Pipe Making For The Rank Amateur

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This article originally appeared in The Ohio Pipe Club Journal, which is now The Pipe Collector, the newsletter for the North American Society of Pipe Collectors (NASPC), and used by permission. I think it is an excellent essay on diving in and making a pipe from scratch with very little previous knowledge, but with a little wood working background and some basic tools.


When he learned that I had created a handful of briar pipes during the last couple of months, Bill Unger asked me to render my experiences and any hints developed while making pipes for the education and enlightenment of the membership. Being even more of an amateur at writing than I am at pipe making, I must beg for your forbearance as you read on.

I have been a pipe smoker and in a small way a collector for the last 40 years or so. During that time, I frequently wondered while I admired or smoked some pipe maker's masterpiece if such creativity was in the realm of possibility for the average bloke (read "me"). The answer was, for a long time, no way, man! Last Christmas, however, Harold Berlin, my best buddy of some 30 years standing and also a pipe smoker, threw me a real curve. Over the years, he and I had frequently discussed the various attributes that go into making a pipe a success, both artistically and as a good smoke, and had wondered together if we could make a pipe of professional quality given the materials and the time. His method of bringing the matter to a head was to present me with a briar block and a stem blank as a Christmas gift along with a challenge to get off the dime and make a pipe.

I headed for the shop to see what I could come up with. To make a long story short, after about 12 hours of work, I held in my hands my first pipe, a Danish-style freehand with plateau (that is, the rough, naturally knobby surface of the briar) bowl top and stem end similar in shape and style to various Ben Wades and Preben Holms that are among the favorites of my small collection. I'm sure I was guided, albeit unknowingly, in shaping that first pipe by some of the attributes I had admired while handling and smoking the pipes of the Danish masters. Bursting with pride, I rushed to show my creation to Hal. He was stunned! Well, I want you to know that this initial success created a monster. I rushed an order to a supply of briar blocks and assorted stem blanks and haven't looked back since. The thing that really amazed me and continues to do so is that making pipes really isn't all that difficult. All one needs are a few basic tools, the pipe materials and a plan of action. Basic Tools I'll describe a minimum tool set and then mention a few special tools that might make the job easier or more pleasurable. But one can get by easily with a vise, a square, a small saw (coping saw or hacksaw), assorted files, assorted sandpaper and an electric hand drill with assorted bits. Additional tools, such as a special drill bit for boring the tobacco hole, a tenon turning tool, buffs and cutters, are available at a cost that will fit into most people's budget without breaking the bank. I am fortunate to have a small Shop smith combination lathe, a bench grinder, a bench motor with tapered spindles for wire and buffing wheels and, most useful of all, a Foredom flex-shaft hobby tool with a large assortment of cutting, grinding and polishing accessories. I use these tools because I have them in the shop, but one could easily get by with the basic list.

Pipe Materials

As my pipe-making experience is limited to a handful of briar pipes, predominantly freehands, I'll stick to briar in outlining the materials necessary. Basically, two materials--briar and stem stock--are needed to construct a pipe. These, however, are available in many different forms and qualities. Most experts advise beginners to start with an ebauchon for their initial few forays into pipe making because ebauchons are typically cut in a size and shape to facilitate making a pipe, and being from the inner, less desirable part of the burl, they are cheaper. Here is where I differ from the accepted philosophy. I use only extra-grade plateaux. They cost a few dollars more but are vastly more likely to yield a pipe with beautiful grain and excellent smoking characteristics. My thinking is that if I'm going to spend 8 to 12 hours creating a pipe, why start with a $5-6 ebauchon, when, for $12 or $14, I can start with an extra- grade plateau that will maximize my possibilities for creating a truly nice pipe?

