Cleaning Vulcanite Stems
Vulcanite: (Chemistry / Elements & Compounds) a hard usually black rubber produced by vulcanizing natural rubber with large amounts of sulphur. It is resistant to chemical attack: used for chemical containers, electrical insulators, etc. Also called Ebonite
Many of the pipes we buy nowadays have acrylic stems. These are harder and easier to clean than the vulcanite stems that are slowly being replaced by the newer materials. We all know the problems with vulcanite. It turns greenish brown with age and exposure to light. What is actually going on is, that the sulphur used in the production of the vulcanite, is oxidising. If the oxidisation is not too bad, it can be polished out using a buffer, but it will return again and, usually, very quickly. I have a simple process that removes the oxidisation and the sulphur in the surface of the stem. It may sound a bit hard handed, but I guarantee, it works.
Remove the stem from the pipe. Find a glass that will hold the entire stem, drop the stem in and then fill the glass with chlorine. Yes, the household cleaning type chlorine. Let the stem stay submerged overnight. It will bubble a bit, but don’t worry. It’s supposed to. Get a good night’s sleep.
By morning, the process is finished. Pour off the chlorine and rinse the stem in cold water. It will appear rough on the surface and have a coal grey appearance. It is now clean. Both inside and out.
Now you will have to do some sanding. Very gently and with a paper with 1000 grit or higher, sand the stem until it is smooth to the touch. Do not sand the tenon (the bit that connects stem to stummel) as that would only make the stem loose in the pipe.
Once the stem is smooth again you can start the polishing process. If you have a buffer, then things will get done quickly. Start with a slightly abrasive wax. These are usually red in colour and are impregnated with jeweller’s rouge. Keep the stem moving against the wheel and you will see the stem slowly returning to it’s former black glory. Continue polishing until you have a smooth, polished and deeply black stem.
Change wheels and give a final polish either with carnauba or some other fine polishing wax.
If you don’t have a buffer, then polish by hand. Use the same waxes as stated above on a soft cloth and prepare yourself for an hour or so of polishing.
Congratulations. Your stem is like new again. Let it air out for a day to remove the chlorine taste before you smoke the pipe.
TIP: Practice with an old stem if you have one at hand. A little experience is invaluable in any process!
TIP#2. Pull a pipe cleaner dipped in cognac or whisky through the stem to sweeten it if the chlorine taste lingers.