Musing On Bits

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Musing On Bits, by John C. Loring: re-published here by permission © John C Loring, with all rights reserved.

Dunhill’s ‘push’ bit while not invented by Dunhill may well have been an important reason for its early success. At the time Dunhill began making briar pipes, circa 1911, most pipes were fitted with either ‘screw-in’ or ‘military’ bits and I suspect that the relatively few that were fitted with ‘push’ style bits had ‘fit’ problems because the briar bowl and vulcanite bit were probably made separately. In contrast Dunhill’s ‘push’ bit was rough fitted to the rough cut bowl and went through the finishing process with its bowl, rather then being hastily introduced at the end of the process. These hand cut bits probably represented better then a third of the overall pipe making labor and fit the shank so well that a small ‘white dot’ was added to the bit to indicate the top of the bit. So all and all the bit is an important element of a Dunhill pipe.

The damnable part of it though is that it is virtually impossible to determine if a bit is truly ‘original’ to the pipe. There are basically three reasons for this dilemma. First, Dunhill, most especially before the 1960’s, and others since, became remarkably proficient in making replacement bits that both appear to be and fit as well as the ‘original’. Second, while there are ‘tell tale’ signs of a correct Dunhill bit, those signs are hardly ever dispositive. Third, Dunhill, especially prior to the 1960’s, prided itself in offering alternative bits as well as custom bit work.

I still remember with no little embarrassment advising in absolute terms some years ago that there was no way a weird looking ‘dental’ bit could have been Dunhill’s, only to find some months later that it was offered in a 1930’s catalog I was perusing. Similarly, Dunhill offered bits in alternative materials, amber, tortoise shell, ivory, and by force during WWII, in horn. Bits in the first three materials could easily cost far more then the briar bowl and I suspect that a good number, if not most, WWII era pipes were initially fitted with horn bits. A vulcanite Dunhill bit with a gold lip is also known.

I have also seen apparent Dunhill bits fitted with metal ‘screw in’ fittings with simply no way of telling if such customization was done by Dunhill or post purchase by a third party. I have earlier written about the Dunhill 482 shape and the reader will note that the bit on the third pictured 482 has been severely planed down to achieve an angular effect. However, close inspection and comparison leaves one comfortably certain that the underlying bit was Dunhill’s, who may or may not have done the custom shaping. Another case involves a shape that in most rare examples has a very broad but standard bent saddle bit. In one known example however, the bit has been ‘cinched’ to visually suggest a ‘fish tail’ lip (actually the lip is identical in width with a standard lip). One might jump to the conclusion that it is a dreaded ‘replacement bit’ until one notes that there was a clear restamping on the shank to include a squeezed in “F/T” next to the shape number, signifying a ‘fish tail’ bit, making it almost certain that in fact the bit represents factory customization. (Note, as a practical matter the standard bit in question is so broad that one could not achieve a ‘fish tail’ bit other then by ‘cinching’ the bit.)

Of course there are distinctive signs of a ‘Dunhill’ bit, but in the end they are but indicators. Early Dunhill bits were stamped with a registration number on the underside, but that number is easily buffed off. Further, both early ‘original’ bits and early factory ‘replacement’ bits had registration numbers, so in the end all that a registration number proves is that the bit is an early Dunhill bit. The lip of a Dunhill bit is fairly distinctive, but when one actually does a close comparison of a number of such bits one comes away amazed at the changes resulting from individual wear and buffing. Similarly, one will often look to the shank/bit meeting point to see if the shank was sanded down to fit a replacement bit, however, in earlier days pipes were often condemned to the ‘buffing’ wheel and such buffing wheel abuse can result in the same appearance. Others will note whether the fit between the shank and bit is even, but then again if the bit alone is buffed often enough that buffing alone, especially if the bit is well oxidized, will make the shank/bit fit uneven. Some practice the art of ‘White Dot’ analysis. It is certainly true that the dot size has changed over the years, in essence very small at the beginning to quite large today and that sometime around the 1960s plastic was substituted for ivory. But, not all ivory is alike, in some cases the ivory dot (actually a thin cylinder) will shrink and fall out over time and the replacement dot may be larger and plastic. Often ivory will color with age, but some ivory will remain pure white for a century or more and given the small visible ivory surface of the ‘dot’ even with a magnifier it can be difficult to distinguish between ivory and plastic. Likewise ivory can be quite porous and if only through accidental staining can sometimes take on the appearance of no dot at all, i.e. the infamous ‘black dot’. (Note also, for non vulcanite material Dunhill intentionally used a non – white dot.) Another common ‘test’ is to look at the tenon which usually is a smooth cylinder with a ‘slope’ at the base. But Dunhill bit making equipment and practices have not been uniform over the century, some ‘slopes’ are more pronounced then others, the ‘cylinder’ was not always buffed smooth and prior to WWII tenons of some shapes, particularly bents, could vary depending upon whether an inner tube was fitted. And of course, in the end a non-conforming tenon may only indicate a tenon repair on an otherwise correct Dunhill bit.

So in the end while I often use the term “original bit” because it is our lingo, in fact I am of the opinion that all we can really say, at least for older Dunhills, is whether a bit appears to be Dunhill made, contemporary to the bowl and in a standard or non standard style. I suppose if ‘pipe collecting’ was a traditional collecting activity I would end here, but in fact unlike with other collectables, most all pipe collectors actually use the pipes they collect – indeed I am of the view that a new, unsmoked pipe is an unfinished pipe given the pronounced changes in a pipe after it has been smoked -- so beyond “is it Dunhill” or “is it original” for me at least there is a far more important question: “is it a good bit?”. The “482” bit I spoke of earlier was Dunhill made and likely as not Dunhill customized but it is currently being replaced with a third party hand cut bit cut to the standard Dunhill 482 bit style because both ascetically and for smoking I find the latter far more satisfactory. I suppose that when the pipe get back to me an occasional negative ‘replacement bit’ thought will come to mind as I smoke the pipe but for me that’s a cheap price to pay compared to not smoking it at all because the ‘original’ customized bit was ill-conceived and uncomfortable to smoke.

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