made for this purpose – dipped into a small dish of
Everclear grain alcohol, running it through until the alcohol runs clear. Follow
this with pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol. If it is an estate pipe, I soak the
stem in a quaternary disinfectant overnight. Ream excess carbon/cake from the
bowl. Wipe the rim of the pipe with a Q-Tip dipped in alcohol until the tar and
carbon have been removed. Be judicious: too much alcohol or pressure will
dissolve the stain! If you remove the stain, or want to re-stain a pipe, buy a
powdered aniline stain. I dissolve mine in water, because I feel that the
result is more transparent and lively than if it were dissolved in alcohol.

dings and dents can often – but not always – be removed with

steam. The wood in a dent has been
compressed, and steam will often swell the underlying wood, causing it to

“fill” the dent. Either a steam iron (ONLY if it has a “burst of
steam” feature) or a clothes steamer are suitable: simply aim the jet of
steam directly onto the dent for about 15 seconds. After two or three burst of
steam, the wood will either swell back to, or close to its original form – or
not. I do not recommend mastic fills for pipes. Enough woodworking/restoration;
let’s get back to the subject at hand!


Begin by using 1000
grit abrasive paper on a foam block. Take long, gentle strokes that conform to
the shape of the bowl or stem. Alternate each stroke with a following stroke
ninety degrees to the movement of the first stroke. Slowly and methodically
stroke the work until the entire surface of the pipe and stem have been sanded,
Pay attention to the edges of the button, and the rim, and never, never alter a
contour. Examine your work under a 15x loupe; pay attention to the button and
sharp contours to ascertain that you have not rounded any edges or changed any
contours. The surface should have a uniform finish. Re-stroke any areas that do

repeat this

with successively
finer grades of abrasive films until you reach 8,000. I can not stress the
importance of taking small steps – it is this that gives the mirror finish. In
fact the most common mistake I see is going from 600 or 1000 paper right to the
buffer with Tripoli! Each grain of abrasive, whether on film, paper or a cloth
wheel, and no matter what it is made of, is a sharp-edged particle, not unlike
a chisel or plane blade. As a compound-laden buff turns, or a sheet of abrasive
film is stroked each of those particles acts like a mini-gouge, taking the
“edges” off of

scratches while making them more shallow. The surface is to be repeatedly
abraded with finer and finer grits of abrasives until the subsequent scratches
are so fine that they appear non-existent. If you skip a step, you are merely
rounding off the sharp edges of a larger scratch, thus reducing it’s optical
reflectance – but not improving the surface. (This, BTW, is what cheapie auto
detailers do – called a “squint-job” in the business: it looks good
if you squint!).


this point, the workpiece is taken to the buffer, but if you are like me, you
will sand up to 12,000 before going to the buffer, and then go to FABULUSTER;
Tripoli is used only if the stem is green or brown from oxidation or if you
stop at 6000 or less abrasive film/paper. Now, holding the stem, mentally
divide it into halves. Remembering that Tripoli and FABULUSTER are friable
(that is, the abrasives break down into finer and finer pieces) you will want
to start on – and stay on – one half of the workpiece until you reach a final
luster, then re-charge the wheel to do the second half. Put a coarse cotton
wheel on an arbor, turn the speed on low; and with medium pressure, touch the bar
of Tripoli (or FABULUSTER) to the spinning wheel for a second or two

the most

. It should visibly color the wheel, but not load up compound
on the wheel; this is called “charging” the wheel.

the workpiece firmly in BOTH hands, and


touch it to the lower quarter
of the wheel as it faces you, and immediately move it slowly and evenly from
left to right, never stopping. Remember that it is the “loose-ends” of the
wheel, that is to say, the last 1/8 to 3/16th of an inch of
cloth that holds
the compound, and that does the work. Consequently, there is no need to force
the work into the wheel; The work should be pressed into the wheel for that 1/8
to 3/16, and no more; if you are visibly distorting the wheel, you are applying
too much pressure; if you can hear the motor slow down, you are applying too
much pressure. Let the spinning surface of the wheel,

not the motor


do the work!

excess compound is visibly transferred to the workpiece, you have used


too much compound; touch the spinning wheel lightly with your wheel rake to
remove the excess. Keep the workpiece moving; do not stop while the work is
against the wheel. Polish the first half until you have achieved a luster that
you are happy with. Using the same principles, finish buffing the pipe.

wipe the remnants of the Tripoli from the work with alcohol on a cotton ball
that has been slightly dampened –

not wet, not soaked

– in
alcohol, and repeat the polishing process with FABULUSTER until you have a
bright, mirror finish!



