Tips Before Cleaning Your Pipe
Firstly, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the various parts of a tobacco pipe. We’ll be referring to each of these by name and it may be confusing. Therefore, use the illustration above as a convenient reference!
As a general rule, it’s worth understanding your pipe and how it works. This doesn’t just make it easier to clean but it also improves your experiences as a whole.
Separate Your Pipe Only When Cold
Before you pull out that bundle of pipe cleaners from your desk drawer, let’s covers the basics beforehand. In this section of the guide, we’ll offer a few tips as well as some important advice before you continue.
Most importantly, never remove separate the pipe’s stem from the shank when the pipe is still warm. At worst, doing so may crack the shank’s wood. However, it generally loosens the tenon as it has been removed when expanded.
Therefore, always clean your pipe when it’s cool. Not only should you do this for the reasons listed above, but a warm pipe will have absorbed extra moisture, which makes the task somewhat messier. As such, it’s easier once it is dry too.
Prepare Yourself For A Dirty Job
Furthermore, you’ll find yourself sometimes tapping the bowl empty. Never knock the bowl against a hard surface as you may damage it. Instead, use a purpose-made cork knocker or tap it against the palm of your hand.
When cleaning, make sure that you have a large surface area to work as the tools and pipes can quickly get crowded. As cleaning a pipe can release tar and unpleasant smells, consider covering that surface with paper towels too.
Finally, keep a dustbin or trash can nearby when cleaning your pipe. The dirty pipe cleaners, Q-tips and paper towels tend to stink, which easily spreads onto anything that they touch. Consequently, being able to immediately throw them away will save you a lot of grief!
Necessary Tools For Cleaning Your Pipe
Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at the tools and products that you’ll likely need before cleaning. While you may not need all of them every time, we highly recommend properly equipping yourself for future use.
Use the links above to jump ahead and read about the different accessories for pipe cleaning. At the end of this guide, we also offer our recommendations of the best tools to buy online.
How Q-Tips Are Useful For Pipe Cleaning
While probably not the kindest disposable product to the environment, Q-tips are invaluable for pipe cleaning. Thanks to their thicker and more absorbant cotton buds, they can easily scrub and reach places pipe cleaners can’t.
Cleaning Pipes With Paper Towels Or Cloths
While a cloth may be the most ecological choice, cleaning pipes can be a dirty business. If you prefer to use a cloth, prepare for stains that won’t come out. Furthermore, it’ll need to be washed regularly and if you machine wash, be sure it’s separate from anything else.
Meanwhile, paper towels are great for lining the surface your work on. They’ll absorb any stray liquids and can be used for some scrubbing too.
What Alcohol To Use When Cleaning Pipes
Your choice of alcohol really comes down to personal preferences. Rye, corn or even rubbing alcohol are all fine and will do the job perfectly.
However, some people prefer to use liquor for cleaning their pipes. Not only will it considerably less harsh on the wood if you spill any onto the finish, but it may also impart a sweet pleasant flavour onto the pipe for future enjoyment.
Anything including rum, brandy or whisky are great choices. However, if you prefer not to impart your pipe with any potential flavour, vodka is an ideal neutral choice.
As mentioned above, it’s personal preference. However, we do have an affinity for using Diplomatico Reserva rum as it tends to impart a pleasant vanilla note.
Consider using a shot glass for your alcohol solution when cleaning a pipe. This will give you just the right amount and avoid necessary waste or spillage.
Different Types Of Pipe Cleaners
Yes, indeed! Pipe cleaner’s aren’t just for making stick men and your kids’ school projects!
As the name suggests, pipe cleaners are the fundamental basis for maintaining your pipe. There are two different types of pipe cleaners that can be used together or separately depending on how deep you want to clean.
Soft pipe cleaners are the most common type and are fine for daily use. Meanwhile, hard bristled pipe cleaners are great for scrubbing out stubborn dirt and dottle.
Alternatively, some people prefer to use nylon scrapers instead of hard bristled pipe cleaners. These are similar to the metal cleaners used for firearm maintenance albeit much thinner with hard nylon bristles. As they’re wider, they are sometimes more efficient and quickly removing dirt.
