Obsidian Oil: The Solution to Stem Oxidation

Obsidian Pipe Stem Oil

Oxidation is a scourge on pipe smokers everywhere, at least those who gravitate to vulcanite stems. Acrylic stems don't oxidize, but many appreciate vulcanite's comparative softness in the teeth. Modern vulcanite is superior to that used decades ago, with less sulfur content, which is the primary cause of oxidation, but its oxidation properties must be monitored to maintain the pristine sheen that we all prefer. Oxidation is promoted by air and light, as well as the enzymes in our saliva, environmental factors that are impossible to avoid.

Even the best vulcanite will oxidize if not cared for. Continual buffing will eventually round the lip button and wear down the stem, so it's best not to let oxidation take hold in the first place.

Oxidation is relentless; once it has taken residence in a stem, it's more likely to return, and some vulcanite will oxidize all the way through to its center because of tiny bubbles of air throughout the material and its high sulfur content — if you were to cut a badly oxidized stem in half, you'd likely find that unattractive green/yellow color throughout, and to add to our general discontent, with a lingering odor of sulfur as well.

Nobody likes smoking a pipe with a stem tarnished to bilious green or yellow. The surface is rough, the flavor is unfortunate, the appearance is disappointing, and the odor is disconcerting. Oxidation solutions have included buffing wheels, which are not tools common in every garage, and some intrepid experimenters have employed steel wool, Oxiclean, Magic Eraser, or a standard pencil eraser. But once a pipe reaches the stage requiring action, prepare for regular revisiting to spruce up those stems and a lot of hand rubbing with a microfiber cloth to reduce the surface scratches that arise with the heroic efforts to remove tarnish and the uneven surfaces caused by oxidation itself.

... once a pipe reaches the stage requiring action, prepare for regular revisiting

The very best way to thwart oxidation is to banish it from the beginning. With simple maintenance, every pipe in anyone's collection can present its finest self at all times, and perhaps the best tool for that is a product that receives much less interest than it deserves: Obsidian Oil.

Pristine Stems are the Goal

I recently had a nice conversation with Rick Newcombe. We've known each other for a long time and Rick knows his stuff: He's a Doctor of Pipes and was among the most instrumental elements in bringing awareness of Danish pipe making into the U.S. He wrote numerous articles for various pipe publications, visited pipe makers in Denmark frequently, became friends with all of them (he's a charming guy), displayed his fabulous collection of Danish artisan pipes at the L.A. pipe show, and tirelessly promoted the work of Danish artisans. He knew that these pipes were among the best in the world; it was a time before most North American carvers and other artisans around the world caught up to many of the techniques employed in Denmark. The current elevated craftsmanship in high-quality pipes is in many ways attributable to Rick's involvement in the hobby.

He recommended that we here at the Daily Reader provide an article about Obsidian Oil. "When you are starting with shiny black vulcanite," asked Rick rhetorically, "how can you keep it that way, other than hiding your pipes in a drawer? I bought some Obsidian Oil and could not believe how well it works! I bought more and am slowly putting it on each one of the hundreds of pipes in my collection." He'd been speaking with a group of fellow pipe enthusiasts who praised the product. "Was the inventor a scientist? How did he discover this? Twenty years ago we all used olive oil, until we discovered it does not wear well over time. As Jim Cooke famously said, 'The only place for olive oil is on your salad.' I truly believe that Obsidian Oil is one of the most useful discoveries for pipe collectors ever made."

"I truly believe that Obsidian Oil is one of the most useful discoveries for pipe collectors ever made"

The History and Origins of Obsidian Oil

The man behind Obsidian Oil is Illinois resident John Hauser. He started smoking a pipe in the late '70s when he was 17 years old, mainly influenced by his uncle, who was more like a grandfather to him. He liked it and by the time he turned 18 and could purchase his own tobacco, he was already a seasoned pipe smoker.

"At the time," says John, "we had what was at the time the world's biggest shopping mall here in Illinois: Woodfield Mall, and they had a Tinder Box and another tobacconist called Sir Timothy, which I walked into one day. They were fairly busy, overwhelmed, really. I had read whatever I could get my hands on in terms of pipes and tobacco, and I was looking through their tobaccos when another gentleman who had come in was wondering what he should try. Since the clerks were busy, I started helping him and educating him on tobaccos. It turns out that the owner was there and he overheard, and ended up giving me a job. He actually had three stores and I would go between them."

John found himself in an almost identical situation when he visited Up Down Cigar in Chicago, owned and operated by the late Diana Gits. "I walked in one night and Diana, the owner, who was just a wonderful lady, happened to be in the store. I didn't know she was the owner; at that time I didn't know her at all." John was looking over the pipe tobacco selections, located near the Meerschaum pipes display, and he found himself standing next to a gentleman who was shopping for a Meerschaum. "I started telling him about Meerschaum pipes and how they're made and the different types of tobaccos and which ones he might want to try, not knowing that Diana was standing behind me the whole time."

