Five years ago, I wrote here about making a tobacco pipe with hand tools. That post assumed you were starting with a “pipe kit,” i.e. a pre-drilled block of wood with a stem pre-fitted into it. I still think that is an excellent way to begin learning to make pipes. But once you’ve decided you want to make more than just a couple pipes, you will want to begin drilling your own blocks–making the pipes yourself start-to-finish. This post is the first in a series about how to make a pipe from a block of wood and a pre-molded stem.
Professional pipe makers not only drill their own briar blocks but also make their own stems from solid rod stock–usually vulcanite (a hard rubber product) or acrylic. But many hobby-level pipe makers (like me) prefer to use pre-molded stems. These stems (sometimes called “bits”) can be bought online in many shapes and sizes for a few dollars apiece, and they come pre-drilled with a draft hole and roughly shaped. I have used stems from a number of suppliers, including Vermont Freehand, American Smoking Pipe Co., and J. H. Lowe.
In order to fit a stem to a pipe, it needs to be modified in two ways:
Most obviously, they need to be refined in shape and texture. Most vulcanite stems come rough-cast from their molds and require quite a bit of shaping and sanding before they are comfortable to hold and look good. But first, they need to be fitted with a hollow tenon which will be inserted into the pipe. There are a couple ways to accomplish this. You can buy a special tool called a tenon cutter, made just for pipe stems, which fits into a drill press chuck and cuts a tenon on the end of a stem. Or you can drill a hole into the stem and glue in a pre-drilled tenon, which is what I do.
When I make a pipe, the first step is to insert the tenon into the stem. Most pre-molded stems come with a tenon-like stub on the tenon-end of the stem. I saw that off with a small handsaw, then take the stem down to my drill press for drilling.
I clamp the stem upright on my drill press table. (Here I’m drilling out a diamond-shaped stem, but the principle is the same with any shape.) Take the time to ensure that the bit is perfectly aligned dead-center over the stem’s draft hole. Also double-check that the stem is indeed clamped straight up-and-down by looking at it from several sides. Also double-check that you are using the right sized drill bit. Then, with the drill press set on medium-to-high speed, slowly lower the bit into the stem. Vulcanite is fairly brittle, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips. You need to drill down no farther than 1/2″. If your drill press has a depth-stop, use it. Otherwise, just eyeball it.
And yes, pipe making requires either a drill press or a good lathe. You can’t do this accurately freehand. This is a good time to remind you that, if you want to make more than one pipe and aren’t content working with pre-drilled pipe kits, then you have to invest in a workable setup. Pipe making requires a number of tools and jigs that you either buy or make for yourself. In other words, if you are going to go to the trouble of making one pipe, you may as well make a dozen.
Once the hole for the tenon is drilled, do not move the stem. You need to level off the surface of the stem so that it is perfectly perpendicular to the tenon. Switch to a large, sharp Forsner bit. The exact size doesn’t matter, as long as the teeth around the edge of the bit clears the outside of the stem. It just needs to be sharp.
Turn on the drill and, very slowly, lower the bit onto the stem. Just kiss it with the bit. (Excess pressure may cause the bit to rip chunks off the top of the stem.) As soon as the whole face has been leveled off, you’re done. Now you can unclamp the stem.
If you don’t have a high-quality drill-press vise–or even if you do have one–it can be difficult to hold a long stem perfectly upright in a drill press. The contraption shown in these pictures is the best I’ve been able to come up with, and it works fairly well.
I began with a squared-up block of seasoned hardwood, about 2″X2″X6″. On the drill press, I drilled a series of holes of different sizes: 3/8″, 1/2″, and 5/8″. I also drilled a large counter-bore at the top of each hole. Then I reamed out the top of each hole slightly because most stems taper somewhat. Finally I sawed it in half down the middle of each hole.
To use it, I clamp the stem in the appropriate-sized hole, and clamp the whole thing to a fence on my drill-press table. (The fence is nothing but a squared-up 2X4 clamped to my drill press table.) To get the stem centered directly under the bit, I lightly clamp everything up as near as a quick eyeballing can get me. Then I tap things here and there until the alignment is perfect, and I tighten the clamps. It doesn’t take as long as it sounds.
Once the stem is bored and faced, it’s time to glue in the tenons.
The tenons are made from delrin, a flexible, Teflon-like material. You can buy rods of delrin in different diameters from industrial suppliers, but because the rods are long, shipping is often prohibitive. Then you still have to drill out the center of the rod before it can serve as a tenon. I prefer to buy delrin tenons pre-drilled, often from the same people who supply me with the stems. The tenons come in several sizes. I find myself using the 1/4″ diameter size the most, and that’s what you see here.
Before gluing the tenons into the stems, they need to be modified just a little bit. I always use a countersink bit to ream out the end of the tenon that will go into the stem. (In the picture above, the tenon on the right is as it came from the manufacturer; the two tenons on the left have been countersunk.) This makes it easier for the stem to pass a pipecleaner once assembled.
Now, remember when I said that the tenons were made of a Teflon-like material? There’s an old joke that asks, “How do they get Teflon to stick to the pan if nothing sticks to Teflon?” (It’s a true feat of chemical engineering, but don’t let’s get sidetracked.) Glue won’t stick to these tenons, so you have to use epoxy to lock them in mechanically instead.
With the corner of a file, cut several notches into the sides of the tenon, on the end you will insert into the stem. They should be big enough to allow a generous amount of epoxy to flow into them. Just don’t cut all the way down into the airway.
The epoxy will fill these notches and stick to the stem, thus locking the tenons in place–even though the glue does not actually stick to the tenon.
When applying the epoxy, be very careful not to get any glue on the inside of the tenon. Be equally careful to ensure that every notch you filed is completely filled with the epoxy.
You don’t need much epoxy for this operation, but you do need the right kind. There are many epoxies on the market, mostly distinguished by the time they take to cure. Here’s an important rule of thumb: the quicker an epoxy cures, the weaker it is. The strongest epoxies require a full 24 hours to cure, and they are worth the extra time. I use regular JB-Weld epoxy, which is widely available and extremely strong.
The cure-time is the reason I begin the pipe-making process with the stem. Typically I drill and glue up several stems at a time, so as to have each one ready when I set out to make a pipe.
With the epoxy applied to the tenon, insert the tenon into the stem. Be careful not to drip any glue into the airway of the stem. Then tap the tenon sharply on the bench top or a block of wood to ensure that it is fully inserted.
Finally, clean off all the excess epoxy immediately. (This is another advantage of using the slow-curing epoxy; you have ample time to clean off the excess.) Use a wet paper towel to wipe the excess off the tenon. And soak a pipe cleaner in water and run it through tenon several times to ensure that no glue has blocked the airway. You can also check that the airway is clear by blowing through it–and by simply looking through it.
Now set your stems aside to dry for a day while you turn your attention to the wooden part of the pipe. In the next post, I will show how to drill the holes in a block of briar.