Making a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools: A Preliminary Tutorial

This post is a short tutorial on shaping a pipe from a kit. I have now written a series of more detailed posts, which include drilling and staining, as well as shaping. Start here.

When I made my first tobacco pipe a year ago, I searched the Internet for information on making pipes primarily with hand tools.  Alas, all I could find were sites on making pipes on metal lathes and high-speed grinding/sanding equipment, which I do not own.  Apparently the Hand Tool Renaissance has yet to reach the pipe-making world.

Having now made about a dozen pipes, I am still only a novice pipe maker.  I still have much to learn about pipes, so I hesitate to give any instructions on how to make a pipe.  But I have developed a method of shaping a pipe that relies on a few simple hand tools, and the following build-along is the kind of information I wish I had had when I made my first pipe.

Start with a kit.

If you’re going to make your first pipe, begin with a kit, which comes with a pre-drilled block of briar and a stem that fits.  If you enjoy making pipes, you’ll eventually want to drill your own blocks (on a drill press or lathe) and even make your own stems, but I’m going to start with a block that’s already drilled and a stem that’s already fit.

Draw your design.

TPipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 01he first step, then, is to draw out your design on one side of the block.  There should be two intersecting lines showing where the airway and the tobacco chamber are drilled, so base your design on those lines.

For a first pipe, I highly recommend a fairly traditional shape. (This one isn’t, I’m afraid.)  Look at a lot of pipes before you start, and pick a shape that looks relatively simple and straightforward.  It won’t be, but that doesn’t matter right now.

This pipe is going to be somewhat unconventional in shape, but it is modeled on the clay pipes of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Begin with a saw.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 02 Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 03

My first step is to remove as much wood as I possibly can with a small saw.  I use a carcase saw (a backsaw sharpened for crosscutting), which works extremely well.  Saw well outside your original layout lines.  I’ve known people to use a bandsaw here, but these kinds of cuts at compound angles are much more easily handled with a small handsaw.

Secure the stock.

Up until now, the shaping work has been done with the briar block in a regular bench vise.  From here on out, though, we have to resort to some creative work holding.  When I made my first pipe, I struggled to find a way to hold the stock securely so that I could reach it from different angles.  This is eventually what I came up with:

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 05Notice several things in the picture above.  First, that’s a big handscrew (14″) with leather-lined jaws.  The leather, salvaged from an old briefcase, is super-glued onto each face.  It helps the jaws grip the stock securely.  Also, notice the position of the handscrew in the vise.  As the vise clamps the handscrew jaw on the right, it racks slightly, allowing the jaw on the left to move without having to adjust the bench vise.  The handscrew handles are both accessible in this position.  Finally, notice my son staring at the toolbox under the workbench.  This bodes well for him.

Essential (and inessential) tools.

Before we start shaping the stock any further, let’s look at some basic shaping tools–rasps and files.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 04These are the tools that do the bulk of the shaping work.  From top to bottom, they are:

  • A coarse, 12″ machine-cut half-round rasp, which does some of the initial stock removal.  It’s very aggressive and leaves a very rough surface.
  • An equally coarse 10″ machine-cut half-round rasp, which I use for more severe contours.   It’s handy but not necessary.  I didn’t use it on this pipe at all.
  • A 12″ hand-stiched half-round rasp.  This rasp from Lee Valley does most of the shaping work.  It cuts quickly and leaves a very smooth surface for a rasp.  If I had to have only one rasp, it would be this one.
  • An aluminum file.  These aren’t common in woodworkers’ tool kits, but they should be.  Aluminum files are used primarily by metal workers for shaping aluminum, but they also work extremely well on wood.  Their teeth are big, so they work quickly, but they leave a surprisingly smooth surface behind.  A true gem of a file.
  • Two double-cut half-round files, roughly the same profile as the large and small rasps.  These files follow the rasp work.  If you can find a rasp and a file with identical profiles, your work will go easier.
  • A round chainsaw file.  It’s by far the cheapest tool on the bench, but it’s essential for one task (see below).

If you need to buy a rasp, get a good, hand-stiched one, or find someone who will sell you some new-old stock.  I’ve done both.  Avoid the rasp-shaped objects at your local home center at all costs.

Shaping with rasps and files.

