Making a Pipe (Part 1): the Stummel




Introduction: Making a Pipe (Part 1): the Stummel

Edited to add:Hey y'all, Thanks so much for the wonderful comments and positive feedback on this tutorial! I was not expecting such a warm reception, and I'm very glad that people have found this useful and enjoyable. While I have to acknowledge that the pipes I've made and share in the following pictures are very nicely done, I need to point out that they pale in comparison to what professionals can do. Like most members of Instructables, I tend to learn hands-on on my own under a litany of limitations (a bare minimum of tools) that force me to know the art. I enjoy every minute of failure that goes along with it, and being pleasantly surprised to eventually succeed. With that said, I should mention that this tutorial is based on that "bare minimum" tool set. Can you make a better pipe with a wider variety of better tools and materials? Absolutely! What I've done is find a way to do the best I can with what I have on hand, without going all-in and spending money I don't have on fancy equipment I don't know how to use and refuse to believe I "need" anyway. At Instructables, I know I have an audience (and I have frequently been an audience member for other projects) of like-minded people who appreciate this stubborn resourcefulness. Now that I'm finally pleased with the grip I have on pipe making, I have absolutely no right to keep it to myself. Thanks again, and enjoy!

...Also, I mentioned a Part 2. Trust me, I have been working on it and it will be coming soon. I promise, I haven't forgotten. Just needs some more writing and a few pictures to make the details clear. -- 2/8/12

This is a step-by-step guide laying out the process and methods I've learned in making pipes. I don't do this professionally and I would discourage anyone from trying to make a living at it (save for those who are in fact professional pipe makers). I only do it because I enjoy carving and I've always admired the craftsmanship, variety, and beauty in pipes -- so I wanted to try my hand at it; even though I don't smoke. Most of my pipes go out to close friends as gifts and to others as favors.

Please note: I'm sharing instructions for tobacco pipes. I'm serious. That's not tongue-in-cheek. Both the work that goes into a decent tobacco pipe, and the demands imposed on its design (namely the fact that the chamber must withstand prolonged heating without cracking, burning through, or radiating that heat to the outside of the bowl) far exceed those used for weed.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the terminology of pipe anatomy (and believe it or not, I wasn't until I decided to sit down and write this guide for everyone to use), I included a crude sketch in this step. The general concept of the diagram was adapted from, but I only included the parts that I'll be referring to.

And finally, note that this is part 1. This will take you through making the stummel. The reason I chose to split this guide is that the stem requires a lathe, and not everyone has a lathe. If you don't have one, and you don't know a friend willing to let you use his, don't fret: There are many businesses that specialize in pipemaking materials and tools, but more to the point, pre-formed stems. If you go this route, you'll just have to make sure your mortise is drilled to the right depth and diameter for the stem you order. A good variety of different pre-formed stems can be found at

Step 1: What You'll Need

I'm covering wooden pipes. Traditionally, pipes are made from briar burl -- the dense ball of wood found just under the trunk (i.e. below the ground) of the Erica arborea bush that grows around the Mediterranean. However, this can be a little tricky to get: Since the briar bush only grows in specific habitats in a confined area of the Earth, harvesting activities are somewhat limited and professional manufacturers generally get the best wholesale deals. Translation: It can be pricey. Last time I checked, I think the typical rate was about $16/lb. I personally don't have any experience with briar, having never made a briar pipe to date.

The good news is, other wood species work just fine. Briar is the gold standard because as a material, it meets the heat tolerance demands, it's easy to carve, and it's pretty when finished. However, other woods can be just as heat tolerant as briar. As a rule of thumb, most any nonporous, relatively oil-free hardwood will work just fine. Cherry is a good example of something that works -- there are many professionally made cherry pipes sold in shops. Not to mention, it's good to have a suitable native species if you're inclined to harvest your own blocks! Oak is a good example of something that you shouldn't expect to work -- there are small pores running along the grain in oak that can cause problems in the chamber... You want air to be drawn into the chamber from the top, not from tiny holes in the bowl, because combustion will happen wherever oxygen is introduced to the already-working reaction (so the walls of the chamber will slowly burn away).

