hand made? machine made? hand made by machine?

Published inPipes and Tobaccos, Fall 2003

This version is unedited

Another in an infrequent series of articles concerning


R. D. Field

Lemmesee that, son. Nice pipe! Sayshand maderight on it. I made me a pipe once, when I was a boy. Didn’t look too good, but it worked.Made it out of a corncob.Dried that sucker in the sun for days and then used a paring knife to whittle away the inside.Couldn’t get too far down to make a deep bowl- paring knifebeinkindasmall.Found me a hollow reed down by the creek bed, carved out a little hole for it with the knife and put ‘erin. Lookedsomethin’ like that pipeMacArthurwassmokin’ in that famous picture.

Did your man make your pipe like I made mine? Or did he use machines? You see, there’s a difference betweenbein’ completely made by human hands andbein’ made by humansusin’ machinery.

Way back, when we was juststartin’ to grow food instead of just hunt it we used to gather wheat, rye, oats, millet, barley to make bread and beer. We crushed those grains between two stones to separate the stuff we could use from the husks. It was all hand work, down and dirty. Later we formed a kind of a bowl to put the grain in and then used a stick or stone rounded at one end to crush it. This worked better because the grain stayed inside the bowl instead of scattering all around like it did on the stones. But it was still all hand work.

As we got smarter we developed machines to help us with this job. We got a great big round stone and put a hole in the middle. Put a huge big stick like a tree limb through the hole, planted one end of the stick to an axis so it could turn, pushed the other end of the stick to make the stone move in a circle- and there was a grain grinding machine. So now there’s no more hand grinding of grain.Progress, right?

We use machines to do stuff faster, better, or both. That big grind-stone sure was faster than folks grinding with hand tools. But get this and get it right. Even though apersonmight be pushing that grind-stone to make it turn, that person was using a machine. Sometimes an animal was used to turn the stone, sometimes water from a stream, but it don’t makenodifference. A machine is a machine no matterwhoor what is supplying the power to make it run.

So- you think that pipea’yournis all hand made? Like myol’ corncob?Maybe so; then again maybe not.It’s really difficult for a human person to make a beautiful and precisesmokin’ pipe out of briar.Far easierouttaclay or meerschaum because they’re soft when they’re worked.Make a mistake with a clay and you roll it up into a ball and start over again because clay don’t get hard tillitsbaked. Meerschaum ain’t quitesosoft as clay- more like soap.But far easier to carve than a hard wood like briar.That’s why you see so many sculptures on meerschaum pipes- not that the people who do ‘em ain’t skilled, ‘cause they are. But briar is prone to chip, and if you mess up it’s much harder to getsomethin’ usefulouttait.

I guess we got to get some definitions here- and the definitions can really shade into one another in practical application.

Hand made- to me this is a pipe that is made using only hand tools No machinery of any type is used.

Machine made- a pipe made using only machinery and no hand work.

Hand made by machine- any combination of the above two methods.

Are anybriarpipes reallyhand made?They can be, but it’d be really difficult to get ‘em to look right and smoke right. I mean- you could take a block of briar and coarse-file the outside and then sand the outside and it would look okay, maybe great. You could dig out the inside of the bowlusin’ various hand tools and sand that down, and the inside of the bowl would be fine. But then we come to the draft hole- the holestartin’ at the end of the shank andextendin’ to the base of the bowl. How do you make such a bore withoutusin’ amachine.I guess you could use a hammer and nail, or maybe you could use a long wood screw. Butd’ya seethe risk here? Not only is this method gonna take a long time, but you’ll probably mess it up. And howd’ya geta bore through the mouthpiece. I mean you could file the outside of theplexiglasor vulcanite and, if you’re skilled, do a nice job. But that air hole through the middle- that’s the problem. Nah! I don’t think any briar pipes today arehand made.

What aboutmachine made?Well, there are machines that use a template and turn out a dozen or two of exactly the same model at every go; and there are machines thatmanufacturemouthpieces through placing liquid plexiglas or vulcanite into molds.

