Try this at Home

By Rich Esserman, this article was originally published in The Pipe Collector, the North American Society of Pipe Collectors newsletter (NASPC), and re-published here by permission. It's a great organization--consider joining.


Our fearless Secretary, Bill Unger, sent me an email regarding part of my missive in the Ephemeris on cleaning up an old Parker Magnum I got from eBay. I thought I would expand on this a bit. A favorite actor of mine is Clint Eastwood, and I love many of his Dirty Harry cop movies. One of my favorite lines is "a man's got to know his limitations." I have the ability to solve complex financial problems and issues but change a light bulb...where is that darn instruction manual?

I am not handy with hands, to say the least. I have met many craftsmen who are naturals--pipe makers and collectors alike--who can use buffing wheels, sandpaper and a heat gun and can take a beat-up pipe and turn it into something beautiful. I can't. I probably would wreck the pipe. So I have had to modify traditional methods. Unfortunately, most of my techniques take more time so that it would not be feasible for a repairman to use many of them. One nice side effect of my techniques is that rarely do I change the original characteristics of the pipe. From my viewpoint as a collector, this is important.

Many of the techniques that I have adopted are based upon advice from many friends, including the late Clarence Mickles, "brother" Chuck Rio, Sam Barnett and Mike Reschke, to name a few. I am not suggesting that these techniques are the best or whatever, but they do work, and anybody can use them. Plus, the materials I use are common products that are easily purchased. I also hope that folks will write in other tips so I can learn something new.

Materials Needed

Tom's of Maine Toothpaste--regular (TOMR) and with baking soda (TOBS), baking soda, waterless hand-cleaner such as GOOP, whitening toothpaste (WT), paper matches, clear plastic cups, carnuba wax paste, unscented soap, orange Fantastic spray, masking tape, Q-tips, brushes (small sizes), olive oil, paper towels, cloth, cloth impregnated with "briarpipewipe" (BPWC), Everclear or unflavored vodka, an Exacto knife, tiny drill bits used for model railroad construction, and orange shellac.

Stem Cleaning

Vulcanite stems

Note: all cleaning is done with the stem in the pipe.

Minor cleaning

No matter how careful you are with your vulcanite stems, over time they will discolor or become less shiny. What I want to do is remove the layer of sulfur that has accumulated. So I take a dap of my trusty TOMR and place it on a Q-tip. I rub against the stem in a circular motion until I see the Q-tip begin to get green or brown. I keep doing this until I hear a squeaky sound and/or the Q-Tip picks up no color. Then I apply WT to a Q-tip and rub again in a circular motion until I can see my reflection in the stem. Apply as many times as needed. If there is any excess toothpaste left on the stem, apply a very, very tiny bit of GOOP to the Q-tip and lightly apply to the stem. Wipe any excess off with a paper towel. Then polish up with a BPWC.

Major Cleaning With Tooth Indentations

I really do want to obtain my old pipes with brown or green stems--if it means that the stem has never been buffed. I recently saw an example of a fine old pipe whose stem had been "made shiny." The lip was completely rounded (no sharp edges), the stem had been thinned down and felt very slippery in the mouth, and the over lines of the stem were changed--but it was shiny! This really was a shame.

Let's say the stem of your pipe is dark green or brown and has teeth marks near and on the lip. If the stem has a removable logo like a CP, P (Parker), etc., cut out a tiny bit of masking tape to put over the logo. The first thing I do is get a clear plastic cup and make up my cleaning paste. First I put in a little GOOP, TOMR, TOBS, baking soda, and some Fantastic cleaner and begin stirring. If it is a bit too thick, I put in some more GOOP; if it is really runny, then I put in more TOMR. I apply the mixture to the stem and let it set for a minute or two. Then, using a rough paper towel, I rub off the paste in a circular motion. I should see brown and some green crap (a technical term) on the paper towel. I repeat this until the brown is gone as well as most of the green. After these wipe-downs, I should be able to see some black stem peaking through. Plus, when I put the stem in my mouth, there should be almost no taste.

