Techniques of immersion and alternative finishing
by Fred Bass
For as long as I’ve known that meerschaum pipes color, I’ve listened to discussions about how these pipes are finished. The finishing of carved block in a bath of beeswax, tallow, spermaceti, organic oils and just about anything that someone has said, read or had a revelation about, has always held my attention. I’m not alone in the quest for knowledge about this topic, so this essay should be welcomed by those who have wondered about what has historically been considered proprietary. Because most of us will likely never see a meerschaum pipe that has not been finished, my research has technically been about re-waxing meerschaum pipes. This is a minor distinction, because the waxing process for both new and used meerschaums is essentially the same. Waxing a block meerschaum provides protection for the pipe’s surface and promotes the development and display the of patina, or coloration, for which these pipes are so highly prized. Legends abound in the meerschaum community, and some of my personal favorites involve tales of the secrets past masters took to the grave. Other disclosures of wisdom include using steam to produce even coloration in a pipe with a spotty display of color, setting a meerschaum in whole milk overnight to return it to the pristine white color of a new pipe, or cleaning a meerschaum by fire, like what is done to clean a clay pipe. None of these suggestions are advisable. The steam will bleach the color from the pipe, and I’m not sure what anyone would do with a meerschaum that is saturated in milk fat. Fire will discolor a meerschaum to brown or black, which might be the objective in a specialty finish, but not the result sought for cleaning a pipe. Not everything that you read or hear is correct, and this is the case with information on waxing meerschaums.
There’s no shortage of artisans today who are working with a propriety process or technique of wax application for meerschaums. Claims of extraordinary results about how well these finished pipes color and smoke abound. Not surprisingly, this same talk has been going on for decades with the same level of clarity of revelation as the pronouncements of the Oracle at Delphi. It is an interesting study that can take one into the past, seeking knowledge in translations of ancient manuscripts, up to the present, where the sharing of information in the Turkish meerschaum community is extremely limited. My primary focus in this essay will be on simple methods that use inexpensive materials available today. Because there are more ways to wax a meerschaum, and not everyone will choose immersion, this discussion also includes alternatives, so that informed choices are available. It is advisable to exercise due caution if you choose to employ anything you read in this essay. Working with flammable liquids and volatiles is inherently dangerous. I mention this because I have no desire to provide information that can lead to disastrous consequences if due diligence and caution are ignored.
The higher the melting point of what the carver uses to finish the pipe, the longer it will remain on the pipe’s surface. Carnauba wax has a higher melting temperature (180 to 190 degrees F) than beeswax and puts a great layer on the pipe, but it colors very unevenly. Montan wax, a fossilized plant wax with multiple applications, has an even higher melting temperature (190 to 200 degrees F) with a great look and color, but it smells awful. Since spermaceti cannot be legally obtained anymore, some have found jojoba oil, an additive used in many cosmetic products (melting temperature around 50 degrees F) to be a suitable substitute that can be rubbed on the pipe. I haven’t tried using jojoba oil as yet, so I cannot speak to this from personal experience. There are some accounts of using spermaceti and jojoba oil without beeswax, with mixed results. This leaves us with using white beeswax, because it does well in coating a meerschaum pipe and doesn’t have an objectionable odor. Beeswax has been used to finish meerschaum pipes for a long time; still, it’s a good idea to know something about it before trying to use it. White beeswax has a high melting point range of 144 to 147 degrees F. If beeswax is heated above 185 degrees F, discoloration occurs, which may help explain how some carvers apply dark luster wax finishes without the use of a pigment, as well as how a fire-cured finish might be accomplished, coupled with the use of dark beeswax. The flash point of beeswax is 399.9 degrees F. It is flammable when melted into a liquid state and can quickly ignite when boiled, so care is advisable when melting it for use; the temperature should be kept around 160 degrees F. I prefer to use a cosmetic grade of white beeswax that has been refined without the use of chemicals or a bleaching agent. It can be ordered online from a variety of apothecary sellers and beekeepers. Lower grades of beeswax from yellow to brown can be used, but white beeswax provides a clear finish that allows for the best display of the meerschaum block characteristics. Using additives or less-refined beeswax will lower the melting point of the wax, making it easier for it to dissipate during smoking.
You will need a metal pot that’s large enough to hold the pound or two of melted wax to allow complete submersion of your meerschaum pipe; a heat source, preferably without an open flame; a thermometer; and a good supply of old newspapers and white cotton rags. The newspapers should be spread around the base of the melting pot, unless you enjoy cleaning spattered wax off everything within a six-foot radius. The white cotton rags are for buffing the wax finish.
If this will be your first experience with liquid beeswax, I suggest that you use a meerschaum that has a smooth finish so you can learn more about how the wax is absorbed. You can use one with intricate carving, but you can wind up spending a good deal of time digging the excess wax out of the pipe’s detailed carving if too much beeswax is collected on the bowl. Next, you need to remove all of the fittings from the meerschaum pipe, which assumes this can be done without damage to the pipe. Using a meerschaum that has a bone screw anchored in the shank of the pipe isn’t a good idea if you don’t know how to get it out without damaging the pipe. Using cork to block off the bowl’s chamber and draft is recommended, as the taste of burning beeswax in the pipe’s chamber is not pleasant. It is a good idea to insert a bit of white cotton rag in the chamber in case any beeswax manages to get inside; it will collect the wax and can be easily removed. It is also advisable that when you cork off the draft in the shank, you make a handle from wood, like a tenon and handle plug, so that you can dip the pipe into and remove it from the wax. Prior to dipping the pipe in the wax, clean off any dust or grime from the surface using a clean, white cotton cloth and Everclear. It is advisable to avoid touching the bowl during this wax application. The pipe must be bone dry before putting it into liquid wax, in order to avoid the risk of cracking it with the rapid expansion of moisture into steam produced by the heat. It is important to pay attention to how the bowl takes the wax in order to avoid oversaturation of the meerschaum, resulting in filling the pipe’s chamber and draft with beeswax. When you see that the pipe isn’t taking any more wax, remove it from the wax immersion; there are no set times to leave the pipe in the wax bath. In recent dialogue with Michael Butera, he has this to say …