Out, Damned Spot!

14th March, 2012: Posted by glpease in Pipes, Technique

I originally wrote this article for the now long out of print Pipe Friendly Magazine, where it appeared in Vol. 5 No. 4 (1999). I later republished it in the Essays section of my site, and have subsequently migrated it here to the Chronicles for easier access and searchability. -glp

For years, I’ve collected estate pipes, appreciating their history, the value they represent, and lamenting the fact that some of the old marques are just no longer of the same quality they once were. Generally, I’ve had excellent luck bringing old pipes back to life, restoring them to their former aesthetic beauty, and enjoying some wonderful smokes in them. Sometimes, though, a pipe that can be made beautiful may not end up being a good smoke. There are myriad reasons for this, some having to do with the way the pipe was cared for by its prior owner. If the shank is coated with a thick residue of tars, if the bowl is soured, if the cake is too think, too spongy, the pipe won’t smoke well. Fortunately, these afflictions are easy to remedy with the proper application of some alcohol, some pipe cleaners, and a good reaming.

Other times, it’s the memory of the previous owner’s tobacco that lingers in the pipe, invading the bliss of our own favored smoke, rattling its chains and howling, each bowl reminding us that the ghost of something else is there, haunting our pipe. This same thing can happen any time when we change from one style of tobacco to another, especially from a heavily flavored aromatic tobacco to a more natural English style blend. The result can be a less-than-harmonious relationship with a briar.

After years of experimentation, I have come up with a promising method for freshening up those old briars, almost to their virgin state.

This began when someone on a newsgroup expressed concern about the smell of mothballs in an antique pipe he had recently acquired. After some thought, I recommended activated charcoal as the medium of reform. Heat the bowl, just a little, I told him, and fill it with activated charcoal. It was just a thought, just an idea, but success was reported! This became the seed of a more aggressive approach.

My own predilection for unflavored tobaccos is well known. To my tastes, once a pipe has been tainted with Chocolate Cherry Jubilee, Raspberry Delight, Vanilla Mango Swirl, or some such tobacco better suited to being sprinkled over ice cream than burned in a pipe, it is all but hopeless. The wood holds on to those flavors and aromas with a death grip that I have never been able to break, despite years of experimentation with a variety of methods, both conventional and unorthodox. Bowls have been filled with salt and alcohol, or packed with strong tobaccos and left to sit for weeks in a warm corner of the room. Even reaming the cake back to bare wood and swabbing with countless alcohol soaked pipe cleaners, while muttering arcane incantations under the full moon has never rewarded me with complete success.

The fact is that every thing I’ve tried has resulted in some improvement leaving me with the hope that the next bowl will be the one that is finally free from possession by the ghost, but about half way through the smoke, the chains always seem to rattle again. Even after several years of smoking one particular pipe somewhat frequently, it still shows signs of its prior Vanilla-loving owner. (There’s nothing inferior about aromatic tobaccos, but they do have the tenacity of a Leopard Gecko, and do not belong in MY pipe, or in any pipe that is destined to become MY pipe!)

Any strong tobacco leaves its signature in a pipe. Latakia and Perique are notorious, indeed, but so are full bodied Virginias, and those topped with additional flavorings are particularly pervasive. However, in my experience, natural tobaccos, even Latakia, will always smoke out of a pipe within a dozen bowls or so. Not so most heavily flavored aromatics!

The aromatic components of natural tobaccos are more volatile than those of artificially flavored aromatics, and are more easily smoked out of the pipe. Heavily cased aromatics, on the other hand, seem to permeate farther in to the cake and even into the structure of the wood itself, making eradication problematic. I’ve had pipes that were so thoroughly saturated with aromatic components, that they were easily detectable on the outside of the bowl, once the pipe was warm from smoking.

Why does this happen? As a pipe is smoked, the heating of the wood causes the small capillaries to open, and moisture, one of the byproducts of combustion, is wicked away into the pores of the wood. Briar, and indeed all wood, is more absorbent when warm than when cool. I believe this is why most techniques to date make so little difference; in order to reverse the process, the wood must be heated to a temperature at least approaching that attained while smoking. This would both open the “pores,” and volatilize the organic esters that are responsible for aroma and flavor. Further, something must be present to absorb, or adsorb, the volatile compounds that are liberated. Of course, care must be taken not to damage the briar in any way.

At least, that’s the theory.

So, How to Fix It?

I have a lovely old GBD from which I had never been able to get a good smoke. Dozens of bowls of very full Latakia mixtures were smoked, but years of Fruit Loops had left an apparently indelible mark on the pipe’s flavor. Raspberry and Latakia are poor bedfellows. Ever tenacious, I continued on my quest for a way to banish the demon. Even considering the possibility that something could go horribly wrong, sacrificing this pipe to science seemed a relatively small price to pay if the result was a method that actually works. With this in mind, I proceeded with my experimentation.

