An Ultrasonic Stem Cleaning Experiment – AJ Verstraten (aka Bananabox-Ninja)

What follows is another article by AJ on his use of the ultrasonic cleaning machine. He has written it in response to the many who asked to hear more about it after his first article here on rebornpipes. I wish to thank AJ for his contributions to the blog and to encourage him to continue to write for us. It is a pleasure to post his next contribution. Thank you AJ.

Greetings, when using a new technique I can’t help but experiment like a mad scientist. So when I heard of the ultra sonic cleaning from my fellow cleaner on the PRF (The Dutch Flemish pipe smoking forum) named ‘Meindert’ I dove into it, because science! One of the first try-outs was posted in my first article and I was carefully optimistic about the end result. During the course of this clean-up I learned why I was not completely happy about it.

When I read the comments on my first article, Mark Domingues mentioned the Oxyclean method. To be honest I never heard of Oxyclean but it triggered a mention done by another fellow PRF-er named ‘annie69’. Who once told me he used hand warm water and Oxi-Action to remove the heavy oxidation on a stem. I tried this method a few months ago, but was not very happy with the end results as it left the stems slippery and gooey, which in my eyes prevented the rest of the oxy-water reaching the stem.

As an ultrasonic vibrates the water I thought: “What if the water is in motion, would it remove the goo from the stem during the soak and so give a deeper penetration?” followed by: “What if I combine the oxy-method with the ultrasonic?” So I set up a test with two almost similar oxidized stems which are from my ‘bit-box’ of pipe heads and stems that are missing their counterpart.

Oh, I should mention I work for a company that supplies laboratory equipment and some of the tools are old stock that was distributed to personnel, hence the use of a magnetic stirrer.

First the stems: The one on the left for the ultrasonic, the one on the right for the stirrer.
001 The stems

The stirrer setup: A glass on a magnetic stirrer, hand warm water, stirrer, amount of Oxi-Action and the stem.
002 Stirrer set up

To keep the stem in the liquid I used a bent electric wire and hung it in the glass.
003 Stem holder

So I poured the hand warm water, the Oxi-Action, and the stirrer in the glass, hung the stem in the mixture and set the timer for 20 minutes.
004 Here we go

005 20Minutes later

What happens is that a rotating magnetic field lets the stir bar rotate in the liquid, creating a whirlpool inside the glass. Thus the water is in motion and hopefully rinses off the goo that is formed on the stem by the Oxi-Action.

When I retrieved the stem and it was as I expected, greenish brown from the Oxi-Action. But not as gooey as before, so it worked to some degree.
006 Dried

Then I put the stem to the grind wheel and it came out as normal.
007 after the grind

The light brown patches are hard to reach for the wheel and I normally do those by hand.
To be honest, I was not really happy with the end result and did not finish all the way through with polishing and buffing the stem. In all it only saved me a little time and was a headache to set up right.

While I worked the previous stem on the grind wheel I let the ultrasonic do its thing. Again the setup: Warm water, ultrasonic with Oxi-Action and the stem.
008 Ultrasnic setup

The ultrasonic in action.
009 Look at her go

The stem just removed from the bath.
010 On to something

When I retrieved the stem I was blown away by the result, the stem came out cleaner than with the normal soak method and less gooey as with the stirring method. (However the photo did not show this, so I had to lighten it to make it clearer.) Also when I put the stem to the grind wheel I found that the liquid was a deeper brown colour instead of the golden light-brown colour I usually get when grinding.

The result after grinding.
011 After the grind

Was I on to something or was it a fluke with this particular stem? I decided to leave the stems as is, find another stem in my ‘bit-box’ and try the ultrasonic again to see if I could duplicate the result. I found a stem without its tenon and dunked it in the ultrasonic.
012 Before

While this was going on I Googled about ultrasonic cleaning and I stumbled on a very well written site: by an unknown author. In it I found a certain line that made me stop the ultrasonic and reconfigure it, namely this:

‘Parts should be racked in a basket or work holder designed to handle your specific part. This is very important in high-end cleaning systems where you want the cleanest part possible. You should always use a stainless steel basket, as softer materials will absorb the ultrasonic energy. Never use plastic or other soft materials. If your part is easily damaged or scratched, stainless steel racks with Nylobond or Teflon coatings are available.’

Now if you look in the previous pictures you will notice I left the basket out of the cleaner thinking it was not needed for my purposes. Boy was I wrong. Having the stems in contact with the bottom meant that the sonic vibrations were interrupted and as such the cleaning was not optimum. Whoops. So I put the basket that came with the cleaner, put the stem in and let it go for 8 minutes. The end result really surprised me.

