The Pipe Stem: The Most Important Component of Any Pipe
Around 30 years ago, the sharing of information between pipe makers changed. Before, the thinking, in North America, at least, was that the craft had to be learned by performing it solo. Pimos's Guide to PipeCrafting at Home was the only resource for new pipe makers. It's a great book and thousands of people have depended on it as their first step to pipe carving, but it couldn't contain the immense number of details necessary to perfect a craft.
The Old Days
Except for a few outliers, most American-made artisan pipes employed production stems, sometimes altered for better aesthetics, comfort, and airflow, but often with little modification. Vulcanite production stems are injection molded at high heat, requiring a higher sulfur content which later in the life of the pipe encourages oxidation. Internally, the smoke channel was stepped down from one diameter at the tenon to a smaller diameter in the center and even smaller by the time it reached the lip button.
There was little sanding or polishing of the smoke channel — the shoulders left at each reduction in diameter caused turbulence and moisture accumulation. The pipe stems did not smoke to their potential and were often clunky in the teeth and uncomfortable in the mouth. Production stems have improved over the years, but the selection in the '90s was dismal, and hand-cut stems were a rarity.
There were almost no specialized tools like lathe chucks for stummels — though available now, at the time they had to be designed and manufactured on an individual basis. Every step was a laborious process of self-education in tooling and crafting, and pipe making took years to learn. Some advanced farther than others, but it was a solitary process. Since pipe makers competed with each other for limited shelf space in brick-and-mortar shops (no internet pipe sales back then), many were reticent about sharing what they had invested so much time and effort learning.
Production stems have improved over the years, but the selection in the '90s was dismal
For others, it wasn't about protecting market shares. J.T. Cooke, for example, has famously helped Jody Davis, Paul Bonacquisti, and others, and continues sharing many of his techniques while maintaining secrecy about others. He's a mad scientist and continuously conducts experiments to encourage just a single percent of improvement in one element and another smidgen of enhancement for the next. He's worked like a galley oarsman for decades and has become the most celebrated sandblaster in the hobby, but it isn't all of those trial-and-error hours that he protects.
The enormous satisfaction of working out a problem and discovering its solution is among the most attractive aspects of the craft for Cooke. "If I tell someone how to do something," he says, "they won't experience the epiphany of discovery. Anybody can do what I do if they put in the time and research. That's the fun part. I can't deprive anyone of that."
There continue to be techniques that carvers rightfully choose not to share — things like curing processes and sandblasting mediums — things that can't be identified forensically. However, much more is shared today than in the past, and that's beneficial for hobbyists as well as for young carvers, who now advance in skill more quickly because they can access resources that did not exist for earlier generations.
Resources Become Available
Advanced techniques came online as the internet grew. Pipemakersforum.com is perhaps the most famous resource. Additionally, pipe makers like Cooke, Jeff Gracik, Tom Eltang, Jody Davis, Todd Johnson, and many others were and are famous for their hospitality and willingness to host younger carvers. These carvers and others like them motivated a cultural shift that has proven enormously beneficial to the hobby as well, accelerating the learning curve and generating excellent artisan quality.
There used to be a trick that savvy collectors employed at pipe shows when happening upon a table of pipes by a relatively new carver. All it took to know approximately how advanced they were was to look at the lip button of one of their pipes. A simple, round hole for the smoke channel was common; ovaled and funneled and polished slots were the territory of the high-grade artisan pipe.
The enormous satisfaction of working out a problem and discovering its solution is among the most attractive aspects of the craft
After the internet and the subsequent sharing of information, the lip-button trick stopped working. Carvers were making spectacular mouthpieces much earlier in their careers and the sophistication of American pipe making advanced. Pipe makers from the U.S. would travel to Denmark to learn from the best, and they brought the techniques they learned home with them. Only a couple of American makers in the '90s could produce pipes near the level of the Danish masters, but in a few years, American pipes rivaled their Danish counterparts. Discussions about funneling the smoke channel at the lip button to maintain consistent airflow had begun circulating in earnest only in the late '90s, and 10 years later the practice was common, and finishing techniques and quality accompanied that improvement.
That shaping of the slot dated back to pre-transition Barling pipes, and to many of the Danes, but it took a little longer to become part of the American artisan pipe-making culture. Pipes by Mike Butera and J.T. Cooke were early examples. Rick Newcombe was a great proponent, writing articles and delivering talks on the importance of excellent airflow in pipes. Collectors became even more selective because their choices grew exponentially.
