'Estate pipe" is the euphemism used to describe a used pipe. They are often a great value, and can be a way for a new or intermediate pipe-smoker to access high-end pipes with a reasonable investment. Some of the rarest and finest pipes are available ONLY as estate pipes, because they are either no longer produced or are examples of "holiday" pipes from a particular manufacturer. Dunhill's Christmas Pipes or Peterson's St. Patrick's Day pipes are some of the most well-known holiday pipes.

It is highly inadvisable for any number of reasons to simply purchase an estate pipe and smoke it as-is, unless it is in absolutely "new" condition and is an estate pipe simply by virtue of having been held in a private collection for some amount of time. First and foremost is hygiene, but second, and perhaps more important for the less squeamish, is to remove any "ghosts", burned-in flavors, from the pipe so that you can enjoy it as was intended.

This guide will address functional refurbishing only - structural repairs or cosmetic faults (such as oxidized vulcanite/ebonite stems) should be handled by a professional! Personally, I smoke every pipe in my collection, and normal wear and tear doesn't bother me in the slightest, whether a Missouri meerschaum or a rare Savinelli!

This writeup covers the most cost-effective and result-based method, the "Salt and Alcohol" method.

You will need:

  • High-purity alcohol - type to be discussed below
  • Pipe cleaners (LOTS of them!)
  • Kosher salt (coarse is preferable, to avoid tight packing)
  • A soft-bristle toothbrush or other suitable non-marring brush; clean, new, and used only for this purpose!
  • Soft terrycloth rags, ditto as above.
  • Shank and bore brushes (optional, but cheap and recommended!)
  • A chamber reamer (optional, but relatively cheap and recommended!)

The salt and alcohol method is by far the most effective home remedy for refurbishing a pipe. It removes tar and resin buildup, tobacco and flavoring oils, and other collected gunk from both briar and metal pipes. This method should NOT! be used on meerschaum pipes!


Start:

By taking the pipe apart. This typically is a one-step process, removing the stem (or bit) from the shank (the part of the pipe that sticks out of the bowl). Some pipes may have a threaded stem or a small metal insert, known as a filter, that will need to be either carefully pulled out or, rarely, unscrewed from the stem.

Inspect the pipe for damage. If the stem does not fit firmly in the shank, you will need to investigate either purchasing a new stem, or having the pipe repaired. If the pipe uses a "military" bit, make sure that it retains enough taper on the bit and space within the shank to allow for a tight fit when pressed in firmly.

If there is non-cosmetic damage to the shank, or any of the metalwork (such as the hinges on a bowl cover, or the parts in a fountain style shank and bit) you will need to assess if it will be worth having it repaired, or if you are willing to replace the parts, or risk damaging the pipe further by attempting to repair it yourself.

After an inspection of the parts, begin by cleaning the exterior surfaces of the pipe with the terrycloth rags, dampened with hot water. You're looking to get any smudges, fingerprints, or surface stains off without damaging the finish of the pipe. Do not get excess water into the bowl of the pipe!

Stubborn stains or scorch marks on the rim of a well-loved pipe may be permanent barring refinishing or professional restoration.

It is at this point where you must make the choice to ream, or not to ream. Chamber reaming is the use of a special, drill-like scraper to remove the carbon cake from the inside walls of the bowl. Most people feel that a carbon cake is desirable, as it acts as an insulator to both help protect the briar of the pipe, and some say helps develop a cooler smoke.

I recommend reaming the pipe, as the carbon likely contains a lot of ghost, and it will be difficult if not impossible to remove flavors and odors otherwise. Follow the instructions that came with your particular reamer. Failure to follow the instructions carefully can result in severe damage to the bowl!

Now, plug the airway of the pipe by inserting a pipe cleaner shank-first. You should see it just peeking out in the bottom of the bowl.

Fill the bowl to the rim with kosher salt, and then fill the bowl with alcohol until it reaches the level of the salt. Leave the salt and alcohol treatment to soak for 24 hours, then dump the bowl and allow it to dry for another 24. If there are detectable tobacco odors, repeat the S&A treatment. A particularly well-used pipe may retain faint traces of odor no matter how many times you repeat the treatment. A good rule of thumb is that if it isn't out by 3 treatments, it's not going anywhere.

The shank, depending on the construction of the pipe, can require a lot of attention and elbow grease to eliminate any residues. Since it didn't get the benefit of the extended S&A treatment, scrubbing with alcohol and small brushes, pipe cleaners, and bristles is going to be a chore.

The stem should be thoroughly scrubbed inside and out with alcohol and pipe cleaners, pipe bristles, and the soft bristled toothbrush. If you have access to a polishing wheel, hitting the stem with a fine polishing compound suitable for the material can sometimes help remove light teeth marks or other surface mars. One authority recommends, for vulcanite/ebonite stems, stitched cotton and Tripoli Brown for rough work followed by unstitched white cotton with White Diamond.

After this mechanical cleaning, soak the stems in alcohol for three or four hours as a disinfectant to kill any lingering bacteria or mold.


A word on alcohol:

Some authorities say to use at least a 90% isopropyl alcohol solution to refurbish pipes, while others stand by high proof drinking alcohol such as whiskey or rum. The choice, ultimately, is yours, though I find that medical grade isopropyl alcohol is the most effective for cleaning, and that drinking alcohol does not impart any sort of lasting sweetness to the pipe. Iso alcohol also evaporates much more quickly and cleanly than does booze.

Many choose to use the higher-proof variety of Everclear, as it is extremely pure and does not carry the supposed risks of accidental isopropyl ingestion, but in the quantities we're discussing (some molecules left trapped in the briar and later burned!), I don't think it's anything to be worried about.



Sources:
Refurbishing Estate Pipes: An Overview by David Peterson
http://www.Pipedia.org
Real life honest-to-goodness experience and the crusty old guys who taught me how to smoke a pipe

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