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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Refinishing my own morta, a project

Ten years ago, before we moved to France, I made this silver-banded morta pipe.  It was during the year prior to our move, when we were working out the detail of the workshop purchase.  I asked for some scrap morta to be mailed over, so that I could spend some advance time working with it to see what it was like.  One of the chunks was this piece, a fairly large block by morta standards, though it had a number of flaws.  I decided to try making it into a sandblasted tester pipe anyway, which I left with a collector friend here in the states.  8 years later, after our return home, he gave the pipe back to me and instigated this refinishing project.

The pipe had held up well over the years, despite being basically a beater, and once I had it back I determined to refinish it completely, including replacing the original molded acrylic stem with something handcut and better suited to the pipe.  I want at least one medium-size Breton morta of my own before I run out of the material, and while I just can't afford to keep a $600 pipe for myself, I hope to turn this piece into an attractive regular smoker.

Getting to that point meant tackling a couple of problems with the pipe.  It was unevenly colored, with a brown bottom, the sort of morta that I would avoid using today, though I must admit that this piece turned into a fine smoking pipe.  The bigger problem was that it had a few fissures in the wood - The sort of small splits that are problematic with morta and make finding large workable blocks a challenge.  Morta splits aren't like briar flaws.  With briar, you tend to get unsightly black pits.  With morta, you get deep splits and fissures - They may be visually small, but you can often insert an entire pin into one as they go all the way through.  This pipe had several, though fortunately none of them were deep or went into the bowl or the airhole/mortise.  Since it was just a tester pipe, I had originally mixed up a filler for the fissures using Conap epoxy and ground morta dust, effectively making a hard morta paste that would not only fill the gaps but keep them from ever splitting further.  The trick worked out, too!  8 years later, the ground morta fills were still invisible since, unlike with briar fills, there is no problem with stain not matching the putty - It's flat black, just like the morta around it, and the only telling clue was a slightly different surface texture in a few spots.

First step in the refinishing was to lightly blast the entire thing again, to remove the prior finish and let me examine the state of the original paste fills.  They were still hard as rock and showed no signs of cracking so I left them alone and moved on to the coloring.  Since I'm not particularly crazy about the mottled coloration of the bowl, I'm going to do something I don't do on the mortas I sell, and stain it evenly black.  Annoying, but it will make the thing look better (Sometimes color gradations in morta can be used to artistic advantage, but this one is just splotchy).

Once this beastie gets its final finish, the last step will be to make it a handcut stem.  I'll post more pics in a follow-up article as it progresses, and I expect this will probably be one of my new traveling pipes that I turn up at shows and pipe shops with.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Good morta, bad morta

I'm currently in the process of working through the last of our larger-sized blocks of Breton morta.  I've got plenty of small blocks, but they're good for thimble-size bowls only - The last of the bigger bowls will be turning into pipes through the rest of this summer, most likely (And I should add, I'm not taking any orders for any of these - I'm just going to play with them and make the best shapes I can from them and post them to the site as they're completed.  Most of the blocks are not suited for the traditional shapes folks like to request, anyway).  This spurred me to write a quick post about morta and how to judge it, because even more so than briar, it comes in good and bad quality.  Here's a block that showcases the bipolar nature of the stuff, with the opaque black portion being some of the best quality of morta that one can get, and the ragged brownish part being unusably sub-standard (Click the pic for a larger view).

The bulk of the block is excellent - Extremely hard, fully mineralized, resistant to blasting and burning, and ideal for pipemaking with a rich, dusky flavor that enhances darker tobaccos.  The right-hand section was not, in effect, fully "cured" by time - It's still partially fossilized but it's much softer and lighter than the black stuff, as can be seen from the surface.  The entire face of this block was sandblasted equally, and it's clear which portion is most dense and where the weaker part is.  While this can be used for pipes, I don't - I prefer the denser material by far.  It's noticeably heavier and most importantly, naturally black.  I've heard of some of the morta on the market needing to be stained black... Folks, that's just not good.  Brown morta, from what I have personally experienced, cut and cured, is softer morta, not ready to become a pipe.  The wood isn't sufficiently fossilized to resist flame as well, and it has a woodier taste to it. My personal opinion is that if it has to be stained, it's better not to use it.

I'm still looking for reliable sources for good quality morta to use in future - We'll see how it goes.  In a strange way, I'll probably miss these tiny little blocks when they're all gone, since by their very size, they force one to be extra-creative in trying to wring a decent looking pipe from them.