Pipes in Other Woods

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Originally published in The Collector, the newsletter of the NASPC and added to Pipedia by permission.

Intorduction by Bill Unger, editor of The Collector [First, my thanks to Jeff Loid, who has almost earned the title of Assistant Newsletter Editor for his work in making contacts and setting up this article, as well as others that will follow. Tim tells me that he hadn't smoked a pipe since his early teens when he got interested again in the fall of 2002. He was building a deck on his house in Alaska when, for some reason, he thought, "By golly, it'd be nice to sit out here and smoke a pipe." Then he started making pipes. Tim had been working with wood, or been in the woods, all his life--building boats logging, and working construction. "What else can one do with a BA in English?" Tim asks. He has a weakness for exceptionally beautiful wood, so pipe making is a "good fit" for him.

Tim and his family moved to Idaho in the summer of 2003 after 12 years in Alaska. They are originally from Maine. Tim's wife is in her second year of law school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, and his son, who does all Tim's web site work, is in his third year at the University of Idaho. They bought a house in Troy with an oversize two-bay garage, and Tim set up shop in half of it. Tim says that "It still remains to be seen if pipe making is an economically sound venture. The market is small, and much of the market share is already captured by the brand names."

Tim says that he'd wanted to try wood turning for decades, so he bought a lathe when he was setting up his shop. He works solely at home, turning pipes on the lathe, and also produces bowls, pepper mills, rolling pins, pencil holders, tampers, candle sticks, napkin rings, match holders, and pipe cleaner holders. Some of the bowls are on his web site, but they are primarily intended for local craft fairs. Tim places some of his pipes on eBay, where his handle is tcfullerpipes. Photos of some of the pipes mentioned in this article can be seen on Tim's web site at http://tcfullerpipes.com.--Ed]


Given that folks around the world have been smoking one thing or another for millennia, I imagine that nearly every species of wood has been used for a pipe. During WWII, northern European pipe makers switched to beech when supplies of briar from the Mediterranean region were cut off, and American pipe makers used mountain laurel. Briar is hard to beat for the sheer beauty of the grain, its smoking qualities, and its durability, but other species of hardwood will give a good smoke.

Whenever I get my hands on a chunk of hardwood out of which I can squeeze a stummel, I build a pipe. It provides a welcome break from chasing sandpits in briar. To date, I've made pipes from cherry, apple, olive, hawthorn root, rock maple, black palm, myrtle, walnut, curly ash, ebony and pawlonia. Some worked better than others.

Cherry. The fellow I was buying spruce trim and flooring from in Alaska had a piece of 2X8 cherry that I talked him out of when I started making pipes in the fall of 2002. The wood was kiln dried and had been sitting in his temperature- and humidity-controlled shop for ages (this guy is a wizard with a moisture meter), so it was dry. I've been smoking three of my cherry pipes: a massive straight Dublin, a bent billiard, and a long-shanked bent egg. All are smoking well. My favorite of the three is the billiard. It has a 7/8" diameter tobacco chamber, 2" deep. The bowl is 2 1/4" tall, with 7/16" thick walls tapering to 1/4" at the rim. The pipe is 6 inches long and weighs 2 1/4 ounces. I coated the chamber walls with maple syrup before the first few smokes. The tobacco chamber is well caked, and the pipe provides a smooth, cool smoke. I haven't kept track of the number of smokes I've had in it, but there have been many.

Apple. I've made several pipes out of apple. My own applewood pipe is a fat apple bent, fully caked and smoking well. It has a 1" diameter tobacco chamber, 1 5/8" deep. The bowl is 1 7/8" tall with 5/8" thick walls tapering to 3/16" at the rim. The pipe is 6 3/4" long, and weighs 2 3/8 ounces. One of the advantages of apple, cherry, and some of the other species is that, as the wood is less dense than briar, you can have a hand-filling bowl with thick walls while still keeping the weight down. Veteran pipester Chet Gottfried had this to say about his applewood: "What struck me first about my TC Fuller apple was its lightness: a large, rounded standing pipe with thick walls. I'm tempted to say that it is half the weight of an equivalent briar pipe, although my postage scale says that isn't so. Nevertheless, it feels much lighter. The apple broke in very easily, and, from my smoking it repeatedly, the pipe has become medium dark. The grain is somewhat simple or straightforward, so I don't find it as appealing as briar's grain, but the apple's grain does have interesting aspects. "

