International Pipe Smoking Day


Tomorrow, February 20th is the annual event we have come to know as International Pipe Smoking Day (IPSD). I have heard mixed opinions about this day, and honestly I have gone back and forth over the years in terms of my level of excitement. But if you focus on the origins of the celebration, I think you will be glad to be amongst the brotherhood of briar when IPSD comes round.

IPSD was started in 2008 by a European internet community called the Smokers Forum. It was then adopted by an organization that I still have trouble believing exists, the Comite International of Pipe Smoker Clubs (CIPC). The CIPC is a body representing over 30 countries. They seem to primarily be involved in organizing IPSD events and slow smoke competitions (including world championships), but I encourage you to visit their website linked above for more information.

The US branch of the CIPC is the United Pipe Clubs of America (UPCA). According to the UPCA, the reason for IPSD is an opportunity to show solidarity with pipe smokers around the world. Solidarity is the key word here and is defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” In other words, it is a recognition of what we hold in common, and a sharing of our common actions.
Therefore IPSD is not a day to stock up on tobacco at the various online vendors hosting sales. Not that there is anything wrong with doing so. But we should not allow commercialization to ruin our day. It is likewise, not a day to make sure we are seen publicly enjoying our pipes. That is a pretty good idea to help spread goodwill, but we don’t need a special day for that. It is a day to reflect upon, revel in, and share our solidarity. Seek out and join your local pipe club (UPCA has a list). If you don’t have a local pipe club, consider talking to the folks at the closest pipe shop about starting one.
What if you don’t have a local pipe shop? The pipe has always been an object that brings people together for relaxation and good conversation. In this internet age we have the pleasure of meeting with people around the world from the comfort of our own home. Make a YouTube video, join an online form, use skype or voxer to reach out to a fellow brother of briar and enjoy the solidarity. We can smoke our pipes any day. Some smoke them every day. On IPSD, let no one smoke alone.


What is a Pipe Part 3: The Design of the Tobacco Chamber


As we move through this series on what defines a pipe, keep in mind that at this stage we are focusing more on the abstract geometry of the voids in the pipe (i.e. the tobacco chamber and airway). We will get to materials later. For the sake of our discussion, we will consider an idealized tobacco chamber with three potential variables: height, diameter, and shape. The generic chamber shown below would clearly make an odd pipe, but it serves to allow us a starting point to discuss the impact of these variables. It is notable that the placement of the draft (AKA draught) hole is rather unusual in these diagrams. Typically the ideal placement of the draft hole is on the rear wall dead center

and at the level of the chamber bottom. For simplicity we have placed the hole dead center at the bottom of the chamber. This is a reasonable simplification for the purposes of conveying the key concepts. We could deform these examples in a way that would place the draft hole in it’s more traditional position, but this would only lead to a loss of symmetry. On average, the airflow would be identical, just harder to explain.

generic chamber

The Shape of the Chamber Bottom

Keeping in mind that the first pipes were holes in the ground, it is obvious that just about any shape tobacco chamber will smoke. The question is what are the properties that will make it smoke well? In my opinion, the shape of the bottom of the chamber is the critical variable that separates the good from the bad designs. Starting with the generic chamber, let’s look at how the air would move through the chamber as the smoker puffs.

Airflow generic chamber

The point of highest velocity will always be right at the entrance of the draft hole. This is because the cross-sectional area of the chamber is so much larger than that of the airway. This is a consequence of something called the principal of mass continuity, but we can just think of it as what goes in (the tobacco chamber) must come out (the airway). Therefore, the airflow is downward and accelerates as it approached the draft hole. This leads to areas around the bottom edges of this generic chamber that simply do not have air drawn through them. At best, there may be some circular flows or eddy currents that develop in the corners. This leads to at least two significant problems with this design. It will be impossible to smoke the tobacco to the bottom of the bowl since these dead zones will always contain unburnt tobacco. And, the dead zones provide a place for moisture to accumulate leading to gurgles and an unpleasantly wet smoke.

Of course, very few flat bottom tobacco chambers exist in reality. This is likely because pipe makers have evolved the curved bottom chamber over time to avoid the above issues. The curved chamber bottom allows the flow to reach all parts of the chamber promoting the proper and complete combustion of the tobacco.


