Finishing is probably the part of pipe making where one will find the most amount of variation between pipe makers. Some people power sand, some sand by hand. Some people only use alcohol based aniline dyes, some people use water based, some people use both. Some people make their own dyes. Some people like to heat the briar before staining; some people have been known to light the stain-covered pipe to burn off the alcohol. There is no end to the variation when it comes down to finishing and staining pipes. With that in mind here are a few tips and techniques I use in finishing my own pipes.
The most basic idea behind sanding a pipe is that you start with a lower-grit sandpaper and work your way up in number. I generally start at 220 and work my way up to 1500. Perhaps the most important grit is 320. I say this because 320 is still aggressive enough to get out some deeper scratches and tool marks while preparing the surface for the higher grit 400, 600, 1000 and 1500 grits. If you get good coverage with 320 grit then you generally won’t have to go back to get rid of sanding marks once you start polishing and staining. I still use a loupe and a strong light at the end of sanding to double check. One of the most irritating things I’ve found, as a pipe maker is to have to go back and start sanding again at 320 once the first coat of stain is already on.
Once I’m happy with the sanded pipe I begin staining. I heat my briar up with a heat gun before staining; I find the stain penetrates much better on warm briar than it does at room temperature briar. For a contrast stain I use a dark colour first followed by sanding then staining with lighter colours. Different combinations of water-based and alcohol based stains can give very different results than simply using one or the other. The only difference between using Water-based stains compared with alcohol-based is that water takes longer to dry and should be completely dry before sanding. Water tends to raise the grain in the briar and sanding can leave grain patterns in the stain.
Between coats Iíll often sand with grits between 1000 and 1500 to take off the very top surface of stain and give the pipe more grain contrast or a lighter colour. Buffing with white diamond wax and to a lesser extent, Tripoli, will also help get the top layer of stain off. All this effort is to get a good even stain, not an easy task when you are dealing with some of the convoluted shapes Iím known for.
At this point the myth is that the pipe maker will buff with diamond wax then apply Carnuba and, Hey presto! that’s the pipe finished. For most intents and purposes this simply isn’t the case. If you ask nine out of ten professional pipe makers they use other means of sealing and shining their pipes aside from standard Carnuba. While it makes for a great initial shine Carnuba does not last well under any kind of heat or handling. The myth goes that oils and shellacs will seal the pipe forever making it smoke hot and wet. This is the part that mystifies me. Outside of sealants made to lock out water like Marine or patio deck finishes there are very few oils or shellacs that are watertight. Most are very permeable and in the light coats most often used on pipes the differences between them and pipes coated with Carnuba alone are less than negligible. Not only that, but consider where the Carnuba wax goes when the shine is gone? I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t evaporate. You guessed it; a good part of it is absorbed into the briar itself. I’ve known pipe smokers sing the praises of-oil cured pipes then demonize oil because the pipe “can’t breathe.” When one considers than an oil-cured pipe is immersed in a combination of oils for days to weeks one comes to question the merit of this opinion. So what do I use on my pipes? I’m not telling. But it isn’t just Carnuba.