The Best Ways to Clean a Pipe
I've tried most of the different ways to clean a glass pipe or water-pipe, from the sensible to the senseless. Some of these methods have ruined a few really nice pipes or left me with a really bad taste in my mouth, literally (commercial car-soap and youthful stupidity: a story with a sad ending).
Anyway, the purpose of this article is to tell you what works and what doesn't from a veteran's perspective. Also, with the high cost of finer glassware these days, it might behoove you to pay attention. I hope my experience will in some way help you. So, without further delay, we'll get down to business.
Pros: By boiling your glassware, you will actually sterilize it inside and out, which is why so many of the techniques listed later use boiling water as part of the process. Not only is it quick and efficient, but it also ensures that whatever might be growing amid the resin floes in your your pipe will be killed. Water can also bubble up into those difficult-to-reach areas, and thus clean the pipe thoroughly from within.
Cons: The only downside to this method lies in the fact that you may lose a lot of the resin build-up, if you save such stuff.
Best for: This method does not work well with the following pipes: wooden, ceramic, acrylic, or any plastics. Metal and real stone are okay, though faux-stone will crumble. Also, any paint will likely wash-away (metal or stone). This could prove be toxic, depending on the kind of paint used on the pipe. Many producers outside of the US use inferior paints, including lead-based, so please be careful. I actually avoid painted pipes all together; they're just not worth the risk. I recommend boiling for hand-blown or shatter/heat-resistant glass.
You will need:
- Small saucepan
- Salt (optional)
- Cotton swabs
- Paper clips
How to do it:
- Place pipe face-down in a Teflon-coated or non-stick saucepan. By placing the pipe face-down in the water, you are enabling the water to more easily access the harder-to-reach places, where swabs and paper-clips often cannot go. I recommend a non-stick pan as it's easier to clean the resin residue left as the water boils off.
- Submerge pipe in water. Fill sauce-pan with enough water to completely submerge the pipe in three inches of water.
- Bring to a boil.
- Add salt (optional). Some people recommend using salt as a mild abrasive to assist in the cleaning process. I use sea-salt because it is more granular. You can also scrub the pipe with salt in between boilings.
- Check pipe using tongs. And add more water as needed, until the pipe is clean. The amount of time needed will depend on how clean the pipe was to start with and how many are being cleaned at once.
- Clean the pipe with paper clip and cotton swabs. As it cools and dries.
- Collect and dry the resin. To effectively dry resin quickly, place it on a paper towel in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat until resin consistency is thick and gooey. Any more heat than this will cause it to solidify, forcing the resin-oil to the surface where it can burn off.
2. Alcohol and Sea-Salt Bath
Another time-tested way of cleaning a glass pipe is by soaking it in rubbing alcohol for at least a day or more. This method will gradually loosen the resin build-up, and allow for easy cleaning of the pipe with a swab.
Items you will need:
- Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol
- Sea salt
- Plastic bowl
- Cotton swabs
- Paper clips
How to do it:
- Place pipe in a bowl submerged in alcohol and salt.
- After at least twenty-four hours, drain pipe, and clean-out with cotton swabs and paper clips.
A variation of this method involves placing the same aforementioned ingredients in a sealed Ziploc bag, and shaking it vigorously before allowing to settle in for the twenty-four hour wait. Some people wait only twelve hours, six hours, five minutes, or whatever; it depends on the condition of your pipe.
3. Vinegar and Coarse Sea-Salt Bath or Boil
Another technique that many swear by is a vinegar and sea-salt bath. This one uses the same technique as the alcohol bath, with vinegar instead of alcohol. Alternatively, you can do the boiling method with vinegar instead of water.
Things to look out for: One issue often associated with this approach is that it can blemish certain pipes with an etched, finished, or painted surface. Be sure to find-out if this method is safe for your own pipe by continuously checking on pipe, whether you boil or bathe. If you notice any discoloration, promptly remove pipe from solution and wash thoroughly with water.
Stuff you will need:
- White vinegar
- Sea salt
- Plastic bowl or plastic bag
- Cotton swabs
- Paper clips
Here's what you do:
- Submerge the pipe in vinegar and add salt
- Bring to a boil OR let stand for twenty-four hours.
- If you opted for boiling, boil for a minimum of thirty minutes, or until pipe is clean.
- You may have to use swabs for fine cleaning, especially if you opt for an unboiled bath.
The vinegar, with it's mild acidity, will act as a solvent in cleaning your pipe, especially when combined with salt.
