Ronni Bikacsan

[Very much like my experience with computer geeks, I love pipe geeks, those individuals who are fascinated by the minutiae, scientific underpinnings, and history of all things pipe and pipe smoking. I refer of course to friends and frequent contributors to this newsletter such as Rick Newcombe, Regis McCafferty, Jack Wehinger, Fred Hanna, and Rich Esserman. When I first talked with Ronni Bikacsan, I could tell that he was another of this class who are always thinking about pipes and how to make them better. So here, finally, is the essay I asked Ronni to write. If anyone would like to contact Ronni about repairs and such, you can write him at NightOwl Pipe Works, 720 Virginia Ave., Nashville TN 37216, call him at 615-226-1756, or e-mail him at]

When Bill Unger suggested that I write this article, I was first flattered and then scared stiff. My fears shouted, "Only the big dogs, the head mucky-mucks, the Obi-wans write in the newsletter." So, being very skillful, I procrastinated. And procrastinated. And procrastinated some more until the one-year anniversary of his request approaches. Having read more articles and completed more experimentation in that time, I should feel more confident. But, if I don't watch it, I'll continue to should all over myself. So here goes.

My name is Ronni Bikacsan. I operate a pipe repair and restoration service known as NightOwl Pipe Works. My background includes engineering and instrumentation, electronics, custom cars, and antique watch repair. The skills I accumulated through these pursuits have become assets in the pipe business. Besides the typical repair and refinishing tasks, I am able to offer custom stems with inlays, bamboo shank replacements, bulletproof shank repair (eliminates bands), etc. I have also experimented quite a bit with the "open flow" premise and have come to a few conclusions of my own.

In the pipe world, there are many variables and opinions to match. I believe that a great smoke is one that makes me happy. If my concepts also bring smoking happiness to o thers, wonderful. It's nice, but it doesn't necessarily make me right. I'd rather be happy than right

I had the privilege of studying with Jody Davis before he moved from Nashville to Yuma, AZ. Of all the pipe-making aspects he taught me, precision and smooth flow received the most focus. We talked at length about the airflow from bowl rim to button, bowl-diameter to draft- hole-size relationships, the importance of an uninterrupted smoke channel, the pitfalls of gaps and obstructions in the smoke channel, and the necessity for the cross-sectional area of the draft hole to continue through the button slot. I had already "opened up" a few pipes of my own, which consisted of running a 4 mm drill bit through the shank and funneling the tenon. This made a noticeable improvement but did not eliminate wetness in most cases, especially with bent pipes. After Jody's instruction began to sink in, I started to realize more of the dilemma that reality vs. theory brings. A very simple but effective model of the optimum smoke channel is a soda straw with one end gradually pinched to a slot. During the construction of a hand-made straight pipe, it is not very difficult to incorporate this model into the finished product. Building the model into a bent pipe is an altogether different story. Then, there are the constraints involved in making "factory" pipes: the economics of manufacturing dictate automated tasks and pre-fabbed parts. Efficiency has a higher priority than finishing time.

So, the question became, "Can I rework my pipes to as close to 'hand-made' architecture as possible?" Only one way to find out. Since the bowl shanks were already reamed to 4 mm, I left them as they were. After careful measuring, I realized that there was as much as a "-gap between the mortise and tenon in all the pipes. There was also a nice variety in the stem draft holes. Finally, the slots varied from mild to wild...literally! Being somewhat sane at the inception of this project, I stayed with straight pipes, attempting to apply a consistent-diameter concept to the draft holes in each one. A diameter of 3.5 mm came very close to the 4-mm shank bore diameter and allowed for it to be drilled further into the stem with less fear of breaking out. The gap between mortise and tenon is closed with a custom-fit Delrin or vulcanite sleeve bored to 4 mm. The end of the sleeve that meets the mortise is either funneled slightly to align with the 4- mm shank bore or funneled on an angle to match an off-center shank bore. The stem is then bored to 3.5 mm as far as practical. If the cross-section of the stem does not allow the 3.5-mm bore to reach within 3/4" of the button, a 3-mm drill does the trick. The slot is hand filed from the button back to the last bore point, changing the cross section of the draft hole from round to oval to a slot.

Now remember, I said that the dilemma was reality vs. theory. It would be wonderful to have a straight-shot, 4-mm draft hole from stem to stern. In fact, I do have a pipe with that configuration--an old "Colossal" that had no stem. Since the pipe is about a group 5, with a large- diameter shank, I was able to cut a stem with a 4-mm draft hole through to the button and comfortable in the mouth. You could be unconscious and smoke it! Smooth as silk and dry as a bone. However, most pipes do not allow that luxury, hence "practicality." Using my handy-dandy calculator, I realized that the -mm drill-bit differences came out to 20 thousandths of an inch. 1/64" is equal to 16 thousandths, so I can live with 20 thou. One thing that helps going from 3.5 mm to 3 mm, if necessary, is that I reground my drills to a 60-degree angle. The sharper angle lessens the effect of the diameter change on the smoke; somewhat like funneling a tenon.