013 After

When I used the grind wheel on it the liquid was almost black. Here are the stems next to each other.
014 All three stems

You can clearly see that the middle one has had more oxidation removed than the other two and in the case of the upper stem I blame my inexperience with the ultrasonic. Still the end result for me was quite exciting and I wanted to try it in a complete cleaning process. So I rummaged through my pipe- and bit-boxes to find almost equally oxidized stems. I found a ‘Belmont Grain London Style’ pipe and a loose stem.
015 Pipe and stem

First I cleaned the inside using 96% alcohol and pipe cleaners, they came out pretty clean indicating that the stems were not heavily used.
016 Cleaning inside

Then I set up the ultrasonic again with the Oxi-Action solution, warm water and the basket in place. The stems were placed in the basket and I let her go for 8 minutes.
017 Setup

018 In they go

019 Retrieved

When I retrieved the stems, the first thing I noticed was that they were not as gooey as I was used to and the water smelled rather…..well….like oxidation but more moist. There is no good way to describe it.

I put the stems to the grind wheel and the oxidation came off way faster than if I would not have soaked them. Also the liquid that came off the wheel and stems was way darker as I mentioned before. At this time I also sanded the hard to get edges with 600 grit paper wrapped around a modelling file.
020 After the grind

021 After sanding

Then I proceeded to empty the ultrasonic and put in the 50-50 alcohol and water mixture with a dash of disinfectant.
022 Ultra cleaning

One of the positive things of the ultrasonic is that it goes on a timer and you have your hand free to do another thing until it is done, so I proceeded to clear the top of the bowl of its soot using a sock, salvia and the abrasive pads. Using the sock I got most of the soot build-up off the bowl and used the 1800 grit to get the thicker and harder pieces off.
023 Bowl before

024 Bowl after

Then it was time to retrieve the stems. They came out nice and clean and when dried were a little dull. I pulled pipe cleaners through them and as you can see they were only a little brown at the beginning (right side).
025 Pipe cleaners

Replacing the stem on the pipe I used the muslin buff wheels and polishing wheels to buff the stems to get a nice shine on them.
026 Attached

027 Done

And the final pictures of the tools used in the experiment and the cleaning.
028 Tools used in experiment

029 Tools used

So far I am optimistic and happy with the end results using the ultrasonic cleaner with the Oxi-Action cleaning solution. The oxidation gets off rather well using the grinding wheel and it saves me roughly 30 minutes of work. This means a relief for my tennis elbow I have in both arms. So for me it is quite a pleasant addition in the cleaning process.

The negative aspect so far encountered was that this particular model ultrasonic bath is not very drain friendly, in this I mean that getting the liquid out is rather a messy business. Also I have no idea what will happen in the long run with the stem if you use it for a prolonged time. As I read that some items can turn brittle when used too much in an ultrasonic cleaner. But so far I have not found any evidence this is happening with the stems. And there is of course the fact that Vulcanite tends to bend back to its original form when heated too hot, so far this has not happened but I can imagine that if using water that is too hot in combination with the ultrasonic vibrations that add extra heat it can happen.

All-in-all an experiment that opened my eyes to two cleaning methods and I hope it was as informative for you to read as it was for me to do.

9 thoughts on “An Ultrasonic Stem Cleaning Experiment – AJ Verstraten (aka Bananabox-Ninja)

    1. bananaboxninja

      Thank you.
      My advise to you is to also read the website I linked to in the article.
      It is rather technical information but it does help you to understand the mechanics behind ultrasonic cleaning.

    1. bananaboxninja

      Hi Joyal,
      Sure, though I don’t know if I am allowed to directly advertise for them so forgive the lack of direct linking to them.
      They are called ‘Abrasive grinding mop’ from the brand ‘Wonisch’ and I got them from a German webshop. I only use the 1500 grit as the rougher ones tend to got through the Vulcanite rather well if you don’t watch out. They sell two sizes: the 50 and 80mm; the 80mm tends to last longer.
      Basically it’s a sponge-like abrasive wheel on a stick which you can mount on any drill.
      Hope this info helps!

      1. Larry

        It also sounds like you use the grinding wheel wet; is this correct? Thanks for the very clear write-ups and all the detail included!!

  1. rebornpipes Post author

    AJ this is a great article. Thanks for your contributions to the blog. I hope you continue to write up and post what you are doing as you refurbish pipes.


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