Diana said, "Hey, you need to come work for me." John said that he was already working for a technology firm. "I can't," said John. "I have a career." Diana said, "Work here at night. I'll make it worth your while." John couldn't resist that proposal and he started working for Up Down, where Diana kept her word about making it worthwhile, providing at cost any pipes that John wanted. "I worked there, on and off, for about 15 years. Whenever life allowed me, I would go in and work. Diana was one of those wonderful people who, when she liked you, was very generous and treated you really well."

He had a wonderful time working there, which explains his long tenure. "On Saturdays, or at night, we had four guys working there, and we just had a ball. It was like playing with our favorite toys and then selling them as well. That got me really started in the industry. I ended up going to a couple of trade shows with Diana and eventually to the Chicago pipe show."

"It was like playing with our favorite toys and then selling them as well"

As he progressed and a few years passed, John became frustrated with one of the most irritating aspects of pipe smoking: stem oxidation. He started thinking about it. "I was surprised there wasn't anything on the market that addressed it," says John. "I started researching the different properties of ebonite and vulcanite. I was reading the pipe boards and looking for input from users and manufacturers. I didn't really find much, so I started experimenting with different oils and ingredients. My priorities were that it had to be food grade, safe, and effective. I worked on a number of iterations with my own pipes, then I had one of those eureka moments where it all came together with a blend that just really worked."

Vulcanite Stem Oxidation

Vulcanite Stem Oxidation

He started talking with Kevin Godbee of Pipesmagazine.com and sent him samples, then with Kevin's help sent samples to several members of the forum. "The feedback was overwhelmingly positive." A few months later, John attended the Cleveland pipe show where he ran into Susan Salinas, the Purchasing Manager at that time for Smokingpipes. "I gave her some samples and my card, but I didn't hear back from her. Then I bumped into her at the next Chicago show. She said 'I've been looking for you and I lost your information! This stuff is fantastic; the guys in our restoration department love it. We want to carry it.'"

Smokingpipes was the first retailer to carry Obsidian Oil. "What launched the business was the encouragement from Kevin, who graciously promoted it on Pipesmagazine.com, and the folks at Smokingpipes for taking the risk and being my first customer. Obsidian Pipe Stem Oil wouldn't exist without them. I'm so grateful to both and am grateful that this industry has such wonderful people who help one another." Because of the enthusiasm he received, John was motivated to keep his new business going. "I hadn't really seen a business opportunity, and if the feedback hadn't been so positive, it would've faded away. But now I've been in this business for about 11 years.

"... if the feedback hadn't been so positive, it would've faded away"

What are the Ingredients in Obsidian Oil?

"When I was looking at the components for Obsidian Oil, my priorities were that it had to be food grade, safe, and effective for use on rubber." Vulcanite is a particular kind of rubber; it's called vulcanite because the rubber undergoes the process of vulcanization to harden it by applying heat and adding sulfur.

"I don't discuss the ingredients, but specifically, Obsidian Oil is designed to work with ebonite and vulcanite, and it has some organic sunscreen. It also helps that anytime you apply oil to ebonite, it looks better." That effect may be because the oil fills the microscopic pits in the material so that it appears more smooth, but also because it in effect reduces the surface area, which decreases oxidation. "I think the difference between this and olive oil is that it's not going to go rancid, it's not going to damage it or impart a funny taste."

Does Obsidian Oil Remove Oxidation?

Obsidian Oil can remove a little superficial oxidation, but that is not its purpose and it's meant for stems that are already clean and polished. Any stem will look better with the oil but for that deep shiny black or cumberland that we all appreciate, true results arise when oxidation has already been removed. For cleaning a stem beforehand, I recommend micromesh pads of reverse-graduating abrasiveness. Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes has produced an impressive short video that demonstrates the procedure:

How to Maintain your Vulcanite Stems with Obsidian Oil

"You're really much better off starting with either a brand new pipe or a pipe that you've just polished the mouthpiece on. Apply just a drop or two. I use my finger." We have a video here on the Daily Reader that demonstrates the application process. It can also be applied with a pipe cleaner, paper towel, or clean cloth. Let the compound sit on the stem for 30 minutes or so, then buff it with another cloth. Microfiber cloths seem to work a little better than, say, a cotton tee-shirt. "What it's doing is sealing the pores on the pipe stem. And then the next time I pick up that pipe, I smoke it as normal, and then just repeat that process whenever I get done smoking."

"What it's doing is sealing the pores on the pipe stem"

In my own experience, reapplication is unnecessary after every smoke. I find that every third smoke or so is adequate for maintaining like-new luster, but we all have slightly different saliva enzymes and different smoking environments, and your mileage may vary. So little actual oil is used for each application that the bottles last for months or even years. "I've got a bottle that's been sitting in my desk for a few years," says John. "It goes a very long way, and the feedback I get is that it's nice to have a product specifically designed for the pipe industry. I've actually never gotten an email that said this doesn't work, or one submitting a complaint. I've received only positive comments."