Curving the bottom of the chamber is a a relatively small change, but the resulting smooth airflow through the chamber has a significant impact on the smoking experience. In reality, this small feature is the most critical detail in how the chamber performs. And what that really means is that the geometry of the chamber is not all that critical as long as the bottom is well shaped.

The other sort of tobacco chambers that are somewhat common are the conical chambers popular on danish style pipes, and Dublins. This chamber design should, based on the excellent airflow pattern shown below, provide a wonderful smoking experience. If that is the case, why do so many people have trouble with conical chambers? Smokers report that conical chambers are difficult to keep lit, tend to “plug” and restrict the draw, smoke wet, can’t be smoked to the bottom of the bowl, produce uneven cake, and are difficult to ream. The last point is really the only valid criticism of the conical bowl.

Airflow conical chamber

The main problem that people have with conical bowls is one of technique. When packing the tobacco, it is very easy to over pack this type of chamber. The chamber geometry creates a very effective wedging action that multiplies the force applied at the top of the bowl to produce a dense pack at the bottom of the bowl. This is usually a problem of packing, but can also occur when tamping. The solution is to use a light pack method such as the Frank method, the air pocket method, or just a lighter touch. When properly packed, a conical bowl will smoke beautifully.

Chamber Height

The second variable to consider is chamber height (or depth depending on your perspective). On average, the bowl depth will be approximately one 1.5 inch. Less on pots, more on stacks, but on average ~1.5”. This variable does not, in my experience, have a great impact on smoking quality as long as it is not taken to extremes. Larger values will have the effect of increasing the bowl volume in a linear fashion that can be reasonably calculated using the well known formula for the volume of a cylinder.


This increase in chamber volume leads to a decrease in air moving through the burning tobacco zone given the same puff. It is once again an example of “what goes in must come out.” Drawing one puff’s worth (a clearly subjective unit of measure) through a 0.5” tall chamber will move more air across the burning surface layer than it would if applied to a 1.5” tall chamber. You can think of this as being due to the volume that the chamber contributes to the puff. In the case of the taller chamber, more of the puff is occupied by air drawn from the tobacco below the burning layer, which has no impact on combustion. Therefor the taller chamber should smoke slower providing a longer and cooler smoke if all other things (diameter, chamber shape, and most importantly puffing cadence and volume) are kept constant.

Chamber Diameter

The final variable is chamber diameter. Chamber diameters can vary quite a bit, but in general the diameter will be somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8 of an inch. Increasing the chamber diameter will also increase the chamber volume, so in a sense the impact of a larger diameter is similar to that of a taller chamber. However, increasing the chamber diameter produces a larger increase in volume (note the r2 term in the volume formula) and also increases the surface area of the tobacco that is burning (also by a factor involving r2). Therefore, the effect of a larger diameter chamber is more complex. It both slows the burn by increasing the volume of air that needs to be drawn through the chamber, but there is more tobacco burning. Decreasing the chamber diameter has the opposite effect with very small chamber diameters producing enough of a restriction in airflow and consequent increased air velocity. This can lead to a hotter burn across a smaller surface area.

Bringing it all Together

To understand the real world meaning of all the hypothetical geometry, we need to recall the last installment in this series where we examined the combustion process. The diagram below shows the charcoal like layer at the surface of the tobacco chamber, and the burning zone below that where fresh tobacco is undergoing combustion. There is a third zone below the burning tobacco where all sorts of interesting things are happening. It is analogous to the way that potpourri simmering on a stove can fill a room with fragrance, while the same herbs thrown directly on a fire will only produce acrid smoke. The heat from the combustion warms the unburnt leaf in this roasting zone causing it to release aromatic components. It also stoves the tobacco essentially roasting and caramelizing sugars. All of this has significant impact on the flavor arriving at the smokers pallet.


Tall chambers are often touted as being ideal for Virginia or Virginia perique blends. We now have all of the information needed to understand why this would be the case. These blends tend to be high in sugar and benefit from a slow sipping burn that caramelizes the sugars and release their sweetness. Tall chambers with moderate diameter are optimal for encouraging this sort of slow burn as long as the puffing cadence is kept at an appropriate rate.

Tall narrow diameter chambers tend to be a favorite of flake tobacco smokers. The narrowing of the chamber is the key variable here. Recall that the chamber diameter has a greater impact on total volume than the height. By narrowing the chamber, this design actually restricts airflow leading to an increase in air velocity. Therefore, the tall narrow design will tend to smoke hotter and can be puffed to a very high temperature. This is perfect to get the difficult to light flake tobacco burning. Of course, these pipes require careful puffing because they are quite easy to overheat.

