To Use or Not to Use – the Salt and Alcohol Treatment


Blog by Steve Laug

I have been weighing the pros and cons of writing about the salt and alcohol treatment for a while now. It is a topic that is fraught with a lot of emotion from both sides of the table – those who swear by the method (proponents) and those who are vehemently against it (opponents). Much contradictory material has been posted and written on the use of salt and alcoholto sweeten a sour pipe bowl or to remove ghosting. Some swear by the method and have had no ill experience to speak of in their use of the method for what adds up to many years in many places. Others have untold numbers of horror stories of split shanks, cracked bowls and ruined pipes. The whole drama has taken on urban myth proportions. I decided to enter the fracas with my own experience – testing and proving or disproving the myth with my own stories of success. Here is a post that describes the tools and the process I have used for over 15 years with no problems of split shanks or other bad experiences of that kind.

The tools

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Coarse Kosher Salt

SALT – I always use a Kosher Coarse ground salt. I never use iodized salt as I do not want the iodine to leach out into the briar. I have found that coarse ground salt has several features that keep me coming back to it. The first feature is that it does not dissolve in the bowl when the alcohol is poured over it and left to sit. The second is that it provides multiple surfaces onto which the oils and tars that are leached out migrate. Over the years I have never had a problem with this form of salt. I have never had a shank or a bowl crack or split after it has been cleaned with the salt and alcohol treatment.

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Isopropyl Alcohol

ALCOHOL – I use the highest percentage isopropyl alcohol that I can get through my local pharmacy. Most of the time I am able to purchase 99% Isopropyl alcohol or Rubbing Alcohol but have also used 91% Isopropyl with no ill effects. I just purchased a bottle of Everclear while traveling and will be trying it out as well. The water content in the 99% Isopropyl is 1% and I find that it evaporates quite quickly and does not saturate the briar. Much has been written about using an alcohol that is not a human consumable form. Many have spoken of the danger of using it in the pipe bowl or in cleaning the stem of a pipe that is going to be put in the mouth. However, I have found that once the salt and alcohol medium has been removed from the bowl and the pipe air dries there is no remaining alcohol in the bowl. I have even used a match to light the inside of the bowl to burn off any remaining alcohol but had no success in getting the alcohol to flame. This and the fact that the bowl is dry to the touch cause me to believe that the alcohol that was used in the bowl is no longer present. I am sure others will say that the chemical components of the isopropyl are somehow compromising the integrity of the briar but I cannot find proof from that in my experience. All I know is that is some inexplicable way the combination of the alcohol and salt seems to provide a medium that causes the oils to leach out of the briar and come to rest on the salt crystals.

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Ear Syringe

EAR SYRINGE – I stumbled on this tool that has become my go to tool for putting the alcohol in the bowl of the pipe. It is the humble bulbous ear syringe that is readily available at pharmacies for use with infants and adults. It is rubber and works incredibly well at keeping the alcohol off the outer finish of the pipe. By squeezing the bulb you can draw alcohol into the syringe and then be squeezing it again over the bowl of the pipe the alcohol is poured into the bowl quickly and without a mess. I have used the same syringe for over 12 years without little wear and tear on the bulb. I rinse it out with warm water after each use to keep it clean and fresh.

The method

I remove the stem from the bowl and then dip the bowl into my jar of kosher coarse salt. I usually lay the bowl on top of the salt and with a finger load the bowl with salt in much the same manner I load a bowl with tobacco. The photo below shows the bowl being filled. The second photo below shows the filled bowl. I fill the bowl leaving it a bit below the edge of the bowl. I don’t want the salt to be above the rim so that when I put the alcohol in the bowl it does not spill out onto the rim and spoil the finish.

