Constructing Your First Pipe - As I Have Experienced It


Walter L. De Visser, Sr.
Black River Cigar Company

Constructing a pipe can be both a fulfilling, rewarding experience and a disappointing project depending on what you wish to do with the finished pipe. Almost any home constructed pipe can be smoked with great delight. We just hope the finished product meets our preconceived ideas of a successful project.

Tools of the Trade

Let us first discuss the equipment required in the shop or workroom. One of the most important machines for making pipes is the Dremel (or equivalent) rotary tool and a small collection of tools and fittings. You can use the Dremel, or as I shall call it, “rotary tool” as it comes from the factory or you can add the flexible shaft attachment for a little extra cost and do away with the problem of holding the tool itself. I have my rotary tool suspended above my workbench and use the flexible shaft attachment. It is smaller, fits my hand better, and allows better control of the tool bits or sanding spools. The bits, sanding spools, and buffing components will be the most used with the sanding spools being the most important. The medium or fine grits in the 5/16 and 1/2 inch spool size fits the bill for most applications.

The next tool you will most likely need, at least to do it my way, is the 1 inch wide belt sander with a small 6 inch disc sander on one end. I have a Dremel but there are others that will do the same thing. Mine has a 30 inch belt that is easy to change and the belts are cheap. I get them from the flea market for about a dollar apiece but they are available at most hardware stores and even Wal-Mart. The price of belts goes up to about four dollars or so if purchased there. Either way, you can get a lot of life from a belt. Use a little coarser grit of perhaps 150 or even 100. The fine grit works well but does have a shorter life than the coarser grits. I use this to remove large amounts of wood fast and to do the rough out of the pipe. I use the disc sander to square up sides and sometimes to remove stock fast also. I have a shop vac I hook to a manifold system of PVC pipe that allows me to connect the sander to the vacuum to remove a good portion of the dust that is all over the shop but that I don't want to kick up in my face.

A drill press is really required for the drilling of the smoke hole and the tobacco hole. I also use it to square the shank end and to drill the mortise. In fact I also use it to finish the tenon end of the stem. A nice tool to have with the drill press is a drill press vise. I have made many pipes without one but they do make it a bit easier to hold the stummel when drilling the holes. You can in fact, make the tenon without the drill press but the result is either very careful work with sandpaper or a poorly fitted tenon. I have done both and the result with the drill press is by far the better way to go. If you do not have a drill press a jig for drilling can be constructed as shown in the STEMCO-PIMO book although I have not attempted it that way. If you have a metal working engine lathe, you may not require a drill press, but it is a pretty expensive way to go if you do not know for sure you will like the hobby.

When purchasing a drill press for pipes, assuming you don't have one just waiting to be used, be sure the stroke of the quill is at least several inches long. I purchased a small drill press that won't allow me to use regular length bits and still get the stroke I require on normal stummels. The table is too close to the chuck and using the base is all right except it is too far away and requires a spacer. So think about it before purchasing a new drill press.

You will need only a few bits. I use a 3/16 for the smoke hole and a 3/4 spade bit that I modified for the tobacco hole. I was a tool maker in another life. You can also purchase from STEMCO-PIMO, a tobacco hole kit of three sizes. Not a bad idea if you are not at least an amateur tool maker. Additionally, their tenon tool and mortise tool are perfect. The cost of the tenon turning tool is a bit high at around sixty dollars but it really is a time and frustration saver. The mortise tool is also nearly a must have. It drills the mortise and squares the shank so the stem fits square. I made several pipes without this timesaver and always found there was a visual crack between the stem and the shank. No matter how hard I attempted to make it square, it always seemed to be off. Only after I purchased the mortise tool did I have perfect fits. It is well worth the money.

Now for the saws. If you have a well supplied wood shop you will likely have all the saws you need. For a long time I made do with a decent scroll saw and you can too. I since have acquired a three wheel bandsaw which works much better. If you have a scroll saw available, it will work fine. Make sure you have rather coarse teeth in your blade as you will have to be cutting through a couple of inches of briar and that is a big enough job without trying to do the job with a fine toothed blade. You can do without the saw all together if you don't mind a lot of extra sanding dust. On the other hand, you could use a hand saw, a dovetail saw, a coping saw and even a table saw. The Bandsaw is by far the best choice. If you have one you are all set, if you don't, try one of the others but do be careful. Missing fingers make it hard to hold the pipe bowl for sanding in the future.

