Blowing Smoke


How to use a Pipe Retort

Here is the set of instructions I send out with my retort kits on eBay.  I put these kits together to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.  10% of the final sale on all kits is automatically donated!

WARNING  Use at your own risk.  I am not to be held liable should you injure or set fire to yourself, personal property, or privates.  Always keep a clean workspace and a fire extinguisher near when using any open flame.

Before we begin you should ream and remove the cake from your bowl to ensure best results for restoration or for general maintenance you can leave the cake.  Also make sure your workspace is clean and free from any flammable objects or liquids.  Also I would recommend you have safety glasses and a fire extinguisher nearby just in case.  These are basic rules anytime you use an open flame for any purpose.

Step 1-

Fill test tube with pure grain (190 proof 95%) alcohol leaving about a 1/2in-1in from the stopper.  The alcohol should be as strong as you can find for best results but the difference in performance between 80 proof (40%) and 190 proof (95%) is minor. It should also be potable so you should avoid denatured or isopropyl. Keep in mind that alcohols can leave flavors and even residue behind. If it is not meant for consuming it is probably not safe to smoke either…though I have read of many people using isopropyl and not caring that it is non-potable and having no regret or ill effect.  However denatured alcohol usually contains toxins such as Methyl isobutyl ketone to keep people from drinking it and according to the MSDS you should avoid inhaling it!  Also keep in mind that whiskey, brandy, and rum are flavored liquors and will flavor or season briar leaving small traces of their flavor behind where as pure grain and vodka leave little to no noticeable odors/flavors behind. Some people are sensitive enough to taste the flavor left from the alcohol you have used and some cannot tell at all(that’s how faint the flavor/seasoning is from the alcohol you choose). Everclear 190 is slowly disappearing everywhere and switching to 151. Where I live the everclear is 151 but right beside it on the shelf is golden grain that is 190 so that is what I use.  151 and 190 are nearly the same in performance.  I hope this helps you understand a little about the use of alcohol in this process.

TIP: Have/make a holder for the retort to hold it upright without spilling when you need to set it down or store it. I use an old babyfood jar but one could also use a tall shot glass, jigger, any small glass, or make one from a scrap piece of 2×4 board (drill hole ⅝”-1” or 16mm-25mm diameter)


Step 2-

Check with a  pipe cleaner to ensure the pipe is not clogged so the alcohol steam will be able to move freely to the bowl and then stuff a cotton ball in the bowl of your pipe to be cleaned.  Some clogged pipes may need to be cleared using a small (5/32 or 4mm) drill bit.  You can turn the drill bit by hand or with pliers but a drill is not recommended since you could easily damage your draft hole or bowl this way.

Step 3-

Attach tubing to mouthpiece. Wet the mouthpiece slightly to help slip the tubing over the end.


Step 4-

Insert the copper stem into the stopper until flush with the bottom and then insert into tube and ensure a good seal is formed with a slight twist.

Step 5- (Remember safety first!  It is recommended you wear safety glasses for this step.)

Light candle or alcohol lamp and hold the tube in the flame at about a 40 degree angle (KEEP YOUR FINGERS AWAY FROM ANY EXPOSED COPPER AND THE GLASS TEST TUBE, HOLD THE RETORT BY THE RUBBER TUBING AND YOUR PIPE).  You will hear a slight popping and hissing sound as the alcohol begins to boil (this is normal).


Then the alcohol will begin to evaporate and move into the pipe.  After a second or two of boiling usually about half the alcohol from the tube has moved to the pipe remove from flame and lift your pipe a little to allow the alcohol to drain back out of the pipe and into the tube.  The key here is to remove from the flame just as the alcohol boils good.  Holding on the flame longer will just push the alcohol to the cotton where it will vent out or soak into the cotton causing you to refill more frequently and can overheat/melt the stem.  Repeat the process several times and refill the tube if it gets below half way full.  Sometimes the cotton ball will absorb some of the alcohol with these first couple flushes but less with later flushes.  You should let the pipe rest/cool for a few minutes every 10 flushes so as not to get the stem too hot and melt it.

WARNING if the stem starts to melt it will seal the draft hole causing dangerous pressure to build inside the retort. I cannot stress enough how important it is to never HOLD a boil and to allow proper resting time between flushing.

Now your alcohol may be getting dark and you can continue to use the same alcohol and just keep refilling it as needed but usually if it getts really dark I like to pour the black alcohol out and start with fresh so I can see the change in how much gunk is being pulled out of the pipe.

Once the alcohol starts to flush out light yellow allow the pipe to cool (usually 10-20 minutes is good) and remove the latex tubing and dip a bristled pipe cleaner in alcohol and run it through your pipe.  I usually pull the stem off and scrub the bit with one end and the shank with the other.  Then I dip a Q-tip in alcohol and run it along the inside of the shank.  This usually holds a lot of thick black tar and resin as you may well know.  Then reassemble your pipe and repeat the flushing procedure. Usually after doing this entire process 3-4 times the pipe should be completely clean.  The alcohol flushing back out will only have a slight yellow color but you should be able to run a alcohol dipped pipe cleaner through your pipe with very little discoloration to it as well as a Q-tip in the shank.
Congratulations, your pipe is now clean and sanitized!  Remove the cotton ball and allow 24-48 hours for the pipe to completely dry before smoking.  Break your pipe back in as you would a new one and build your own cake up the way you like it without any ghosting or sourness.  If you used a candle as your heat source there will be a black carbon film on the bottom of the retort.  This is easily removed with a little water and a small piece of 000 steel wool or coarse sponge.  Most can even be wiped away with a rag.

I recommend you clean all used pipes you get from eBay or anywhere for that matter.  I’ve gotten some really nasty stuff out of pipes that were sold “cleaned, sanitized, and ready to smoke”.  Fact is most people simply polish and ream the pipes and scrub out the stem and shank with alcohol soaked pipe cleaners so that the air flows freely through the pipe.  This does work to an extent but leaves the pipe prone to souring quickly.  I hope you enjoy restoring or maintaining your pipes.  Below is a pic of what I have gotten out of pipes sold “cleaned, sanitized, and ready to smoke”.  I’ve marked the different times I flushed the pipe and pictured is all I used to clean with.  I normally don’t use pipe cleaners until the last couple flushes as you can see.


There was a 6th flushing but it seems I lost the picture, but the pipe cleaner and Q-tip should have been even lighter than the 5th.  Once it starts to lighten up you know you’re almost done. ( it appears I may have swapped the 2 nd and 3 rd Q-tip between the pictures…human error prevails!)


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