What is a Pipe Retort and How it is used


Blog by Steve Laug

I have had a retort kit for many years now. I picked it up on eBay from a fellow who makes them and all profits from his sales go to the Sanctuary for Unwanted and Neglected Animal rescue S.U.N.A. All proceeds help pay veterinarian bills. The retort is owned and manufactured by them for a fund raising tool. I have used it in spurts over the years. When I first got it I used it all the time. I like the way it worked and cleaned up the dirtiest pipe and boiled out the tars and oils in the bottom of the bowl. In recent years I have just forgotten to take it out in the process of cleaning and refurbishing. It is nothing about the kit that makes me forget it is simply that I have used a variety of other methods to clean out the oils and tars. These include an alcohol bath and the bowl stuffed with either rock salt or cotton bolls and filled with alcohol. Both methods have worked well for me so I just seem to move on without doing the retort.

Retort kits are readily available on eBay and include all the things needed for a working retort. The picture below, taken from an eBay sale shows a version of the retort. The one from S.U.N.A. that I have is much more refined and elegant. But the constituent parts of the retort are virtually the same nonetheless. The retort includes a Pyrex test tube to hold the alcohol that is heated with either a candle or an alcohol lamp until it boils up through the surgical tubing through the stem and into the bowl of the pipe. Cotton bolls are used to plug the opening in the bowl and keep the hot alcohol in the pipe bowl.

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I found this drawing of a retort on the Seattle Pipe Club website and include it here to show the constituent parts of the retort. Where it uses an eye dropper, the S.U.N.A. version uses a nicely formed piece of brass tubing inserted into the stopper on the test tube.

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The designer of the S.U.N.A. retort says that the Pipe Cleaning Retort is the result of many years of experimentation by a 40 yr. pipe smoker and collector. He describes the purpose of the system as “the removal of gunk from the pores of the briar, specifically the heel, to sweeten and sterilize. Swabbing with pipe cleaners will not do the job, especially the musty estate pipe and also is great for changing blends without crossover taste. There is also the danger of harmful molds present in old pipes that will be removed by the hot alcohol method.”

How to use the retort

I begin the process by filling the retort test tube with isopropyl alcohol about ½ to 2/3 full. Others have used ever-clear but I have found that the 99% isopropyl alcohol works well for me. It is not only reasonably priced but less volatile than other products. It is also readily available at drug stores. The less water in the alcohol results in a lower boiling point. Put the stopper with the tube (whether copper tubing or eye dropper) into the mouth of the test tube. Attach the surgical tubing over the pipe’s stem. I usually stretch it up to about ½ inch on the stem. The connection of the tubing on the stem should be tight as you do not want the alcohol to seep around the joint when it is hot. (A 1/4″ slit or a v cut in the surgical tubing will make it easier to fit onto pipe bits.) Use cotton bolls to stuff in the opening of the bowl to prevent the hot alcohol from damaging the bowl’s finish.

Hold the retort over the heat source, candle or alcohol lamp and slowly move it back and forth over the flame. Hold the pipe by the bowl so that it is level and be careful of the tube as it gets hot. I generally hold onto the stem and the rubber stopper as I move the pipe back and forth. As the alcohol boils up into the pipe, periodically remove the retort from the flame. The instructions require that the unit be supported to allow back and forth flow for best cleaning, not just dangling over high heat source that causes over boil and uncontrolled gushing. As the retort cools, the alcohol will be sucked out of the pipe and into the retort. By repeated heating and cooling the retort, you can flush the pipe with boiling alcohol several times. Once the alcohol turns black with tar, replace it with some fresh alcohol. After about a dozen flushes, remove the retort and clean the pipe with bristle cleaners or a nylon brush. Let the pipe dry out at least six hours before smoking.