Enough about wood; let's talk stem materials. Most briar pipe stems are composed of vulcanite (hard rubber, also occasionally referred to as ebonite or vulcanite) or acrylic. Acrylic is referred to by several proprietary names. The most common is Dupont's Lucite, but also encountered are Perspex by Imperial Chemical Industries, Plexiglass by Rohm & Haas and Acrylite by American Cyanamid. Both vulcanite and acrylic are available in rods of varying diameters from which the craftsman can produce pipe stems of any desired shape and size. Doing so requires a lathe or drilling jig because the stems must be drilled, shaped, sanded and polished. The beginner is probably better served by purchasing pre-shaped vulcanite stem blanks made in presses that only require final shaping, sanding, bending (if desired) and polishing. They are available in a wide variety of styles and sizes both for standard shaped pipes and freehands.

Plan of Action

Before actually starting to form your pipe from the briar plateau, I advise you to prepare a plan of action, which will be controlled to a large degree by the size, shape and grain characteristics of the particular block you are working with. In order to get a good idea of what lies within the bark-covered, rough-sawn plateau, I recommend first cleaning it up a bit. The outer surface's bark covering can be readily removed by vigorously applying a wire brush or a wire wheel on a drill or bench motor. I've used both methods and recommend the mechanical version if you have the equipment as being much quicker and less difficult. One must wear eye protection because the bark and small bits of wire are shed from the wheel with projectile force. I wear a full-face shield while engaging in this process, and I frequently hear the resounding "ping" of some errant bit of wire bouncing from the shield. Much better than finding it stuck in my face! Have no fear that the wire wheel will deface the plateau surface, leaving it unsuited for use as a handsome knobby pipe top or stem end. The briar is tough enough that only the bark is removed, leaving a clean plateau surface.

The next step in preparing a block is to sand the outer surfaces, which have been rough sawn to a smooth surface that reveals the grain pattern. When the plateau is sawed, the sides and bottom are normally kept square with one another. When you sand, be sure to retain this squareness. It will allow you to plan the drilling of the tobacco and smoke holes precisely so that they meet at the proper place within the block. Once your plateau is clean, I suggest that you wipe it with alcohol, which will cause the grain to stand out momentarily and will give you a realistic picture of what you may expect to find as you begin carving. I find it helpful at this point to roughly sketch with a soft lead pencil various potential designs for my pipe on the side of the block. The marks are easily erased, and one may proceed until a design is reached that seems to fit within the available wood and that makes the best use of the grain pattern. Another advantage of cleaning up the blocks and doing this preliminary sketching is that you can frequently figure out ways to come up with a nice- looking pipe while cutting away parts of the block that display obvious flaws.

At this point, perhaps a few words about flaws in the briar are in order. You will seldom if ever find a piece of briar burl completely free of flaws, which may appear as cracks, sand pits or small pockets of foreign matter and may be found on the visible surface of the block or hidden deep within. Although most flaws, if left visible on the outer surface of your finished pipe, will not affect the smoking quality, one usually strives, simply from a desire for beauty, to achieve a finished product that displays no flaws. I must admit, however, that strive as one may, achieving a finished product absolutely free of visible flaws is seldom possible. Even the most advanced professional pipe makers may find a pit or crack just as they are doing the final sanding on a hitherto flawless masterpiece. In this case, one must accept the flaw, remove it and use a fill or continue removing wood in the hope that the flaw is shallow enough to be sanded away without spoiling the pipe's shape. Another method frequently used by professionals when something like this rears its ugly head is to revert to a sandblasted or otherwise textured finish in order to hide the flaw(s). While I personally admit to liking a well-done sandblast finish, I prefer a beautifully grained smooth finish, and I find myself striving toward that end in my own pipe making. I have made a pact with myself to never use a fill to hide a flaw in one of my own pipes. If I am unable to remove the flaw by further sanding or by using a strategically located depression (as is frequently done by the Danish masters), I'll consider sandblasting the pipe (I have the equipment but haven't actually attempted it yet), or else I'll leave the flaw visible. If the flaw is sufficiently disfiguring as to make the pipe unsatisfactory for my own use, I reluctantly discard it and start afresh with another block.

