Andrew Wike
How to Care for Vulcanite Stems

We all love our vulcanite stems. They're soft and just downright comfortable. But as every vulcanite lover knows, they can be difficult to maintain. Exposure to natural light, heat, water, and even air can all cause your jet-black or cumberland stems to oxidize — resulting in an unpleasant greenish tinge created from sulfur rising to the surface. Don't worry though, there are some things you can do to help prevent your beloved stems from oxidizing.

1. Understand your vulcanite stem.

Not all vulcanite stems are made equally. Generally there are two types: those handcut from rolled out ebonite rods and those preformed from a cast of liquid. While they both can be very high quality mouthpieces, the liquid casts often oxidize much faster than those handcut from rods. The handcut stems are usually much denser because they are formed from ebonite that's compressed and then rolled and baked. The liquid casts often have tiny, microscopic bubbles that formed when the cast was poured. This just means you'll need to take more preventative action with the casts to ensure your stem stays shiny and clean.

2. Wipe off your stems after every smoke.

When we smoke, our stems not only are exposed to heat from the burning tobacco but also our saliva as well. Saliva is slightly acidic, which means it will act as a catalyst for the oxidation process. Without proper care, you'll find your jet-black stems turning greener and greener after every smoke. By simply wiping off your stems with a clean cloth like the Dunhill Pipe Wipe, the Peterson Polishing Cloth, or the Savinelli Magic Cloth and running a pipe cleaner through the channel, you can greatly reduce the chance of your stems turning green and oxidized.

3. Don't expose your stems to extended periods of heat and light.

Direct exposure to sunlight will turn your stems green faster than an overzealous speedboat captain with a personal vendetta. So if you're smoking outside, be sure to quickly wipe off your stem and put away your pipe when you finish. Also, try to avoid leaving your pipe on your car dash or other places where it will receive extra amounts of sunlight. On that note, be sure to store your pipe in a cool, dry place. If you use pipe racks, avoid positioning them near windows or other sources of natural light, as this can accelerate the oxidation process.

4. Plan a weekly or bi-weekly cleaning.

Even resting pipes that haven't been smoked in a while can oxidize. Sitting on your desk or hanging in your pipe rack, your stems are exposed to oxygen and other components in the air that can speed up oxidation. There are steps you can take to prevent your display pipe from becoming all green and tinged, however. Planning a weekly or bi-weekly cleaning will keep your stems shiny and comfortable. Simply take a clean cloth like the ones we've mentioned earlier and wipe off all of your stems. Finish it off by running a pipe cleaner through the channel, and you'll prevent any unwelcomed surprises of the sulfurous variety.

5. Use Obsidian Pipe Stem Oil regularly.

While wiping off and cleaning your pipes regularly will help stave off nasty oxidation, what do you do if your favorite stem already shows those tell-tale signs of turning green? Aside from whipping out the 'ol buffing wheel, there has to be a way of polishing those tinged stems back to their (near) original condition. Well, if you can catch it relatively early, Obsidian Oil can really be a life [stem] saver. It's a favorite around the shop here, and you can find a bottle on nearly everyone's desk. Follow the directions carefully, and it will lend your vulcanite and cumberland a nice, glossy shine. It also helps prevent further oxidation in the future, so be sure to apply it occasionally during your weekly cleaning sessions. Just to show you how effective it is, Chris, Shane, and I did a little experiment here in the shop. We took some dingy stems from our pipe science box, applied the Obsidian Oil and shot a before and after pic. Take a look and see for yourself!

Additional Resources

If your favorite pipe's stem is already far beyond preventative measures, it might be time to start thinking about a replacement stem. There are expert artisans who have devoted their art and life to crafting quality ones. Many pipe makers even offer replacements — ensuring that the craftsmanship and genuine artistry of your pipe remains. Here at SPC, we actually offer out-of-the-box Peterson System stems in our Accessories section.

If a replacement stem is just not for you, there are still a few ways of salvaging your beloved vulcanite. It's not easy and far more risky, but it can be done with a buffing wheel. Oxyclean and other abrasive pre-treatments can be useful before buffing. Gary B. Schrier has a great article about vulcanite up on the Seattle Pipe Club website. From history to home remedies, it's a comprehensive resource that might be useful. We've also got some estate restoration videos about pre-treating and buffing on our own blog that you might want to check out as well.

Vulcanite's considered one of the most comfortable stem materials out there. We all love our soft, clenchable bits, but they do require some extra care. By taking a little extra time out of your rotation and following these five simple steps, you can keep your vulcanite bold and shinny — the way it was meant to be.