There are lots of different brands of pipe cleaners on the market and some tobacconists will give you some for free. Nevertheless, our favourite brand is Zen as you’ll see at the end of this guide.
Using Your Pipe Tool For Cleaning
Pipe tools aren’t only indispensable for smoking your pipe on a daily basis but they’re very useful for cleaning too. Most pipe tools come with spoon-like attachments as well as a spear for poking, which can be used when cleaning.
If you don’t already have a pipe tool, we suggest that you invest in one immediately! Check out our recommendations of the best pipe tools in our tobacco packing guide.
What Is A Pipe Reamer?
If there’s a more optional device for pipe cleaning, the reamer is one that you may use every few months. Some pipe smokers have actually never used one at all. Nevertheless, we find them to be particularly handy and inexpensive tools for ensuring that the level of cake in your pipe is just right.
Cake is an affectionate term used for the deposite of charred tobacco that line’s a pipe’s bowl. Consisting primarily of sugars, it provides a sweet flavour and insulates the pipe from direct heat.
However, that layer of cake can sometimes get too thick, which can create a sour or bitter taste. When that happens, the layer needs reducing or removing, which is easily achieved with a reamer.
You can learn how to do this below when we explore reaming. We also recommend a reamer at the end of this guide.
How To Clean Pipe After Smoking [Daily Care]
In this section of our maintenance guide, we’ll talk about the most basic steps for cleaning a tobacco pipe on a daily basis. As long as you don’t separate the shank from the stem, this can be even done while the pipe is still slightly warm.
This only takes a few minutes and consists of thee easy steps:
- Daily Rim Cleaning
- Basic Shank & Stem Cleaning
- Daily Pipe Bowl Cleaning
Use the links to jump ahead or scroll down to keep reading. If you want to give your pipe a more thorough clean, you can jump straight to the weekly routine process.
On a side note, if you’re a regular smoker and only have one, we suggest investing in a second pipe and alternating between the two. This allows the pipes to rest and to reduce their moisture levels.
1. Cleaning The Rim
Once the pipe has cooled, you can use your saliva on the tip of a finger to rub any excess tar off the rim. This will keep it clean and reduce the need for deeper cleans in the future.
If you don’t fancy your finger getting dirty, you can always wrap it in a cloth, handkerchief or paper towel.
2. Cleaning The Shank & Stem
For the most rudimentary daily clean after smoking, run a pipe cleaner through the stem from the bit until it hits the draught hole. Before pulling it out again, push the pipe cleaner back and forth.
You can simply use a soft pipe cleaner for this. However, you may want to to a first pass with a bristled one after a number of bowls.
Don’t hesitate to blow through the pipe to remove any particles that may have clogged up the pipe.
3. Cleaning The Bowl
Simply use a dull blade or the spoon attachment of the pipe tool to remove any loose particles. Rather than scrape the interior, simply brush it lightly then dump any removed char into an ashtray.
How To Clean A Pipe On A Routine Basis [Weekly]
Even if you keep your pipe properly maintained, it’s worth having a weekly routine to prevent the build-up of any stubborn residue. Unlike the basic clean, this should be done only when the pipe is cold.
The process involves four steps, we each build up from your daily maintenance:
- Rim Routine Cleaning
- Shank Routine Cleaning
- Stem Routine Cleaning
- Bowl Routine Cleaning
Again, you can use the links above to jump ahead. If the pipe requires much heavier duty cleansing, then jump down to our deep cleaning guide.
1. Cleaning The Rim
For a more intense clean, rub the rim using a Q-tip soaked with saliva or water. This should remove most tar stains and reveal the wood beneath it. If not, head to the section below and follow the deep cleaning process.
2. Cleaning The Shank
With the pipe disassembled, begin by scrubbing the mortise and shank interior with a Q-tip soaked in alcohol. You can then follow up with a dry soft pipe cleaner to remove any leftover alcohol and dirt.
You may want to fill the bowl with a paper towel to prevent any excess alcohol running out and onto the rim, which may damage the finish.
