Wooden tobacco pipes

Wooden tobacco pipes

Over time, a large market for tobacco pipes has arisen, in which (as with any market) products on offer range from the extremely cheap to shockingly expensive. The price is not always a reliable indicator of the quality of a product. One thing, however, is certain: if a pipe is strikingly cheap, you should treat it with suspicion. Why? Handmade tobacco pipes require a series of precise steps that can only be carried out by an experienced pipe maker.

The time spent, and the wealth of experienced that is required, naturally come at a price. In the case of handmade tobacco pipes (or even one-off pieces) the exclusive freehand pipes, the price can easily amount to several hundred euro. Even "mass-produced" pipes involve a lot of craftsmanship, because no piece of wood is quite like any other. This natural material always needs to be treated individually, which also means that each handcrafted tobacco pipe is unique.

Different models

The fundamental difference between different kinds of wooden tobacco pipes is the categorization into so-called straight, and bent models. Straight and bent each refer to the shape of the stem of the pipe. The decision to opt for one or other of these shapes is not purely based on cosmetic preference. Bent pipes can be held in the lips and/or the teeth while smoking. They are therefore often referred to as "hangers." Straight pipes, however, are generally held in the hand while smoking as their center of mass is too high to allow them to be left comfortably in the mouth with no support.

The images of famous pipe smokers can illustrate this: while Sherlock Holmes clamps his pipe between his teeth as he investigates, his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, holds his straight pipe between his finger and thumb while contemplating.

Yet the terms straight and bent are just the tip of the iceberg. Within each category, the variety of wooden tobacco pipes is almost limitless. Let's restrict ourselves to the description of the three most widely smoked models of each kind:

Straight pipes

Straight BilliardStraight CanadianStraight Apple
long mouthpiece; stem length matches the height of the bowl; large, straight bowlshort mouthpiece; long, oval stem; large, straight bowllong mouthpiece; fairly long stem; large, round and flattened bowl.

Bent pipes

The shape of the bowl is similar to that of straight models. The differences are found in the stem and mouthpiece of different varieties of bent pipe: Billiard Bent, Canadian Bent, and Apple Bent .

Moreover, there are many other models with illustrious and evocative names such as: Prince, Bulldog, Loveat, Dublin, Pot, Liverpool, Stand up Poker and many more.

To get a better understanding of how there came to be so many different types of pipe, the manufacturing process behind handcrafted tobacco pipes is described in more detail below:

The manufacture of a tobacco pipe

By way of example, the individual steps in the process of manufacturing a briar wood tobacco pipe are described.

The shape of the pipe is marked on the wooden ebauchon block.
The shape of the pipe is marked on the wooden ebauchon block.
The shape of the pipe is marked on the wooden ebauchon block.
The shape of the pipe is marked on the wooden ebauchon block.
The bowl is bored into the pipe.
The bowl is bored into the pipe.

"In the beginning was the root." For a pipe, the story of creation could begin by referring to its raw material: the tuberous route of the Mediterranean briar, Erica arborea. The root of the briar has a very high silica content (1.81%), which makes it very resistant to fire. This property is incalculably valuable in the manufacture of pipes, as it makes it much harder to burn through the pipe.

The root of a thirty to sixty-year-old root tuber can be as large as a football, while the outside appearance conceals what may lie within. The quality of the wood can only be determined once the tuber has been sawed into scantlings. These smaller lumps of wood are sorted by their identifiable grain, color and grade, and sold by the sackful to pipe manufacturers. At this stage, the product is akin to a "pig in a poke" as there is no way to tell whether the wood inside of the scantlings meets the needs of the pipe maker.

The pipe stem is preformed using a scroll saw.
The pipe stem is preformed using a scroll saw.
The mouthpiece is matched to the bowl using a grinding wheel.
The mouthpiece is matched to the bowl using a grinding wheel.
The bowl is bored into the pipe.
The rim of the bowl is roughened using an electric wire brush.

The scantlings that are apparently of the highest quality are sought out and are heated for several hours in copper cauldrons. This extracts the sap from the wood and gives it its beautiful coloring. During the drying process that follows, five to ten per cent of the scantlings acquire unsightly cracks and must be removed by sorting.

The remaining pieces are subsequently known as ebauchons and are ready to be transformed into authentic briar wood tobacco pipes. From this point on, the only thing that matters to the quality of the end product is the experience of the pipe maker, in terms of his ability to handle the material and his tools. This is also the point when it is decided whether the selected ebauchon will become a mass produced pipe, built according to an existing template, or whether the pipe maker will create a true one-off, afreehand piece. The imagination is limited only by the requirements of functionality - after all, the pipe must be usable for smoking no matter what.

If the pipe maker decides to create a mass produce piece, a precisely specified process will now be followed, with no deviations from this process being possible. Once the precision machines have been set up (switching constantly between the machines and manual work) the bowl is carved out. Places that the drill bit cannot reach must be reworked by hand. Any grinding work that is required must also be carried out buy hand. Particular precision is called for when the draft hole is drilled out - if it is not precisely centered down to the last millimeter, it won't be possible to draw on the finished pipe correctly.

Small flaws in the wood often become visible during this process. These needed to be filled in and sanded at a later stage. Filled knots generally only bother the most passionate pipe collectors as they don't affect the pleasure of smoking the pipe.

The bowl of the pipe is stained by hand.
The bowl of the pipe is stained by hand.
The characteristic grain of the wood is clearly recognizable.
The characteristic grain of the wood is clearly recognizable.
Logo engraving
Logo engraving

If the pipe bowl has made it to this stage, the mouthpiece is matched to the bowl. Highly specific precision is required here as well, as each pipe has its own texture. The process must constantly be modified and adapted to suit "this exact" pipe. The pipe is then finished by sanding it using ever finer materials. Prior to varnishing, the pipe is either pre-treated with wax or stained, depending on the quality. A further polishing stage brings out the characteristic grain of the briar wood even further. After varnishing with a special varnish, the pipe is polished and is ready for quality control.

This short overview can only convey the 30 to 40 steps in the manufacturing process (depending on model) in the roughest terms. Nonetheless, it's clear that every finished tobacco pipe entails a great deal of craftsmanship and requires the specialist knowledge of experienced pipe makers.

Quality that comes from passion

Smoking a hand crafted tobacco pipe can be a slow-paced, contemplative moment to savor. A welcome contrast to the hectic pace of everyday life. Good for the soul, and good for you. Rely heavily on your gut feeling when buying a product from our range.

You must like the pipe, and it must fit you in the same way as your reading chair or your favorite shoes. You should feel at ease with your pipe. A.P. Donovan has already taken care of any concerns you may have about quality: all tobacco pipes in our range will meet even the high expectations of experienced pipe smokers.