Olive. Before I started making pipes, I had the eBay monkey on my back. One day I spotted an absolutely stunning Spanu Olivastro. I had to have it. I got it. The gentleman I bought it from wrote that, when he was breaking in the pipe, he experienced a distinct taste of olive oil. I have since made several olivewood pipes. The one I'm smoking is a straight Dublin with 7/16" thick walls. It is not fully caked yet, though it is smoking well. I sensed a slight olive-oil taste/mouth feel during the first few smokes. More would have been better, as I like olive oil. Chet Gottfried has an olivewood freehand of mine and detected no olive oil taste. The pipe has thin walls, the result of a mis-cut with the bandsaw. Rather than toss the stummel, I sent it to Chet for testing. He has smoked the pipe extensively and had this to say about it: "The grain to the olive is among the more remarkable I've ever seen; it has an intricacy and delicacy all its own that surpasses briar. This particular olive has very thin walls. During the pipe's breaking in, I noticed that residue was seeping through its walls, and so I figure that olive is rather porous (I have to try an olive with thick walls). By my extending the pipe's break in--using only small amounts of tobacco (a third to half a bowl)--the cake solidified and the pipe stopped 'leaking.' By that point, the olive smoked very well but portions of its grain had become obscured."

Hawthorn root. A pipester friend of mine showed up one day lugging a hawthorn root he'd had laying about his shop. The root had dried and had some cracks in it. Sacrificing a bandsaw blade to the dirt on the root, I was able to get two stummels and two small bowls out of it. I gave him one pipe, which he told me recently is smoking like a champ, and kept one, a little flush-stemmed freehand. I laminated pieces of briar on the front and bottom of the block to give myself a little more wood to work with. I was able to shape the stummel so the grain runs along the axis of the shank and curves up the sides of the bowl. After I had it shaped, I filled a couple of cracks on the shank, as well as a cavity on the rear of the bowl, with Elmer's glue and sawdust. The pipe is performing admirably, though the cracks on the shank have opened up and need fixing. Hawthorn is harder than briar and bears further investigation.

Maple burl. I made three pipes out of sound, unspalted rock maple burl--corner cutoffs from a bowl blank. (Spalt is rot in the early stages. Back in Maine, we called spalted wood dozy [doughzee]. Two of the pipes went to collectors who haven't smoked them. The third was commissioned by a gentleman who wanted a big pipe to fit his hands (2 1/8" tall, 6 3/4" long, 3/4" thick walls, weight: 3 oz.). Its owner, Douglas Walker, sent me these comments on the pipe for this article: "Tim has created for me a pipe, which in contrast to its imposing stature, is quite light, and comfortable to smoke. Having had most of my smoking experience with briar pipes, I was quite pleased to have a pipe smoke like a dream from bowl one! The mild aromatic I chose for this pipe did not change the outer wall temperature one bit, and there was no need for building a carbon 'cake' in the bowl for a nice smooth flavor. The characteristics of the shape and maple together blended like a new found love, leaving me to be the joyous voyeur! I have been smoking this pipe for nearly five months now, and each bowl smokes as well as the first."

Black palm. A strikingly beautiful wood that makes gorgeous pipes, though the initial smoking tests have been disappointing. The one I've been smoking myself developed a crack along the bottom of the shank during the fourth smoke. The one Chet was smoking developed a vertical crack in the side of the shank. A third one also came unwrapped. I haven't heard about the others. I'm loathe to rule out black palm for pipes--the grain is stunning--but it seems that it can't take the heat. Pity.

Myrtle. Myrtle makes lovely bowls, but the jury is still out on its feasability for pipes. I've made three pipes out of it. Of the three, one has been smoked about 30 times. The cake is slow to form, perhaps due to a one-inch diameter tobacco chamber, more likely to the wood itself, but the pipe is holding up fine. Being a "softer" hardwood, the myrtle gave some difficulty in drilling. The counterbore didn't cut the end of the shank cleanly, though it didn't chew it up so badly that I couldn't fair it with a flat file. On the third one I made, which I'm smoking, I laminated a piece of ebony for a shank extension. On the second smoke, a rather unsightly patch of stain developed on the bottom of the shank as the smoking juices migrated through the end grain. Myrtle is light. A bent Dublin with a 2 1/4" tall bowl and 9/16" thick walls weighs 2 oz. A comparable briar with half-inch walls weighs 2 3/4 oz.

