Most of the pipes that I make have a stummel sculpted from briar. Most pipe smokers will be familiar with the root burl of the White Heath (Erica Arborea), a shrub indigenous to the arid regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea notably Italy, Greece, Spain, Southern France and Algeria. Burls are harvested, cured, cut into sections and graded. Blocks containing the outer portion of the root burl are called “Plateau.” Briar blocks from the interior of a burl are called “Ebauchon”. Naturally the Plateau blocks are more expensive, roughly $40 to $50 and up each (at this writing). If you look over the photos of my work you will notice that I like to incorporate the burl skin from plateau blocks into my designs, as in the photo on the left, when possible and particularly when it blends with the theme.
I occasionally fashion pipes from “Red Heart”. This is also burl wood but in this case the host plant is Ceanothus, a common California native chaparral. California is no stranger to often devastating wildfires. After the chaparral is burned, successive rains will wash the burls down arroyos into the sea to end up as driftwood piled on beaches after storms. I will sometimes find a nice naturally cured burl that will yield several pipes. The wood is very dense, carves well and produces a beautiful deep reddish-brown well figured pipe. There is no need to stain ceanothus and it polishes very beautifully.
Though I only purchase the highest quality briar, both briar and ceanothus are subject to flaws, as all natural materials are. Some pipe crafters will eschew any even minor flaws found in a briar block and discard flawed pieces. If I could select only flawless briar or ceanothus burls I wouldn’t. If I find a flaw after investing 20-30 hours creating a pipe I will not discard the pipe. I either leave it as is, or fill it with a piece of abalone or some powdered brass or copper matrixed with cyanoacrylate. I have learned that the smoking is not affected but the finished pipe is actually enhanced by the inclusion. Ceanothus is particularly beset with flaws and fissures that look gorgeous when filled with powdered metal. It imparts a rich jewel-like ornamentation to the finished piece.
Pipe carved from Ceanothus burl with mother-of-pearl eyes
The essence of a good pipe stem is in the plenum and the bite. That is, the airflow from the tenon to the button must be unrestricted. Also, the plenum must be well matched to the draft hole from the bowl. I make the thickness of the bite between 3.7 and 4.2 mm and the width between 16 and 17 mm. The bite is long enough to feel good on the teeth and lips. The button is kept sharp on the bowl side so the teeth can maintain a grip but very smooth on the mouth side to create a nice feel for the tongue.
Each of my stems is hand carved from solid stock. I often use acrylic pen blanks either for the entire stem or as a shank extender. There are so many fascinating colors and patterns that provide unique and exotic mouthpieces. I use lots of ebonite (black sulfur rubber) and Cumberland (color swirled ebonite) for stems as well. These are often further enhanced with inclusions of wood, lexan or both. I employ a 5/32” diameter draft hole coupled with a delrin tenon. If possible I will use a delrin shank sleeve in the mortise. Delrin is a superb material choice for this use as it is impervious to chemicals and is structurally strong and always creates a snug fit into the mortise.
Lastly, each is stem is uniquely crafted not only to compliment and enhance its stummel but to add to the overall artistry of the complete pipe.
I sometimes work with raw abalone shells (mother-of-pearl) to create some of my pipe art. I love the iridescent glow and colors of the shell. I have only scratched the surface of where I would like to go using abalone. So little time, so many pipes to be made!
Inlaid abalone and copper "Kokapeli"
I generate my own tools to carve the tobacco chamber. I like to experiment with slightly different curves for the bowl. I have found that the shape will have a minor effect on the character of the smoke but that some tobaccos do smoke better in one pipe or another. I love to experiment with different blends but when I crave a very rich English blend like “Meat Pie”, “Penzance” or “Night Cap” I will smoke it in a smaller bowl pipe. For this reason I list the volume of the tobacco chamber for each pipe.
I sometimes undercut the tobacco chamber in my pipes. That means that the draft hole is directly in the center of the bottom of the bowl rather than at the side of the bottom. This configuration allows me to smoke the bowl all the way through the dottle. I don’t find that the pipe is any more difficult to clean with an undercut bowl but an undercut does allow an extra measure of artistic latitude.
"Tobacco is a filthy weed,
That from the devil does proceed;
It drains your purse,
It burns your clothes,
And makes a chimney of your nose."
--Benjamin Waterhouse 1754-1846
This is a simple but crude clay model for a pipe that I would like to complete in briar. The top of the bowl will be the burl skin to give a rustic appearance and further to establish that the straight grain pattern will align vertically along the bowl. The pipe will be finished with a smooth polish and grain enhancing stain.
I have selected a plateau block of Italian (Manno) briar for the execution of the pipe. The crude profile of the pipe including the location of the bowl and the draft hole have been penciled onto the side of the block.
The tobacco hole has been drilled along with the mortise and draft hole. I use a 5/32" draft, the modern standard, for a clean unrestricted air flow. The mortise is oversize so a delrin insert can be used as the finished mortise. This will yield a very snug fit for the tenon which is also delrin. A circle drawn on the rough plateau top around the tobacco hole will serve as a template for the fi
More wood has been removed from the stummel where the fairy will sit. The front half of the bowl has been roughed out to the edge of the circle that was penciled on the skin of the plateau block. Plenty of wood has been left to ensure that the pipe will smoke well without risk of a burn through.
The material and shape of the stem have been chosen and the rough stem fitted to the pipe. This will provide a measure of the shank diameter so that the figure can be placed appropriately. The wings are crudely measured out but at this point the fairy is still very much embedded in the briar.
The mouthpiece has been fitted with a delrin tennon and inserted into the rough stummel. The shoulder ha
The pipe shank is now roughed in to match the cylinder of the stem. The wings and major body features are becoming defined. this image follows the previous stage by about two hours.
Another view of the fairy emerging from the briar. The position of her head in the briar version will be different than the original model. Rather than looking down and to the side she will be gazing wistfully skyward. Otherwise her posture will remain the same.
After several more hours of effort she is taking shape. Her wings, limbs, and facial features will need further refining but her basic posture has been established. She is nicely posed so the pipe is balanced on a slightly flattened base.
Details are gradually becoming enhanced as the bowl and shank are smoothed and sanded. The wings and hair are similarly approaching completion.
The stem has been shaped into a saddle and has received a preliminary polishing. The 1/16" hole has been widened with a simple tool to increase the airflow through the stem. There are no shortcuts here. The bite must be thinned to make it comfortable fo
Fingers and toes, lips and nose are all approaching a finished state. Fortunately there have been no significant flaws revealed in the briar during the carving.
Following the completion of carving details she is stained. I applied a bit of shellac to her face, arms and legs before I applied stain to minimize the color on these features. Still, the grain causes features to look somewhat distorted.
I want the grain on the bowl to stand out but too much contrast will detract from the sculpture. Balance is key.
She is now almost complete. However the uneven stain gives her face an awkward appearance and masks the details. I had to carefully remove most of the stain from her face to remedy that. Then I carefully reapplied stain to match the color of her limbs.
Here she is in her finished state. The veins in her wings were carefully sanded following staining to enhance the contrast with the rest of the pipe.
The button and bite can be seen in this view of the pipe. To match the 5/32" plenum of the draft the 1/16" end hole was widened to 1/3". This maintains the continuity of the air flow from the bottom of the bowl through the mouthpiece.
This view shows the fine straight grain of the bowl and the plateau skin at the top. This pipe has been signed and is ready for some tobacco.