With stalwart determination, I reamed the pipe almost back to bare wood, pre-heated my electric oven to 220°F, and turned it off. After removing the pipe’s stem, I filled the bowl with activated charcoal pellets purchased from the local aquarium supply shop. Placing the pipe on a soft towel in the oven, I left it to sit while the oven cooled - about an hour. The first “sniff test” showed some improvement, but was not 100% successful. I thought, perhaps, the compounds were somehow migrating back into the wood as it cooled.

I reheated the oven, placed fresh charcoal in the bowl, and tried again, this time removing the pipe after about 30 minutes. No perceptible difference was detected from the first experiment.

A couple of conversations with Trever Talbert, friend, pipesmith extraordinaire, and constant experimenter with briar, provided an important piece of information; briar heats very slowly. He explained that it could take several hours for a piece of briar’s temperature gradient to reach equilibrium with the ambient temperature. Clearly, my pipe’s short stint in the Sauna was insufficient to do the job.

I reheated the oven, this time setting the thermostat to 180°F, knowing from my tests that the temperature in my empty oven would vary between about 180°F and a bit over 200°F, well below the temperature at which the briar would scorch. Stemless and empty, I placed the bowl on its towel in the oven, on the upper rack, far away from the source of radiant heat, where it would be left to sit for three hours.

After removing the now hot pipe, I filled the bowl with the activated charcoal, and placed it back in the oven for an additional three hours. When the pipe was finally removed, and emptied of the charcoal, there was absolutely no trace of its prior “scent.” Could this be success? The proof of the method would be in the smoking.

After allowing the pipe to cool overnight, the stem was refitted, the bowl filled with a favored blend, delicate enough to allow any vestigial flavors from the pipe to come through clearly. I sat down to experience the fruits of my labors. Success! Only at the very bottom of the bowl was a slight hint of the previous aroma, and this disappeared completely after a couple of smokes.

Pleased with this result and finding a few pipes in my collection needing similar help I went to work. One by one, in the name of science, these pipes were given new life. Even the worst of them was rendered downright pleasant tasting after a few hours in the oven.

Among a dozen experiments, there was one minor casualty - a pipe with a lacquer finish of some sort. The finish bubbled and flaked from the pipe in some spots, leaving it pockmarked and rather unattractive (read ugly). This required some minor cosmetic restoration - removing the finish, buffing the wood, and applying a nice coat of hard Carnuba wax. Overall, not a high price to pay for the wonderful positive effects of the “cure.”

On the other hand, pipes with a wax finish needed nothing but quick rubbing with a soft flannel to bring back their beautiful luster and patina.

The Caveats

Though I’ve tried this on numerous pipes, with a great deal of success, and no damage to report, there is some risk involved in the procedure. Caution is the word of the day, and it’s probably wise to start with pipes that are of little value before proceeding to those cherished high grades. Care must be taken to ensure proper control of temperature, and an accurate thermometer is required. I have only performed this procedure using an electric oven, and have no idea how the different heat and humidity characteristics of a gas oven will effect the process, or the pipe.

Obviously, the stem must be removed from the pipe before the pipe is put in the oven. Any pipe with special shank treatments must be examined on an individual basis. The heat could melt many plastics, and would likely compromise the bonds of any glue used to hold rings, bands and other adornments.

Activated charcoal comes in several forms. I’ve had good success with the pellets used in aquarium filters. The powdered form would also work, but is messier and more difficult to deal with. Another type takes the form of small crystals, which would perform similarly to the pellets.

For temperature measurements, I use a digital thermometer with a remote probe that can be left in the oven near the pipe. These can be purchased from any good kitchen supply store for about $20, and some have a settable temperature alarm. I recommend buying one of these if you are planning on experimenting with this technique.

Finally, it takes a long time for the briar to cool off, to stabilize after the treatment. Don’t try to force the stem back in too soon. If it’s tight, wait a few hours, a day, or even a few days. Don’t force it! The briar is dry, and likely more brittle than usual after this treatment. Once the stem fits as it did before the treatment, the pipe is ready to smoke.

If you decide to try this, please proceed with care, and at your own risk. Neither the original publisher nor I accept responsibility for damaged pipes! I’d love to hear of your results. Please feel free to drop me a note.


Bold explorer Will Webb wrote to share his experiences with this method on a couple of old Comoys that have a metal ring internal to the shank. This type of ring is present in some earlier pipes, most notably some Royals, early Grand Slams and some Virgins with the special “plumbing” fitment that Comoy developed. He was concerned about the effects of this ring on the shank during the treatment, but was pleased to report success! No damage occurred, and all is well. He has noticed that it sometimes requires several days of rest after the “cure” before he can put the stems back in, and cautions that forcing the stem is a very bad idea. Apparently, in a previous experiment with this technique, poor Will lost a pipe to a shattered shank (that’s gotta’ hurt). This time, he waited long enough for the wood to stabilize, and everything went well. His flea market finds are now favorite smokers! Thanks for the update, Will!