How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 3: Shaping with Rasps and Files

When we left off last time, we had a stem inserted into a drilled block of briar wood.  Now, you could smoke this block if you wanted to (I’ve seen it done!), but you probably want to do some shaping in order to make your pipe look like, well… a pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

My first step in shaping is to draw some straight lines around the shape of the pipe and remove as much of the waste as I can with a saw.  Either a band saw or a hand saw will do nicely.  Just be careful not to over-cut your lines.

One of the most important parts of shaping is secure work-holding.  Most pipes are shaped on a lathe and then finished up on a disk-sander or belt-sander.  We, however, are going to be using hand tools, which require us to hold the work down mechanically.  I use a large handscrew set upright in my bench vise.

In order to make the handscrew adjustable while clamped in the vise, set a small scrap board behind one of the jaws of the handscrew.  Then, when you tighten the vise, one jaw of the handscrew will remain free and adjustable.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a rasp to shape the block down to your lines.  My favorite rasps for this operation are hand-stitched rasps from Lee Valley.  They’re a little more expensive than machine-made rasps, but they leave a much smoother surface.  I use a 10″ and 6″ half-round rasp.

A rasp is a two-handed tool, hence the importance of effective work-holding.  Keep the work securely clamped as you proceed.

It is important to leave the stem inserted as you shape the pipe.  Although it’s technically two pieces, you need to treat it as one solid object from here on out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Eventually you will have to start cutting away your layout lines.  That’s when things get interesting, because you have to start shaping entirely from memory.  It really helps to have taken a picture of your original shape as a visual reference.

Okay, so there’s a simple procedure for shaping a pipe with hand tools.  Most pipe shapes are essentially two cylinders that intersect (or some variation thereof).  In order to make a cylinder with hand tools, you first make a shape that’s square in cross-section.  Then you take off each of the four corners to form an octagon.  Take off each of the sixteen corners, and you have something approaching a cylinder.  That’s what we’re doing with this pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Here I’ve rasped the block roughly square, keeping the stem and the tobacco chamber in the center of everything.  Drawing the circumference of the pipe’s rim is a good idea.  I find myself drawing and re-drawing a lot of layout lines throughout the shaping process.  You don’t want things to be any more spontaneous than they have to be.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Beginning with the top of the pipe’s bowl, I have begun to take off the four corners to form an octagon.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The most difficult part to shape is always the junction between the bowl and the stummel.  A small, half-round rasp is especially helpful here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The same square-to-octagon process applies to the bottom of the pipe, too.  Aesthetically, the lowest part of the bowl should not be directly under the center of the bowl; rather, it ought to be right under the back of the chamber.  (Take a close look at any well-made pipe in a standard shape, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you shape the pipe, don’t just rely on your eyes.  Rely on your sense of touch, too.  Each time you remove the pipe from the vise, roll it over in your hands.  Gauge the thickness of the chamber wall all around with your fingers.  You will be able to feel irregularities in thickness even if you can’t see them.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As with the bowl, so with the stummel.  Take off the four corners to make an octagon, but avoid hitting the stem with the rasp.  Rasps dig into vulcanite very aggressively, and rasp marks can be difficult to sand out.  Stop the rasp work just short of the stem.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The result is a faceted pipe.  Some pipes include facets as part of the final design, but all these facets need to be smoothed out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use the rasps to remove the corners and refine the shape as well as you can.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, a rounded shape becomes difficult to clamp in any kind of vise.  I use a 3/4″ dowel clamped upright in my handscrew to stabilize the pipe while working the bottom of it.  With care, you can use a small rasp one-handed here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, you will be close enough to your final shape that you will want to switch from rasps to files.  A couple half-round files the same shape and length as your rasps are best.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Be especially careful around the stem-stummel transition.  You want a tight, even radius, especially at the top.  A chainsaw file is perfect for this operation.  I find myself going back and forth between my small, half-round file and my chainsaw file as I chase the exact shape I’m looking for.

Take your time here, and don’t give up too soon, or the whole pipe will look clumsy.  A well-defined transition between shank and bowl is one of the hallmarks of a workman-like pipe.

As you are refining the shape with files, you will gradually start working into the stem, too.  Continue to shape the wood and the stem as one piece, and check occasionally to ensure that the stem has not gotten pulled out or rotated along the way.  A second-cut file or smoother is best for stem work.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Notice that I am using one more little jig here.  A section of 2X4 with either a notch or a large, shallow hole cut into it works great for stabilizing the end of the stem as you work it with a file (and later with sandpaper).

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your finest file to refine the shape of the button.  Some like a thick, heavy button; others like a very delicate one.  Whatever your preference, just remember that you’ll have to sand out all your file marks, so it’s best to leave everything slightly over-size.  A little sanding goes a long way on the button.

Pipe Making Process 2018

There are still a lot of little facets that need to be smoothed out, and the stem also needs to be bent.  But it’s starting to look a lot more like a pipe!


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3 Responses to How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 3: Shaping with Rasps and Files

  1. Ron Aylor says:

    Nice work! There’s no end to what can be accomplished with a rasp/file. I recently added gadrooning, made with coping saw and files, to a Reformation Era prie dieu. What were you listening to as you scraped you way through that block of briar wood?

    • I’ve tried listening to music in the shop, but somehow I always end up more distracted than focused. My mind is usually going several different directions at once, but working with wood is one time when all my attention gets focused on a single thing. It’s very calming… until I screw something up!

      • Ron Aylor says:

        Lol! I was hoping you would say that. I find the silence of unplugged woodworking so comforting. On occasion I’ll play the fife while the glue dries.

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