image courtesy of Ethan Brandt
I wanted to talk a little bit about pipe making in future blogs because, as Sykes points out, we each have something unique to contribute. And as the only pipemaker here at Smokingpipes.com, I wager there’s at least a little bit of pipe making knowledge rattling around in my cranium like a moth in a mayonnaise jar, so here I’ll try to share some of what I've learned and observed over the years. When we had a blog meeting a number of weeks ago between John, Sykes, Eric, Ted, and me, a lot of great ideas were pitched about and a lot of them were geared around pipe making and/or materials. I figure the best place to start was with a material I love for both its working qualities and its overall appearance: bamboo.
Bamboo is a pipe making ingredient that that gets talked about a lot. Just like the piece of briar the bamboo is attached to, some people either can be drawn to a pipe with bamboo and some might wish it wasn't there at all. In future posts, I'll talk more about techniques related to working with bamboo and other types of bamboo, but in this first installment I’ll focus on black bamboo.
There’s over 1,000 species of bamboo in the world, most of which have been used to produce everyday items for thousands of years. However, it wasn't until the early 20th-century rolled around that pipes began to feature the exotic material. Without a doubt, there were pipes made from bamboo well before this, but our focus here is using the roots as an accent for modern briar pipes.
I can’t say for sure which varieties of bamboo I use in my craft because I really have no idea. It’s harvested for me so I get specifically what I want: thin pieces of bamboo with close "knuckles" and a surface that is either chocolate brown or mottled. The mottled pieces are especially beautiful, I think. Some of my favorite bamboo is no larger in diameter than a pencil, but this isn't practical for most pipe shapes outside of Cuttys or other designs that have small bowls or shanks that would be equally lovely if made from briar.
Many people seem to think that bamboo used for pipe is what grows above ground, but 99% of the bamboo used in this focus is actually its root. When one sees how bamboo grows, it's easy to understand how it can quickly become such a pest if not desired in a garden. I was at an undisclosed location a year ago (not trespassing) and stumbled into a small bamboo patch. The plants towered above my head and the ground was covered with partially-exposed pieces of the root. As bamboo grows, these roots shoot out in all directions like trees do, but they are all relatively close to the surface. It's these roots that absorb water and sprout to make new plants. I cut a small piece out with a key to use on a pipe for myself. It needed to be boiled and dried before use, but will end up being pretty much the same color it is in the ground. Black bamboo comes from a different species than this one, but it should be noted that many people think pipe makers stain bamboo this color. They don't. Stain simply won't take to the root like it will briar. Experiments have been done and they usually look ugly, if I do say so myself. It's best to leave it how nature makes it. Bamboo is the only material pipe makers use in pure form and try their darndest not to even scratch it. Often times, a pipe and stem are designed around the piece of bamboo.
The root is thoroughly dried before it gets to the pipemaker. It’s cut, drilled to 3/16" on both sides for a double-mortise, and then drilled through the middle with a 5/32" drill bit. Further facing, capping, fitting a stem with 3/16" stainless steel tubing (as well as the bowl itself) can make for a rather time-consuming process. (a process I’ll share in another blog post). While "white" bamboo is the most common (indeed, I've only seen the "black" variety in use for the last decade), "white" bamboo will absorb moisture for a drier smoke and color over the years like a meerschaum, but usually ends up a warm yellow-orange with possible darker spots around its knuckles. Black bamboo will not color noticeably on the outside, but still does absorb moisture internally. While this darker variety is often harder than the lighter, the brown skin is very thin. Brushing it with a file or coarse sandpaper will leave a patch of cream-colored material below.
Some pipe makers decide to leave the little bumps (which sprout to absorb water) simply sanded, while others like to drill them out and put little dots of epoxy. The epoxy dots can look like beautiful little light-catching jewels, but further serve a purpose to seal the bamboo so moisture will not leak out. I do it both ways, depending on the piece or the customer’s desires.
If care is taken while working with this dark variety, the results can be beautiful. I love working with this stuff!
Adam Davidson: Quality Control & Pipe Inspector