With the stock clamped in the handscrew, begin by shaping the shank (or stummel).  It’s easier to hold the stock while it’s still somewhat square.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 06Once the shank is roughly the right shape and size, turn to the bowl and begin rasping.  Your layout lines will have long disappeared, so y0u’ll need to either remember what you drew or (better yet) have a picture or other duplicate nearby.   On both the shank and the bowl, your initial goal is to create several flat facets with your rasp.  Focus on keeping everything as symmetrical as possible.  The bowl should look like a nice octagon from the top.

While rasping, it is best to rasp toward one of the jaws, rather than across the handscrew.  The stock may well pop out of the jaws and go flying across the workshop.  (Briar is hard, but it is also brittle, so try not to drop it, or the shank may break off.)  Use a light touch with the rasp, and take your time.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 07Regularly take the stock out of the handscrew and turn it in your hands to examine your progress.  This stage is where the pipe takes its basic shape, and you want to get it right.  If possible, shape the pipe with the stem installed so you can see how the two will look together.  The stem should flow into the pipe with no bumps, dips, or irregular lines.

Take especial care to get the side profile exactly as you want it.  This is the view that most people will see first, and if it looks good, your whole pipe will look attractive despite the flaws.  But if the profile looks clumsy or bulky, the whole pipe will seem so.  This pipe still needs a lot of work at the shank-bowl transition.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 08Now about that chainsaw file.  It’s the first file you will use after your have finished with the rasps.  Use it to define the junction between the shank and the bowl.  A crisp, even transition is one of the first marks of a competently-made pipe.

Once the junction is shaped (especially at the top of the junction), you will use your other files to remove the rasp marks.  A bastard-cut file works best at this stage.

At this point, you should also re-insert your stem if it hasn’t been installed all along.  Because of the way the stem fits into this particular pipe, I left the stem off until the end, but that’s not usually a good idea.  Your stem and shank should flow seamlessly together, so you need to have the stem in place so that you can file the shank right down to the stem.

Many beginning pipe makers do not remove enough wood at this stage, perhaps for fear of making the walls of the bowl too thin.  The result is a heavy, bulky pipe.  With briar, thin walls in the tobacco chamber are not a problem.  Use your fingers to pinch the walls occasionally.  You will get a perfect feel for your the thickness of the bowl walls.  1/8″ is not too thin.

Once all the rasp marks are gone and the shape is to my satisfaction, I begin the smoothing process.  Be aware that all smoothing is also stock-removal, and it is possible to alter a delicate shape by sanding too much or too hard in particular areas.  But there will be far less stock removal going on at the sanding stage, so don’t leave little lumps or dips thinking “I’ll just sand those down at the next stage.”   Do your shaping work with your rasps and files.  Aim to sand off the same amount of material from every spot on the pipe.

Release the secret weapon: card scrapers.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 09At this point, I have taken the stock out of the handscrew and am holding it in my hand for the duration.  You can put it back in the handscrew to scrape and sand it if you prefer.

The files have left a fairly deep tool marks on the wood.  If I had to sand them out, this would take me all day.

Instead, I turn to a small card scraper I got from Dominic at TGIAG Toolworks.  You can use any standard card scraper, but a thin, flexible one works best.  Mine are both flexible and small, so they handle contour work extremely well, and I can use them with one hand while I hold the stock with the other.

Ten minutes with a card scraper will save an hour of sanding.

But you still have to sand.

After scraping, I begin sanding with 220-grit and work up through 400-grit, finishing with 600-grit.  Work carefully to remove all the scratches from each previous step.  Briar is a dense wood and it takes a high polish.  And since pipes are held in the hand close to the eyes, errant file marks and sanding scratches will be easily detectable by the user.  Regularly flood the surface with mineral spirits to remove sanding dust and reveal any scratches you still need to sand out.

I have tried using very fine steel wool to finish polishing the briar, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in here, so I typically stop at 600-grit sandpaper, with which I wet-sand the wood using mineral spirits as a lubricant.  I find that a foam emery board (wrapped in sandpaper once the emery wears out) helps me sand the contours of the pipe, and especially the shank.

The stem will need sanding, too.  Don’t be afraid to modify it with a file.  The button (the bit you hold in your mouth) will probably need thinning and refining, and your files will have left tool marks on the stem.  I find that wet-sanding the stem, especially in the finer grits, helps prevent the sandpaper from loading too fast. The stem will also benefit from a good rub-down with very fine steel wool to polish it.  If you have the equipment, you should then buff the stem on a buffing wheel charged with Tripoli wax–a honing compound.  (You can buff the whole pipe, not just the stem, if you like.)  You can follow with white honing compound for an extra-shiny polish.