NOTE: Some may have a concern about fire or even explosion from heating the alcohol over an open flame. The maker of the retort system says that “our testing to deliberately cause separation due to restricted airway resulted in the connector pulling out of the glass tube due to the increased pressure, a press fit instead of fixed will prevent any explosion. Any remote possibility of a resultant fire using isopropyl alcohol in the amount required to operate the retort can easily be snuffed out by a small towel. The volatility of the alcohol is very low and it requires a low amount of heat to reach the point needed to make the retort function properly”. It is recommended that you use eye protection while working with the retort.

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The retort kit that I purchased included a generous supply of name brand tapered fluffy pipe cleaners, a natural rubber surgical tubing or connector bulb to attach various size stems, a thick walled Pyrex test tube (high speed centrifuge quality) and cotton balls for putting into the bowl. It also came with complete instructions. My kit did not come with a heat source though it appears that they now include a small votive candle.

10 thoughts on “What is a Pipe Retort and How it is used

  1. Bob Barker

    Steve, this was obviously written long ago but hopefully people will come across this comment or you’ll see it and have a reply.

    “As the alcohol boils up into the pipe, periodically remove the retort from the flame. The instructions require that the unit be supported to allow back and forth flow for best cleaning, not just dangling over high heat source that causes over boil and uncontrolled gushing. As the retort cools, the alcohol will be sucked out of the pipe and into the retort.”

    This is not how a retort is meant to work. Ethanol has a boiling point of ~172F, where water’s boiling point is 212F. Therefore when exposed to enough heat, the Ethanol will vaporize before the water. The ethanol vapor is in its gaseous state and since its hot and pressurized, it is forced up the apparatus and into the pipe. When the heat source is removed, a vacuum is created drawing the condesning ethanol vapor back down into the test tube, taking with it the impurities it extracted from the pipe.

    You do not want boiling isopropyl alcohol/everclear to go shooting up into your pipe. The purpose of the retort is creating a high-pressure, high-temperature ethanoi vapor to penetrate deeper into the pipe’s wood/stem, where a liquid could not reach. This is also the reason for taking the test tube on/off the heat source, to make sure it does not get too hot, keeping as little water vapor from being produced as possible and to prevent your ethanol choice from shooting up into the pipe as it will at the very least oxidize the stem (externally and interally) and possibly damage the pipe.

    There’s a great youtube video about this which actually explains the science and demonstrates the proper way to use a retort to clean a pipe. I’m not sure if I can leave a link, so just search youtube for “pipe retort” it is the video by CaneRodPiper.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS – How do I “De-ghost” a pipe? | rebornpipes

  3. Mike

    I have the one pictured above that I purchased off eBay. It works great and it is a fund raiser for The Wounded Warrior Project so purchasing it supports a great cause as well. It takes a little getting used to holding it at the correct angle to get a good vacuum to really suck the gunk out but once you figure that out retort is a great tool to maintain your pipes and clean any estate pipes you acquire.

    Reply
  4. Desertpipe

    Steve, that is an early model of the retort sold by our friend at S.U.N.A., and I have the more recent model in operation here….better mouth piece attachment and markings on the tube to help adjust the alcohol level. And yes it is amazing to totally scrub out the innards of a pipe, get it “clean” and then run the retort……and the alcohol comes black.
    Al, if you order one, buy a jar of his orchard honey. It is some of the best I have experienced and we keep some on hand here in the mountains.

    Reply
        1. upshallfan

          Thanks, guess I better add one to the tool kit. Sooner or later a stubborn pipe is sure to show up on my work bench.

          Reply
  5. upshallfan

    I have not yet added a retort, but suppose at some point that I should. Do you think this would remove ghosting from a pipe that has been smoked heavily by aromatics? Is it any more effective than the cotton/alcohol soak in this case?

    Reply
    1. rebornpipes Post author

      Al, the retort does remove ghosting but it is also good at removing any of the oils and even mold in the heel of the bowl. I am amazed at how brown the alcohol is after boiling out a pipe that has already had the alcohol cotton soak.

      Reply

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