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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Tagged in: Estate Pipes Materials Restoration Tips
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Kevin Marton is right about using mineral oil on pipe stems. I've used it for years and even rub a little into the exterior of the pipe. To help remove oxidation, I add a little extra fine pumice power to the oil.
Here are what i do with pipe stems:
1. For new pipes, before i smoke it for the first time, i will apply a coating of obsidian oil, let it sit for a while ( about 15 minutes ) then rub it off, only then i start smoking the pipe.
2. For estate pipes, i would apply a coating of obsidian oil and let it sit overnight, i would then rub it off the next day and start preparing the pipe for smoking.
3. For all my pipes on rotation, i would apply a coating of obsidian oil every time i finish using the pipe for the day during cleaning before storing them in the cupboard. Next time i want to use that pipe again, i just wipe off the oil coating before using.
These methods of mine have served me.
can obsidian oil also be used on the inside of the stem?
because i have a peterson p-lip and i see the pipe cleaners metal part, damages the inside. so would obsidian oil help?
That's a good question. Personally, I've never tried using obsidian oil to treat the inside of my stems. That being said, I imagine it would be really hard to get all of the oil off once you ran your pipe cleaner through. You might want to try the "fluffy" style of pipe cleaners if you're worried about damaging your bits. Compared to the bristled and regular pipe cleaners, they're much softer. As for cleaning, I usually just run a pipe cleaner through and leave it in for a while after each smoke. I'll occasionally dip a pipe cleaner in unflavored alcohol (not rubbing alcohol) and run it through as well. Hope that helps!
Wet sand the stem with 2000 grit automotive sand paper, follow up with some very mild abrasive such as a jewelry polish and then wax and buff the stem with a clean cloth. This will clean up a very oxidized stem. After cleaning it up keep it waxed and polished and it will remain jet black.
I have good results with my wife's flexible four-sided nail-care sticks, which she gets at CVS and Target -- there are seven different textures on them, from light abrasive to "buff" and "shine," and I've got matte yellow stems to fairly glossy black in maybe fifteen minutes.
-- Okay, maybe two or three sticks, and forty-five minutes.
I started smoking a pipe in the mid 90's and stopped in the mid aughts. If you check your sales records, you can see that I've just returned to the pipe with a burning vengeance! Now I'm going over my old pipes and I can salvage some, but there's some that are almost complete lost causes. Most I don't care about, but there are a few of my Elliott Nachtwalter pipes that are dear to me and their stems are complete messes. Also one of them was exposed to the light too much and part of the bowl has lightened. I see you've got a pipe restorer on staff. Could one send any pipes to him to be restored for a cost?
If the stems are just oxidized, then they can probably be returned to near original condition with some buffing. We do not presently offer restoration services here at SPC, but I'll get an e-mail sent your way with some recommendations.
The links to the pre-treating and buffing videos bring up the text portion of those posts but no video.
This brings up the issue that when desiring to read through prior articles and viewing videos, such as this "resources" section, I get only one page of the most recent posts. Is there an easy way to scroll through all the archived blog posts, videos, etc?
@Robert Terry Hey Robert, so those old estate videos got taken down. Essentially we just changed practices and thought it was a misrepresentation.
As for scrolling past page one, if you click the resources link at the top of the page it will take you to a page that can be navigated page-by-page via the arrows at the bottom right.
I got my first pipe over 68 yrs. ago ,I almost stop cause of cigars,but I got back to pipes about 7-8 yrs ago and how nice. Did not realize you folks were around. I'm so glad I found you.
@Stephen J Schulke And we're likewise glad you found us Stephen!
Very good ideas! Many thanks!
@Skip Cresci Our pleasure Skip!
Thanks for the pleasant memories.
I have heard of people using tooth paste and brushing the stem with a tooth brush. Then polishing the stem with a soft cloth. Has anyone ever done this? Any thoughts/precautions come to mind?
@Michael Musick I believe Steve Laug over at Reborn Pipes does it this way. https://rebornpipes.com/2012/06/02/removing-oxidization-on-vulcanite-stems-2/
Tooth pasteworks for me--the kind that is actually a mildly abrsive paste. Don't know about the gel kind. The softest grades of jeweler's rouge might also help.
I wipe bowl ad stem with olive oil with every. Cleaning which I do within 18 hours of smoking. Keeps things nice!
I sometimes hesitate to give out secrets, but I will make an exception with the pipe-smoking fraternity. For the final polish try 3M Plastic Polish #39010. I just rub it in with my thumb and buff with a micro-fiber towel. It makes my stems like black mirrors. It is designed for re-conditioning yellowed headlights. There is a previous step called plastic cleaner that is a little more aggressive. I don't recall the number of the cleaner. But, the plastic polish is amazing.
@David Rose.... That sounds very good David, about that 3M polish. When I get a chance I will give that a try on some old pipe stems that I have. If I am happy, then Onward to my Dunhills! Thanks for the info.
Mineral oil followed by bees wax. Has worked wonders on my stems and is non-toxic to boot. I'd be concerned about using some of the industrial chemicals listed above, especially on porous cast stems.
Thanks for a great article!
@David Rose @John Keller @Larry Leake We'd be quite hesitant to use that plastic polish as well, particularly on vulcanite (rubber) stems.