Having sketched an outline of your planned pipe on the side of the block, the next step is to draw an outline of the tobacco hole and the smoke hole. It's a good idea, if possible, to center the tobacco hole in the planned bowl and to place the smoke hole so that it meets the bottom of the tobacco hole while still running down the center of the planned shank. In the case of certain designs with bent shanks, the placement of the smoke hole must, perforce, come close to the top of the shank at one point in its length. In such cases it's important to plan the design and shaping so that one doesn't cut into the top of the smoke hole while shaping the shank. Certain designs may be best achieved by first drilling the larger hole for the mortise (that portion of the shank into which the tenon of the stem fits) to its proper depth of 5/8 to 1 inch in the center of the planned shank. Next drill the smoke hole itself, offset somewhat in the bottom of the mortise so as to facilitate meeting the bottom center of the tobacco hole more easily. Once your drilling plan is sketched on the side of the block, it is time to begin actually making your pipe.

Making the Pipe

The first step in actually making your pipe is drilling the smoke hole and mortise and the tobacco hole. A drill press is your best bet. I am fortunate to have a Shop smith lathe in the shop and find that, with the proper setup, I prefer using this handy tool. The key to success when using one tool or the other, however, lies in accurately measuring the angles and depths of the holes you're going to be drilling as related to the square outer surface of the briar block. I first drill the smoke hole and mortise and then the tobacco hole. If the depth and angle of the smoke hole are accurately controlled, meeting the tobacco hole exactly in the center of the bottom is simply a matter of carefully drilling the tobacco hole while frequently pulling the bit out as you near the planned depth to visually check the bottom of the hole. When the smoke hole becomes visible, carefully proceed, using a light touch with the drill, until the relationship of the holes with one another is optimal.

For drilling the tobacco hole, I highly recommend the special bits sold by Stemco-Pimo; they will produce a hole of the proper size with the proper rounded bottom contour. A set of three bits in sizes appropriate for most pipes costs about $16. You could, of course, make your own bits by shaping commercial spade wood bits to the proper contour on a grinder. Another possibility that I have considered but not yet tried is to use contoured milling burrs of the proper shape and size, which I have seen in tool supply catalogs. These are designed to mill holes in metal and would undoubtedly work equally well in briar burl and would perhaps leave an even smoother inner surface to the tobacco hole than a wood bit does. Sanding the interior of the tobacco hole on a finished pipe is rather difficult because of its limited size and rather deep contour, so any help in tarea would be most welcome.

When the drilling is finished, you are ready to begin shaping your pipe to its finished contours. Briar burl is a very hard wood, and you will quickly find that removing large quantities of stock with a coping saw or hacksaw by first cutting off corners and other portions of the plateau that fall outside the lines of the finished pipe will save you much time and effort. (Save these pieces!) Be sure to leave sufficient stock for small changes in shape to allow for removal of interior flaws that might be uncovered in the sawing.

You may choose among several tools to actually shape the pipe. Experienced wood carvers might prefer a knife. However, I believe that the hardness of the material makes files more appropriate. Even better is a hobby tool such as a Foredom flex-shaft or even a Dremel tool if you have one available. I am fortunate to have a Foredom flex-shaft tool and a selection of cutting, grinding and drilling bits available in the shop. I use this tool almost exclusively to shape my pipes once I have removed the excess wood by sawing. The most useful bit I have found and the one I use about 95% of the time is a 1/2" sanding drum equipped with the coarsest abrasive available (80 or 100 grit). With this tool, I shape the stummel (that part of the pipe comprising the bowl and shank) from start to approximate final shape. It removes material quite rapidly, and you should practice with it in order to insure that you don't inadvertently take off too much in any one spot. With a bit of practice, you can use it almost instinctually, and it allows you to shape the hard burl with amazing ease. When you use this tool, I recommend that you wear a disposable paper filter mask to prevent the fine briar dust from clogging your nasal passages. Eye protection is also mandatory.

