The Art of Sandblasting

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Orignaly Published in Pipes & Tobaccos- Winter 2000, and used by permission by the author. This version is unedited.

THE ART OF THE SANDBLAST, Another in an infrequent series of articles concerning THE BRIAR PIPE, by R. D. Field[1]

Main Entry: 1sand·blast
Pronunciation: -"blast
Function: noun
Date: 1871
: a stream of sand projected by compressed air (as for engraving, cutting, or cleaning glass or stone)  
Main Entry: 2sandblast
Function: transitive verb
Date: 1888
: to affect or treat with or as if with a sandblast
- sand·blast·er noun

So there it is- sandblasting was meant for engraving stuff or cleaning stuff. If machinery got so dirty, so gunky that it couldn’t be cleaned in any other way it was sandblasted clean. Building façades too. After years of road grime, exhaust fumes, dust turned a building façade black it could look like original after being shot with tiny particles.

So how was this applied to wood, specifically wood smoking pipes? Who thought of it? And why?

I think we’ve got to look at Alfred Dunhill. This gent was really one hell of an inventor- and marketer. He seemed to constantly try to produce stuff that no one else had thought of, and he certainly had successes. I’m sure he had a lot of failures too, but they’re buried somewhere. And even some of his successes might have really been failures, but no one knew so at the time.

When Dunhill ran an accessories and harness leather shop for coaches, wagons and motor cars he invented a “windshield” pipe- that is a pipe where the bowl was higher in front than in back. The idea was to stop the wind from blowing sparks about from the lighted pipe. I’m sure the pipe worked in a completely open vehicle, but they didn’t have wind-tunnel testing in those days- you know, like on TV where you can see the air as it moves around a car. So I’m betting that it didn’t work all that well once those open cars were made with windshields. I’m only talking from personal experience here, but when I ride in my open car or my H-D police bike (which has a windshield) I get the same effect- the air goes up over the windshield and over the front of me- and curves around to hit me from behind. I’m betting that if I had a lighted pipe in my mouth sparks would fly, but from back to front rather than front to back.

What possessed Dunhill to try an engraving and cleaning treatment on wood? I’d love to know- to follow his thought process. An old story goes that some briar was left by the heating boiler for a time and when Dunhill saw it he found that some of the grain had "shrunk" leaving a “relief” pattern on the wood. I don’t buy that story for a second, except that it makes for good marketing. And even if it was true why wouldn’t pipe bowls be left next to little heaters so the grain could be brought into relief. No- that won’t do. I can understand that he didn’t want to say: “I use a powerful industrial process noted for taking crud off metal.” Far better to romance the process as “…a combination of heat and sand”. From nature… sort of like being lulled to sleep by the surf as you lie on a sunny beach.

No matter that the process was industrial- it worked. It left the pipe bowl in beautiful, hard-grained relief. Or is it soft-grained relief? I’ve had arguments with folks- down and out kicking and screaming arguments about what part of the wood is actually left in relief. Dunhill maintained it to be the hard grain- but this may be marketing (who wants to think that they are left with the soft part of the wood to use as a chamber for fire). I think it’s the hard grain because- well, because it’s harder. My opponents swear it’s the soft grain but I don’t remember the reasons they gave- although they were convincing at the time.

As far as I am aware Dunhill was the first to sandblast briar smoking pipes. And I deduced that they (the Dunhill pipe factory at Notting Hill Gate) didn’t really know what the heck they were doing at first. If you look at the old Dunhill catalogs you’ll see page after page of pipe shapes in bruyere (smooth finish) each with its assigned model number or letter i.e. 59 (billiard), 137 (dublin) etc. When you come to the sandblasted (shell) pipes there are no model numbers (or letters)- only “example III” or “example X”. Why? The photos show shapes that look like traditional shapes, but they are so misshapen, so out-of-round that they were not assigned the traditional model designations. Neat, eh? I mean I love this type of pipe. It’s got character. But it doesn’t have real symmetry, and I guess this worried some of the boys who put the pipes on sale. They didn’t want to chance customers coming back to them saying things like “my Shell #59 doesn’t look at all like my Bruyere #59 and I want an exchange”.

