Andrew Wike
8 Facts About Pipe Making You Might Have Overlooked

While we talk a lot about our pipes and venerate their makers, there's a lot that goes into your briar that we often overlook. This past week I had the pleasure of meeting American carver Bruce Weaver and visiting Adam's workshop for the first time. As the two artisans were chatting about the ins and outs of their craft, I watched. Although quite confused from time to time when the two would delve deep into their little-known language of revolutions-per-minute and carpentry jargon, I realized eight facts that we often forget when enjoying our works of art.

1. Shaping takes time.

Of course it does, but how many of us actually think about the hours of meticulous shaping it took to produce our beloved smokers? We tend to focus on the finished product, on its smoking qualities, often forgetting that it required a steady hand and a good bit of patience to create our perfectly proportioned classic English Billiard.

Just to show me his set-up, Adam quickly roughed out a shape from a block of briar. With precise strokes at about 4000 rpm, he shaved off the excess to reveal what would become a bent Billiard. After about five minutes, he turned off the disc sander and handed me the speed-shaped piece. "That's just a quick roughed-out version, but it gives you a good idea of the process," he said. "I usually take my time and try to not get too hasty. It's really easy to screw up a perfectly good shape through over-enthusiasm. After I rough it out, I'll usually go ahead and do my drilling, so I can shape around it to make sure it's proportional. Then I'll throw it on the 220 or the 180 [grit sanding disks] and shoot it down to 500 rpm, so I can control the lines a bit easier."

Naively, I assumed it was all done in one sweeping step. It made perfect sense though, but I had never really thought how extensive the process actually is.

2. Dust ventilation is crucial.

All that excess briar's got to go somewhere. To expedite clean up and reduce dust inhalation, Adam has two dust collectors and a shop vac hooked up to various machines. Bruce has a similar set up saying, "Yeah, I'm a nut about all the dust." While Adam's shop floor is concrete, Bruce has carpet in his workshop, so he vacuums rigorously. "I've even been known to take a duster and dust off the lights," he said. Adam just looked at him and replied, "You might have a problem, Bruce."

Whether you're a neat freak or not, the need to keep a workshop from becoming overcome with dust and debris is a common concern among pipe makers, and yet, it's something we rarely think about when enjoying our briars.

3. Quality briar is hard to come by.

We're all aware of the current briar shortage, but nowhere is the scarcity more evident than in an artisan's workshop. Carefully stacked like prized possessions, Adam's blocks were meticulously organized along one wall of his shop. The top rack was already cut into blocks, while the bottom featured large uncut burls. Each has its place in Adam's creation, and he treats each promising piece like a trophy.

Many carvers resort to trades, swapping quality briar for vulcanite or bamboo among other things. Sometimes the offered trade is deemed fair; other times, the blocks in question are far too precious to part with. Either way, the briar shortage is an issue that often escapes our thoughts when we're enjoying a beautiful artisanal piece. Like a rare precious gem, pipe makers hold on to their materials with care — it is the base of their art, after all.

4. Time really is money.

While nonetheless true in a variety of professions, time is a pipe maker's best friend and worst enemy. We've discussed the time-consuming process of shaping, but there's a lot more than goes into crafting your favorite pipe. Any little trick that will save an artisan a few minutes each day adds up to a substantial saving over a year's time — more time means more pipes, after all.

It's not something you'd spend sleepless nights fretting over, but time is a real issue to artisanal carvers. As Adam walked Bruce around his workshop and showed him several of the tricks he'd learned over the years, it started to hit home for me. From something as simple as wrapping sandpaper around leather for certain steps, to more complex tips like using pre-laser-cut cloth sanding disks instead of cutting your own, any tip that saves even a few minutes at the end of the day is well worth a trip to a friend's workshop. And while I'm sure there are some exceptions (contrast stain formulas and techniques being the big and well-known one), they all seem surprisingly willing to share.

5. For every one task, there are several machines and multiple steps.

As with shaping, every single task in pipe making requires a meticulous process. As Adam walked me around his workshop, I noticed two blasting cabinets, two lathes, numerous sanding disks and blasting materials, and a variety of little carpentry tools. He explained that each has its purpose depending on the need. "I'll often go back and forth between machines," he said, "cleaning out the drilling, redrawing my lines, and redefining the shape." When the occasion calls for it and no other tool will fit the bill, Adam has even been known to improvise — cutting his own personalized stamp for silver accents with a hammer and chisel, for example.

Pipe makers are perfectionists, and each step has to be executed with precision and accuracy. It makes sense, then, that so much would go into creating the pipes you love — although we may overlook it from time to time.

6. Every artisan has his/her own methods.

As Bruce and Adam were talking about their own techniques, comparing and contrasting set ups, I noticed that, even when the end product can seem quite similar, every artisan has his/her own methods. Bruce, for example, uses a 12x36" lathe, an old belt sander at three degrees, and all of his tools are pretty much set up along the same working angle. Adam, however, has several different lathes ranging from two small 7x14" and one larger 10x20".

Even his set up is unique, with his disc sander positioned in the middle of the room. Bruce sat down to try his hand at Adam's shaping lathe remarking, "Is this is where you shape? Wow... that's uncomfortable." It's not for everyone, but the 90-degree positioning works well for Adam — allowing him to comfortably rest his arm while precisely shaving down his briar. The two carvers even have different preferences for background noise: Adam enjoys listening to classic tunes while Bruce prefers to watch CNBC on his big screen while he works.

Though they each have their own methods, they both arrive at the same result: quality shapes from quality briar — something to keep in mind next time you pick up your pipe.

7. It's a collaborative effort to improve the art.

Although there are a few exceptions, as noted earlier, it seems that pipe making is a collaborative art, with each artist contributing and sharing his/her own tricks and techniques. During the two hours I watched the two carvers work, I noticed nothing but an amiable back and forth between them. Adam shared some of the tips he's picked up over the years, and Bruce contributed in turn.

This exchange got me thinking: most of the great artistic movements throughout history weren't solely pioneered by one man; no, it was a collaboration. From the surrealists to the vanguards, these artists sought to redefine the norm. All personal agendas aside, they worked together in unison to propel the movement and bring forth an era of change. Pipe making is no different. Willing to share their knowledge with other prominent carvers, they aren't in it for profit alone — they also simply want to tell the world their story, or show it their ideas, one briar at a time.

8. Nothing's better than seeing someone enjoying your pipe.

As our short time at Adam's concluded, and Bruce packed his things to head back to Charleston, a curious conversation began. It was an exchange of stories of gratification, of seeing their art come to life. "It's just the neatest feeling, it's a thrill," Bruce said as he recounted witnessing three men smoking his pipes at a recent pipe show. "I made that," he thought, "And they're enjoying it too." The two began to discuss this topic, the wonderful feeling of actually seeing someone enjoying their art as much as they enjoyed creating it.

Adam shared his own accounts and experiences, thinking back to another pipe show in which he spoke to a man smoking one of his earlier shapes. "He'd had that pipe for three years and was still enjoying it!" he exclaimed. It was a normal looking pipe that others had called "classic Adam Davidson." "How can they look at a Billiard with bamboo and automatically see my hand in it?" he questioned. "It amazes me."

That's the beauty of artistry, I suppose. After hours of diligent hard work, they pour their heart and soul into their creations. Whether they realize it or not, it does show. Pipe making is just a one of a kind craft, where artists can actually see their work come to life and be enjoyed not just aesthetically, but as a functional design as well. It's not a painting admired by friends, it's not a sculpture to be displayed in a museum; it's an art with a practical function to be enjoyed, and cherished for years to come.

While some may be more obvious than others, these eight facts speak to the timelessness and artistry that goes into pipe creation. It's what makes our beloved briars unique and what keeps us coming back, year after year, for more.

Comments

    • Andrew Wike on August 6, 2014
    • Thanks everyone for the kind comments! Adam and Bruce are great guys, and it was really just a pleasure to watch them work. It's so easy to forget about all the hard work that went into crafting our favorite pipes, but realizing the extent of their craftsmanship just makes our beloved briars all the more special. Thanks!

    • Neuronmd on August 6, 2014
    • Very good blog. It's made me pick up my pipe and admire it, not just for how it looks or how it smokes, but for all the intense human effort that went into creating it. Awesome!

    • R. Bear Graves on August 4, 2014
    • Thoughtful, informative writing.

    • Rich on August 3, 2014
    • While new to the pipe smoking world. I have come to appreciate the beauty of custom pipes. I understand the dedication to a trade as I was a mason for fifteen years, it took a five year apprenticeship to become a journeyman. Then another two years before you were considered competent! I can no longer practice as a bad back stopped me. But, my experiences gave me a deep appreciation for all tradesman, and pipe makers are one of the top. Thank you guys.

    • Austin on August 1, 2014
    • It's easy to forget or be ignorant of the efforts of these great pipemakers. Thanks for the reminder.

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