Tag Archives: getting started in refurbishing

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS – What are the refurbishing tools that you can’t live without?

Blog by Steve Laug

I can’t remember how many times I have been asked for a simple list of refurbishing tools. The list for me keeps growing to I always narrow it down to the tools I use the most and “can’t live without.” This seems easier for you and for me. You will find that as you work with restoring/refurbishing pipes that you will come up with your own tools and tricks. You can add these things to your kit as the need arises. I have organized the various tools under the categories where I see them fitting in my kit. I am well aware that more can be added by each of you who work on pipes but it seems to me that this is the bare minimum of supplies. I added a few items to the end of the list that go beyond the minimum but make life a lot easier. I have organized my list in terms of the order of use of the tools both in the category headings and the supplies under each.


I start my list of tools with my favourite pipe reamers because I use them on almost every pipe that I refurbish. Generally I use at least two of them each day. Remember I clean up a lot of estate pipes (between my brother and I) and these are the ones that we repeatedly come back to. I have listed them in my order of preference. I have at least two (maybe three) PipNet reamer sets in my drawer. I don’t ever want to be without this set. The versatility of the interchangeable cutting heads for various bowl sizes is hard to beat. I always start with the smallest cutting head and work up to the one that takes the cake back to the bare briar or the thinness that I am looking for. It is my first go to reamer.

For me the Savinelli Fitsall Pipe Reamer is a close second. I use it to clean up any remnants in the heel of the bowl or along the walls that have been left behind by the PipNet set. I also use it exclusively on Meerschaum pipes because I can actually feel the work on the bowl walls. I use it to also scrape of the lava coat on the top of the rim. It has a triangular shaped blade that works very well and the pointed end allows me to effectively scrape the bottom of the bowl. I have found that these are hard to come by, but Smokingpipes.com recently tweeted that they have one that looks very similar. The following link will take you to their site: smokingpip.es/2GcoWxK. It is called the Low Country Reamer and they sell for $14.95USD.

The third reamer that I turn to when the other two will not work on a particularly narrow or conical bowl is the KleenReem Pipe Reamer. This is different from the Senior Reamer that I feel is far more flimsy and not designed as well to get to the bottom of the bowl. I keep several of these on hand at all times. Its adjustable diameter allows me to fit it to the bowl and the point at the end of the tool allows me to work on the bottom as well. It also comes with a drill bit in the end of the handle that can be used to ream out the airway between the mortise and the bowl. It can be used as is or can be wrapped with a bit of pipe cleaner to remove the tars and oils that harden in those areas. I often use the drill bit even if I do not use the reamer because there really is nothing like it.

Those are my three indispensable reamers for use in cleaning up the bowl and shank. I have many other reamers that I have collected over the years but none of them live up to the workability and flexibility of these three tools. I have tried using others and just laid them aside to go back to these. If you plan on working pipes as a hobby you need to have all three of these in your tool box.


The next indispensable tools in my kit are some brushes that I use for scrubbing the exterior of the bowl, shank and stem. The first of these that I keep handy is a toothbrush. I have several different toothbrushes with different weights of bristle from soft to stiff. I use them on different finishes. The soft bristle brush is what I use on smooth finished pipes as it is stiff enough to remove the grime on the surface of the bowl. With sandblast and rusticated pipes I use either a medium bristle or stiff bristle brush to clean out the nooks, crannies and grooves in the finish.

For plateau rim tops and shank ends as well as heavily rusticated pipes I use a brass bristle tire brush. These are available at most hardware and tool shops as they are used for cleaning parts. The brass is soft and I find that on these particular pipes it does not damage the briar and does a great job of removing the lava and built up grime. It is really a helpful tool. The key with it is not to press too hard on the brush but work it over the surface repeatedly until it is clean.

I use Murphy’s Oil Soap with each of the brushes. I used it undiluted and scrub the briar with the soap and brushes and rinse it off afterward with warm, running water. Many wonder about using water with briar. Remember I am letting it sit and soak in the water I am merely rinsing it off and immediately drying it off with a cloth. The water does not have the time to be absorbed by the briar.

For cleaning vulcanite and acrylic stems I have two different tools in my arsenal. The first is Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and the second is Oxyclean. If the stem is not too badly oxidized often a Magic Eraser wetted with water will make short work of removing the oxidation. I scrub the surface of the stem with the Magic Eraser sponge and then repeatedly rinse the sponge to remove the oxidation that colours it brown. Repeated scrubbing will remove most of the oxidation on hard rubber stems that are not too oxidized. On Lucite or acrylic stems it is more a matter of cleaning off scum or buildup. It works well for that too. For more heavily oxidized stems a soak in a bath of Oxiclean mixed with warm water will bring the oxidation to the surface of the stem where it can be wiped off with a paper towel. I repeat the process until the oxidation is gone. It works quite well to bring a badly oxidized stem back to life. I personally do not use bleach in any form on stems as I find that it deteriorates the rubber, leaves the surface pitted and reduces the life expectancy of the rubber itself.


