Pipe care/cleaning

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The articles presented here were originally started with permission from the excellent FAQ from the Alt.Smokers.Pipes FAQ[1]


Not handy with tools, yet want to restore an old pipe? Rich Esserman wrote an excellent article that may be just the thing: Try this at Home


After a pipe has been smoked for a long time its cake may become so thick that it significantly reduces the capacity of the bowl. In very extreme cases, an overly thick cake may actually crack the bowl due to differential expansion. Ideally, the cake should not exceed one-sixteenth of an inch (about 1.5 mm) or so. When the cake exceeds this thickness, it should be carefully reamed. Some pipe tools have a blunt-pointed (to prevent gouging of the bowl bottom) knife blade for this purpose. While these will work, it is very easy to trim the cake unevenly or even inadvertently dig into bare wood. Numerous adjustable, multibladed reamers are available commercially, and these will do a much neater job. A favored tool for this task--suggested by pipe maker extraordinaire JT Cooke--is nothing more than a series of short wooden dowels of varying diameters that are wrapped with fine grit emery cloth or sandpaper. Whatever device you choose to use, work slowly and carefully so as not to damage your pipe. The idea is to gradually shave the cake down to the proper thickness, not scrape it out in chunks. If you have more than the usual number of thumbs, you might want to take the pipe to your tobacconist, who will usually perform this task for a nominal fee.

What can I do when my pipe "turns sour"?

A pipe, properly cared for, will probably outlast its owner. Occasionally, however, a pipe may begin to taste bitter or "sour." Sometimes this is caused by not allowing the pipe sufficient time to "rest" between smokes; other times, no cause can be determined with certainty. In any event, such a pipe can usually be rejuvenated by applying the "Professor's Pipe-Sweetening Treatment," publicized by Dennis Congos.

First, find some salt (non-iodized is preferred, but not essential), some alcohol (preferably "Everclear," or some other form of near-pure, non-denatured ethanol), and a place to rest your pipe in a semi-upright position. Insert a pipe cleaner into the stem of the pipe so that it extends into the shank. Fill the bowl to the rim with salt and drip or carefully pour alcohol into the bowl until the salt is just saturated. Try not to get any alcohol on the pipe's exterior, as this may damage the finish; any spills should be wiped up immediately. Leave the pipe alone for a day or two. After this time the salt will have turned brown from the absorption of "tars" from the bowl. Thoroughly clean all salt from the bowl and set the pipe aside overnight to dry completely. Your pipe will now be revitalized, and all traces of bitterness should be gone.

WARNING: Many people swear by this process, but the procedure is not risk-free. Some people have had pipes crack after this treatment, particularly when they allowed the salt and alcohol mixture to enter the pipe's shank and/or when they left the mixture in the pipe for several days. Any pipe with significant monetary or sentimental value should be sent to a professional pipe repair person.

You might also want to give the stem draft-hole a thorough cleaning by periodically cleaning it with a scrubbing bristle pipecleaner dipped in alcohol or a "pipe sweetener".

G.L. Pease also offers a more effective method:

"I reamed the pipe almost back to bare wood, pre-heated my electric oven to 220°F, and turned it off. After removing the pipe's stem, I filled the bowl with activated charcoal pellets purchased from the local aquarium supply shop. Placing the pipe on a soft towel in the oven, I left it to sit while the oven cooled - about an hour... No perceptible difference was detected.

A couple of conversations with Trever Talbert, friend, pipesmith extraordinaire, and constant experimenter with briar, provided an important piece of information; briar heats very slowly. He explained that it could take several hours for a piece of briar's temperature gradient to reach equilibrium with the ambient temperature. Clearly, my pipe's short stint in the Sauna was insufficient to do the job.

I reheated the oven, this time setting the thermostat to 180°F, knowing from my tests that the temperature in my empty oven would vary between about 180°F and a bit over 200°F, well below the temperature at which the briar would scorch. Stemless and empty, I placed the bowl on its towel in the oven, on the upper rack, far away from the source of radiant heat, where it would be left to sit for three hours.

After removing the now hot pipe, I filled the bowl with the activated charcoal, and placed it back in the oven for an additional three hours. When the pipe was finally removed, and emptied of the charcoal, there was absolutely no trace of its prior scent ... After allowing the pipe to cool overnight, the stem was refitted, the bowl filled with a favored blend, delicate enough to allow any vestigial flavors from the pipe to come through clearly. I sat down to experience the fruits of my labors. Success! Only at the very bottom of the bowl was a slight hint of the previous aroma, and this disappeared completely after a couple of smokes."

Polishing stems

Vulcanite stems can oxidize, turning a disgusting brownish green color. This is one case where "an ounce of prevention" definitely pays off. Avoid exposing vulcanite stems to direct sunlight whenever possible, and wipe off your stems after each use. When oxidation does begin to form, it can often be removed with a mild abrasive, such as baking soda or toothpaste. If the oxidation is too severe for this treatment, jeweler's rouge or an automobile rubbing compound will often do the trick. For truly stubborn stems more drastic measures may be required. An overnight soak in household bleach will turn your stems black again, but you should be careful to cover any stem logos with a blob of petroleum jelly to protect them prior to soaking, and you should be prepared to apply some elbow grease to polish the stem surface, which will be roughened by this treatment.