Remember to never separate a pipe when it’s still warm as this may damage the shank or stem!
3. Cleaning The Stem
Run an alcohol-soaked bristled pipe cleaner through the stem from one end and out of the other. Going all the way through prevents any muck from being left behind.
The direction you go is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer to go from the bit and out of the tenon to avoid a build-up near the lip. Meanwhile, others find it easier to go in from the tenon.
You can also repeat this with a dry, soft pipe cleaner to remove any residue and dry the stem’s interior.
4. Cleaning The Bowl
After a few days of use, it’s worth giving the bowl a good clean to remove any excess residue.
After lightly loosening any particles as described in the daily process above, fold a pipe clean in half and soak it in some alcohol.
On this occasion, we recommend using a liquor rather than rubbing alcohol. As mentioned above, it will be less harsh on the pipe and may impart some pleasant flavour for future bowls.
Simply rub the interior of the bowl with the pipe cleaner until it is completely black. You can repeat if necessary or use a Q-tip for deeper cleansing. If you do use strong alcohol, take care not to touch the rim of the bowl as you may damage the wood’s finish.
If you’re happy with the cake’s thickness inside, you only need to follow this process. However, if you think that it’s beginning to become too thick or you’re experiencing any bitterness or sourness, we suggest reaming it as described in the deep-cleaning process below.
How To Deep Clean A Pipe Every Month [Monthly Care]
If your pipe is properly maintained and you respect the processes detailed above, then you may not have to do this every month. However, it’s worth making sure that you give your pipe a real cleanse every now and then if you’re a regularly smoker.
A much more intense process, it builds up from the routines listed above with a few more steps. While the last two techniques are optional, they’re very handy to know:
- Rim Deep Cleaning
- Shank Deep Cleaning
- Stem Deep Cleaning
- How To Ream A Pipe
- How To Soak A Pipe With Salt
As with our previous guides, you can use the above links to jump ahead if necessary.
1. Cleaning The Rim
On this occasion, we wouldn’t recommend strong rubbing alcohol for cleaning. As the rim is made from the finished wood, rubbing or grain alcohol could damage it.
Instead, we would recommend a liquor such as brandy or dark rum to for rubbing the rim. As mentioned above, it will be less likely to cause any damage and may impart some pleasant flavour onto your pipe.
If you have a particularly thick layer of char that has developed over years of neglect, you might want to lightly scrape the rim with a dull blade. However, take great care to only scrape lightly so not to damage the finish.
2. Cleaning The Shank
Begin with a shank brush or bristled pipe cleaner soaked in alcohol to thoroughly scrape the interior. Once you’re satisfied, you can then use a soaked Q-tip and dry pipe cleaner as outlined in the routine cleaning process above.
If you’re concerned about alcohol dripping out of the bowl and onto your finish, we recommend stuffing it with a dry paper towel. This should soak up any excess liquid.
3. Cleaning The Stem
Start by scraping the interior of the tenon with the metal shank brush that has been soaked again in alcohol. Once satisfied, run a soaked bristled pipe cleaner through the stem as described in the routine process.
Older pipe stems made from vulcanite are known to oxidise, which makes the stems turn green. With a little elbow grease, vulcanite pipe stems can be made black again.
To do this, you will need to soak the stems in hot water mixed with a large amount of Oxi Clean powder. If your stem has any brand markings, you may want to coat these sections in vaseline to prevent them coming off. Leaving the pipe stems to soak overnight may remove any traces of oxidisation if you’re lucky.
If not, we recommend using generous amounts of bleach cream and rubbing the stems until they turn black again. While this may take around 30 minutes to yield results, it’s worth persisting and it works quite well.
Unfortunately, your stems will likely lose their shine during this process and become somewhat rough. If you have a buffing wheel, you can return the pipe stems to their natural shine. Otherwise, intense rubbing with bleach cream will eventually improve the finish.
Afterwards, we recommend a light coating of vaseline or olive oil to protect the stems from future oxidisation.
4. Reaming The Bowl
If the interior of your pipe’s bowl has developed an excessive layer of cake, you may want to ream it. Otherwise, the pipe may lose its cherished sweetness from the sugars and instead create bitter or sour flavours.