"The first three-quarters-of-an-inch at the button," says Jody Davis, "is one of the most important parts of the entire pipe because, basically, if it doesn't feel good in your teeth, no matter how much you love the pipe, you will not gravitate to that pipe for smoking. You might smoke it a few times, but then it drops out of rotation because it just doesn't feel great in the teeth." Part of the reason so many gravitate to artisan pipes is because they've reached a level of discernment identifying hand-cut stems as more comfortable than production stems.
Hand-cut stems can take 30-50 percent of the time a carver invests in a pipe and adds significantly to the final price. Modifying a production stem to smoke like a hand-cut stem can be almost equally labor intensive. If production stems could perform as well, few craftspeople would hand-cut stems, and few would pay the cost for an unnecessary element.
Factory pipes can unquestionably possess superior smoking qualities. Part of the reason any pipe smokes well is the briar itself: not every block of briar tastes or behaves the same. Each has different levels of tannins and saps, has grown in different soil, and been cured at the sawmill and additionally at the pipe maker's shop. What the superior engineering of a hand-cut stem offers is a better likelihood of delivering a great smoke from a particular block of briar. An unflavorful and ornery stummel is awful with a poorly made stem but made better with a well-crafted stem. A great pipe with a poor stem may smoke very well, but it could smoke even better if the maker employs sound internal stem engineering.
Carvers were making spectacular mouthpieces much earlier in their careers and the sophistication of American pipe making advanced
"For most every pipe I make," says Jody, "the button is the same width and pretty much the same thickness; every one you pick up and put in your teeth is going to feel the same. That's my goal anyway, so smokers know what to expect. Even if the shank is wider than the end of the button, I still have that button the same size."
Button consistency like that is beneficial in the modern age of online pipe buying. Jody's pipes are not inexpensive — he's one of the best carvers in the world. Yet enthusiasts purchase every pipe he can make, and do so online without ever holding the pipe. He rarely makes it to a pipe show because he's a professional musician who often has to play on those weekends. Those who have experienced his pipes can be confident because of the consistency of his work. They know what to expect.
"That consistency makes all the difference. It's funny, a couple of years ago at the Muletown show, pipe maker Alex Florov called me over to his table and paid me the greatest compliment. He said, 'Hey, you know what I learned from you? I learned that you have to make the mouthpiece and button the same for each pipe — keep them the same thickness and width so that there's consistency.' I thought that was a great compliment from a truly outstanding carver."
Vulcanite vs. Acrylic
Most artisan makers use vulcanite, also called ebonite, because it's softer in the teeth than acrylic and more popular. Those who prefer acrylic stems have the advantage of avoiding oxidation, but the acrylic is harder and almost glass-like. So the choice is: vulcanite for comfort attended by the need for consistent care to fight oxidation, or acrylic, which is harder and perhaps less comfortable to clench, and more brittle, but maintains pristine coloring for life.
During the "Battle of the Briar" event at the Chicago show this year, competitors were given acrylic mouthpieces. There was inadequate time for even thinking about hand-cutting a stem for the event — it was only an hour long. "Acrylic polishes much, much faster so you don't need to sand it as much," says Jeff Gracik, who helped run the competition. "And as far as making a pipe goes, it's somewhat easier and much faster to finish than ebonite. Ebonite though is a much more durable and in my opinion, more comfortable and superior material."
Jeff has made acrylic stems for only a couple of the workshop pipes he scatters around his shop to smoke and abuse. Jody also admits to pipe neglect for his shop pipes. "Pipe makers always own the ugliest pipes," he says. "I have to clean them before a show so no one sees the neglect. I think most pipe makers are like that."
If production stems could perform as well, few craftspeople would hand-cut stems
J.T. Cooke, however, employs only acrylic for his stems, acrylic that he mixes and pours and cures himself. He's developed acrylics that are somewhat softer than the usual, though still harder than vulcanite. "I think my years as a pipe restorer informed that decision," he says. "I ruined my hands by cleaning and polishing tens of thousands of green, gnarly, oxidized stems. Vulcanite is a material that inherently, over a comparatively short lifespan, changes color completely. You put in all this work polishing, and no matter what you do, in six months or a year, it ain't going to look the same. It's going to have essentially rusted. I don't want to see vulcanite oxidation again." Hence, acrylic.