Another tool that costs little but is very much required is a buffing setup. There are grinders on the market that can be fitted with buffing wheels and there are double ended buffers that are driven by a belt that also work well. I use a liberated motor with a simple shaft adapter mounted on the shaft. This adapter is 1/2 inch and has screw threads the length of it. I put a buffing wheel on and tighten the nut. Works well for me because it has no framework surrounding it to interfere with my buffing or tripoling operation.

You need at least one stitched buff of muslin to use when working with tripoli brown and perhaps others if you decide to use other tripoli compounds. You also need a wider but unstitched buff of flannel for applying wax. These come with a 20 ply or so width and you apply wax and do the finishing with it. It is nice to have a last buff that you use only to do a finish buff with. I don't use one but it does make a little better gloss on your prized project.

All these buffs are available at STEMCO-PIMO for about four or five dollars each. Tripoli and wax are also available at the same source. The tripoli brown and the carnauba wax are available in 2 oz. sizes for the wax at about three and a half dollars and the compound in 1 1/2 oz for two dollars. If you have a couple of motors you can make a setup for each type of buff. One motor will do the job very well though. Use a motor speed or 1750 rpm or so.

I do have a contour sander also but it has not proven to be very helpful. It does help in the final shaping but sanding by hand does a good job also. I purchased the contour sander because of trouble in my elbow. The trouble with it is that it vibrates and that is just as bad. I do use it as a bit of help in finishing the roughing process as it will round with little effort. Not required but something for the future.

Other supplies you may require are sandpaper, stains, cloths, brushes, and a few other things. Sandpaper I use is whatever is available. I purchase a good share at the flea market but a couple packs from the hardware store will do just fine. I use 150 grit for rough in work and final shaping. I use 220 grit to start my finish and work out any scratches from the 150. I use a 400 as my last grit unless I have some 600 which I may use if the job is super. I don’t think much work is done with the 600 but it makes me feel better. I often finish with a bit of artificial steel wool of 0000 grade. The stuff is plastic but does make a nice finish before staining.

Alcohol stains are available from STEMCO-PIMO and I have all the offered colors. The brown mahogany is really quite red and the cherry is really brown. The colors depend on how much you apply. I went to my local drug store and got some of those brown bottles that medicine comes in for a few cents apiece. They are alcohol resistant and you only need about 2 oz of alcohol per mix. I use finishing alcohol which is denatured and cheap. It is also used for fuel in marine stoves. I also keep a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the bench to check grain in a briar block and I use it to wipe down my work on the stummel from time to time as well as my hands before beginning work on the last sanding operations. Either that or you must wear gloves to keep the oil on your hands from contacting the briar. Just a bit of this oil and you may leave a bald spot in your staining.

I keep a few rags around to use when wiping down my project. I also stain using rags although others use brushes. I don't mind a stained finger for a day and even that can be eliminated by using a little of the rubbing alcohol right after staining. About all that is left is a radio to keep you company or some other source of your favorite music and a few drawing tools.

I use a circle template and a French curve set to help draw the pipe and I also use a draftsman's compass to help transfer lines. A small square is a big help in squaring up the briar block before starting operations. I would suggest you purchase a mask or other breathing protection device. I use the throw away ones and hate using them. I do use them when ever roughing on the sander and during the initial shaping with the rotary tool. I must confess I do away with them as soon as the worst is over.

I think that about covers the shop requirements and of course you can do without most of them if you have a lot of time and don’t mind many hours of carving. Bring your coffee, tea or brandy and, of course, your pipe. It's a nice hobby and you should have no trouble crafting a suitable pipe of which you can be proud.


Briar is available from several sources. STEMCO-PIMO offers briar in their catalog and you can get very nice briar from Mark Tinsky also. It is available as ebauchons in different sizes and as plateaux. The ebauchons offered by STEMCO-PIMO are suitable if you don’t purchase the smaller sizes. Some of the sizes offered are too small by far. Stick with the middle and larger sizes. The plateaux is fine but remember that the shapes are weird.