4. Acetone and Sea-Salt Bath
Some people do something similar to the alcohol bath method, but with acetone instead. I personally noticed little difference in performance when comparing the two.
Warning: Perform only in a well-ventilated space, and ideally outdoors! Acetone is highly flammable and unhealthy to breathe in.
What you will need:
- Plastic bowl or bag
- Sea salt
Follow the same steps as the alcohol bath method, but with acetone instead of alcohol.
5. Effervescent Bath
I learned this one from and old head in Florida, so take it with a grain of salt. Effervescent tablets are tablets that fizz as the dissolve in water, like Alka-Seltzer or Airborne.
Items you'll need:
- 3 to 6 effervescent tablets
- A canning or cleaned-out mayonnaise jar
- Cotton swabs
All you need to do:
- Drop several effervescent tablets into the jar.
- Put your pipe in face down.
- Add water.
As a rule of thumb, I generally start off with three to four tablets depending upon the size of the pipe and the resin build-up, and then add one tablet for every inch of pipe over two inches.
A Word on Commercial Cleaners and Solvents
With the advent of other "smokeables," there has been a renewed demand for cleaning agents compatible with glass smoke-ware. While many online and neighborhood smoke shops carry them, there are very few reliable and healthy ones on the market. Of the many brands that I've tried, the following five brands worked the best:
- Formula 420
- Agent Orange or Orange
- Randy's Black Label
There are hundreds of other brands available, some of which I'm sure are legitimate. Just be careful about what is in the ingredients, and stay away from those that are overly abrasive, as they tend to scratch some glass pipes. Also avoid ones that contain oils or greases, as they may "coat" the pipe.
Scraping: Does it Work for Pipe Cleaning?
Scraping out the gunk is the oldest way in the book to clean any kind of pipe. Even the methods above will probably be accompanied by a little scraping.
Now, there are many different ways to scrape your pipe, all with different pros and cons. Below are the necessities for a good budget "scraper's kit."
Scraper's Survival Kit:
- One box of paper clips, uncoated.
- One box of cotton swabs and/or bag of pipe cleaners.
- One sharp knife, like a good scout's or Swiss Army knife.
- Various-sized pokers: metal plungers of various lengths and widths that can be inserted down the throat of a pipe). NB: NEVER use wire clothes-hangers! (No, this is not my audition for Mommy Dearest). They are often coated with God-knows-what, which can flake off into your windpipe. Their made of a soft metal that can also break down in the pipe.
- Lots of screens. Another essential! Can't ever keep enough around! Steel ones tend to last longer than brass ones, which are prone to quick burn-throughs yet sadly cost the same ($0.50-1.00 for 10).
- One box of razor blades.
- One bottle of cleaning solution (ie. Formula 420). This is optional.
- A few clean absorbent towelettes or paper towel.
- One small LED flash-light.
- A bag or box to keep in all in. I prefer a small and soft buffalo-leather draw-string pouch that I bought out West. Not only does it protect, but it is extremely soft inside, so ideal for safely transporting a glass pipe and accessories.
Again, this list is merely a compilation of the items that I have found to work in cleaning glass pipes. These methods are by on means a complete list of ways to clean a glass pipe. Tell us your secret recipe for successfully cleaning your glass and water-pipes!
A Few Tips on Buying a Glass Pipe That's Easy to Clean
The best way to clean a glass pipe is to buy a pipe that's easy to clean in the first place. Here are a few practical things to consider when buying one. If you're drawn to fancy blow-art and a myriad of flutes, keep in mind that you'll have to clean them all, which is easier said than done. So, instead of doing that, why not simply buy one that is user-friendly? I mean, what good is a pretty pipe if you can't smoke it? After one or two runs, such pipes usually find premier positions as either paper-weights or conversation pieces that are semi-annually brought out of retirement.
Keeping a clean pipe is essential, as it is not only a reflection of your character, but of your hygiene as well. Would you want to wrap your lips around someone else's grungy, clogged pipe? Most die-hards have at one point, eagerly sacrificing standards for "politeness." Anyway, here's a few tips for buying a user-friendly pipe:
- Wide mouth and throat: Any pipe that I buy must be easy to clean. Look for ones with wider mouths and throats. Pipes with these features allow for greater fluid passage (water, cleaner, etc.), and also afford swabs, pokers, and paper-clips greater range of motion.
- High-quality glass: A good thick, blown, glass often works best, and will not break as easily (Pyrex works great too).