Let's assume for the moment that there are bite mark indentations in the stem. I contrast this with a gash. Bite marks are such that the vulcanite has been pushed in; a gash is where someone has literally removed the vulcanite by gnawing and biting. I now mix up a different paste consisting of the above ingredients but much thicker, with TOMR constituting say 75% at least. I light a paper match, moving it over or actually lightly touching the bite-mark area for a count of 5 or 6 seconds. I may apply again so that the vulcanite is slightly warm. Then I apply the paste in a circular motion. What I am trying for here is to bring up the tooth-marks while smoothing out the area. The silica in TOMR acts like an extremely fine sandpaper.

I do this as many times as needed. As I am doing this, I am putting the stem in my mouth. I want the stem and lip to feel smooth going in and out of my mouth with no rough edges. For me, I am interested in having the stem smooth but not necessarily perfect. If given a choice, I would rather keep as much of the original bit material as possible rather than sanding the surface down and having a completely flat surface.

At this point, the stem should be turning black but not necessarily shinny. Now you can apply the whitening toothpaste (WT) via the Q-tip. Apply in the same manner as above. Apply as many times as necessary. Using this method, I have been able to get a mirror-like shine on my stems. My whole goal is to remove sulfur and retain as much bit material as possible without changing the original lines.

Lucite Stems

Getting bite marks out of Lucite (Plexiglas) stems with paper matches is very hard. However, I have found that applying TOMR in a circular motion to rough marks will smooth them out, leaving no jagged edges, and make it comfortable in the mouth.

Getting Rid of the Taste of Previous Owner's Tobacco

If you have bought a used pipe, then you have encountered the situation where the previous owner's tobacco interfered with the smoking quality of the pipes. Most of the time, it is the case where aromatics permeate cake. When folks smoke a Latakia mixture or a Virginia, the underlying taste of the aromatic comes through and spoils the smoke. There have been treatments, like the salt or using wine and other alcohol, baking the pipe with charcoal, and so on, but there is a much more simple method.

I have used the following simple method with great success. First, when I get a used pipe, I examine the cake to determine if the cake is a "hard" or "soft" cake. Hard cake is like cement, while soft cake flakes off somewhat easily. To remove the cake, I use the same procedure but am much more careful with the hard cake.

First, I apply either Everclear or unflavored vodka with a Q-tip to the cake. I let it sink in and begin to dissolve. I prefer to use an Exacto knife rather than a reaming tool because I can control what I remove from the cake. I lightly work around the bowl and carve off the cake. If I have to start scraping too hard, I apply more vodka and let it dissolve.

My goal is not to take the cake completely off (i.e., have the wood showing) but to leave on a little of the cake. I also am unconcerned if the cake is completely smooth. In fact, I want the cake to be a little uneven because it will allow for quicker cake development with my tobacco when I smoke it. After the cake is at the thickness I want, I take a dry paper towel and cram it into the bowl. I twist the towel to remove any loose cake.

Then I lay out some dry baking soda on a paper towel. I wet a Q-tip and roll it around in the baking soda. Then I simply scrub the interior of the bowl. Initially, the Q-tip may come out dark. After that, I cram in a wet paper towel, followed by a dry one, twisting it into the bowl. I repeat this procedure as many times as needed. It takes only minutes but is effective.

For the shank, after taking out the stem, I take a bristly pipe cleaner that has been dipped in alcohol and run it through the shank. I use as many as necessary to remove any gunk. Then I use either a wet miniature bristle brush or a regular wet pipe cleaner and roll it in the baking soda. I use this in the shank. Afterwards I use a wet and then a dry regular pipe cleaner to swab out the shank.