In the meantime the geezers who did the sandblasting became more adept at what they were doing; as a result bowls were less misshapen and more identifiable . Lest we forget- these were craftsmen, not folks pulled in off the street and put in front of a machine. They had pride in their work and were eager to deliver what the market desired. So I suppose that if folks really desired radically misshapen bowls they would have delivered such. That they didn’t shows other forces at work.

Even in the early 20’s Dunhill was known all over the world. How? Through clever marketing. I tell you the guy was at least as good a marketer as he was an inventor, and here’s a prime example. During the 1st World War Dunhill would give away many many pipes, but only to officers in the British military. He would also post pipes on approval to this same group. Most readers of this article being American would probably ponder something like “well, that’s nice- but hardly relevant”. Wrong! In Great Britain during the 1st World War (and for some time after I believe) all officers came from the aristocracy. They didn’t have to earn commissions but were given them as birthright. So here we have Dunhill handing out his pipes (and his cigarettes) to the folks that will have money to spend once the war comes to an end. And the 1st World War being in fact a world war here we have these rich officers in places like France, Australia, Greece, New Zealand, Turkey, Canada, etc. showing off their fine new Dunhill pipes and establishing the name far and wide.

So now we see that Dunhill is known for its pipes, among other things, over most of the civilized world by the early 1920’s. What Dunhill has to do, and does, is to gauge which of its markets like what products, and how each of these products should be made for each individual market. What they found I speculate is that most if not all their markets liked sandblasted pipes with bowls that were not badly out-of-round. I deduced this by having spoken, over the years, to pipe distributors, pipe retailers, and pipe customers all over the world. After many such discussions in shops and offices all over Europe, and parts of Japan and Korea it appears to me that only we Americans , and really only we American Serious Dunhill Collectors prefer what were the early examples of the Dunhill Shell pipe.

Enough of Dunhill- after proper homage is paid. Alfred Dunhill (as far as I am aware) was the first to sandblast pipes, did one hell of a marketing job promoting the process (did you know that early Dunhill Shell pipes cost more than their counterpart Bruyere pipes?), and (in my opinion) made the best sandblasted pipe in the world for a rather long period.

Why sandblast a pipe in the first place? There are several reasons, any one of which could be the predominate one depending on the time period in question. There may be a sand spot or small flaw in the bowl and the manufacturer decides it is more economical in terms of time to sandblast instead of re-working the pipe; there may be a discoloration which precludes even staining; there may be an excess of weight which sandblasting can remove. A common misconception is that a sandblasted pipe is a flawed pipe. Up through 1930 almost all smooth pipes were stained burgundy or a dark walnut. These stains can mask most sand spots and the smaller flaws which look like part of the grain pattern. Since most smooth pipes of that era had a mixed or cross grain pattern it was virtually impossible to find a sand spot without stripping the pipe of its stain. I suggest that if we had only burgundy or dark walnut stained smooth pipes today we would indeed have many more smooth pipes. But tastes change and so the naturally stained pipe came into being. Even these at the start had a natural stain of the darker variety than that being used today, but it still proved much harder to conceal sand spots or small flaws- hence the dramatic increase in sandblasting. Today many makers use only the lightest of natural stains; these have a tendency to highlight any flaw or spot at all, no matter how tiny. So, I put forth, it is not that briar quality has decreased but that our standards have changed as to what is acceptable in a smooth pipe.

There are many sizes of sandblasting machines, but they all do the job in one of two ways. Many of the smaller ones use vacuum as pressure- that is a vacuum is created in one part of the unit and this vacuum is used to force the particles through a nozzle onto the article to be worked. Others, both small and large, use a compressor to build up pressure which is released as the nozzle trigger is pressed. The vacuum type doesn’t produce much pressure- one atmosphere to be exact, while the pressure type can be adjusted to any pressure the compressor can generate and the rest of the equipment can handle. A good analogy is that of espresso machines which operate in some ways like a sandblaster. Here again there are two types- vacuum and pressure. The vacuum type, operating at one atmosphere, delivers a thin, black espresso with no crema, no essential volatile coffee oils. The pressure type can force hot water through the coffee grounds at 12- 15 atmospheres, delivering the essentials that are not possible with the vacuum machine.

