Part 7: The Novice's Guide on How to Buy Estate Pipes: On Evaluating Condition

Note: This is the final installment of the 7-part series on buying estate pipes. The next post will include a glossary of terms to which I referred during the entire series.

On evaluating condition

Obviously, most of us take our first look at a pipe in aesthetic terms. If a pipe lacks appeal we move on. Usually, most people continue appraising a pipe in cosmetic terms, because that’s the frame within which the pipe was initially seen. It is important, however, to continue looking at the pipe in question in functional terms, too, when your aesthetic survey is complete. If you’re a pipe smoker and not solely a collector, you’ll want to be able to smoke the pipe under consideration. For the purposes of organization, I will begin with aesthetics.

If you are examining a prospective estate pipe in person, you enjoy a tremendous advantage over purchasing online. It’s possible for you to shift the pipe in the light to examine every contour, to see every scratch whether tiny or deep, and to shine a bright light into the bowl to look for telltale signs of hot smoking that can result in a burnout-in-process, heat-stress fractures (see guide to terms below), or cake that has thickened so much that it may have cracked the bowl. You will be able to see the extent to which the stem might be oxidized. Many, if not most of these things are nearly impossible to detect when looking at photos of a prospective pipe.

When examining a prospective pipe, using photos alone, your confidence in your inspection cannot help but be constrained by the number and quality of photos provided by the seller. The angles at which the pipe was photographed, the intensity and quality of the lighting, whether or not the image is in focus, and the clarity and initial resolution of the photographs are all important factors in making an online evaluation.

1960s Vintage Jarl BilliardSometimes, photos make it obvious that a pipe’s condition is anything but excellent. The image at right reveals a stem that is not only severely oxidized but also (1) missing a significant piece of material on the mouthpiece area of the button. (2) The rim has been repeatedly dinged by having its wood surface banged on an ashtray or shoe bottom.

Too-thick cake clads the tobacco chamber surface. We can assume that the pipe was a beloved smoker, however, because its condition tells us it was often reached for by its previous owner. I know this to be true because I saw it smoked so often when I was a boy.

We rarely encounter pipes being sold in such poor condition. We don’t consider purchasing them unless they were the favorite smoker of someone like J.R.R. Tolkein, Samuel Clemens, William Faulkner, or some such other revered personage. In such an instance, they are no longer pipes. They are totems, and their value is what they signify not what they are. Ironically, evidence of hard use transforms from defect to endearing character trait.

Unfortunately, most online-sale pipe photographs resemble the above image. It is possible to discern from this photograph that the stem is oxidized and that there is middling grain quality on the bowl, even though blown-out highlights on the bowl top make it impossible to see how far up the straight grain at the side top extends toward the rim.

One can see that the pipe is a London-made Comoy in the apple shape but you can’t know what line the pipe is, e.g. Tradition, Royal Comoy, Blue Riband, etc.

The shape number (368) is almost visible, but will be impossible to read at a smaller size and lower resolution. You can see traces of what looks like tar on the rim, but the rim might be charred from careless lighting. The angle from which the pipe was photographed makes it impossible to know for sure. If there is one image of the pipe, and this is it, there is a lot you can’t know.

We would require a photograph of the opposite side of the pipe to know how Comoy graded this pipe. A pipe’s line or grade is usually stamped on its shank. With Comoy pipes, the line designation is almost always stamped on the left side of the pipe shank which also happens to be the same side of the stem where the 3-part C is inlaid into the stem surface.

Above is another photograph of the same Comoy’s Apple taken at a slightly lower angle with the lighting adjusted. You’ll notice that the stem oxidation appears to be less intense than it does in the first photograph. All I had to do was slightly adjust the black levels in an image-processing program and the pipe looks like it is worth more. It is not. A reasonably competent seller can use the second image to manage the evidence of a more desirable object, however. Herein lies the problem with evaluating from photographs: images deceive.

Comoy Apple in an oak pipe standPictured above is an even more extreme example. Here we have another image of the reverse side of the same pipe taken against a white background in an oak pipe stand. The grain is better on this side. Higher contrast values and a shorter exposure time makes the pipe’s finish look richer and the stem oxidation level looks considerably diminished. It takes lots of light to see oxidation. It disappears in darker exposures. It is still impossible to evaluate the rim condition or whether there is charring or tar there. This photograph will fetch a higher price than the poor one above, but the pipe is the same pipe in the same condition.

Here’s the insight: when you buy at a distance in an online environment, you’re not buying the object, you’re buying photographic evidence of the pipe. Keep that in mind. When it comes to photos, more is better, especially when they are taken to accurately depict the object. It is important to see different views of the pipe.

