The making of a Calabash pipe
At first, I have to say that I don't consider myself as a pipe maker, not even an amateur, because I don't use to make pipes, and I have never made a normal wooden pipe. The first pipe I made, 25 years ago, consisted of two pieces of bamboo, an wider as a bowl, and a thinner as a stem. Two years later, I made another pipe, a "churchwarden", using a branch of holly for the bowl and the shank, and a piece of bamboo for the stem. It's a primitive pipe, but I still have it, and smoke it from time to time. My last attempt was about two years ago, when I tried to make a corn cob pipe, but it ended small and funny, compared to the cheapest corn cob of the market.
So, why did I decide to make a pipe so complicated, as a gourd calabash ?
This year, I was I in a strong pipe-making mood again. I was also very interested in calabash pipes. As it's very difficult, or impossible, to find a real calabash in Greece, and I don't use to buy anything via internet, I had to travel to London, last summer, to aquire an estate one. It's an elegant, antique, real gourd calabash, made in London, in the year 1921. The pipe needed a lot of cleaning and restoring, and I did it myself. I even had to replace the cork gasket. After many hours of work, the pipe was in a great condition, and I new exactly how a calabash is made. As it smokes excelent, I wanted to smoke it frequently, but it's not the best thing to do with an antique pipe, and it's not very wise, to carry around a fragile calabash, in a back-pack !
So, I had a crazy idea: Instead of trying to make an ordinary looking pipe from a piece of briar, I decided to make a calabash ! Not a calabash-shaped wooden pipe, but a real african gourd calabash, with a detachable bowl, a silver cup, a wooden ferrule and a silver band, like they used to make them 100 years ago in England. Finding the materials, especialy the gourd, was a big problem, but as you'll see in the next pages, anything can be done, if you want it too much.
As you'll see, I made the calabash pipe using the handle of an african instrument, a cheap briar pipe, a tin spray can, an old electric fuse, a piece of cork, and a piece of an old radio antenna. All the materials were chosen, used and assembled in a way, that none, maybe not even a calabash specialist, can say that the pipe is a novelty or a fake. The total cost was only 8,70 euros, just the price of the briar pipe, because the african instrument, purchased for 12 euros, is still playable with another handle. All the other materials were existing, or free. It took about a month to finish it, most of the time was for thinking, planning, searching and experimenting.
The first thing I needed, in order to make a gourd calabash pipe, was a calabash gourd, of course. The greek gourds rarely have a properly bent top, and if they do, it doesn't have the right shape, and the walls are too thin. So, for a long time, wherever I was, I kept my eyes open for anything resembling what I had in mind.
After a lot of search for the proper gourd, I found this instrument, in an exotic-gifts shop. It's an african shaker, like a cabasa, a gourd with sea-shells attached with strings. It was heavilly painted brown, and the top wasn't as curved as I wanted it to be, but it catched my eye at once, and I bought it for 12 euros. I wasn't sure it's a calabash gourd, but it sure was an african gourd in the right shape.
After drawing a circular line, I cut off the top of the gourd, using a small iron cutting saw. I scratched the dried remains of flesh and seeds from the inside walls of the gourd, and I trimmed both ends, using a file. I sanded all the inside walls of the gourd with a coarse sand paper, using the paper as a roll in the narrow part. The walls are thick enough, and the outer surface is harder than any wood I know.
I did some more trimming on the edges, using a blade cutter and grit paper, in order to make the top flat and even. I also removed most of the paint, using the same tools. I didn't use any chemicals, because the smell remains for a long time.
I polished the surface of the gourd and removed some paint remains, using fine grit papers and steel wool....
I drilled a hole in the narrow end, using 1 to 6mm drill bits, carefully not to pass through the opposite wall. I made sure I had an air passage, by blowing through the hole...
I curved a groove for the cork gasket, using the cutter and the grit paper. The groove is the only way to keep the gasket in place. It mustn't be too deep, because the wall becomes too thin, and the gourd may crack while inserting the bowl, or smoking...
The CORK GASKET
The cork gasket is an important part of the pipe, because it holds the bowl firmly in place, and also keeps the chamber inside the gourd airtight. Making a cork gasket is a tricky process, but fortunately I had some experience from the restoring of an antique English calabash, when I destroyed the first two gaskets, because they were too loose. The gasket must be thick enough, to let the bowl enter very hardly for the first time (see page 7,"The Final Stage"), because later, by smoking the pipe, it becomes thinner, and less elastic.
