Erik asked a few weeks ago for advice from everyone on keeping his Peterson vulcanite mouthpieces black and shiny. In the following post I share my own methods, but everyone has a recipe and it would be great if you would share what works for you in the comments section below. There are three parts to consider, and your answer to any or all will be much appreciated by both Eric and myself:
- How do you keep a new vulcanite mouthpiece and button black and shiny?
- If a mouthpiece or button is discolored or sun faded, what do you do to bring it back to black?
- If you’ve got a button with dental chatter, how do you remove it?
The mouthpieces chosen for this post are from the 2005 Antique Collection, seen here after their restoration.
They’re not Systems but what Charles Peterson called “Peterson Patent Lip” pipes
and are the best Peterson army mounts I’ve ever smoked. The mouthpieces are
replicas of the Patent-era design, seen in the graceful expansion of the truly graduated mouthpiece
as it travels toward the mortise. These were made by Gawith-Hoggarth, one of Peterson’s mouthpiece outsourcers, c. 2005-2010.
There is nothing more comfortable for a pipe smoker than a vulcanite mouthpiece. Amber? Beautiful, expensive and hard as glass. Dental marks easy to make and impossible to remove. Acrylic? Slippery and difficult to clench, not as hard as amber. Artisan-grade hand-poured acrylic is easily chipped by your teeth.
The only thing better than vulcanite is a well-made vulcanite P-Lip. Pete Freeks know it and we don’t care about those who “can’t stand it” because that leaves more estate pipes for us, right?
It’s true that oxidation is and always has been the downside to vulcanite, but in recent years it has become much easier to control and remedy, which probably explains why the “acrylic-is-the greatest” craze seems to be coming to an end, especially for those who want versatility and comfort in their pipes and not just a hand-held showpiece.
I remember when there wasn’t much you could do about oxidation except take your pipe to the brick & mortar and ask them if they could buff it for you. At mine they’d do it, but it usually took a week or two and when I got the pipe back the green button might be (mostly) gone, but in no way did the mouthpiece look obsidian-black, as-new. Not too many years into my journey as a pipeman someone told me I could apply toothpaste on the button to remove the nasty, sour-tasting green and gray patch. It worked, somewhat, but left the button discolored. As for sun fading? Not much to do about it but try to shine the mouthpiece up to a brown & shiny.
Fast forward 40 years and there’s pipe smokers who get seriously upset if there’s even a touch of discoloration on the button. They remind me of the “white spot” fellows A. A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh and inveterate pipeman) used to complain about who were so busy admiring their white spots they had little time left to smoke their pipes.
What if we were to take the via media, the middle-of-the-road that the Perennial Tradition has always advised and try to simply enjoy our pipes and not get too stressed out about using them, especially since we know how to get them back to black when necessary?
Button Cleaning & Maintenance
I’d like to say that if you get a new Pete and apply Obsidian oil assiduously (say that 3x in a row), you’ll never have a problem. And the application of said oil or an equivalent (mineral oil, perhaps) will go a long way toward keeping it looking good. But aside from the oddball OCD among us, sooner or later, that button is going to begin a slow and steady decline. Not, I hope, as bad as this P-Lip on my 1908 Antique Collection (2005) seen in the banner image:
The pipe is 15 years old now and one of my favorites, as you can see from its use. I’ve smoked it less frequently in the past year, undoubtedly because it’s reached the place where the mouthpiece and rim needed some TLC. You can use a Magic Eraser or toothpaste and scrub the button with a toothbrush to remove some of the discoloration. This should also remove any unpleasant taste, if the button has gone to that stage. You can follow that cleaning with some mineral oil or Obsidian oil to further camouflage it, and from across the room or even across your desk, it should look . . . okay. But if you want to remove dental divots and chatter, discoloration at the button and restore the entire piece to jet black, it’s going to take a bit more.
A low-cost restore and maintain.
