The most overlooked accessory for pipe smokers is the humble pipe cleaner. Some of us are so good at overlooking them that they rarely use one and then wonder why their pipe tastes nasty. Pipe cleaners are not only useful, but they’re surprisingly versatile as well.
There are quite a few different types of pipe cleaners – thick and fluffy, thin, bristled, straight, tapered, and they come in a wide range of lengths. One company even makes large coils that can be cut to the proper size. Each type serves a different purpose, so let me touch on that first.
Regular (thin) pipe cleaners are great for routine maintenance and to remove moisture from the airway while smoking. Being thinner, they’ll pass through most pipes easily. For the ones that are really restrictive, tapered cleaners work exceptionally well. They’re thinner at one end, so they should work on even the trickiest pipes.
Extra Absorbent (fluffy) pipe cleaners do the best job of wicking moisture, but they’ll only pass easily on pipes with an open airway. They have a specific property that makes them particularly useful. When bent into a “u” shape, they do a great job of cleaning out the mortise, and you can also dampen them to swab out the chamber to remove any remaining ash.
Bristled pipe cleaners are best when your intention is to do a full-blown cleaning. The nylon bristles that are interspersed amid the cotton are there to scrub the airway to remove more stubborn tars and particles. These cleaners work really well when paired up with a pipe sweetener like Decatur Briar Fresh. The combination of a solvent with the bristles will get more gunk out of the airway.
One of the debates about pipe cleaners is whether you should leave one in the pipe while it’s resting. I don’t have any particular feelings either way, but I get the concept. By leaving a cleaner in the drafthole, it could absorb any latent fluids, but I don’t know that it would be a significant amount. That said, there’s certainly no downside to doing so.
My routine for pipe cleaner use is pretty straightforward. For use during smoking and immediately after, I use regular straight cleaners, unless the pipe is one from the 1940s or earlier, in which case I use a regular tapered because these older pipes tended to have a narrower airway. I use the extra-absorbent mostly for cleaning mortises and the chamber, and I use a bristled with the sweetener about every fourth use. To make it easier to experiment to find out what works best for you, we have a pipe cleaner sampler that gives you a variety to experiment with.
Pipe cleaners, at first glance, seem to be the most innocuous and simple thing about pipe smoking, but there’s more to them than it seems. I’ll bet you never thought that something so commonplace could be so complicated.