Finally, squat broad chambers are often favored for burleys and english blends. These blends are not typically high in sugar and don’t benefit as much from the roasting process. However the slow burn of a broad chamber allows for a cool flavorful smoke from the large surface area of burning tobacco. And the short chamber allows for easy control of the burn rate with appropriate puffing cadence.

It is notable that we have been able to provide a theoretical reasoning for why smokers prefer a certain bowl type for a certain type of blend based solely on the abstract geometry of the bowl. We have yet to discuss airway design, stummel material, or overall shape. In the next installment we will look at airway design.

Putting Some Zip Back in a Zippo


For 86 years the Zippo Manufacturing company of Bradford PA has been making the iconic Zippo lighter. The Zippo has an unmistakable appearance and feel in the hand, and an instantly recognizable sound. Sure the lighter has it’s critics, and there are certainly some negatives to using a Zippo for pipe smoking that I will get into below. But there is a primary reason the company has made over 500 million lighters and continues to survive in the present anti-smoking era – customer satisfaction.

The design of the Zippo is deceptively simple. A brass case containing an insert represents the working heart of the lighter. Mounted to the insert is a spring loaded cam which keeps the lid closed and provides that satisfying Zippo clink. The innards are quite simple with a friction fit wick, rayon wadding to hold the fuel, and a felt pad to hold everything together. There is also a tube with a screw-captured spring that hold the flint in place below the striker wheel. The striker is a simple knurled wheel mounted to the top next to the distinctive chimney which provides the lighter its windproof quality. A pipe style chimney is also available containing holes in the sides that allow the flame to be drawn down into the tobacco chamber. Surprisingly, this simple design requires 108 manufacturing steps to fabricate and assemble.


There are several reasons that Zippo lighters have such enduring popularity. One is simple reliability, the lighters work well and continue to work well with very little maintenance. Another reason is variety. The interchangeable case has been produced in a very large variety of designs as is evidenced by even a quick look inside the Zippo museum in Bradford PA.


If you have an interest, Zippo has probably made a case for it. Everything from military unit insignias to hippy peace signs. From Marylin Monroe to Marylin Manson. From the Beatles to VW Beetles. This has made the lighters highly collectible and items that can have a great deal of significance for the owner. They can even be personalized with custom engravings.


But the number one reason Zippo has endured is good old fashioned customer service. In 86 years no one has ever paid to have a Zippo lighter repaired. They will repair any Zippo lighter and return it to its owner in like-new condition for the cost of postage. You can find information about the repair service and instructions on preparing your lighter for shipping at the Zippo Website

As I mentioned above, there are some notable negatives to using Zippo as a pipe lighter. The most common objection is that the flame from a Zippo will char the rim of the pipe. Frankly any lighter will char the rim if it is not used with care. But the Zippo flame is less focused than some other style pipe lighters and therefore does require additional care. The second common complaint about Zippos is the claim that the fuel imparts a taste that is unpleasant enough to ruin a smoke. I do remember that the older formula Zippo fluid had noticeable taste, but it only was evident while lighting the pipe and did not effect the tobacco once lit. The modern version of fluid that Zippos sells has, in my opinon, no discernible taste. The final criticism that is often repeated regarding the Zippo lighter is that the fuel evaporates and the lighter requires frequent refills. This is, in fact, true. The case does not seal to the fuel chamber and the fuel will typically not last more than a few days even with infrequent use. The solution to this problem is to fill the lighter each day with enough fuel to last for the day. The amount may vary, but I find that one long (count 5) squeeze of the bottle is enough. In time, this becomes another of the rituals of pipe smoking.

The Zippo below has been my go to lighter since I purchased it 1990. I bought it at the first real tobacconist I regularly visited and it was suggested and sold to me by a wonderful elderly woman who had forgotten more about pipes and tobaccos than I will ever know. It has served me well and has traveled around the world with me. There was one “tragic” experience that caused me to put it in a drawer for a period of time. I was visiting Cambridge University and went for a walk one evening. The sun was just about setting as I stood on a bridge over the river Cam watching punters push their boats along the river. I packed a pipe and took out the lighter to strike and to my horror watched as the chimney detached and fell into the river below. I felt like I had lost an old friend. I eventually learned about Zippo’s warranty and shipped what was left of the lighter to them for repair. In a few weeks they had returned the lighter in perfect working condition and all I had to pay was the cost of shipping.