My personal favorites are olive, cherry, and argentine osage orange... in that order. As beautiful as osage is, it needs a lot of  "smoking in" to build up the char that blocks out the interfering flavors from the wood (which, unlike cherry, aren't very pleasant). Before I get to tools, I want to mention that although cocobolo would seem like a great pipe wood candidate, it can be risky. It's oily, and allergic reactions have been reported from its dust. The same holds for other rosewoods (or formally, species in the Dalbergia genus). You should always research a wood species you're curious about trying before you try it. Remember: Generally speaking, the only thing you want to draw is the byproducts of tobacco combustion, and nothing else. Although on the other hand, if you're smoking in the first place, you're probably not very concerned about health risks ;-)

OK, tools:
- A power drill (which would be useless without drill bits). It doesn't have to be a Milwaukee drill, but I personally love mine so I don't mind doing a little pro-bono advertising for Milwaukee here.
- A caliper (MUCH easier to use than a length of wire to guage depth)
- A compass (optional, but it can help with visual aids)
- A bandsaw
*If you don't have a bandsaw, a coping saw will actually work just fine. I've used one before when I didn't have access to a bandsaw and the only difference is that it takes a little longer to complete the cuts.
- At lease one knife suitable for carving. Pro bono advertising doesn't apply to Flexcut. I'd be happy to do some product placement for them here, but not without a check... or some more Flexcut knives.
- Sandpaper, from 80 to 400 grit.

Step 2: Planning

Let's talk about wood drying before I go into planning. Whenever you mill a starting block or cut into your stock for blanks, it's best to immediately seal the open surfaces... Blocks don't dry like boards. Namely, they dry a lot slower. And as blocks dry, they tend to develop splits. In order to preserve the wood the way it is when you get it (split free), you need to slow drying down to a crawl. I used to use a good thick coat of shellac for this (and it works fine) until I found a product called "green wood sealer." Alternatively, glue also does the trick. Now, the thinner any given piece of wood is, the faster it will dry. So as you get to drilling out your stummel and carving it down, the wood will dry relatively quickly even if you started with a very green block.

Ok, planning:

If you're using something like Argentine Osage or Olive, you probably bought it in bowl turning stock -- these blocks of wood usually come in dimensions like 6"x6"x3", 6"x6"x2", or 5"x5"x3", etc. If you're harvesting your own stock (like cherry, apple, etc.), these same block dimensions are ideal. They provide a good means of getting the most out of any particular piece of wood with minimal waste. For example, I cut 6"x6"x3" Argentine Osage blocks into three 6"x2"x3" pieces (IMPORTANT: It's best to cut in the direction of the grain... you'll see this in the pictures), each of which will yield four stummels. In the main picture for this step, you'll see how I mark out four "blanks" from each 6"x2"x3" section. In another picture, I've made grain orientation with respect to a finished stummel somewhat more clear.

Generally speaking, I mark out my stummel blanks about 1 1/2" long, and split the total length evenly between the bowl and the shank (so the shank is about 3/4" long and the bowl is about 3/4" long). In terms of height, you'll note that since this block is 3" wide, I used a midline of 1 1/2" and split the height difference between the bowl and shank +/- 1/4". If you're confused, the next step has some to-scale drawings to show the stummel blank measurements.

Step 3: Reference Marking the Blanks

Using a bandsaw (or a coping saw if a bandsaw isn't available), cut out the stummel blanks and immediately seal the surfaces.

The next step is to drill out the chamber, mortise, and airway. However, to make sure the holes meet, they need to be aligned. Generally, the best way to do this is to mark the center of the bowl and the center of the face of the shank so you'll know exactly where to start drilling. In addition, it's also good to mark out the desired depth of the chamber and mortise (which is where a caliper comes in handy). If you want, you can also trace the chamber and mortise around their centers with a compass.

To save yourself the extra carving and cramps that go along with it, you'll probably also want to cut some of the width away from the blank (which is why I included the red lines in the second drawing). Of course, that's not the only way to pre-cut the stummel blank -- you could turn the blank on its side and round the bottom if you wanted, or use a compass to draw a circle on the bowl face (instead of leaving it square). You'll see this in some of the pictures that follow.

Also included in the picture set for this step is a stummel blank I marked up prior to drilling. You'll note that my marks are just scratches in the surface sealer -- one of the reasons I like the waxy "green wood sealer".

Step 4: Drilling the Chamber, Mortise, and Airway

*IMPORTANT: Don't, I repeat don't use self-tapping drill bits. Once they have enough speed, they will drill themselves in as far as they can go, which can really screw up the bowl. I like standard bits... although Forstner bits will work, too (although they leave a flat surface at the bottom of the chamber, which is usually made round).

