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Cleaning Vulcanite Stems

November 22, 2009

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.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruche permalink
    November 24, 2009 01:54

    Great trick and very simple instructions! I think your Blog is very well presented and a joy to read. Keep it up.

    Bruce

    Thanks Bruce. One does what one can! And welcome here.
    Exile

  2. Mister Moo permalink
    January 30, 2010 22:43

    Beaching vulcanite works great EXCEPT if there is any nomenclature inked or stamped on the stem in any color except white; bleach will ruin it. Cover nomenclature with Vaseline if you’re going to bleach a stem.

    Very remiss of me not to have mentioned that. You raise a valid point. These logos can be refilled with white oil paint. Simply cover the impressed logo and gently wipe off with a dry rag. Leave to dry overnight.
    Exile.

    • Mister Moo permalink
      February 1, 2010 20:55

      I am fortunate to own a lovely Brakner Antique #124 acorn. The pipe has an uncommonly slender, graceful half-bent shank and bit. Sadly, a prior owner bleached the stem and turned an otherwise perfect pipe with a green dot into a practically perfect pipe with a bright white dot. A danish Dunhill it ain’t.

      That’s still a lovely pipe. I don’t own one, but I have seen one a long time ago. A stem repair may be possible. Seek a professional. The dot could be bored out and refilled. I forgot to mention in my post on cleaning vulcanite, that one should cover logos with vaseline before soaking. A commentor corrected my omission. If you go for a repair, then I wish you all the luck in the world with it. Otherwise, it’s still a unique pipe, patina does that!.. and congratulations on owning it.
      Exile.

  3. February 27, 2010 23:32

    I recently found your blog and have been browsing through the posts. I enjoy reading your stuff and am particularly happy to have found this post. I have probably two dozen pipes with the green mouthpiece problem and am going to try this cure on one of them tonight. If it works as well as advertised, I’ll do it to all of them. Thanks.
    Bill

    Hi Bill, the best of luck to you. Not that you will need luck. If you do as I say, you’ll be alright. Let me know how the process went for you. I’d be interested to hear from a, dare I say, novice in the refurbishing world.
    Exile.

  4. March 11, 2010 05:11

    Super article. I had an old Charatan whose stem was an ugly brown/gray. I did the overnight bleach but didn’t know where to go to restore it back – now I do. Thanks

    Glad to have been of some help!
    Exile.

  5. Gregory permalink
    March 23, 2010 03:41

    Just picked up a Peterson System 303 estate from eBay on the cheap. It’s in terrific condition, save for a greenish stem. I look forward to getting this process started tonight!

    Steady as you go Sir.. let me know how it works out.
    Exile.

  6. March 26, 2010 02:22

    GREAT article! I wondered why this great looking pipe looked new except for the greenish stem that came out after I smoked it for the first time… Just bought it (Peterson Donegal Rocky 338) and wondered why that happened! Looks like it’s been sitting in the shop for years, and years, and years.

    BUT, to tell you the truth… I kind of like the color on the stem. The greenish/brown look compliments the red/black unfinished look. Truly makes mine a one of a kind!

    BEFORE SMOKING: http://twitpic.com/1ax55i
    AFTER SMOKING: http://twitpic.com/1aufu5

    SO, my question to you is: Is it safe to smoke my pipe with this “not-so-new” looking pipe stem? I kind of want to keep it the way it is now. It’s not harmful, right?

    Thanks!

    Certainly not harmful. And if you like the result of the oxidisation, then that’s OK. After all, it’s your pipe! The tip will go a horrible brown-khaki colour though, and that will not match the otherwise discoloured stem.
    I just hope you don’t end up tasting sulphur-oxide instead of tobacco.

    Congratulations on the Donegal. Petersons are usually reliable. Enjoy your pipe.

    Exile.

  7. dquixote permalink
    April 5, 2010 14:17

    I use “simple green”, available at supermarkets and walmart (auto dept). one part simple green, three parts water. soak for only 15 minutes, wash under hot tap water. lighty sand with 1500 wet and dry paper, repeat if not completly removed. does not harm logo or upbraid the mouthpiece. buff with “task force” rough #2, finish with “task force” rough #5, polish with clean wheel. VOILA!.
    “task force” available at LOWES. buffer available at harbor frieght, $40.00. use 3″ wheels at 5000 rpm.

    Ah, Walmart.. fond memories from my trip to the States.. We don’t have them here in Denmark! Your process sounds remarkably similar to mine. US readers, take note.
    Thanks.
    Exile

  8. April 12, 2010 21:56

    Just a follow up. The jeweler’s rouge is magic. I tried to buff a stem without it and it did nothing. Once the rouge was on the wheel – it’s MAGIC! Stems look bright and shiny!
    Many thanks for the tip.
    Cheers from the U.S.

    And cheers from Denmark! Glad it worked out for you Stephen. Now you know how..!! Well done.
    I remember my daughter’s remark from many years ago when I asked her if she could do something. (She was four years old at the time). “Of course.” she said, ” I just haven’t learned how to yet..” Ah. From the mouths of babes….!!
    Exile.

  9. Robert Tellis permalink
    June 20, 2013 22:56

    Sorry about the former comment. I need the exact name of the rouge I need to polish the pipe stems before I buff with carnuba wax. I have white, red, brown, and black compounds without names or grits. I don’t want to scar or roughen the stems.

    I removed the former comment..!!
    I’m afraid I don’t have an exact name for you. The rouge is by nature red, so use the red polish that you have. Don’t worry too much about the polish itself, it won’t scratch the vulcanite. Once you have a good surface with the red, switch to the white and then, finally, carnouba. If you are using a polishing machine (buffer), use different wheels for each compound.
    Good luck with it…
    Exile.

    • Dan Nathan permalink
      June 21, 2013 14:47

      The brown abrasive compound (Tripoli) usually proceeds the white stuff (White Diamond); use it on different polishing wheels. Finish with carnauba wax applied VERY lightly to a buffing wheel. Recommended practice is flannel wheel at low speed (450-600rpm). Be advised conventional bench grinders turn wheels fast enough to scar or melt vulcanite given a moments inattention.

      I think that somewhere above this there are a few comments from U.S. readers. You may have different compounds “over there”, but the principle is the same. I actually use a bench grinder with a polishing mop and go at it very lightly. Concentration is key, determination is required and practice plus patience is the only way to learn… Thanks for commenting.
      Exile.

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