I have had some questions about polishing stems.
I must warn that I will not be held responsible for any damage you may cause to pipes following this method. The process is relatively fail safe but certain circumstances that may be beyond my control, I simply cannot be held accountable for. I do suggest that you do a couple of trial runs using old or broken stems before you attempt this process with your beloved birth year Dunhill.
I will share with you my process. Please bear in mind that there are many ways to skin this cat, this is my way of doing things but this does not mean that I reject any other processes that other pipe repairman use.
I use two approaches. Firstly it is important when doing up a pipe to try and save the stems at all costs. So process 1 involves cleaning and polishing stems that have tarnished.
Secondly, especially when it comes to hotrods, I use pre-moulded stems. I am able to hand cut stems from rod stock but I find the process way to involved and time consuming for what I am doing. Call me a cheat but I find this works really well for me. My preferred medium is vulcanite and ebonite but I do not turn down Lucite stems if they come my way. Lucite is problematic in the sense that it has little give and little room for error. On the up side of it Lucite does not tarnish.
Saving Original stems
As most of you know vulcanite is compressed rubber, the same stuff your car tyres are made of to a point. This rubber is just compressed way more. I have found different qualities of the stuff over the years and have notice some being more superior to others.
I do not have much to add here due to the fact that Steve Laug is doing some ground breaking work with regards to original stem repair. He manages to remove teeth marks and patch holes in bits. I have studied his technique but will need to pick his brain a little more before I perfect this process. For me, as soon as a stem has a hole in the bit, I replace it with a pre-moulded stem. (This process of his is archived on this blog.) I love tapered stems. There seems to be more ‘meat’ to work with and more ‘meat’ means there is room to open up the draft holes, file out teeth marks and restore the stem as good as new. Saddle stems prove to be a bit of a challenge due to the fact that there is not much room to move.
This protects the stem material from coming into contact with the bleach. If you do not do this you will end up needing to resize the tenon as the bleach may eat away at it. As soon as the needed parts are coated, I drop the stem into the bleach. It will bubble a little and you will immediately notice the liquid turning brown. Depending on the extent of tarnish and the quality of the vulcanite will depend how long I leave the stem in the bleach. A good average for me is 20 min.
Remove the stem from the bleach and rinse in warm water. Wipe off the Vaseline from the tenon. This process has an added bonus as it tends to eat the muck out of the draft hole in the process.
PROBLEM: But fear not. If you draw on the stem you will taste 2 things. Firstly, you are going to get a strong taste of bleach, secondly, you may taste the left overs from the ghosting of the previous owners blend. If it were aro’s you will really taste it. This is easy to get rid of.
The next step involves scrubbing out the daft hole. I use bristle brushes and bristle pipe cleaners. If I choose to open the stem to my preferred 4mm, I do it at this stage.
Interesting Observation: I have had clients complain that a pipe ghosts flavours of tobacco even when the bowl has been well refinished. Did you know that vulcanite is porous and will hold the ghost in the same way the bowl does. If you do not believe me remove a stem from an old pipe and draw on it, you will taste the ghost! The bleach bath cures this problem to a point. Further manual scrubbing aids the removal of the ghost.
In order to remove all ghosting of tobacco, bleach and in order to sanitize the stem, I soak the stem in alcohol for an hour. I use Isopropyl alcohol (96%). Now this stuff is poisonous in a big way if ingested but research has proven that as soon as it has evaporated it is harmless. This is the same stuff used by hospitals to clean and sanitize operating theatres and equipment so go figure. After an hour remove the stem from the alcohol bath and rinse with clean water.
Notice the stem may turn white, light green or matte black depending on the type of vulcanite used by the manufacturer. I have noticed that most Peterson stems for example turn white. If you draw on the stem at this stage will taste nothing. I will be as good as new.
Sanding and polishing: You may notice the following, the stem may be smooth with colouration or it may look matt black and be rough textured. Start sanding. I use 400 and work my way up to 800 grit sand paper. This is a time consuming process, do not take any short cuts here. The last thing you want is a stem with a high polish that is full of surface scratches.
By the time I reach 800 grit I move to the buffer. I use Tripoli (Brown wax) which is equivalent to 800 grit sand paper and move onto White Diamond which is the same as 1200 grit. If you do not own a buffer, you can still get the same finish but the process will just take longer as you will hand sand up to 1200 grit and beyond.
By this stage the stem should shine and you should be able to see your reflection in the material. If not revert back to sanding, you have taken short cuts!
Depending on the type of material, as vulcanite differs in hardness, I continue hand sanding with 1500, 1800, and finally 2000 grit. Here you may notice the stem may start to dull a bit. The final polishing stages involves Brillo, or what we call Silvo here in RSA. Silvo is a jewellery polish. Polishing is now done by hand using a soft duster cloth.
Finally, and you may laugh, but, I use tooth paste as the final step. This is a trick I learnt from a flute maker who high polish silver. Think about it, it really is quite logical. Toothpaste is a fine, very fine, rubbing compound. This process is also done by hand using a soft duster cloth.
A final word of advice: Vulcanite is light and air sensitive. The more light the faster the tarnishing process will start. To avoid further tarnishing I run the stem including the bowl over a slow spinning buffer using carnauba wax. This forms a protective layer on the vulcanite keeping the oxidation process at bay. When done smoking your pipe, wipe the bit clean with a soft cloth. Saliva (Ph levels) mixed with the smoke is what makes pipes so yukky around the bit area. My stems are always clean and oxidation free. Besides standard cleaning after smoking I run the stem over the buffer to seal them up again from time to time.
Here are a couple of pictures to wet your stem polishing appetite. These are a herd of refurbished GBD that belong to “Muddler”. Stems can look better than new if you take the time and put in the effort.
A Peterson Kildare.
Good Luck and enjoy!