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Coarse Kosher Salt

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Bowl filled and ready for the Isopropyl

Once I have the bowl filled I lay it in an old ice cube tray. I have found this is a great rest for a lot of the work I do in refurbishing pipe bowls. I then fold a pipe cleaner in half and insert it into the shank as far as the airway. I do this to keep the salt from coming up the shank. It also keeps the airway free of pieces of the coarse salt. The alcohol does wick up the pipe cleaners and I find that as the alcohol works in the bowl and evaporates it also works in the shank and leaches out the oils and tars. The next photo below shows the bowl with the pipe cleaner inserted and the bowl ready to receive the isopropyl alcohol.

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Pipe Cleaner Inserted

I pour Isopropyl alcohol into the cap of the alcohol bottle and get the ear syringe and the bowl ready for work. The first photo shows the tools ready to use. The next two photos show the filling of the ear syringe with Isopropyl alcohol. Once it is filled I put the tip of the syringe in the top of the bowl and fill it with the alcohol. The next three photos show the filling of the bowl.

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Tools of the Treatment

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Filling the Ear Syringe

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Filing the Ear Syringe 2

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Adding the alcohol to the bowl

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The alcohol filled bowl

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Adding a bit more alcohol

Once the bowl is filled with isopropyl I place the filled bowl in the ice cube tray and let it sit while the alcohol and salt draw out the tars and oils. The process works quite quickly and the salt begins to darken with the oils and tars within a few moments. The next series of photos shows the salt turning brown beginning with the edges and working toward the centre of the bowl.

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Setting the bowl in the ice cube tray

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After sitting for 2-3 minutes

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After sitting for 15 minutes

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After sitting an hour

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A final photo before I left it for the night. The pipe cleaner is rich brown from the oils and tars leached from the shank

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What awaited me in the morning

This morning the salt was darkened and the alcohol was evaporated. I dumped out the salt and pulled out the pipe cleaner. The shank and the bowl were dry and the salt fell out easily. I wiped out the remaining crystals from the bowl and cleaned the shank with a folded pipe cleaner. If the bowl had still been wet I would have flamed it with a lighter or a match to quickly burn out the remaining alcohol. This time that was not necessary. The photo below shows the clean bowl. The pipe smells clean and fresh. When I have finished cleaning the pipe I set the bowl aside and let it dry for several days before smoking it.

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A fresh and dry bowl

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8 thoughts on “To Use or Not to Use – the Salt and Alcohol Treatment

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

  2. Dominic

    Thanks Steve, I’m a big fan, your site is a wealth of knowledge and I appreciate you sharing your passion to those who are interested. I’m new to pipe smoking and restoring pipes after receiving my father’s first pipe when he was 16 yrs old and a few of his pipes when he served in the Navy and Army in the 82nd Airborne Div. as a gift from him this past Nov’16. My question pertains to filling the shank with salt or not. In your article you used pipe cleaners is there any pros or cons to either or method.
    Thanks.
    Dominic

    Reply
    1. rebornpipes Post author

      I don’t like filling the shank as it can lead to cracking. I have move to using cotton balls now instead of salt and it works just as well. Welcome to rebornpipes

      Reply
      1. Jeff

        First let me say that I find your site incredibly helpful! It seems to me that while cotton balls work, they don’t seem to produce as much extraction of tars. Could just be that the pipes I tried it with weren’t as dirty?

        Reply
  3. Terry Swope

    Thank You For The Great Write-Up,I To Have Used The Salt&Alcohol Soak With No Problems,I Think The Key Is To Let The Stummel Dry A Few Days Afterwards,Before Trying To Smoke From It,I Have Only Used Everclear For The Soak,With Great Results.Thanks Again I Am Looking Forward To More Great Reading.

    Reply
  4. upshallfan

    A great summary Steve on a sometimes contentious subject. I too have had no issues with the salt/alcohol soak. I use a tapered wine cork stopper in my shank and try to work some salt into the shank. I use either an eye dropper or pet syringe to apply the alcohol and keep it off the briar. I’ve use a retort several times and feel that method is potentially damaging to the pipe and stem. The salt soak is about 95% effective on eliminating any ghosting. I’ve used Everclear as well, but can’t really determine if it any more effective than the 91% alcohol.

    Reply

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