As with pipe and tobacco selection, the choice between vulcanite and acrylic is a subjective decision. There are a number of pros and cons to both materials.
Pipe stems generally come in one of two materials, vulcanite or acrylic. There are other materials, but these are the typical choices. Vulcanite is rubber that has undergone the vulcanization process, which means it has undergone high heat and the introduction of sulfur. The resulting material can be molded into numerous of shapes, including pipe stems. Vulcanite pipe stems are usually black in color. Acrylic stems, also known by their brand name of Lucite, are made from acrylic resin or, essentially, plastic. Acrylic stems can be black, blue, green, yellow or any number of colors; solid or mixed. The one nice thing about acrylic is the color choice.
Each material has its advantages. Vulcanite stems are softer than acrylic and provide better grip when being held by the teeth. Acrylic stems are harder but are resistant to oxidation, which can often afflict vulcanite stems. Acrylic stems generally don’t require much maintenance, aside from an occasional wipe down.
My personal preference is a vulcanite stem. I like the softer feel to vulcanite, despite the fact that it oxidizes; I’d rather have a comfortable stem than a hard acrylic. While acrylic has the advantage of easy maintenance, if you own a buffing station as I do, keeping a vulcanite shiny is easy and quick. Guys and gals that usually don’t hold a pipe a pipe their mouth for extended periods and prefer maintenance free stem, will prefer acrylic.
Neither stem material type, has an affect the smoking quality of the pipe. Both provide an equally good smoke. However, comfort is a critical issue for me and has an impact on my overall pipe smoking enjoyment. I really don’t mind oxidation, knowing that I can run to my workshop and buff a stem clean in a matter of minutes.
The one thing that can be a problem, aside from being unsightly is that the oxidation on a vulcanite stem will definitely affect the taste of the pipe. Even just a small amount of oxidation will result in a very sour taste and a most unpleasant smoking experience.
If you don’t own your own buffing station, a trip to your local tobacconist will get your vulcanite stem looking like new. If you don’t mind using a bit of “elbow grease”, the task of cleaning a vulcanite stem can be done in the comfort of your own living room or den. There are fine stem restoration products on the market…even Colgate Toothpaste works well. I bit of water, cotton cloth and a bit if rubbing and your stems will look great.
The ultimate choice between acrylic and vulcanite comes down to personal preference. In my collection, I have an equal number of pipes with each type of stem and generally don’t let the stem material influence my buying decision when selecting a new or estate pipe.