No pipe pic this time – Since the subject of today’s blog is the mythology of pipe finishes, I was spurred to find a picture of “something shiny”, and thought I’d take the opportunity to post a shot of some of Emily’s jewelry. She mades both earrings and other bits, often with our pipe materals – These earrings are hand-shaped from briar slices, for instance!

For those folks who are not on our email list, I posted some new pipes last night. I’ve finished up the Moebius Bolus shapes I was working on, and they’re all posted now. Two of the three have already sold! Alas, my favorite of the three remains, probably because I made the fatal mistake of using the word “cute” in its description. In addition, there is a very, very unusual freehand smooth posted. It has been a pet project for some time, a personal bit of attempted artwork done in tribute to US pipemaker Joe Mariner. It will also probably sit here unsold forever because A) it is weird, B) it is expensive, and C) all the collectors who would ordinarily snap it up are saving all their cash for Chicago next month. But at least I’ll get to fondle it for a while before I have to let it go…

My topic for the day was inspired by a thread on Smoker’s Forums started by pipemaker Stephen Downie. It is an interesting discussion of finishes, and I wanted to weigh in with (I hope) some useful info since discussions of pipe finishes so often end up being regurgitations of the same old mythology over and over again… ie, “Only carnuba wax is permitted”, “Shellac and lacquer are evil incarnate”, etc. Without further ado, I am pasting in the entirety of my reply in their discussion, beginning with some info on shellac:

FWIW, shellac is not a problem innately. Tons of high grade pipes are shellacked, as well as being finished with polymers, oils, varnishes, and lacquers, and they smoke and continue to smoke just fine despite all the mythology surrounding the issue. Unfortunately, there is a definite sort of, “OMG Teh pipe has sh3llak!!” attitude that just keeps going round and round no matter how much the facts say otherwise. Some random thoughts-

Talk about “natural” and “lacquer” finishes is mostly nonsense. Carnuba is natural, shellac is natural – it’s an all-natural product that we can even eat if we really want to, just like any number of other lacquer & varnish finishes. The widespread perception that every finish but carnuba is some sort of non-breathing acrylic polymerized glaze is just incorrect.

Shellac can be good or bad. If applied too thickly, it can bubble during hot smoking because of the heat. It can also soften. Applied in thin coats and allowed to dry properly between coats, there is literally no one who could tell the difference in the smoke of a shellacked pipe and a non-shellacked pipe in terms of smoking experience. That said, shellac itself varies. There are various kinds, each with different tints and also different “flavors” – which is to say, the smell of the finish that is given off when it is heated. Some finishes have a distinct scent of their own, and this subtle smell can color one’s experience of a tobacco’s flavor because it mixes together in our olfactory experience. The bad buzz about shellac is primarily due to experiences with shellac that has been either applied too thickly, not allowed to dry properly, was too old (it does have shelf life), or was of a lower quality type that carried a noticeable scent signature.

Shellac is not, however, the finish of choice among a lot of serious factory pipes and artisans, because it isn’t as durable through heat cycles as varnishes (natural oils mixed with resin and drying elements). For an example, I have a fantastic high grade Italian sandblast sitting here in front of me now. It is not finished with carnuba or shellac – the finish is a lower gloss than shellac, and it is much more even (Shellac penetrates wood and thus produces an uneven finish as a gloss. It’s actually used more often as a sanding sealer). I don’t know personally what this finish is, but my guess (based on the surface gloss, evenness, and the fact that the finish sits on the surface rather than being in it) is that it is a type of varnish. Does the pipe smoke hot and “not breathe” because of this? Not at all – It is a terrific smoker. Again, it isn’t the mere presence of a finish that causes problems, it is more often the use of lower quality finishes and (most commonly of all, I’d guess) mistakes in the application of these finishes that produce annoyance down the line.

There are some practical reasons to be cautious of surface glosses – application of an even, non-penetrating finish such as lacquer produces an even reflective surface, and as such it is often used to effectively hide fills on middle-range pipes because it conceals their different reflective quality from the surrounding wood. Also, again, any finish applied too thickly (or worse, applied before the underlying layer was fully dried) can bubble and haze during use.

I’ve often heard guys demand, sometimes angrily, just why anyone uses these finishes – They “prefer their pipes natural, with only carnuba wax!” The buyers have only themselves to blame for this – It’s rather like politics, where we get exactly the government that we vote for. Put a typical pipe out with only a carnuba finish and lookers will be disappointed. It won’t have the high shine of the high grades, and after less than a day of casual handling the gloss will be gone and it will be a dull pipe. People aren’t attracted to dull pipes – the same guy that thinks he only wants a carnuba-waxed pipe is going to pass you by (because your pipes look dull) for the next table where all the expensive pipes are shiny. I know a lot of high grade pipemakers and I can say that I can’t easily think of *anyone* I know who only finishes by waxing – but one doesn’t hear too many tales of their Nordhs smoking bad because they “can’t breathe” The fact is, there really aren’t any fully sealing finishes unless one gets into stuff like marine varnish or acrylics that attempt to link into a solid chain on the molecular level. Shellac or oil varnishes will “breathe” just as well as carnuba….the problem is using the right ones, instead of finishing your pipes with some sort of MinWax stuff that’s going to smell horrible when heated.

I know of at least a couple major brands that even shellac the interiors of their bowl chambers, instead of leaving them bare or using precarbonizing. One of the funnier encounters I’ve had was with a guy who was proudly displaying an uncoated pipe he’d bought, and saying how he only bought pipes without “that black stuff” in the bowl…. totally unaware that his pristine “uncoated” bowl interior was actually gloss-finished with shellac! I wonder which he’d have preferred to smoke, natural carbon or natural bug excrement…..

In any event, pipe finishing is a complicated issue and a lot of what gets passed around is pretty much mythology. I’d recommend “Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner, as a good starter book on the subject. Coincidentally, Jim Cook recommends this very same book in his pipemaking video on the Chicago Show’s educational website!

Categories: Pipe Blog


Trever-T · November 17, 2011 at 3:50 am

Well, the simple way is to use non-alcohol-based dyes. Otherwise, it's just part of the challenge – You need to apply it in a very thinned solution and wipe evenly in strokes, like you're painting, to keep it from removing too much stain or removing it unevenly.

eknight56 · November 16, 2011 at 12:13 am

Thank you for this informative article on pipe finishes, I have one question about shellac. They dies I use are alcohol based dies and the shellac reactivates them and smears them, Is there any way to deal with this?

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