A pipe finish is
unlike any other wood finish extant. All other wood objects are sealed and
protected with a finish that is a barrier which lays on top of the wood, and is
then waxed; a slightly different finish is an “oil” finish which technically
soaks into the wood, but actually has a thin layer which dries – or
polymerizes – on top of the wood. Pipes are finished differently:
carnauba wax is applied to bare wood, with no intervening finish; it is melted
by the friction of the spinning buff, and transferred to the pipe where it
hardens. Every

article that you
will read about waxes and polishes on woodworkers’ sites deals with furniture
and the like where the finish lies on top of the wood (and is then waxed);
further, furniture is not subjected to the constant handling that a pipe is,
nor the high heat that it is subjected to. Consequently the information on
woodworkers’ web-sites is – at best only partially applicable to pipes.


hard solid wax exuded from the Brazilian Carnauba Palm; it is sold in flakes,
and melted into pucks. It can only be applied if it is softened. For furniture
and automobile uses, solvents are added to it to soften it so that it can be
applied. In fact the most expensive paste waxes are only +/- 35% carnauba, and
often, other waxes – natural and synthetic – are added, as are
other polymers, making them really unsuitable for pipes. Once softened with
solvents, carnauba will never revert to its rock-hard natural state, and that
is the reason that paste waxes are not suitable for a pipe finish. The only way
to seal raw briar is to apply carnauba wax with a buffer.

digress for a moment and talk about maintaining that shine between re-applying
wax with the buffer. If you use a paste, liquid or spray wax or furniture
polish – with or without carnauba – you are actually softening and
removing the buffed-on carnauba with the solvents in the paste/liquid/spray;
this is not a good thing! I suggest two approaches: the first is to use a soft,
woven cotton cloth (such as a T-shirt) with nothing on it and buff with it; the
second is a commercial product called BRIAR WIPE. If you do use Briar Wipe, it
is important to follow the instructions carefully and allow the solvents in it
(it is a mixture of solvents, silicone polishes and synthetic wax) to evaporate


from the cloth – this takes at least 24 hours. If you do not, the
residual solvents will soften and remove the carnauba that was buffed on. Once
the solvents have evaporated, you are left with a mixture of silicone and
synthetic wax on the cloth, and wiping the pipe and stem with the cloth
transfers them to the waxed pipe, making it shiny and fingerprint resistant,
while slowing oxidation on the vulcanite stem.

will read many articles about synthetic waxes vs. silicones vs. carnauba wax
both on automotive detailing and woodworkers’ sites. While reading them, keep
firmly in mind that a pipe does not have a hard finish like furniture or a car,
and is (obviously) not used in the same manner: thus the material presented
does not apply to pipes! I have been making/finishing guitars for over 40
years, and am an automobile aficionado who spends hours detailing my car with a
Porter-Cable orbital buffer in a four-step process. I’ve read the debates, and
I have no problem with using synthetic or silicone polishes (along with
carnauba) on my cars or guitars or furniture or pipes – I’ve been doing
it for years. My advice is that rather than take the advice of a self-appointed
expert, read the debates (I think the show-car detailing sites have the most
in-depth articles) and try each product for yourself and come to your own
conclusion. Just remember: if you use a paste, liquid or spray wax on a pipe
you are actually removing the buffed on carnauba, and exposing the bare wood;
if using BRIAR WIPE, always let the cloth dry completely!


Mount a clean fine-weave wheel on your buffer, spin it at about 900 to 1000
SFPM, and touch the “puck” of carnauba to it for a second or two to transfer
wax to the wheel, and lightly touch the pipe to the wheel. Keep the pipe
moving, keep the pressure light, and don’t keep going over and over the same
area: wax “on” is wax “off” by the next pass! Remember that you need only a
THIN coat of wax; if you apply it too thickly, it will become sticky as you
smoke the pipe.


Next, mount a flannel
wheel on the buffer, spin it a bit slower, say 700 SFPM, and lightly buff the
entire pipe until it gleams. There! You’re finished!



I hope that this
little paper has been of some help in demystifying the art of finish sanding,
buffing and polishing to those who would like to master this craft. As you grow
comfortable with the buffer, you can speed it up so as to work faster, but
always remember: SAFETY FIRST! Don’t take a chance – you eyes and fingers
are valuable and not worth the five minutes you save by rushing a job!

© 2010 by
Serge L. Dasara, all rights
reserved. This FAQ may be freely downloaded, copied, redistributed and the like
as long as the author is given full credit.

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