A Compendium of Methods for Cleaning Bowl Rims

Blog by Steve Laug

I started a thread on Smokers Forums in May of 2011 to find out the different methods that other pipe smokers there use to remove the tars and gunk from their pipe rims. I have used several different methods that vary depending on the degree of tars. I am speaking here of tars and the oily hard blackening on the rim and not burns or char. I started the thread by listing with a brief explanation the five different methods that I use either singly or in combination. Over the course of the past year others have responded with their variations on the theme. The majority of responders said that they use the first method either solely or as their most prevalent method.

1. Saliva on a cotton cloth and rubbing until clean. This works very well for lightly tarred bowl tops. It also works for more heavily tarred as well but I have found other methods that are less labour intensive and work better for me.

2. Mr. Clean Magic Eraser wetted and wrung out until it is damp not dripping. This works quite well. I wipe it and then dry and repeat until it is clean. If you use too much water the finish can be damaged and will need to be redone.

3. Murphy’s Oil Soap undiluted on a soft cloth or a soft bristle tooth brush. This works for hardened tars quite well. I dab it on with the cloth, work it in with the brush and let it sit for a few minutes before wiping off and repeating. I do not use water with this at all as I find that the addition of water has removed stain for me.

4. Micromesh sanding pads dipped in water. This is a method I have been experimenting with quite a bit lately and find that with care it works quite well. I say “with care” because you want to sand through the hardened tars and not through the finish.

5. An alcohol bath – if I plan on refinishing and restaining the entire bowl I soak it in an alcohol bath using 99% ISO and letting it sit for several hours. I am not specific on the time as it seems to vary per bowl. After soaking I remove it from the wash and wipe it off. I sand it with micromesh pads before restaining.

The people who responded to the original post wrote with a lot of good ideas that are as varied as the individuals who use them. Many who responded stated that their primary method was the use of saliva/spit and a soft cloth to clean the rims. They use various things to apply the saliva – pipe cleaners, cotton cloths, cotton socks, paper towels, napkins and denim jeans. Others responded with additional methods that they use to clean hard to clean bowl rims (rims that the saliva and cloth method do not do enough). The different ideas/methods below show the creativity and patience of pipe smokers as they address maintenance and refurbishing tasks. I have sorted their methods into two broad categories below:

Scraping tools and sanding tools

I have organized these methods in terms of tools and sanding materials that are used on the rims. From the information provided some people heat up the bowl before using the tools and others work on the bowl while it is cold.

  1. 0000 steel wool is used to scrub the top of the bowl rim.
  2. Large flakes are removed with a custom built tool – a piece of hard plastic that comes from the handle of a gallon milk jug. Any stiff plastic will work well and does not scratch the rim.
  3. A drill with a cloth buffer chucked up and Tripoli.
  4. A buffing wheel and Tripoli.
  5. The orange and brown Revlon nail files laid flat on the top of the bowl rim and in a circular motion lightly sand the rim until it is nice and smooth. Once finished cover with a few layers of wax.
  6. Clean the pipe inside and then smoke it. At mid-bowl, with the pipe hot, cover the rim in saliva and scrape it off the tars with a small fiberglass paddle, like that used for auto body work.

Scrubbing compounds and tools

The assortment of scrubbing compounds and tools is quite varied. Some of the materials used were surprising to me but they are tried and work according to the individuals who use them. The rationale that is given makes sense to me so I would suggest you join me in giving them a try.

  1. Hot coffee on a soft cloth. The combination of the heat plus slightly acidic coffee seems to work well in tar removal without removing stain.
  2. Tea bags – dampen a paper towel with the used tea bag and scrub away. Tea has surprisingly great cleaning qualities, especially for oily substances.
  3. Smoke the pipe and wipe the rim down with baby wipes while the bowl is still warm.
  4. Saliva and a soft cloth is my primary method with the addition of a small amount of ash for the really tarred up bowl tops. I lay the wash cloth on a hard flat surface and rub the pipe on it, keeping the bowl rim flat.
  5. A heat gun to heat the deposits and then remove them with a rough rug and saliva. Then very gently buff the rim with Tripoli to remove the rim darkening if it’s not burned.
  6. Sand it carefully with 220 grit sandpaper to loosen the charred area and then use Goo Gone rubbed onto the surface with a Qtip or cotton swab. The Goo Gone seems to penetrate the charring and after a few minutes then remove it with a paper towel.
  7. A microfiber cloth wetted with water and rubbed on the surface of the rim.
  8. Smoke the pipe and then scrub the rim with a toothbrush. Then apply a dab of Old English and polish the rim to a decent burnish.

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