How to Restore a Vintage Pipe

Bringing a time-worn pipe back from the dead isn't difficult, but it does require some know-how and a few tools.

A well-smoked pipe has a bowl caked thick with years of tobacco smoked slowly, coolly. The rim of the bowl has given way to a layer of seared tobacco and char not easily scraped away. The stem through which you coax the smoke of your leaf gets yellowed and dull from oxidation, the plastic version of rust. And, through the entire air passage running from the bowl to bit, each nook and irregularity is stained with a mixture of water, smoke, and tobacco runoff. 

Should you buy a used (“estate”) pipe or even take one off your grandfather or father’s hands, there’s a chance you’ll encounter those various signs of wear. All that tobacco-laced grime is a testimony to years worth of service, ready to be washed away for a new start. 

Bringing back a pipe like this from the dead is mostly just a matter of having the right tools. A knack for the mechanical is not a pre-requisite – I’m no natural when it comes to fixing things. It helps to have a patient temperament, since there are identifying marks and nuances you don’t want to ruin out of haste (I consider myself a patient person and even I've sanded off a logo by accident). But, as you’ll learn, few mistakes are irreversible, which brings me a certain measure of security about this time-honored hobby. 

Cleaning the Stem

Like I said before, stems tend to get dull and yellow from oxidation. This grime is what stands between you and a gleaming stem. There’s also grime lurking inside your stem that you’ll need to clean, too. Here’s what you’ll need to restore it: 

  • OxyClean detergent

  • A mason jar or plastic container big enough to fit a pipe

  • Isopropyl rubbing alcohol

  • Pipe cleaners

  • 800-grit sandpaper

  • Micro Mesh sanding pads

  • A toothbrush

  • Vaseline

  • A small bowl of water

The Pre-Soak

The preferred method of prepping your oxidation for removal is to give your stem a bath in OxyClean. Its cleaning properties bring the oxidation to the surface and dissolve some of it. I like giving the stem of bath of at least 3 or 4 hours, but some recommend doing it overnight. 

Fill up your jar or container with enough water to submerge your stem. Dump in a 1/3 scoop of OxyClean and stir it around. Before you drop your stem in, make sure you put a dab of Vaseline on any logos you find. The detergent can dissolve the logo, which I’ve done twice. Then just drop your stem in the bath and let it sit. You’ll notice that the water turns a dingy yellow; that’s a good sign. 

The Scrub-and-Sand Stage

Take the stem out and set it on a stack of paper towels. Dip your toothbrush in the bath water and then give your stem a good scrub, making sure you don’t rub away the logo. Then wipe the stem dry and refresh your stack of paper towels. 

Dip your 800-grit sandpaper in your water and start sanding from the back of the stem (“bit/lip”) to the where it connects to your briar. You should notice the water turning a tannish yellow – the oxidation is lifting. Keep this process of wetting and sanding going until the oxidation residue is minimal. 

You’ll also want to pay attention to any “chatter”, little teeth marks around the bit. The 800 grit is great at smoothing these out. You can use side-to-side strokes to clean up the chatter, but make sure you finish it with a few front-to-back swipes to make a uniform sanding pattern. Be careful not to sand over the pipe’s logo; all it takes is a couple of swipes and whatever markings are there will disappear. You’ll need to do some solid detail work around that logo to get it looking good, which is something you’ll perfect with practice

When you feel like the stem is oxidation-free (or at least close to it), switch to the Micro Mesh pads. They come with a color-coded chart, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to follow the right progression of coarseness from 1,500 to 10,000. I usually spend about 1-2 minutes sanding down the stem with each level of pad. You can do it as long as you want, but I recommend keeping a minimum of at least a minute. You won’t see any shine until you move from 4,000-grit (teal) to 6,000-grit (purple). But once it shows up, it’ll be worth the wearied arm. By the time you’re done with the final pad (gray), your stem will have a beautiful shine.

From here, dip your pipe cleaners, one at a time, in the isopropyl alcohol and run them through the stem and shank until they come out clean. And since you're working with a pair of relatively strong cleaners here, make sure you give your stem a good rinse with clean water when you’re done. 

Cleaning the Strummel

The bowl of your pipe is where you put the tobacco, and the part that stretches away from the bowl and meets the stem is called the “shank.” These two parts make up the “stummel.” It's usually made from briar, a tough wood that can weather high temperatures without cracking, but you’ll find other woods like pear, too.

Pipemakers use a mix of stains and waxes to give the wood its color and shine. It’s important to point this out because you could ruin the stain and shine if you use your cleaners the wrong way. Here’s what you’ll need to restore it: 

  • Q-tips 

  • A magic eraser

  • A reamer

  • A drill-mounted buffing wheel (you can find them at most hardware stores)

  • White and red jeweler’s wax (usually comes with said buffing wheel)

Scrubbing the Rim

Dip your Magic Eraser in water and then scrub the rim of your pipe with medium to heavy pressure. You’ll start to see the char disappear off the rim. Your pipe probably has a slope from the rim to the bowl that’s also covered in char – hit that, too. Since your Magic Eraser has some cleaning agents in it, the shine on your briar tends to dull if you drip down the sides of your bowl. To get around this, I used some packing tape to wrap the bowl and protect it from any dripping. 

Once you’ve got the rim and slope clean, remove the tape and admire the job you’ve done. You’ll notice the rim of the pipe will be dulled. Not a problem; you’ll tackle that when you give the briar a once-over with your two types of wax. 

Reaming the Bowl

If you look beyond the rim into the bowl of the pipe, you’ll see some black char caked up. This is great for your own used pipe – it’s a sign you’ve broken in your piece. But with a vintage piece, you want to start from scratch. This is where the reamer comes into play. The reamer is what you’ll spin inside your bowl to scrape away the cake. I use a British-made Butner. You can buy an original on eBay or pick up a replica; originals can be had for about $10, while replicas are usually $2 or $3.

Place your reamer in the bowl and give it a series of good twists. You should hear a wince-inducing wooden squeal – that’s good noise. After a few twists, dump out the soot and inspect your work. In my experience, I twist until there’s a straight line running down from the rim to the point where the bowl curves in. 

Waxing the Briar

Once you’ve got a clean, well-reamed bowl, it’s time to wax. Do a quick inspection of the briar and use a wet paper towel to wipe off any grime. Attach a buffing wheel to your drill and adjust to the highest speed. Let the buffing wheel run across the wax for four or five seconds. Apply gentle pressure. The white polish is a little more coarse than the red stuff, which is why you use it first. 

I usually hold the drill flush against a tabletop while I give the briar a good polish. Apply gentle pressure, but don’t get too sinewy. If your pipe is coming out all cloudy white, there’s too much polish on your buffer. I run the wheel against a piece of scrap wood to get rid of excess when necessary. 

When you’ve given the briar a good run with the white polish, switch your wheel out, apply some red (“rouge”) and go through the same process. By the end of your buffing session, you should see a nice shine. 

If you get serious with pipe restoration, then at some point you’ll want to invest in a tabletop buffer. It’s more effective than a drill and you won’t burn out your batteries. I’ve found several on Amazon for around $60 or $70 that will do just fine. 

If you choose to take up the hobby, I applaud you. In a world where nearly every service you could ever need can be outsourced, refinishing pipes is a true craftsman’s trade that merges you with decades gone by. Just a few weeks ago, I worked on a pair of Kaywoodies from the '30s. Having history like that in your hands commands a unique kind of respect – a respect I’m sure you’ll encounter as you bring your pipes back from the dead.  

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