Pipes can be fickle. Stems will often be too loose or too tight. Burnouts are another big issue, and because people bite down on the stem, dents and holes can occur. Luckily, some of these things can be dealt with at home, so I’ll give you some ideas that you can try.
Loose stems are a common problem and there are a number of things you can do to fix the problem. The simplest and safest method will work for the majority of cases, but it’s the method that won’t work immediately. Just dip a cotton swab in water and moisten the inside of the mortise (the hole in the shank that the stem fits into). Let the pipe sit for an hour or two to allow the wood to absorb the water. Check the pipe at that point and repeat, if necessary. This works because the most likely culprit for a loose stem is the wood getting too dry and shrinking. Introducing some moisture will, more often than not, solve the problem.
A quicker method, but one that will probably need to be repeated, is to rub the tenon (the part of the stem that fits into the shank) with beeswax. Make sure to use real beeswax and not candle wax. This works well, but is very temporary and repeated treatments can lead to wax buildup in the mortise and into the airway.
Another method is to put a thin coat of clear nail polish on the tenon. This is also temporary as the polish will flake off at some point. If you use this fix, you should make sure to clean the mortise to make sure that any flakes are removed. Multiple layers can be applied for very loose stems.
The last fix is one that I don’t recommend as it’s very easy to screw up. You should only try this as a last ditch effort. Pour boiling water into a coffee cup and dip the tenon in the water and hold it there for about 15 seconds. Remove the tenon and take a sharpened wood pencil and insert the tip into the drafthole and press with firm, but not hard, pressure. This will slightly flare the end. If you press too hard, you might have to lightly sand the tenon to get it to fit. The old-time approach is to use an open flame and to press the tenon against a flat surface. I don’t agree with this at all, as it’s not hard to set a stem on fire, and pressing against a flat surface can shorten the tenon causing a gap in the mortise which can lead to gurgling.
If a stem is too tight, the best method is to put it in a plastic bag and put it in your freezer for about 10 minutes. Remove the pipe, give it a minute or so and the stem should come off without too much trouble. If the stem is just a little tight, rubbing a pencil point on the tenon will work well since graphite is a dry lubricant. If it’s really tight, a light sanding is your best bet.
If your stem has a tooth dent, you can try dipping the button end of the stem in a cup of hot water. Often, if the dent isn’t too deep, the heat will lessen the indentation. For holes in the stem, you really only have two choices – get a new stem, or use a Softy Pipe Bit (the rubber sleeves that go over the end of a stem).
If you notice that a pipe is showing “spider-webbing” (cracking marks inside the chamber), that indicates that a burnout is beginning. If you catch it early enough, there’s a fix that can save your pipe. Get some cigar ash and add some water to make a thick paste and use the back side of your pipe tool’s scraper to press it into the depression, smooth it out and set the pipe aside for a couple of days. Pack the pipe gently and smoke especially slowly and this “pipe mud” will harden and create a protective layer to halt the burnout. I should note that some people prefer to mix the ash with saliva or honey, claiming that it works better. I’ve always used water and it works fine for me.
That’s all I have for now, but I’ll keep looking for other tips to make your pipe smoking life a little easier.