Making Your Own Smoking Pipe
Making your own smoking pipe is not an easy task, especially if you want the result to be more than just a block of wood with a stem sticking out of it. However, if you possess some patience, and practice some determination, you may be surprised at just how capable you are of producing your own practical smoking instrument. We sincerely wish that all pipe smokers were inclined to make a pipe of their own, even if only for the sheer pleasure of trying. Now that we’ve begged you, we’ll tell you how!
There are manly men who can make smoking pipes using only sandpaper and hand tools, and then there are the rest of us. Having some larger machinery including a lathe, a bandsaw, a drill press, and a benchtop disc sander makes the process shorter and infinitely easier. We speak from experience as we’ve tried both methods with much greater success in the latter. Though power tools are fun to use and make jobs like drilling the draught hole and chamber, shaping the stummel, and crafting the stem much easier tasks, its obvious that most fledgling pipe makers won’t have one or more of these tools at their disposal at the onset. There’s no reason to start worrying, however. You can make a perfectly capable smoking pipe using tools that most of us already own, or could obtain for a relatively small investment; a hand drill, dremel/rotary tool, and a good set of files and rasps will get you rollin’. You can shape a pipe from start to near finish with good files and rasps, (although it will test those burly arms of yours) and polish it off with some sandpaper. Once you’ve mastered the basics, understand the general concepts of pipe making, and gotten a few pipes under your belt, then it’ll be time to start thinking about investing in tools that will significantly speed up the process and help you create a higher grade smoking instrument. Until then, don’t be discouraged by lackluster results… the David wasn’t Michelangelo’s first sculpture.
Acquiring the right materials is very important. Fabricating a pipe out of pinewood and Play-Doh would be quite cost-effective, but otherwise regrettable. Our pipe-kits come with the best quality Italian briar (from Mimmo himself), and a perfectly shaped and drilled acrylic stem. Here’s a basic description of these 2 essential pipe materials:
Pipes can be made from corncob, meerschaum, olive wood, cherry wood, strawberry wood, ancient morta, clay, and perhaps other materials as well, but briar is by most considered to be the ultimate material for making pipes. Briar is a type of wood harvested from erica arborea, or “heath tree”. It possesses many desirable qualities for use in smoking pipes including very high heat tolerance, respiration, hardness, and beautiful grain. It is as expensive as wood goes, partially because until a heath tree is approximately 40 years old, its briar is not considered to be ready for harvesting. Additionally, once harvested, the briar must be boiled and dried to remove sap and moisture, but the process is long and must be carefully controlled to prevent the briar blocks from drying too quickly, which can result in splits or fissures in the wood. Briar can be cut two different ways, and each way yields a unique looking block. “Ebauchons” are briar blocks that have been cut across the grain, while “plateaus” are cut with the grain and maintains the craggy outer surface of the briar burl. For your first pipe, you will most likely want to choose a smaller and less expensive ebauchon block as opposed to a pricey plateau. We carry both an ebauchon and a plateau pipe-kit.
The most commonly used stems by fledgling pipe makers are injection-molded stems that can fit just about any pipe style, usually made of ebonite (also called vulcanite), which is a specially treated rubber with a high sulfur content. They can also be made from black or colorful acrylics. The wonderful thing about these stems is that when heated they can be bent, but once cool, they will harden, and can then be polished. These stems usually need some TLC before they are truly finished, but that’s easier than cutting, shaping, and drilling your own stem from raw ebonite or acrylic rods, which is your other option. Our pipe-kit stems come polished, with the draught hole trumpeted at the bit end, and their tenons already turned and faced and fitting perfectly into the pre-drilled mortise. If you purchase pre-formed stems elsewhere expect rough edges, a wide, unturned tenon, and no trumpeting of the draught hole. You’ll have to do all that work yourself.