The same pipe represented at a professional product photography levelFinally, inspect the large image above. We see only slight stem oxidation, beautiful grain, crisp nomenclature, and a 3-part inlaid Comoy C. Against the stark white background, the shape is graceful. The contrast-stained finish is rich. Except for surface irregularities caused by breathing pores in the wood, we don’t see knock marks in the highlights (the whiter areas of the bowl), although we know they are there. Again, we have great evidence, but it is still the same pipe in the same condition. The angle of the shot doesn’t show the rim and we can’t inspect the stem surface for oxidation or toothmarks. This photo manages the evidence that this pipe is a real find, but we know that the real object hasn’t changed a whit.

Image of the pipe’s rim taken from aboveA reputable seller will photograph a pipe’s rim. Here, in this rim photograph, we can determine that its previous owner did not bang the pipe’s rim on an ashtry to empty its ashes and dottle. There are no visible knock marks. Further, the blackening around the chamber edge is likely to be tar, not charring given the evenness of the black edge. Charring typically will occur at one place in the bowl and the black will not be symmetrical with the blackened area surrounding the rest of the rim.

Image of interior chamberYou will rarely see an online pipe-sale photograph like the image at right. This photo reveals hot-smoking issues that even astute buyers might miss while examining the pipe in person:

1. Hot and regular smoking has begun to distort the draft hole entrance somewhat. Draft holes are subject to a lot of heat, especially with a pipe smoker who believes he must smoke a pipe to the bottom. Extra heat is focused on the drafthole when the smoker draws oxygen through the ember. As the tobacco burns toward the chamber bottom, the ember (the hottest area in the chamber is the ember or combustion zone) moves toward the draft hole. When this occurs repeatedly, the crisp and thin edges of the draft hole begin to char and burn away.

2. Immediately to the right of the draft hole, we see somewhat deep cratering occurring as a result of the ember’s proximity to the drafthole. This may or may not be a cause for concern. It might be the beginning of a burnout or it may be a crater in the cake lining the bowl. Given the evenness of the rest of the cake, odds are that the chamber integrity is heat-compromised. Unfortunately, one can’t know for sure without carefully sanding the cake down to inspect it further. In any event, I would proceed with caution if I saw this signal. While a photograph like this one might be rarely encountered, when you examine a pipe in person, it will be fairly easy to evaluate the walls of the tobacco chamber for possible damage.

3. The dark spots among the highlights reveal dents in the bowl’s surface. These are called “handling marks” and, while they are cosmetic deficiencies that reduce a pipe’s value, they do not impact smoking quality. They are also routinely found on estate pipes that have been smoked. These handling marks are not so profuse or deep that they concern me. I believe that a skilled restorer may be able to remove them or drastically reduce their visibility. A pipe with handling marks is not in “pristine” condition. Although the word “pristine” is often used, especially on eBay, a truly pristine pipe is quite rare.

The pipe’s stem-shank junctionI always carefully inspect the stem-shank junction. I want to see a tight, seamless fit with no stem rounding, neither of which are true of this pipe’s condition. Stem rounding at the junction (depicted at right) is unfortunately quite common and is caused by sanding or buffing the stem after it has been removed from the pipe. This usually happens when someone is trying to remove stem oxidation. A poor stem-shank junction is irreversible damage; it is impossible to make this right again while retaining a pipe’s original stem.

If you discover a poor stem-shank junction, stem-rounding, or both, chances are that the pipe has been frequently buffed. Again, this is not uncommon with older estate pipes that have been frequently smoked. Oxidation is a function of using a pipe and leaving it out in a rack where ultra-violet light will accelerate discoloration. Another consequence of frequent buffing is a reduced button profile.

The pipe’s button profileIn the profile image above, we can see that this pipe has had its button area buffed so often that the profile has been drastically reduced. If you are a clencher (you hold the pipe in your teeth), it will be a challenge to keep this pipe in your mouth. The button is nearly gone.

Top and bottom stem surfacesThe image of the stem surface (right) at the button reveals only minor chatter (shallow toothmarks and scratching on the stem surface) and no serious toothmarks. If this were the only photo of the mouthpiece, chances are that you would assume that the opposite side is similar.

However, the image of the opposite mouthpiece area of the stem at top right reveals that the pipe’s previous owner clenched hard on the pipe. In addition to oxidation, you will see a very deep toothmark. There is also considerable tooth chatter.

Again, while this is an original stem, the stem condition cannot help but reduce the pipe’s value somewhat. While the Comoy stem isn’t perfect, it is somewhat restorable because the oxidation hasn’t so deeply invaded the vulcanite that it can’t be removed.

