Tinder Box

Living history resource for Museums Auckland Hamilton


 Clay to  Smoking Pipe. 

    Clay pipe store        Online store          More crafts!         Information           Home

Want to learn   how  clay smoking pipes are made?   You have come to the right place! You can also   buy clay pipes   from my  pipe stock if you wish. Or   book a demonstration   of  traditional pipe making for your  Heritage Festival or museum where your visitors can watch and discuss pipe making with the Tinder Box pipe maker as clay is rolled and put into a mold, compressed by the gin press and formed into clay pipes. Here too you will find interesting   Historical facts about pipes  and tobacco.   
gin pressed pipe

   The Pakuranga Toastie - available  from the  Tinder box pipe store

the austhor making pipes on a gin press
The author  making pipes

Clay smoking pipes -  The Process

My interest is in the history of clay pipe manufacture and  traditional method of pipe making by gin press, and hand pressing methods and, yes,  I do make  pipes for sale - visit the Tinder Box Clay  Pipe Store.

Since the process of pipe making is no longer carried on commercially,  I have had to research the process and build my own equipment. The process has proved rewarding, but the path was not easy.  I was attracted by the challenge of making a hollow stemmed article with such a fine bore and it is fair to say that the church warden pipe caught my eye as a challenge! How did they do it I wondered!   I brought to the process  the knowledge of  a potter, the ability of an amateur carpenter, a degree of a lateral thought, the willingness to learn -  the last, in my experience sets one half way to success, that and patience.

 My first attempts were at hand - pressing  with a wooden  two piece mold of my own construction and a vice.  What I learned was this:  Quite heavy pressure is required to press  clay into a mold! The mold needs point(s) of escape for excess clay. But everything begins with good pipe making clay
Richard Lees 16/7/2004

Clay preparation for clay smoking pipes.

The process of making clay pipes begins with the acquisition or preparation of a good clay. Historically the preparation of clay for smoking pipes, unlike pottery clay preparation was not done with pug mills. The clay for clay pipes was  processed in small volume and once the obvious impurities (stones twigs etc.) had been removed the clay was broken down with iron bars, slaked, part dried and worked up into a good consistency.
Today prepared clays are readily available from pottery suppliers and these have the advantage of being impurity free, having a known firing temperature, the desired fired colour and scientifically tested so that warpage and distortion is unlikely. Prepared clay comes in plastic bags of about 20 to 25 kilograms weight.  If you are considering making pipes ascertain from the clay supplier,  the firing temperature range and ask to see a fired sample to ascertain the colour of the fired clay. You will  probably want a white earthenware clay that fires to about 1100C, but do not disregard terracotta, this gives a reddish brown pipe and certainly pipes were made in this clay too. Traditionally pipes were fired at approximately 900C, 1650F. But there are reasons you might want to have a higher firing clay. More about firing later.
I have found – as a potter, that purchasing clay from a supplier is the easiest way to acquire clay for the making of my “clays” as clay pipes are called. This is not to say that preparing a local clay is not possible or indeed enjoyable, but I would advise the beginner to start with proven materials and lessen the chances of failure.  I make my Pakuranga Toasties from 'out of the ground clay' - not bought clay.  Next step : the tools for making clay pipes

The Gin Press: a tool for making clay smoking pipes

In the gin  press method of pipe making, pipes are pressed in a two- piece mold using a gin press. The word ‘gin’ is defined as: hoisting apparatus, kind of crane or windlass, machine for separating cotton from its seeds, a device. The gin press is a lever device that applies pressure into the clay in the  mold through a stopper. I have built two gin presses; a gin press is not a difficult to build. If you are aiming for authenticity, the most difficult part is constructing the vice that will clamp the two parts of the mold together.  Alignment of stopper, mold and vice is critical to the satisfactory production of a pipe; get it wrong and the stopper will wear your mold. The Tinder Box Pakuranga toastie, White gin pressed pipe and Pakuranga marbled pipes areall  made on a gin press
gin press for clay smoking pipes