When you have achieved a shape that satisfies you, the sanding process begins. The object here is to refine the shape to its final lines and to remove as many flaws as possible (hopefully, all of them) from the visible surface while arriving at a stummel that is ready for staining and/or waxing. I begin the sanding process with 100 grit paper, using hand sanding or wrapping the paper around an appropriately shaped item, such as a drill bit, a pencil or my finger, to get at the curved places. Once I have completely sanded the stummel with the 100 grit paper, I progress to 150 grit, then 220 grit and on through 400 grit to final sanding with 600 grit paper. This process sounds fast in the telling, but it actually consumes more time than the actual shaping of the stummel with the Foredom tool.

The satisfaction you or anyone will feel from handling and using your finished pipe is largely derived from the perfection of its finish, so any amount of time spent to achieve perfection here is time well spent. When the sanding is completed to my satisfaction, I next wipe the entire stummel down with alcohol on a soft cloth. Wiping serves to remove sanding dust and to expose any flaws that the dust may have hidden or any scratches left by the final sanding. Almost invariably when I carefully examine the stummel, I find some tiny spot that I didn't sand quite thoroughly or some tiny flaw that I think could be removed by further sanding. This, mind you, after I was virtually certain that I had done a perfect job in the first place! I have been known to revert to the 220 grit or the 400 grit level as many as three times on a single stummel before finally arriving at what I consider an acceptably sanded end product. I don't know if my oversights are caused by poor eyesight on my part or being in a rush to get the sanding done or if they are a normal occurrence, but I really hope to get better at this part of the game with practice.

Staining and Waxing the Pipe

The final step in preparing your stummel for use is to apply a stain--if you want to--and a through waxing. Many pipes will be enhanced by a stain that brings out the grain or simply changes the color of the unfinished wood to something more in keeping with the maker's aesthetic feelings. Pipe makers use alcohol- based stains that are available in a myriad of hues and shades. I prefer a briar pipe to look like it's made of wood rather than some brightly colored substitute material, so I tend to stick to a natural finish if the grain is up to it or a light walnut or cherry finish if the grain needs the help. You can stain the small pieces of wood removed with your saw when you first began to shape the pipe to determine which color works best with this particular piece of wood. I apply the stain with a Q-Tip, being careful not to allow it to run down inside the bowl. When the stummel is dry after a minute or so, I burnish it with a piece of 0000 steel wool to remove excess stain and to lighten the stained surface to the desired shade. If the pipe is a plateau-topped freehand, you may wish to use a darker stain or even a black stain on the plateau surface. If you do, take special care to prevent the dark stain from running down the outside of the bowl. I prefer to use the same color stain that I plan to use on the sides of the bowl but to just apply it more heavily on the plateau top. Then I'll usually lighten the bowl color to some degree during my steel wool burnishing, thus giving a nice contrast between the top and sides of a plateau-style bow.

Having stained your bowl to a satisfactory color, you're ready to apply the wax. I recommend pure carnuba wax, which is used by most, if not all, professional pipe makers and gives the hardest, longest-lasting finish of any wax. It is so hard that it cannot be applied by wiping on like most other waxes. Carnuba must be applied by holding a chunk of the wax against a spinning cloth buffing wheel to charge the buff and then using the charged buff to apply the wax to the pipe. With care, this waxing procedure will result in an extremely hard glasslike polish on the pipe that cannot be achieved with any other wax. Other waxes are available that will do an acceptable if less satisfactory job, but I recommend pure carnuba.

