Vermont Freehand Pipe Kit Review

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VT (Vermont) Freehand Pipe Kit

Vermont Freehand Pipe Kit
Vermont Freehand Pipe Kit

Today’s review is somewhat different. In fact, it has all the hallmarks of a pictorial article rather than an actual review – I mean, can you actually review a block of briar? Sort of!

Warning this post is picture heavy!

I’ve made a few pipes, but that was many years ago and none were briar. I’m not sure why, but since I started smoking a pipe (again), I have had this overwhelming desire to make a “proper” pipe. I say make loosely – I currently don’t have the machinery required to bore out the smoking chamber or draft hole (I’m working on it!). So I’d have to pick up a predrilled block which would serve as a creative carving platform. Its a small enough compromise to make when you can’t do everything yourself, and in all honesty, shaping the pipe gives me the greatest pleasure, so with that decided, I searched the web for a pipe kit.

ebay has a good selection of briar blocks – some predrilled, some not. Briar strummel’s are usually advertised as either plateaux or ebauchon. Generally, but not always, most predrilled blocks are plateaux and they are beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, a lot of predrilled plateaux’s end up as freehand pipes and these are ideal for beginners. They are often quite large, thus plenty of wood to work with – which is always a good thing. Freehand means just that. You don’t require a lathe to turn it – shaping can be accomplished with a fairly basic set of hand tools.

Freehand pipes don’t need to adhere to strict rules either, each creation is unique to the artisan. Furthermore, the natural plateaux burl adds an interesting visual dimension. Once the thin layer of bark is removed, it reveals a pleasing series of natural lumps and divots which is characteristic of a lot of freehand pipe art. Danish freehand pipes are renowned for this.

On the other hand, ebauchon’s are pre-cut into basic pipe shapes and have the plateaux completely removed. This type is used for more conventional, or should I say traditional pipe designs, and in all reality, require machining to ensure the thing looks right and in proportion from every conceivable angle. Predrilled examples can be found, but most are not – if you are new to pipe making I would think twice about starting with a ebauchon block, drilled or not!

Plateaux briar block
Plateaux briar block

Anyway, searching ebay I came across VT (Vermont) Freehand, a company run by Steve Norse, a Vermont, USA, based pipe maker and briar supplier. At the time (January 2013) he had a large selection of Algerian briar up for auction and it wasn’t long before I found a piece I fancied carving up! A big ole lump around 11cm (4 inches or so) long, with a huge 5cm (2 inch) smoking chamber. To cut a long story short, after a bit of frenetic bidding activity, I ended up winning #14! Steve posted it the same day and 10 days later it arrived in the UK.

That is one big old chunk of briar!
That is one big old chunk of briar!
Draft Hole
Draft Hole

As can be seen from picture below, the block arrived with a freehand style vulcanite stem. The mouthpiece is a pre-moulded example and requires finishing, i.e. sanding and polishing (more on that later). I should add, the block and stem was professionally packaged and protected by foam peanuts for its transatlantic journey. The drilled holes are clearly marked on one side (with a marker pen) which is a useful guide (what you can and can’t do when shaping) and the draft hole met the bottom of the smoking chamber perfectly.

A good quality vulcanite mouthpiece is included, though it requires finishing
A good quality vulcanite mouthpiece is included, though it requires finishing
The mortise depth is about 10mm (6/16 inch) and will take a tenon about 8mm in diameter (5/16 inch). I hand sanded the tenon for a snug, but not too tight fit
The mortise depth is about 10mm (6/16 inch) and will take a tenon about 8mm in diameter (5/16 inch). I hand sanded the tenon for a snug, but not too tight fit

While I figured out how I wanted to shape the block I decided to remove the bark, give it a light sanding and a coat of extra virgin olive oil (to bring out the grain).

I used a dental pick to remove the burl bark and finished it with a brass wire brush
I used a dental pick to remove the burl bark and finished it with a brass wire brush

Removing the bark was easier than I imagined. Initially, I used a dental pick and then progressed to a rotary tool with a small brass wire brush attachment. Set to low speed (10,000 RPM on my model) the wire brush didn’t mark the briar beneath and really speeded up the removal.

I planned on breaking in the pipe during the carving process so sealed off the holes to prevent sucking up a mouthful of dust and woody deposits.

Sanding was performed by hand (600 grit) and finished with a fine grade wire wool (000 as opposed 0000).

Bark fully removed, a basic sand and oil, ready for breaking in
Bark fully removed, a basic sand and oil, ready for breaking in

For the time being that was that. I wanted to experience smoking a gigantic block of briar prior to removing any substantial wood and I’m glad I did. The virgin briar really added a sweet woody essence to the smoke.

Pipe making requires a lot of thinking time!
Pipe making requires a lot of thinking time!

This wasn’t going to be a fast cut, sand and polish project, I would take my time while I decided on the design I’d wanted to achieve. The “design” would ultimately change as the project progressed.

