About Vulcanite Stems

Very few things in life are perfect. Bacon is wonderful, but if you go just a little past the ideal level of crisp, you wind up with burnt bacon. Life is full of these “close, but not perfect” things. Some things that fall into this category are vulcanite (ebonite, hard rubber) stems.

They offer a number of distinct advantages over acrylic stems. They aren’t as hard or slick, so they’re easier to use if you clench. They’re also a bit softer, which I find more comfortable, and for the most part, they can be made a little thinner than acrylic. The two drawbacks, however, can be a deal-breaker for some people – they don’t offer much in the way of color, and they require more maintenance. For color choices, you’re limited to black and Cumberland variants (black and red, black and green, black and grey).

The biggest issue is oxidation, though. Vulcanized rubber is made by heating rubber that’s been combined with sulfur. The presence of sulfur promotes oxidation. It will first appear as a hazy film, even though it still looks black, but in a short period of time thereafter, it will begin to turn, brown, beige, green, grey or yellow, as the sulfur starts to leach to the surface. Once this happens, the stem loses its shine and picks up a bitter taste.

If you’re still at the hazy black stage, you can take care of this relatively easy. We carry a couple of products from Decatur that can help you. Haze-Away is a red compound that will remove a little material, exposing a clean surface. Then Shine Brite, a white super-fine compound, can put the shine back on the stem. If it’s minor hazing, you should be able to just use a cloth and some elbow grease. If it’s duller, you may want to use a buffer at low speed to do the job.

If the stem has turned color, though, it will require more work. If the color has gone completely yellow, the stem may need to be soaked in a 50/50 solution of water and chlorine bleach for an hour or more. After that, the stem will be dull, and will need to be buffed. If it’s really bad. red Tripoli on a low speed buffer with a stitched linen wheel is the best bet. Then, some white diamond on a loose stitched wheel will bring the brightness back. Some people finish it by a light buff on an unstitched wheel with a touch of carnauba wax to retard future oxidation. Some people have used Mr. Clean Magic Erasers to remove oxidation, but it will dull the stems and it will take some work to bring the shine back.

Of course, if you don’t have the right equipment, you may well do more harm than good. Your best bet would be to send the pipe for cleaning to a reputable pipe repairer/restorer. We’ve used Tim West (you can contact him by going to www.jhlowe.com). He does nice work and doesn’t charge an arm and a leg.

The best answer, though, is to not let the stems oxidize at all. Ways to accomplish this- 1) wipe your stems with a cloth immediately after smoking, 2) keep the stems out of sunlight, 3) don’t keep pipes near ionizers or electrical motors as they give off ozone which will promote oxidation, and 4) wipe the stem with Obsidian Oil which contains non-toxic oils that protect the stem from ultraviolet light. In place of Obsidian Oil, some people use a bit of lip balm or petroleum jelly. They’re not as effective, but they’ll do the job.

I hope this helps, and if you have any tips, feel free to make a comment.

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.