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.

This entry was posted in Build-Alongs, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 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.

  4. Tim White says:

    Thank you. I am about to start my very first pipe project and your article has helped tremendously.
    Tim White
    Tupelo, MS

  5. fred stone says:

    i watched your pipe carving pictures the pipe looks great i will be giving it a try soon as i receive the pipe blanks ordered from Greece. i will try using foredom power tool and drill to carve bowl and air shaft i do some wood carving and expect not tohave much trouble. i use watsons walnut oil ands like its appearance. the tutorials seem to favor Fiebing leather dye
    hope my efforts look as good as yours
    fred stone
    parkland fl

  6. thegraysage8 says:

    This is quite encouraging and exciting. I have just started the hobby and for some reason, I have been dreaming of carving my own pipe. I literally have none of the tools you have and I was hoping to get some tips on

    1. Tools
    2. Materials
    3. Need-to-knows

    In fact, if you make pipe for orders i would love to have on of those you made. 🙂

    • Glad to hear from you! I’ve come a little way in my pipe making since I made this first pipe. One thing I’ve learned is that making a pipe that smokes well and looks really good takes practice as well as some investment in good tools–so if you’re going to make one pipe, you may as well plan on making a dozen or two.

      Here’s a more recent account of how I make pipes now:

      That link (and the follow-up posts to it) will give you a full list of materials and tools I use to make my pipes. But here’s a quick-and-dirty list of must-haves:
      1. Tools to drill the pipe (drill press or lathe, or just buy a pre-drilled kit), tools to shape the pipe (small saw, rasps and files, and/or a disk/belt sander), tools to smooth and polish the pipe (sandpaper in several grits, buffing setup for drill press or lathe).
      2. Materials: briar or other suitable wood (olive, persimmon), stem (I use pre-molded stems with a delrin tenon), finishing supplies (dye, buffing compound, shellac and/or Danish oil, and wax).
      3. Information–this one is probably the most crucial. Look up Pipe Makers Forum on the internet and start reading. It’s not a very active forum these days, but it has LOADS of great advice from professional and semi-pro pipe makers. There’s a spin-off Facebook group now, too.

      Finally, yes, I would love to make you a pipe! Most of the pipes I make are in the $90-$120 range. I specialize in freehands and churchwardens. You can e-mail me at and let me know what you might have in mind.

      • thegraysage8 says:

        you are awesome, sir, wil go through these items you shared and attempt to make my own pipe. There is just something about wood and making things for yourself that feels fulfulling 🙂

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