You don’t have to invest much to learn to do a basic restore and maintain on your vulcanite mouthpieces, and you may have some of the equipment already:
* Micromesh Pad set ($12.95)
* sheets of 220, 400, 600 and 1000, 1200 sandpaper
* Obsidian oil ($8 at SPC or SPCEu) or mineral oil
* small flat file or reasonable facsimile
* Oxi-Clean clothing stain remover
* soft flame butane lighter
You may not want to mess with the lighter and many pipe smokers believe mineral oil can be used as a substitute for the Obsidian oil (although it obviously won’t have UV protection). The small flat file and sandpaper you may have on hand but aren’t pricey if you don’t, and the Micromesh Pad set lists for $12.95 at Amazon, but a lot of online retailers carry it.
Assessment. First, look at the job you need to do, because they’re all different. Notice the gradations of color on the upper button and then the rest of the mouthpiece to determine if could be just a button-touch up and stem polish or will need to be a mouthpiece restoration.
For this mouthpiece, I’m thinking it will have to be a restoration, since I want to get rid of the dental scratches and divots. Just to be sure, I immerse the mouthpiece in a Tupperware container of Oxi-Cleaner powdered laundry stain remover dissolved in warm water and leave it for 20 minutes so so. If it turns the mouthpiece gray, I’ve got a MicroMesh pad job ahead of me.
The oxidation has traveled all the way down the mouthpiece until it hits the part covered by the mortise, which remains black. So now it’s Micromesh time, beginning with the dental marks.
Sanding to “Gun Metal.” The first part of the job is getting rid of dental chatter and yellow oxidation and bringing the mouthpiece to a uniform gun metal gray. This stopping place is important—if you don’t you may finish up only to find you’ve still got a discolored mouthpiece with yellow or brown under the shine.
This detail gives me a good idea of what I’m facing: notice the cigar-shaped divot under two patches of scratches
in front of the button and two large sets of scratches above the airhole.
Remember you’re sanding away the upper layer of the mouthpiece to bring it down to the level of the divots and scratches. You can do this with sandpaper and Micromesh pads alone, or you can go a little faster with the help of your pipe lighter—that is, if it’s got a soft butane flame. This operation is a bit of a risk, so please think about your skill set before taking the plunge. If you burn the vulcanite, there will always be a scorch mark.
Take a soft flame butane lighter and pass the yellow flame back and forth under the divots or scratches. The yellow flame should pass over the vulcanite as you slowly pass it back and forth. Use the same pace you would with a can of spray paint: slow and even. If you see black smoke and/or smell vulcanite, don’t freak out. Let the mouthpiece cool a bit, then try again. Pass the flame slowly from side to side again. Better to slow and too little than too much. My flaming brought up the scratches and divots about half-way, which saved me some sanding.
The button chatter is shallow so I begin with the 400 grit paper, sanding in a small semi-circular motion over the afflicted area (using my finger as a sanding pad), then going over the rest of the top button to keep everything looking balanced, papering up through 600, 1000 and 1200. You can see the result here:
The dental marks in the front of the button, upper and lower, are deeper and on a (relatively) flat surface, so I fold the sandpaper over a small flat file, like you can see in below, and use an oval motion over the afflicted area. In the photo following, the portion in front of the button has been sanded progressively through 220, 400, 600, 1000 and 1200 grit paper around the flat file.
Now I’m ready to sand with Micromesh pads. The thing here is to sand across the mouthpiece completely, then go back over the entire mouthpiece with the length. You want to finish the length of the mouthpiece to minimize reflections from micro-scratches.
I apply a small amount of Obsidian oil between most of the grits. This not only helps the work go faster, but keeps the vulcanite supple, working in the oil as I go. I progress from 1500 through 2400, then stop to see if I’ve got a good gun metal gray, a sure indication I’ve gone beneath the oxidation:
There’s lint and dust on the mouthpiece, but you can see the gun metal color. You can also see some slight yellowing down
where the mouthpiece goes into the mortise. I didn’t notice it until I took the photograph.
