Pipe Mud

Article originally posted in alt.smokers.pipes by Fred Hanna

A Solution to the Problem of the High Draft Hole, and Other Pipe Bowl Problems

There is a frequently occurring problem among pipes of nearly all grades and brands that seldom receives the attention it deserves. Unfortunately there has been no satisfactory solution that pipe collectors and enthusiasts can actually put to use with relative ease. It is the problem of the high draft hole (also known as the air hole or shank drilling). A high draft hole is a condition that occurs when the drilling through the shank of a pipe meets the bowl or tobacco chamber at a point higher than its bottom. In other words, the draft hole and the bottom of the bowl do not meet flush. The net result is that due to the high drilling, the bottom of the bowl of the pipe does not get properly caked. It gets wet and sometimes rank, and the pipe may not draw as well as it should. It seems to occur more often with bent pipes.

High draft holes are a problem with workmanship and are seldom mentioned among pipe smokers or carvers, as most people believe that little or nothing can be done about them. I have known several pipe collectors who will avoid any pipe with a high draft hole due to the fact that the condition severely diminishes the proper function of the pipe as a smoking instrument. I have seen many expensive Dunhill's, Charatan Supremes, Castello Greatlines, and other high grade pipes with this problem. I would like to offer an approach to this dilemma. I make no claims to this being the perfect solution but it does seem to work, and seems relatively harmless as well. It was jointly developed around 20 years ago by myself and my good friend Terry McLoughlin who is now the manager of the fine Port Royal Pipe and Cigar shop in Toledo, Ohio.

The Technique

Our solution is what we call "pipe mud." We experimented with other solutions to the problem, including many variations involving the use of honey, but pipe mud was by far the best. Please allow me to describe it to you. Pipe mud is a mixture of fine cigar ash crushed into fine powder, and then mixed in the right combination with water, so as to produce a thick "paste" or "mud" that can fill in the bottom of the bowl of a pipe. The bottom of the bowl is filled in with mud to eventually meet the lower end of the draft hole. Unlike honey and ash combinations, pipe mud is a non-sticky paste, and it can be formed or molded in any way the smoker wishes. But the best way is by using a pipe cleaner inserted through the shank, to serve as a guide to build a well shaped "false bottom" at the entrance of the draft hole. This simulates the actual conditions of a proper drilling by a competent pipe-maker, and compensates for the lack of precision in the making of that pipe. The best tools to form the new bottom seems to be the rounded outside of the "spoon" of a pipe tool, and the rounded end of a pipe tamper (if you have one of that sort) to round out the new bottom.

The single most important point to remember about making pipe mud is that the cigar ash and water must be mixed properly or the entire effort will be wasted. If too much water is used in the mix, the pipe mud will easily crumble, flake away, and disintegrate. The mixing should be thorough and complete. When mixing, as little water as possible should be used, so that there is no reflective "sheen" of the water showing on the surface of the "mud." If too little water is used, the ash will separate and the mix will not become cohesive. The ideal combination is to have so little water in the mix that any less will cause that separation. Mixing should be very thorough, and I use a pipe tool spoon to do the job. It takes a bit of practice but eventually one gets the knack. After creating the "false bottom" of the bowl, the mud should be allowed two full days to dry, so that the water can evaporate and the pipe mud can harden and "grab" onto the walls of the bowl. After the mud is dry, it is a good idea to gently rub it with a finger and blow out any loose grains before smoking. The pipe can then be smoked and a new cake can be formed over and upon the new surface. When done right, the pipe mud job is completely unnoticeable after a few bowls of tobacco. Of course, one would want to inform any new or prospective owner of the pipe that it had undergone this treatment.

Pipe mud has several important advantages. When properly mixed it dries very hard, almost as hard as cake. It adds little or no flavor to tobacco, and is made of a completely inert, noncombustible material. Unlike honey, it will not run down the sides of the bowl when it heats up, and leaves no carbon residue from excess sugar. It is very readily and easily caked over by the normal process of smoking. Remarkably, it is absorbent of moisture, more so than briar itself. Another advantage is that it can be removed with a standard reaming tool if one decides to get rid of it. A final advantage of pipe mud is that it is inexpensive, costing no more than the enjoyment of a fine cigar or two. It is important to add that only high quality cigars should be used for this process, so that no bits of tobacco residue are embedded in the ash.

Other Uses of Pipe Mud

In addition to adjusting high draft holes, we used it to fix heat fissures in the inside of bowls for customers, and to fill in heat cracks around a draft hole that is starting to burn out. Hungarian and full bent shapes are especially prone to such burnout due to the steep angle of the shank bore into the bowl. Pipe mud can protect areas that are starting to burn. With regard to another form of draft hole problem, my friend Jeff Goldman once acquired a Ser Jacopo Picta that had one side of the draft hole literally burned away from combustion. He used pipe mud to fill in and restore the old draft hole and the pipe now smokes wonderfully. Recently, a friend from the Christopher Morley Pipe Club in Philadelphia told me with some concern that a favorite old Ben Wade had mysteriously formed large heat cracks in the inner bowl walls. This sometimes happens through no fault of the pipe smoker. After all, briar is a thing of nature and subject to the laws of physics. My friend made a batch of pipe mud and pressed it into those cracks and caked it over with great success, saving the pipe.

Another use for pipe mud has been for bowls or tobacco chambers with a "U" shaped bottom, that is, one that does not allow tobacco to burn completely and, consequently, leaves too much dottle in the bottom of the bowl. In these cases, pipe mud can be used to reshape the bottom of the bowl, tapering it gently into the draft hole, as it might appear in a well bored pipe. This greatly increases the efficiency of the draw, and makes for much less accumulation of dottle. In another case, I once acquired a Castello Collection Greatline that was so poorly reamed that the cake was plagued with large uneven lumps, and with craters in the cake that went all the way down to bare wood. It was quite disconcerting to see that such a great pipe had been so poorly treated. I carefully smoothed the lumps with a 3-sided pipe knife/reamer (made by Savinelli), filled in the craters with pipe mud (to protect the bare wood), and caked it over by smoking my favorite tobacco. After smoking 3 or 4 bowls one would never have known there was a problem. Although there is a just a hint of cigar taste when pipe mud is applied to the walls (but not draft holes) of a pipe, in this case that Greatline was smoking great after those 3 or 4 bowls.

Many of my fellow pipe smokers have used pipe mud successfully. My friend Bill Feild, a discerning collector and a long time critic of high draft holes, has used pipe mud to great advantage to compensate for the poor drillings of several of his pipes. I should mention, however, that we use this stuff very conservatively, only if and when there is need. There is no point in overdoing it or getting fancy with this method. In closing, I know that this approach might be controversial for some, but please bear in mind that pipe mud can usually be removed with a good pipe reamer. We have never had any negative consequences as a result of using it. In any case, I welcome comments, criticisms, suggestions for improvement, or better solutions to the high draft hole, a problem that remains, nevertheless, in need of more attention.

Fred Hanna

Baltimore, Maryland