We're all irritated by the unsightly buildup of carbon on our pipe rims. It's basically the same thing that makes up the cake on the walls of our tobacco chambers. Carried by the smoke we so enjoy, it drifts over the rim and deposits a tarrey, hard discoloration. It's easy to recognize on smooth rims, but on dark sandblasted or rusticated rims, it can go unnoticed until we find ourselves with smooth rims whose texture has been filled in with gunk. When it reaches that stage, it will take some work to get it clean.
Everclear is my favorite solvent for cleaning pipes, but it's dangerous to use on rims, because many are colored with alcohol-based stains, and using alcohol on them will quickly strip the stain away, as I heart-wrenchingly learned for myself on a J.T. Cooke pipe years ago. Buffing can take it off, but with buffing we risk rounding and softening any texture, or rounding the edges of the rims of pipes whether smooth or textured. We need a non-aggressive cleaning solution for our rims.
Luckily, we carry one of the most efficient pipe maintenance tools with us all the time; we're never without it and most of us have a generous supply. It's saliva, and it's miraculous.
Moms have known this since the time kids started getting dirty; that is, always. When a child has dirt on their face of any sort, the reflexive reaction for moms is to lick a cloth or a finger and wipe that dirt away. White blood cells in saliva kill bacteria, and enzymes break down dirt of all kinds, so it's actually more effective than simple water.
Art conservators have used saliva for art restoration since the 18th century. It's been employed by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, for example, to clean many artifacts, such as a Henry Cross painting, Crow Indian beadwork, and a saddle owned by Buffalo Bill Cody.
The Cleveland Museum of Art also uses saliva, though for purposes of propriety, their conservators refer to it as "a mild enzymatic solution." Linnaea Saunders, a Kress Fellow in art conservation, restored the painting Oedipus at Colonus primarily with her own saliva. The painting was dull and grimy from exposure to years of cigarette smoke in the home of the collector who owned it previously, and saliva cleaned it beautifully, though slowly.
Oedipus at Colonus, Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust, 1788
Fine Art Conservation Laboratories, Inc., of Santa Barbara, Calif., has restored art and museum artifacts around the world, and recommends saliva for cleaning paintings and artwork for people doing their own restorations.
Art restoration experts have been removing the grime left by tobacco smoke from artifacts for longer than any of us have existed. They don't collect saliva and hose down an artifact with a high-pressure hose, however. Experts simply dab some spittle on cotton swabs and patiently clean, millimeter by millimeter.
Each of us produces about two bathtubs full of saliva per year. It's a lot if you were to accumulate a year's worth, but if your spouse already thinks your pipe collecting is out of hand, just think what they'll say if you start hoarding saliva. A little at a time will suffice.
Interestingly, without saliva, we could taste nothing. Compounds must be partially combined with saliva before our taste buds can recognize any flavors, including smoke. Saliva is about 99.5 percent water, which makes it great for extinguishing fires, but we can't produce the whole two bathtubs at once (wouldn't that be cool), so we're limited to small conflagrations. The other half percent is made of electrolytes, white blood cells, antimicrobial agents, and enzymes.
The Cleveland Museum of Art also uses saliva, though for purposes of propriety, their conservators refer to it as "a mild enzymatic solution."
The enzyme in saliva most useful as a cleaning agent is α-amylase. It primarily helps break down starches into sugars, but it's a great solvent for tobacco buildup as well. And it's simple to employ: just put a little saliva on the rim with a finger, cotton swab, pipe cleaner, or whatever is handy, and let it sit for a minute or so, then wipe it away and repeat as necessary.
It takes consistency, but it's easy to add to your routine. If your pipes are like mine, carbon builds most noticeably on the near side of the rim, probably because the pipe hangs at an angle with the smoke rising from the near side more often than elsewhere, and because the smoke hole is on that near side in traditionally engineered pipes.
At the end of a smoke, when you're running a final pipe cleaner through the stem and getting the pipe ready to return to its rack, place a drop of saliva on the rim, spread it over the darker area, and let it sit there for a moment, then wipe it with a clean cloth. Repeat as necessary. If done after most smokes, this method will keep your rims clean, though some darkening will inevitably take place on smooth rims due to the heat of lighting and combustion.
If you use a little saliva on your rims every three or four times you smoke a pipe, they will remain clean and you'll avoid buildup later that will take considerable effort to remove. Keep your pipes and your saliva close, and combine them for shiny rims and sparklingly attractive, spit-shined pipes.
- Salivating over history: Manitoba Museum gives artifacts the old spit shine
- Spit Cleaning: Conservation's Dirty Little Secret
- Little-known art-cleaning technique nothing to spit at
- Can I Clean My Oil Painting Myself?