pipe making on a gin press historical method


Make clay tobacco pipes, How?  How did they get the hole down the stem to meet with the bowl!  And smoking pipes made of clay?  Wouldn’t they break?  In 1995, I set myself the task of learning how to make a clay smoking pipe.

Early days.

Researching the process and defining the equipment was slow but ultimately rewarding. Because clay tobacco pipe making equipment cannot be bought off the shelf, this was a problem. However, I brought to the process the knowledge of a potter, the ability of an amateur carpenter, a degree of a lateral thought and willingness to learn – the last, in my experience sets one half way to success, that and patience and a small book (see  footnote  Recommended  reading).

First Tinderbox clay pipe.

By late 1995 I was ready. I had made a mold and pressed clay into a two-piece wooden mould of my own construction. As a result, I achieved my first pipe. Because I had not yet built a gin press my pipe was pressed by my own hand – difficult as it takes pressure to do. Now people buy my Tinderbox clay tobacco smoking pipes online.

Examples of pipes made by the gin pressed method – one of several method Tinderbox used to make pipes

first tinderbox pipe 1995

The first Tinderbox pipe made in 1995

The first Tinderbox pipe made in 1995 hand pressed no gin press.

Subsequently, I made more pipes by other methods. The result is  I have many pipes for sale. For example the classic  Victorian straight straw. tobacco smoking pipe

However, this page is concerned with pipes made by the original  gin pressing method. So let us direct our attention to that methodology.

Pipes made by the gin pressed method 
gin pressed pipe,

Tinderbox Pakuranga toastie added to inventory 2004

White earthenware gin pressed pipe introduced 2004

Pakuranga marbled introduced 2006

This is an example of  one of the Tinderbox pipes made by another method
classic pipe

Victorian straight introduced in 1998

 Model for mold made from original pipe fragments

Clay preparation for clay smoking pipes.

Clean, well prepared clay – that is what is needed for clay tobacco pipes.

Historical method of clay preparation.

Historically pipe clay preparation was a manual process: removal of impurities, stones and twigs, breaking down with iron bars, slaking in water, part drying and working up to a ‘pressable’ consistency.

Modern clays.

Today prepared clays are available from pottery suppliers and have the advantage of being impurity free, a known firing temperature, desirable fired colour and are scientifically tested so that warpage and distortion are unlikely.

Where to buy clay.

Firstly, purchasing clay from a pottery supplier is the easiest way to acquire clay for the making of my “clays” as clay tobacco pipes are called.  However, 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. Moreover, the chances of failure are lessened.  I made my ‘Pakuranga Toastie‘ from ‘out of the ground Pakuranga clay’ – not bought clay. Pakuranga, Auckland, New Zealand was where I lived when I first made these pipes. But I had been making pipes for a few years by then. They have a reddish chocolate colour. Pakuranga – a Maori word means the day the earth caught fire. Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand.


The Tools for making clay smoking pipes

 The Gin Press: a tool for making clay smoking pipes.

Gin pressing is one of several methods  Tinderbox uses to make pipes . Visit the pipe page to see the full range of pipes for sale.

The gin press method of clay tobacco pipe making is historically correct. Firstly, it addresses the challenge of pressing clay into a two- piece mold. Because quite heavy pressure is required to press clay into a mold a device is needed and the press does this very well. Secondly, the construction is relatively simple.  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 to the clay, in the mold, through a stopper. I have built two gin presses based on historical pictures. I learned this: The mould or mold (both spellings are correct) needs point(s) of escape for excess clay.

Gin press clay tobacco pipe making  – description

You cannot buy a gin press off the shelf. Consequently, you have to make your own. There are no plans. Therefore you have  the opportunity to create your own unique  gin press!

The gin press consists of a bench, a vice called a “chest,” bench mounted, a lever, stopper arm and a stopper. Alignment of stopper, mold and vice are critical to the satisfactory production of a clay smoking pipe.

Tinderbox Gin press for making clay smoking pipes, a  mold is clamped in “chest” – a  vice,  empty.

gin press for makimg tinderbox clay tobacco pipes

Tinderbox Gin press for making 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

Assortment additional tools

clay tobacco pipe making tools

clay tobacco pipe making tools

(left top) metal rib for fettling,

(top middle) stopper,

(either side) pieces of two-part mold

(middle) cut-off wire

(bottom) rod


clay smoking pipe mold

clay tobacco smoking pipe mold 2 pieces and stopper

Mould Availability

You cannot buy a clay tobacco pipe mould in a store! Original clay pipe molds can occasionally be bought at auction but they are expensive and hard to obtain.

How I solved the mould problem.

Seeking to replicate the process, I made my first molds from hard wood. Speaking from my experience my wooden molds were not as good as the reproduction cast iron clay tobacco smoking pipe mold which I now have the pleasure of using. Fortuitously, A friend gave me access to his original and I had the replica mould (pictured below) made in 2004. Therefore, again you have the opportunity to  make your own piece of equipment – a wooden mold.


Tinder box clay tobacco smoking pipe mold 2 pieces and stopper

The Tinderbox clay pipe making mould.

The Tinderbox McLachlan no 18 is a two-part mould, each piece being half a pipe longitudinally. The mold has ‘natches’ (keys) which hold the parts 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 the top of the bowl end of the mold is a slot where the surplus clay is extruded.

