A few months ago, back in maybe June or July, Tom Eltang called to chat. We talk pretty regularly, so this wasn't particularly unusual. After a few minutes of chit-chat, the conversation took an interesting turn. Tom dropped something of a bomb. He was done with the Golden Contrast stain after decades of using it as his primary—often his only—pipe stain. He'd developed an allergy to one of the components.
Backing up a bit, we should discuss the stain itself. Tom thinks it was first used to create a contrast on pipes by Bjorn Bengtsson. It's a two-part chemical stain. Aniline is applied to the carefully sanded pipe, followed by copper chloride. The two together oxidize, turning the pipe black. After it dries, the stain can be sanded down, with the harder wood (between the grain) retaining more black color than the softer wood, which became yellow, creating the stark contrast that is so prized. Bengtsson wasn't the first to use the stain on pipes—it had been used previously to create shiny black dress finishes—but he was (probably) the first to figure out that if you sanded it down, it yielded the contrast finish. There are other ways to achieve a highly contrasted finish, but the combination of the depth of color, extreme contrast, and particular hue that Tom could achieve with the stain was unique. And it wasn't just the stain; a lot of it was Tom. Since it requires hitting a very narrow sweet spot with the sanding, the same stain used by another pipe maker can yield very different results.
So, the hunt for a new stain began. Tom started by buying stains, dyes and inks of various kinds from all over the world. By the time Dennis Mann and I arrived in his workshop a few days ago, he was running a test among three options, each with multiple different colors. The same two-part stain rules apply, of course. A black under-stain is followed by a lighter colored over-stain, which is then sanded off to create the contrast. He showed us three possibilities, all leather dyes, with each in two different colors, for the over-stain. All three (all six pipes) received the same black under-stain. For the purpose of the tests, the colors were less important than how the wood took the stain, so it was really a matter of making a decision based on factors other than color: adjusting the color is easy, finding the best stain for Tom's methods is the tough part.
The three were leather dyes from companies in Italy, Denmark, and the United States. All came out looking good. The distinctions were fine; indeed, at a passing glance there was no difference before polishing. Tom finished the test pipes while I was writing the beginning of this blog post. The colors came out beautifully. All six were stunning, but these are fine grained distinctions. The American stain was the first to go; the colors just came out muddier than the other two. Ultimately, Tom opted for the Italian, which yielded slightly more vibrant results (but I couldn't tell any difference between the Italian and the Danish stain in terms of how the wood took it).
But the process doesn't end there. Tom has other experiments in the works, with different dyes with different properties. And he is still playing with colors. Even if he settles on the Italian leather dyes, he has to experiment with various shades of colors and levels of dilution to hit exactly the color he wants.
As Tom said, it's an interesting new challenge. He hasn't thought seriously about stains in decades; it's forcing him to explore aspects of pipe making that he simply hasn't had to contend with for most of his forty-year career. It was a privilege to witness part of that process.