I was given this flat piece of cork by a friend. It is 5mm thick, and consists of very small pieces of cork compressed. It's a fragile material, and it can break or chip easily while you cut it or bend it. I found out that the best way to keep it elastic, is to keep it wet. It must be dry only when you sand it or glue it. After I draw two parallel lines 5mm apart on the surface of the cork, I cut a strip about 12cm long with a scissors. I shaped its sides flat and I thinned it a little bit, with grit paper. Then I wet it, and started to bend it...
Keeping the cork strip wet all the time, I worked it by pressing with my fingers and bending it slowly, and carefully not to break it. I kept weting and bending, untill the ends met. Finally, I placed it in the inside of a spray-can cup, and kept it in place with two pieces of cork, in order to form an almost perfect circle. I let it dry for 24 hours before removing it.
I had to place the cork in the groove and remove it several times, in order to check if it fits right. I achieved the right diameter of the gasket, by cutting thin slices of cork from both ends, untill the ends met. I used a multi-purpose elastic glue for cork, rubber, leather etc, durable up to 125C degrees, to glue the gasket in place. I let it dry for 24 hours by an open window, because the glue has a strong smell, and can stay in the gourd for a long time. After the glue dried, I cut the exceeding top of the gasket with a cutter, and sanded it, in order to be even with the top of the gourd. I also rounded a little bit the edges of the gasket, with a fine grit paper...
The STEM and THE FERRULE
The next thing I needed was a bent stem. I also needed a wooden ferrule. All calabash pipes have a ferrule, to prevent the gourd from cracking by the pressure of the tenon of the stem. Instead of trying to make, or to find the proper stem for my calabash, I searched to find a cheap pipe, with a stem close to what I had in mind. I also intended to use the shank of the pipe as a ferrule, as it was already drilled properly.
I found this unsmoked basket pipe, and I bought it for 8,70 euros. It's a medium size, partly bent, greek "Pipex" pipe, with a nice grain, and no fills at all. It was hard for me to destroy it, but fortunatelly, all the parts of the pipe were used in the calabash.
After I cut the shank off the bowl, I used it to make a ferrule for my calabash. I shaped it as a slightly tapered cylinder, with rounded edges on the wide side, using files and grit papers...
The stem needed some more bending. After I inserted a pipe cleaner, I bent the stem to the desired angle, by shaking it over the flame of an alcohol lamp. When the angle was right, I cooled it with water. I rounded the edges near the tenon, a little more, with a file, and polished all the stem with fine grit paper, steel wool and toothpaste...
I always liked the silver bands on the pipes. I also wanted to add a metalic band, in order to reinforce the shank of the gourd, but I didn't want to cover the nice briar ferrule. So, I decided to add a narrow band, just on the joint of the ferrule and the gourd. A bronze, chrome-plated cup of an old electric fuse, was what I needed. I opened an wide hole on the one side, and made the other side a little wider. I sanded most of the chrome-plating, having in mind to silver-plate it (see page 7, "The Final Stage").
I needed a durable tube, about 7mm in diameter, to join the ferrule and the gourd. I found a piece of an old radio antenna, a bronze chrome-plated tube, in the right diameter. I inserted the tube deep into the gourd, and I made sure that all parts were in line. Then I removed the ferulle, and I cut the tube right on the point were the tenon stops inside the ferulle. I placed the ferulle again, with the stem attached, to check if the stem is leaning left or right. Finally, I glued the tube, the band and the ferulle in place, using acrylic glue. After the glue dried, I checked the mortise, the tube and the gourd for obstacles. The air flow was perfect, and any pipe cleaner, a little bent, could easily pass through the mortise, to the top of the gourd...
The BOWL and THE CUP
The most important part of every pipe is the bowl; it must be durable to the heat of the burning tobacco and odourless. Finding a suitable bowl for my calabash was a big problem. An option was to order a meerchaum bowl via Internet, from a US maker, but the cost was too hi, including the price, the posting and the customs charges. Another option was to find a man who works with a lathe, to make a bowl of olive or oak wood for me. But I didn't find one. So, I decided to make my own bowl. Being familiar with the briar, as any pipe smoker does, I decided to make a briar one. The bowl of a calabash doesn't always have to be meerschaum, and after all, my 84 years old, antique English calabash, has a bowl made of plastic material !
The remained briar bowl, of the pipe I had already used for the ferrule and the stem, seemed right to start with. The size was right, the grain was fine, there were no fills at all, and the shank was already cut off.