Vulcanite Stem Oxidation

Top: Stem after Obsidian Oil - Bottom: Stem before Obsidian Oil

A Product Built for the Community

John is among the people in this hobby who may not be craftsmen, but find an avenue for participation with whatever skills they possess on a larger scale than smoking. The pipe smoking community is friendly, fun, and for many, irresistible.

"One of the great things about this hobby," says John, "is that people are always willing to help others. I can't tell you the number of times that I've seen, on boards, where somebody will say, 'I lost a pipe and I can't pick one up,' and people are just jumping all over themselves to help them get back into the hobby and sending them tobacco. It's a wonderful thing."

The sense of community that John describes starts as a shared interest and grows from there, becoming more than the sum of its parts. "If I had to quit smoking tomorrow," says John, "I would still keep all of my pipes. They are beautiful things in and of themselves and I love having them around me. If I have to go someplace where I know I can't smoke, I still take a pipe with me, even if it just means keeping it in my hand, because it reminds me of wonderful times in the past. Then I'll smoke it when I get home."

Rick Newcombe is correct: Obsidian Oil is among the most relevant products available to pipe smokers. We've all experienced the disappointment of stem oxidation, and John Hauser's invention is a simple, easy-to-use expedient for escaping that discontent, offering protection from the light and air that cause the problem. Sparklingly bedazzling stems are not only possible with a little preventative care and maintenance but can be expected even on pipes that have experienced decades of hard use. We often acquire pipes because of their beauty, and with Obsidian Oil we can maintain that invigorating honeymoon phase with our pipes for their entire careers.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Pipe Basics Pipe Culture Rick Newcombe Tips


    • Douglas F on May 27, 2022
    • I bought some Obsidian Oil earlier this year, and so far so good. I really try to buy acrylic stems, but exceptions for me are most Peterson pipes and the Savinelli Roma series. So far, I've used it only as a preventative treatment; I haven't had to bring anything back. It's one of those things like pipe sweetener that's nice to have around to get the most out of the hobby.

    • Alcyon on May 29, 2022
    • Obsidian oil does indeed work. What works equally as well, at a vastly reduced price per ounce is what Obsidian likely is: mineral oil, minus the supposed UV protection. A few years ago, as an experiment, I treated sections of vulcanite with carnuba, mineral oil, Obsidian, and nothing. After having been in a south window for about four months, the untreated and carnuba sections were as expected: oxidised. The other two had no difference discernable by either me or two others.Your money, your choice...

    • Johnny Chapman on May 29, 2022
    • Where can the Obsidian Oil be purchased and what would be the cost of the product ??

    • Paul Dunn on May 30, 2022
    • What is the best way to maintain acrylic stems ?

    • Paul Dunn on May 30, 2022
    • What is the best way to maintain acrylic stems ?

    • Rick Newcombe on May 30, 2022
    • I can't resist replying to Alcyon's comments. I just checked, and smokingpipes sells Obsidian Oil for $9.40, which will last most pipe smokers a very long time. Don't forget, over the years, millions of vulcanite stems became oxidized, and it was only when John Hauser experimented and made his invention that a lasting solution was found. I suggested this story to Chuck Stanion because I sincerely believe that John -- who I don't know -- should be recognized and rewarded for making this remarkable discovery. Paper matches will light your pipe, but I prefer stick matches, even if they cost a few pennies more. I love saving money, but not that way.

    • Cheapo on June 14, 2022
    • Save yourself loads of money and buy a huge bottle of food grade mineral oil from Walmart for two bucks

    • Blake on September 6, 2022
    • I like the obsidian oil. When I run out, I have used olive oil, and mineral oil. Sometimes I leave it on and wipe it down when I am packing the pipe. Some stems I leave wax on above the button, and smoke it like that. That crease in the button is where I see oxidation or discoloration. I do use my dremel and assorted rouges of varying colors. Haven't had to wet sand yet. I did vehicles, restoration, and body work alot. I use a foam pad system on pipe bowls and stems on the finishing phase. Yellow Carnuaba or Renaissance wax seals pretty well. Teliaoils is another moist olive oil, beeswax you can work on exterior wood on the finishing phase. It gives a good shine, not too wet, more shine and dry look. I keep my pipes in a room where no (zero) daylight can penetrate. Those are my experiments.

    • Kal on February 12, 2023
    • Yeah sure, you could use mineral oil or other substitute oils to save you money if thats what you wanna do. By all means. However, I think its important to at least recognize that John Hauser has given us folks not only a solution, but a greater sense of hope of preservation of the enjoyment of our beloved hobby that connects us all in this community. And to me, that $10 is worth every penny for what this man has brought to us. There is less valuable things in the world I'm certain we've all blew $10 on. Cheers to appreciation, and a new hope!

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