Moving to the inside of the pipe I have four tools that I use on every pipe. I clean out the inside of the mortise and the airway in the shank and stem with 99% isopropyl alcohol. I know that others do not like using this kind of alcohol but the higher the percentage the less water is in the mix and the more quickly it evaporates leaving nothing in the airways and shanks. I have been using it for years and generally have several bottles in my supply. I purchase it from a local pharmacy where it is kept behind the counter. I do not use the common isopropyl that is sold in most shops as it is 79% to 90%. The lower the percentage, remember the more water is in the mix. I do not use Everclear because it is not available here and I do not use any distilled spirits as I don’t waste that on cleaning a pipe.

The second indispensable tool that I always keep in supply is pipe cleaners. I use primarily regular pipe cleaners that are the same the entire length of the cleaner. I do not like tapered ones because I find that the large end rarely fits and the thin end is too thin for anything other than metal pipes. I also have a few bristle pipe cleaners on hand should I want to use them. I find that often a good scrubbing with regular pipe cleaners works very well. I dip them in a small cap of alcohol and run them through the various airways.

I also have pipe brushes that are specifically made to reduce the number of pipe cleaners needed to clean the shank and airways. They are generally made of twisted wire and a nylon bristle brush head. They are flexible enough to fit curved and straight shank pipes and do a decent job of cleaning. I personally do not use them very often as I find that they get very dirty very quickly and are a pain to clean. I have some and use them on rare occasions when a pipe cleaner just does not do the job. I would say don’t bother but just the time I think that I reach for one.

The last items that I go through by the boxload are cotton swabs or q-tips. I know that there are many low cost, inexpensive cotton swabs and I think I have tried most of the generic ones. I find that they fall apart when wet with alcohol and can easily clog the shank and mortise. I don’t skimp on these and get name brand Q-tip or equivalent swabs with the paper stick. I check to make sure the cotton ends are well connected and will not come off inside the shank. I dip them in isopropyl alcohol and scour the inside of the mortise, the end of the tenon and the slot in the button. I work with them until those areas are clean and the swabs remain white.

I cannot think of much other than this combination that is needed to clean out the inside of the pipe. Remember to ream the bowl before you do the cleaning or you will need to repeat it as the carbon dust goes everywhere when you are reaming and you will find that it is in the airway in the bowl, shank and even the stem if you happen to leave it on while reaming. I learned that the hard way and would hope that you could learn from my errors.


In terms of sanding and polishing I have done both the bowl and the stem over the year so I will include them both as I walk through the tools with you. I know some use low grit papers for stripping finishes, shaping briar and stem material. Personally I use 220 grit sandpaper as I find that the scratches left behind by the paper are easier to deal with than the lower grits. It will pretty much do everything that I want it to do on both. I use it to shape the stem and work over repairs on the bowl. I use it to bevel the rim and to clean up damaged rims. I always keep a stock of that grit paper here. I also keep several other higher grit papers for polishing (400 and 600 grit) but since I started using micromesh sanding pads I rarely use the higher grit papers.

I also have three different sets of needle files in different lengths, shapes and thicknesses that I use in working on airways in the bowl, the rings on bulldog pipes, the button and slot on stems. In almost all the sets there are four different files that are my go to shapes – round, flat oval, oval and knife blade shaped. I find that these are all I need to do most of the work I do. I also have some flat larger files that make short work of smoothing out stem repairs or super glue and charcoal powder. I replace these files about every five years – I have a tool liquidator near the house that allows me to just purchase the style of file that I need.

I have started using sanding sticks in shaping the button, slot and funnel in the end of the tenon. I have also found that they are helpful when I am joining together two parts of a broken shank. They are quite long so I can sand inside the shank smoothing out the joint of the two parts. They are not expensive so I go through them quite quickly.

Finally I have several trays of micromesh sanding pads. I buy these in sets from 1500-12000 grit from Stewart MacDonald online( http://www.stewmac.com). I personally like the 2 inch x 2 inch pads as they are a good size for what I do with them. The following link shows the options (http://www.stewmac.com/Materials_and_Supplies/Sanding_and_Polishing/Buffing_and_Polishing/Micro-Mesh_Soft_Touch_Pads.html). They are easy to manipulate around the curves of pipes, the sharp edges of the rim and button and can be rolled or bent to work I the angles. Others use the micromesh sheets and cut them to size. I generally use the pads for wet sanding the briar and the stem material so I wash them with soap and water and reuse them for a long time. I rarely throw them away as even the pads that are worn smooth work to polish at times when nothing else works.