Preliminary Design and Mechanics
Once you have selected the piece of briar and stem that you will use for your pipe, it’s time to start drilling. Our pipe kits all come pre-drilled to perfection and are ready to be shaped, but here is the process for those with the tooling to do it from scratch. Precision is key here, as a hole drilled at the wrong angle, in the wrong place, or of the wrong diameter can ruin the function of the pipe. Make sure to draw all the holes you will be drilling (draught, mortise chamber) onto the side of the briar block so you can use them as a guide. Getting the sizes, lengths, and angles on there will remove a lot of guesswork. When you’re ready, use a vice to hold the briar block steady as you line up to drill. Whether you are using a drill press or a hand drill, a vice is a must. You’ll want to drill the holes in the following order:
The Draught Hole
This should be done with a long, skinny bit. Something in the range of 5/32” or 4mm is about right. Waxing the bit with hard carnauba wax before drilling can help prevent burning the interior of the channel. To make sure you don’t drill the draught hole to far, measure the length of the draught hole line (say it’s 3″). Now mark 3″ up on your drill bit and you’ll know when to stop drilling.
The mortise should be drilled in the same diameter that the tenon of your stem is. If you’ll be turning your tenon down to a smaller diameter on a lathe or using a special tenon-turning tool, you may choose a different diameter. Popular diameters for the mortise are 9/32” and 5/16”. Once again you’ll want to drill your mortise as far as you’ve measured and drawn it out on the side of the briar block.
The chamber is a tough one, since the bottom of your chamber should be conical or round, not square as would be achieved with a Forstner bit. There are specially made bits for drilling tobacco chambers ranging in price from a few dollars to $100+, but the cheap ones will do for your first few pipes! If you have bench grinder you can round off the edges of cheap spade bit, or just pick up a pre-rounded spade bit from one of several sources online. 3/4” is the most popular size for tobacco chambers, but for larger pipes, you may choose to go with 7/8”. Use your chamber drawing as a guide and drill slowly but surely, checking for signs of the draft hole often the deeper you go. Once you’ve drilled deep enough that the entire diameter of the draught hole is barely visible, stop! You’re done!
The Fun Part
Getting the mechanics just right or even mostly right can be quite frustrating. That’s why most fledgling pipe makers are quite happy to move on to the more creative and rewarding parts like shaping and staining (our pipe-kits allow you to start your pipe making journey right at this step!). These steps are not without their sand-traps however. Just wait until you sand the sides of the bowl down to far and can see light filtering in through a hole in the side of your chamber. Or, when you think you did a great job finish sanding only to find out your pipe is a scratched up mess after you’ve done the final buffing. Don’t worry, we’ve got the directions you need and some tips to help you avoid some rookie mistakes.
Shaping is fun… really fun. This is when the vision of you pipe (however good or bad it was) starts to become reality. How easy this task is accomplished once again depends upon the tools at your disposal. I’ll break it down this way…
You have a:
metal lathe = Awesome! Almost all the pros make a good deal of their pipes this way. Shaping will be limited to shapes that have congruent sides (i.e. billiards, princes, etc.), but in theory this method produces the most consistent pipes. With a metal lathe you can also opt to shape before you drill although we don’t recommend you try this until you’ve got some experience. For more on “shaping before drilling” check out the Pipe Maker’s Forum.
benchtop disc sander/belt sander = You can create any pipe shape you want! Every professional pipe maker has one (or a few) of these and most of the great Danish pipe makers use disc sanders exclusively for shaping. You will want to get sanding discs of various grits (think 60 to 180 grit), and work your way up as your pipe shape becomes more defined.
Dremel or similar rotary tool = Shaping a pipe from start to finish is definitely doable with a dremel tool. It’s going to be a longer road and you’ll need much more patience, but it can be done… we’ve done it. You can get the little barrel shaped sanding discs in various grits so you can shave off more or less wood depending on what shaping stage you’re at. If you go with a Dremel, stick to a more simple, tried-and-true shape like a billiard, apple. Anything much more complex would be pushing the limits in our opinion.