If you have marked your desired chamber and mortise depth on the side of the stummel blank, go ahead and confirm it with a caliper (if you have one). You can also use a piece of tape on your drill bits as a reference.

I like to drill out the chamber first, because it lets me know how long the airway needs to be (just keep drilling until the bit comes through the wall of the chamber). For the chamber, I like to use a 1/2" bit. Using a vice grip (with a towel to prevent denting the stummel blank) to hold the blank, I drill slowly with frequent stops to check for square trajectory and correct if needed. I also check the depth of the hole to make sure it'sdeep enough to meet the airway coming through the center of the shank, but mostly to keep myself from drilling too far.

I start a 1/4" pilot hole into the face of the shank for the mortise bit. Why? Because once a 1/2" drill bit starts to wander, it's difficult to bring it back in -- and the wobbling will make it difficult to fit a stem later (if the mortise is not exactly circular or awkwardly tapered for the tenon). Guage the depth of this pilot hole until it's about what you want for the mortise, and then drill out the mortise itself. I use a 1/2" bit for this, too. Note: If you are going to use a pre-formed stem, hold off on doing this until you have it and know the right depth and diameter to fit the tenon. If your tenon says it's 1/2" dia., and 1/2" long, start with a 7/16" bit and drill in 7/16" -- my point is, take your time to make sure you don't drill the mortise too big for your tenon.

The airway is the next to be drilled; and thankfully, the mortise itself gives a center to start. Just make sure the bit is well-aligned while you drill. I've found that 3/32" is a good size for this. The only problem I ever encounter with this step is that a standard 3/32" bit is quite short, meaning that you might have problems getting it to penetrate all the way through to the chamber: The drill chuck might hit the mortise opening, preventing the bit from going any farther... Although more often than not, I get it to work by simply sliding the bit farther up the chuck before tightening it down -- just have to be careful to leave enough contact area so the bit doesn't start to wobble and break (this has actually happened to me before, and I have yet to extract the broken bit from one of my stummel blanks). Alternatively, if you have drill bits with hex adapters on the bottom (for easily snapping into cordless screwdrivers), you can use a nut driver to finish the airway by hand.

A small-gage length of wire can serve to check how far in the airway goes, if your drill bit hasn't penetrated into the chamber as expected. Generally, when I have this problem, it just means I need to drill the chamber a little deeper. A complete opening from chamber to airway through the mortise can be verified by blowing into the mortise opening.

Once satisfied with the holes, I fire up the bandsaw again to shape down the stummel (shown in my drawing in the previous step). I like to wait until after I've at least drilled out the chamber and mortise before I make these cuts, since the holes themselves are obvious indicators of how far in I can cut without making the mortise walls dangerously thin.

Step 5: Carving Down the Stummel Shape

This part is entirely up to you! Using your knife/knives, remove material from the drilled out stummel until you're satisfied with its shape and size. Look at the picture on the previous step for a comparison (although note that the stummel on the right is almost finished -- sanded down to smooth out cutting marks).

You'll probably also want to carve out the chamber to make it a little wider. When you do this, start your knife on the endgrain side of the circle and shave away from the endgrain, following the curve of the circle. Don't try to shave off any more than 1/4 of the circle at a time, or your knife will likely find itself stopped in the opposing side. You'll get the hang of it and understand what I mean. I still accidentally shave too far and make this mistake -- it's inevitable, but a lot less frequent and a lot less ugly-looking if you just stay mindful of it.

Advice: It's very easy to finish a stummel and realize later that it's unnecessarily large. I've done this a couple times before, mostly from being overly cautious about how thick the wood needed to be. That, and I'll admit it's easy to get tired of carving and just wing it with something that's still too big. This is by far the most time consuming and labor-intensive part. To keep your thumbs from looking like mine (see picture), wrap them up in masking tape. It works. Believe it or not, they've actually looked worse -- with groups of very obvious lines etched into them from every single time my knife stopped on them.

Edited to add: Before you start sanding, start checking the fit between stummel and stem. If you ordered one, then you already have one on hand. If you're going to make your stem, then stop working on the stummel right here and go to Part 2: The Stem (a separate tutorial). You don't need to have literally finished your stem -- all that's important is that you have the tenon turned down to fit your mortise. You'll want to check this fit at the mortise opening to see if you're happy with how close the stem meets with the face of the shank. I'm a perfectionist, so it sometimes bugs me that there's about 1 mm or so of open space here (pros leave zero), but I cash in my chips with that for fear of turning a tight fit into a something so loose that I might as well turn down another stem. You'll also want to check to see if the shank is flush with the stem... sharp transitions can be unsightly. I pause here to mention this because you're more guaranteed of a good, nice-looking fit if you sand the stummel and stem together, rather than separately.

