Jim's Tips on Inspecting Estate Pipes

When buying any estate pipe, it's important to remember that damage can greatly diminish the value of a collectible pipe. In the interest of helping avoid an estate pipe buying disaster, I offer the following 9-point checklist:
  1. Check for original mouthpiece and its condition. A replacement bit may lack nomenclature or may be so badly made that it's obvious it didn't come from the factory. Sometimes, as with Barlings and Charatans, nomenclature can easily be buffed off a stem, so you may have an original stem without original nomenclature. Some brand stamps can be replicated, and you don't always know if it's a replacement bit or not. But at least look for obvious flaws that are a dead-giveaway.

  2. Double-check the Stampings and nomenclature on the pipe itself. Cleaner, crisper Stampings denote a greater level of care by previous owners, making the pipe more rare and valuable.

  3. Examine the exterior bowl condition for chips, dents, nicks and especially hairline cracks. Look long and hard, and use a magnifying glass, if necessary. A few small dings on an otherwise great piece doesn't damage the value much.

  4. Check the bowl exterior for even coloring. A well-smoked, older briar pipe will darken, but the coloring should be even. If the bottom is lighter than the top, the pipe may have regularly been smoked only halfway down, resulting in an insufficient char and bottom-bowl burnout potential. Dark spots on the sides or bottom of the bowl may be signs of impending burnout.

  5. Investigate the bowl top. Scorching and dents diminish the collectible value, but tar doesn't. It's sometimes hard to tell what's scorching and what's tar. However, if you run your finger around the top, tar buildup is often smooth and sticky, while you may feel the roughness of charred wood. Also check for over-reaming around the rim, and any beveling that may have been done to get rid of char damage. A badly dented top, caused by a "pipe banger" not only damages the aesthetic value, but shows general neglect and may indicate the pipe was abused and may be damaged in other areas. A skilled pipesmith -- and I do mean one who specializes in restorations -- may be able to "top" a pipe to eradicate light denting without destroying the pipe's shape, capacity or collector value.

    Scrutinize the interior of the bowl for signs of excessive wear and abuse. The inside may have been over-reamed, thinning the bowl walls. This may not destroy the value, but does diminish it. One of the most common, and hardest to detect problems is over-reaming or burn-through on the bowl's bottom, caused by smoking too hot at the bottom of the bowl or pushing a reamer too deep and removing wood instead of char. In most quality pipes, the air hole should be flush with the bowl bottom. If the bottom is below the air hole, it could be a trouble sign (although not always).

  6. Remove the bit and check the fit of the tenon/mortises. It should be a firm fit, although a slightly loose fit can be easily corrected. If the bit doesn't fit flush and smooth with the shank, the mortise may be worn or off-center. A too-tight mortisetenon fit can indicate a poorly-crafted replacement bit, and could be a precursor of a shank crack. If it's a screw-in bit (like Kaywoodies have) that's off-center, a skilled pipesmith can re-seat the threaded post.

  7. While the bit is off, check the mortise walls very carefully for signs of a hairline crack, repair and wear. Even a hairline crack at this point is a real danger because it will almost certainly turn into a full-fledged crack. Be especially careful with banded pipes, even if they carry a factory stamp. A band doesn't always denote a repair, but it's reason for extra care.

  8. One of the trickiest points is the shank splice or bottom plug. Shank splices are hardest to detect when they're performed at the joining of the bowl and shank. A good shank splice is virtually undetectable at a casual glance (especially on a sandblasted or dark-stained smooth pipe), yet it destroys the collectible value of almost any pipe-regardless of rarity. A bottom plug, performed when there's a burn-through on the bottom of the bowl, also kills the collectible value. Since you don't expect it, even seasoned collectors sometimes forget to check for shank splices and bottom plugs, and they're not always obvious.

  9. As a final note, there is no hard and fast rule about how much the value of a damaged pipe is diminished. It's safe to say that any high-grade estate collectible with a glaring flaw is worth far less. However, it may still have value, both as a "smoker" and possibly as a collectible. A good pipesmith can often work wonders, returning a damaged pipe to near-pristine condition. Before you buy a damaged piece, however, it's best if you know what can and can't be fixed. If you're in doubt, it's better to ask an expert or take a pass on the piece. And don't expect a badly damaged piece to ever have great collectible value, even if it's rare.

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