Bend the stem.

If you’re going to bend the stem, you need three things: a pot of boiling water, a pipe cleaner, and something curved/round of the right radius.  Once the water is at a rolling boil, stick a pipe cleaner through the stem, turn off the heat, and drop the stem into the water.  Let it sit until it’s soft and pliable, usually 2-10 minutes.  A vulcanite stem will soften quickly.  A lucite stem will need more time.  For bending forms, I’ve used everything from trash cans to mixing bowls to sections of iron pipe.  Use your imagination.Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 12

Once the stem is pliable, turn on the cold water in your sink.  Take the stem out of the water and bend it against the form.  Hold the stem in that position and run it under the cold water to set the bend.  Remove the pipe cleaner, dry the stem, and try it out on your pipe.

This stem still needs a bit of sanding.  I bent it on my biggest mixing bowl.

Finish it.

If you want to alter the color of the wood, try an aniline dye.  Water-based leather dye works particularly well.  The stains available at the home center tend not to look good on briar.  The general procedure is to apply the dye between grits of sandpaper and then sand back the surface a little bit to produce contrasting colors in the grain.  Experiment on a couple of the briar scraps you sawed off the briar block.

For the finish, you can go all-out with carnauba wax, but I find that a paste wax does fine.  Just about any oil or wax finish will work on briar, but avoid film finishes like shellac, lacquer, or polyurethane.  They will not improve with age.

On the stem, I use a home-brew mix of one part each safflower oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane varnish.  It gives the stem a dull shine that sets off the briar nicely.

Pipe Making Process Pics Gothic CW 5-2013 - - 13

It’s not a perfect pipe, and I could point out three or four small flaws, but it will smoke well, and it will bring pleasure to whoever ends up with it.

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29 Responses to Making a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools: A Preliminary Tutorial

  1. meeteyorites says:

    Proving once again that two clamps are better than one. (but bring your own to my house–the vise you put up for us is the only one I have except for assorted metal ones.)

  2. Thanks for putting this together, I was thinking about pipes the other day, and I’m all hand tool here. I was thinking of doing something on my lathe though. Do you have a sense of what types woods are good for pipe bowls? Is the a requisite hardness for this?

    • Briar is the preferred wood, of course, partly because of its density but mostly (I think) because it doesn’t burn easily. For a practice pipe that will smoke well, fruitwoods are hard to beat. Cherry, pear, and olive are popular choices. I’ve also heard of pipes made from walnut, osage orange, mesquite, and even hickory. I’d avoid resinous softwoods, though.

    • Eric says:

      Maple is a very close second to briar and Cherry a nice third. Briar also is the “best” because it is very porous and there fore wicks away all the moisture and tars from the tobacco. High quality briar results in a cooler, drier smoke. Great post by the way. I’m using it to make my Christmas list XD

  3. Dave says:

    Very well written and well done. I was waiting on you to post this and was ready to try it. Then I saw that long stem. I have to have one. This will be referenced when I make mine. Thank you for the post.

  4. Joshua Klein says:

    Wonderful! Thanks for your excellent description. I will have to give this a shot one of these days.

  5. Mark says:

    This is great. Thanks. I ruined one kit by being too aggressive and blowing through the bowl. Hopefully this will help my second.

    Have you ever tried to hold the block upside down with a tapered post? I can’t describe it well. It allowed access to the whole blank except the rim.


  6. Michael says:

    Where did you buy your kit from? I want to get a kit but I can’t seem to find one that comes with a long stem like in your tutorial.

  7. Tyler says:

    This is a great post, I’m about to start my first pipe from a kit. I was wondering; when you begin the finishing process how do you treat the inside of a bowl? Are the dies and wax safe and/or neccssary or do you sand and use a bowl coating?

    • Tyler says:

      I’ve actually answered my own question by looking at your other pipes. It appears you leave them bare? is this correct?