"The overall principles for the two different materials," says Cooke, "are the same — the materials are almost beside the point. And because so many makers are using off-the-rack stuff, they can modify the interior and the smoke channel arrangement, if they want to. It's a hell of a lot of work, particularly on a pre-made stem with a taper. How the hell do you chuck that thing up to work on it? I don't know; I can't get inside anybody else's head."
"The factory that makes acrylic mouthpieces for me," says Jeff, "can essentially recreate with a computer-controlled machine more or less any shape that I choose. But there is no production facility that I'm aware of doing the same with ebonite. I think in part that's because of a much more limited market. So it would be hard for them to justify making that much product and trying to sell it. Also, ebonite as a rule is a lot more expensive per unit of measure, whether by weight or size, than acrylic. The other option is molded versions, and in order to mold ebonite, you have to use a lower grade than what I would use in my workshop."
Tapered and Saddle Stems
Jeff Gracik of J. Alan makes his pipes with saddle stems almost exclusively. He finds them far more comfortable and his customer base agrees. A saddle stem is not generally perfectly flat, it has a modest taper as well, but it's at a less acute angle from the lip button than with a tapered stem.
Jody makes tapered stems more often. "It just depends on the shape and the stem length, and the overall size of the pipe. With any stem under, say, 1.75-to-2.00 two inches, you're not going to have a very comfortable tapered stem because it's going to have to expand out."
For something like a straight Billiard, it's better to maintain a flat taper top and bottom rather than curve it inward toward the smoke channel. "You wouldn't want an inward curve to make your last bit of your stem flatter and more comfortable," says Jody. "So the only way to get that is to have a longer stem." The longer tapered stem provides a less acute angle from the front of the lip button. "A good example of that would be Rainer Barbi. He usually employed long, elegant stems, and they look and feel great. So when I do them, I use longer, elegant, centered shanks with longer stems. In fact, that's what I'm working on right now."
Rather than step-down the smoke channel's diameter with three different drill bits, artisan makers use tapered bits for a smooth and gradual transition. Perhaps even more important is the funneling of the smoke channel at the lip button.
The smoke channels for modern artisan pipes avoid any construction in the airflow. However, at the lip button, the height of the mouthpiece is less than the necessary diameter of the smoke channel. The channel must, therefore, be smaller, or, for consistent airflow, it can be widened to accommodate the same airflow as it would if maintained at the same diameter.
"I have a tool that I use for the slot. I actually learned this from Jim Cooke," says Jody. "It cuts the V deep into the stem. So as the bit tapers down, it Vs outward. It's similar to pinching a straw. It gets thinner from top to bottom, but wider at the same time, so there's no restriction in the airflow because that causes its own set of problems with moisture and gunk building up in those spots. That's how you can get away with making that lip button area thinner."
A saddle stem is not generally perfectly flat, it has a modest taper
Mortise and Tenon
Tenons are typically made from the same vulcanite or acrylic as the stem, or are made from Delrin, a slick material that works admirably when assembling or disassembling a pipe. For a long while, Jody preferred the same material for the tenon as the stem.
"I've done a few different things through the years," he says. "I never liked using Delrin up until maybe two years ago, I always used the Ebonite because my thought was that If Delrin was so strong, and a dropped pipe breaks, it will break the shank rather than the tenon. But with Ebonite, there was a good chance that the tenon would break instead of the pipe, and I could fix it easier."
Delrin, however, possessed irresistible fit and finish. "I just like it better. And I've never really gotten very many pipes back with broken tenons or broken shanks. Most guys who buy my pipes are pretty good about not dropping them or sitting on them. I just ended up really liking Delrin, even though it probably takes a little more time for proper gluing, and it takes more prep work."
The area of a pipe most prone to the buildup of gunk and moisture is in the mortise and tenon. "The tenon should butt up against the back of the mortise so that you don't have any gaps where moisture can gather and turbulence can occur," says Jeff. "And then your pipe gurgles."
Cooke countersinks the face of the mortise so that no gap whatsoever manifests. The one problem is on occasions when the tenon expands slightly from the heat of smoking and can push the stem out of the mortise just slightly. However, when that rarity occurs, it's barely noticeable, and it's better than a gurgling pipe.