Walnut. I've built two pipes out of claro walnut and three out of black walnut. The claro one I'm smoking is a little straight billiard. The bowl is 1 5/8" tall with 3/8" thick walls, is 5 5/8" long, and weighs 1 1/8 oz. I built the pipe with this article in mind and am keeping a smoking log. Prior to the first two-thirds-of-a-bowl smokes, I coated the chamber walls with spit. I detected a pleasant, subtle nutty taste towards the end of the bowl. Prior to the third and fifth half-bowl smokes, I coated the chamber walls with maple syrup. I worked my way up to full bowls by the eighth smoke and have smoked the pipe 14 times. It is fully caked. No problems. No cracks. A fine-smoking little pipe.

Curly ash. I built two pipes out of curly ash. Buffing removed some of the softer sap wood in the growth rings, imparting a texture to the surface of the stummel. (The same thing happened with the black palm: its black, extremely hard tubules were a bugger to get the sanding scratches out of, while the softer, light wood was removed, resulting in a pebbly texture.) Initial smokes were hot and foul tasting in a thin-walled pipe. Ash smells a little nasty, so it is not surprising that it imparts an unpleasant flavor to the smoke.

Ebony. An extremely dense wood, out of which I've built two pipes. The first one cracked on the first smoke from the end of the shank to the bottom of the bowl. The second, a straight Dublin, has a 1 7/8" tall bowl with 7/16" thick walls and weighs 2 7/8 ounces. I recently had the ninth smoke in this pipe, its first full bowl. So far, so good. It has some lines on the bottom of the bowl and the shank that look like cracks, but they haven't opened up. I've heard that ebony has a propensity to crack, so it may not be suitable for pipes.

Pawlonia. The same pipester friend who brought me the hawthorne root appeared recently bearing a chunk of pawlonia . This is an extremely light species, nearly as light as balsa, though it is reputedly a tough wood and is used in many applications. A bent Dublin, 2 3/8" tall, 6 1/4" long, with half-inch thick walls, weighs just over one ounce. Pawlonia is soft. The first pipe I made was to have a flush stem, but the counterbore chewed up the end of the shank so badly that I turned it into a freehand. The freehand is reportedly smoking well after its tenth smoke but is exhibiting some charing. It remains to be seen if it will form the cake before it burns through. For the next two pipes, I laminated cocobolo shank extensions. None of the tobacco chambers bored cleanly. Toward the end of the first smoke in my pawlonia pipe, I was smoking wood as much as tobacco as the "hair" on the chamber walls burned off and some of the walls themselves, which are slightly charred. I gave it a dose of maple syrup prior to the next smoke but was still smoking wood after a few minutes. Palownia smoke ain't that great. I haven't mustered the courage for a third smoke.

From an aesthetic perspective, I've had the best results leaving the non-briar species unstained. Buffing and waxing let the wood speak for itself. The finer grain details in these woods are subtle and tend to be obscured by stain rather than highlighted. The lovely, subdued colors in the various species are obliterated by stain, though the colors fade anyway with time and smoking. In terms of durability, it seems that, if a pipe withstands the breaking-in period, it will hold up over the long term.

Briar is the king of pipe woods, but many other species will provide a handsome pipe that gives a good smoke. Given the excellent performance of cherry and apple, other fruit woods are probably a good bet for pipes. Walnut and maple can both exhibit some extraordinary grain. A pipe made from a piece of quilted maple or walnut burl would be striking. Hickory, elm, and locust would be worth a try, to name but a few species that might be suitable for pipes. The softer hardwoods, such as quaking aspen and poplar, would likely perform similarly to pawlonia. Softwoods--the conifers, such as pine, spruce, tamarack, hemlock, and cedar--would probably not be satisfactory for pipes. They would be liable to burn up before forming the cake and would likely taint the taste of the tobacco. With some tobacco blends, the latter might not be undesirable.

Some species are toxic. I don't know if that would present a problem or not in a pipe, but it is certainly something to keep in mind when smoking pipes made from woods other than briar. I worked at a boatyard in Maine in the late 70s. The yard had its own sawmill. The sawyer told me that sitting on fresh-sawn oak can give you piles (oak contains tannic acid). I haven't tried an oaken pipe yet, but, when I do, the wood will be dry, as all pipe wood needs to be, and I won't be sitting on it.