Pipe cleaning: a different way

The purpose of pipe cleaning is obviously to keep it clean, but also to keep it dry.

Wet wood does not feel well under heat and can spoil your smoking by sharing its moisture with the tobacco in the bowl. Dirty pipes smell bad and taste bitter.

Regular pipe cleaning procedure described on most pipe-related sites assumes that you do not disassemble your pipe, e.g. do not remove stem from the bowl mortise. It advises running pipe cleaner from mouthpiece all the way down to the bowl airway opening and then pulling it back through the mouthpiece and out.

My concern has always been that you have to pull dirty cleaner through the narrowest part of the stem, which will definitely leave all that smelly stuff right in the stem part that you put into your mouth. I prefer to keep the mouthpiece as clean as possible and do not want any of that stuff even close to my mouth.

Another concern is that when you leave stem attached to the bowl, you do not allow the mortise to dry thoroughly. The stem tenon after smoking is always a little wet both inside and outside. Leaving the stem inserted into the bowl, traps that moisture between the tenon and the mortise walls, and you will get this stuff accumulating there after each smoke. It is not a surprise to me that from time to time you will have to remove the stem and run full cleaning of the whole pipe using some kind of solvent to get rid of that accumulated gooey smelly brown stuff. Now, the question is why not to clean everything you can clean and allow the pipe dry completely by opening all its holes to the air?

And finally, there are pipes with very narrow stems which do not accept even thinnest cleaners, and the only way to clean them is to take the stem off.

Apparently, the only reason for not removing the stem from the bowl during cleaning is that it may make the stem loose in the bowl mortise. From my experience, this is not the case if you know how to remove the stem and how to put it back.

I always disassemble my pipes during cleaning, and no, I do not have loose stems, but yes, I have clean and almost completely dry pipes at the end of the cleaning procedure.

In fact, the cleaning procedure which I use, leaves pipes so dry, that I often smoke the same pipe several times a day without any discomfort both for the pipe and for myself.  Compare this with common requirement to allow pipes “rest” for up to two days before smoking them again.

Well, all above is why I have chosen a cleaning procedure that diverges from the widely accepted practices. It is definitely up to you if you want to stick to common practices or want to try a different way of cleaning. I always follow the idea that rules are made to break or bend them to your needs. The only but very important prerequisite for that is the complete understanding what the rule is, what it is not and why it was created.

Here we go:

1. Prepare your pipe tool for cleaning: take the pipe tool pick and slightly bend it so that its tip sticks a little upwards. This is necessary to prevent the pick tip from scratching the bowl surface when you spread the ash over the bowl walls (see below).

2. Once you finish your pipe, keep the ash in the bowl. Take the pipe tool pick and using its side surface, spread the ash over the inside walls of the bowl. 

Always keep the side surface of the pick flat against the wall and make sure not to scratch the bowl with the pick tip. If you bent the pick as suggested in step one, just turn the pick so that the tip points away from the wall.

This will ensure that only smooth side surface of the pick will be in the contact with the wall.  While spreading the ash, apply slight pressure as if you are trying to embed the ash into the wall.

The ash has two very useful properties:

  • It is very hygroscopic (i.e. absorbs moisture very well)
  • Due to its fine structure, it works as a very fine abrasive powder

So, when spreading the ash with a little pressure, you will achieve three goals in one shot:

  • Dry the pipe
  • “Sand” the bowl walls with a very fine grain powder 
  • Embed the ash into the bowl walls, which will build a nice and even cake to protect the bowl from high temperatures during your next smoke.

3. After you cover the inside walls of the bowl with the ash, turn the bowl over to let the loose ash out.

Do not tap the bowl to remove the ash that stuck to the walls.

We will need it in next steps for final drying of the pipe. 

4. While you are doing previous steps, your pipe will cool down enough to be ready for cleaning.

5. Now we are going to remove the stem from the bowl mortise. Here is how you can do that safely, without damaging the tenon or the mortise, and without making the stem loose.

