Pipemaking: Stems

Youíll notice in the picture that the pipe doesnít look quite right yet. Firstly thereís no stem and secondly the shape isnít quite refined yet. There are good reasons for both. The first point is explained simply because I havenít made the stem yet. The second point is explained in that it is very important to get the right look between stem and pipe. The stem has to flow with the briar and it should end up looking whole. To illustrate this point I like to point to the freehands of the 70s. The style at the time was a kind of tree-stump-looking pipe with plateau surface on the rim of the bowl and the shank. In nine times out of ten with these pipes youíll see an overly complex pre-made Lucite stem stuck on the end. To make matters worse in many cases the step where the tenon was cut was not even sanded down and was simply left making a bad situation even worse.

I donít have anything against these kinds of pipes, and if done well they can be stunning. At the same time there seem to be so many cases of poor bowl / shank continuity that they just ask to be used as an example of what I dislike in stem work.

In making a stem I first eyeball how much stem material Iíll need to balance the pipe. Having a stem that is too long or short, even by a quarter inch will greatly affect the balance of the pipe. Iíve remade more than one stem for the reason that it was just a fraction too long or too short.

Once I have decided how long the stem will be I chuck the material in either my three-jaw scrolling chuck or my four-jaw independent chuck. The three-jaw works wonderfully for round stock like Cumberland, Ebonite and Bakelite while the four-jaw is great for rectangular Lucite and for drilling material off-centre. In this case Iíve used a three-jaw scrolling chuck.

The first step once the stem material is chucked up is to is to face it on the lathe. From there I do one of two things. If Iím planning on leaving the stem as is I take the stem out of the chuck and clean up the face with a lapping plate using 600 grit sandpaper. If Iím planning on adding to the stem as I am in this case I make sure the addition to the stem is completely flat on one side Ė using the lapping plate and 220 grit - and glue it to the stem material. You can see that this stem has been completed in the picture below.

The next step is to drill the stem material and glue in the Delrin tenon. I drill the stem using a High Speed Steel (HSS) taper bit for the airway, a 5/16 Brad point bit for the Delrin tenon and a HSS 1/16 standard twist drill bit from the bit side. For more detailed info on drilling and gluing Delrin take a look at my FAQ page.

From this point I shape the stem on the lathe, disk sander and belt sander. A handy tip is to leave the 1/16th drill bit in the hole do you can judge the direction of the air passage and it also gives you a good idea of how much material you have before you sand into the airway. Not something Iíd recommend! Iíve found that during shaping a belt sander works extremely well for shaping the bit.

Once the stem is shaped and just before final sanding I cut the slot using a small Dremel saw then I widen the airway using a 3/64th HSS drill bit again on the Dremel flex shaft.

From there I use needle files and sandpaper to finish the interior of the bit. At this point the stem is ready for heating and bending. Iíve found that after years of using a candle to heat up my stems that a heat gun works much better. Once the stem is bent itís time for final sanding and wet sanding of both pipe and stem before staining and buffing.