All of the plateaux available comes in shapes and sizes too weird to describe. The grain is nicer and the blocks larger but you do pay a price for the good stuff. I now get my briar from Mark Tinsky. I get a hold of him and ask him to select some nice blocks of about 6 oz size. The larger ones do offer a choice of how you arrange your pipe on the block and if you get a real big size of about 10 to 12 ounce size you may be able to get two pipes from the same block. It rarely works out that way and my recommendation is to order 6 ounce blocks. There is less waste of your hard earned money that way.

There are always flaws of some sort in any of the briar you buy and there is no way to tell if you have a fatal flaw in yours. All you can do is pray and hope it won’t show up at the last minute. Mark also has very fine ebauchons in large sizes. I have made fine pipes from that grade and can recommend that also. Plateaux runs about a dollar and seventy-five cents an ounce. Ebauchons about three to five dollars per block. I have put a few blocks on my workbench and just looked at them for a couple of hours trying to figure just where to put a desired shape. Sometimes I just put them all back and try with something else.

The last time I ordered briar, I just asked for $200 worth of plateaux in the 6 oz size. The next time I order briar I will ask for 4 or 5 pieces of plateaux in 6 oz size and the rest in ebauchons of good size. I give away too many pipes as it is and have been selling only enough to keep me in supplies. If I am going to give them away, I can do more with less money invested. I now try to make only sellable pipes and if they won’t make the grade, then I may give one to a friend or I may rusticate and sell them at lower prices. One of the advantages of having a smoke shop to market through.


A word about stems. You can get stems from several sources including STEMCO-PIMO. The cheapest ones are cast. I suggest you try your first pipe with one of these. Later you may want to make your own from rod. They are not very expensive and I suggest you get at least a few of those shapes you like best. They come in a bunch of sizes so be sure of what you order. I find that 1/2 and 5/8 inch sizes fit most pipes. Of course if you can afford it, get a few of as many as you think you will likely use. Sometimes you make an error and have to scrap a stem. At least they don’t cost too much. Wait until you have made a couple of pipes before getting into the more exotic versions. There may be chips or bad mold spots on a couple of the stems you purchase. You can normally work these out and use them. If you like the freehand type, get a couple of them too. In the case of these, you won’t have to make the nice joint between the stem and shank. Don’t let that prevent you from getting the others though because the job is not that difficult.


The first thing you have to do is decide what you want to make and then lay it out on the block selected to be the first victim. Before you get to that part you may wish to sketch and draw and sketch again until you have a good idea of what you wish to make. I would suggest a straight pipe for the first one. The angles are easier to drill and your chance of success is much greater. If you have purchased a pre-drilled kit from Mark Tinsky or another source, you may make anything you desire. Still, a straight pipe is easier.

I assume you are working from scratch so after deciding the size and shape, you can either draw it on a manila folder and cut it out with a blade or draw it on your block of briar. To make the whole operation easier, first take the block and attempt to get it square all around. This may not be possible so at least make the facing surface and the bowl end square. This is because you will be locating your drilling from these surfaces.

Now, having squared your briar as best you can, take a bit of rag and your rubbing alcohol and wet the surface of the block to enhance the grain. This makes it easier to find the best place to draw your pipe. Take advantage of the grain if you can and the block is of good grain quality. You may not have much choice and your pipe will turn out just as well anyway. Now with circle template, French curve, freehand and anyway you can draw the pipe on the block. If you have drawn it on manila cardboard, you can just trace it.

During the process of drawing place a line down the center of the tobacco bowl and down the center of the shank. Draw the line well through both ends. Where these two lines intersect will be the bottom center of the bowl. If you have a spade bit that you intend to use, use it to draw the bottom of the bowl also so you can see where the airhole will come through the side of the bowl. Depending on the shape of the bit, you may have to adjust the depth of the bowl or change the line down the shank to make you happy. Remember the airhole hole drill has width and you must take that into consideration when determining the hole penetration into the bowl. If you are using a 3/16 bit be sure to allow for that as you may not have much room for error at the bottom of the pipe.

Now, having drawn the outline of your pipe on the briar and the center hole lines are clear, you proceed to the next step. This step depends on if you are using a vise to hold your briar for drilling or not. If you are using a vise you may not need this operation but please read on anyway. Using a square or at least something square like your circle template edge and bottom, draw a line perpendicular to the bowl center line but across the bottom of the bowl but outside the pipe bottom line. Do the same thing to the airhole hole centerline. This is so you will be able to set the block on the drill press table and drill straight down.

