Experimenting with Alternative Oxidation Removal Techniques

Blog by Greg Wolford

I’ve recently been involved in a conversation about removing oxidation on stems with steel wool. I have to be honest, at the first mention of steel wool being used on a stem made my jaw drop (literally, almost dropped my pipe). But these guys are long time pipe smokers and restorers so I didn’t just brush off the information.

They said that using 0000 steel wool, dampened with water, removes oxidation much more efficiently than miracle erasers, Bar Keepers Friend or any micro mesh/sandpaper treatments. The increased efficiency also reduces the time invested I am told, which makes sense and is appealing.

So I decided to try an experiment on two old stems. These stems weren’t in terrible condition but had some oxidation to them and they were nothing too valuable if I made a real mess of them: they are expendable so they became my test subjects.


I soaked them in a room temperature OxiClean bath for about four hours or so; I had to leave the house for a while so I made sure the water wasn’t too warm and left them to soak while I was gone. When I got home I washed them with dish detergent and a scrubby sponge until they no longer felt slick: about 2-3 minutes. They were the. Left to air dry on a drain board overnight.


Yesterday morning I went out and bought some supplies: a package of 0000 steel wool and some 400 grit wet/dry sanding sticks; the sticks, or pads, remind me of short wide emery boards.

I took a piece of the steel wool and dampened it and began to rub the stems. Every few minutes I would wipe off the stem on an old towel, rinse out the wool, and go back to rubbing. It took very little time to remove the signs of oxidation and the stems were much less matte finished than they usually are after initial sanding. So I turned my attention to the stem with the stinger to work on the chatter.

I used the new 400 grit pads to wet sand on the chatter, going back and forth, wiping and rinsing as I had with the wool. These pads seem like they will be very useful in getting into that hard (for me at least) to get bit area and is why I bought them to begin with. They did, indeed, reach into that area much more easily and they took out the chatter fairly fast. That area was now more matte than the rest of them stem so I went back to the damp steel wool. In a few minutes the shine came back up even across the stem, which actually surprised me.

The whole process, not including the soak and dry time, took less than 15 minutes; I was again impressed.


Will steel wool scrubs replace all the sanding and micro mesh polishing? I don’t think so. Will it reduce the amount of time and effort spend making an old stem look new again? I believe it can. I expect to explore with more stems just how effective this process can be and how much sanding and polishing can be avoided using the steel wool. One fellow said he can go straight to the buffer after the wool scrub. On some stems that may be a possibility but I think on most it won’t. Any chatter or deep marks I think are still going to require sanding. And if you have a rough stem after the oxidation is gone I think it’s still going to need sanding, too. But this is a (new to me) technique that I think needs more investigation and experimentation, one that potentially reduce the amount of time and labor spent on many stems, letting is be more productive overall.


Stem after using 400 grit pad and 0000 steel wool to remove chatter and bring back up some shine.

(Photo of the stem at the point I stopped along with the 400 grit pad I used and the packaging it cam in. By the way,  my local Hobby Lobby has begun to carry a rather large line of Micro Mesh and Alpha Abrasives products. The prices are competitive and the selection good so if you have a local Hobby Lobby it would be worth your while to see if they are carrying these items in your area, too.)

New Selection of Micro Abrasives at Hobby Lobby

This entry was posted in Pipe Refurbishing Essays and tagged , , , , , , on by .

About Greg

I am medically retired from my 'career', have been since 1999. For quite some time I missed my old job a lot. I enjoyed it, I was good at it and didn't have any desire to do anything else. But the Lord had other plans for me. Now He has called me to work for Him. He has graciously given me some talent to work with words. He has also seen fit to guide me with the Holy Spirit to study and comprehend His Word. Don't misunderstand; I am no scholar nor a pastor. I'm just trying to be obedient to my Lord and Savior and do what He asks me, in a way that would please and bring glory to His holy Name.

10 thoughts on “Experimenting with Alternative Oxidation Removal Techniques

  1. Wildcat

    I struggled with stems for what seemed like the longest time. Finally, using moistened steel wool dipped in Barkeepers solved that for me! Great article.

    1. Greg Post author

      Thank you; I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I will try the wool with the Barkeeper’s Friend next time, good idea combining them. Thanks for sharing that tip, Wildcat.

  2. Ed. James

    Nice article Greg! I have found that when wet sanding that the water will actually help you see if the oxidation is completely gone. Rinse the stem and while it is still wet look it over. If you see any brownish or greenish areas there is still oxidation that needs to come off.

    1. Greg Post author

      Thanks for the tip, Ed! I usually wet sand because it makes the mesh or paper last longer; I’m frugal lol But its good to know of more practical reasons to do it, too.

  3. Andy

    Thanks for the comparison and evaluation on the use of steel wool. I use wet or dry abrasive paper for any oxidation removal and that is the standard for me. One thing I haven’t noticed from anyone, probably because I haven’t read enough posts, is about keeping the end of the stem extremely crisp and sharp at the tenon end. I notice a lot of restoration work done by inexperienced people have a tendency to round over the sharp end of the stem. Any time I see an estate pipe that has been refinished with this flaw it makes me cringe. The junction between stem and shank must be kept as sharp and flush as possible. Usually a good photo will show rounding at that point and that is where I can tell a professional job from an amateur finish. Just my 2 cents, and thanks for sharing your experience and techniques with all of us.

    1. Greg Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts and comments, Andy. I agree that it takes a lot of care to not round/miss-shape these areas. I’ve recently been trying emery boards for bit work (that is what attrackted me to the 400 grit pads) and find they can be used really well (and carefully) for that area. I think many folks don’t remember that the stem/shank junction has to be done carefully and that sanding/buffing that area can and mostly should be done with the pipe assembled (when possible).

      1. Andy

        Thanks for the reply Greg. I can see that you are aware of what I mentioned. Keep up the great work, it’s much needed in the pipe community.

      2. rebornpipes

        I am working on a block of wood with several mortise holes drilled in it. The idea I have is to provide a wooden block that I can stick a stem in and keep the edges crisp while not taking a chance on damaging the shank. I developing several options. The initial idea is to take the common tenon sizes and create blocks to use while working on the stems… we shall see.

    2. rebornpipes

      Thanks Andy, I am working on an article on this presently. I am trying to design a block that I can plug the tenon into that faces the stem flat against it like a mortise. That way the edge would be flush and preserve the shoulders and also preserve the shank. The other pet peeve I have is those who sand the shank to fit the stem – very frustrating to work with. Add to those two the rounding of the sharp edges of the button and you have a list of the frustrations of reworking refurbished pipes!


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