Professionals (and "serious amateurs") remove oxidation with a buffing wheel loaded with Tripoli or some similar abrasive and then apply carnuba wax to protect the stem and bring out a high shine. If you wish to use a buffing rig, consult with someone experienced in such matters. It's all too easy to burn a stem on a buffing wheel running at excessively high speed or, for that matter, to catapult a briar into your face.

Care for meerschaum pipes

First, and most importantly, don't drop it. Meerschaum is fragile, and it is very unlikely that your pipe will survive a dive to the kitchen floor. Second, do not allow a cake to build in the bowl (firmly swabbing out all the ash residue with a bent pipe cleaner after each smoke should do the trick). If your pipe does start to build a cake, then ream it out very carefully. Third, if your pipe has a screw-in shank fitting (as most meerschaums do), twist the stem clockwise while removing it; twisting counter-clockwise could unscrew the fitting, and doing so repeatedly can strip the shank threads. Finally, meerschaum is a very absorbent, inorganic material, and does not require the same "rest period" that briars do. Still, I would at least allow the pipe to cool and dry completely before loading up and smoking it again.

Many meerschaum aficionados claim that to ensure proper "coloring" of the bowl you should never hold the bowl with your bare hands while smoking. This may be true, but I would much rather have a meerschaum with an unevenly colored bowl than to have to go through the hassle of holding my pipe by the stem or (horrors!) wearing kid gloves to smoke.

Should I store my pipe with a cleaner in the stem?

There are three schools of thought on this issue:

1) Those who do not leave a pipe cleaner in their pipe between smokes. These people believe that doing so prevent their pipe from drying quickly and or properly.

2) Those who do leave a pipe cleaner in their pipe between smokes. These people believe that doing so assists in the absorption of nasty stuff.

3) Those who compromise by leaving a pipe cleaner in their pipe for a short period (usually overnight), then removing it to allow the pipe to dry completely.

Personally, I belong to group #1 a about half the time. The rest of the time I'm a #3, unless I forget to remove the pipe cleaner, in which case I'm an accidental #2. Bottom line: It really doesn't matter. Whatever works for you is fine.

Breaking In a New Pipe

See a great article by Fred Hanna called The Mysteries of the Briar Break-in Process.

Basic Repairs


Airflow issues are not exactly a repair, per se, but could perhaps be contributing to a pipe that is simply not smoking up to its potential. Rick Newcomb suggests that pipes with an open air flow smoke better. It is controversial, but bears exploration, as many pipe smokers are now sold on this concept. With it working for so many, it might just work for you and that problem pipe. Ken Campbell wrote an interesting article for The Pipe Collector called Airflow: The Key to Smoking Pleasure.

Fixing a loose stem

Even if you're careful to never remove the stem from a hot pipe, you may occasionally be faced with a loose stem. Often this problem will fix itself with time, but if the stem is so loose that it is in danger of falling out, then something must be done. The safest bet is to take the pipe to a tobacconist or send it to a repairperson. These people will have a great deal of practice performing this task, and they will do it for a very modest fee. It is remarkably easy for an amateur to crack a shank while attempting this repair, as many of us can sadly attest.

Nevertheless, if you are determined to do this yourself, you must first determine what sort of stem you have. If the stem is lucite, the easiest fix is to apply a very thin layer of clear nail polish to the tenon, allow this to dry *completely*, and then carefully sand the tenon to fit. A vulcanite stem, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, as you will need to heat the tenon and expand it in some way. There are a number of variations to this procedure, but the most common one is described below.

First, remove the stem from the pipe and insert a pipe cleaner into the stem so that it just reaches the end of the tenon (this is to ensure that you don't collapse the air hole). Next, carefully heat the tenon over a match for about five seconds (the intent is to soften the vulcanite, not melt it). Then gently press the end of the tenon against a flat surface, keeping the tenon as perpendicular to the surface as possible, taking care not bend the tenon to one side or the other. After the stem has cooled, test fit it. If the stem is still too loose, repeat this procedure. If it is now too tight, then see "What should I do with a stem that's too tight?" below. NOTE: It is *very* easy to ruin a perfectly good pipe with this technique, and I feel I should reiterate my earlier statement that this job is best undertaken by a "professional."

A variation on the above that has less chance of bending or ruining the tenon is the following: Insert a tapered mandrel into the tenon. Apply heat to the mandrel (an alcohol flame is recommended). As the heat from the mandrel transfers to the tenon and softens it, move the mandrel further into the tenon. Repeat as necessary to get the desired expansion. Remove the mandrel and place tenon in cold water to set. Note that PIMOmakes a 'Stem Tightening Kit' that uses this principle.

