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.
The 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.
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:
Notice 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.
- 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.
Once 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.
Regularly 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.
Now 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.