Pull the stem out of the mortise. Pull it out straight, without tilting. If you tilt it left/right/up/down, the tenon will push into the mortise walls, and will compress the walls’ wood making the mortise wider. This may make the stem loose. So, pull it straight out of the mortise. If it does not come out, turn it a little (2-3 mm or 1/16”-1/8”) clockwise/counterclockwise as if you are trying to screw/unscrew it to/from the mortise. At the same time, keep gently pulling it straight out of the mortise. It will come out and will not damage or expand the mortise.

But this is only the first step for the loose stem prevention. I will mention the second part here as well so that you have all steps in one place.

After you complete cleaning, do not assemble your pipe, but leave it apart until your next smoke. This will achieve two goals:

  • Allow the pipe to dry faster, leaving all airways open
  • Let the mortise freely shrink as it dries

If you leave the stem in the pipe, the mortise will shrink only to the size of the tenon. If you keep the stem out of the pipe, the mortise may shrink even more, making the stem fit much tighter.

In the past, I had loose stems (just because I had no idea how to deal with pipes). But after I left the stem out of the pipe for a week or two, the mortise shrank so that the stem became very tight again. Since then I always leave the stem out of the pipe, and have never had any problems with loose stems anymore.

When inserting the stem back into the mortise before your next smoke, follow the procedure of the stem removal, but in reverse order. Insert it straight in the position it should be in relation to the bowl and without tilting. Turn it a little (2-3 mm or 1/16”-1/8”) clockwise/counterclockwise if necessary to facilitate the insertion.

6. Now we are back to the cleaning. First, let’s clean the stem before it dries and while the moisture can be easily collected with pipe cleaners. Take a cleaner that fits the stem. I am trying to use extra absorbent ones or if they do not fit, the thickest I can run through the stem. This will ensure all stem walls will be cleaned properly. The second best choice is the tapered BJ Long cleaners. They are thinner on one end and thick enough on the other to clean well.

Sometimes pipe cleaners are not cut well and have the cleaner wire bent at the very ends. Before you start using the cleaner, straighten the wire with your nails to prevent it from scratching the stem and bowl surfaces.

Blow gently into the stem to remove any particles and excess moisture. It is better to direct the other end of the stem to a paper towel to not to spoil the surroundings.

Now, starting from the mouthpiece, gradually push the cleaner into the stem. After you pushed in about a centimetre of the cleaner,  move it back and forth to scab the stem walls. Then push another centimetre, and repeat the reciprocating motion. Proceed until the cleaner appears from the other end of the stem.

Then grab that end of the cleaner, and start pulling it out in the same manner. Pull a little, reciprocate, pull again etc.. Repeat until the cleaner is completely out of the stem. It will be pretty dirty.

Run another clean cleaner in the same fashion through the stem. It will come out almost clean. If not, you will have to use one more cleaner to finish the job. You are done with the stem.

7. Next is the bowl. Take a clean cleaner (you can probably use one of the cleaners you used to clean the stem). Run the thickest part of the cleaner into the mortise so that it barely shows up in the airway inside the bowl.

Do not push it too deep. Otherwise it may create a groove in the bottom of the bowl.

Run it back and forth through the bowl airway for some time. Pull it out.

Run another cleaner in the same manner. It should come out almost clean or slightly dirty.

Now take the thickest cleaner you have and fold it in half. Do not press the fold too much. You should have a loop, not a stick at the fold. If want it to be soft. Push the fold into the bowl to the very bottom. Whirl the folded cleaner inside the bowl, distributing the remaining ash evenly over the bowl walls.

The goal is to cover walls with the ash from top to bottom.

Whirl the cleaner both clockwise and counterclockwise to ensure even coverage.

Once done, turn the bowl over and gently tap it against your palm to let all loose ash out. Turn the bowl mortise down and tap it as well.

This step further dries the bowl, letting the ash absorb any excess moisture.

Now, run a clean cleaner through the mortise as you did before to complete the mortise drying. You will feel that the airway is now almost dry. The cleaner will move almost without any resistance. Use the other end of the cleaner to dry the airway even more.

If you look into your bowl now,  you should see dry walls covered with an even layer of ash and a dry airway.

You are done.

Do not insert the stem back into the bowl. Leave it detached until your next smoke to keep all bowl holes open and to let the bowl dry thoroughly.

Happy cleaning. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *