Making your own pipe is not an easy task, especially if you want the result to be more than just a block of wood with a couple of holes in 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. The making of a pipe is the most fulfilling activity that I take the time to engage in. I 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 I’ve begged you, I’ll tell you how!
There are manly men who can make pipes using only sandpaper and hand tools, and then there are the rest of us. Having some power tools including a lathe, a bandsaw, a drill press, a bench-mounted sanding disc, and a Dremel tool makes the process shorter and infinitely easier. I speak from experience as I have tried both methods with much greater success in the latter. Though power tools are fun to use and make jobs like this less difficult, don’t underestimate a good set of files and rasps. You can shape a pipe from start to near finish with good files and rasps, and polish it off with some sandpaper.
Acquiring the right materials is very important. Fabricating a pipe out of pinewood and Play-Doh would be quite cost-effective, but otherwise regrettable. Here are the basic materials you will need to make your own pipe:
Pipes can be made from corncob, meerschaum, olive wood, cherry wood, ancient morta, clay, briar, 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 tree heath. 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 tree heath 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. For your first pipe, you will most likely want to choose a smaller and less expensive “ebauchon” block as opposed to a pricey “plateau” block.
Most pipe supply retailers sell injection-molded stems to 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 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 your own stem from raw ebonite rods, which is your other option.
Once you have selected the piece of briar and stem that you will use for your pipe, you will need to do some design work. Some beginners find it helps to work off of a template of some sort. You can print a profile picture of a pipe you like online, and trace the shape onto the side of your briar block to give you some limitations. Once the design work has been done, you’ll need to drill some holes. 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. Take your measurements twice, and mark where the holes will be. 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. The holes you will need to drill are:
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.
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”.
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!