      • Good questions. I’ll try to answer them briefly.
        1. I don’t use a bowl coating. The cake will build all by itself. You can use one of the many recipes you will find online if you like.
        2. The only reason to sand the inside of the bowl is to remove any stain that might have dribbled into the bowl. Even then, that’s just an aesthetic concern. Do your best to keep other finishing products, especially oil and wax, out of the bowl and airway entirely. They will affect the taste of the smoke.
        3. You didn’t ask, but here’s a tip I’ve learned since writing this post: if you use a stain on the pipe (a leather dye is MUCH better than regular wood stains), you need to seal it with something before applying wax, otherwise the stain will rub off in the user’s hand once the pipe heats up. I use Danish Oil between the stain and wax, and it works great. One coat applied and buffed out after an hour is all you need.

  8. Tyler says:

    Thanks for your answers! I’m still very much a novice at this (and pipe smoking in general). I did order some leather dyes and I’m super excited, although my first will remain natural. One final question; you mention buffing. Do you use a buffer? I currently don’t have access to one, and I’ve spent enough for the first project–I”ll get one in the future, any recommendations for hand buffing? fine grit 2000 sandpaper? Just hand polishing?

    Thank you so much!

    • Tyler says:

      edit: in regards to your 3rd point above. Can you just dilute the leather stain with a lot of denatured alcohol 1:10 dye/alcohol ratio, or light it on fire to seal it to not use danish oil?

      • I think you would have the same problem regardless. I’ve known people to torch the dye while still wet, though I’m not quite sure what that accomplishes, nor whether it solves the bleed-through problem.

    • Tyler says:

      I wish there was an edit button; I keep thinking of more things–I plan on using a clear paste wax with caranuba that’s gotten good reviews, I’ve also gotten paragon wax.

      • Paste wax works fine.

        As to the buffer, it helps (a lot) but isn’t absolutely necessary for starters. Sand as high as you can, and the wood part of the pipe will look fine–especially if you sand with the grain on your last couple of grits. It’s the stem that really benefits from buffing. Even there, you can sand up to your highest grit (2K is fine) and have a usable pipe. But the stem won’t shine as it would if it were buffed.

  9. Hi from the Netherlands. I am a Dutch wood carver, mainly doing relief carving. I have hand carved 9 pipes so far, only using chisels. My free style pipes are e.g. a tulip pipe, two self portraits the last one with a Stetson on my head, a bird pipe, an ‘impossible pipe’ (with bands of briar cut for 90% free from the bowl), and several “conventional” pipes. Now I want to hand carve a pipe with our dog sitting on the front of the bowl. Using only chisels is rather time consuming, every pe takes about 100 hours to complete. While working on a new pipe I always smoke one of my pipes. The briar blocks I was able to buy from a local tobacco shop, alas they ran out of supply. I usually carve the pipes in my hand, not using any clamps. This has for me the advantage that I can work on holidays, sitting on a rock or so. PS: I found your article very interesting; and I am still learning.

  10. John says:

    I found this article most encouraging, thanks! Already partway through my first pipe project and wishing I’d found this post sooner. Looking forward to a day reading through these articles.
    Essex UK

  11. José Fernando Jaramillo says:

    After sanding with 600 I continue with 1000, 1500, 2000 and finally 2500. It’s gives a pretty natural finish. You won’t need any wax. Is a way longer job but it worth it

  12. Jesse Grillo says:

    Thank you for sharing your info. Extremely good short blog.

  13. psul says:

    I would like to know where do you get a pipe kit?

  14. Pingback: How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 1: The Stem and Tenon | The Literary Workshop Blog

  15. Jeff Zelasko says:

    Great work! Where did you purchase the special order long stem?

  16. Ellen Battles says:

    I can’t always tell from the angles, does the bowl go with the grain or against the grain? This is something I would like to try.

    • It depends. First, because briar blocks are cut from burls, grain direction in briar blocks doesn’t mean the same thing as grain direction in regular sawn lumber. There are two common grain orientations, and briar blocks are typically cut in one of the two orientations.

      Ebauchon blocks are cut so that the grain runs side-to-side. The result is a pipe with birdseye figure on one side (sometimes both sides). These blocks are typically the cheaper ones.

      Plateaux blocks are cut so that the grain runs more or less vertical relative to the pipe. The result is a pipe with vertical stripes (or “flame”) on each side. These blocks are typically sold with a natural top, often with the bark still on. They are cut from the very outside of the burl and are hence more expensive.

      For a first pipe, I recommend getting a pre-drilled kit. You can start with the cheaper ebauchon briar, or spring for the plateaux.

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