Blog by Steve Laug
After cleaning, refurbishing and restoring pipes for more years than I care to remember a question from a friend prompted this blog. It makes sense to put this blog together as a good pipe cleaning regimen will prevent a lot of problems that neglect bring to a pipe. Those issues range from a sour and stinky pipe to a cracked bowl or shank. In fact the majority of issues that I deal with on an almost daily basis come from poor maintenance of a pipe. The first cardinal rule of pipe cleaning is very simple and if you remember nothing else from this blog remember this: DO NOT TAKE THE PIPE APART WHILE IT IS WARM/HOT. I have seen too many loose tenons, broken tenons, and cracked shanks because this simple rule was ignored. It is not a suggestion! It is a warning. In terms of the question in the title of the blog, I thought I would break the steps down into the two broad categories that characterizes my own cleaning and then spell out the specifics under the two broad headings.
After each smoke – These steps are my own post smoke regimen that I try to religiously follow after each smoke. I find that for me it generally keeps my pipe smoking sweet and cool and minimizes the problems that I have seen in my refurbishing work.
- Immediately upon finishing a bowl tap out the ash on the heel of your hand or use the pick end of the tamper to empty the bowl.
- Scrape the edge of the tamper around the inside of the bowl to remove most of the debris left behind.
- Run one or more pipe cleaners through the airway in the stem and shank to remove the moisture and oils from those areas. If the pipe cleaner does not go through to the bowl wiggle and turn it to see if it will slide in. If not just clean the stem for now. Once the pipe cools you can remove the stem and do the shank.
- Work the pipe cleaner into the edges of the slot in the button to remove any buildup in those spots. You can wet the pipe cleaner with a bit of saliva if you would like to help with debris removal.
- Fold the used pipe cleaner in half and work it around the inside of the bowl to remove remaining debris from the walls and bottom of the bowl. Tap out the bowl on the heel of your hand to remove any loose tobacco bits and then blow through the airway to displace any debris in the airway and bowl.
- Stand the pipe in a rack or pipe rest – bowl down to let the pipe air dry. I have found that often an overnight rest for the pipe is enough. Others swear that you should let it set for several days and even up to a week to let it rest. I have not found that to be an issue. Sometimes I will leave a pipe cleaner in the stem and shank to let it absorb any residual moisture.
That is the short and long of a post smoke cleanup. You can see that it is not a long process or one that needs to be avoided. It is simple and easily becomes a part of the smoking process for your pipe once you build it into your routine.
Weekly – Once a week or at least every other week I take the pipes I have smoked during that week to my work table and do a more thorough cleaning. The more thorough cleaning keeps the pipe operating at its full potential and helps to deliver a clean tobacco taste with each smoke.
- Spread out a cloth or a newspaper to keep the table top or work table clean as it will minimize the distress of your other half.
- Carefully remove the stem so that I can clean out the mortise and shank. If it is tight and does not come out with a little pressure, put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes and that should loosen the stem and make it easy to remove.
- Scrub down the mortise area with cotton swabs and 99% isopropyl alcohol to remove the tars and oils that collect there. I always use the highest % of alcohol I can find as it evaporates quickly leaving the interior of the pipe dry.
- Clean out the airway to the bowl with pipe cleaners and alcohol to remove tars and oils that eventually accumulate and constrict the airway. Over time these build up and harden and reduce the draw of a pipe.
- Lay the bowl aside to let the shank thoroughly dry before you reassemble the pipe. Usually a half hour is enough time to make sure all is dry. Moisture can swell the briar so letting the pipe dry keeps the fit of the tenon snug in the mortise.
- Run pipe cleaners and isopropyl alcohol through the airway in the stem and work over the end of the tenon to remove any tar or oil that has built up there. Clean out the edges of the slot. You may need to use a tooth pick or dental pick to clean out these areas.
- PLEASE NOTE – Neglecting the internals of your pipe can eventually lead to a sour tasting and bitter smoking pipe.
- Check the cake in the bowl. I personally keep the cake in my bowls thin and I want them to be hard and clean. To allow the cake to form in that way you do not want to ream your pipe every week. The easiest method is to simply twist a paper towel into the bowl to knock off loose debris in the surface of the cake and smooth out the bowl sides. It also absorbs any liquid in the bowl.
- Clean off the rim top with a little saliva on a cotton pad or paper towel to remove the natural oils that build up on the surface.
- Once the bowl is finished, check to see if the shank is dry enough for an easy fit of the stem. It should be snug but not have to be forced.
- Wipe down the exterior the cleaned bowl and stem with a paper towel lightly wetted with olive oil. I find that this preserves and protects the briar and the stem material. Do not use it in excess as many have said that it goes rancid – personally I have never had a problem with that so I continue to use it.
- I buff it dry with a soft cloth to remove the excess oil and to give the pipe a shine.
- Set the pipe upright in a rack and let it thoroughly dry out. Put a pipe cleaner in the stem to absorb any residual moisture. Repeat the process with the next pipe in your collection.
That summarizes the procedure that I use to clean my pipe and keep it smoking well. Hopefully the process gives you a sense of how to build your own. The key is to keep the pipe clean daily and the other cleanups will be less onerous. As always I am sure there as many views on this process as there are people who will read it. This is my own process and it works for me. How you do it is up to you. Until next time enjoy your pipe!