With customer service like that, it might seem odd to even bother with the process I am going to describe here. But the thought of spending a few weeks without my favorite lighter is hard to accept. Twice in the 28 years I have had this lighter, I have noticed that it became difficult to strike. My theory on why this happens is that the striking wheel becomes glazed and no longer creates a sufficient spark to light the fuel. The last time this happened I went through a relatively simple process to get it back in working order, so I will try that again and see if it works before packing up my friend for a trip to Bradford.

In the image below, you can see the striker wheel which I have enlarged as an inset on the lower right of the picture. It should be easy to see that the wheel has become glazed and is relatively smooth. The tips of the knurling still poke out enough so that there is some spark produced at the flint. But it takes multiple strikes to get the lighter to light.


The first step is to fully disassemble the lighter. The picture below shows the components. Clockwise from the top you can see the wick, rayon wadding, felt pad, flint screw with attached spring, a small piece of flint, the inner lighter assembly, and the case. The first step in disassembly is to remove the screw and flint spring. Everything else can then be pulled out from the bottom of the inner assembly.


Next, I place everything but the inner assembly to the side, and invert the inner assembly in a small jar of mineral spirits. The spirits should be just deep enough to ensure that the striker wheel is submerged. I then allow the wheel to soak for at least 1 hour. The choice of mineral spirits, also known as white spirits or mineral turpentine, is somewhat arbitrary on my part. I had it on hand, and it worked. Kerosene might also work. I don’t think that ethanol or methanol would be effective, but I have not tried them.


After soaking for at least an hour, the assembly is removed from the jar, and a brass brush is used to scrub the wheel. This can take some time, and it is necessary to use some care because the wheel freely turns and you need to make sure that you scrub all around the perimeter of the striker. You can see in the picture below that this process does a nice job of removing the glazing and restoring the rough knurling needed for effective striking. I could have continued to scrub the patina off the chimney and buff it with a bit of steel wool, but I don’t mind the used look at all.


Assembly is simply done by reversing the steps of disassembly. One word on setting the height of the wick. Most prefer the wick set as shown below. This will produce a reasonable flame that is perfectly adequate for lighting a pipe.


I discovered accidentally that setting the wick so that it just reaches the hole in the top of the chimney produces a much larger flame that I prefer. But be warned, it is a MUCH larger flame and you can easily burn yourself if you are not careful.


Once fully assembled, the lighter is back to lighting on the first strike. Now I can keep it with me and we can travel to Bradford together in the spring when I visit the Zippo Museum.


What is a Pipe Part 2: Fire, a Science Nerd’s Guide to Pipe Smoking


To understand the workings of a pipe, it is first necessary to understand the thing that it is designed to do – burn tobacco. And while it might seem a bit odd to find yourself reading a nerdy description of how fire burns, I can promise you upfront that there are several facts about the science of burning tobacco that will lead to an increased smoking enjoyment.

Fire is simply the reaction of oxygen with hydrocarbons (organic material) to produce heat, light, carbon and water. If you are the sort that likes equations (as if anyone is):

CxHy + O2 → C + H2O + heat and light

The Xs and Ys don’t matter, and there can be any number of other atoms like calcium or phosphorus in the mix. But the bottom line is that stuff like wood, candle wax, or tobacco gets turned into soot (carbon) and water.

To start the reaction it is necessary to add heat to the system which is why spontaneous combustion is thankfully a very rare phenomenon. We add heat by bringing a lit match or lighter flame near the surface of the tobacco and drawing the flame into the tobacco. The combination of heat from the flame and oxygen rushing past the tobacco from the draw ignite the tobacco.


The burning of the tobacco during this lighting process is very different from the burn that occurs while smoking between lights. The temperature is much higher and leads to a process called hydrous pyrolysis. This process is a thermal decomposition of the organic material to a near charcoal-like state in the presence of superheated water and steam. Assuming a sufficient hydrous pyrolysis (also known as a good charring light by folks with social skills), the surface of the tobacco is essentially transformed to charcoal. Light tamping serves to compress and distribute this layer on the surface and prepare the pipe for the “true light.”