Stem does not come off the pipe

Occasionally, you get a pipe where the stem does not come out--basically the stem is frozen. Or the stem really creaks when you begin turning it. The first thing to do is put the pipe in the refrigerator or freezer. (I prefer the refrigerator because it causes less change to the exterior of the stem). After 15 to 30 minutes, begin turning the stem clockwise. GO SLOWLY while turning! You may need to put the pipe in the refrigerator many times. If you turn too quickly, the shank may crack. The record for taking a stem off is over 6 hours, and there needed to be two guys; one to hold the bowl! So remember that patience here is a virtue.

Putting the stem back on

Now that the stem is off, how do you get the stem back on? My preferred method is to carve off a few pieces of unscented soap and then rub a Q-tip in it. Apply the Q-tip to the tenon and/or mortise, covering them completely with a light coating. Insert the stem and twist clockwise.

Shank and stem do not fit flush

Sometimes after you have cleaned up a pipe, the shank and stem do not fit flush, and you can see a gap between the two. Oftentimes this is because the tar build-up in the tenon needs to be cleaned out. I apply vodka on a bristly pipe cleaner and swab out the tar. Occasionally, if the tar is really hard, I take a drill bit and insert in the still damp area (from the vodka) and lightly hand twist. BE CAREFUL NOT REMOVE ANY WOOD. I cram a dry paper towel into the area and twist to remove any excess.

Stem is too loose in the shank

If a pipe has not been smoked for a while, sometimes the stem will be loose in the shank. Oftentimes just smoking the pipe will do the trick, and the stem will tighten up. I may also apply water to the mortise before smoking, and this seems to help the process. If the stem is still too loose, you can heat up the tenon and push straight down. This may widen the tenon. Great care must be taken to push straight down; otherwise you will make the tenon crooked.

Pipe cleaner will not go through the lip area

Tar may build up in the lip area, preventing a pipe cleaner from going through. If this happens, I take a miniature drill bit, insert as far as it goes and hand-turn clockwise. After twisting for a bit, generally the blockage begins to loosen up. Then you insert a bristly pipe cleaner to remove any excess. You may have to do this several times to remove all the tar.

Pipe cleaner will not go through the middle of the stem in a bent pipe

This is a very tricky situation. With a rubber stem ONLY, I may take a pipe cleaner with some vodka and try to dissolve any buildup first. Then I take a very thin paper clip and insert it carefully in the stem. I move the paperclip in and out very carefully. Generally this works, but you must be very careful. First, you do not want to have the paper clip break off in the stem, and, second, you do not want to damage the air hole. That is why I do not sharpen the end of the paperclip.

Dull shine on rough-finished (carved and sandblasted) pipes

After smoking a rough-finished pipe for a while, sometimes the entire finish becomes dull or one side of the pipe becomes dull, while the other side is still shiny. Applying carnauba wax or briar pipe wipe does not work. What does work is applying orange shellac. Shellac is a natural substance. It allows the briar to breath and is used by many pipe makers to maintain the shiny surface. Of interest is that one very well-known American told me that, when he first started to make pipes, he could never get his pipe to stay shiny--until he used shellac.

Some folks just apply shellac, but what I do is to mix olive oil and shellac (they mix like oil and vinegar) in a cup, apply lightly with a brush, and sponge off any excess. After the mixture has set, I then take a soft toothbrush and lightly brush over the surface for a final polish.

Dirty smooth pipe

Some smooth pipes have a sticky feeling and/or the grain is a bit obscured. Many times the surface of the pipes is simply dirty. A good washing using unperfumed soap and water with a cotton cloth will oftentimes do the trick. You can then either apply carnauba paste or just use briar pipe wipe to get the pipe shining like new. Clarence used to use a cloth impregnated with silicone. I had been told silicone clogged up the pores of the briar, but I used the cloth on a couple of pipes with no ill effects. I also once tried a carnauba/silicone liquid "paste" that produced a very lovely long-lasting shine. I found no ill effects save on one pipe, where I felt the smoking quality had been diminished, so I stopped using this mixture.

