How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 2: Drilling the Briar Block

In my last post, I explained how I prepare a stem to be fitted to a pipe.  In this post, I will show how I drill the holes in the block of wood itself.

This stage of the pipe-making process is the most important in building a pipe that smokes well.  If you screw up the drilling, then no matter how awesome your pipe looks on the outside, it will be less-than-awesome in use.

Briar Blocks

Before we talk about mechanics, we need to talk about materials.  Tobacco pipes are typically made from briar wood.  The briar used for pipes is cut from a burl, which grows on the root systems of a scrub tree native to the Mediterranean region.  The burls are harvested, cut, processed, and cured by professionals.  It’s not the kind of wood you can grow yourself, at least not in the USA.

Briar Blocks

There are several suppliers of good-quality briar blocks in the USA, and the blocks come in many different shapes, sizes, and grades.

I could write a whole blog post about the different kinds of briar blocks you can buy, but the suppliers themselves can tell you all about their products.

I highly recommend the blocks from Vermont Freehand/PIMO.  Mark Tinsky at American Smoking Pipe Co. also has good briar.  If you’re just starting out in pipe making, I suggest buying a few cheap “ebouchon” blocks, though if you are really partial to pipes with the natural top, you can get small “plateaux” blocks instead.  Buy the cheapest grade to begin with.

“But wait,” you say, “who says briar is the only wood you can use for pipes?  Can I use something other than briar?”

It’s a fair question.  The technical answer is yes, there are a few other woods that will make a good pipe.  The bad news is that they are probably not woods you happen to have lying around the shop.  Olive wood, for example, makes a fine pipe.  So does strawberry wood, which comes from a small tree sometimes planted as an ornamental.  You can also use “morta,” or “bog oak,” which is cut from ancient oak logs that have been dug out of European peat bogs.  There are, however, a few domestic hardwoods, such as persimmon and osage orange, that can make a passable pipe.  Cheap wooden pipes are often made of pear wood, or even black cherry.  While these woods will smoke reasonably well at first, they will not last as long as a briar pipe.  If you happen to have any thick, seasoned chunks of such wood lying around, it won’t hurt to use them for practice, but they may impart an odd or unpleasant taste to the tobacco smoke.

That said, there are good reasons that briar is the ideal material for a wooden pipe.  Not only is the grain dense and beautiful, but briar has an unusually high flashpoint, so it won’t catch fire while you smoke.  Briar pipes, if taken care of, can be smoked almost indefinitely without wearing out.

Once you have your briar block in your hand, you can draw your pipe’s outline on one side.  Begin by drawing two lines, the center line of the tobacco chamber, and the center line of the draft hole, which intersect at the bottom of the pipe.  The rest of the pipe will be shaped around these two lines.

Briar Blocks

Your pipe’s shape can be as normal or as bizarre as you like, but for your first pipe, it’s best to begin with a relatively traditional shape, like a billiard, a poker, or a Dublin.  (Yes, pipe shapes have odd names: here’s one chart that lists a few of the many traditional shapes and names.)  Shapes with steep bends or lots of odd angles are fun, but they add a lot of complications to the pipe-making process.  For this tutorial, I’ll be making a modified “author” shape (not pictured above).

Drilling the Block

At the drill press, I set my fence so that the drill bit hits the block more or less in the middle.  I do look at the grain pattern on the briar block and try to plan for the best grain orientation, and on this block, the best grain orientation happened to be a little off-center.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The first hole to be drilled is the mortise for the stem’s tenon.  Using the right size drill bit (1/4″ in this case), I line up the bit with the center line of the draft hole.  Use a square to ensure that you are, in fact, lined up correctly.  Take your time to get everything lined up perfectly, because you’re going to drill several different holes with several different bits with the block in this position.  So clamp the block securely, and don’t move it until I tell you you can!

But before you drill, I should say a word about drill bits.  Not all drill bits labeled the same size actually are the same size!  Drill three holes with three different 1/4″ bits, and a 1/4″ tenon might fit properly in only one of them.  I highly recommend drilling a test mortise in a piece of scrap first.

The depth of the mortise is flexible, but a 1/2″ to 5/8″ is fairly typical.

Now, once you have drilled the mortise, don’t un-clamp the briar block!  You still need to level off the face of the briar so that the stem fits snugly up against the wood with no unsightly gaps.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a sharp Forsner bit bigger than the diameter of the stem to kiss the top of the wood.

Keep the block clamped up for the next step, too, which is drilling the draft hole.  Most draft holes are either 5/32″ or 11/64″ in diameter; I’m using the smaller diameter here.  A high-quality brad-point bit works the best for this operation.  Regular split-point bits tend to wander.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Lower the bit to the top of the block, and lock it in place.  Use a ruler or dividers to measure the depth of your draft hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Transfer that measurement to your depth stop.  Now you can confidently drill your draft hole to a precise depth.  Briar is dense wood, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.

Okay, now that the draft hole has been drilled, you may finally unclamp the briar block!

There’s only one hole left, which is the tobacco chamber.  Tobacco chambers come in different widths, but the most common is about 3/4″.  I use a spade bit that has been ground down to produce a round bottom.  You can make one yourself with a bench grinder (grind slowly, quench frequently, and be sure to grind a relief-angle on each side of the cutting edge), or you can buy them ready-ground.

Pipe Making Process 2018

With the bit chucked into the drill press, use your depth-stop to set the final depth of the chamber.  Err on the shallow side.  You can always make the hole deeper if necessary.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your square to ensure that the bit is lined up correctly with the center line of the tobacco chamber as you’ve drawn it on the block.

Pipe Making Process 2018

These re-purposed spade bits work okay if you don’t rush the process.  Go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  If you have the block clamped up securely, you should be able to bore a nice, clean hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Even with the depth stop, it can be difficult to know if you’ve actually bored deep enough–or too deep!  One trick is to insert a cotton swab into the draft hole.  When the bit hits it, you’ll see it quiver.

Pipe Making Process 2018

And you’ll be able to easily see the cotton at the bottom of the chamber.  Drill down until you have gone all the way through the draft hole, but no farther.

A properly-drilled pipe has a draft hole that intersects with the very bottom of the tobacco chamber.  This is one of the most important features of a pipe that smokes well, so take your time to get this exactly right.

Now, with the briar block drilled, you can trim the stem’s tenon to length.  To do so, insert the tenon into the mortise as far as it will go.  Measure the difference (either with a ruler or with dividers) and use a small saw to trim that much plus about 1/32″ off the end of the tenon.  (The tenon should not quite bottom out in the mortise because, if the wood shrinks, it will open up a gap at the stem/wood junction.  Leaving the tenon short allows for a bit of shrinkage.)  Once you have trimmed the tenon, counter-sink the end of it.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Insert your stem.  Finally, it’s starting to look like a pipe!

In the next post, we will start shaping the pipe.

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