Extreme measures: how to clean a pipe.

On ASP I was once dubbed the "Felix Unger" of pipe-cleaning maniacs. I consider this to be a mark of personal pride. For one thing, a pristinely clean pipe, properly broken in, smokes like a dream. And I have resurrected many a friend's pipe -- a briar they were convinced had completely and permanently soured -- by simply cleaning it. But there is "clean," and then there is CLEAN.

I learned how to "deep clean" a pipe while working at a pipe shop "back in the day." It was a long time ago, and I have used the methods on dozens of pipes since, and it works.

The basic approach involves:
  1. bristle pipe cleaners
  2. Q-tips
  3. a solvent of some sort
  4. lots of patience
In the past, I have used brandy, vodka, "Everclear" (ethyl alcohol), white rum, and other similar solutions. I avoid anything sold as a "pipe sweetening" solution; those will tend to leave behind a flavor and are very overpriced. What you want is a solvent that cleans, and then disappears, leaving behind nothing. Brandy leaves behind a faint flavor, but it is a pleasant (and "pipe-friendly") one, and it smokes out in one or two bowls in any case. Consumable alcohol in general is not quite strong enough to really do the trick, unless you spend the considerable money to buy "Everclear" (which does admittedly work very, very well.)

In recent years I settled upon using 91% isopropyl alcohol, because it is fairly inexpensive, and cleans very effectively. You need to be reasonably careful with this stuff; it is VERY flammable, and will dry out your skin something fierce, although I have never had any trouble with it myself. While isopropyl alcohol is toxic and should never be ingested at any strength, it evaporates completely and leaves no residue, odor or flavor behind. In other words, there are no toxic effects in a pipe cleaned with isopropyl after drying. And, using any kind of alcohol has the benefit of removing water from a pipe VERY effectively. (It does the same thing to the human body, by the way, which is one of the causes of a hangover.)

Note: concentrated alcohol will dry out your skin. This is a not a problem unless you are cleaning a whole pile of pipes in a short time, in which case, your fingertips can get pretty crunchy. In such cases, consider using protection of some sort, perhaps rubber gloves or a pair of small pliers to hold the pipe cleaners and Q-tips.

The method is simple. Take the pipe apart, and start scrubbing. Use bristle pipe cleaners -- with isopropyl -- on the inside of the stem until they come out clean. Use bristle pipe cleaners on the smoke hole until they come out clean. Use Q-tips inside the shank on the tenon hole... all together now ... "until they come out clean." It may well take several dozen bristle cleaners, several dozen Q-tips, and upwards of two hours. You may need to do it in several sessions. You may also put isopropyl-soaked Q-tips or pipe cleaners into the pipe and let them sit for a while to loosen the crud up. Be patient. It's worth it. Sit in front of the TV while doing this and catch up on those X-Files episodes you missed. Watch football. Watch re-runs of "Car 54." Do whatever you want, but just DON'T SMOKE while you do this: remember, 91%  alcohol is VERY FLAMMABLE.

Note: the tenon hole is one of the most important places to clean on a pipe. Years of neglect will form hardened deposits there that can take a fair bit of effort to remove.

Once you have gotten it really clean, then let it dry overnight, and smoke it. You'll find that the steam and heat from the smoking will open up all of the pores, and it can -- in some cases -- release another batch of formerly-embedded crud, and you'll have to deep-clean it AGAIN. In this second session, your first bristle pipe cleaners (with Isopropyl, of course) and Q-tips (ditto) will come out just as black and filthy as they did when you first started, but they will start coming out clean MUCH faster this second time. This phenomenon seems to be most prevalent in pipes with the most absorbent briar, so it actually speaks well for the pipe when this happens. And of course, once you have gotten the pipe clean, and keep it that way, this issue never comes up again.

See Steam Cleaning (below) if you'd like to skip this step.

Repeat as needed.