This double light procedure and careful tamping are critical to establish a properly burning bowl of tobacco. After the true light, the charcoal layer burns in a smoldering fashion and air drawn through the process of puffing adds oxygen to catalyze the burning of tobacco lying under the hot coal. In addition, the tamped charcoal adds a bit of resistance to the airflow which increases the velocity of the oxygen passing through the system. This has an effect similar to blowing on a fire or placing your fingers over the bowl while puffing to get the pipe burning better. The burning at this stage is true combustion and produces smoke that conveys flavor to the puffers mouth. The composition of smoke and the nature of the flavors is a fascinating topic that deserves a separate article.


Combustion occurs at a lower temperature than hydrous pyrolysis and produces less steam. Therefore the smoke being pulled into the mouth is at a lower temperature than what is drawn during lighting and relights. This is the one reason to limit relights when smoking a pipe as the temperature during the lightning process is the highest achieved while smoking and produces significantly more steam that can lead to tongue bite.

As the pipe smoker continues to puff, combustion continues at the charcoal – tobacco interface producing more smoke and converting the tobacco to ash. This ash is different in composition to the charcoal-like ash produced by the charring light. It is primarily made of carbon and inorganic carbonates with some non-combusted organic material. The table below is a composition inorganic components in cigarette ash from a 1937 article in the Journal of the American Medical association by A.W. Dumas Sr., M.D. which is worth reading for the suggestion of saving the ash to make a dentifrice (toothpaste). You can read the full article here


This ash produces a light fluffy layer that contains a large number of small air pockets. This layer will insulate the burning coal from the unburnt tobacco and therefore requires occasional light tamping to compress the ash and remove the insulating air allowing the smoke to continue.

I promised that there would be several facts that would lead to an increased smoking enjoyment, and the careful reader may have already spotted them. I’ll recap them here:

  • The charring light and tamp is important for creating a self sustaining burn in the pipe. The light must be sufficient to produce a layer of charcoal that is spread and compressed across the surface by the tamp. This layer also serves as a cap of sorts that increases the local air velocity promoting proper burning.
  • The lighting process produces superheated water and steam which can lead to tongue bite. Therefore limiting relights helps prevent bite.
  • Ash produced by combustion while puffing will insulate the unburnt tobacco from the burning coal. Therefore, occasional light tamping is essential for a long lasting smoke with few relights. Importantly, this tamping is only enough to compress the ash and should not compress the underlying tobacco.

Now that we understand how tobacco burns in a pipe, the next installment will explore the effect of various tobacco chamber geometries and stummel materials.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Stem Patching


When confronted with the choice between repairing a heavily damaged (ie chewed through) ebonite stem or making a replacement stem, I will always lean towards making a replacement. This is because I have yet to find a satisfactory method of patching the stem that I am confident will provide a long-lasting repair. The bite zone is the weakest part of a pipe and it takes the most abuse. Ebonite has a soft mouth feel, yet is a tough material that can take some punishment. Most, if not all, patch materials are going to be less resilient to to the toothy tortures inflicted by the clencher. So if the pipe owner chomped through an ebonite stem, they will chomp through the repair even faster.

There are occasions when a patch makes sense. For example, a particularly ornate stem, or a stem containing a logo or some stamping that would be very difficult or even impossible to replicate in a replacement. In my early (pre-internet) days of restoration work I tried a number of epoxies to attempt patches on these sorts of stems. These were estate pipes for my own use, so I was willing to experiment. The epoxies were all complete failures. Most cured epoxies are surprisingly soft and pliable and even with careful surface preparation they would tend to delaminate from the stem after just a few smokes. While many pipe repairmen have had great success with the the current favored approaches of using cyanoacrylate (super) glues, in my hands these repairs have been less than ideal. The polymerized cyanoacrylate is generally tougher than epoxy, but it has a low shear strength and easily fractures. It does a good job of filling small scratches and dents, but falls short when patching actuall holes in the stem.  The inclusion of activated charcoal seems to actually exacerbate this problem in my expereince. None of these solutions provided a repair that I found would hold up to normal clenching pressure for more than a short time.

Recently I came across a potential patch material that I believe holds some promise. West Marine is a company that specializes in products for the boating industry. Their line of epoxies are designed to work under a variety of harsh conditions and have been optimized in terms of flexibility and durability. They also take color well and once fully cured can be filed and sanded to shape and to a reasonable finish.