Fitting the Stem

I have left for last the subject of fitting your pipe with a stem so that you can actually smoke it. Because I have concentrated primarily on Danish-style freehands in my pipe making thus far, I can leave making the stem until last. If, however, you have decided to make a standard shape for your first effort, shaping the stem must be integrated into shaping the shank of the stummel. With standard shapes, the stem is exactly the same diameter and shape as the shank and must therefore be shaped together with the shank to get a smooth junction. In the few standard shapes I have made thus far, I haven't found this difference to cause any particular problem. I tend to simply place the stem in the stummel once I have turned the tenon down to the proper diameter and then to shape the stem and shank as if they were a single piece of material. A freehand pipe, on the other hand, seldom uses a stem that is formed as a continuation of the shank. In most freehands, the stem is a fancier shape, with symmetrical grooves and/or bulges, and it may be conveniently shaped and sanded apart from the stummel one the tenon is turned to the correct diameter. Stemco-Pimo offers a clever tool designed to be used with a hand drill to turn tenons to size. I haven't used this tool because I have devised a method of doing the job using the Shop smith, but if you don't have a lathe, it appears to be quite adequate for the job. Needless to say, the tenon must be turned to precisely the diameter of the mortise to ensure a snug fit when the pipe is assembled.

Once you have shaped your stem to the desired contour and sanded it to a smooth finish using only the finer grits of paper (320, 400 and 600), it is time to bend it to its proper curve to enhance the pipe for which it is intended (unless of course it is to be left perfectly straight). Vulcanite stems, which comprise the majority of stems in the pipes I have made thus far, may be bent quite simply with materials at hand in every home. First run a pipe cleaner through the stem so that it protrudes from both ends. Bend the ends to 90 degrees more or less from the line of the stem. Put the stem and pipe cleaner in a small oven-proof container and cover it with a layer of table salt. Place the container in your kitchen oven set to a temperature of 270 degrees F for 10 or 15 minutes or until the stem gets soft enough to bend easily. Remove the stem from the salt by grabbing the exposed pipe cleaner. Using a folded handkerchief or other cloth to prevent scorching your fingers, bend the stem to the desired degree. Hold the bend in place with your hands and the cloth until the stem has cooled sufficiently to retain its shape unaided (only a minute or so). Remove the pipe cleaner and try the stem in the pipe to see if you like the looks of your job or if you want to add or subtract from the bend or to make a slightly different arc. Return the pipe cleaner and heat and bend again as desired.

Once you're satisfied with the bend, you may proceed to the final finishing of the stem, which is accomplished by burnishing with 0000 steel wool and polishing on a motor-driven buffing wheel charged with tripoli. You may, of course, use your electric hand drill to turn the buff, using the jig you built earlier to hold the drill. Assemble your stem and stummel and gaze in awe at what your hands have wrought. I'm certain that you'll be pleased with it and that it will hold a special pride of place in your pipe rack henceforth. Smoking My Pipes

In the initial smoking of my hand-crafted pipes, I have followed standard recommendations for loading and breaking in. I do not stain or otherwise finish the interior of the bowls of my pipes other than by sanding to remove the drill marks. The bare wood may be coated with a thin coating of honey for the first smoke if that is your normal method of breaking in a new pipe. I find that my pipes, being made from the finest of plateau briar available to me, break in and smoke much as any fine Danish freehand might be expected to respond. I start with a half-bowl of tobacco for the initial few smokes and quickly progress to a full bowl after two or three bowls. Thus far, I have determined that if the geometry of the smoke hole versus the tobacco hole is correct, one may expect a sweet, cool smoke right from the first puff and that it only improves as the pipe breaks in. I attribute this to the use of high-quality plateaux as raw material and care in the planning and drilling of the tobacco and smoke holes. Conclusion

In preparing this description of one amateur's methods of pipe making, I have borrowed heavily from what I learned by reading Pimo's Guide to Pipe-crafting at Home.

I hope that reading my description may cause some of you who may have been wondering if pipe making was something within your reach to believe that it really is. I doubted for years that I possessed the ability to make a decent pipe "from scratch." In so doubting, I cheated myself out of an awful lot of fun as well as who knows how many pipes. --Smoke in Peace, Bob