I receive nearly as many questions about cleaning pipes as I do about smoking them. New pipe smokers are anxious to try every new treatment, cleaning method, and tool they can get their hands on. Sometimes I wonder if they wait until their pipe gets dirty. What follows is the core of the best advice I can give on pipe maintenance.
The best way to clean a pipe is keep it clean. If you take steps to never allow it get foul you never need to un-foul it. I love simple concepts. The pipes I smoke the most need a really deep cleaning about once a month, and “deep” is a misnomer because what they need isn’t “deep” interior cleaning, its mostly external carbon buildup around the rim and cake in the bowl. (1)
I am nearly phobic about taking my pipes apart. Something about loose fittings frightens me. The reality here is that so long as you wait until the pipe returns to room temperature the mortise/tenon junction will remain snug for a lifetime of careful use. Reality isn’t for the eccentric or stubborn however, so I cling to my superstitions and continue to refrain from pulling my pipes apart except as part of their occasional deep cleaning.
After a month of never pulling it apart what do I find when I finally pull it apart? Am I splattered about the face and chest with tar and gunk? Am I greeted by foul odors? No on both counts. Sometimes there is a little ring of black pipe cleaner lint that’s been nestled in the mortise tenon gap (if there is one) or maybe even a touch of goo there. That’s about it.
Why so clean? Because I steam clean my pipes. How do I do that? I smoke them and frequently run a pipe cleaner through them while I smoke. I’m talking every couple minutes. Much of what’s produced by burning pipe tobacco is steam. This is where gurgling pipes come from. The steam condenses and turns to liquid.
My guess is that most pipe smokers keep puffing until there’s enough liquid to present an obvious problem such a gurgle or, even worse, a tasty mouthful of tobacco juice. Only then do they reach for the cleaner. If all goes really well, that never happens and they might run a cleaner after they’ve dumped the bowl. They may even wait until the weekly cleaning or later that day, or before the pipe appears in their rotation again.
The results of that routine are grossly negative. The steam transports most of the “goo particles” (technical term) into your mouth (as deliciously fragrant tobacco smoke) and then back out to the universe, but some of the concoction ends up along the interior lining of the pipe’s airway. When the steam contacts the interior surfaces of your pipe it turns to liquid. Now you have hot liquid infused with goo particles. Two things begin to happen: The liquid absorbs into the wood carrying some of the goo and vile stinkum (another technical term) with it and what’s left evaporates leaving goo behind to harden.
The clever pipe rotating cleaning ritualist sets the goo and stinkum-laden pipe down and must return days later with his alcohol, salt, cotton balls, brushes, sharp instruments, and retort to reverse this process.
I take the easy way out and use the steam to my advantage. By frequently running a pipe cleaner through my pipe while I am smoking – again, I’m talking every few minutes – I am removing all that crap before it has a chance to harden or soak into my briar. I enjoy a clean, dry smoke.
This is my golden rule of pipe cleaning: Everything that comes out on a pipe cleaner during the smoke never has to come out with a wire brush, alcohol or salt treatment, chisel, or with some sort of percolator contraption. (I don’t own one of those.) Adjust the frequency of your use of pipe cleaners accordingly.
Try this experiment: Fill a pipe, light it, have a couple puffs, and run a clean pipe cleaner through it. You are less than a minute into the smoke but look at the pipe cleaner. Still white as bleached linen? Feel the amount of moisture collected there with your fingers. Now smell your fingers. What you see, feel, and smell can no longer hurt your pipe.
Try another experiment: Take a clean piece of wood. Pour a little puddle of wood stain on one side, pour another similar sized puddle on the other side. Wipe the first side dry immediately. Set the piece of wood aside to “rest” a few hours or few days then come back and clean the residue from the second puddle. Which piece of the wood has more of the stain left behind?
This little regimen of mine is why I don’t have to rotate pipes. In fact, this is why I don’t want to rotate pipes! Not the way so many “experts” advise anyway.
Those of you who’ve followed my videos and blog and forum posts long enough will remember my experiment where I smoked the same pipe multiple times a day to disprove the silly notion that you must have a set of pipes to rotate through in order to avoid disaster.
Deep clean your pipes every week or every day if you like. Do as I do and there is no need. You too can be a pipe smoker instead of a pipe cleaner or pipe rotator or a pipe rester. You don’t need to refurbish your own pipes just maintain them.
Note 1: If I would use the old cotton t-shirt hanging at my smoking station after every smoke to wipe the pipe down I’d eliminate much of the problem with carbon buildup around the rim. I’m working on that.