- Avoid glassware with intricate flutes and designs: These will clog more frequently and allow quicker resin build-up than those without them. Which simply means you will have to douche your pipe more often. I try to bathe my own two or three times per week whether it looks like it needs it or not.
- Carefully examine for tiny cracks, chips, or other defects prior to buying: Even the slightest imperfection can sometimes lead to high-temperature shattering (Don't laugh! I have personally seen this happen).
- Wide, basin-like bowl for easy-cleaning and refilling: Again, this is just my preference, and for my own reasons. If you prefer the narrow and tight to the wide and open, so be it! Just be prepared to clean it. The narrower the bowl, the deeper it usually is. So, try one of each, and see which one you prefer.
- Watch-out for heavy-weights! Especially with water-pipes. Unfortunately, regarding weight, the rule-of-thumb for glass is that the thicker or longer the pipe, the heavier it will be, minus any additional water. Before buying, carefully heft the pipe a few times in each hand to test the weight. Honestly, ask yourself: "Will this be an item that I do not mind frequently passing?" If the answer is "yes," then shop around some more. If the pipe is cumbersome now, think how unwieldy it might be at three a.m. on a Saturday morning, while you struggle with cleaning it and your guests fall asleep. Then, inevitably, will come the "drop," followed by a few choice expletives, a broom, and a dust-pan.
- Use only quality cleaners: Better none at all than high quality, trust me. Shop around. Read consumer reports, and before you buy, learn about what the chemicals in each brand do to your mind and body. Knowledge is power!
Showdown! What Works And What Doesn't...
Have any new tips for cleaning glass pipes? Let's hear them...
Courtney on June 05, 2017:
Where can I get this bong pictured at the end here? Anyone have any ideas?
Ems627 on March 18, 2017:
I have tried everything & only found one thing or way that gets it sparkling clean with little to no time or effort. Not sure how or who told me about it, but trust me it works! Rust stain remover in a brown bottle made by Whinks buy it at any grocery store/ hardware store. Put a bit in hold finger on stem take q-tip rub around rinse with hot water several times let dry & bam sparkly clean!
Ash on July 20, 2015:
I have always used acetone and salt. Works great! But I ran out and just recently used alcohol found. I'll probably go back to acetone but so far, alcohol is working just fine too.
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Rustyw on December 19, 2013:
Thanx Grizzly! Another great possibility!
Grizzly on December 18, 2013:
The following is what I used to do with alcohol; I now use acetone because it is much more effective at dissolving pipe gunk. You can buy it at any hardware store. Its usually next to the paint thinner. Don't do this on finished wood surfaces like tables, or painted surfaces, because the acetone will strip your finish and paint right off (duh). It might also damage plastic.
Put your pipe into a tall water glass. If you are sensitive to fumes, or just don't want toxic chemicals filling the air in your home, get a canning jar with a screw on lid, which is what I use. You can get them at many grocery stores, and craft stores like Michaels almost always have them. They're also known as fruit jars, Ball jars, Kerr jars, etc.
Fill the glass with acetone so that the pipe is completely submerged. The acetone will become really dirty almost immediately.
Let it sit for 10 or 12 minutes, longer if its really dirty.
When you think its ready, pull it out. Rinse it out under the tap with the water at its hottest setting. Use a pair of channel locks, tongs, pliers, etc. to hold it so you don't burn your fingers. Use a paper towel with a tiny bit of acetone to remove flecks of gunk stuck to your sink, if necessary.
Let it cool down, and then repeat if necessary.
After your pipe is cool, run it under cold water for a few minutes to help wash away the acetone. Always remember to let your pipe cool ON ITS OWN BEFORE running it under cold water; if you get cold water on a really hot piece of glass it might crack or even shatter. After that, let it sit and dry for a couple hours, to make sure that every last bit of acetone has evaporated. Acetone evaporates very quickly, but I let it go longer just to be sure.
Before I use my newly cleaned pipe, I blow through it just to make extra-sure there's no lingering fumes.
When you are done, dispose of the acetone. Don't pour it down the sink because your kitchen will stink for days, and neighbors/visitors might think you're doing something really stupid like cooking meth or making explosives. Don't flush it down the toilet either because many toilets have plastic piping. The reason I prefer the canning jar is that I can screw the cap on really tight and then stick it the trash on garbage day. If you screw it tight, the fumes won't escape.
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Jenny on January 07, 2013:
Great article! My pipe is so dirty -.- I'm going to be trying the vinegar sea salt bath, hope it works.
eric-carter from Fulham, UK on May 23, 2012:
Great tips, the alcohol bath with salt seems to be working great for me :) voted up