I was going to keep it large and go for a fan pipe – loathed by some pipe makers for the sheer lack of imagination with this type of styling. I quite like them and while I agree they look rather weird, the grain on these pieces can often be spectacular. My wedge shaped block had good straight grain on one side and an interesting flame grain on the other, coupled with its natural form, it had all the makings of a fan.

Another bowl of tobacco would be needed whilst I mulled it over.

I took my ideas to paper. “I’m going to go for something in between”, I said to myself. Something that feels good in the hand, but retains the natural form and as much of the wood as possible – a well insulated bowl makes for a cool smoke right?

I took a pencil to the block to keep my head and hands in sync. Just a few basic lines as I moved through the various stages – no technical drawings, barring “rough” air hole alignment.

Tools/equipment required: a small hacksaw, files, sandpaper, a cordless hand sander and a foldable workmate bench. Later joined by a rotary tool and attachments for finer work.

Shaping
Shaping
I used pencil marks to guide me throughout the sanding process
I used pencil marks to guide me throughout the sanding process
Starting to take shape
Starting to take shape

To get some basic shape to the front and back I sawed off the corners with a hacksaw – this was it – no turning back now. With these slivers removed it already started to look more like a pipe. I saved one of the larger pieces and made a small half plateaux tamper with it which serves as a reminder of my first cut!

A small tamper made from the original block
A small tamper made from the original block

I then worked the base and lower sides with a cordless sander (rough grit) until the battery went flat, then a file. With light dwindling outside (yes, I worked this entire project outside in winter temps due to the dust issues), I retired for the evening.

A few blemishes marked up for sanding
A few blemishes marked up for sanding

Next morning I was back in business and raided the shed for an electric sander to speed up the shaping (a rasp could be used, but requires more time and physical effort). Because the sides of the block were straight the strummel remained clamped into the bench, but as the curves developed a lot of shaping had to be done by hand. Professional pipe makers use a wooden or metal rod clamped into a vice and firmly inserted into the smoking chamber – that way shaping can continue without restriction.

On a health and safety note, due to the dust and flying debris it is recommended to wear a mask and eye protection at all times. Gloves optional.

Many hours elapsed. The pipe was taking shape, slowly.

Early stages of rounding the bowl
Early stages of rounding the bowl
Big improvement in shape definition
Big improvement in shape definition
Due to the natural shape of the original block the pipe is slightly lopsided
Due to the natural shape of the original block the pipe is slightly lopsided
Looking like a pipe?
Looking like a pipe?

At this stage a more refined approach would be required. I needed to move on to a rotary tool and dispense with the hardcore power tools.

Using a rotary tool is a revelation when it comes to pipe making. The small sanding drums are perfect for intricate work and with these attachments, some good old fashioned elbow grease and lots of sandpaper the block had transformed into an actual pipe.

I added some definition to the rim in the form of a crown
I added some definition to the rim in the form of a crown
Getting there! Later I sanded the base flat so that it would sit without falling over
Getting there! Later I sanded the base flat so that it would sit without falling over
The lopsided block is evident in this picture
The lopsided block is evident in this picture
Way too nose heavy - needs more wood off!
Way too nose heavy – needs more wood off!
Not happy with this look...
Not happy with this look…

My original plan was to keep the plateaux in one sweeping motion, but I quickly tired of this look. I used the sanding drums to separate and define the bowl from the shapeless shank (mouthpiece end), but kept the crown like rim on both sections.

The result can be seen in the photos below. I think you’ll agree it looks much better this way.

... so I removed a section of plateaux
… so I removed a section of plateaux
I think that looks better
I think that looks better
Crown shape rim
Crown shape rim

One thing should be mentioned when working with briar is the imperfect nature of individual roots. I was quite fortunate that I didn’t have too many issues with major sandpits, cracks or blemishes. Sure enough when nearing the cut off point I discovered a couple of black dots that opened up into a small void which necessitated a hefty sanding session to remove completely, but that is the nature of briar. It can be frustrating and sometimes impossible to avoid especially if you have good shape and then a sandpit is unveiled, filling is an option, but not one I like.

Common issues when working with briar are sandpits. Fortunately these weren't too deep and sanded out
Common issues when working with briar are sandpits. Fortunately these weren’t too deep and sanded out

VT Freehand supplies good quality Algerian briar and using my block as an example I would definitely recommend this briar – its good quality, has a distinct red colour and is a pleasure to work.

Sanding complete - for the time being!
Sanding complete – for the time being!

With the final shape just about there, I moved onto the vulcanite mouthpiece. Vulcanite is basically a hard rubber and not the easiest to finish to a high sheen without a low RPM buffing machine. I removed the mould marks with fine grade sandpaper, wire wool and finally the finest grade silicon carbide wet and dry paper I had, to remove the fine scratches. I do not recommend using a rotary tool for any of this work, as the RPM is too high (even at the lowest setting) and the surface will burn and leave unsightly marks. When sanding a sulphur aroma will become apparent as sulphur is used in the manufacturing process – it is mixed, heated and pressed together with latex rubber to form the finished product: vulcanite.

