Carving a Pipe
We get asked often about how to make a pipe. Here are some instructions you can use to make your own — please contact us with any questions about the instructions. We would love to see what you have made. You can send pictures of your finished product to firstname.lastname@example.org .
1. Choosing the wood for the pipe stem
My favorite stem material is sumac because it has a soft core that can be pushed out with a coat hanger; it is easy to carve and it has beautiful colors.
Ash makes a beautiful stem, although it’s harder to push the core from. With ash, you’ll have to collect it while it’s green and burn it out immediately or buy the sticks already burned out. It’s a harder wood to carve but it has a lighter, almost white, color when you use young wood, suckers are great for stem material.
Most the pine, cedar, walnut, oak and other woods must be cut. First you would find a nice clean piece of wood a little thicker than you want your finished stem. Next, you’ll have to split the wood lengthwise with a table saw to run a gouge down the center, and then glue the two pieces back together. You will need something heavy to place on the stem while the glue dries. Craft claps work well the more you use the better. Be sure to put something under the clamps to protect your wood. Give your stem a day or twos to dry, and then you can begin carving.
2. Working with your stone
Each artist has a unique way of preparing themselves spiritual to work with stone, but it’s most important to go into the process with a relax, open heart. A pipe is easier to carve if you let go of any preconceived ideas and let it take you where it will.
When you choose the stone for your pipe, make sure to look for cracks, which might not be very visible. With our pipestone, you can wet the stone, where it has already been cut, and watch carefully while it dries to see if there’s a line that stays wet while the rest of the stone looks dry. Once you are sure the stone has no cracks and is the right size for what you are doing, the next step is to draw in pencil the outline of the pipe or effigy on the flattest side of the stone. (You can file the stone to make it easier to draw on, and you can erase pencil on stone with a piece of sand paper.)
3. Drawing and cutting out your pipe
Position the pipe so you can make the best use of the stone. If you are making a T-pipe or an elbow pipe, you can cut two T-bowls out of one piece of stone.
When you are ready to cut, be sure to cut straight in both directions. You can use a vise to keep the stone from moving, but be sure to leave enough extra stone to compensate for errors when cutting — but keep in mind the more space you leave for error, the more time you’ll have to spend filing off the excess. Go slowly and be careful works best.
After your pipe is cut out, use the course side of your rasp to round the pipe. (Some people prefer to leave the bottom flat so the bowl will stay upright by itself. Do what feels right for you.) Bowls can be any shape or style that you want, although most are round or oblong in shape. If you have a hard time getting the bowl the shape you want, it might help to draw the shape on the top of the bowl as a guide.
Once you’re satisfied with the shape, you can start drilling your pipe. Start with the 1/4 drill bit — the bit should be long enough to drill a little past the middle of the bowl when drilling from the back. Be especially careful when drilling to drill straight; stop and look from all sides. Back the drill out often and tap it to clean out the pipestone dust or your bit will bind and can break your pipe.
After drilling is successful, use a finer file to finish shaping and smoothing the pipe to get it ready to sand. You can start with the backside of the rasp and then switch to the smoothing file. (Rolling it slowly as you file it will make a round surface smoother.)
You’ll need to decide what to do with the front, or prow, of the pipe. It can be straight, tapered slightly or made to almost a point. Sometimes even effigies can be carved on this part of the pipe.
Once the pipe is ready to sand, use the courser paper to take out larger scratches, then use the wet and dry to finish sanding in water. Then it’s time to polish. Start by using either a pie pan or cookie sheet in the oven 350 F will work or in frying pan with water in it on a burner on high. Heat till the water boils and the pipe is evenly hot. You may want to turn the pipe every so often so it heats evenly. While you wait for the pipe to get hot, get a bowl large enough to fit the pipe and fill it with cold water — check to see if the pipe is hot enough by touching the wax to the stone; if it melts quickly it’s ready. When you pick up the pipe, hold it in the cloth and use the beeswax to rub on all surfaces of the pipe. When you have applied wax to all the surfaces, rub the pipe quickly and immediately put it into the water, which should be cold and will quickly cool the pipe and set the wax. After a few minutes the pipe should be cool, and you can remove the pipe and buff it with a soft cloth. Any cloth will do.
Tools and necessities
To make a pipe, you’ll need to round up the following tools, some of which you might already have but some you can probably also find at most hardware stores.
4. Carving and fitting your stem
You’ll need a few tools for carving your stem that you did not use on your pipe — some you can reuse. Carving your stem is possible without a wood plane but much easier with one. If you’re working with sumac, you’ll need a plane that has a rasp on the bottom.
Choose the stem length that you desire by cutting to length with a saw. Place the stick against a wood block to steady it, then hold onto with one hand while planing with the other. Keep planing until you have the basic shape. The back of the stem is the mouthpiece and the front of the stem will fit into the back of the pipe.
It is good to have a fitting block, which can be a scrap piece of pipestone with a hole drilled into it (3/8 -7/16- ½ inches). If you don’t have a piece of pipestone, you can use a piece of hard wood. We use this to fit the stem so you don’t break your pipe while cutting the end to fit into the stone bowl. Drill the whole for the fitting block the same as the one in your pipe bowl.
Use a knife or saw to cut through about a fourth of the way through the wood on each side of the stem about 1 ½ inches from the end that you smoke from. A file works well for this. And a wood rasp or pipe rasp works well to take out the gouges before you begin sanding. If you’re making a round stem, file across the grain of the wood rocking the stem from one side to the other while pushing the file across the stem.
Once the stem has the shape you desire, the next step is sanding. Sand with the grain of the wood. Start with a 100 or 200 grit and go down as fine as you dare. You can use beeswax to finish the stem, or you can use tongue oil, linseed oil, varnish, or any other wood finish. (We suggest using natural finishes rather than petroleum-based finishes.)
After your stem is done, choose what kind of decoration you might like. Some people continue to add to their stems throughout their use, but decorations can include carving, burning, inlaying, wrapped beadwork, peyote beadwork, leather, fur, feathers, paint or anything else.
Enjoy your pipe, and may it bring you many blessings.