Carving a Tobacco Pipe

I don’t smoke, and don’t plan to take it up, since tools and wood are expensive enough as it is, but a couple months ago a pipe-smoking friend dropped a package on my desk. It contained this:

A chunk of pre-drilled briar wood and a pipe stem. I think my friend just wanted to see if I could do it.

I really didn’t know how to go about shaping the thing, plus I didn’t know what I wanted it to look like in the end. So, not having much free time at the moment, I put it aside for a while and gave some occasional thought to shaping it. After handling a few pipes, I decided on a general shape, which you see outlined on the block above.

Having trolled the web for information about making pipes, I found that many pipe makers shape their pipes entirely with powered abrasives: grinding wheels, belt grinders, and spindle sanders. That was not an option for me. I wanted to make this at my bench with hand tools, so without much guidance at all, I began experimenting with several different methods of shaping the wood by hand.

The carcase saw got first crack at it. Then I used the turning saw to establish a rough profile in two dimensions. That knocked off a good bit of wood.

I also experimented with different clamping setups so I could use my chisels. This one turned out to be slow and awkward, so I gave up on it.

I made do with my bench vise for as long as I could.  I found that a rasp worked best for the inside curves. I was most pleased with the kinds of profiles I could cut here, though it was a challenge keeping everything symmetrical.

In the end, I ended up lap-carving the bowl. After making a lot of wooden spoons, I get used to holding the spokeshave like this. It works pretty well, and while it’s probably not as comfortable as a real carving knife, the control I get is satisfactory. It might be a little safer than a carving knife, but I managed to slice off a chunk of my fingernail nonetheless.


Spoon carving has helped me get used to shaving convex profiles and trying to keep each side even. It has also made me picky about refining a shape until it will feel very comfortable in the hand. After quite a bit of back and forth between the spokeshave and the rasp, it started to look more pipe-like.

Unfortunately, I got a little too heavy-handed while trying to fit the stem.

Dang! That was a really nice stem, too. So I ordered a replacement stem from Pimo Pipecraft.

Meanwhile, I sanded the wood to 600 grit and then put a coat of finish on the pipe.

I used my home-brew Danish oil–a mixture of one part each safflower oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane–which brings out the grain without darkening the wood significantly. It will darken with age, I expect.

The grain on the briar is really something. It has lots of these streaks going in a fan pattern, revealing a birdseye figure on the top and bottom. The wood is hard but just a little on the brittle side. Working properties remind me a little of mesquite, but without the nice smell. Briar sands to an amazingly high polish, and the oil didn’t soak in very much. It required almost no buffing to give the wood a smooth, dull shine.

Some time later, my replacement stem arrived in the mail. It was roughly shaped, so I sanded it down a bit.  I also had to file the stem’s tenon a lot to get it to fit the mortise.  It is now a tight friction-fit.

The stem was delivered straight. It was easy enough to heat the stem over a candle and bend it (with a pipe cleaner through the hole, so as not to collapse it). But that stuff stinks when it gets really hot. My wife says next time I bend a stem I am required to do it outdoors.

The piece of wood it’s sitting on in the pics is the offcut from the top of the blank. I think I’m going to glue it to a small cherry plank and make a little display stand for it.

This pipe is heavy in the teeth, but it balances very well in the hand. It’s not a taking-a-walk pipe or a puttering-around-the-shop pipe. I think it’s more of  a sitting-down-and-thinking pipe.

And no, I haven’t smoked it.

Next time around, I’d like to try making a smaller, lighter pipe with thinner walls. Those churchwarden stems look pretty cool, and a small pipe would look really nice at the end of one of those, I think. I’m already pricing briar blocks… Hmmm….

Making these things might turn out to be as addicting as smoking them.

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4 Responses to Carving a Tobacco Pipe

  1. Pingback: Making Another Tobacco Pipe | The Literary Workshop Blog

  2. Raff says:

    Thin walled pipes get quite hot in one’s hand if they smoke too rapidly. There is a delicate balance between thick enough to shield from heat, and thin enough to not weigh too much for “clenching,” which is holding the pipe in one’s mouth.

  3. Tom says:

    Thanks for this! I’m new to trying to carve a pipe. Do you think you could list off a list of what you would say are the essential tools for carving? Thanks!

    • It depends on what shapes you are trying to carve, but if I were starting all over again, here’s what I would absolutely need to shape a simple pipe:

      - work holding (handscrew held upright)
      - large half-round rasp
      - small half-round rasp
      - small half-round file
      - chainsaw file (for the shank/bowl transition)
      - sandpaper of various grits, 120 to 600

      While I prefer to have a wider variety of tools at my disposal, I could make a decent pipe with that list.

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