To keep my pipes smoking cool, sweet, dry, clean and flavorful, I clean them with Isopropyl every single time I am done with the bowl. OK, so that may be a bit into "Felix Unger" territory, but my pipes -- every single one of them -- smoke beautifully, every single time. Yes, it can tend to expose any hidden oxidation on your stems, but you can learn good technique to keep the Isopropyl off of the OUTSIDE of the stem. And besides, exposure to ultraviolet light is the main cause of oxidation (you DO keep your pipes stored in the dark, don't you? You should.)

Steam Cleaning

Some people swear by steam cleaning. It does not, however, clean a pipe all by itself. It does do a very good job of opening the pores of the wood and loosening the tar and crud, making it easier to remove, but you still need to proceed after steaming with bristle pipe cleaners, Isopropyl alcohol and elbow grease.

It most certainly falls under the category of "Extreme Measures." My own view is that it isn't really needed, if thorough cleaning with Isopropyl and bristle pipe cleaners is used, on consecutive bowls. However, as mentioned above, a formerly disgusting pipe can, even after a complete cleaning, still release a significant amount of crud during the first bowl or two, and need thorough cleaning again, because the heat and steam of the tobacco released said crud. So instead of smoking it, with limited enjoyment, and then re-cleaning, you could simply steam it, and save yourself a wasted bowl or two of tobacco, and the potential experience of an unpleasant smoke.

However, there are some caveats. The steam will cause the shank to swell somewhat, and may make for a very tight-fitting stem, even after the pipe has dried out. If there are hairline cracks anywhere in the pipe, the steam will cause them to open up and be more obvious, although they will tend to shrink again after the pipe dries. Also, in general, a dry pipe is a happy pipe, and the introduction of large amounts of steam may help clean the pipe quickly, but you will have to wait for several days for the briar to dry out before it will smoke well again. So all in all, on my own pipes, I would much rather do a deep-cleaning with Isopropyl on two consecutive bowls of tobacco and get the same results without the hazards.

All that is needed is a source of steam and a way to introduce it into the pipe. Some people make all sorts of complex contraptions but the only piece of "specialized equipment" I have ever needed was a champagne cork.

Take a champagne cork -- the cork kind, not the plastic kind -- and boil it in a sauce pan for a minute or so. This will make it swell up to its full, original size. Let it cool and dry overnight. Then, drill a hole down the middle lengthwise. Now, machine a tapered cone on each end (I do this by chucking it into a cordless drill and spinning it against a disc sander. It makes a perfectly smooth, even cone and the job is done fast.) Stick one end into the spout of your tea kettle.

Pull the stem from the pipe; steam cleaning a stem isn't beneficial, and the heat can cause a bent stem to straighten. Also, the heavy moisture load from the steam can cause the shank to swell and the stem to stick so firmly that you may have to wait for a month before you can pull it out again. When you have some gentle steam going, hold the bowl of the pipe onto the exposed tapered end of the cork (shank pointing down) so the steam travels through the bowl and out the shank. I just hold the bowl in place by hand, until it gets hot to the touch. Then I go back to cleaning with Isopropyl and bristle cleaners, and it can be amazing how much new crud appears. I've done this cycle several times in a row with seriously-befouled pipes, until they are clean -- and they really do get completely clean this way. 

The full-immersion method

Every once in a while, however, one runs across a pipe so dirty that normal methods -- even MY methods -- of cleaning are an exercise in frustration. In my experience, "estate pipes" purchased from second hand stores and eBay are the reliable culprits.  Some of them were so foul and disgustingly crudded-up that long and hard work with pipe cleaners and q-tips hardly made a dent. So here's the "make it or break it" method for pipes that you were almost ready to throw out anyway.

I stay with isopropyl alcohol, in the 91% strength. (It was formerly possible to buy 99% strength, but regulatory paranoia over illicit usage of that strength has made it impossible to find these days. 91% still works just fine, although it doesn't dry the wood quite as thoroughly.)

