I have been reading on a variety of pipe refurbishing sites on the web how different refurbishers list the steps they take to clean up an estate pipe. Interestingly enough, there is little variation among them on the steps that they take in the process. I think it is fair to say that regardless of who you read and who you learn the trade from you will pretty much follow the same steps. The one addition that I would make to the list that each restorer has made is really a step previous to the one they list – that is to take the time to thoroughly examine the pipe that you will be working on to make a list of what will need to be done to that particular pipe. What does the rim look like? What about the bowl, does it need reaming? Is the bowl plugged? Is the bowl out of round? What is the finish like? Are there dark areas? Is the briar solid in those areas? What about the finish? What does the stem look like? Those and a multitude of other questions become almost automatic as you turn the pipe over in your hands examining it before beginning. By doing this a lot of surprises can be avoided and an order of work can be established.
That being said, I thought that it would be good to make a basic beginners guide for cleaning up estate pipes and restoring them. This guide will enable newcomers to the art of refurbishing a straightforward and basic step by step process for cleaning up some of those great old estate pipes that they add to their collection. I have learned that it is always wise to be prepared for the worst state/condition you can imagine (and even worse) a pipe might be found in and then when you work on it you won’t be surprised by what you find when you begin to work on your newly found treasure. Remember, there are very few issues in an old pipe that cannot be addressed one way or another. When in doubt ask questions.
I have listed my own supply list for refurbishing in another blog post that can be read at the following link: https://rebornpipes.com/2012/05/31/list-of-supplies-for-refurbishing/ Have a look at that list to gather the basic supplies you will need to do the clean up. Before I get to the basic techniques, I will include a short list of equipment and materials for the job. This short list is designed for the refurbishing beginner who does not have access to a lot of tools. As you get more involved in the art you will want to add more of the equipment I list in the extended list in the above blog post. But here are the essentials:
* Pipe Reamer – to me the best is the PipNet reamer – a T handle and four insertable heads.
* Isopropyl Alcohol, a minimum 91% though the higher percentage is better. I generally look for 99%
* Murphy’s Oil Soap or some other Fine Wood Soap (use undiluted)
* OxyClean powder
* Tooth brush
* Pipe cleaners – fluffy, thin, tapered, bristle
* Cotton swabs or Qtips
* Cotton Balls – I buy them in huge bags at the Dollar Store
* Cotton Make-up removal pads
* 220, 400 and 600 grit sandpaper
* micromesh sanding pads 1500-12,000 grit (12 pads in all available in hobby stores)
* Halcyon II and Paragon Wax available online
*A shoe brush
* Cotton Cloths for polishing
I know that many of you who have been doing this for a while – old timers in the refurbishing game will have all kinds of things you will want to add to the above list. You will no doubt have things you will want to add to my ten steps but truly, this list will give a person all they need to refurbish an estate and polish it by hand. As they get deeper into the hobby of course there will be items to add to the list – buffers, etc. But this will get anyone started. I would also recommend sticking with the isopropyl alcohol over high proof rum or spirits. In Canada where I am Everclear is unavailable and I know that is true other places as well. That is why I suggest the iso and encourage starting there. It evaporates quickly and leaves no residue so use it.
Now for my ten steps: I am assuming at this point that you have examined the pipe you have before you purchased it and it is in sound working order. It does not need a new stem. The bowl is intact and dirty but not burned out. Those are the kind of issues that I deal with in many of the posts on this blog so if you want information about those they are accessible to you on the blog. That disclaimer being said here are the steps.
1. Take the pipe apart. This may sound simple but it may not be so simple in actuality. Do not force the stem off the bowl. If it is stuck it may be a screw on stem – gently try twisting it counter clockwise (to your left). If it is still stuck then put the pipe in the freezer for up to an hour and then check it. The stem and bowl material will react differently to the cold and often this is enough to allow you to loosen the stem. Once you have the stem and bowls separated move on to the next steps.
2. Ream the pipe. Choose the smallest reaming head from the PipNet set and start with that. Work your way up to the size of the bowl. Make sure that the head is absolutely vertical in the bowl and remains that way as you turn it. An angle on the head can make the bowl out of round. Personally I ream the cake in the bowl back to the briar and start fresh. Others leave a thin layer of cake on the walls of the pipe. I remove it all because I want to examine what is underneath the cake. I want to check for damage in the briar.