I gave the bowl the desired shape, using a couple of files and grit papers. The bowl must be completely inserted into the gourd, without touching the walls. I filled the existing hole with a piece of briar and a drop of acrylic glue, and I drilled a new hole right in the centre of the bottom.Then I did some reaming inside the bowl, with a sharpened cake reamer, to increase the width and the depth of the chamber. Having already in mind to attach a cup to the bowl, and to reinforce the top of the bowl after the reaming, I decided to use a rim. I cut a strip of tin with a scissors, opened eight holes with a 1mm drill bit, and I mounted it round the top of the bowl, using small bronze nails. I bent the ends of the nails into the wood, and made them flat with a file.
I always liked the silver cups on the old-fashioned calabash, but I also like the rounded, mushroom-like tops of the meerchaum bowls. So, I started to search for a metallic cup, in this shape. The bottom of the above spray can, had the perfect shape and dimensions. I cut the tin bottom with a dented kitchen knife, and I removed the remains of the walls with a file and grit paper.
I made a hole in the middle of the tin cup, equal to the hole of the bowl, about 22mm in diameter, using a drill and a couple of files. I didn't like the sharp edges of the hole, so I started searching for something to cover them. I was lucky to find the bronze ring on the right, almost in the exact diameter of the hole. It is a ring used to reinforce holes on fabric covers of vehicles.
With a little trimming, the ring fitted nicely into the hole of the cap. I soldered it there, by first applying soldering material on both surfaces, and then heating them together with a butane gas soldering iron. I removed the exceeding soldering material, and polished the cup and the ring, using fine steel wool.
I turned the cup and the bowl upside-down, I placed the bowl on the centre of the cup and I pushed it, till the rim touched the cup and the edge of the ring was into the bowl. Then I made sure the bowl was upright and firmly in place...
I soldered the rim on the cup using the butane gas soldering iron and some soldering wire. The thick soldering included the heads of the nails, so the construction proved to be very solid. I also soldered the bent ends of the nails, inside the bowl, to the bronze ring.
I cleaned the surfaces around the soldering with steel wool and ear-tips soaked in pure alcohol, and I trimmed the edge of the ring inside the bowl with a file, to make it more even to the walls of the bowl. The small, less than 0,5mm step, will be covered by the cake, anyway. Finally, I polished the cup a little more with steel wool. I left some "criss-cross" artifacts, existing from manufacture on the surface of the cup, because I think they add a touch of "handmade" and "antique" look. The briar bowl with the metal cup was ready !
The FINAL STAGE
All the parts of the pipe were ready, but some more work was necessary, before starting assembling them. First, I had to silver-plate the cup of the bowl, and the bronze band.
The same friend who gave me the piece of cork for the gasket (thanks Alex!), also gave me a liquid named "Silverlife", used in silver-plating metalic surfaces. It's not a paint, it really adds a thin coat of pure silver that bonds with the metal. I applied the liquid with a cloth, I rubbed it for a minute, and then I wiped the excess material. The result was impressive! I repeated the process three times on the surface of the cup and the band, so the silver layer became thicker and more durable. I polished both the silver cup and the band with a cloth buffing wheel, attached on my drill. Then, I used the same buffing wheel to polish the gourd and the briar ferrule. Since I don't have a special polishing wax, I used an ordinary brown drawing wax-crayon. I applied a thick coat of wax on all surfaces by drawing, I melted it over an alcohol lamp, and started buffing immediately. The result wasn't the glass-like surface of a new pipe, but the antique look of my calabash doesn't need it. Next, I polished the stem with the buffing wheel, and I applied a coat of graphite on the tenon and the mortise by drawing with an ordinary 2=B pencil, as a dry lubricant. I did the same on the inside surface of the cork gasket, because it was the time to insert the bowl in place.
Inserting the bowl in the gasket for the first time is a risky process. The gasket is still too thick, as it has to be (see "the cork gasket"), so the bowl inserts very hardly, and the extreme pressure can easily crack the gourd. First, I wet the cork with an ear-tip, to make it more flexible, carefully not to wet the gourd. Then I applied a drop of olive oil on the outer surface of the bowl. While holding tight the top of the gourd with one hand, I inserted slowly and carefully the bowl in place, by pressing and twisting it. When the bowl was all the way into the gourd, and the cup was sitting properly on the top, I checked around the gourd for cracks, and I left the pipe for 24 hours.
Next day, the gasket was dry, and formed in the shape of the bowl, so every next time, removing and reinserting the bowl, was easier. Placing the stem, was not a problem, as the mortise of the ferrule was in the exact diameter of the tenon, and both were already lubricated with the pencil graphite.
The first real gourd calabash pipe made in Greece, was assembled, and ready to smoke !