First, pull the stem. (If it is so tight it doesn't want to come loose, you can use any one of several famous tricks to get it out, including leaving it in the freezer for a while.) Clean the stem out with bristle pipe cleaners and alcohol, until they come out white.

Clean out the smoke hole into the briar bowl using drill bits. Start small and work them up one size at a time until you have the bit that fits the original smoke hole perfectly. Turning it by hand will do just fine, although a rubber band around the drill bit shank will give you a better grip. You will get the smoke hole back to bare wood without actually removing any more briar, as it doesn't do anything but cut off the surface crud -- unless you use a drill bit size that is bigger than the original hole.

Note: many pipe smokers feel that a fairly large smoke hole provides a better "draw" in the pipe, and they will uniformly drill ALL of their pipes out to a larger hole. Opinions vary on the ideal size, and range from 1/8" (3.1mm) on the low end, up to 11/64" (4.3mm) which is considered to be the maximum. 5/32" (3.9mm) is very popular. I personally like a 9/64" (3.5mm) smoke hole. It seems to give a very smooth draw without transmitting much ash at the end of the bowl.

I used to advocate using the drill-bit method for the tenon hole as well, but it very easy to over-do it, and then your stem will no longer fit. My current method is to "fluff" the end of the Q-tip, dip it in Isopropyl, let it sit in the pipe and soak for a while to loosen the crud, and then scrub a couple of times, and then proceed.

Now that you are back to clean, bare wood on the inside of the pipe, ream the bowl if the cake is too thick. Then, find a jelly glass that barely holds the pipe bowl, drop it in, and cover it with the isopropyl alcohol, yes, the whole darn thing. Put the lid on and leave it for a few days to a week or so -- longer is better. You could wait months if you wanted to: don't fret, it's just fine in there. The pipe bowl will not explode. The alcohol will turn brown.  You may wish to change the alcohol once or twice.

After a week or so, pour out the alcohol. Wipe off the pipe bowl with a paper towel. The surface will dry off in seconds. Even after all that soaking, you may still get some more tars out of the shank and smoke hole with pipe cleaners and q-tips at this point, so go to it, and work at it until they come out white.

You pipe bowl will now be clean. Really clean. And there will be virtually no water in it, since the alcohol will have pulled all of it out of the wood, along with most of the old tars and odd artificial flavors from brands of tobacco that you personally can't stand, and all the old sourness in the bowl will be gone.

There will be no finish on it at all, but a drop of almond or walnut oil, rubbed in with the fingers and then wiped off with a paper towel, makes for a marvelous, satin smooth, deep, beautiful finish. Or you can, if you have access to buffing wheels, do a Carnauba wax shine. Let the bowl dry for a couple of days, put a touch of beeswax on the tenon if you need to (it may be a tad loose since the wood is completely dry now and the walls will have shrunk) and refit the stem. Take a look at your pipe now; it will be smooth, beautiful, palpably lighter in weight, sweet smelling, and clean. The first time you light it up will be a revelation.

As mentioned above, there may still be some tars embedded in the wood of the shank and bowl, so be sure to clean thoroughly again after your first few smokes, since the steam and heat of smoking will open the pores and often release the last of the crud.

I have even used this method on a no-name Italian rusticated pipe with a bright orange, thick, shiny varnish of some appalling sort. The isopropyl alcohol didn't dissolve the varnish, but it loosened its bonds with the wood, so that scrubbing by hand with a stiff wire brush flaked it all off in minutes, leaving completely bare rusticated wood with a nice satin finish. A drop or two of almond oil scrubbed into the surface with an old tooth brush gave beautiful results. It is now much lighter in weight, a joy to touch and hold, much prettier, and it smokes orders of magnitude better that before in its befouled state.

Drastic measures, yes. But I have not yet had a single pipe crack, act up, weird out, or fall apart as a result. The pipes I raised myself from pups have never, and will never need this treatment; I keep them clean. But for estate pipes that try our patience and our tongues, it can be worth a try.