Have any tips or tricks for caring for your vulcanite stems? Feel free to comment below and share your own stories and experiences. We'd love to hear your opinion!

Category:   Resources Tagged in:   Estate Pipes Materials Restoration Tips

Comments

    • Daniel Mendelow on August 9, 2014
    • Although not as effective as Obsidian Oil, I use a few of those cloths that you often find in hotels labeled as "shoe mitts" or shoe polishing cloths. I think they've got a little wax impregnated in them and do give the Vulcanite stems a nice protective luster after a smoke. Probably similar to a Dunhill or Peterson cloth, the only difference is that they're free!

    • Tim Suddath on August 9, 2014
    • Chap-stick and Carmex work really well as a preventative measure. As soon as I am done with my pipe, or as soon as I can (If I'm driving and finished a bowl) I insert a pipe cleaner and apply a little carmex with my finger tip. I let it stay on the stem until I remember to wipe it off, usually when I am placing the days pipes back on the rack at night. Though I have forgotten for weeks an left it on, it just wipes right off. It keeps the stem bright and shiny an at least for me, has worked wonderfully at keeping oxidation at bay.

    • Andrew W on August 11, 2014
    • We all seem to have our little tricks for keeping our briars and stems looking their best. Thanks Tim and Daniel for sharing yours! I'll make sure to give your suggestions a try and see how they work for me.

    • Tim Suddath on August 11, 2014
    • Andrew, I keep Obsidian on hand, but to be honest I haven't had the success that your pictures show. I've talked to others who have also had great success with the product. Could it be that I am applying it incorrectly? Should I use something more abrasive (Scotch-pad), At the moment I use a chamois type cloth, rub it in and let it sit for 30 and then wipe it off. I really try to avoid the buffing wheel as much as possible. One, it wears down the stem and plays heck with emblems (Large GBD collection), then secondly, the all too often slip of the hand and pipe projectile that costs me another repair.

    • Andrew W on August 12, 2014
    • Hey Tim, I would suggest using your finger or a pipe cleaner to apply the Obsidian. You want your stem to be more or less lathered in the stuff. Using a chemois cloth to apply it might not be giving you enough coverage. You could also try leaving it on for a little longer, and see how it fares for you. I wouldn't advise using a heavy abrasive like a scotch pad though as it's likely to scratch the soft vulcanite. Give it another try and let us know how it works! Of course, if you're still not receiving the results you want, you might have to visit the buffing wheel. I understand your hesitation, and you're right, it can wear down the stem, change its shape, and mess with logos. That being said, if you're careful or know someone who can do it, buffing can really can get rid of any stubborn oxidation. If you want, check out some of those videos I mentioned above to see how we do it here in our estates department.

    • Jim McCoy on August 14, 2014
    • I don't have a buffing wheel, but I've found that continued rubbing with Flitz metal polish cream on a rag will remove nearly any bad oxidation. It takes some elbow grease, but it works. Be sure to remove all the polish before smoking. To keep my vulcanite stems looking good, I've used Briar Pipe Wipe for years. Use it as directed, spraying a HandyWipe with it and allowing to dry before using it on the pipe. Rub the discolored areas of the bit after every smoke and it disappears, leaving it shiny. Wipe down the rest of the pipe also.

    • Andrew W on August 14, 2014
    • Thanks, Jim! A lot of people don't have access to a buffing wheel either, so I appreciate you sharing some of your own tips and tricks. I used to use Briar Pipe Wipe as well, but I've found it's hard to find nowadays.

    • Kevin Marton on December 20, 2014
    • Two words -- mineral oil . . . The stuff in your medicine cabinet. It's an anto-oxidant used on high carbon cutlery. Just put a wee dab on your fingertip and rubrubrub it into your vulcanite bit. Put it aside. Then rub a little more until absorbed, but no need to add more mineral oil. Then you can polish, if needed. Another tip -- put a half inch line of sun block lip protector around the bit of your mouthpiece. It won't entirely prevent problems in this crud-prone area, but it sure makes it easier to remove. It also works well as a polish on the rest of the mouthpiece after the mineral oil treatment. And the wax impregnated shoe polishing cloth does excellent double duty on your briars. Smoke on!

    • Tim S. on December 25, 2014
    • Just an update on the obsidian oil. I'm having great success with it now. I'm using more than before and letting it rest on the pipe overnight. The next day when I wipe it off the vulcanite is back to a deep black. Still needs a little buffing to shine, but it definitely brings the black back.

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