I’ve been asked a couple of times about homemade pipe sweeteners. I just use the commercial sweeteners to clean out my stems, but for the bowl’s, I use a salt/alcohol method. It’s called “The Professor’s Pipe-Sweetening Treatment,” is often referred to as the salt/alcohol method.
I’ve seen variations of this, sometimes adding whiskey, bourbon, or your liquor of choice. Also some with some additional ingredients, but the core science of the method remains the same. A salt and alcohol mix leeches the gunk out of the bowl. There’s some commercial methods that aren’t bad for periodic maintenance, like Arago Pipe Spray, but the salt/alcohol method should be used for heavy duty cleaning to clean out the taste of your pipe, or refurbish a used pipe.
This little piece was published in the Pipesmokers’ Welcome Guide 1995, by The Pipesmokers’ Council, London.
The Professor’s Pipe-Sweetening Treatment
Tobacco contains oils. When combustion occurs, some of these oils are released and are deposited on the inside of the bowl, in the existing cake and in the shank of the pipe. In time, the oils mix with oxygen and turn rancid which is one reason for a bitter or sour taste in a pipe. It is the accumulation of these oils that prevents a pipe from delivering a sweet flavourful smoke. They can be dissolved and removed with the Professor’s Treatment, restoring that faithful beauty to the delicious, mouth-watering, nut-like sweetness of a well-seasoned pipe.
1. The first step requires certain materials. You need a box of non-iodized salt easily found in any supermarket and a quantity of pure alcohol. I suggest you have clean rag, facial tissues or paper towels handy to wipe up any errant alcohol lest it dull the bowl finish. Remember, the salt and the alcohol are to be consumed by your pipe so it will smell good, lower your blood pressure and taste sweet. If you consume the salt and alcohol, you will smell bad, raise your high blood pressure and be drunk. And when you sober up, your pipe will still taste like you are smoking cube cut gnu manure.
2. The second step involves preparing the pipe. Empty any dottle remaining in the bowl. Some people prefer to remove the stem and insert a pipe cleaner in the shank during the process. Others leave the stem in place. Find a location where the pipe may be set in a semi-upright position to prevent the salt and alcohol from spilling or leaking over the top of the bowl or running out the shank.
3. Fill the bowl of the pipe with salt all the way to the top. Some believe also filling the shank with salt will maximize the sweetening effect. Others, as stated above, insert a pipe cleaner in the stem to prevent salt from entering. Try it both ways and choose whichever variation gives you the most desirable results.
4. After filling the bowl with salt, it’s time to add the alcohol. This may be done in several ways. One method entails using an eyedropper placing 8 to 10 drops of alcohol on the salt. A second way involves slowly pouring in alcohol, allowing it to rise to the top of the salt filled bowl. A third way has the salt placed in the bowl in a series of 3 to 5 layers with a few drops of alcohol added to each layer. And a fourth method requires filling the bowl about halfway with alcohol and then topping it off to the brim with salt. Again, I suggest you try each method and choose the one you like best. They are all variations on the same theme which is to achieve a desired admixture with which to entice the gods of sweetness to again reside in the chambers of your pipe.
5. This step is always the most difficult part for me because it requires doing nothing. The time necessary for the salt and alcohol potion to do its magic varies from 8 hours to several days. Some advocate that total evaporation of the alcohol must occur before the salt is removed. Others find that total evaporation isn’t necessary. Experiment and see which produces the best results for you. Of course, the more alcohol is added the longer it takes to evaporate. In my experience, I have found that 10 to 15 drops in a bowl full of salt will dry in about 24 hours and result in as much sweetness and good taste as any of the other methods.
6. After waiting the chosen time interval, it is time to remove the salt and any remaining spirits of alcohol. Take a pipe tool and poke through the hard brown/black crust which has formed in the bowl. The darkening results as the rancid tars and oils are drawn out of the cake and into the salt by some mysterious process.
I have found that thicker cakes produce darker salt. I do not recommend removing the cake that you have worked so hard to build. The cake is a product of a cooperative effect between person (puffing) and nature (tobacco) providing protection against burn-out. It also reduces tongue bite and is a significant factor in producing a sweet and mild smoke.
Remove the salt from the bowl by pouring, scraping, brushing, blowing or by throwing it over your left shoulder for good luck. But by all means don’t draw on the pipe before removing all of the discoloured salt.
Run a pipe cleaner through the stem several times to remove any last grains of salt. Salt often lurks in the cave-like darkness of the stem hoping to ambush unsuspecting taste buds as you comfortably sit back and draw your first long anticipated puff of angels breath.
7. Assuming you have followed the steps listed above pretty much in order, allowing for one or two variations of style, your pipe is ready to smoke. Fill it with your favourite tobacco and prepare yourself for an exciting, pleasurable smoking experience.
You can’t get pure alcohol (grain alcohol) in the state of Washington, so I ended up using 99% alcohol from the drugstore, and allowing the alcohol a little more time to evaporate.
There’s another method using boiling alcohol, but considering my klutz factor, I’ll bypass that method for now.
I just use the commercially available disinfectant-type pipe sweeteners in my stems by wetting a pipe cleaner, running it through the stem a couple of times, then running a dry pipe cleaner behind it.
Hope that helps!