Sometimes there may not be enough room to make these lines. You really need them unless you have a vise to hold your work. This method permits the block to set firmly on the drill press table for drilling. With a vise, you can hold the block firmly anyway.

Now you go to the saw and cut lines 1a, 2a, 3 and 4. Leave a little extra so you can finish to the line. After sawing to the lines, you will take the block to the sanding disc and finish to the line in the case of 2a to 2 and 1a to 1. These lines do not have to go right to the line but may be below the lines but must be parallel. 2a to 2 and 1a to 1. Lines 3 and 4 should be within an eighth or so.

Now it is time to lay out the airhole hole and the tobacco hole. Using your compass as a hermaphrodite tool, set the distance from surface 1 to the centerline on the tobacco hole. Transfer this line to the top of the bowl surface on line 3. This gives you the center right across the top. Now do the same thing from line 2 to the centerline of the airhole hole and transfer it to surface 4. This should give you a line across the end at the height of the airhole center. You may not be able to do this exactly as described because of the briar block. In this case, take a pencil and stack and shim it up so you can slide the block along the pencil point at the airhole centerline. Then turn the block 90 degrees and scribe across the end without moving the pencil. You can, of course, do the tobacco hole in the same manner if you need to. You get the idea.

Taking your circle template, center it on the top in the position you desire the tobacco hole. The center of your template will align with the projected centerline you just made across the bowl. You will be able to move the template across the block to avoid faults and whatever to a good position. Be sure to check that the shank will also clear faults as the center of the circle you scribe on the top will also be the center of the airhole hole. Scribe the circle or top view of your bowl and mark the centerline on top in the other direction so you have a cross on top with the center of your bowl clearly marked and a circle around it where you expect the outside of the bowl to be. Using one of the methods described above transfer this centerline to the end of the block so you also have a cross on the airhole end. Now you can use your circle template to draw a circle around this cross where your stem will go. Check your work. It should look something like this.

This drawing shows the top, side, and end view. The lines can be transferred using one of the methods described above. This is about all there is to layout. On a curved pipe, the same method applies but it may be a bit more difficult because of the angles. Remember to make lines 1 and 2 perpendicular to the centerlines of your airhole and your tobacco hole regardless of the angle and you will be able to drill straight down. There may not be much to be flat on the bottom, but it is better than trying to drill down while the block tips. This in regards to the airhole. Once you understand how I have been doing it, you will decide how you want to do it. I am sure there are other ways. Now let’s get on to the drilling part.

Drilling the Block

Now you are ready to drill the block, if you are still with me. If you don’t have a vise, you will need a way to hold your block while drilling. I have used a pair of 1 x 2’s with a couple of holes drilled in them to match the holes in your drill press. Next, with bolts of suitable length, I fastened the pair of boards to the drill press table lightly.

Now I take the block of briar and set it on the table with the shank hole mark upright under the check. You should have your airhole drill mounted in the check. Lower the spindle down so the drill bit contacts the briar in the exact center of you crossed lines. Hold the briar in place with the lowered drill bit and slide one of the boards up to the side of the block. Tighten the bolts. Now check to see if the drill bit still contacts the crossed lines correctly with the block pressed against the 1 x 2. Now move the other board to “Pinch” the briar between the two boards. Tighten this board also and recheck to see that the drill bit is going to drill right at the crossed lines.

Now the depth has to be set. Use a spacer or small block of wood that is the same thickness as the distance between surface 1 and the point that the tobacco hole centerline and the shank centerline meets. This should be the same as the distance between surface 1 and the bowl centerline in the case of a straight pipe but will be somewhat different in a curved pipe because surface 1 may not be parallel with the centerline of the bowl. In this case, measure to where the two centerlines cross. You might use a spacer of any material, a scale, rule, or if your drill press has a good depth gauge, use it. The idea is to set the depth of the bit at a point that will meet where the intersection of the two centerlines will meet. Check it several times because you want the hole to be just right and not too deep. Sometimes, I can just run the centerline around to the bottom of the block (surface 2) and with the block in the clamps, lower the drill bit to the line scribed on surface 2 and set the depth stop. Try it several times to be sure the stop is where you want it.

