Reaming Estate Pipes
Most guys I know could wander around a hardware store equally as long as our wives could browse every style of shoe in a large department store, but after Sykes and I drove to Harbor Freight a few weeks ago to pick up a 7" x 10" metal lathe everyone wanted to play with it. Aside from being fun to use, it’s proved to be a great investment in time, efficiency, and control.
Cleaning estate pipes can often take quite a while. An estate that is lightly smoked usually just needs a few pipe cleaners run through the shank with alcohol. When a pipe is really dirty in the shank or full of cake, hand reamers and bowl reamers are necessary to bring it back to life. A reamer doesn't drill a shank because the tip has no cutting edges and the sharpened sides run parallel along the shank. Ordinarily we use a 4mm reamer that I put in a vulcanite handle to run down dirty shanks and remove quite a bit of tar, ash, and gunk just so we can continue with a few pipe cleaners soaked in alcohol. The same is pretty much true for the bowl. When the cake is thin, light reaming can be done with the senior reamer, or just a piece of sandpaper wrapped around a dowel. If using a knife or a pipe tool, it should be flat against the bowl to allow it to scrape the cake out. Quite often we get estate pipes that have thick cake and we have to use a hand reamer with different diameter scraping heads. It can be tricky to twist both the pipe and the reamer to clean out the bowl and hands get rather fatigued after just a few.
The metal lathe we purchased is pretty much a heavy, bench-mounted, strong-armed employee that can turn the shank reamer and bowl reamer with a lot of torque at low, safe speeds. The shank reamer spins at about 400 RPM, and the bowl reamers spin between 100 RPM and 300 RPM (slower speeds for more control on heavily caked pipes). We've tried using hand drills before, but they spin too fast and there isn't enough torque (or control).
Bill and I went to another hardware store recently looking for a way to modify the square shafts on the bowl reamers expecting that I would just need to take them to my workshop to fit them with aluminum extensions. Finding a 3/8" square socket extension worked perfectly when we wrapped one layer of duct tape around the shaft to make the fit snug. This, my friends, is when the light above our heads went on and smiles covered our faces.
Again, we use the lathe at a low speeds and have surprisingly excellent control over the pipe with both hands. Since the 4mm shank reamer is pointed (but not sharp) we can use two hands to hold the pipe and push it onto the reamer. We also took a 6-inch-long 5/32" bit and ground the tip dull and round in order to ream longer pipes. An unmodified drill bit that is sharp will self-feed into the shank and front of the bowl, so rounding the tip avoids these problems.
In chucking up the socket extension and pushing in the smallest reaming head, we are able to slowly ream the cake and work our way up to larger diameters if needed. Even rotating the pipe is safe on these slower speeds because it only scrapes the cake out of the bowl and isn't sharp enough to cut wood; plus, this comes close to solving how to ream so many bowls of different chamber configurations.
After we ream the bowls and shanks fine detail work is easy. There is very little we can do to improve pipes that had chambers poorly reamed or were smoked out of round. Soft spots in the bowl, which char faster and are noted as spider webbing, are often the cause of uneven reaming if done by hand. If using a knife, these softer areas could concave and cause a bigger problem in the future, so great care must be taken to ream the chamber evenly. With the lathe we are able to restore the chamber so the end result is a smooth surface that is clean to the touch.
The video below is simply a demonstration of these tools without sound or commentary. A machine turning and scraping isn't all that pleasant to listen to, but we felt a short clip of a pipe being reamed would answer a lot of questions about how we do this.