But- the machine that turns out a dozen at a time can’t do the job completely. Each bowl has what in the trade are calledears(I guess because they stick out)-edges on each side of the base of the pipe bowl that the machine can’t get to. Theseearshave to be sanded off- by hand. Before the mouthpiece can be fitted the interior at the end of the shank has to be bored out, by hand, in order to accept thetenon. As the mouthpiece is fitted to the pipe it has to be made flush with the shank- by hand sanding. Finally, the marks left by the mold must be taken off the edges of the mouthpiece- again by hand. So a machine made pipe ain’t really completely made by machine- and we ain’t even talked about thestainin’ andfinishin’ parts. Surprised, eh?

Here we come to the crux of the matter: howd’ya differentiatewhat today we call a hand made pipe from what we call a machine made pipe? I’ll bet this is gonna be different for all of us, so let’s look at the possibilities.

There are artisans who do alltheypossibly can by hand- leaving to a machine only what they must. Such afellawill hand cut, hand file and hand sand a briar block until it is a fully completed pipe bowl on the outside. He will most likely use a machine to make the tobacco chamber and will certainly use a machine both to make the draft hole from end of shank to base of bowl and to enlarge the interior at the end of the shank so as to accept atenon. He will hand cut and hand finish the outside of the mouthpiece, only using machinery to drill the interior air hole and cut thetenon. Now we’re nottalkin’ about skill level here, only methods. Just because afellauses lots of hand work doesn’t mean the stuff he makes is great. I usedallhand work on my corncob and no one called that a great pipe.

Otherfellasturnbowls by hand- putting a briar block on a chuck, setting a machine in motion to turn the block at high speed and using hand chisels to shape both the exterior and interior of the bowl-sortalike hand turning a table leg or bed post. Remember- although it’s calledhand turningthere’s a machine involved. Machinery is also used to drill the draft hole and mortise (the part at the end of the shank that accepts thetenon). In the past some of the fellas that hand turned bowls used molded mouthpieces. Can’tfiggerthat one out; I mean, if you could hand turn a bowl why can’t you hand cut a mouthpiece?

Here’s where it getsinterestin’- where the differentiation betweenhandmade and machine made becomes blurred. There arefellas, artisans again, who’ve invented machines that make pipe bowls one by one. And by turning various cams, screws, and levers each of these guys can make any size or shape he designs- one off. So instead ofdoin’ hand work on the pipe bowl itself they’redoin’ the hand work on the machine, which is thenfollowin’ instructions. Some of these machines can only make the outside of the bowl and the tobacco chamber, and the ears still have to be sanded off; others can make everything except the draft hole and mortise in one go. Onefellainvented a machine that can do it all, including a dead-center draft hole every time. So I guess thesefellasare after two things- precision in their designs, and the ability to make more pipes than if they did everything possible by hand. Most of these folks hand cut their mouthpieces, although a few use molded mouthpieces which they hand finish.

Other makers, larger ones, use machine-turned bowls but then lavish a tremendous amount of hand work in sanding, pumicing, staining, waxing, mouthpiece work and general overallfinishin’ of the pipe. These larger places spend time and money on quality control so that every pipe isin-spectedand then eitherse-lectedorre-jected.

Now hold on to your britches here son, because it gets even more complicated. Some folks don’t make their own bowls at all but buy ‘em in from other places. Probably all these bought-in bowls are machine turned, though I ain’t sure about that. Butthat ain’t the end of it- not at all. Thesefellaswill spend a lot of time and hand work inchangin’ the way these bowls look- so you wouldn’t know the one that come out was the same one that went in. Oneshape’llcome in the door and a differentone’llleave- maybe billiard to panel ordublinto bulldog. Who knows? Theseguys’recreative and they’readdin’ their own touch, their own flair, their own signature.

So therey’haveitm’boy.There ain’t no all hand made pipe (at least I don’t know of any) and there ain’t no all machine made pipe neither. Butthere’sall kinds of stuff in-between. Now what does this all mean? It means what you want it to mean. If you need to have a pipe that is as hand made as it can be, that’s what you go after. But just because a guy makes only 40 pipes a year doesn’t mean that he makes 40 great pipes a year, or any great pipes a year. Remember- I’mtalkin’ about method, not skill. You got to know what you’re after, what appeals to you. You got to take into consideration so many things, only one of which is how the thing was made. Now- let’s have a look at that pipea’yournagain.

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