Next move the briar back into position under the drill bit and while steadying the block with your hand (it is also pinched in the boards), start the drill press. It should be running at quite high speed. Something around 2000 rpm would do. Lower the drill and touch the crossed lines. Check that your mark is correct and continue drilling. You will have to repeatedly raise your drill bit to clear the chips. If it has chips stuck on the bit, tap the bit with something to vibrate them off or stop the bit and remove them before continuing. Drill down to the bottom of the stop, clear the chips and run the drill down one more time.

This is a good time to also drill the mortise and square the end of the shank. If you have one of STEMCO-PIMO’s tools, set it for a 5/8 mortise with the set screw. Change your speed to slow on the drill press and insert the tool. Steady the briar as before and when aligned with the airhole, press down with the press firmly . After the mortise is down, continue down to contact the squaring cutters and finish with the squaring cutter wings well into the wood. You should have a nice square, smooth end on your shank to match the stem. If it went well, give yourself a pat on the back and get ready for the tobacco hole.

If you do not have the mentioned tool, use a 5/16 bit to drill a hole centered on the airhole already drilled Use your drill press stops and make the mortise 5/8 deep or perhaps a little deeper. Next use a spade bit to make a square, flat surface for the stem. You may use any size spade bit that is larger than your stem. The mortise tool mentioned above will only work on stems 5/8 inches or less in diameter. If you have a larger stem, you will have to use the spade bit method anyway. It is not as nice as the tool, but it does work. You may have to cut off the spade drill’s shank a bit (maybe 1 to 1 1/2 inches) so you can use it and so it does not bend while drilling.

Now, clear away the shavings from the drill press jig you are using and put the block back in. Move it back and forth until the bowl cross lines are under the chuck. Using a random small bit, drill a pilot hole in the exact center of the bowl crossed lines to about 3/4 the distance to the bottom of the hole. Do it by feel. Next get a larger bit and enlarge the pilot hole to about 5/16 or 3/8. Now using your bowl bit, set it with a stop like you did with the shank airhole. Set it so it will stop when you should be at near the bottom of the tobacco hole depth. Using low speed, drill the tobacco hole to the stop. If you are careful, you will feel the small break as the tobacco hole bit meets the airhole. You may be better off to stop short and lower the stop a little at a time as you feed the bit down. When you feel the airhole, stop and check your work. Proceed a bit at a time until the airhole and the bowl bottom are as you like them. You should now get another pat on the back. You have a good start on your pipe. With the pipe drilled, you no longer need surface 1 or 2. They have done their work. Now let’s start on the stem.

Turning the Stem

This is a good time to turn the stem. Waiting until later will increase our danger of splitting out the shank. Now there is good wood around the mortise and that makes it easier. Select from among your collection of stems. Select one you think will be long enough to do the job and when bent or straight, will suit you. Most likely you will be using a rubber stem for your first pipe. If you have a kit, it will be fitted for you although you will have to bend it if required. We will assume you are going it from scratch.

Here is where the tenon tool is such a good thing. If you do not have one, you will have to either turn it on a lathe (if you have one) or using your sanding rig, proceed to rotate the stem by hand and make the tenon round, square to the shoulder, and in line with the rest of the stem. Not easy but it can be done. The problem is that a bit too much and the tenon fits like a tatter in a sack. A little to little and the force you use to make it fit will crack the shank. If you do have to do it this way, put a bit of wax, beeswax, or paraffin on the tenon when try fitting. The wax helps smooth out the rough surface of the tenon. I say again, it can be done, but I don’t recommend it.

With the tool, you proceed as follows: First, using a 1/8 inch drill bit, drill the hole in the tenon to a depth of about 1 1/4 or a bit more. You can use a hand drill or the drill press. Hold the stem straight and run the bit in and out a couple of times. Next, put the tenon tool into the drill press chuck. Now if this is the first time you are using the tool, it will have to be adjusted to make the tenon the right size. You may try a different pipe stem in your stummel to see how it fits. If it is close, you may push the test tenon up on the pin of the tenon tool and adjust the setscrew to just touch the tenon. It will give you a place to start. Otherwise, adjust the setscrews until you think the cutter is a bit larger than you wish and tighten it up.

