How to Ream Tobacco Pipes
Brian Levine, Phd DOP (Doctor of Pipes), said it best on the Pipes Magazine Radio Show,
“Reaming your tobacco pipes is a necessary evil.”
We all know how hard it is to build up that cake of carbon in your tobacco pipe. It might have happened over a few years or hundreds of bowls of tobacco. But, in order to preserve your pipe and keep it in pristine smoking condition, preventative maintenance is imperative.
Use this basic guide to reaming pipes, to equip yourself with the knowledge you need to care for your precious collection.
A Word on Cake
While this article is about reaming, we must include some basic information about cake.
The cake is simply the built up carbon left over from the burning oils and leaf in your tobacco. This cake is what gives your pipe character and flavor over time.
Good cake is the key to a better smoke.
The more you smoke, the more your cake will build up. The optimal thickness for cake is 1.5 mm, or about the thickness of a dime. Once your cake becomes overly thick, usually at the point where you can’t fit your finger in, you enter the danger zone. Thick cake absorbs more heat. Heat causes things to expand. This means you are in danger of cracking your bowl when the cake expands too much.
Types of Pipe Reamers
Before we go into what types of pipe reamers you should consider, a word of warning:
One tool that you should not use is a knife.
While it is tempting, and you probably have some sharp pocket knives lying around, using a knife willstrip the carbon from your pipe rather than sand it off. And you are likely to stab or scratch your briar bowl, which is bad news.
Pipe Tool Attachment
Most smokers have an abundance of 3-in-1 tool style pipe tools nestled around their home, office and car. These tools come with a tamper, pick and a reamer.
While the scoop tool is called a reamer, its purpose is to loosing and shovel out the ash. The reamer attachment was not designed to scrape the carbon from the inside of the bowl. Attempting to ream with this tool can result in taking out chunks and damaging the briar underneath the cake.
Some people love the direct, hands-on approach. They often like to take a thin piece of sandpaper, apply it to a finger, and slowly sand down the cake.
This tool can be precise, but only in the hands of experienced woodworkers and crafters who know how to properly sand. If you’re a novice with sandpaper, we don’t recommend this method.
Another tool favored by woodworkers is the dremel tool method. A rock sander attached to the end of the tool can be a quick and easy method, but only in the right hands. This is a dangerous way to ream. It takes the most steady of hand and perfect attention to detail to be done correctly. I advise you to not try this method unless you are a very experienced restoration expert.
If your confidence as a woodworker isn’t so high, there are plenty of more common tools for reaming your bowl that come with a much lower risk factor. These are:
The British Buttoner is a classic tool, and the most economical at that. This reamer is spring loaded, causing it to always fit snuggly in the bowl, which means it will apply pressure. These are typically ¾ of an inch thick, which fits most standard pipes.
This tool is perfect for pipes with a U shaped chamber. What makes this tool so popular is its ability to reach the bottom of most chambers quite easily, a characteristic which most other tools have trouble with.
Multi-Tool T Reamer
A Multi-Tool reamer is the preferred tool of restoration artists and those who have multiple sized pipes to care for.
The advantage in this model is its variety in bowl size and shaped reamers. The downside to this is the lack of adjustability. If you happen to not have a reamer that fits your pipe, you are out of luck.
Senior Pipe Reamer
The Senior Pipe Reamer is the most popular quality pipe reamer. With tapered sharpened edges, and a V shaped bottom (which obviously works well with V shaped chambers), this reamer is perfect for most every pipe.
This reamer is beloved because with a little torque the diameter of the reamer changes. This means that as you ream you can slowly enlarge the reamer to match the cake, making it the safest reamer to use on your pipes.
A Word of Caution
Once you select your tool of choice, it is probably a bad idea to jump in and start reaming your pipes.
I suggest you go to eBay, or a local antique market, and buy some beat up estate pipes that have loads of cake. Use these to practice. If you don’t know what you are doing, odds are pretty high that you will mess up your pipe instead of repairing it. Please practice first.
First and foremost, have a stable and secure workplace. You will want to have a steady hand when reaming, and doing so on the couch, in your lap, car, or some other unstable place can keep your hand from being steady.
The key to reaming is gentle and consistent torque.
When you insert your tool, you only want a small amount of friction between the cake and your tool. At this point you will twist until the friction disappears. Dump the dust out, expand your reamer, and continue the process. You should be creating a fine dust of carbon. If you are taking out chunks, you will need to scrape more gently and see if you can decrease the size of your reamer.
It is tempting to ream inconsistently around the bowl, such as pushing harder on the shank side of pipe. Avoid this. Ream equally all around the diameter of your bowl.
Do not ream all the way to fresh wood!
This is a mistake many, including myself, have made. Even profession pipe restorers don’t always ream down to the fresh wood. It is best to leave a light layer.
When you make your way to the bottom of the bowl, be very careful! There is often only a little, if any, cake at the bottom of the bowl. You will want to prevent reaming this area as much as possible.
Once you have completed reaming, you will want to carefully clean the pipe.
Dump the carbon dust out and begin running pipe cleaners through your pipe. For those of you that use alcohol to clean your pipes with, Everclear is a great place to start. If using alcohol is not your thing, then using a pipe cleaning solution will work well as an alternative.
Now, your pipe is ready to go! Start building your cake back up to about 1.5mm and enjoy smoking your newly perfect pipe.
Chris Hopkins is a pipe blogger and former tobacconist. Chris worked for his first tobacco company at the age of 17 in Kentucky, then later as a tobacconist in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Chris currently operates an in- depth blog review of pipe tobacco and products at Pipe Tobacco Critique. He is currently a graduate student of theology at Kentucky Christian University and a minister in Winston Salem. Chris' passions include pipe blogging, movies, and cooking for his beautiful wife Emily.
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