<– Howard the Duck lays out the life of the pipe repairman today.

Pipe repair!  If there was ever a business in demand, this is it.  Everyone wants to find a good pipe repair guy who can do great work at decent rates, and I write this because just recently I’ve had several people in a row ask me if I did pipe repair.  My answer, alas, is no – I only do pipe repair in the form of warranty repair work on my own pipes, not on anyone else’s.  Most other pipemakers will tell you the same.

Why is this?  If there is so much demand, why are there hardly any people in the business?  Mark Tinsky may still do repairs, I’m not sure, and there used to be a highly respected retired gentleman in California who did them but I haven’t heard of him in years.  Precision Pipe Repair made a big splash a couple of years ago but their website hasn’t been updated since last summer.  What gives?  Is there a conspiracy to keep poor collectors from being able to have their cherished collectibles fixed up?

Whenever I talk with new pipe carvers and they ask about doing repair work, I always urge them not to – In the words of that Star Wars character:

My own experience is that it’s very difficult to satisfy the customers and virtually impossible to make a living wage at it – That’s why so many pipe repair guys are retirees, people with social security and pension income who just want something to do on the side, but don’t have to rely on it for their groceries.  The problem, in a nutshell, is an unworkable set of customer expectations:

  • They expect their cherished pipes to return like-new, no matter how complex the job.
  • They expect speedy service.
  • They expect this to all cost around $35.  Maybe $50 if it sounds really complicated.
Pipe repair tends to really bring out the magnifier and protractor set, who examine their returned pipes under the loupe and loudly curse about the skills of the repair guy if any small fault is found, despite the low dollars they’re expecting and willing to pay for the work.  It simply isn’t financially feasible.  Hell, I’d do it if I could do it profitably, but the reality is that…  Well, let’s take a recent example.  
Someone bought a new pipe and asked if I could include a second handcut stem with it.  It was an easy stem to replicate, thankfully, and a rare case where two stems could be workably interchanged on one pipe, so I quoted around $100 for the job and ended up making the stem.  I debated about this because my initial reservation is always, “Yikes, I’m going to get yelled at if I tell someone a stem will cost $100, but if I price it at less I’ll make zip and hate the job in the process.”  And I know a lot of people wanting pipe repair would absolutely fall down dead if they got a more-typical $150+ stem replacement bill, but the thing is, I could make and sell at least one or maybe two Ligne Bretagnes in the time it would take me to do a single handcut stem and fit it seamlessly to a repair pipe.  That’s $200-$300 of income for the same amount of working hours that the repair customer is expecting to pay *maybe* $50 for.  The math just isn’t there.
How could this be made to work?  Mostly, it would take a substantial attitude adjustment on the part of the customers, who would have to realize that service fees for pipe repair are going to be on par with what they pay for other skilled service labor – Try getting an auto tech to do 3 hours of work on your car for $50.  It isn’t happening.  I realize that a lot of times, the pipes they want repaired only cost them $75 new, and that’s the other crux of the problem – It costs more in labor time for an independent craftsman to make a new, matching stem than it ever did for the factory to turn out the entire original pipe on an assembly line.  I can understand the sentimental drive behind the guy who’s willing to pay $100 to have his nostalgic favorite Peterson fixed up, but I don’t want to be yelled at (as has often happened) by the guy who reacts, “WHAT?  You want HOW MUCH to replace that stem with a handcut one and refinish the whole pipe?  Why, I only paid $65 for the whole thing when it was new!”  
Yes, sir, I know, but them’s the realities of economic time scales…
In closing, do any of my readers know of current pipe repairmen?  I’d like to have some good names that I can send people to when they ask me if I do pipe repair.  For my part, though, it just isn’t happening.  I regard setting up shop in pipe repair as a death trap, with way too much demand and way too little willingness to pay the labor costs of the job.  If you want to work 80 hours a week for below minimum wage, though, what a career opportunity…!
Categories: Pipe Blog

15 Comments

Unknown · April 28, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Walker Pipe Repair in Michigan did very nice for me.