"Everything is a compromise," says Jody. "Once you diverge from a straight Billiard, things get weird. As soon as you put a bend in a pipe, you've got to adjust the airway, you've got to modify a number of elements."
"The tenon should butt up against the back of the mortise so that you don't have any gaps where moisture can gather and turbulence can occur"
In his early years, Jody spent considerable time with J.T. Cooke in Vermont, learning everything he could and developing his own strategies. Jeff is more of a second-generation Cooke student, having learned from Jody. However, it isn't all J.T. Cooke. Both Jody and Jeff traveled the world to confer with and learn from pipe makers, and many methods are combinations of strategies. Still, "Jim Cooke," says Jeff, "to my knowledge, was the first American and possibly the first person to examine and alter the traditional engineering that steps down from four millimeters to three to two-and-a-half, and say, 'that doesn't make sense.' So he opened it up to four millimeters and then created a much wider funnel on the button end to help create a more consistent dimension throughout. Jody taught that to me, and I've used it ever since. I've taught it to all my students as well. It helps the pipe stay lit longer and the draw feels better, with less risk of moisture."
The Reasons for Great Engineering
All of these decades of experiments and modification to older techniques have been in pursuit of a single goal: better smoking characteristics.
When turbulence occurs in the draft channel, moisture forms, gurgle results, and cursing generally follows. By smoothing out the smoke channel and arranging consistent airflow, a drier, more flavorful smoke is achieved. Pipe makers go to a great deal of trouble to make improvements wherever they can, and the last 30 years have proven to be astonishingly productive. Artisan pipes have reached a refined elevation of smoking efficiency, and we enthusiasts have reaped the benefits.
Tagged in: Pipe Basics Pipe Makers Pipe Making
How many pipes have I traded in (for a loss) due to an uncomfortable stem or button? Quite a few. How many pipes have I kept that were not particularly great eyecandy, but were comfortable and smoked well? Quite a few. Another great read. Enjoy yourselves.
Another outstanding article, about something I'd rarely given any thought. I may never be able to smoke an affordable pipe again!
What a superb article and such a great read! Such great info I have not found anywhere else. Incredible work done by these pipe artisans. All done so that us pipe smokers can enjoy our treasured pipes even more than what used to be. Thank you very much for this good story.
Kudos, Chuck! A great article. It is most instructive.
I have only just discovered this section of the site; congratulations for your writings. I have somewhat different experiences with the mouthpieces. The first is that making mouthpieces with the tooth (we call it "tooth" you "lip-button") the same for all pipes doesn't seem like a good idea. Each pipe has a different shape, weight, balance, and the shape and thickness of the "tooth" must necessarily match. It is not just an aesthetic fact (which also has its importance), but one of comfort. In fact I have pipes with mouthpieces (bit) very different from each other, but equally comfortable (if made well). Another thing (but this is very subjective), personally I feel comfortable with both saddle and conical mouthpieces, even if the slope of the mouthpiece cut is accentuated. Then I tell one of my experiences: I have an old Castello (Carlo Scotti), a bulldog with a very hard methacrylate mouthpiece. Very dry pipe, it didn't make a drop of water even if you paid for it; however, the entrance hole of the mouthpiece was so narrow that the brush could not pass through. I found this frustrating, so one day I decided to enlarge it with a thin drill bit. I widened it very little, just the minimum to let the brush go through. Now the brush passes but the pipe leaks.
An education, Chuck. Thank you for another indispensable essay!
Very interesting article, however somebody please enlighten me- where do Castello and some other high end Italian pipes fit into this concept of the V channel? I have over the years modified all of my Castellos from a small recessed hole to a good “V” shape, the depth varying depending on the size and shape of the pipe. I find that this more times than often smooths out the draw and eliminates that turbulent whistle that some of these have. I have also taken tapered drill bits to the stems on many other pipes, including Peterson and Dunhill, and find that a more open taper increases smoothness and eliminates gurgling. Am I the only one crazy enough to take a file to a new Castello, or have any of you done similar things?
Chuck’s article on moisture level had me chuckling. I too have an unopened tin of Dark Star. Probably the finest tasting stuff ever when you can get it to burn. I have smoked one tin yrs ago and what a struggle. But so good. Don’t know when I’ll crack open the other tin, maybe when I turn 70.