Ideally, this post should be written by Dan Chlebove since he does all the restoration of our estate pipes, but we’ve recently gotten in so many new estates that he can’t even take the time to write lately, so I’m taking up the mantle to give you pointers, and also to tell you what you should leave to a professional.
Shining a briar – There are a number of ways to get a nice shine on a pipe, and most of them are easy to do. The quick and simple way is to use a pipe polishing cloth that’s impregnated with silicone. Very shortly, we’ll be receiving the new Decatur Pipe Shield Pipe Polishing Cloth. All you need to do is to wipe the wood off after smoking and put it away. You can also use a wax meant for hand application. Decatur will shortly be shipping their Pipe Shield No-Buff Wax. Just wipe it on, give it a little drying time and rub with a soft cloth. Unlike some of the other waxes on the market, this is a little more fluid, so there shouldn’t be any buildup and it shouldn’t fill in the nomenclature.
The final method delivers the best result, but I usually recommend leaving this to a repair service. It requires a buffing setup and carnauba wax. To a loosely stitched buffing wheel, a small amount of wax is applied and then the wood needs to be evenly buffed. Then a final buff on a clean unstitched wheel completes the job. The reason I recommend leaving this to a pro is that most people don’t have access to the right equipment. Our setup uses multiple low-speed buffers. The typical home converted bench grinder operates at 3500 rpm. Our machines are 1750 rpm models. There are two reasons why a slower buffer is best – 1) It’s possible to burn the wood with a wheel turning too fast, and 2) at higher speeds, the wheel can grab the pipe, pull it out of your hands and fire it across the room with a fair amount of force. Trust me on this, I’ve done it myself.
Sweetening a Soured Pipe – If a pipe starts to smoke a little sour, the best thing to do is to give it a thorough cleaning. If you catch it early, just using a bristled pipe cleaner with a sweetener (like Decatur Pipe Shield Briar Fresh) should take care of it. But if that doesn’t work, the best bet for home use is the salt/alcohol method. Start by running a pipe cleaner through until it enters the chamber and then bend the cleaner at the button. Make sure that the pipe’s chamber is straight up and down and pour table salt (non-iodized is best) until the chamber is full. Then use the highest potency drinkable alcohol you can get your hands on (my favorite is 190 proof Everclear, but it’s not available everywhere). Drip the fluid onto the salt until it’s completely moistened, but not saturated. Let the pipe sit for 24 to48 hours. By this time, the salt should have turned brown to black. Dump the salt, swab out the chamber to eliminate any residue and run a pipe cleaner with sweetener down the airway. The reason I avoid denatured, methyl or isopropyl alcohol is that it can leave a disagreeable flavor in the pipe.
A couple of other methods involve putting the pipe in the oven at low temperatures, sometimes done with activated charcoal in the chamber, and using a retort and alcohol. The former method can be risky because oven thermostats are notoriously inaccurate, so I wouldn’t trust it. The latter method is definitely more dangerous as it involves a test tube, tubing, alcohol and an open flame. There are just too many chances for failure, here, and if a pipe really needs this treatment, it should be done by someone with the right equipment and a lot of experience.
Polishing Stems – If the stem is acrylic, it shouldn’t take much more than a good rubbing with a soft cloth to get it to bounce back. Vulcanite, however, due to oxidation, can get dull and discolored, not to mention bitter-tasting. This can be handled without a lot of equipment, if it’s caught early. Once again, Decatur Pipe Shield can help here. Their Haze-Away oxidation remover will, with a little elbow grease, remove all but the most stubborn oxidation, and Shine Brite will put the luster back. It will work even better with a buffer, but as with buffing briar, it has to be done at slower speeds to avoid burning the stem.
The best way to keep vulcanite looking good is a bit of protection. Before putting a pipe away, rubbing up the stem with a soft cloth followed by a light application of olive oil, petroleum jelly, lip balm or Obsidian Oil should keep the stems from oxidizing in the first place.
A Final Note – So when is it best to send a pipe out to a pipe repair shop? If the work is liable to damage the value, such as removing the nomenclature, replacing the stem with something that doesn’t look right for the pipe, or if the work could possibly reduce or ruin the functionality of the pipe, then put it in the hands of someone with the experience to do it right. Most repairs and refurbishing are far less expensive than buying a new pipe, so don’t take chances if you’re not 100% sure that you can do it properly.