Hand Made? Machine Made? Hand Made By Machine?

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Published in Pipes and Tobaccos, Fall 2003. This version is unedited. Used by Permission.

HAND MADE? MACHINE MADE? HAND MADE BY MACHINE? Another in an infrequent series of articles concerning THE BRIAR PIPE, By R. D. Field

Lemme see that, son. Nice pipe! Says hand made right on it. I made me a pipe once, when I was a boy. Didn’t look too good, but it worked. Made it out of a corncob. Dried that sucker in the sun for days and then used a paring knife to whittle away the inside. Couldn’t get too far down to make a deep bowl- paring knife bein’ kinda small. Found me a hollow reed down by the creek bed, carved out a little hole for it with the knife and put ‘er in. Looked somethin’ like that pipe MacArthur was smokin’ in that famous picture.

Did your man make your pipe like I made mine? Or did he use machines? You see, there’s a difference between bein’ completely made by human hands and bein’ made by humans usin’ machinery.

Way back, when we was just startin’ to grow food instead of just hunt it we used to gather wheat, rye, oats, millet, barley to make bread and beer. We crushed those grains between two stones to separate the stuff we could use from the husks. It was all hand work, down and dirty. Later we formed a kind of a bowl to put the grain in and then used a stick or stone rounded at one end to crush it. This worked better because the grain stayed inside the bowl instead of scattering all around like it did on the stones. But it was still all hand work.

As we got smarter we developed machines to help us with this job. We got a great big round stone and put a hole in the middle. Put a huge big stick like a tree limb through the hole, planted one end of the stick to an axis so it could turn, pushed the other end of the stick to make the stone move in a circle- and there was a grain grinding machine. So now there’s no more hand grinding of grain. Progress, right?

We use machines to do stuff faster, better, or both. That big grind-stone sure was faster than folks grinding with hand tools. But get this and get it right. Even though a person might be pushing that grind-stone to make it turn, that person was using a machine. Sometimes an animal was used to turn the stone, sometimes water from a stream, but it don’t make no difference. A machine is a machine no matter who or what is supplying the power to make it run.

So- you think that pipe a’yourn is all hand made? Like my ol’ corncob? Maybe so; then again maybe not. It’s really difficult for a human person to make a beautiful and precise smokin’ pipe out of briar. Far easier outta clay or meerschaum because they’re soft when they’re worked. Make a mistake with a clay and you roll it up into a ball and start over again because clay don’t get hard till its baked. Meerschaum ain’t quite so soft as clay- more like soap. But far easier to carve than a hard wood like briar. That’s why you see so many sculptures on meerschaum pipes- not that the people who do ‘em ain’t skilled, ‘cause they are. But briar is prone to chip, and if you mess up it’s much harder to get somethin’ useful outta it.

I guess we got to get some definitions here- and the definitions can really shade into one another in practical application.

Hand made- to me this is a pipe that is made using only hand tools No machinery of any type is used.

Machine made- a pipe made using only machinery and no hand work.

Hand made by machine- any combination of the above two methods.

Are any briar pipes really hand made? They can be, but it’d be really difficult to get ‘em to look right and smoke right. I mean- you could take a block of briar and coarse-file the outside and then sand the outside and it would look okay, maybe great. You could dig out the inside of the bowl usin’ various hand tools and sand that down, and the inside of the bowl would be fine. But then we come to the draft hole- the hole startin’ at the end of the shank and extendin’ to the base of the bowl. How do you make such a bore without usin’ a machine. I guess you could use a hammer and nail, or maybe you could use a long wood screw. But d’ya see the risk here? Not only is this method gonna take a long time, but you’ll probably mess it up. And how d’ya get a bore through the mouthpiece. I mean you could file the outside of the plexiglas or vulcanite and, if you’re skilled, do a nice job. But that air hole through the middle- that’s the problem. Nah! I don’t think any briar pipes today are hand made.

What about machine made? Well, there are machines that use a template and turn out a dozen or two of exactly the same model at every go; and there are machines that manufacture mouthpieces through placing liquid plexiglas or vulcanite into molds.