A good light source is imperative. You’re trying to get natural daylight, which is 5600 Kelvin outdoors, or 3200 K indoors. An Ott Light will do it, but so will a number of of the new compact fluorescents. If you can see yellow underneath now, you’re going to see it under good light when you’re done. This can be discouraging, especially on a 60 or 70-year old mouthpiece. The quality of K&P’s vulcanite rod seems to have been all over the map throughout the company’s history and depending on the grade of the pipe.
Finishing Up. Now I know I’ll have a black mouthpiece, so I move on from 2400, sanding through the pads to 12,000. Here it is at 12,000 grit:
And here it is after applying Obsidian oil:
The trick, as those of you who detail your MGs, MINIs or 1949 Nash Airflytes (!) know, is getting the light not to hit the scratches, because scratches there will always be. The oil fills in some of those (like car wax), creates a deeper black and gives it a higher luster.
Benefits of a Buffer.
There may come a time in your pipe-smoking journey that you’re wanting to do something more. Maybe you’ve become interested in estate pipes and how you can make them like like new, or maybe you just want to take your rotation to the next level. Well, for the price of a De Luxe System and a couple of tins of tobacco, you can get one of these:
Not that it has to be a Foredom BL (Bench Lathe) pictured above—it could be any kind of variable-speed buffing machine. The Foredom runs about $250 for the set-up seen above and is small enough for limited workspaces. It’s fantastic for polishing Peterson metal mounts and bowls as well as mouthpieces. It doesn’t generate enough RPMs to have to worry much about over-buffing, although if you’re not careful, it’s possible.
There is the temptation to overbuff, even among the professional restorationists and eBay sellers, who sometimes seem to want to go to any length not to sand a mouthpiece. They buff because it’s quick (which I understand) but in doing so they often hide rather than remove oxidation. Sometimes they even remove some of the stem material. More often they just make the mouthpiece shiny rather than obsidian. You can usually tell you’re dealing with one of these fast workers because there will be rouge compound in the P-Lip’s air hole and the mouthpiece will smell like it’s been on the buffer rather than clean and fresh. And if you’re not careful, you can join the over-buffing ranks and totally ruin an embedded aluminum P in the mouthpiece by heating the vulcanite around it. I know because I’ve done it.
Here’s the mouthpiece after buffing (but with quite a bit of lint still on it) with white compound on the Foredom:
I’d give myself an 89 or 90/100 on this one. You can see a line of oxidation right across the upper shelf of the P-Lip button. I should’ve paid more attention.
Buffing the Button
If you don’t let the button become too discolored and the mouthpiece is still fairly black, a buffer can also be a great tool for restoration without the more intensive labor of sanding with Micromesh pads. Here’s the other pipe in the 2005 Antique Collection, the 1904 Jap. As you can see, the the button has begun to discolor:
It’s got one dental divot in front of the P-Lip shelf underneath two areas of dental chatter, plus a large area of dental scratching on the button:
Before going to the buffer, I began by rubbing some Soft Scrub Oxi-Clean over the button, then rinsing well in cold water. I might just as well have used Magic Eraser or anything that will remove as much of the surface stain as possible and so help the buffing compound do a better job:
Preliminary cleaning done, I put the Tripoli (brown) buffing wheel on the Foredom, followed by the Rouge (red) over the dental marks on the top and bottom of the button. It’s not fast work, but it’s faster than papering. This pulled out all the dental chatter aside as well as the divot (which must have been mostly lifted by the flame). I then used White Diamond over the entire mouthpiece, producing an as-new or better-than-new finish:
So here it is, lots of lint, but a much more appealing 1904 Antique Reproduction.
And here’s the1908 Antique Collection, without the benefit of the buffer.
As you can see, it still looks quite good.
If you have tips, methods and tools for cleaning and maintaining
your Peterson vulcanite mouthpieces, please write me or
share in the comments below.