Traditionally, this was simply achieved by using a dull pocket knife or pipe knife.
However, we recommend using a pipe reamer instead as described above. A convenient and easy tool to use, reamers automatically adjust their width according to the bowl’s size.
If you don’t yet have a reamer of your own, we recommend a few options in the buying list below.
Simply insert the reamer into the bowl and twist while pressing gently. Make sure that you don’t apply too much pressure as the objective is to remove excess cake. Furthermore, pressing too hard may damage the interior.
Twist a few revolutions clockwise and then more in the other direction. Once done, dump the residue from the pipe into an ashtray and repeat if necessary.
After you have reamed the bowl and tapped any loose particles out, follow the routine process detailed above with an alcohol-soaked pipe-cleaner to finish cleaning.
5. Soaking The Pipe Bowl In Salt
A method often used for so-called “Estate” secondhand pipes, soaking the bowl using salt and alcohol is an excellent treatment for deep cleansing. If your pipe is particularly old, this is a great way to remove any excess muck that’s built up over the years.
Furthermore, if you’re changing your tobacco habits, you may want to follow this procedure so to clean the cake of any leftover flavours.
Start by following the reaming process as explained above and cleaning the pipe as much as possible. This will allow for the pipe to properly soak rather than being faced with a barrier that’s thicker than necessary.
With the stem removed, stuff the shank so that it won’t leak. We recommend using a Q-tip wrapped in cling film as this tends to work very well.
Adding The Salt
Next, fill up the bowl with salt. While any salt will work, table salt has smaller crystals and can be hard to remove afterwards. We would instead suggest kosher or sea salt for the best results.
Fill the bowl to just under the rim as it will expand once your alcohol has been added. This avoids it from unnecessarily spilling over. You can always add more salt afterwards if necessary.
Adding The Alcohol
As for the alcohol you use, we suggest a number of options at the beginning of this guide. In this instance, we would avoid heavy-duty rubbing alcohol but would use liquor instead.
Rather than pouring directly from the bottle, use a small container or jug where you can easily control the volume added into the bowl. Some people even subscribe to using pipettes or syringes for the most precise results.
Next, fill with just enough alcohol so that the salt is damp but not completely wet before topping up with a salt up to the rim. You can add a drop more alcohol if necessary to moisten the extra salt.
Finally, sit the pipe on a stand so it doesn’t topple over during the next 24 hours. If you don’t have a stand, an egg carton is a cheap DIY alternative!
Cleaning After Soaking
After the 24-hour period has elapsed, the solution will have soaked up all the tar and residue left in the bowl.
Now that it has properly soaked, simply scrape out the salt and alcohol from the bowl using a pipe tool. To rinse out any residual leftovers, fill the bowl with more alcohol.
Using the pipe tool, swirl the alcohol in the bowl. You can also shake it by placing your thumb over the rim. Pour this out and wipe down the interior of the bowl with a paper towel before letting it dry for another 24 hours.
Now that you have finished any of the above cleaning regimen that we’ve detailed, it’s important to leave the pipe to dry for at least 24 hours before you use it again.
Even if you only followed the daily cleaning process, we do recommend having a second pipe for smoking the next day. This allows the pipe to dry properly after the moisture build-up during a day of pipe smoking.
If you want to give your pipe a nice shine, you can buff the pipe using a drop of olive oil and a paper towel or cloth. Not only does this give the pipe a nice glossy finish but it nourishes the wood and keeps it healthy.
Best Pipe Cleaning Accessories To Buy Online
If you need recommendations on the best tools and accessories to clean your pipe, this section offers are recommendations:
- Pipe Reamer: Scotte Stainless Steel Reamer
- Affordable Reamer: Mr Brog Reamer Tool
- Bristled Pipe Cleaners: Zen Pipe Cleaners
- Soft Pipe Cleaners: Mantello Pipe Cleaners
- Shank Scraper: 5-Pc Nylon Brushes
- Pipe Tool: Yueton 3-in-1 Tool
Scroll down to see them all or jump ahead using the links above.