Now set the speed of your drill press at about 2000 rpm. Take the drilled stem and hold it firmly in one hand. Start the drill press. Push the stem up on the tenon tool until it starts to cut a little. Try the fit in your mortise. Adjust a bit and repeat until the tenon is close to the mortise size. Now continue and press the stem firmly and truly up on the tool until it bottoms out and makes a cut on the shoulder of the stem. Be sure you are clear of the tool with your hands and clothing. The push should be firmly and with authority. If you delay and are tentative, it will not cut as well as otherwise.

Try the fit but don’t press it home. If it starts snug but seems to fit well, rub some wax on it and push or twist it home. It may not fit all the way to the shoulder but it should at least show you it fits correctly. If it is too small and loose, you will have to scrap one stem (providing it is real loose). If it is too large, adjust the tenon tool just the smallest amount and run it again. When adjusted, the tenon tool will work well at that setting for a long time and does not have to be adjusted again unless you are changing tenon sizes.

Now you will have to take your rotary tool and using either the 1/2 sanding drum or a cutting tool, relieve the edge of the mortise. The tenon has a slight radius where the tenon and the shoulder meet. You must relieve the edge of the mortise to allow for this. Once done, you should be able to press the tenon home in the mortise. The stem and shank should meet tightly and squarely. You should not even be able to see any light between them when held up to the light.

If the tenon will not go any further into the mortise, the mortise hole may be too shallow. In this case, either you must shorten the tenon a little by sanding on your belt. Put a point on it about the same angle as your drill bits. It may fit now. If it does not, check the depth of the mortise. If it is shallow, use a 5/16 drill bit in a vise and press and rotate the briar block onto the drill a little at a time to deepen the mortise until the tenon fits correctly. Remember to adjust the mortise drill to drill a little deeper for your next pipe. Congratulations, you have a pipe. A bit rough, but a smokable pipe. Next we begin roughing it out of the block.

Roughing Out Your Pipe

Now you should have a briar block with a tobacco hole and stem. This is where you come in if you purchased a kit. A block with holes and stem. What we do next depends on the tools you have at your command. I will proceed as if we have a band saw although a scroll saw would work and you could use hand tools. Stepping over to the saw you will have to make the first cut. Make the first cut down the bowl line and along the shank. Be sure you are well outside the lines you have drawn outlining your pipe.

Proceed to cut the entire outline out leaving some material to sand away. If you get it close, you may not have as much to remove with sanding but you also leave no room to rotate and sand. Things are too close and the result is possible flat sides or at least less than round. When you finish, you should have a pipe shaped stummel that is wide. Now you must transfer the width of the shank to the stummel using some of the methods indicated above. Transfer from the face surface and be sure to leave enough room to sand and round. Also, check to be sure your lines are correct in relation to your shank hole. Of course, you will not have the stem in the stummel and can see from the end where you should place your lines. Draw them all the way to the bowl. Again at the saw, cut away the waste sides of the shank. Cut to the bowl and then to the outside. Now you will have a block on a square shank. You are getting there.

Some bowls have the shank attached widely at the bottom, some have a straight tube stuck in the side, some have a large radius at the top of the shank where it attaches to the bowl and some a small radius. Remember all this as you make your cuts. Finish up using the saw on any parts that are of a size to use a saw on. Just rough it out with the saw. Cutting a corner or so to get the biggest portion of waste off the stummel.

Now moving to the sander. Be sure you wear your dust mask for this operation and use your vacuum if available. Begin shaping with the belt or disc. If using the disc, you can rotate the stummel and make the outside of the bowl. The disc cutting from the top to bottom. The idea is to make a cylinder of the bowl. Next move to the belt and remove and shape the bottom of the bowl. You can rotate the bottom across the belt to remove material from the bottom. Round the edges of the shank. In general, use the belt to shape the pipe.

Don’t worry about the sand spots or flatter areas, or even getting real close. Just remove material and shape as best you can with the belt, leaving the final rounding and shaping for the next step. You can do a lot with the belt. Just don’t remove too much. It is easier to take off a little at a time than moan over too much taken off.. Don’t forget the top of the bowl and the leftovers at the extreme shank end. At least remove enough to make the shank round and within a 16th or 32nd of the diameter of the stem. In fact, put the stem in and it may help get the shape you want. Be careful about sanding spots on the stem because they are hard to take off.

Final Shaping of the Bowl

At this point, you will need to use your rotary tool. Use the 1/2 inch drum and after a deep breath, start using the tool to remove the high spots and blend in the entire shape. Use it in a rotating fashion. I hold the stummel in my left hand and the tool in my right. I use small rotating strokes at a low speed of the tool and smooth and blend the shape. A little at a time I just keep going over the pipe. A high spot here, a little more round there. You are actually carving with a rotary tool. You will notice that there are tool or sand marks on the stummel. That is OK but don’t let them get away from you. Light touch! Deep marks will be a problem so take your time.

After a while, the entire stummel will have little tiny, shallow marks all over it but the pipe will start looking like a pipe. Keep at it. You may have to shift to the smaller drum for the radius between the bowl and shank. Just keep at it until the final shape is close to what you want. Remember there will be sanding yet but the final shape is mostly what you will end up with. If you have to make major removal, now is the time, little at a time, but do it now. Finish blending everything into what pleases you. It will take some time but it’s got to be done.


It’s time to begin sanding. You have a pipe in progress. Use 150 grit paper and get at it. I find one of those 1/4 inch thick pads, sandpaper on both sides of foam rubber, works very well. Sand with the 150 grit until the pipe starts to feel quite smooth. Don’t forget the bowl top and the shank. If you think it is feeling smooth, you are about half way.

Now is the time to bend a stem if you are going to. It can be done several ways. I use a heat gun now but did a few in the oven and even boiled a couple. Stick a pipe cleaner in the airhole and mark the top and bottom. The stem can be laid on a bed of salt and covered with salt in the oven at 240 or so for about 10 minutes. Watch it though cause it can get too soft. Take it out and bent to shape, holding under cold water to cool and hold it’s shape. You can boil it for a while and then bend it, or use a heat gun. A heat gun works in about 5 minutes or less. I hold and rotate the stem in the heat stream. When hot enough, I bend it to shape and put it under water to cool. If it isn’t quite right, do it over again. Be sure not to bend the tenon or the stem won’t fit the shank anymore. After cool, look at the pipe and decide if it is correct.

Now, back to sanding. Sand, sand, sand. Sand the edges of the shank to the shape of the stem and then sand the stem. Get the edges of the stem with a file if you need to but don’t use the rotary tool. It is too course. After you think you are done, get the bottle of rubbing alcohol and wipe the pipe down with some. Notice any uneven spots, tool marks, rough spots, and fix them. Finally, after a few applications of rubbing alcohol and much sanding, you are ready to move on to the next grit.

Next, use 220 grit. If you haven’t bathed your hands in enough alcohol by now or are just starting for the day, you will have oil on your hands. Either use alcohol to remove it or use a glove on one hand to hold the bowl. You can use a rag but either a glove or bare hands work better. I use alcohol for the most part. Sand, sand, sand. Sand until you think you’re done and check. Use alcohol to wipe it down and look for tool marks in the shine. I assure you there are plenty of tool marks left there you missed that will only show up after you finish. But if you are sure you are finished and have gone over the stem very carefully, it is 400 grit for you.

On the 400 grit, you need to be careful to get every bit of the pipe, You do not need to follow the grain as 400 is too fine to make a difference. Go over the entire pipe. Check for tool marks and if you need to back up then do so and go back to a courser grit. Work it out again and don’t forget the top of the bowl and the stem. Every square centimeter. If you use 600 grit, have at it and follow with the 0000 steel wool.
By this time it should look nice, feel very smooth, shine a bit and even have all the grain showing well. The next step is staining.


At this point, you have in fact completed your first pipe. Most people would want to stain their pipe at this point. Remember to keep your hands off the thing without protection from the oils in your hands at this point. You will prevent stain from ‘taking’ if you touch it much.

I use the alcohol stains that come in a dry little packet. They can be mixed with alcohol to make up to 2 oz per packet or so. This is the way I mix them although they may be mixed a little stronger. Some like to apply with a brush. I find this makes the dye run a bit more and leaves a heavier line in places. I use a cloth on the end of my finger.

Apply the stain evenly over the entire surface with the cloth. It will appear to dry quickly. Put on additional layers to get the pipe darker. It is important that the stain be applied evenly so take your time. It will look dull and perhaps not even the same color you expected. You can highlight by using some alcohol to dilute areas on your pipe or even remove some of the stain in areas. You may also desire to wipe off excess after a little while. Perhaps you wish to apply a new color over the first.

