Wooden pipe making
The making of smoking pipes from wood, typically briar (see also clay pipe making).
|Historic area of significance||UK, with a focus on London, where many of the factories were based and the Dunhill factory still operates.|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||19th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||5 plus unknown number of workers at Dunhill factory|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
While clay pipes have been made since the 16th century, wooden pipes are a relatively new introduction, with factories set up around London in the 19th century importing briar from the Mediterranean. Many classical pipe shapes such as the billiard, bulldog and Dublin were developed which are still followed today, either in strict accordance or as inspiration for more individualistic forms.
It has only been since WW2 that pipes have been commercially made by individual artisan makers. Some of these makers use components they buy in and combine with their own handmade parts to assemble what are known as hand finished pipes, while others make all of their components by hand from raw materials.
The most common wood for pipe bowls is briar, but others such as bog oak, strawberry wood are also used. Pipe stems are commonly made from ebonite/vulcanite or acrylic, but alternative materials include polyester, horn, antler or amber.
Pipe bowls are turned on a lathe and then reoriented and turned again to form the neck. They are then hand worked using abrasion to form the finished shape, then married with the drilled stem and the transition is worked smooth. The pipe is then finished with either a high sheen or a texture created by sandblasting or similar method. Pipes can also include metal bands or inserts.
Today pipes are also being made by CNC machine, based on designs by master pipemakers. From the standard shapes, pipes can deviate to more uneven organic forms and highly individualistic shapes.
Despite the low number of makers, some of the pipes being made today are probably the best that have ever been made, thanks to developments in materials, tools and the heightening expectations of aficionados and collectors.
- Meerschaum pipes – these pipes are made from the mineral sepiolite rather than wood, though they are rarely made in the UK due in part to the difficulty of obtaining the material
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- The number of smokers is declining due to health concerns.
- There are many poor quality pipes being sold at high prices – some customers aren’t educated enough to distinguish between high and low quality.
- Social media is becoming increasingly influential, but not all makers have the ability to take advantage of it, hence the undue prominence of poor quality pipes from those who know how to exploit social media.
- The US, one of the main markets for UK pipes, is currently becoming more protectionist. Tariffs have not yet been imposed but there is a feeling that Americans are less inclined to buy from overseas.
- There are no apprenticeships as such – current makers are either ex-factory workers or individuals who have learnt through a combination of trial and error and seeking out help and advice from other makers.
- Skilled factory workers focus exclusively on specific elements of the production process, so if that factory closed down it is unlikely that many of them would be able to set up as artisan makers making pipes in their entirety.
- Pipe makers need to be able to talk to and see the work of other makers in order to keep quality at its utmost, and that becomes harder the fewer makers there are.
Sometimes pipe makers are excluded from events and networking opportunities with craftspeople of other disciplines because of attitudes around tobacco use.
Craftspeople currently known
- Chris Askwith
- Ian Walker, Northern Briars
- Chris Kelly, Eldrich Pipes
- Les Wood – retired
- Mike Billington, Blakemar Briars
- Peter Ellam, Invicta Briars
- Ashton Pipes
Businesses employing two or more people:
- Dunhill Pipes, Walthamstow