I have had several people ask me about the process I use to bend vulcanite stems. I decided to write an essay on the three different processes I have used to bend them. In each method I remove the stem from the pipe for bending. I have the pipe close at hand to check the bend on the stem. Each method has plusses and minuses to it. Each method can create a variety of other problems that need to be addressed if done improperly. For the sake of this article I refer to bending vulcanite. The same three methods can be used to bend Lucite. I have bent them both using all three methods. The methods and warnings remain the same; the potential for oxidation is not applicable.
1. Hot Water Method
METHOD: This is a simple process. I use a small ceramic microwaveable bowl that has straight sides and is about 3 inches deep. I fill it with tap water to the level I want the bend and put the bowl in the microwave. I select high and set the time for two minutes. I have found on my microwave that is where the water will boil. I have put the stem in the bowl in microwave during this heating and I have left it out. I see no significant difference in the application and no damage to the stem. The only significant difference that I can see is the time it takes to make the stem pliable.
Either way, when the stem is in the water I want it to be covered to the level of the impending bend. I put a pipe cleaner in the stem to keep the airway open and prevent kinking in the stem when I bend it. If the stem is in the microwave, at two minutes it is pretty pliable. If not, I dip it in the boiling water and leave it until it is pliable. This may take repeated dipping and reheating of the water.
Once the stem is pliable I use a small glass spice jar that is round to bend the stem over. It gives me the curve I am looking for in my bends. The jar is a common spice jar, about 1 to 1 ½ inches in diameter. I lay it on its side and bend the stem over it. I know others who use the grip on a baseball bat or a rolling pin. Use whatever works for you in terms of maintaining a smooth bend. I hold the tenon end with one hand and the button with the other and then bend it carefully. I have found out the hard way that just bending it by hand can be problematic and make a very uneven curve or a twisted curve with one side more bent than the other. Once the bend is the way you want it either dip the stem in a cup of cold water or under running water in the sink to set the bend.
PLUS: The plusses are fairly straightforward to this method. Its ease of application is very clear. The evenness of the heat and the bend makes burning the vulcanite a non-issue. The simplicity and lack of a need for special tools makes it a very practical method of bending the stems. I used this method all the time for many years until I purchased a heat gun to use for this purpose. I still find myself going back to it repeatedly particularly with Lucite or acrylic stems. I just works for me so I use it.
MINUS: The minuses are also straightforward. Hot water plus vulcanite is a recipe for oxidation. The heat and the water cause oxidation to raise its ugly head. It seems like the oxidation just leaps to the surface as soon as the water gets hot and touches the vulcanite. It means that in bending the stem, solving one issue, you create a second issue – the removal of oxidation. If you are comfortable with the process of removing oxidation then the method is very usable and it works. If you are not comfortable with that process be forewarned it will oxidize your vulcanite stems.
2. Kitchen Oven Method
METHOD: This also is a simple process. I use one of my wife’s cookie sheets, or baking sheets, to hold the stem or stems. I put the oven rack in the centre of the oven and preheat the oven to 200 or 220 degrees, both temperatures work. Once the oven is heated I place the stem (with the inserted pipe cleaner to keep the airway open) on the cookie sheet and slide it into the oven. Have some oven mitts or hot pads near at hand when it is time to remove the cookie sheet from the oven. Watch the stems so you can tell when they are pliable. It takes very little time, 5 minutes or less usually. You can tell when they are pliable when you watch them (especially after having done this before) but you can check them regularly to see if they are ready. They should be rubbery and soft, easily bent.
Once the stem is pliable I remove it from the oven and hold it with the oven mitts, or if your hands are callused with your fingers (vulcanite is hot and you can be burned so be careful). I have the same small glass spice jar at hand, just as I did in the above method, to use to bend the stem. I hold the tenon end with one hand and the button with the other and then bend it carefully. Once the bend is correct I dip it in cold water or under running water in the sink to set the bend.
PLUS: The plusses of this method are also straightforward. It again requires no special tools to do the work. It allows you to bend multiple stems quickly. It also does not increase oxidation to the stems. This is a relatively new method to me but a fellow refurbisher here in Canada uses it all the time and swears by it. I have tried it and it does work well. There is no mess and no fuss. Cleaning up the stem is very simple afterward. All of the work in removing oxidation and polishing can be done ahead of time and then when complete a simple buff will give the stem a sheen.
MINUS: The minuses are relatively few. The first I ran into was my wife – she was not keen to have me “melt” rubber on her cookie sheets in her oven. I suggest you try this when “she who must be obeyed” is out of the kitchen unless you have your own sheets and oven! Care must be exercised to not leave the stems in too long or they will indeed be a mess – or at least it would seem so. I have not done this because I am overly cautious in keeping an eye on the stems.
3. Heat Gun Method
METHOD: This also is a simple process. I have a heat gun purchased at a home improvement or hardware shop. It has two settings – high and low. For bending stems I set the gun to the low setting. The gun comes with a stand on the handle so I stand it on the worktable with the tip pointing into the air. It also comes with a variety of heads that can be used. I like to focus the heat on the stem so I use one that reduces the end of the gun to a one inch diameter circle. I hold the stem by the tenon, the side I want to bend facing downward, above the heat tip by 4-6 inches and keep it moving back and forth horizontally. You do not want to leave it in one place too long as it will burn the vulcanite or cause it to bubble. (I have used it to also bend Lucite and the same is true with that material.) I check it often to see if it is pliable. It does not take very long, maybe 3-5 minutes, and the stem is very flexible and even begins to droop.
Once the stem is pliable I remove it from the heat and bend it over the same small glass spice jar, just as I did in the above methods. I hold the tenon end with one hand and the button with the other and then bend it carefully. Once the bend is correct I dip it in cold water or under running water in the sink to set the bend.
PLUS: The plusses of this method are also straightforward. It is quick, simple and clean. It allows you to bend multiple stems quickly. The stems do not oxidize with the heat or the cooling water. Since I got the heat gun this is method that has become my default method. The stem can go from being bent to being buffed and polished in short order. All of the work in removing oxidation and polishing can be done ahead of time and then when completed it polishes very quickly with a hand buff or on the buffer.
MINUS: The minuses are relatively few but significant. It is critical that the stem be kept the recommended distance from the tip of the gun as vulcanite does burn. It also blisters and bubbles. Take my word for it you do not want to do the work to repair a blistered or burnt stem. Worst case scenario it means recutting a stem. This is the most important minus. Be very careful. The second one is not nearly as critical, but important nonetheless. The soft and pliable vulcanite can easily twist when bending it, so be sure to use a round hard surface to bend the stem over. Also make certain the stem is flat and straight on the surface of the jar so that it is not crooked when bent. This is easily repairable but a pain nonetheless.
I have used all three methods have all been to bend stems. I have used them on both vulcanite and Lucite stems. The point of pliability under heat is slightly different between the two of the materials so times may vary. I am also working at sea level so that may also influence the times and heat points for the various methods. Give one or all of the methods a try. Let us know how it works for you. Post some pictures of the process and the finished pipe. Most of all enjoy yourself in the work of taking care of your own pipe and making its story your own.