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Cleaning a Meerschaum Pipe

Cleaning a Meerschaum Pipe

Posted by Greg Rosenberg on 21st Mar 2024


General maintenance

Routine deep clean

For many pipe smokers, having a variety of pipes made from different materials is important, as it offers another way of engaging with the explorative side of the hobby. Different materials offer different experiences, but they are also distinguished by the particular care they require.

The  meerschaum pipe is exceptional in both function and aesthetic, but it comes with its own considerations. You'll find some opinions differ on the right way to upkeep meerschaum, but that's like any part of the hobby. In this piece, I'll should you how I maintain and clean my meerschaum pipes. 

Meerschaum pipe general maintenance

There's can be anxiety involved in cleaning anything fragile. But if you take good care of your meerschaum with a basic cleaning regiment after each smoke, you'll reduce the labor involved when you do a occasional deeper clean. 

Clean airway with a pipe cleaner

This isn’t so different from the regular maintenance of any tobacco pipe. After each smoke, and even during if necessary, run a  pipe cleaner through the stem and into the bowl. With a post-smoke clean, I suggest doing one run with a bristle pipe cleaner and then run a fluffy one. This should help to really clear the gunk out of there before it sets.

You want the cleaner to pass through the entire airway, but some pipes—whether because of shape or drilling—aren't so accommodating. Many meerschaum pipes feature threaded tenons that screw in rather than push tenons or army mounts. With threaded tenons, you don't have to concern yourself with giving the pipe time to cool down before separating the stem from the shank. This will give you easy access to clean the shank internals.

That said, you still have a fragile instrument here, so be careful in slowly rotating the stem clockwise, holding the pipe by the shank. 

Wipe out the chamber

You should also wipe out the chamber after each smoke. Meerschaum doesn’t benefit from a carbon cake like briar does, and many attest that it slows down the coloring process.  Reaming a pipe can be a daunting task no matter the material, but especially the fragile meerschaum. It’s best to not have to at all, or at least for cake to build as slowly as possible.

Cleaning meerschaum chamber with a pipe cleaner

Wiping the inside of the chamber will ensure you won’t need to deal with cake build-up for a long time. This is as simple as twisting a paper towel into the chamber. You may also bend a pipe cleaner at the middle to run inside the chamber, as pictured above. 

Routine deep cleaning

Just like with any pipe, the occasional deep clean is necessary. This is especially true with meerschaum, as building up too much of a cake in the chamber could do a lot of damage. And beyond that, it simply makes for a better smoke.

Reaming a meerschaum pipe

Luckily, one of my meerschaums, a nameless bent Billiard, is in need of a deep clean, and has some cake build-up, so I will be detailing the process as I go. 

cake in meerschaum pipe

It’s difficult to get a good focused picture inside of the chamber, but you can see all that roughness on the sides—I want to remove that. 

Don't assume you need to ream each time you do a thorough clean. If you're wiping out the bowl after each smoke, cake should be building very slowly. You don't want to wait for a significant build up, but it's not something you want to do unnecessarily, as you're more liable to take material off the chamber wall. 

If you have to ream, it’s best to wait a few days after you last smoked the pipe in question, it’s much easier when the cake is totally dry.

There isn’t exactly a special way to ream a meerschaum pipe, but I would simply emphasize patience and moderation. These are important when reaming any pipe, but meerschaum is especially fragile.

I prefer to use a pipe knife and finish with sandpaper instead of more traditional  pipe reamers, and it seems this is a common approach. The knife or a similar scraper tool, while tedious, offers more dexterity, and in this case the tediousness is appreciated. It helps to keep things slow.

meerschaum pipe and pipe knife

If you are using a knife, it's best to use a pipe knife or something with a rounded blade to be careful not to nick the walls. You may even want to make a false bottom with something like  Nording Keystone Pipe Filters to protect the bottom of the chamber, which likely doesn't have cake like the chamber walls. 

After getting a good deal of the cake out with the knife, I wipe the chamber with paper towel to remove some of the loose carbon dust. 

wiping chamber after reaming pipe

Then I finish the job with P320 grit sandpaper ( about 240 ANSI), folded to easily slide in the chamber and run around the walls a few times. It shouldn't take much, and if you're unsure if you should keep going, stop. It can be difficult to tell when you're no longer taking off cake, as the chamber walls are darkened. Better safe than sorry.