Peterson Pipes and excess stain:

I happen to be a big fan of Peterson pipes, and excess stain can cause a problem in their pipes, tasting bitter for weeks sometimes until it is all "smoked out."  This is because Peterson -- in the lower end of their production pipes -- dips their pipes in the stain. It does come out eventually, but it's annoying. A Peterson System Standard can have this problem. A Peterson System Deluxe or Supreme will not.

Personally, I will spend a fair bit of time on a new Peterson, cleaning the stain out of the shank and smoke hole with q-tips, pipe cleaners and the aforementioned 91% isopropyl alcohol, keeping at it until the cleaners and q-tips no longer come out stained. This does the trick for me, and it helps a great deal with the initial bitterness.

However, a pipe shop owner I knew once picked out a Peterson pipe for himself that was an unusually dark shade of red, far more so than normal, even for a "Pete." The best guess was that, at the factory, the pipe dropped out of the wire basket into the stain tank and languished there for a week or two.

After several days of deep red pipe cleaners and horribly bitter taste, he got so frustrated that he pulled out the stem and dropped the pipe in a sauce pan of water and boiled it. He figured it would either fix it or ruin it, and at that point he didn't much care which.

(By the way, raw blocks of briar are first cured by boiling -- for days -- and then slow-drying. Since the briar already survived that before it was made into a pipe, it's unlikely to be destroyed by doing it again.)

The water turned wine red. He changed it and boiled again, and got more wine red water. Four or five water changes and a couple of hours later, the water was finally staying fairly clear. I seem to recall he made sure to let it dry slowly, wrapping it in a damp cloth and putting it in a cigar box for a couple of weeks. He figured it would be a cracked mess, but it came out just fine. It only needed a quick buffing and it was ready to smoke.

He said it was wonderful. It became one of his best all-time pipes. The additional boiling seemed to work real magic on that pipe. Now, that's a REALLY extreme method and I wouldn't try it unless I had lost all patience with the pipe and didn't much care if it was trashed. But it sure worked for him.

This of course gets beyond pipe "Cleaning" and into the realm of pipe "Curing." And that's a fascinating area all by itself. I recommend you read some of Trever Talbert's postings, since he has some extensive experience on the subject, and unlike many pipe makers, he is willing to share that experience.

Instant Cake

There are a number of various formulas on the web for making an "instant cake" on the inside of a pipe, a helpful thing for a brand new pipe or an older pipe that has been over-reamed, or had the cake shatter and fall out (which is very common.) It can also be a real lifesaver for a pipe that is starting to develop a burn out.

I use a plain charcoal briquette, ground very fine (and passed through a tea strainer) and mixed with a 50/50 blend of raw egg white and honey. Mix it very thick, just goopy enough to be spreadable with the finger tip. It dries overnight into a hard, thin, durable cake. It will "patch" a burnout spot beautifully. It helps ease the pain of the initial break-in of a new pipe by quite a large amount.

The honey is an old trick for breaking in new pipes. The additional carbon just gives it a jump-start. I arrived at egg white as a bonding and hardening agent when I realized that honey and charcoal alone was too fragile, and never adequately hardened (or even dried, for that matter.) The egg white makes it dry into a hard coating.

During the first smoke, there is a faint "toasted marshmallow" aroma, quite pleasant, actually.

Another very successful method of making "instant cake" uses Sodium Silicate, also known as "Liquid Glass" (and by that I mean the chemical, NOT the so-named car polish.) It is mixed with finely-ground charcoal into a thick paste and applied by hand into the bowl. This solution has the advantage of drying even harder than the honey/egg white formula. The Sodium Silicate formula is also completely tasteless, and it forms a semi-fireproof barrier in the bowl. If your pipe is suffering a significant burnout, this is probably a better patch material than the honey-egg version.