 The clay smoking pipe making process.

Construction of the pipe to pre-firing stage.

Prepared clay pieces of the right size are rolled into balls.
ball of clay

establishing size of clay required for my mold

In practice the balls are not weighed out but determined by ‘size’. I know from experience 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. This results in clay balls being made quickly.

The size of clay required for my mold.

Prepared clay balls of the right size are made into rolls.
clay roll

prepared roll of clay for putting into mould

Rolls are thinner at one end than the other.

prepared roll of clay for putting into mould

Prepared rolls are fitted into  one part 0f the two part mold.
clay pipe making tool

rod being put into roll in a clay pipe mould

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. Because the roll needs to be hollow, a thin rod is threaded through it.  And this will become the stem.  However, care is taken not to pierce the entire roll at this stage. The second part of the mold is pressed down by hand on top of the first. As a result of excess clay, 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 align with no clay between them.

Rod being put into roll in a clay pipe mould -note  not fully inserted

The chest(vice) with empty pipe mould The prepared mold is mounted in the ‘chest’ – a vice. In order for the process to work, the stopper is lubricated and positioned in alignment with the hole in the top of the mold. As a consequence, when gin press lever is pulled down it forces the stopper into the top of the mold. Because of the tight stopper to mold fit clay is pushed throughout the mold. This results in a hollow bowl. As result of excess clay in the mold before hollowing, this excess clay is extruded out through the slot above the bowl. However, the excess clay is not a problem.  And by using a wire tool, excess clay is cut away in the slot and discarded.

gin press – a clay smoking pipe making device stopper in the empty mould

cutting away excess clay at the slotThe rod is now pushed through the final short distance to join the stem with the hollowed-out bowl. But before removing the rod a small piece of clay on the end of the rod must be removed through the top of the bowl (this is called a ‘doddle’). Because failure to remove the doddle would result in the re-plugging of the stem as the ‘doddle’ comes of the rod as it is withdrawn!  Only now can the pipe be removed from the mold and the rod withdrawn. Now, the pipe is set aside to dry. Racks, called ‘dozening’ boards (holding 12 pipes – I dozen) are sometimes used to hold the ‘greenware’ (unfired) pipes.
As the pipe dries it will become very fragile and care must be exercised in handling it.


Fettling clay smoking pipe – a ‘post pressing’ procedure.

Where the two parts of the mold join a seam, or part of a seam, is left on the pipe. As a consequence, a process called ‘fettling’ is done when the pipe is dry or ‘near dry’ which removes ‘seam’ clay from the pipe. This results in an improvement in 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. Only when the top of the bowl is fettled to give a smooth appearance and once the pipe is dry it is ready for firing.

 The clay smoking pipe making process.

Firing clay smoking pipes. Why ‘fire’ pipes?

Because clay tobacco pipes need durability they need to be fired. Firing in a kiln turns clay to pottery. Pipes may be fired through a pottery group or sympathetic potter. But you should expect to pay for the process. However, 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.

Early stages of firing.

It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the firing process in detail. However, some points are worth mentioning.  Because the pipe is dry to the touch it will have shrunk between 5 and 8 percent.   However, ‘Dry to the touch’ clay still contains between 20 to 25% water of crystallisation. During firing this water will be driven off and this can be destructive. As a result of water boiling during this early part of the firing steam has the potential to blow apart the clay pipe. So, it is necessary to drive this water off slowly. Therefore, during the first part of the firing the temperature is increased slowly.

Firing to finished temperature.

Gradually the temperature is increased over 8 – 9 hours until the final temperature is reached. Different top temperatures give different results. For example: you may fire your pipes to 900C, this will give a “bisque” pipe.  But a bisque fired clay tobacco pipe will be porous as in a ‘biscuit’ and may adhere to the lips. While pipes fired to this temperature will have achieved some strength they may be easily broken. 960c – 1000C is the traditional firing temperature for pipes. However, pipes fired to a higher temperature (1100C) will be stronger and may become vitrified.

About the Tinderbox firing and glazing process.  What you put in your mouth is important – hygiene is important.

In the interest of hygiene, I twice fire my clay tobacco smoking pipes. Once fired to bisque temperature and, when cool I apply a glaze and fire a second time to a higher temperature. This second firing gives a glazed tip – like the finish on a cup or plate. This makes the  pipes my customers buy online hygienic and taint free. Some pipe makers varnish or wax their stems in a post one firing process avoiding the second firing but this can impart a varnish, or wax taste when smoked.  As a result of twice firing, my glazed tobacco smoking pipes don’t taint!

Packaging and freight.
tinderbox clay tobacco pipe packaging

Tinderbox packaging for clay pipe shipping – with small information booklet

If you buy a Tinderbox clay tobacco smoking pipe on line it will be packed for postage in a polystyrene case for shipping. I ship all over the world without breakage. Bulk pipes were traditionally packed in wooden boxes for sale.

Tinderbox packaging for clay pipe shipping – with information booklet


Recommended Reading

Shire Album no 37 Clay tobacco pipes. Eric G Ayto Shire publications.

 Richard Lees,

Clay smoking pipe maker,

 Richard Lees, Tinderbox © 2019

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