I found this article helpful. I have inherited a pipe collection from my grandfather and from what I have researched it contains many nice and well made pipes. Most have vulcanite stems that are in bad shape. There are a couple that I wish to return to smoking condition and the rest I would like to return to a "presentation" condition. I have picked up some great tips to try to salvage the ones I like but any secrets to bring back the others just for show?
MANY GOOD TIPS, I WILL TRY THEM
For those talking about buffing wheels, but don't have one, or don't like the idea of using something so severe: I've been smoking pipes for nearly half-a-century, and just a few years ago discovered a godsend. I reshape virtually every stem on the pipes I buy, and I also make my own pipes, and the best way to do this and to put a high shine on them is to use these new fingernail sanding sticks on the market. For those who don't know what these are, they're plastic sticks with a layer of foam covered with different grits of sandpaper. They come in very rough to high-gloss polish--that will put a mirror finish on your stems. If you buy the ones with three grits on one stick, that's all you'll need to clean your stem and put a finish on it as good as a buffing wheel. You can't do this every day, of course, but it's perfect for old stems or reshaping new ones. And, you can also sand and polish bare wood as bright as if it were covered with high-gloss paint. After finding these nail sticks, I'll never use a belt-sander or buffing wheel again. I explore you to try them--you'll never turn back!
I do not have a buffer but i recently discovered that my electric shoe polisher works amazing!! It has a left and a right buffer, one black for black shoes and one red for brown. I have never used it for shoes so i started last week using buffing compound on the black buffer and bees
/ Carnauba wax on the red. It has tremendous torque but very slow RPMs. Perfect for polishing pipes without a danger to stamping (or very little) as its designed not to hurt expensive Italian loafers....
The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser will clean it up in a hurry. Follow with Obsidian or mineral oil (I'll bet they are the same...)
I smoked pipes for many years and sadly, never knew ANY of this. Never too late. I need these mentioned supplies. Thanks.
I have developed a couple of products that were originally made for my vintage fountain pen business. Early fountain pens were also made of hard rubber and had the same issues as the hard rubber pipe stems. I make a deoxidizer that you can soak the stem in and it will remove all the oxidation as well as sanitize the stem. I also make a balm that can be used to remove minor oxidation and provide protection to the stems. The balm can also be used on the briar to clean and shine it.
Some good toothpaste on an old toothbrush is excellent to clean up an oxidised stem. Simply brush it until you see the original black coming through and then run water over it and brush again.
I've recently restored a freehand from the 70s. It was completely sunbleached except the bottom and the stem was badly oxidized. A scrubbed the stem with a magic eraser and running alcohol then coated it with butchers block conditioner and it worked great. It's a mix of carnauba wax, beeswax, and mineral oil
I use a light coating of silicone grease, let it soak in for a few minutes and then wipe lightly and gently with a soft cloth. The grease prevents the oxygen in the air from reaching the vulcanite. Works for me.
I used to soak my newest estate pipe stems in bleach for thirty minutes sometimes longer. It will come out dull and chalky looking, but cleans inside too. Then I hand polish them with Flitz Metal Polish. A little elbow grease, but works the best with end results ! I have a small buffer, speeds the work up. Just watch the stampings on the stem, do those areas by hand !
For badly oxidized stems you can use 800 grit wet/dry sand paper and head light haze remover. Wet sand the stem to remove the heavy brown oxidation until the water runs clear. Then use the haze remover and polish until you get the desired shine. Then thoroughly wash the stem and let dry. Once the stem is dry I generally use Max Wax which is a combination of beeswax and olive oil and a few other things and buff the stem with a soft cloth.
I soak in oxy clean and water for at least 12 hours. Wet sand with 600 grit sand paper. Move on to 1000 up to 12000, then apply obsidian oil liberally.
My dentist gives out lip-balm sticks made of beeswax, olive oil, coconut oil, and sunflower oil. I'm trying it out now on some oxidized stems.
Great community this, thanks for all the generous tips.
I am in the process of cleaning stems, laid overnight in an oxi clean stain remover (for clothing), they came out a dirty cream and then rubbed them down with a jik cream. I have Dunhill stem polish to finish up. But, now I know I can try toothpaste, olive oil etc.
Has anyone tried MicroMesh? It is available in small patches, over a broad range of grits, down to 15,000...very fine....: e.g., it can be used to touch up finishes on musical instruments. I have some late 1950's Estate pipes (but I have not died yet) which I am going to try to spruce up and add to the Swedish Cleaning. Getting rid of all sorts of unused items that the wife and kids would have no idea how to deal with when I am gone. Very useful site here. Thanks!
Any tips on "long term (years)" vulcanite stem storage? I have several dozen valuable vintage pipes that I do not smoke. I polish, obsidian oil, wrap in thick soft cloth, and store in a box, in a cool dark closet. Anything else?
@Brian Robertson I store my pipes the same way and haven't had any issues with oxidation during long-term storage. Honestly, it's air and sunlight that do the most damage to vulcanite stems and if you're storing your pipes in their socks and in a box, then you shouldn't notice much (if any) oxidation. I only keep my current rotation out on stands/in my briefcase, so they get a wipe and a touch of Obsidian oil before going back into the closet and that's it.
I use knock-off Magic Eraser sponges. They are just barely abrasive, and they take the oxidation right off.