I’ve recently been involved in a conversation about removing oxidation on stems with steel wool. I have to be honest, at the first mention of steel wool being used on a stem made my jaw drop (literally, almost dropped my pipe). But these guys are long time pipe smokers and restorers so I didn’t just brush off the information.
They said that using 0000 steel wool, dampened with water, removes oxidation much more efficiently than miracle erasers, Bar Keepers Friend or any micro mesh/sandpaper treatments. The increased efficiency also reduces the time invested I am told, which makes sense and is appealing.
So I decided to try an experiment on two old stems. These stems weren’t in terrible condition but had some oxidation to them and they were nothing too valuable if I made a real mess of them: they are expendable so they became my test subjects.
I soaked them in a room temperature OxiClean bath for about four hours or so; I had to leave the house for a while so I made sure the water wasn’t too warm and left them to soak while I was gone. When I got home I washed them with dish detergent and a scrubby sponge until they no longer felt slick: about 2-3 minutes. They were the. Left to air dry on a drain board overnight.
Yesterday morning I went out and bought some supplies: a package of 0000 steel wool and some 400 grit wet/dry sanding sticks; the sticks, or pads, remind me of short wide emery boards.
I took a piece of the steel wool and dampened it and began to rub the stems. Every few minutes I would wipe off the stem on an old towel, rinse out the wool, and go back to rubbing. It took very little time to remove the signs of oxidation and the stems were much less matte finished than they usually are after initial sanding. So I turned my attention to the stem with the stinger to work on the chatter.
I used the new 400 grit pads to wet sand on the chatter, going back and forth, wiping and rinsing as I had with the wool. These pads seem like they will be very useful in getting into that hard (for me at least) to get bit area and is why I bought them to begin with. They did, indeed, reach into that area much more easily and they took out the chatter fairly fast. That area was now more matte than the rest of them stem so I went back to the damp steel wool. In a few minutes the shine came back up even across the stem, which actually surprised me.
The whole process, not including the soak and dry time, took less than 15 minutes; I was again impressed.
Will steel wool scrubs replace all the sanding and micro mesh polishing? I don’t think so. Will it reduce the amount of time and effort spend making an old stem look new again? I believe it can. I expect to explore with more stems just how effective this process can be and how much sanding and polishing can be avoided using the steel wool. One fellow said he can go straight to the buffer after the wool scrub. On some stems that may be a possibility but I think on most it won’t. Any chatter or deep marks I think are still going to require sanding. And if you have a rough stem after the oxidation is gone I think it’s still going to need sanding, too. But this is a (new to me) technique that I think needs more investigation and experimentation, one that potentially reduce the amount of time and labor spent on many stems, letting is be more productive overall.
(Photo of the stem at the point I stopped along with the 400 grit pad I used and the packaging it cam in. By the way, my local Hobby Lobby has begun to carry a rather large line of Micro Mesh and Alpha Abrasives products. The prices are competitive and the selection good so if you have a local Hobby Lobby it would be worth your while to see if they are carrying these items in your area, too.)