Pipe smoking is an iconic symbol of our heritage, an act that has characterised politicians, actors and authors alike. Some of the most prominent names in British and world history have been known to indulge in a bowl of tobacco from their favourite pipe. Smoking a pipe is something that has symbolised class and elegance for generations and continues to retain its popularity event today. In this article, we look to uncover the history of wooden smoking pipes and to understand better how they are produced at the present day.
A Brief History
The exact origins of the wooden smoking pipe are hard to place, despite their presence across the continents, the first appearance of the pipe has not been able to be accurately recorded. The first pipes to be discovered in Europe date back to roughly 500BC, these were made from wooden stems or reeds. The first devices were used to inhale smoke from campfires, although this evolved to being a typical smoking pipe thanks to the Romans and Greeks. The pipes were also popular with Germanic and Celtic peoples as they used the devices to smoke herbs and leaves, such as those from the Linden tree.
Despite this early conception, the tobacco plant wasn’t available in Europe until the late 15th century thanks to the discovery by Christopher Columbus during his expedition to America. Soon after this major discovery, the first manufacturing of smoking pipes began, mostly being made of clay. Throughout the second half of the seventeenth century, tobacco evolved from being in the powdered form which was often snuffed, into the newer form of smoking tobacco. Unsurprisingly, the manufacture of smoking pipes massively increased to accommodate new demand for these devices.
The most commonly found wooden pipe nowadays is made of briar, the wooden root of the white heath tree. The origin of the use of briar leads to a story of a pipe maker from France heading on a pilgrimage to Napoleon’s birthplace in Corsica. Unfortunately, during his journey, his favoured meerschaum pipe broke rendering it unusable. The pipe maker asked a local farmer to carve him a new pipe, when the farmer returned, the pipe maker was presented with a beautifully carved product made from briar.
The pipe maker took samples of the wood back to France with him to implement this new wood into his own pipe making processes. However, to fully prepare the wood, the pipe maker needed to boil it in water for several hours to remove sap and resin, he then dried the wood for up to two years.
Nowadays, we are thankful that manufacturing has advanced at an astounding pace. However, for many pipe makers, it is important that they pay homage to their heritage. Many will opt for purely handmade, or part machine, part handmade products, allowing them to retain control over every step of the process.
The start of the process sees a block of briar wood cut to form a rough pipe shape, with one large block for the bowl and one smaller for the shank. This piece is then carved using a machine or with a lathe and chisel to more closely resemble a bowl. The hole in the centre of the bowl is then bored, ensuring that the edges maintain a consistent thickness.
The next step is to slim down the stem using a lathe and chisel again while marking the centre so that it is ready for drilling. The shape is then finalised, either by hand or by using a sanding machine to sand down any rough corners or edges.
Next is the mouthpiece, made out of a hard rubber called vulcanite, it is shaped to reflect and oval and carved down to the final size. The tenon is also formed and then the piece is left to be fired. The hot vulcanite is then removed and shaped while warm, giving it the signature bend of a pipe. This step is unnecessary for mouthpieces that aren’t curved. Finally, the wooden part of the pipe is buffed to remove any scratches and to bring out the colour of the briar. Depending on the brand, there may be additional steps to consider, such as marking the pipes with branding or adding decorative metal fixtures.
Make sure you’ve got the best pipes and the best Ashton pipe tobacco for smoking! We stock a great range of tobacco that will provide hours of enjoyable smoking. For more information on pipes and tobacco smoking, why not check out our blog here?