I had been wanting to try this epoxy for a while, and the opportunity presented itself when I was asked to restore a GBD bent brandy with some significant stem damage. It would have been a shame to lose the original stem because it’s unusual geometric shape really seems to complete the overall look of the pipe, and it contains a near-pristine GBD logo. The owner was graciously willing to serve as a test subject and I took this as an opportunity to try a new approach.


The pipe was not in terrible shape other than needing a good cleaning. But as can be seen in the pictures below the stem was severely damaged in the bite zone with a large piece missing from the bottom.


The first step was to fully clean and sand the stem and buff it to an essentially final state. This allows me to see the full extent of the damage and detect any remaining dents or tooth chatter that might need to be further sanded or filled.


The area around the repair needs to be very clean and roughed up enough to allow the epoxy to bond. I used a round machinist burr to roughen the surface and then cleaned it with a brass brush and some ethanol. I prepared the stem for the epoxy patch by cutting some pieces of old business cards (red and white striped thing in the photo below) to a shape that filled the internal area below the patch to protect the airway. Several layers were used, and the top layer was covered in clear packing tape to prevent the epoxy from bonding to the card. I then used masking tape to form a dam around the stem to receive the epoxy.


I mixed the epoxy thoroughly with some black pigment and poured it into the dam. The epoxy was allowed to cure for 24 hours before removing the tape and card shims. I then repeated the process on the top of the stem to fill in a few deep tooth marks and add some material to the thin ebonite.


The final results were not pretty, but the repair seemed tough and well adhered to the stem. As you can see in the photos, the card stock shims worked well to help keep the airway open and form the start of a new funnel.


The cured epoxy worked well and the a new bite zone was formed using files and sandpaper. The funnel was also re-established using files and the airway was polished. I found the material somewhere between ebonite and acrylic in terms of how it worked.


After final sanding and buffing the repair is visible, but not more so than what would be achieved with superglue. It is aesthetically acceptable and will allow this beautiful GBD to go back into service with it’s original stem. I’ve asked the owner to let me know if he experiences and problems with the patch, so for now we will have to file this method under promising.


What is a pipe – Part 1


Early last year I purchased a used copy of William Goldring’s “The Pipe Book: A History and How To.” While certainly not one of the best books written on tobacco pipes, it is of interest for the excellent historical overview that it provides. He begins with a description by Herodotus (484-425 BC) of a Scythian tribe that would burn the leaves of a certain tree and breath in the smoke from the fire in order to become intoxicated. What was being smoked by these Eurasian nomads is unknown, but there are a wide variety of plants that where smoked throughout the world prior to the cultivation of tobacco (betel leaves, lion’s tail, cannabis, etc). While not strictly relevant to the history of tobacco pipes, The thought of someone inhaling smoke from a fire and realizing that they could inhale more of said smoke if it were burning in some sort of an enclosure with a tube to funnel the smoke into the mouth is easy to imagine as the impetus behind the first pipe.

The earliest accounts of this someone trying to optimize smoke inhalation involve the “earth smokers” of Africa and Asia. A hole was dug in the earth, and a small mound formed in which the leaves of choice were placed and lit on fire. A reed or some other mandrel was placed in the mound so that after the soil was packed it could be removed leaving a small tube-like tunnel through which smoke could be inhaled.


Eventually someone figured out that a longer reed would allow the smoker to sit upright and smoke from the earthen pipe thus providing a bit more comfort for the smoker. And being a social creature, it was not long until folks began inserting multiple reeds into the mound so that friends could (quite literally) share a bowl.


While this is obviously not the most convenient means of smoking, even the basic earth smoker pipe includes all of the components of the modern day tobacco pipe: a combustion chamber, and an airway. In fact, all pipes can be reduced to the concept of two intersecting tubes, one in which the tobacco is burned, and another through which the smoke is drawn.


These tubes can take on a myriad of geometries and be surrounded by many different material, but in essence the thing that we call a pipe is just a physical boundary surrounding and containing the two tubes. But of course, the choice of materials, the engineering of the geometries, and the beauty of the physical boundaries make all the difference. In future installments we will explore these aspects of the modern pipe and try to understand what makes for a good smoker.

