On balance, I would say that half of pipe making involves sanding. It’s not exactly the fun part of making a pipe, but the results are worth the care and effort.
Theoretically, rasps and files are used to establish the pipe’s shape, while sandpaper is used to refine the surface. In reality, though, careless sanding can alter the shape of a pipe and even ruin a perfectly good shape. So, although the pipe looks almost finished, it still has a long way to go. Sand thoroughly but carefully.
But before we sand, we need to bend the stem. Some pipes have straight stems, but many have a stem that’s bent, either a little or a lot, depending on the desired shape.
This vulcanite stem will bend easily with the application of a little heat. There are a couple ways to do this, but I like to use hot water.
Heat a small saucepan or kettle of water to a rolling boil on the stove. Turn the heat off, and put in the stem. A pipe-cleaner inserted all the way through helps a lot. For example, I can bend the end of the pipe cleaner so I know which direction I’m supposed to bend the stem. Also, the pipe cleaner prevents the airway from collapsing as the stem bends. Furthermore, it allows me to get just the stem submerged. (I’m not interested in bending the tenon.)
Vulcanite needs just a couple minutes in the hot water bath to become flexible. (Acrylic stems will need a longer soak, often up to 5 minutes.) At your kitchen sink, turn on the cold water. Remove the stem and bend it in your fingers. (Longer stems, especially churchwardens, may require a form in order to establish a consistent bend.) Run the stem under the cold water to set the bend. Look at the bend closely to see if you got it right. If not, back into the hot water it goes. It may take two or three tries to get the bend exactly where you want it.
Now, especially you’re married, don’t forget to clean up the kitchen and dump out that pan of water when you’re done. Nobody wants pipe-stem-flavored soup.
Next comes sanding. Prepare yourself, because pipe making requires a LOT of sanding.
First, apply a dye to the wood. It doesn’t much matter which color–as long as it’s not black–whatever color you eventually intend to stain the pipe will work just fine.
This stain doesn’t have anything to do with coloring the wood. What it does is make scratches visible. You are about to sand through several grits, each one removing the scratches left from the previous grit, until the scratches are too fine to be seen. The stain makes those scratches easy to see. In the picture above, you can see how the stain brings out the grain pattern, but if you look closely, you can also see distinct file marks all over the surface of the wood. Those file marks would be much harder to see without the dye.
I generally begin sanding with 150 grit sandpaper. Then I work down through 220, 320, 400, 600, and 1,000.
You can see my secret sanding weapon in the picture above: it’s a foam-backed emery board, which comes in a pack of three at Walmart. I wrap the sandpaper around the board, and it gives me very good control.
Sand off all the stained area, and sand down the entire stem, too. It’s a simple, somewhat monotonous process: stain, sand, and repeat with the next lowest grit.
You can see here how the dye has “caught” in several file marks, which require additional sanding.
Sanding the stem takes even more care than sanding the wood. The wood has a natural texture that tends to hide the smallest scratches, but the vulcanite should be absolutely smooth and scratch-free. I usually spend twice as much time sanding the stem as I do on the rest of the pipe. You can’t use a dye to bring out scratches in the stem, but you can look at the surface carefully under raking light.
As you sand, especially with the lower grits, be careful around the rim and other delicate areas. You want to keep the whole shape crisp and well-defined. Just a few errant strokes, especially with an aggressive grit, can change the whole shape of the pipe.
Sand with the grain lines as much as possible, too.
Once I get down to the lowest two grits (600 and 1,000), I have to start lubricating the sandpaper with water or mineral spirits, otherwise the sandpaper loads up with dust and stops cutting.
For the stem, you may well have to sand down to 1,500-grit in order to remove the finest scratches. If the home-center doesn’t have the finest grits, you can get them at any auto-parts store.
Just to reiterate, this process is going to use a LOT of sandpaper. But don’t rush the sanding process. With briar wood, you can achieve an exceptionally smooth surface, and you don’t want stray scratches ruining the look of your pipe.
After sanding, the final stage in smoothing out the pipe is buffing. The stem especially benefits from buffing. I have a dedicated buffing machine outfitted with a stiff, cotton wheel, but they make buffing wheel attachments for drill presses, too.
I buff the stem with Tripoli wax. You can buff the whole pipe if you like; it does give it a nice shine. Just use a light touch, use both hands, and hold on tight! If you’re not careful, the buffing wheel can grab your pipe out of your hands and fling it across the workshop–or even right into your face. Wear eye-protection, too. Flying pipes are no joke.
With the buffing complete, you can now stain your pipe the color you want. Natural briar will finish fairly light but darken over time, but in order to bring out the figure of the wood, it’s best to use a dye.
But don’t use that swill they sell at the local home-center. You are far better off using either a leather dye or an aniline dye. Fiebing’s leather dye is an excellent choice. Many pipes are stained in two stages, first with a darker base-color (usually a very dark brown) and then with a lighter color (often a red, orange, or yellow). I’m using only one stain on this particular pipe.
To apply the stain, first warm up the wood with a hairdryer. (Be careful not to heat everything so hot that the stem loses its bend. I’ve made that mistake before!) The wood should be warm to the touch all over.
Immediately apply the stain evenly to the entire the surface using a cotton swab. Be careful to keep the stain out of the tobacco chamber. It’s not that stain in the chamber will affect how a pipe smokes, but it does look bad. If you do get stain in the chamber, you can always sand it out by taping some sandpaper around a dowel and using that to sand the chamber. (You can even chuck the dowel in your drill press, if you like!)
Once the stain is dry and the wood is back to room-temperature, wipe down the pipe gently with denatured alcohol on a paper towel. The result will be a nice, even stain–both on the pipe and on your fingers. Wear rubber gloves if you don’t want dyed fingers for the next couple days.
Repeat the process with your second, lighter color if you are staining twice.
Now that you have the pipe the color you want it, it’s important to seal that color in. I use a single coat of Danish oil over the whole stained surface. (Watco Danish oil works just fine, but I use my own home-brew of equal parts safflower oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane.) As with the stain, do your best to keep the oil out of the chamber.
The Danish oil really brings out the figure in the briar. Let the oil finish cure overnight at least, then buff gently with a soft, clean cloth until it’s no longer tacky.
It’s customary to use a top-coat of wax over the oil finish. (If you don’t use oil under the wax, the stain will eventually bleed through when the pipe gets warm while being smoked, staining the smoker’s fingers.) Carnauba wax, applied with a buffing wheel, is the usual finish, though a good paste-wax will also work in a pinch.
Buff the pipe until it shines!
Hopefully, the result is a pipe you can be proud of.