ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS: What differentiates cleaning a pipe and restoring it?

Blog by Steve Laug

After cleaning, refurbishing and restoring pipes for more years than I care to remember I continue to receive emails with questions that readers have about the restoration process and other more philosophical questions.

The next two questions came from a reader prompted this blog. I received an email through the blog from Nathan with these questions. I thought that both the questions and my responses make for a good ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS BLOG. Enjoy the read.

Nathan wrote as follows: Hello! I have been refinishing old pipes for about 2 years now. I have sold a few on eBay, but I mostly do it because I enjoy the hobby, history, and giving them as gifts or selling them to friends. However, I really do want to be able to start selling pipes on eBay at a more regular pace. My big questions are:

  1. When do you feel like a pipe is not only “cleaned and ready to smoke”, but “restored”? I know my skill, and I’m confident in my ability to clean, sanitize, and polish a bowl as well as deoxidize, sand, and polish stems. I can fix minor breaks in stems to a point that it’s *almost* unnoticeable. What are your defining points that cross the barrier of “cleaned and ready to smoke” and “restored”?
  2. At what point do you consider the changes you’ve made to a pipe too drastic to consider “restored”? Maybe an example will help clarify the question: I very recently came upon a lot of pipes and half of them are perfectly within my skill set to fix, but the other half have damaged or broken stems past the point that I know how to restore personally. But these stems are broken in half, with one half of the stem missing. If I bought an entirely new stem and sold it, would you still consider it “restored”, or has the original integrity been altered too much? If so, how would I label such a pipe if I were to sell it?

I wrote the following in response to Nathan’s questions:

My opening comments were simply for my own information.

Where did you learn the art of restoration? Why are you doing it?

Then I responded to each question in turn.

  1. When do you feel like a pipe is not only “cleaned and ready to smoke”, but “restored”?

I want the pipe to be clean and ready to smoke and by and large for me this means free of ghosts of the previous smokers. I want it to smell clean and want the internals clean enough that once they are heated that they don’t bleed old tobacco juices. I want to be able to put a pipe cleaner in the shank and have it come out clean. I want the bowl to be free of previous debris and for me to be reamed clean so that I can check out the walls for heat fissures.  For me the two – clean and restored are the same line! Hope that helps.

  1. At what point do you consider the changes you’ve made to a pipe too drastic to consider “restored”?

This is a tough one and for some the definition is no definitive change has been made to the pipe – no topping, no restaining, no restemming and no repairs to tooth damage. Too me that is too stringent. I will gently top a bowl and aim to get it as close to the day it came out of the factory as i can without changing to the stain or the profile. I will restain but always aim to match the original stains as much as possible. I replace stems and just not when I sell them that the stem is a replacement. Of course if I can find a matching original stem that is always preferred. I haunt sales, flea markets etc to scavenge as many stems as I can. I only do minimal repairs to a stem. To me if half is missing it will never be as good as the original as the repairs are always less resilient that the original rubber. If the stamping has been damaged in my work I note that as well. If I rusticate the bowl then I do not consider it restored… it is now my piece that I have altered. I have a hard time justifying leaving the stamping when I change a pipe to this degree. I always note my changes to a pipe when I sell it. I note flaws and I note repairs.

Nathan responded with two more questions:

  1. So to be clear, unless you’re affecting the briar in a drastic way, you consider it to be restored to its original integrity?

For me if I make any changes to the original design of the pipe – the shape, size, style, finish etc. that deviate from the original makers design the pipe has lost it original integrity.

  1. Also, and this is more practical, how do you remove the smells? I have tried soaking in in 99% isopropyl alcohol and cotton balls, but I can never seem to fully remove that old tobacco smell.

There are different ways of removing the smells depending on what they are. I have written a blog in my Q&A series on that. Here is the link: (


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