Maybe you wish to stain black and then using a bit of fine 400 grit paper remove the stain which will leave the grain highlighted dark and apply another stain over it. Experiment on a scrap of briar before you attempt to do any of these fancy things. They work and can be beautiful but experiment first. For your first attempt, I would recommend nothing fancy. Just apply the stain evenly and allow it to dry. Sometimes, when in a hurry (which you should never be), I will move on to the next step after an hour. You really should allow the pipe to set overnight before moving on to tripoli. If you use a darker stain, you should remember that every tool mark and blemish on the pipe will hold the dark stain and thus will show up. Not that that is bad, just remember it. A virgin finish, which has no real stain, will not show up the tool marks as bad. In fact, the tool marks and blemishes you miss will show up on any final gloss you do, but they show up less in a virgin finish. You may just want to wax your masterpiece instead of stain it. It is up to you. Now that you have a stained, dull looking pipe, it is time to go to the tripoli buff.

The Buffing Operations

On your buffer, whether motor or grinder or even a special buffer, put a 20 ply (two if you want), muslin buff. Tighten the nut and turn it on. Now you take the brown tripoli bar and apply it to the buff. Use a firm pressure as you want to take the tripoli material from the bar and transfer it to the buff. You don’t have to apply a real lot but charge the buff well, at least for the first time.

Now, take your pipe, stem installed, and press it against the charged buff. Keep your fingers out of the tobacco hole if you don’t wish them broken. Turn the bowl upside down and press firmly against the buff. Cover the entire pipe with nice firm applications against the buff, recharging the buff from time to time. The pipe will become glossy and smooth. Remember that you can take off the stain with this material so keep at it only until the surface is smooth, glossy, and you have covered the entire pipe evenly. You may, in the future, use other materials that are courser, finer, or somewhat different than the brown tripoli. This is just a good place to start. Remember to cover the stem also from end to end.

At this time you may wish to thin the bit or shorten the little knob on the end of the stem. You can use the sanding belt but be aware that care is the word. Carefully press the end of the bit against the belt. In a second, the bit is thinner. Touch the corners to remove the sharp points there. You may wish to reduce the thickness of the little knob a bit also. Be careful and don’t remove too much as that little knob is what may keep the thing in your mouth. Try it for fit. It may not taste good from the rubber but see if it fits correctly as you go. A little bit more, and it fits fine. Touch up the work with a file a little and perhaps a little sandpaper. Now again at the tripoli buff to finish up the stem, bit and to remove any scratch marks left after your earlier work.

Now you have to change buffs, unless you have a double wheel. Replace the muslin buff with your 20 ply flannel buff. This time charge it with the carnauba wax. When charged, apply your pipe to the buffs. Apply firmly as you have to have a bit of heat generated to get the wax on the pipe. Continue to apply wax to you pipe and don’t forget to wax the stem also. You may continue to apply wax until you get a good coating. After getting the wax applied, use a light touch to finish the job. You may wish to put on a new buff for the final touch without using any new wax. This is just for that final high gloss.
Congratulations, you have just finished your first pipe. You will probably keep it forever. Enjoy it!

Making a pipe this way may not be the only way or in fact, the best way. Each pipe carver has his or her own way to get the job done. The way I have illustrated is how I started and I have made many pipes that have turned out well. I have also made a few that have been ruined by flaws, hurry, or errors. Things happen. I enjoy sitting on my stool in the pipe shop, listening to my radio, and sanding away on what at the moment, is the greatest pipe ever made. Will you find flaws and tool marks? Sure, and you will correct your technique on your next pipe.

The pipe will probably smoke great, and even if it has a few flaws, it will fit into your rotation very well. I have a couple of pipes that have massive flaws in them. Most of the time natural flaws. I worked on one chunk of briar until I found a flaw. I kept working on it and several hours, found that the whole side was nothing but a massive flaw. A dozen of them. I started with a nicely rounded bent and ended up with the skinniest, most flawed pipe you ever saw. I use it to sample aromatic tobaccos. Smokes fine but wouldn’t want to be seen smoking it.

Enjoy your hobby, and if you have any questions about any of this, please contact me via Email. I will give you my phone number and you can call and talk about it. Good Luck!

Walter L. De Visser, Sr.
Black River Cigar Company

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