I’ve had some first-hand experience with both types of machines as I was with Bill Ashton-Taylor when he investigated and then made a purchase many years ago. We found ourselves in a huge building looking at machine after machine- some so large that I could fit inside. When the gent heard why Bill wanted such a machine he scratched his head, said “wood! Never heard of anyone sandblasting wood before” and directed us to a small vacuum pressure machine. “This’ll do” he opined. Well, it didn’t; not by a long shot. We went from machine to machine till we found one that was right. Not only right, but big. So big that I had to stand on a stool to see inside. And that doesn’t include the compressor which is both large and loud. Bill had to construct a small outbuilding of brick outside his unit in order to house and sound-deaden the thing.

A divergence here- to explain a bit more about the various types of sandblasting equipment as I know it. The machine described above uses a fixed nozzle mounted above the spot where the operator has his gloved hands. In this type of machine the operator uses a foot treadle to start and stop the stream of particles coming from the nozzle while he manipulates the pipe bowl with both hands. I have seen (and used) another type of machine where the pipe bowl is manipulated with one hand while the other hand holds a pistol which, when the trigger is pressed, releases the particles. A third type I have seen is more automated. Many pipe bowls are placed in a wire barrel or rotunda. A fixed nozzle sprays the barrel with particles for several hours as the bowls are turning. Because the bowls are always turning and nudging one another, and because the pressure is not so great as the bowls are being bombarded over a great amount of time the resulting sandblast has a different appearance than that using the manual approach. You will notice that the edges of some brands of sandblasted pipes are more smooth, more round, not as sharply defined; this is the major differentiating factor.

The machine itself is just one aspect of sandblasting. Another is the material used in the process. There are an almost endless number of materials that can be used- from actual sand (silicon silicate I believe) to glass beads, to tiny ball bearings, to walnut shells. The wrong material creates the wrong look, or perhaps no look at all- so some pipe makers have experimented until they found what they considered the right material. And what may be right for one maker may not be right for another, as sandblasting is really an art. It’s creating a pattern or picture on a piece of wood. Some can create masterpiece after masterpiece, while others just slide by.

Another aspect may be the type of briar used. I say may be because I have no definitive proof one way or the other. It used to be up through the early 60’s that there were many magnificent deeply blasted cross grain sandblasts- stuff that would really take my breath away. Briar sawmills at that time were not paying particular attention to grain as they were cutting blocks, with the result being that most pieces were of mixed or cross grain. But since the Italians (and to a lesser extent the Danes) have become a definitive force in pipe making all the sawmills seem to cut solely for straight grain. This shows up in sandblasted pieces as ring grain which to me is not at all as interesting as the varying patterns of cross grain pieces. The lack of depth in most sandblasts may be the world markets at work, it may be the type of briar used, or it may be that many makers are not familiar with the art of the deeply sandblasted pipe.

A fourth aspect which may come into play is curing. Various makers have various methods- air drying, kiln drying, oil curing, microwaving, steaming, soaking, the list goes on. Certain makers with whom I’ve spoken feel deeply that their method of curing absolutely enhances the sandblasting process while others have told me that they’ve experimented with various methods and could find no difference. I can only state here that not all makers excel at all processes; Van Gogh does not paint like Rembrandt nor visa versa.

The final aspect in the art of the sandblast is true artistry. This is very difficult to put into words although I do have firsthand experience here- being allowed to play about with sandblasting both in England and Italy. The sandblast finish is by far my favorite, and I wanted to learn everything I could about how it is achieved. That I learned more of what shouldn’t be done than what should is perhaps a foregone conclusion. Almost anyone can sandblast a pipe; almost no one can produce a magnificent sandblast finish. To produce such an extraordinary article requires the correct touch using the correct machine operating at the correct pressure using the correct particles to sandblast the correct briar which has undergone the correct curing. And what is correct? It differs from maker to maker. You are the final judge as to who are the artists and who is pedestrian in the art of the sandblast.