A Tradition Measured in Decades, Not Centuries

Although tobacco pipes have been used in the Americas time out of mind, the iconic wooden tobacco pipe was developed only in the 1850s, eventually displacing the clay pipes that Europeans had been using since the sixteenth century.  The story goes that a French military officer was traveling in Corsica and broke his clay pipe, so he asked a peasant to make him a wooden one.  The peasant made it from the root of a local shrub called “briar,” presumably because the wood does not ignite easily.  The officer brought his new, wooden pipe back to France, and an industry was born.

Thus, the art of shaping pipes from briar wood is a relatively new skill, going back less than two centuries.  Compare that with the art of making chests, cabinets, or chairs.  The printed evidence for such crafts goes back to the 1700s, and the documentary evidence goes back millennia.  Look for information in building a rocking chair or a curio cabinet, and you are deluged with information.  Look for information on how to make a pipe, especially with hand tools, and you get much less.

Most briar pipes are shaped on lathes and refined on grinding/sanding equipment.  There is some file work in tight spots, but most pipe makers rely heavily on machines for the bulk of the work.  There are, however, many makers of “freehand” pipes, mostly artsy creations of no predetermined shape.  Freehand pipe makers sell their work at a premium, so I suppose they have little incentive to reveal their methods.

There are a few classic texts on briar pipes, which I am gathering and reading as time allows, but they are leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions about many of the details of the work.  The internet has helped fill in some of the gaps, but I’m still having to figure out a lot of the details on my own.  Being lathe-less, my work thus far has technically been “freehand.”  I am currently working with a lot of rasps, files, and card scrapers, improvising work-holding techniques as I go.  I don’t like the way most “freehand” pipes look, so I’ve been experimenting with a more traditional look, yet without the traditional shaping techniques.

I don’t yet know how my personal style is going to develop, but I already feel as though my work is sailing in uncharted waters.  For a beginning craftsman, that’s not a comforting feeling.

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7 Responses to A Tradition Measured in Decades, Not Centuries

  1. bobjones2000 says:

    You may be starting a new cottage industry, or a new reason to get into woodworking 🙂

  2. Tico Vogt says:

    How about using knives to carve with, as with spoons? I’m sure the Corsican peasant availed himself of one.

  3. Benoît Van Noten says:

    “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”
    As a language professor, you surely appreciate the difference between a word and the signification of the same word; and in this case the difference between a picture of something and the real thing.
    There is a bridge in Köln (Germany) where somebody tagged “love is only a four letter word”. The simple fact that in French it would be a 5 letter word shows how wrong it is.
    There is a variation of “ceci n’est pas une pipe” which is “the map is not the territory”.
    Sylvain

    • Yes, and although the picture doesn’t relate directly to the post, I felt it was appropriate somehow. We woodworkers often get paralyzed by information, especially when so much of it is available online. There comes a point, though, at which we realize that reading magazine after magazine and forum after forum is not the same as getting out in our shops and working wood. And here I am contributing to the information deluge on my blog.

      I think the masthead of every woodworking magazine should contain the disclaimer, “This is not woodworking.”

  4. Michael says:

    Maybe you need to build one of the lathes in the Underhill book: spring-pole or treadle.

  5. Dave says:

    A most interesting blog I would be interested to see this process.

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