Tad Gage · March 29, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Ronni Bickascan is also excellent for repairing pipes and making replacement stems, but like most expert repairmen, he is charging appropriately for making a quality replacement stem, which runs $60 and up. I learned a lot from George's articles on making stems, and found an even greater appreciation for just how much work it is to make a replacement stem.

Still, I have also come to appreciate even more the effort that goes into making an appropriate stem for a fine new pipe. Charatan from the 1960s is a great negative example — awesome briar and horrible, cheap rubber stems. Many of you newer pipe makers, like you, Trever, and Rad Davis or Michael Parks or Michael Lindner, make stems worth of the pipes you create.

I say: there are probably a lot of "old friends" that may smoke well but have no collectable or intrinsic value, that should simply be retired. But if you have an exceptional looking, great smoking Barling or Ivarsson or whatever, you just have to suck it up and pay for a quality new bit. Period.

Anonymous · February 12, 2013 at 4:58 am

Another excellent pipe repairman is

Rich Lewis
527 Marquette Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55402
Telephone: 612-332-9129

Trever-T · November 7, 2012 at 4:01 am

Just heard fro another pipe repairman who's still in business:

Restoration Pipe Repair
P.O. Box 3
Stacy MN 55079
Frsams@ frontiernet.net
651-462-0187
Is anyone is interested. Read your article on pipe repair.
Frank Storm

Trever-T · October 6, 2012 at 3:47 am

Ahh, cool, it's good to hear you're back in biz. If you can remember, let me know when your site is open and I'll post a notice here. And sorry for the delay in publishing your comment – I've spent the whole day today working on the Halloween catalog for the website.

Anonymous guy · August 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Anonymous guy again, sorry for that absence of name 😉
Yup, I understand your point.
But my 30€ pipe was really "the love of my life" ;). Due to her low price, I had not hesitated to enhance it (I added a homemade lid for smoking under rain), use it by all weather outside, etc. I was not searching too for a perfect fit of the tenon and mortise. As long as it works, it was fine. Look didn't matter much to me.
But if it can helps, here is how I did:
I basically found a piece of bamboo with an innate hole not too big and which could fit into my mouth. Hard to describe. I cut it to the proper length using a simple knife. To adjust it to fit in the pipe, I used a file (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File (tool) (not sure it's the proper word, me frog, not English… – it's a big sadness you left Brittany, by the way ;)) to design the proper diameter, finishing it with some sand paper. The final stuff was a bit smaller than the pipe hole, so I used some paper as a joint. That's all 🙂
Fact is I think when you have time and you do not matter too much on a perfect finish (and that's the point of buying a 30€ pipe!), you may have no need of tenon turning tool or other complex machine that were creating for producing quickly and perfectly.
Speaking of it, having learned basic woodwork as a boyscout long time ago, I was saddened when I get to the local DIY shop and couldn't find a drawknife. Worst than that, the shopkeeper, a guy in his thirties, told me he had never heard of it…! Vindiou! Either I'm getting too old, either our countries are getting too… industrialised and dependant of the electricity faerie.

    Trever-T · September 3, 2012 at 3:48 am

    Out of curiosity, have you tried PE Hermann? http://shop.hermanns.dk/
    They sell lots of pipe repair parts including replacement stems, or at least they did the last time I ordered anything from them, which was probably in 2001. Really nice people to deal with, though, as I remember.

    Anonymous again · September 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Seen their website. seems they still sells. Thank you a lot for the information :):):)

    George Dibos · October 4, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Hi, Trever

    George Dibos here, the Precision Repair guy. Though I dropped off the radar at the end of 2010, it was for sudden (near-catastrophic, in fact) health reasons, and had nothing to do with business. I'm on the mend now, though, and started working through my backlog this past Spring. The site will be updated with the particulars before the end of the year, and an "open for business sign" will once again hang over the door.