Dents on a smooth pipe

A dent in a pipe is where the briar has been pushed in. This happens when the briar is soft. When a dent occurs, no briar is lost. There is just compression of the wood. This is not the case when the briar gets scraped, scratched or dinged. In this case, there is actually a loss of wood.

To bring a dent back, heat up a screwdriver over a burner on your stove. You want to let the screwdriver lay for no longer than 2 minutes so that it is hot but not super hot. Then completely soak a cloth with water so that it is dripping wet. Fold the cloth over several times and lay over the dent. Then apply the screwdriver over the cloth. You should hear a sizzle and see steam rising. Apply the screwdriver for about 2 minutes and check the area. Apply as many times a necessary.

IMPORTANT. If the dent is near the nomenclature (stamping), be very careful. The steam treatment can greatly weaken the nomenclature and effectively remove it, as it does with the dent. I suggest applying masking tape over the stamping to protect it. However, if the dent is too close, most of the time I just live with the dent rather than taking a chance on ruining the nomenclature.

There are some issues with this procedure. First, the steaming may cause the color of the finish to fade. Some folks things believe you may need to re-stain the pipe. Instead, what I have found to be very effective is to apply olive oil a few times to the effected area. Then I will apply carnauba wax or briar wipe to the area to see if the briar can be polished to a gloss.

Sometimes I need to apply orange shellac to the area with a cloth or small paintbrush. I will wipe down the shellac before it completely dries. This part is a bit tricky, and it may take several applications before I get the finish I like. If things aren't working out, I use vodka or Everclear to remove the shellac finish and start over.

The above procedure also works on Matt-finished smooth pipes that were not meant to be a matt finish. (Ironically, John Tolle and I always remark that we have never seen a GBD Unique Matt finish that is actually matt--they are always polished.) Some pipes do not hold a shine using this method no matter what you do.

Tar on the top of the pipe

When I see a "dirty" top, I want to first find out if the wood is burned/charred or if the area is covered in cake. If I am at a show, I take the oil from my forehead and spread over top. Then I take a tissue and try to get a shine. If the wood is burned, then there will be little or no shine; with tar, the area will brighten up a bit. There is nothing you can do with burned wood except have someone sand it down and refinish it.

Assume the top is covered with tar. I get vodka or Everclear and spread it on the top. I want the tar to become a bit gooey. Separately, I then mix up a combination of goop, Tom's of Maine toothpaste and Orange Fantastic (it should be a bit watery). On carved pieces, I will use a soft bristle toothbrush with the GOOP combination and begin scrubbing on the gooey tar. I will then see where I stand by wiping it off with a rough paper towel. I do this until all the tar is gone (this may take some time, so be patient.) Then I wipe down with olive oil to ensure that the color is back. Use shellac or just carnauba to shine up as necessary.

Tar on top of smooth pipe

Smooth pipes are a bit more delicate. I use the same applications as above--vodka or Everclear and the GOOP combination--but I "scrub" down with a Q-tip and a cotton cloth. If the tar is super thick, I might start off with a toothbrush but quickly go to a Q-tip. (Note: a toothbrush could cause indentations in the wood, and then you would have to stea m those out). I never use an exacto knife to scrap off tar because wood may come off with the tar. Then I wipe down with olive oil to ensure that the color is back. Use shellac or just carnauba to shine up as necessary. On a badly tarred smooth pipe this process could be very time consuming, but it is well worth it. Remember that the top could turn out darker than the rest of the pipe due to plain coloring from smoking.

Conclusion and Attribution

These are but a few of the techniques that I have found to be successful for the less-than-skilled individual. I welcome comments and suggestions.

By Rich Esserman, this article was originally published in The Pipe Collector, the North American Society of Pipe Collectors newsletter (NASPC), and re-published here by permission. It's a great organization--consider joining.