If the finish on the pipe is undamaged once the grime is removed I will often rub it down with a product called Before & After Restoration Balm. I find that it cleans, enlivens and protects the briar. I rub it into the finish with my finger tips and let it sit before buffing it with a soft cloth. Sometimes I will use this product before buffing with and polishes or adding waxes. It really does work.

For both the bowl and the stem to remove scratches in the surface left behind by sanding I used Red Tripoli on a buffing wheel and follow that by Blue Diamond. The Red Tripoli is quite coarse so if I have already polished the stem with micromesh sanding pads I skip the Tripoli. If a stem has some nasty spots of oxidation I buff them with Red Tripoli to work at them. But if the stem is polished pretty well I turn to Blue Diamond. Blue Diamond is a plastic polish and is pretty fine. It really makes a finish pop on the bowls and gives the surface of both the vulcanite and acrylic stems a rich shine.

Once the stem has the nice shine that I have come to expect with these buffing compounds I give the stem and bowl several coats of carnauba wax. (I use a soft wax called Conservator’s Wax or even Renaissance Wax for rusticated and sandblasted finishes as the carnauba can fill in the grooves and make the finishes a real mess – learned that from experience.) When I have finished waxing the bowl and the stem I buffed it with a clean buffing pad to polish the wax. Lots of folks leave out this step but it really does add a finished touch to the polished pipe.


For applying the polishes and wax there are several methods depending on what you are using. With soft polishes like Dunhill Stem polish or Savinelli Pipe Stem polish you can apply it with your fingers and buff it with a soft cloth. But for polishing compounds and carnauba wax you need some kind of wheel to apply the product. Many people use a 4 inch wheel on an arbor on their hand drill or lathe and it works very well. I have used a four inch wheel on a cordless drill with good success. You chuck it in your drill and either move the pipe around the buffing wheel or the buffing wheel around the pipe. I anchored my drill with a bench vise to keep it stationary and worked the pipe around the wheel. I find that gave me more flexibility. I run the drill at a fairly slow speed until I get used to the feel and then speed it up.

Others have used a Dremel and buffing wheels with great success. The key is to run it at a lower speed and don’t leave it in one place as it will definitely cause ripples and waves in the material. You need to change the pads for each product so there is no crossover. Use one pad for Tripoli, one for Blue Diamond or White Diamond and one pad for your waxes. Also use a clean pad to polish the final product.

For me however, the best method is my buffing wheel. I picked up two bench grinders from a local tool liquidator and removed the grinding wheels and covers and use 6 inch buffing wheels on both. This way I do not need to change wheels on it. I used to use a homemade buffer made from a furnace motor, an on/off switch and a three prong plug that I wired to the switch. It had an arbor and quick change system that I purchased called the Beall Buffing System. That worked really well.


I am adding two other tools that I have added that I really think have lightened my load and made my work simpler. The first of those is the PIMO Tenon Turning Tool which is available now from Vermont Freehand. It is adjustable and you can easily turn down tenons for most pipes. The limitations really are with regard to the tiny pipes and pencil shank pipes. Those I get as close as possible and finish with files and sandpaper. Before I purchased this tool I used to do the tenons by hand with files and sandpaper – it was labour intensive but it worked. Needless to say, that I rarely restemmed pipes with that method. I still have a box of bowls that need to be restemmed from that era. Perhaps one day I will get to them.

The second tool that I don’t know how I lived without is a heat gun. I used to use boiling water in the microwave or a cookie sheet in the oven to bend stems. With the water method I had to contend with oxidation afterwards. With the oven method the beauty was that I could do multiple stems at once. The only problem is that often I only need one stem and this seemed like over kill. Now with the heat gun I can bend stems on demand. I have also found that it works well to heat up metal tenons for removal and readjustment and for loosening stems that are stuck in the shank.


That is the content of the basic tool kit that you can start with to work on pipes. It is a basic list of tools that I use almost daily as I work on pipes. Remember I do this for a hobby so there are probably other tools that a shop or repair business uses that I have not listed. I don’t use them because I do not have the room. I do all of my repairs on my desk top one or two pipes at a time. The tools work for me. Hopefully that helps some of you as you think about our joint hobby. If it does so, great. If not, just ignore this post. As always these are just my own opinions and I am expressing what has worked for me. If you don’t agree that is ok with me. Until the next Answers to Questions blog keep your pipes clean and enjoy smoking your work! Cheers.