A less radical (and *much* safer) procedure that has been recommended to me by several people is to simply rub the stem's tenon against a block of beeswax until the tenon is well coated. Once this is complete, reinsert the stem. I am told that the joint will tighten after a smoke or two.

Another less radical approach to try if the beeswax method doesn't work, is to simply heat the tenon and then allow it to cool. Very often the tenon will have expanded just enough to make a decent fit. Rather than an open flame, I suggest carefully using a heat gun, or a handheld hairdryer on high heat aimed at the tenon.

Fixing a stem that's too tight

If the stem is still inserted in the pipe and is so difficult to remove that you fear your pipe may be damaged, then place the pipe in the freezer for several minutes. This works the vast majority of the time; however, if the stem still proves too difficult to remove, smoke the pipe, allow it to cool, and try to remove the stem again. If neither of these techniques work, then send the pipe to a reputable repairperson.

If you do manage to remove the stem, place some sort of dry lubricant, such as graphite (from a soft pencil) or wax, on the tenon and attempt to reinsert the stem. If this does not provide satisfactory results, you will need to remove a small amount of material from the tenon. Wrap some very fine (400 grit or so) sandpaper or some "O" or finer grade steel wool around the tenon and twist the stem gently. Work very slowly and carefully, and check the fit frequently until it is satisfactory.

Professional repair shops

Ronni Bikacsan does excellent pipe repairs and alterations. Contact information: NightOwl Pipe Works, 720 Virginia Ave., Nashville TN 37216; phone 615-226-1756, or E-mail: mailto:info@nightowlpipeworks.com. NightOwl Pipe Works Website

Mary Ann Keller, owner of the American Smoking Pipe Repair Company has been in operation for over 14 years as a full-service repair company, offering Lucite and vulcanite stems, logos, bands, and reconditioning. Her turnaround time is 7-10 days. Contact information: American Smoking Pipe Repair Co., PO Box 153, Pocono Lake, PA 18347; E-mail mailto:prepair@localnet.com . website.

Randy Krempp does repairs and refurbishing. He can duplicate just about any stem and can repair even the ugliest breaks in a pipe bowl or shank. Contact information: Randy Krempp, 3717 Manor, Waco, TX 76706; 254-662-0562 (evening) and 254-399-2220 (day).

Frank Storm of Restoration Pipe Repair, P.O. Box 3, Stacy, MN 55079; 651-462-0187; E-mail mailto:frsams@frontiernet.net . Frank writes that he started to learn pipe repair in 1970 by working part time repairing pipes for the local Edwards pipe shop and other Edwards stores. In 1976, he purchased a tobacco store that was about to close down that contained the equipment that he had learned on, and he started doing his customers' pipes. He currently has one national account, Savinelli, for whom he has been doing repairs for 20 years, 75-80 shops coast to coast that he repairs for, and another 80-plus individuals.

Tim West owner of J.H.Lowe, has been a Briar Pipemaker and a Pipe Repairman since 1975. Address - 1588 Grayling Ct., Columbus, OH 43235-5950; 614-761-3465; E-mail mailto:info@jhlowe.com . J.H.Lowe Main Website Repairs Page

George Dibos has collected, refurbished, and repaired briar pipes for over 30 years, and scaled up operations in 2007 to open Precision Smoking Pipe Rejuvenation and Repair, an all-new, full service, commercial-grade shop. Contact information: Precision Smoking Pipe R&R, P.O. Box 1142, 110 Second Avenue SW, Bowman, ND 58623; E-mail mailto:precisionpiperepair@gmail.com . Precision Smoking Pipe R&R Website

Baard Hansen Tabago Pipemaker of Bergen Norway. Repair and restoration [2] Mail box: Tabago pipemaker, PO Box 18, Birkebeinersenteret, N-5831 Bergen.Phone: +47 41 02 08 80 E-mail Website

Smokers' Haven, 2106 N. High St., Columbus, OH (614-299-2442) Website

Wall's Pipe Repair, 12 S. Main St., Mansfield, OH (419-522-6218)

E Pipe Repairs, 144 Linebrook Road, Ipswich, Ma. 01938. E-mail, Website

Norwood's Pipe Repair, 1160 Norwood Lane, Clifton, Tennessee 38425, (731) 925-1836. E-mail, Website Floyd Norwood is the repairman of choice for numerous pipe and tobacco shops throughout the U.S. and is known for his quality work, fast turn around time and prices that are often 1/3 that of his competitors. Floyd also crafts quality freehand pipes as a hobby which can be purchased at his website.

Scott Bundy, E-mail, Website

Walker Briar Works, 6580 Peckins Lane, Manchester, MI 48158. Telephone: 734-216-6698. Dave Wolff has been restoring and repairing pipes for more than 40 years. He sells a Vulcanite Stem Restoration Kit (which works) on his website as well as hand finished Lucite and Vulcanite 'Forever' Stems for Corn Cob Pipes. E-mail, Website

Before-n-After-Pipes, Pipe repairs and services,1178 phillips suite 420,Montreal,Quebec 514-554-1756 E-mail Website