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!