Files and rasps = These technically can get the job done, but that’s really pushing it. If all you had to work with was files and rasps it would take quite a long time to finish and the end product wouldn’t look as polished. Regardless, files and rasps are essential additions to any one of the shaping methods/tools above. They are necessary for getting in and removing briar from tight spaces that would otherwise be nearly impossible with just the above tools.
Finger nails/serrated knife/broken beer bottle = If you aren’t a descendant of Noah… good luck!
Staining and More Sanding
The mortise should be drilled in the same diameter that the tenon of your stem is. If you’ll be turning your tenon down to a smaller diameter on a lathe or using a special tenon-turning tool, you may choose a different diameter. Popular diameters for the mortise are 9/32” and 5/16”.
Buffing and Finishing
The chamber is a tough one, since the bottom of your chamber should be conical or round, not square as would be achieved with a Forstner bit. There are specially made bits for drilling tobacco chambers ranging in price from a few dollars to $100+, but the cheap ones will do for your first few pipes! 3/4” is the most popular size for tobacco chambers, but for larger pipes, you may choose to go with 7/8”.
Now Get to the Shop
Drill the draught hole so that it enters the bottom of the tobacco chamber in the very center. This is sometimes difficult to do, but it is important to the smoking qualities of the pipe. A draught hole that enters 1/4” above the chamber bottom will leave LOTS of unsmoked tobacco after each smoke. The mortise should be drilled to the same length as your stem’s tenon to avoid creating gaps where moisture will accumulate while smoking.
Once your holes are drilled, fit the stem to the pipe, and you can begin shaping! This for many is the most enjoyable part of making a pipe, because you really see the transformation take place right before your eyes. Using whatever tools you have at your disposal, be that a bench-mounted sanding disc or a set of files, begin taking away the excess briar that is hiding your pipe! Take your time, and focus on symmetry and proportions rather than trying to create a stunning work of art.
As the shaping nears completion, you will need to sand it very thoroughly to remove all the scratches you have made in the briar. Start with the sandpaper as soon as the pipe looks “almost finished”, because one wrong stroke with 40 grit paper or a file can do a lot of damage to your hard-earned shape. Use the rougher paper to finalize the shape, and don’t forget about the stem! 120 grit paper can take off a lot more material than you realize! Once you have sanded it to shape, move to a higher grit like 220 to begin taking out the deepest scratches. Then move to 320 and take out the finer scratches. Repeat this process until you have sanded the pipe thoroughly with 500-600 grit paper. If you’ve worked it correctly, you should now have a very smooth pipe.
Now that the pipe is sanded smooth, you can stain the pipe. The easiest way to do so is to use a leather dye such as Feibing’s. Apply the stain evenly to the pipe until it is uniformly coated. The trick of the trade is to apply the stain with a simple pipe cleaner. If you like, you can wipe off the first coat with some mineral spirits on a rag or paper towel, let dry briefly, and apply a second coat. It’s best to let the stain cure for several hours before buffing, as buffing tends to take away a lot of the color unless it is rightly cured.
Buff the pipe gently with red or brown tripoli wax on a muslin buffing wheel. You need not press hard into the wheel in order to get a good shine, since you sanded so thoroughly with the sandpaper. Light touches are all that’s needed. Once you are satisfied with the tripoli session, you can move to a muslin/flannel mix wheel with white diamond compound. This will remove the finest of scratches and leave it with quite a beautiful appearance. Lastly, using a 100% flannel wheel, buff the pipe lightly and evenly with hard carnauba wax which will leave the pipe with it’s final shine.
If you need more information along the way, getting good information happens to be very easy when it comes to making pipes. Visit the well-beloved Pipe Maker’s Forum to get expert advice on just about every necessary procedure from drilling the first hole to polishing up your finished masterpiece!
There are not many things more satisfying than drawing puffs of smoke from your own handmade smoking pipe. Do yourself a favor and give it a try! You may find, as many have, that pipe making will become a favorite past time, or perhaps even a new career!