Gin Press

(A) the lever,  (B) the bench, (C)  the stopper arm,  (D) the stopper,  (E)  the vice. (F) the lever pivot point

gin press detail  

Gin press detail

Showing: vice with clamped mold,stopper arm down and stopper in the mold

Pipe making tools

pipe making tools
(left) metal rib for fettling, two  piece mold,
(top) stopper, middle cut-off wire
(bottom)   rod

The clay smoking pipe  molds

The first  molds were made of wood, brass and later, cast in iron. It is not easy to acquire original pipe making molds - wooden or cast iron they are museum pieces - I am unable to assist you  in acquiring a mold . The original pipe molds can occasionally be bought at auction but they are expensive. Mold making is a specialised process. I made my molds from hard wood and they have served to teach me the process and given me much pleasure. They are not as good as the original cast iron molds which I have had the pleasure of using, but they produce pipes that are adequate for demonstrating the process.

pipe mould and stopper

24/8/2006 An  original mold
At last!  I am now in possession of a reproduction pipe mold and stopper which I have had made from an original that I was leant by a generous benefactor and which produces good  gin pressed pipes. 

The mold is in two parts, each piece being half a pipe longitudinally. The mold has ‘natches' (keys) which are points that hold the  mold parts together in alignment – these are protrusions on one face of the mold that fit into matching hollows on the face of the other part of the mold At the stem end of the mold there is an access way for a brass or steel rod or wire for piercing the pipe roll. This rod is approximately 1.5 to 2 mm in diameter. At thetop of the bowl end of the mold is a slot,  this is  where the surplus clay is extruded as the stopper is forced down by the gin press arm into the top of the bowl part of the mold. After pressing this surplus clay is cut off the top of the pipe  giving a clean bowl top.  With the tools and the clay assembled the  making process can begin

The clay smoking pipe making process.

Prepared clay pieces of the right size for the mold are rolled into balls. These balls of clay will later be made into ‘rolls’. In practice the balls are not weighed out but determined by ‘size’. I know from experience that a ball of clay for  my mold is a ball of a size that can be contained between my index finger and the tip of my thumb and I make these clay balls quickly by shaping them to this measure for this mold.

ball of clay for making into roll

A ball of the right size for my  mold

roll for  pipe mould

The clay balls are rolled into ‘rolls'. These rolls are  thinner at one end than the other
A roll prepared for the  mold, the mold is lubricated and the roll is laid in one part of the two piece mold the thin end of the roll being bent into the stem shaped end of the mold  A roll is pierced with a thin rod along the part of the roll that will become the stem, care being taken not to pierce the entire roll. The second part of the mold is pressed down by hand on top of the first. It is usually  necessary to remove this piece of the mold and fettle away the excess clay before repositioning the mold so that the two pieces of the mold come together as one with no space between them.

roll with rod in placed in mould

Roll in the mold. Note the rod is not pressed right home.

mould clamped in  vice

The mold - aligned by the ‘keys’  which fit tightly together, is put into the vice on the gin press and the vice tightened.

The stopper is lubricated and positioned in the hole in the top of the mold. The gin press lever is pulled down forcing the stopper into top of the  mold and pushing clay throughout the mold This hollows the bowl. Excess clay is extruded out through the  slot (the slot is seen just above the vice in the photograph) If there is a spur release, excess clay is extruded here as well  - (not all  molds have a spur). The stopper is withdrawn and the excess clay cut away at the slot.

cutting of surplus clay from top of mould

Cutting off the  extruded clay with wire tool at the slot
The rod is now pushed through the final short distance to join the stem with the now hollowed out bowl.
The mold is removed from the vice and - if there is a spur release, the excess clay  under the mold is trimmed away. The pipe is removed from the mold and the rod withdrawn. The pipe is set aside to dry. Racks, called dozening boards are sometimes used to hold the ‘greenware’ pipes.

As the pipe dries it will become very fragile and care must be exercised in handling it.