3. Scrub the internals of the bowl. Use Qtips, pipe cleaners and alcohol to remove all of the tars and oils in the shank. Work until the pipe cleaners come out with no colour. Use a folded pipe cleaner to wipe out the inside of the bowl and pick up any alcohol that may end up in the bowl from the cleaning of the shank.
4. Scrub the externals of the bowl. Use the cotton make up pads and the Murphy’s Oil Soap (undiluted) to wipe down the surface of the bowl and shank. Scrub it as hard as necessary to remove the grime on the surface. The rim takes extra scrubbing and I will often let the soap sit on the rim to soak into the buildup. Once it softens the buildup it scrubs off quite easily. If you are working on a rusticated or sandblast finish use the tooth brush to scrub the surface with the soap. Once you are satisfied it is clean rinse it carefully with running water (keep the water out of the bowl and shank). Dry it off with a clean cotton cloth. (Some use saliva to wipe down the rim. I have done that but often resort to the oil soap as I find it works better. Some also say that the soap removes stain from the briar – I have not had that problem though it does lighten the stain slightly due to the removal of oils and residue from the briar.) Set the bowl aside and turn to the stem.
5. Clean the internals of the stem. Use the Qtips (Cotton swabs), pipe cleaners and alcohol to clean out the stem. I use the cotton swabs to clean out the end of the tenon and the area around the tenon and the face of the stem. I use the pipe cleaners to clean out the slot in the button end of the stem and remove any build up in that area. Again clean the internals until the pipe cleaners and the cotton swabs come out with no colour when run through the stem.
6. Clean the externals of the stem. Scrub the stem down with alcohol on a cotton make up pad and make sure to get the buildup out of the groove on the button. Carefully scrub around the stamping or inset logo on the stem. The idea behind this step is to remove any calcification or buildup left behind on the stem. We will address the brown colour/oxidation in the next step.
7. Remove the oxidation. Oxidation is the greenish/brown colour that is taken on by vulcanite stems with age, sunlight and heat. Mix a scoop of OxyClean in a bowl jar with warm water. Make sure the container is deep enough to immerse the stem in. Place the stem in the mixture for 30-60 minutes to soak. The soak softens the oxidation on the stem. Wipe down the stem with a dry cloth. Sand lightly with 220 grit sandpaper to loosen the oxidation and then wet sand with 400 and 600 grit sandpaper until the oxidation is gone. Be careful around the stamping or emblems. Also be careful not to round the edges of the stem at the tenon end. This takes much care to avoid. You can wrap the shank of the pipe with painters tape and then put the stem in the shank and sand it in place. Once it is clean sand with the various grits of micromesh sanding pads from 1500-12,000. I wet sand with the 1500-2400 grit and dry sand with 3200-12,000 grit pads. I will sometimes use a drop of olive oil/vegetable oil on the stem while I am sanding. I find that with the micromesh it gives it a good bite on the stem material.
8. Put the pipe back together. Once you have finished the stem put the pipe back together and wipe it down with a soft cloth and a drop of olive oil. I find that this give some life to the briar and the vulcanite. Be careful how much you use. I use a small drop on a cotton pad or even a paper towel and wipe down the pipe. I dry it with a clean cloth after it soaks for 5-10 minutes.
9. Apply the wax to the bowl and stem. I use Halcyon II to wax rusticated or sandblast finished pipes and Paragon on smooth briar pipes. If you do not have access to these waxes you can use a neutral coloured Kiwi Shoe Polish (it is made of carnauba wax). I do not use Kiwi wax on rustic or sandblast pipes as it tends to gum up in the grooves. Apply the same wax to the stems as the bowl. I do both at the same time.
10. Buff the pipe with a shoe brush. Once the wax has dried I buff the pipe and stem with a shoe brush. I buff it until the pipe and stem shine. It does not take long. I often use the shoe brush after smoking a bowl in the pipe as well. The wax heats on the surface of the bowl so a quick buff keeps things shiny and polished.
Hopefully you will find this brief annotated list helpful if you are starting out in the refurbishing of estate pipes. It is meant to be a starting place and not the final word. The beauty of the hobby is that it lets you be innovative and creative in how you address the issues facing you on the cleanup of any particular pipe. These are some of the basic cleaning techniques I use to this day with some fine tuning of the steps and tools to bring back estate pipes to usefulness.