Step 6: Sanding Down the Stummel

I don't think this step needs a lot of elaboration. Just start with 80 grit to remove the cutting marks (unless you like the "rippled" appearance -- it's up to you!) and even out any asymmetry. With the 80 grit sandpaper, also try to make the shank near the mortise opening as close to circular as you possibly can. And finally, go ahead and sand down the chamber if you left any obvious tool marks.

At this point, don't be surprised if you see a very small split -- or two or three -- starting to develop on the outside of the bowl. Also, don't be discouraged by it. It's almost bound to happen, and it happens every time without fail whenever I start sanding down an Argentine Osage stummel. It's a natural result of having made the wood thinner and therefore able to dry quicker. The only way I know to curb this is to draw the carving and sanding processes out over a period of about two weeks so that wet parts of the wood are not suddenly opened up to room temperature air with (more of a concern) room air dryness. I also like to keep the stummels in a cardboard box or paper bag whenever I'm not actively carving or sanding them.

Anyway, whenever you see a split, fill it with super glue. It's no problem as long as the split is about hair-thick or smaller and doesn't go through to the chamber (i.e. don't put super glue on a surface that will be heated). Make sure you apply the super glue with a lead ahead of both ends of the visible split. This will ensure that the entire thing is sealed shut to keep it from emanating any further. Wait for the glue to dry, and continue sanding progressively finer. Check periodically for splits, glue them, and continue sanding. I like to go up to 400 grit, although 320 is just as good a place to stop.... Speaking of which, don't stop at 220! You're making your own pipe and it's a work of art, not a coffee table! Trust me, the difference is noticeable.

Step 7: Finishing

After you're done sanding, it helps to use some steel wool. Not really necessary, but I like to use it because sometimes it makes a slight difference. Of course, use a paper towel to wipe away any dust. If you didn't use any superglue, you can also rub the stummel down with acetone. I use a fine piece of cloth to kind of buff the stummel... does this help? I don't know, but I still like to do it.

Now, here's a fork in the road: If you have a lathe or some kind of buffing system that'll apply a hard protective wax to the surface, I'd advise using tung oil. If not, then shellac might be the best choice. In either case, stuff a napkin or piece of tissue paper into the chamber to keep your finish from seeping in.

For tung oil, simply follow the directions for the product you're using. I usually rub on a liberal coat and let it dry for 15 minutes, then come back with a clean, dry cloth, and buff it down. Then I apply a second coat and let the whole thing dry for about 12 hours before buffing it out on the lathe.

The reason I only recommend tung oil if you have something to put over it is that tung oil doesn't do a great job of keeping out dirt that will stain the stummel over time. I know this from experience. I haven't used shellac to finish a pipe yet, but I do know that it can be a satisfactory alternative to carnauba wax (if of course none is available).

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    4 years ago

    Nice work! Very well done.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you very much for your guide on how to create a Tobacco pipe. I am using it to make one myself. Among my tools is not a lathe. I consider purchasing a pre-made stem and creating a stummel. Do you think I can possibly shape the mortise of the stummel by hand to fit the pre-made stem tenon?


    9 years ago on Step 7

    do you think polyurethanewould work?


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 7

    polyurethane would not allow heat and moisture to escape and would kind of defeat the purpose of the wood. Just a small amount of bees wax from the hobby store would work or olive oil.


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 7

    Don't use olive oil as it does go rancid. I've read other places that mineral oil works.
    Great Instructable!


    9 years ago on Step 6

    The best way of which I know to prevent cracking is the same as used to prevent sprayed paint from bubbling: if you have a garage it will generally be quite cool and often will be more humid than another room whilst not being excessively humid.

    Neat 'ible, I will try this once I have some time on my hands, got a spare piece of iroko from another project which is a hard wood that should do nicely.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks -- as thorough as I thought I was, I think I forgot to mention that I keep most of the work in a non-climate controlled area (i.e. outdoor shed, garage, etc.) lol. But yes, you're absolutely right that humidity is your friend here.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you, I wanted to make ceramic pipes for ages, but always missed the rough sketch.

    Thanks for sharing mate :)

    The Rambler
    The Rambler

    9 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool. I have some maker friends that are into pipes that might enjoy this. I'll have to pass it on.