Vulcanite vs Acrylic Pipe Stems: What's Right for You ?

Vulcanite vs. Acrylic Tobacco Pipe Stems

While pipe smokers are a friendly lot, pipe smoking as a whole inspires serious debate and discussion. Much of the contention can be attributed to the passion the hobby elicits as well as the sheer diversity of options available. The merits of various shapes, artisans, tobaccos, finishes, etc. are always considered and weighed, and comparison inevitably arises — big or small; sandblasted or smooth; bent or straight. The hobby's nuances are, of course, innumerable. However, in pipe smoking, there is one long-standing debate that elicits particularly fierce and lively conversation: vulcanite vs acrylic stems.

What is Vulcanite?

Peterson tobacco pipe with vulcanite pipe stem

Peterson: Deluxe Classic with a Vulcanite Stem

At its base form, vulcanite is a natural rubber that has been treated with heat and sulfur, making the rubber harder and more durable. The process of vulcanizing rubber was invented by Charles Goodyear, who was experimenting with how to increase the lifespan of rubber tube tires. In 1839, during one of his experiments, Goodyear accidentally dropped a mixture of rubber and sulfur into a hot pan, and he realized, as he increased the heat, that the rubber became harder and more durable. He eventually patented the process, which he called vulcanization, after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, metal working, and forges. Years later, Frank Seiberling founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and named it in honor of Charles and his invention.

What is Acrylic?

Ardor tobacco pipe with acrylic pipe stem

Ardor: Alveare Fantasy with an Acrylic Stem

Acrylic is a stiff, durable plastic that's resistant to erosion and scratches. While Acrylic is the broad term used to describe the material, it's also commonly referred to by specific patented brand names like Plexiglas, Perspex, and Lucite, the last of which is a Dupont invention. Acrylic rose to prominence in World War 2, as both Allied and Axis forces used the material in aircrafts, submarines, and gun turrets, finding that, when acrylic shattered, it was far less likely to injure nearby soldiers. After the war, the material became ubiquitous and is now used in everything from drums and dental prosthetics to aquariums and picture frames.

How can you tell the difference?

While we here at Smokingpipes list the stem material of each individual pipe along with its exact measurements, when shopping in person, it can be difficult to tell the difference between vulcanite and acrylic stems. If you ever find yourself in a pipe shop and are unsure what type of stem material you're looking at, there are a few ways to tell. Take a flashlight to the stem: if it's acrylic, it should easily pass the light, as the material is, as its base form, transparent. Vulcanite, being denser, does not pass light. If you're still having trouble, rub the bit of the mouthpiece against your pant leg or other soft fiber, create a bit of friction, then smell. If it's vulcanite, the material will smell faintly of sulfur, as the minor friction provides just enough heat for the original chemical treatment to be detected.

Vulcanite vs. Acrylic Tobacco Pipe Stems

Acrylic pipe stem - Light passes through

Durability

Oxidation is a chemical reaction that occurs when a substance loses one or more electrons, and it tends to occur concurrently with a process called Reduction, which is the gaining of electrons. That may sound complicated, but it's easily explained when considering iron. Metal alloys that contain iron, when exposed to oxidizing agents like water and oxygen, lose electrons, while the agents gain electrons. This shifting of electrons causes the iron material to corrode, and the rust it accumulates is the visual embodiment of the iron losing electrons and breaking down.

Vulcanite mouthpieces are notorious for oxidizing if not cared for properly. Oxidation occurs when the vulcanite is exposed to light, air, and the enzymes in our saliva. It causes discoloration and can alter the taste and smell of the stem itself. The sickly green-yellow color that vulcanite accrues when it begins to oxidize is like the rust that forms on iron — it's a sign that the material is starting to corrode. While modern vulcanite handles the oxidation process more gracefully, it's still a concern for many, and older pipes that haven't been properly stored or maintained show significant wear. This issue is easily mitigated by wiping our vulcanite stems down regularly, utilizing Obsidian Oil, and keeping them properly stored, preferably in a pipe bag or other container that reduces air and light exposure.

Acrylic, on the other hand, doesn't oxidize, and it's generally the favored stem material for pipe smokers who want to keep pipe-maintenance to a minimum. Likewise, acrylic-stemmed pipes can be openly displayed, whether on a pipe shelf or pipe stand, without fear of oxidation, so they're prefered by many smokers who like to display their collections in potentially oxidation-rich environments.

Neither stem material should be exposed to excessive heat, as high temperatures can unbend a stem or alter its intended shape. Stems begin straight and are bent under heat, and when reheated, they tend to return to their original condition This is particularly true of vulcanite stems, but it can occur with acrylic ones as well, though it requires more heat.

Vulcanite Stem Oxidation

Vulcanite Stem Oxidation

Comfort and the Type of Pipe

It's important to consider how we smoke our pipes when deciding what stem material best suits us. For clenchers, vulcanite may be preferred, as it's generally considered softer on the teeth. Acrylic, on the other hand, is firmer and has a glass-like consistency, and it's typically preferred by those who don't want to leave teeth marks on their lip buttons, which happens more frequently with vulcanite mouthpieces. It should be noted that not all acrylic or vulcanite mouthpieces are made in the same way or are of similar quality. J.T. Cooke, for instance, hand-pours his acrylic stems from a formula of his own creation, and those stems are considered somewhat softer, but by and large, vulcanite is regarded as the easier material on the teeth.

The lifestyle you plan to subject your pipe to also plays a role in deciding on stem material. Looking for a take-anywhere workhorse smoker? Then acrylic may be the way to go, as its durable nature is more suited to rugged, everyday use. Do you want a pipe that's exclusively for smoking in a favored armchair? Vulcanite may be ideal, as it's comfortable and the lip buttons can be shaped thinner, allowing for an easier draw.