Deep, irretrievable oxidationCompare the Comoy’s stem oxidation to the stem surface at right. If you encounter a stem where the oxidation has cratered the surface and turned this sickly brown, there is no hope for the  original stem. Assuming the pipe is worth the investment, one must have a replacement stem made.

Stampings – or nomenclature as they are referred to among pipe collectors and hobbyists – are important, especially if the pipe is considered highly collectible as is the case with both the depicted Barling and early Dunhill Shell. Nomenclature can appear on a pipe’s shank, on the bowl bottom, on silver work, and in some cases on stems.

Of the three locations, stem nomenclature is most likely to be damaged due to the propensity of stem materials to oxidize. Seeking to maintain a pipe’s appearance, previous owners of estate pipes will sometimes buff the nomenclature away. Some pipe stem nomenclature – the famous Barling’s cross, for example – is rarely intact on old stems. When the Barling’s cross is clearly visible and intact on an original stem, it adds to the value of that Barling pipe.

Nomenclature on 1957 Barling’s Army Mount BilliardIn the above photo is an example of all the places that nomenclature appears on a pre-Transition Barling Army Mount pipe. Stampings evidence that the pictured Barling Army-Mount Billiard was made in 1957. There are stampings on the shank, on the silver, and on the stem. Given the age of the pipe, everything is readable and crisp.

A pipe that has clear, crisp nomenclature is considered superior to one where the nomenclature has been compromised either by poor, shallow stamping by the factory or – as is more commonly the case – by being worn away by over-buffing. A collectible pipe with bad nomenclature is worth less than one featuring crisp nomenclature.

Nomenclature on 1921 Patent Dunhill’s Shell Army Mount PrinceAs I wrote above, pipes possessed of silver bands or caps also have nomenclature stampings on the silver. Some countries require(d) these stampings by law. For example, until 1935 Great Britain required stampings designating purity of silver, city of production, and year of production. It was also common for silversmiths to stamp silver with a proprietary designation called a maker’s mark, too. With some brands like the depicted Dunhill prince, the presence of patent number nomenclature in the silver makes it possible to date this particular pipe to 1921.

Because silver is relatively soft, it is possible to damage the clarity of silver stampings. Clear stampings make a pipe more valuable as is the case with shank stampings.

With Dunhill pipes, another highly collectible brand, the absence of crisp nomenclature can severely impact the value of a pipe, especially if the pipe is from Dunhill’s patent era.

Nomenclature on a 1943 Dunhill Shell FET PrinceIn addition to identifying brand, line, grade, shape, and size, Dunhill’s nomenclature reveals the year a pipe was made. Many Dunhill enthusiasts attribute significantly more value to some years of production than to others. For example, pipes that were manufactured between 1939 and 1950 (considered War and immediate Post-War production) are extremely rare because so few were produced. The depicted FET24 Dunhill prince nomenclature shows that this pipe was made in 1943. While the pipe is a beautiful specimen of the straight prince shape, that it was made during the Second World War adds enormously to its value; the quality and indisputability of its nomenclature is key to that valuation.

Also, some people collect pipes made during their birth year. Others focus on pipes made during Dunhill’s very early years. Absent clear nomenclature, dating and other details remain unknown, thus nomenclature impacts value.

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Reader Comments (7)

I haven't posted any comments during this series because there was little I could add; just one comment now - thank you!
July 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo44

Well done my friend. An excellent series of articles about estate pipes. I enjoyed it very much and know you put many hours in getting it ready. Thank you for all you do for the hobby.

Robert "Lawdog" Lawing
July 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLawdog
I'm late to this party, having just read all seven articles in the series. I wish the information in these essays would have been presented to me in such a concise format four years ago. I would have saved some time, money and grief. Some lessons I learned the hard way. I just shared the series links with my daughters new fiance, himself a budding pipe smoker with a lot of interest in my estate pipes.
July 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAl Jones
This is great series for novices, which I am so Thank you for these amazing posts!
July 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDale Hanson
You can always ask questions of the on-line seller. If they are worth their salt they will answer as truthfully as possible. Also since distance buying of estates is dominated by ebay why not address that particular avenue of "how to buy estates"? Just as important to understand the ins and outs of ebay as it is to understand the estate pipe itself.
July 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe
I've just finished reading the series and I must say that it was great. They are all so detailed and informative, Thank you!
July 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Gray
A good series of articles containing sound advice which, sadly one learns over time and, if fortunate, at not too great a cost!
July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRhodesian

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