The Perfect Pipe Rim Cleaning Solution

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.

Rattray's Bagpiper's Dream

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.


Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Tips


    • LC Kid on April 14, 2021
    • Simple, quick, effective, 100% reliable and dirty cheap...What else do you want?

    • Dan on April 15, 2021
    • Gross and funny. My first chemistry set that I received, when I was in grade school, had an experiment where you filled up a test tube with saliva and required that you drop a piece of cooked meat (chewed or not) into the saliva; the experiment was to illustrate how digestion starts in the mouth(you had to watch the tube for a couple of days). Well, this article got the wheels of invention turning in my head. People take mud baths, why not saliva baths? There could be spit recepticals on every corner, like a Redbox, to harvest the public's saliva. There are some breeds of dog that slobber excessively, like the boxer (another source). We could have it bottled and relabeled and sold on this site next to the obsidian oil. I'm still mulling over the "mild enzymatic solution" pressure washer idea. Lots of million dollar ideas in the air. A pleasure, Chuck.

    • Dan on April 15, 2021
    • Ooh! How about presoaked (mild enzymatic solution) Q-Tips, like Wetwipes? The ideas just keep hatching!

    • Dan on April 15, 2021
    • Not to make light of a medical condition, but some people do suffer from Dry Mouth (Xerostomia). Pipe smokers who have this condition could benefit from such a product like Presoaked (mild enzymatic solution) Q-Tips.

    • Jack Koonce on April 16, 2021
    • AMAZING!!!!!

    • Tampaholic on April 16, 2021
    • If i had the opportunity to do the pipe picture above for this piece, it would have be laying sideways in a puddle of drool with saliva dribbling out.

    • Tampaholic on April 16, 2021
    • *would have been

    • Smokebacca on April 18, 2021
    • Again, you have imparted a simple yet practical solution to an ever present conundrum with valuable research, insight, and humor.

    • Matt on April 18, 2021
    • excellent article as always, Chuck! Also: Dan I love these ideas, keep em coming :)Fwiw, you can buy powdered or liquid alpha amylase from brewer's supply houses. As Chuck mentioned re: starch conversion, it's sometimes used in mashing to help along a slow mash conversion or for distillers' mash bills to yield as much sugar as possible.Thanks for the pro tip!

    • Astrocomical on April 18, 2021
    • I have been using saliva to do just that for years not because I knew it before or was any smarter than anyone, it was because I was lazy. LOL!

    • Wayne on April 18, 2021
    • I’ve done this for years and I can attest that it does work very well. I simply wet a pipe cleaner and use it to lightly scrub the rim after a smoke.

    • Andrew on April 18, 2021
    • Well... I suppose it's better than some other bodily fluids I could think of.

    • SO on April 18, 2021
    • I use soft pipe cleaners and done. Eventually, I send pipes out for maintenance and they come back looking like new. The repairman does a great job, but after reading this article, it's don't ask, don't tell!

    • John on April 18, 2021
    • I bought my second pipe from a tobacco shop and an older experienced pipe smoker told me to condition the new pipe with spit. He said to spit in the bowl and work it around with my finger before putting in the tobacco. That was almost 50 years ago. Many things changed over the years but apparently spit remains constant.

    • Saurasri Sen on April 19, 2021
    • Informative and humourous. What an interesting read! I have been using saliva on smooth-rimed pipes to protect them from charring. From now on I will use saliva to shine them as well after smokes. Thanks Chuck!

    • W. Gallagher on April 20, 2021
    • OK, saliva is fine for keeping rims from charring, but once they have reached that condition, how to procede? That's what I was hoping to learn from your article.

    • Duck Tracey on April 20, 2021
    • @ W.Gallagher: I'm not a genius and don't claim to know everything, but I would imagine that the laws of nature are universal. Take a charred stick out of a campfire, can that stick be restored to it's former glory? The wood is charred and has been changed, there's no going back. I would guess sanding back to bare wood, stain, wax, and buff... something I would have a professional do. There are lots of forums out there and other resources for this subject. This article was about cleaning, not turning water to wine (charred wood to it's original state of matter).

    • Dan on April 20, 2021
    • @ Duck Tracey: if I could get my saliva fueled time machine up and runnin' then we could go back! Maybe give the world of pipe smokers a lesson on how not to pack your pipe bowl all the way to the top, to use a soft flame and not a torch lighter, and not to leave the flame in one spot for too long when lighting your pipe. These preventative measures could prevent premature rim charring. Maybe there's other ideas out there also on how to prevent charring. If I could only get that clunky thing going, maybe I do need that flux capacitor....

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