Variety

Ashton tobacco pipe with brindle vulcanite pipe stem

Ashton: Brindle with a brindled vulcanite stem

Acrylic is viewed as the more visually vibrant stem material, as it's produced in a vast array of colors. Pipes produced by Ardor and Nording, for example, are often paired to flashy, multi-hued mouthpieces, their stem's flamboyant character in keeping with those respective workshops' shaping styles. Vulcanite, on the other hand, is considered to be the more reserved stem material, as it's frequently produced in a simple jet-black color, but it would be inaccurate to paint vulcanite with such a broad brush. Scottie Piersel and Manduela Riger-Kush are two artisan pipe makers who pair their designs to strikingly colored vulcanite mouthpieces, and one doesn't have to look further than English marque's like Dunhill and Ashton to find traditional workshops that craft their vulcanite stems with an evocative flair.

While it would be inaccurate to say that vulcanite is produced in as many colors as acrylic, there are certainly compelling color options available, so the choice is not a matter of color alone.

Wrap-Up

Inevitably, the choice in stems is a personal preference depending on what one expects from their pipe. Do you want something durable? Colorful? Do you prefer thick or slender lip buttons? How much maintenance do you want to put into your pipe? Are you interested in artisan pipes, or factory-produced pieces? All of these questions are part of deciding which stem material best suits your individual needs and provides the best smoking experience, and even if you've already decided on your prefered type of stem, it's never a bad idea to keep experimenting and trying something different — you never know what may be discovered.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Pipe Basics Pipe Culture Pipe Science

Comments

    • Arnaldo O on July 16, 2022
    • Personally I prefer acrylic, but to each their own. Excellent article Davin.

    • Joe Thornton on July 17, 2022
    • really enjoyed your article. I never knew that about the founder of Goodyear. I now prefer acrylic since I bite through the vulcanite eventually.

    • Blake R. on July 17, 2022
    • I have at least 30 older Dunhill pipes with the vulcanite stems (1923 - forward). Once they are polished out to perfection, they can be maintained with obsidian oil. Sometimes, I just leave carnuaba wax on the end while I smoke to keep saliva away. I prefer the acrylic stems on my Castello pipes. Easier to clean, and less maintenance. I've seen the colorful stems, but I do not own any. To me they detract from the pipe. I guess I am old-fashioned. When I run out of obsidian oil, I use olive oil. Seems to work alright.

    • matt alley on July 17, 2022
    • I knew about Charles Goodyear and the invention of the vulcanization process but I always thought he was the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Well, I thought that because my dad, a veteran engineer at Goodyear Aerospace in Akron, always told me that. Yet another trusted piece of Dad-wisdom proven to be faulty. Right alongside his “run it up to 90 or a hundred to blow out the carbs” and “Bill at work turned down a raise last month because it would have put him in a higher tax bracket and lowered his take-home pay.” I tried explaining the marginal income tax system to him years later when I was an adult but I don’t think he ever really believed that if you were right at the top of your tax bracket a raise would actually cost you money.As for stems… he smoked whatever came on drugstore pipes in the sixties and seventies, presumably vulcanite. I on the other hand, irrationally like to buy swirly colorful stemmed pipes (mostly Italians) but almost always smoke either black vulcanite stems or subdued Cumberland-type.

    • CM Harrington on July 17, 2022
    • Team vulcanite here. I find acrylic stems to be teeth-shatteringly uncomfortable. It's true though, unless I am very conscious about tooth pressure, I will eventually bite through the stem. That can often be ameliorated through a rubber bit either after you've already bitten through, or prophylactically (which I do for my more expensive pipes). I do have several acrylics, but I tend to smoke them far less often with my propensity as a clencher.

    • Ed Fulginiti on July 17, 2022
    • 100% vulcanite for me. Don't like acrylic at all.

    • Allen on July 17, 2022
    • I enjoyed this article. And I enjoy vulcanized- it seems friendlier to the mouth.

    • Kevin Ruyle on July 17, 2022
    • Vulcanite definitely is my choice. Much more comfortable on my teeth however, my Rossi's with their acrylic stems don't stop me from smoking them any less. Great article.

    • Jed on July 17, 2022
    • A useful and welcome article. I had gathered much of this from my own experience, but it’s nice to have some confirmation and further detail.

    • Very Like a Hobbit Except For Their Hairy Feet on July 17, 2022
    • Thanks for this article, Davin! Great stuff!I prefer acrylic, because it doesn't oxidize, but I have several vintage pipes with vulcanite. I use rubber pipe bits on both kinds, because I'm a clencher, so even my acrylic bits are comfortable enough and the buttons don't get tooth marks.

    • Lee Brown on July 28, 2022
    • As the one and only member of The Vulcanite Pipe Smokers of America Club you can easily guess which type of pipe stem I prefer. I do own a number of pipes with acrylic stems, but I’m drawn to vulcanite stems. A number of years ago I bit through one of my oldest and favorite pipes for the umpteenth time. I decided to have it replaced this time around with an acrylic stem. BIG MISTAKE. The pipe doesn’t feel the same. It just feels wrong. I just can’t get used to it. The balance is off. In fairness, I would think if a person had their favorite acrylic stem pipe replaced with a vulcanite stem, they would feel a weird difference also.P.S. I totally agree with Blake R. and the distraction of colorful stems.

    • Leo Carling on August 5, 2022
    • I agree that vulcanite is best (as are manual transmissions in cars & trucks). Unfortunately, there are few choices as most pipe makers appear to be going the acrylic route.

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