In Praise of Simple Tools


My first serious introduction to woodworking came while I was in college working in the theater scene shop. Certainly most of my theatrical creations were little more than exercises in basic carpentry, but I did tackle a few personal projects in my spare time. The most memorable one being a butcher block-style chess board of alternating maple and mahogany squares. Sadly, my plan of making chess pieces to match the board never came to fruition.

What spurred me to essentially waste my precious spare time (I was a full time student and had a full time job) was the availability of the shop tools. I grew up with a Craftsman hand drill and jigsaw being the only power tools needed to hang 70’s era wood paneling and tackle other DIY efforts of the day.  In the scene shop I discovered band saws, table saws, radial arm saws, drill presses, jointers and other devices designed to reduce a 2×4 to dust faster than you can say oops!

By the time I was financially stable enough to consider equipping my own shop, it was the height of Norm Abrams popularity. Routers and air powered brad nailers (“just to hold it until the glue dried”) were all the rage. But I had learned that faster was not always better, and in fact faster was often worse. I began experimenting with hand tools and learned the intricacies of sharpening and the value of an “antique” tool. While I now have a fully equipped wood shop, I still prefer my hand planes to my power planer and I still occasionally cut boards with a Disston saw made in the mid 1800’s. There are several reasons for this; hand tools force me to take my time and think through what I am doing, they are quiet, and more conducive to meditative states of work, and most important for me, they are charmingly simple in their form and function.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I enjoy pipe repair work. The vast majority of what the pipe repairman does is hand work. In repair and restoration work the sanding, filing, and reaming of pipes must be done by hand. The buffer for finishing pipes and the lathe for stem making are the only necessary noise makers. And in my opinion, the most valuable tools are some of the simple shop-made items that I find myself reaching for during just about every job. Here are few of the simple tools that I find indispensable.

Shank Reamers

It is amazing how much material can build up inside the shank of even a well maintained pipe. I’ve heard it referred to as “cake” but in my experience it is not at all like the carbon cake that forms in the tobacco chamber. It is tougher and somewhat flexible leading me to believe that it is a combination of carbon/ash and tar. Regardless of its composition it has to be removed, and I have never had any success with alcohol, bristled pipe cleaners, or tiny scrub brushes. The best option is to ream the shank with a drill bit sized to the original airway diameter. I tried a few different holders for the drill bits I use, but eventually decided that the simplest thing to do would be to turn some hardwood handles and epoxy in the most commonly used bits. I find that a 5/32”, 9/64” and an 11/64” are sufficient for most jobs.


Stem shaping platform

There is no way to get around the fact that when you are restoring or making stems you spend a lot of time filing and sanding. Doing this sort of detailed hand work on something as small as a pipe stem can be challenging, and holding the stem down on the workbench is awkward and does not allow easy access to all parts of the work. I tried several different platforms until I finally settled on the one shown below. It is simply a piece of 2×4 lumber that is sanded to form a rounded top. The leather was salvaged from an old wallet and prides a bit of cushion as well as some traction for holding the stem in place while sanding or filing. I built my workbench to have ¾” dogholes and by drilling a ¾” hole in the bottom of the platform I can use a bench dog to hold it in place on the bench. I drilled this at a slight angle which helps the piece lock into place when it is pushed down into the doghole.



Pipe Work Stands

Finally, the picture below shows a pipe stand that I made years ago to hold the stummel and stem between operations or while I am letting mineral oil or Murphy’s oil soap soak in. I also use it to hold the stummel while stain sets.


You can see from the photo that this stand has been well used over the years and carries the scars of many pipe refurbishments. As I find myself working on multiple pipes at the same time, I decided make a few additional stands. The next picture shows the parts I use ready for assembly. The base is made of some scrap cherry with holes drilled to accept the two dowels. The large dowel for the stummel is a ⅝” oak dowel that I had in stock. The small dowel is actually a piece of a bamboo skewer that is 3/32” diameter and allows most stems to fit on the stand.


I quickly sanded and chamfered the parts on my belt sander (we are making tools not furniture) and used a bit of carpenter’s glue for final assembly. I now have a set of 5 stands which should be more than enough for my needs.


These are just a few of the simple tools that make my work easier. There may be more complex, and possibly better solutions out there, but nothing that that feels better than these simple solutions I discovered myself. I think I’ll continue on with these for many years to come.