    Being both a perfectionist and someone who loves a challenge, I actually doubled down business-wise in the interim, investing in a sweeping shop upgrade that will speed up throughput considerably from PSPR&R's first incarnation while improving quality at the same time. In fact, I'm reasonably confident that the new shop is the best equipped and stocked dedicated pipe repair shop on the planet.

    Your spelling out the difficulties of the repair trade is most appreciated, btw. Such information coming from an established and respected carver makes it easier for people like me when dealing with customers who are skeptical of what's involved with the job on my end.

    All the best,

    George

Trever-T · August 27, 2012 at 1:21 am

I think that would be a great solution but for two problems – Most guys have no means to accurately turn the tenons to size, and the stems are too cheap to make money from by mail order. Molded rubber stems are very inexpensive, usually a dollar or less, so the prices have to be pushed way up to even make them worth shipping to someone (the time of wrapping them up and mailing takes more than the stems are worth).

My best suggestion would be to look at the web shops of Pimo and Pipemakers' Emporium, where they sell a wide variety of stem shapes. Ideally, though, these are items bought in bulk to be worthwhile, not in singles as a pipe owner would want. Then there is also the cost of the tenon turning tool, which is not cheap… and the time and practice to use it accurately. Really, in the case of a 30 euro pipe, it is much cheaper and easier to simply buy another pipe than to try to replace parts on the one you have.

Anonymous · August 26, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Being a pipe smoker and not a pipe maker, I however understand the trouble you're having. I suppose people imagine the price by the cost of the material, not by the time it may costs to make it.

When I bought my first pipe, it costs around 30€ (I live in Europe). It was perfect, rough and standard but doing its job nicely (ie: burning tons of tobacco!). When once the stem broke, I wanted to make it repair but I found nobody around to do the job (ie: not even a pipe maker). Trouble I had was my local pipe seller told me he couldn't even sell me standard pipe stem :(. I ended using some bambou growing in my garden to make my own handmade replacement stem.

I suggest you could use an other option for people asking you to repair their pipe stem if they're not ready to pay 500$. Give them the address of a reliable seller of pipe stem. Then put a few advices (and if it doesn't take you too long to do it, a howto on the making a new stem 🙂 ) on your website. People like me not having 500$ in their pocket but sad not to be able to use their old pipe anymore would be ready to take the time to learn how to repair themselves their pipe. On the other hand, if I had enough money to pay for a 500$ pipe, I would probably be happy to pay 1000$ to have it properly repaired…!

Trever-T · August 22, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Yeah, Mark does good work. He did a ton of pipe repair all through the 90's but I wasn't sure if he was still active with it. Part of the problem is that the prices can vary so much. I mean, if someone sends me a factory pipe with a military mount stem and I have a molded one in stock of the same style, I can do a "replacement" for ten bucks. BUT, that's rare to find matches unless you have a huge stock of stem shapes, and often people ask for handcut stems anyway. And the labor range expenses are so broad that people get pissed – "You did a stem replacement for him for $35 and you're telling me that mine will cost $200??? You crook!"… and so forth.

Michael Labo · August 22, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Having hand cut only four stems so far I really understand where you are coming from. Very labor intensive. No way around it. I have heard recently of Mark Tinsky doing repairs.

Trever-T · August 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm

That's good to know, I'm glad to have contacts to share with people when they ask. It has seemed like, "Do you do repairs or do you know a good pipe repairman?" has been one of the big repeating questions I've been getting lately.

carlknighten · August 19, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Tim West of Columbus, Ohio has replaced several stems for me over the last five years or so. I see him every year at the Chicago Pipe Show. Does very nice work. Also sells buffer supplies and most everything for making pipes.

Here is a link to Tim's website.

http://www.jhlowe.com/tobacco_pipe_repairs.htm

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