But- the machine that turns out a dozen at a time can’t do the job completely. Each bowl has what in the trade are called ears (I guess because they stick out)- edges on each side of the base of the pipe bowl that the machine can’t get to. These ears have to be sanded off- by hand. Before the mouthpiece can be fitted the interior at the end of the shank has to be bored out, by hand, in order to accept the tenon. As the mouthpiece is fitted to the pipe it has to be made flush with the shank- by hand sanding. Finally, the marks left by the mold must be taken off the edges of the mouthpiece- again by hand. So a machine made pipe ain’t really completely made by machine- and we ain’t even talked about the stainin’ and finishin’ parts. Surprised, eh?

Here we come to the crux of the matter: how d’ya differentiate what today we call a hand made pipe from what we call a machine made pipe? I’ll bet this is gonna be different for all of us, so let’s look at the possibilities.

There are artisans who do all they possibly can by hand- leaving to a machine only what they must. Such a fella will hand cut, hand file and hand sand a briar block until it is a fully completed pipe bowl on the outside. He will most likely use a machine to make the tobacco chamber and will certainly use a machine both to make the draft hole from end of shank to base of bowl and to enlarge the interior at the end of the shank so as to accept a tenon. He will hand cut and hand finish the outside of the mouthpiece, only using machinery to drill the interior air hole and cut the tenon. Now we’re not talkin’ about skill level here, only methods. Just because a fella uses lots of hand work doesn’t mean the stuff he makes is great. I used all hand work on my corncob and no one called that a great pipe.

Other fellas turn bowls by hand- putting a briar block on a chuck, setting a machine in motion to turn the block at high speed and using hand chisels to shape both the exterior and interior of the bowl- sorta like hand turning a table leg or bed post. Remember- although it’s called hand turning there’s a machine involved. Machinery is also used to drill the draft hole and mortise (the part at the end of the shank that accepts the tenon). In the past some of the fellas that hand turned bowls used molded mouthpieces. Can’t figger that one out; I mean, if you could hand turn a bowl why can’t you hand cut a mouthpiece?

Here’s where it gets interestin’- where the differentiation between hand made and machine made becomes blurred. There are fellas, artisans again, who’ve invented machines that make pipe bowls one by one. And by turning various cams, screws, and levers each of these guys can make any size or shape he designs- one off. So instead of doin’ hand work on the pipe bowl itself they’re doin’ the hand work on the machine, which is then followin’ instructions. Some of these machines can only make the outside of the bowl and the tobacco chamber, and the ears still have to be sanded off; others can make everything except the draft hole and mortise in one go. One fella invented a machine that can do it all, including a dead-center draft hole every time. So I guess these fellas are after two things- precision in their designs, and the ability to make more pipes than if they did everything possible by hand. Most of these folks hand cut their mouthpieces, although a few use molded mouthpieces which they hand finish.

Other makers, larger ones, use machine-turned bowls but then lavish a tremendous amount of hand work in sanding, pumicing, staining, waxing, mouthpiece work and general overall finishin’ of the pipe. These larger places spend time and money on quality control so that every pipe is in-spected and then either se-lected or re-jected.

Now hold on to your britches here son, because it gets even more complicated. Some folks don’t make their own bowls at all but buy ‘em in from other places. Probably all these bought-in bowls are machine turned, though I ain’t sure about that. But that ain’t the end of it- not at all. These fellas will spend a lot of time and hand work in changin’ the way these bowls look- so you wouldn’t know the one that come out was the same one that went in. One shape’ll come in the door and a different one’ll leave- maybe billiard to panel or dublin to bulldog. Who knows? These guys’re creative and they’re addin’ their own touch, their own flair, their own signature.

So there y’have it m’boy. There ain’t no all hand made pipe (at least I don’t know of any) and there ain’t no all machine made pipe neither. But there’s all kinds of stuff in-between. Now what does this all mean? It means what you want it to mean. If you need to have a pipe that is as hand made as it can be, that’s what you go after. But just because a guy makes only 40 pipes a year doesn’t mean that he makes 40 great pipes a year, or any great pipes a year. Remember- I’m talkin’ about method, not skill. You got to know what you’re after, what appeals to you. You got to take into consideration so many things, only one of which is how the thing was made. Now- let’s have a look at that pipe a’yourn again.