Cleaning the chamber and shank

Next it’s time to clean the internals of the bowl. Water seems to be the prevailing choice for internal cleaning—it's what I generally use, but I have used alcohol. Though alcohol is recommended for briar pipes, it's often cautioned against with meerschaum. Searching for explanations came up with a handful of answers: it clogs the pores, dries it out, softens it, etc. 

The lack of agreement as to  why alcohol is discouraged made me wonder if this was parroted wisdom or if there was something to it. I emailed my pal Ben Rapaport to shine some light on the matter. 

Rapaport has been publishing books on tobacco pipes since the early 1970s, including Collecting Antique Meerschaum Pipes, and continues to write on a diversity of topics as a contributor to Pipedia. Between his authority on meerschaum and his bent for taking conventional wisdoms to task, I knew he was my best bet for getting some clarity. 

I had already cleaned this pipe with water when I reached out so it was too late to incorporate his advice this time around, but I share some of his response here:

"First, and foremost, alcohol may be a good cleaner for the inside using, perhaps, a handful of Q-tips, but it wreaks havoc on the outside; it will strip away the beeswax, especially the very thin coating applied to new meerschaums coming out of Turkey...If you strip away this coating, then, without it, the exterior of the porous meerschaum can, over time, begin to disintegrate. I’ve seen it happen."

So, while it seems alcohol isn't too dangerous if you're careful to keep it from the exterior, it may be just as well that you neutralize the risk completely. "Warm water and mild liquid soap (e.g., Ivory) is a cheap and practical means for cleaning," Rapaport tells me. 

cleaning meerschaum pipe

I start with the chamber, dipping the end of a pipe cleaner in water and guiding it around the chamber walls. This water was room temperature, but I suggest you heed Rapaport's emphasis on warm water, as I will be in the future. After, I again twist a paper towel into the chamber, removing much of the moisture and the loose carbon from reaming.

Next, onto the shank. I'll use Q-tips, and both bristle and fluffy pipe cleaners for this section. Normally I would also use a  pipe and mortise brush here, but I need to be extra careful with this pipe, even more than some other meerschaums. While it's common for the threaded mortise to be an insert into the shank, the inside of this pipe's shank is all meerschaum, the walls are not hollowed to accept a threaded insert, but are threaded themselves, so I don't want to use any anything too abrasive that might wear the threads down and compromise the connection between the bowl and stem.

The picture below shows this pipe's mortise compared with an insert style (this example shows an insert that protudes from the shank to accept the stem, but you'll also see this system with the tenon on the stem a la more traditional pipe stem/mortise systems).

meerschaum mortise and tenon systems

You should be gentle regardless, but take note of these things just to be cautious. Even if the meerschaum itself is threaded, it's still an important area to clean. The groves are all the more liable to collect tar. I'll use fluffy pipe cleaners and Q-tips and gently round the mortise until clean.

I don't have a hard order to how I use each cleaner here. I'll start with bristle to break things up (while avoiding the threads), but I'll keep rotating cleaners and Q-tips until they're all coming out clean. However, each time I use a cleaner dipped in water, I'll follow it with dry ones, and if I need to repeat with water several times, I'll take a break to let the excess moisture not picked up by the cleaners dry. 

Cleaning the stem

Moving to the stem, I start by taking a moment to appreciate working on a material less susceptible ruin. Then I'll use a  Brigham pipe brush dipped in alcohol, which doesn't get all the way through, but I'll feed it through the tenon and get what I can. 

cleaning pipe stem with pipe brush

Then I move to pipe cleaners and alcohol. At this point, I'm especially attentive to the little nooks and crannies where tar can collect. There are the grooves of the threaded tenon that I make sure I get nice and clean. I find that hooking a pipe cleaner around the end of the tenon and twisting it to follow the grooves to the base works well.

cleaning threaded pipe tenon

As shown below, the opening narrows just inside the tenon, creating a small shelf that easily collects tar, so I will also be sure to get this area good with Q-tips. This may or may not be a feature of your meerschaum pipe, but the lesson is be meticulous—really examine the design of the tenon and the drilling of the mortise, the bit, the shank—everything. You can be surprised what easily overlooked crannies there are.

pipe stem

Once I'm done, I'll go over everything one more time with a dry, fluffy pipe cleaner for good measure to assure everything's dry.

Enjoy a relaxing, fresh smoke!

And there you have it—you have a clean meerschaum pipe, ready to smoke. Hopefully this guide has offered some guidance to get the most out of your meerschaum, they offer a unique smoking experience and it only makes sense that we keep these beloved instruments performing at their full potential.