All I can say is that the mortise sleeve, redrilling the stem to the above specs, and opening the slot transformed the pipes! I even had to change my puffing style. I tend to be an aggressive puffer, but the reworked pipes literally made me learn to sip. The draw became so smooth and easy that I was huffing the pipes into miniature furnaces. About that time, I started doing some work for a few of the fine gents from the Greater Kansas City Pipe Club. We began discussing the merits and demerits of some pipes' smoking qualities, and I offered to incorporate my "blueprint" process into the stem work I'd be doing for them. Today, they will not accept a pipe back from me if it has not been blueprinted. Since that first foray into the architecture of draft holes, many other customers have requested the same process for their pipes, including some in Singapore and Tokyo.

An interesting factor that became very clear is where the flow problems occur in a pipe. Most pipes have severely restricted stems, especially in the last inch. I've worked on many that already had a 4-mm shank bore but suffered from a 2.5-mm draft-hole bore, no funnel at the button, and a significant mortise-to-tenon gap. Solving those problems eliminated a wet smoke and poor draw. The goal is consistency in the draft channel. For myself, a 3.5-mm draft hole from one end to the other does the trick. I even made a pipe with this bore for a friend of mine who smokes nothing but Bangs, Chonowitschs, Castellos, and various other high grades. After he had smoked it for a while, I asked him for feedback on the draw. He said it smoked as smooth and easy as the rest of his pipes. I can live with that. Interestingly enough, this is the same dimension that Jody Davis uses in his pipes. So I'm not saying that other methods do not work as well as mine; there's just more than one way to skin a pipe and be happy.

Lately, I did some more pounding on the calculator and came up with interesting results. Going beyond the draft hole itself, I added the tobacco chamber bore to the equation. Using simple proportions with a baseline of a 3/4" tobacco bore and a 3.5-mm draft bore, here are the proportional results for larger tobacco bores:
     13/16" bore = 3.8 mm 7/8" bore = 4.1 mm
     15/16" bore = 4.4 mm 1" bore = 4.7 mm
Using a baseline of a 3/4" tobacco bore with a 4-mm draft bore, the results change to:
     13/16" bore = 4.3 mm 7/8" bore = 4.6 mm
     15/16" bore = 5.0 mm
     1" bore = 5.3 mm

As you can see, taking a 7/8"-bore pipe, there is only a 0.5-mm draft-hole difference between the baselines: 20 thousandths. Compare that to opening a severely restricted stem and removing an expansion chamber between mortise and tenon. Consistency can provide a wealth of positive returns. Obviously, there are huge variables possible with different types of tobacco mixtures, smoking styles, overall pipe length, tobacco chamber shapes, etc. Each has its own effect on the smoke we puff. But why start with a hand tied behind one's back?

Bent pipes require much the same applications, except for the mortise/tenon gap. Since an angle has to be "straightened" for a smoother smoke passage, this becomes the Area 51 of a pipe. Each pipe requires an individual solution. The results are not as predictable with bents compared to straight pipes, so "progress not perfection" is the theme.

Thanks to my fondness for custom cars and hot rods, I have a natural instinct to want to "fix something up," regardless of what it is. Applying this creativity to pipes has yielded a few benefits for my customers. I hate repair bands, so I created a fix that eliminates them. A Delrin sleeve is turned to fill the mortise area and epoxied into place. This reinforces the cracked portion of the stem. Then the stem tenon is replaced with a stainless-steel tubing tenon, which fits snugly into the Delrin sleeve. Now the pipe is far stronger than before and smokes noticeably better. Broken shanks with missing wood require a variation on that theme. The shank is shortened on a lathe to remove the broken section. The section that has been removed can now be replaced with exotic wood, deer antler, Corian, horn, bamboo, etc. The joint is reinforced with stainless steel tubing. Before: "orphan" sitting in the drawer. After: a new custom pipe. Lately I have had some requests for pipes to be shortened to "nose warmer" lengths. Add a new custom stem. and there are smiles all around.

A friend of mine made an interesting observation. If you buy a new car and it rides rough because of OEM tires, you don't trade the car, you get new tires. If you have a good used car that is a "classic," you fix it up and enjoy the ride. So too with pipes. If you have a pipe that just doesn't smoke up to your expectations, it can probably be improved. If that "old friend" sitting in a drawer just needs some TLC to bring it back to a new life, it can be done. That "stepchild" pipe could become your next smoking instrument in the A rotation.