For final polishing I used a combination of metal polish glits, toothpaste and an electric toothbrush! Proper cutting compounds, can of course be used, as can plastic scratch removers, but I didn’t have any, so I worked with what I had to hand. Funnily enough they work quite well. No way is the finish as glossy as can be achieved with a buffing machine, but not bad at all considering.

The vulcanite stem sanded and polished by hand (with the exception of an electric toothbrush!)
The vulcanite stem sanded and polished by hand (with the exception of an electric toothbrush!)

After a series of sanding refinements and with the pipe nearing completion, thoughts turned to staining and waxing. I considered a contrast stain (black and red) for the body and pure black for the plateaux, but ended up going for a basic natural finish as the grain popped out dynamically, nude, so to speak.

Rotary tool and attachments used. Plus a lump of Carnauba wax and safety glasses
Rotary tool and attachments used. Plus a lump of Carnauba wax and safety glasses

So I purchased a block of Carnauba wax from ebay, the traditional finish for tobacco pipes. This is a very hard friction wax with a high melting point 82–86 °C (180–187 °F) so as the name implies it requires friction (heat) to apply successfully. I used a rotary tool (lowest RPM setting as always) with a soft nylon brush to apply it to the surface of the briar, using a circular motion and a small amount of pressure to melt it. The nylon brush doesn’t scratch the hard wood, but if you are concerned don’t use it! Felt polishing wheels are not any good for this job – they clog too readily and the small surface area will burnish the finish.

Again, rotary tools are very useful for this type of work, but come with associated risks. It is all too easy to ding the wood with the spinning chuck – I know I did it – slow methodical action is required.

Before waxing...
Before waxing…
... and after
… and after

I applied three coats of wax with a few minutes drying time between each. The glossy shine evident in the photo above. A quick hand polish with a micro fibre cloth brought out even more lustre.

The pipe was finished… almost. Now that the bowl looked so good I thought the plateaux was a bit too rustic for this style of pipe and as there was the promise of some gorgeous birdseye grain laying beneath, out came the sanding drums again.

I tried to keep the calabash looking rim flow as nature intended, so decided against squaring the top, though I did need to remove a fair amount of undulation. Likewise, I removed the plateaux where the mouthpiece enters the shank and shaped it to create a leaf like feature.

The plateaux top had to go!
The plateaux top had to go!
Initial sanding. Still a bit lumpy
Initial sanding. Still a bit lumpy
I removed the plateaux on this piece with sanding drums
I removed the plateaux on this piece with sanding drums
I tried to keep the natural lines wherever possible
I tried to keep the natural lines wherever possible

I then proceeded to remove the original wax coating with wire wool and reworked the surface completely with silicon carbide paper. The result was a near perfect finish (better than before).

Final sanding
Final sanding
Wire wool and silicon carbide paper (used dry) provides a silky smooth finish
Wire wool and silicon carbide paper (used dry) provides a silky smooth finish

The final modification came courtesy of VT Freehand and a tortoiseshell effect acrylic mouthpiece, which finishes off the pipe nicely (not that there was anything wrong with the vulcanite, I just like the look). Aesthetically, the mouthpiece would benefit from a mid way bend (which can be accomplished with a heat gun), but I appreciate the ease and convenience of a free running pipe cleaner more so.

The original vulcanite stem, plus the new fancier one
The original vulcanite stem, plus the new fancier one

I reapplied a generous amount of wax and polished to a glassy sheen. Admittedly, the shine doesn’t last that long if handled regularly and/or smoked, but its easy enough to refinish.

Polished and fitted with original vulcanite mouthpiece
Polished and fitted with original vulcanite mouthpiece
Polishing (excuse the weirdo gloves)
Polishing (excuse the weirdo gloves)
Hard to believe that shape came out of a block
Hard to believe that shape came out of a block
I'm glad I removed the plateaux - just look at that birdseye grain!
I’m glad I removed the plateaux – just look at that birdseye grain!
Glossy shine
Glossy shine
I used a soft nylon brush to apply the wax
I used a soft nylon brush to apply the wax
Awesome grain pattern on the base!
Awesome grain pattern on the base!
I tried to keep the shape organic
I tried to keep the shape organic

I think the pipe turned out quite well (even if I do say so myself). I was able to explore a number of different techniques and found ways around problems by using different tools or just “stuff” I had laying around. There is always room for improvement – looking back I would have done a few things differently, but when all said and done, the time had come to stop fiddling and just leave it as is.

The finished product!
The finished product!

My ultimate aim was to produce a totally freehand expression, inspired by my admiration for illustrious pipe makers such as Axel Reichert. I never intended, or could at this juncture, produce a millimetre perfect symmetrical masterpiece, so with that in mind, I’m happy – it turned out better than I thought.

The most important thing is that it smokes wonderfully and by way of a bonus it was a thoroughly enjoyable project to complete.

If you fancy making a pipe be sure to check out VT Freehand’s Pipe Kits. For more information surf over to Vermont Freehand on Facebook.

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