All of us have bought the occasional estate pipe, either from Ebay, an antique shop, or that creepy guy named Wallace that lives down the street (the guy that your mother always warned you about, remember?) that has a stem so nasty and brown and smelly that you wouldn’t even let your dog use it as a chew toy. I have read a lot of comments and concerns on the Pipes Magazine forums about how to get a pipe stem nice and shiny, and I particularly hear a lot of concerns from people who don’t have a buffing wheel of buffing compounds. I have restored som 20 odd estate pipes in my career as a smoker, and not a one of them has seen a buffing wheel, and all of them look pretty darned good, in my opinion. I am now going to highlight for you how to get your pipe stems nice and shiny, sharp and black, and we are going to do it all with things that can be found (with one small exception) at your local supermarket. The pipe stem that we are going to restore is the stem on the Wellington that you see in the opening of this article. You can’t really tell from the photo, but this stem is in the worst shape that a stem can be, but with a little care and elbow grease, we are going to make it nice and shiny again. Let’s get to work, shall we?
The first thing that we are going to do is soak the stem in a solution of Oxyclean and water. The Oxyclean soak will not only help to remove the bad oxidation, but will help to clean the inside of the stem and draw the deep oxidation to the surface so that we can scrub it out later. Normally, I like to soak my stems in a Ziploc food storage container that looks like this:
But since this Wellington stem is near churchwarden in length, we will have to soak it in this style of tub:
What you want to do is set the stem in the tub and put in enough warm, not hot, water to just cover the stem, then put in the desired amount of Oxyclean. This is going to vary depending on how much water you put in and how bad the stem is. This stem is pretty nasty, and we are using quite a bit of water, so I am going to throw in a good two scoops(I use the scoop that comes in the Oxyclean bucket. It’s about the size of a coffee scoop). After you have the solution set up, you are going to want to let the stem soak for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, again, depending on how bad the stem is. This one is pretty bad, so we’re going to shoot for an hour.
After that hour is up, take the stem out of the solution, dump the solution, and rinse the stem off really well. You’ll want to get the gummy material on the outside of the stem off and rinse out all the Oxyclean out of the inside of the stem. Now that we have that done, it’s time for some good ol’ fashion elbow grease.
Next up, you’ll want to take a Magic Eraser pad (the name brand or the off brand both work equally well), saturate it with water, then squeeze out all the extra water, and get to scrubbing. If your stem is really bad, like this one is, this process is going to take quite a bit of time and energy, so stick with it and be patient.
Keep in mind that the Magic Eraser will only go so far, but that’s OK. Get as much of the oxidation out as you can, then give the stem another quick rinse. You may notice there is still some oxidation near the bottom end of the stem, where it actually meets the pipe, and there may be that stubborn little bit of oxidation up near the little corner in the mouthpiece. That is perfectly normal. This is where our Micro Mesh Sanding Pads come in.
Start with the Micro Mesh grit 1500 pad, the lowest grit there is. Micro Mesh works best when you wet sand it because the oxidation that you are scrubbing off can clog up the pores on the sandpaper. What I like to do is just give the pad a good rinse, give them stem a good rinse, and start scrubbing. Every so often, look at your sanding pad. You will notice brown crud building up on the pad. When you start to notice this, give the pad another rinse, and the stem another rinse, and keep going. Keep scrubbing with the 1500 grit and dry the stem every so often to check your progress. When the stem is fully dry and you can see no more brown crud, I like to go up to the 8000 grit sandpaper to begin polishing (there are some guys out there who like to work through all 9 grits of Micro Mesh. If you feel up to it, by all means, go for it. I find that the 1500 grit works to knock out stubborn oxidation, while the rest of the pads don’t work as well for either oxidation removal or polishing. With most things, your mileage may vary on this one). Give the stem a good scrub with the 8000 grit Micro Mesh to build up a good base shine, wet sanding as you did with the 1500 grit. After this is done, move on up to the 12000 grit to finish polishing. If you have done this right, by the time you are done with the 12000 grit, the stem should be nice and shiny and smooth and glossy, the way a pipe stem should be. We only have one more step to our stem, and that is cleaning the interior.
Get yourself some alcohol (the drinkable kind, not the rubbing kind). Anything 80 proof or over will do. I typically use Bacardi Rum on my pipes since it is clear, so I can see how much dirt I am removing from my pipe, and also the fact that it imparts a pleasant taste and smell to the pipe. Take a pipe cleaner, either bristled or non-bristled, dip the very end of it into the alcohol, and run it through the pipe stem. If the cleaner comes out dark brown or black, repeat this process with a dry pipe cleaner, and then run another alcohol dipped pipe cleaner through the stem, and again, follow it with a dry one. Repeat this process until the pipe cleaner comes out clear when both dipped in alcohol and run through dry. Give the stem a quick rinse, and run some cleaners through the stem to absorb any excess water from the rinse. This final step is optional, but I like to do it with all my estate pipes. I take some Obsidian Pipe Stem Oil treat my stems with it. I just follow the directions on the bottle: Rub on a thin layer, wait 30 minutes, then buff it out with a soft cloth. This will help prevent further oxidation and imparts a pleasant taste to your stem as well. Below are some pictures that highlight the transformation of our pipe stem.
A good smear with your Obsidian Oil every once in a while will help keep the oxidation from coming back. The Micro Mesh sandpaper is the only thing listed in this article that you can’t find at your local supermarket, and if you live anywhere near a good wood working shop, you can likely find the kit that includes all nine grades of Micro Mesh. If you can’t find Micro Mesh locally, you can always order it online for a minimal price, plus shipping. So the next time you receive a pipe with a dirty, oxidized stem, just remember that some simple tools and some elbow grease will go a long way to get your stems looking nice and shiny.