Fettling is the process of removing unwanted 'seam' clay from the pipe. Where the two parts of the  mold join a seam, or part of a seam, is left on  the pipe. The removal of seam clay  improves the appearance of the pipe. However, as mentioned earlier it is very easy to break the greenware pipe especially during fettling. The seam clay runs along the length of the pipe. In addition to removing seam clay, the top of the bowl may be fettled to give a smooth appearance. The spur beneath the bowl is sometimes removed. It is a matter of personal preference, I prefer to leave the spur intact. Once the pipe is dry it is ready for  firing.

Firing clay smoking pipes - turning raw clay  pipes to pottery

To give durability to clay pipes they need to be fired. Pipes may be fired through a pottery group or sympathetic potter, but you should expect to pay for the process. If you have access to a kiln you may fire the pipes yourself, but you will need to know  how to do it, or enlist the help of a potter. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the firing process in detail. However, some points are worth mentioning.  When the pipe is dry to the touch it will have shrunk between 5 and 8 percent.  ‘Dry to the touch’ clay still contains between 20 to 25 % water. During firing this water called - water of crystalisation - will be driven off. It is necessary to drive this water off slowly or the pipes will be blown apart by escaping steam. 100c is the boiling point of water and therefore the first part of the firing to this temperature is slow – several hours. Gradually the temperature is increased over 8 - 9 hours until the final temperature is reached. You may wish to fire your pipes to 900C, this will give a “bisque” pipe. The fired clay will be porous as in a ‘biscuit’ and may adhere to the lips. Waxing of the stem can prevent this adhesion. Pipes fired to this temperature will have achieved some strength but may be easily broken. 900c - 960C is the traditional firing temperature for pipes. Pipes fired to a higher temperature ( 1100C) will be stronger and may become vitrified depending on the clay , but may damage the teeth! Your choice!.

Having achieved the desired temperature, the kiln is shut down and left to cool, a process that may take one or two days depending on the kiln.

* Note on mold design. Clay shrinkage is a factor in  mold design: the  mold needso be about 30% larger than the finished product!

Finishing the pipe

Once the pipe is fired, a coloured sealing wax or varnish can be applied to the  last inch or so of the pipe. This is to seal the stem so that it does  not suck onto the lip in the case of a bisque fired (low fired )  pipe. . Pipes were traditionally packed in wooden boxes for sale. I prefer to twice fire my pipes, the second firing giving a glazed tip -  like the finish on a cup or plate

Historical  facts about pipes

There has been  conjecture about the origin of the spur - the protrusion below the bowl of the pipe. I found, in hand-pressing -  it was necessary to have a vent to release the excess clay  beneath the bowl - which leaves a spur -  this vent served this function very well. It seems to me that the spur remains  a hangover from the first hand pressed pipes, before the advent of the Gin press.

Bowl  size in  New Zealand 1847
Brown and Campbell advertised  5 cases of pipes; large bowl, for sale by auction in  The New Zealander newspaper, 7th  of March edition in 1847. Who were these 'large bowl pipes for? It traspires small bowl pipes were for trade with, or sale to, the natives. Large bowl pipes were for the europeans.  When one considers that trade might include ' x number of  pipes and x pipes fulls of tobacco, it was inthe interests of the trader to have small bowled pipes!
It  cost him less in tobacco


  Tobacco plant grown by the pipemaker tobacco flower dried tobacco leaf -cured by the pipemaker

Tobacco plants have an attractive pink flower. It is said of  tobacco that the seed from one plant is enough to grow an entire crop. The seed is tiny 

Cavendish tobacco was imported in cases,  negrohead tobacco in casks or kegs. Tobacco was also sold as figs - the amount being approximate in size to a 'fig'.  Honey- dew tobacco was  advertised  for sale in The New Zealander  in Auckland at 4 shillings a pound in 1852 and described  as 'The best in town.''

Tobacco and cigars were available  at the wharf store, Auckland in 1852,  which also sold  sail needles, marine stores, fishing line, hooks and men's watertight and blucher boots, groceries and " a variety of goods too numerous to particularize, but which will be sold at extremely low prices  to meet the  depression of the times."

Tobacco was seen growing in New Zealand by Bidwill at Rotorua in 1839. The seed from one plant is sufficient for an entire crop.
Copyright RPL  11/2/2007

Top of page