Art restoration for pipes : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Art restoration for pipes

Robert Lawing

Robert Lawing

Lawdog takes a Zen-like approach to caring for much-loved pipes

by William C. Nelson

Pipe-restoration artisan Robert Lawing, known to his friends as Lawdog, is no self-promoter. The 59-year-old retired law officer is not seeking to build his business beyond the comfortable cruising speed he has already achieved. He did not campaign for this interview, and he has never, prior to this occasion, allowed anyone in his shop to observe his techniques. Lawing discovered his pipe-restoring secrets slowly and mostly alone, over a span of more than three decades.

The mustachioed, 6-foot-4, 300-pound Lawing is one of the more imposing and easily recognizable fixtures on the pipe-show circuit. Over the years, Lawing has made himself known by attending numerous pipe shows—with the help of his wife, Lynn (“Ms. Lawdog”)—in Richmond, Las Vegas, Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Milwaukee, New York City, Raleigh, Kansas City and Charlotte. Through it all, people who know him will tell you that one of the most striking and memorable things about any meet- ing with Lawing is that he is as gracious and gentle in demeanor as he is towering in stature and meticulous in his work ethic. If you had to choose which big cop to arrest you, you could do much worse than Robert Lawing.

An Ashton pipe before Lawdog's restoration

An Ashton pipe before Lawdog’s restoration

Lawing’s days of patrolling the streets and byways of Montgomery County, North Carolina, are behind him now. In retirement, he has directed his passion (that which is not reserved for babysitting his infant granddaughter) to the matter of bringing distressed or unclean pipes back once again to the youth and beauty they once knew. And a very loyal following of high-end pipe collectors seeks out his services. It wasn’t the easiest passage. When Lawing first started learning the trade, there was no Internet and almost no information exchange among specialists. Indeed, for years Lawing did not even know there were other people out there restoring pipes in a serious, scrupulous way.

The same Ashton pipe after Lawdog's restoration

The same Ashton pipe after Lawdog’s restoration

Lawing’s father and grandfather were pipe smokers, so it seemed natural enough for Lawing himself to take up the pipe (a Charatan blast was his first) in the mid-1970s when he was 19 years old. A 1980 graduate of Belmont Abbey College with a degree in business administration, he went to work for a furniture company in Indiana but soon returned to North Carolina to work for a furniture con- cern closer to home. This was how he acquired his abiding interest in wood.

“Then in the mid-‘80s, that’s when
I just started tinkering with estate pipes,” Lawing says. “I’d find a pipe at a garage sale and I’d say, hey, I believe I can clean this thing up.” Lawing admits it was slow going, learning restoration independently. He is friends today with many of the field’s most accomplished pipe doctors, but those early years were a solitary time.

“I will assure you that the learning curve in the pipe-restoration business is a steep one,” he says. “I messed up a lot of pipes when I first started tinkering with estate pipes. I didn’t have anybody to teach me the process. But a lot of guys doing this work started on their own. I mean, Ronnie B. and Dave Wolff—guys like that have been doing restorations for years, but I didn’t know them. It wasn’t really until one of the Chicago shows that I started meeting other restoration people.”

Lawing’s work life took on its own winding path and occasionally gave him stress and motivation to find a diverting hobby. The years he spent as director of law-enforcement training at Montgomery Community College were Lawing never acquired any interest in gentile enough, but the time he spent with the Troy, North Carolina, police department (he entered the force as a 39-year-old rookie), and later with the Montgomery County Sheriff ’s Office as chief deputy, gave occasion to more intense daily drama. “I started this hobby years ago, just piddling, because I wanted to find something that I could concentrate on to take my mind off of everything else.” He says once he got involved with restoring estate pipes, there were nights when Lynn would call down to his basement shop and tell him it was 3 a.m. and that he needed to go to bed. “All of a sudden, six hours would have gone by,” Lawing says. “It was just peaceful, relaxing, and that was, to me, what was most important.”

Lawing never acquired any interest in making pipes. making pipes. “I made one from existing parts, in Adam Davidson’s shop. I just kind of put them together. To this day I still haven’t finished it.

There’s a lot of difference between making pipes and restoring pipes.” Nor does Lawing consider himself a pipe repairman. “I mean, I can replace a tenon or a stem,” he says, “and I can patch a bowl if it has a burned-out spot, but that kind of work doesn’t excite me. What I like to do is take a pipe like this”—he points to a photo of a really caked and junky-looking pipe—“and make it look like this,” whereupon he shows a photo of the restored version. Night and day. Can he restain, top, sand, refinish, sandblast bowl rims and do what he calls “a remodel” of a pipe? “I can,” he says, “but that is not my primary focus. My purpose is to restore what is already there.”

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Summer 2015

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