A customer wrote and asked me to write about pipe cleaning basics. I’ve written recently about what you shouldn’t attempt, now let’s look at an everyday cleaning. For the sake of covering all our bases, we’re going to approach this as if you found one of your grandfather’s old pipes which had been heavily smoked and want to bring it back to something close to new condition.
The pipe probably has a pretty thick cake built up, so you’re going to need to ream it. If you have a decent reamer, this won’t be a very difficult job as long as you follow one important rule – go lightly. You want to shave off a little bit at a time. You’ll know if you’re doing it right is the result is a fine powder. If you’re getting pieces the size of a grain of sand, you’re either removing too much at once, or the smoker enjoyed goopy aromatics, which can cause the cake to be soft and crumbly. Cut the cake back until it’s about the thickness of a dime, unless the tobacco used to form the cake has a strong or offensive odor. If that’s the case, cut it back close to the chamber wall and remove the last bit using a piece of fine sandpaper wrapped around your finger.
You may need to take it a step further if there’s a lingering odor in the chamber. Run a pipe cleaner all the way into the chamber and stand the pipe upright. Fill the chamber with table salt and then, using an eyedropper or pipette, drip high-proof alcohol onto the salt until it’s damp all the way through. Allow it to sit for 24-48 hours and dump the salt. Swab out the chamber to move all remaining salt crystals.
I’ll also assume that there’s char on the rim of the bowl. If it’s really thick, I’ll dampen the char with olive oil and let it sit for about 15 minutes, then I’ll use a dull knife to lightly scrape at the char to get it closer to the wood. Then I’ll use more olive oil on a toothbrush to scrub at it. When it’s nearly gone, I’ll finish with oil on a cloth to finish the job. If the char is light to begin with, some saliva on a rag will actually do the job really well.
To clean the airway, get yourself a pipe sweetener, like Decatur Pipe Shield Briar-Fresh. Dip a bristled pipe cleaner in it and feed it from the button, all the way down the drafthole and use an in-and-out motion to scrub. Follow that with a dry regular cleaner. If the cleaner gets gunked up, you’ll want to repeat with the Briar-Fresh. Don’t forget the mortise and tenon. Use a cotton swab and the Briar-Fresh to wipe out the mortise and also the tenon. Don’t get the Briar-Fresh on the outside wood surfaces. It’s alcohol-based and can damage the stain.
Now, on to the stem. If it’s an acrylic stem, all you should need to do is to use a soft cloth to buff it, but if it’s a little beat up, you can use some Decatur Shine-Brite, which is a very fine abrasive polish, which will remove tiny scratches. But if it’s a vulcanite stem, you’ll probably be dealing with the dreaded oxidation. Before you can polish it, the oxidation has to be removed. If it’s not too bad, using Decatur Haze-Away and some elbow grease will probably make the stem black again. Then follow up with Shine-Brite to get the luster back. If the oxidation is really bad, it’s best to send it to a professional, since the best method is to hit it with compound on a buffing wheel. A pro will have slower speed machines to avoid burning the stem.
To polish the wood, a wax is the best thing, but whatever you do, don’t use furniture polish or you’ll be smelling lemons or oranges every time you smoke the pipe for months. If the pipe is really dull, you’ll once again want to send it out for a proper buffing, but if it’s not too bad, try Decatur’s No-Buff Wax, which is the only wax specially formulated for briar pipes. There are other waxes, but they were originally created for museum pieces and can leave a filmy haze and fill in nomenclature. No-Buff Wax is more fluid and creamy, is easier to remove and rub up, and won’t build up on the surface and in the nomenclature. Just wipe it on, let it sit for about ten minutes and polish with a soft cloth. For use after each smoke, just wipe the pipe with the Decatur Polishing Cloth for a quick shine with little effort.
One last thing, for cleaning rusticated and sandblasted finishes, use a very soft toothbrush and your handy-dandy olive oil. Wipe it off with a soft cloth and you’re off to the races.