Pipe Composition and Toward a Definition of Pipe Parts

Blog by Steve Laug

I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen descriptions of pipes on EBay or at antique shops or flea markets and just started laughing. People come up with all kinds of creative descriptions that keep you guessing what the pipe is made of unless you have some basic guidelines to navigate.

The types of pipe bowl material:

  1. Briar – this is the close grained burl joint between the trunk and the roots of the White Heath, a tree found on the hillsides of mainly Mediterranean countries. Underground, this burl is the briar wood – a tough, close grained, porous and heat resistant – wood that is used for making smoking pipes.
  2. Alternative woods – Breezewood, Manzanita, Laurel wood, etc. are some woods that pipes were made of during the WWII years when briar was hard to come by. These woods are lighter and have a different grain pattern than the briar.
  3. Hardwoods – pear, walnut, maple, olive and others have been used as alternatives for briar as well and each delivers a different kind of smoke. The grain patterns are singular to those woods.
  4. Brylon – Medico and other US manufacturers made this product for pipes out of briar dust and resin. It is indestructible but is very hot to hold in the hands.
  5. Other manmade materials – Hilson used some kind of resin (polymer) to craft a bowl and others have used graphite, or asbestos to form pipes. In my opinion these are less than optimal smoking materials.
  6. Meerschaum – a German word meaning “sea foam” referring to the belief that it was compressed whitecaps of waves. Meerschaum is a mineral-hydrous silicate of magnesium (one of the most porous substances found in nature). It is thought to be composed of fossilize shells of tiny creatures that fell to the ocean floor millions of years ago. Meerschaum is found in red clay deposits. The deposits of the highest quality are found in central Turkey. Pipes carved out of this material can either be carved out of a single block or out of a compressed material made out of chips of meer and a binding agent. The block meers are by far the best.
  7. African Block Meerschaum – This substance comes from Tanzania, Africa and is usualy stained in varying shade of brown, black and yellow. I have had pipes made of this from Manx, Peterson, Laxley, Nording and Barling. It is a heavier material than the Turkish Meerschaum mentioned above.
  8. Missouri Meerschaum – Formed from a length of hollowed out corn cob. It is usually made from a special hybrid variety of corn and has a straight wooden shank with a plastic stem. It is commonly known as the corncob pipe.
  9. Calabash – early versions of this pipe were made out of a South African gourd similar to a squash grown specifically for use in pipes. The shape is determined as the gourd grows by placing small blocks under the stem and forcing it into a gentle curve. The mature gourd is cut and dried, then fitted with a cork gasket to receive a meerschaum bowl. Other materials used for the bowls include clay, asbestos, and even plaster. Modern pipe makers are crafting calabash bowls from a variety of woods – I have seen Mahogany bowls that looked amazing.
  10. Ceramic – I have several of these double walled ceramic pipes that are amazing smoking instruments. The double wall design keeps the exterior wall from overheating and enables the smoker to hold the bowl while smoking. Different Dutch companies such as Zenith and GoedeWaagen have made these pipes. In the USLepeltier makes them. Their website is:http://www.lepeltier-pipes.com/There are also antique porcelain pipes that have some beautiful paintings in the glaze of the bowl.
  11. Clay pipes – clay or pottery pipes were popular on the continent before briar became readily available on the market. The finest were said to be made in Devon England. There are new clay pipe makers that are doing amazing work. The following website has some beautiful examples of the clay pipe makers craft available for purchase at reasonable prices. http://www.dawnmist.org/pipdex.htm

The type of stem materials:

  1. Bakelite – Trade name for a synthetic resin widely used for lacquers and varnishes and as a plastic. A common material used for the stem, especially of mass produced pipes of last century. It was an alternative to vulcanite. Artisan pipemakers are using it today for handmade pipes.
  2. Amber – brittle, feels like glass to the teeth. It can be a rich yellow, golden or even reddish orange colour. It was used as stem material on older briar and meerschaum pipes.
  3. Vulcanite – A dark-colored variety of India rubber that has been subjected to vulcanization. It has also been called “hard rubber.” A common material used for the stems as it is durable and inexpensive. It comes in a variety of grades and from various makers.
  4. Lucite/Acrylic – Trade name for a plastic. A common material used for the stems. It comes in a variety of colours and shades. It is a good replacement for older amber stems as it can be matched closely to the original colours. It is harder than rubber and feels quite different from Vulcanite.
  5. Plastic – Corncob pipes often have a cast plastic stem that is cheap and I find that the edges are sharp. I replace these stems on my cobs with a stem that I transfer from cob to cob when they are worn out.
  6. Horn – Animal horn shaped and polished for stem material on older pipes. Has a softer feel in the mouth than any of the other materials.
  7. Bone – Animal born shaped and polished for stem material on some older briar pipes and meerschaum pipes.
  8. Briar – wooden stems that can be either integrated into the bowl and make the pipe a single unit or can be a separate stem that has a wooden, bone, metal or Delrin tenon that attaches it to the pipe bowl.

The Parts of a Pipe:

Throughout the articles available on this blog the writers (including me) use a variety of terms when describing the parts of the pipes they are refurbishing. I thought it would be helpful to define terms so that we have a base from which to use our various descriptors of the part we are working on at the moment. I have grouped them below in terms of bowl and stem. I have also included a few pictures/diagrams that I have gotten off the internet to clarify terminology with pictures. I also have included a section on the materials that are used to make stems.

Bowl parts:

  1. Stummel – the pipe minus the stem. This includes all parts of the pipe sans stem regardless of what material it is made of – briar, meerschaum, clay, corn cob.
  2. Bowl/Chamber – the part of the pipe that holds the tobacco. Many use this term to describe the same thing that is meant by the word stummel.
  3. Heel – the bottom of the inside of the pipe bowl. It is the area where the airway enters the bowl of the pipe. It has also been used to describe bottom outer edge of the pipe as it curves toward the bottom of the bowl.
  4. Foot – the bottom of the pipe. This can be rounded or flattened to facilitate the bowl sitting flat on a table or desk top.
  5. Rim – the top edge of the bowl. It can be flat or beveled (chamfered) in toward or out from the bowl. It can also be crowned or a thin edge from the inside of the bowl to the outer edge.
  6. Draught (draft hole) – the opening in the bottom of the bowl that enters the shank of the pipe and opens into the airway. Typically these are on the back bottom edge of the bowl and centered at that point.
  7. Airway – the drilled portion of the shank that extends from the bowl to the stem.
  8. Sump/Well – in Peterson System pipes and others such as Wellington pipes this is the area below the entrance of the airway at the bottom of the shank. It extends as a well to collect moisture from the smoke before it moves in to the stem. In estates this area is often very dirty and takes particular work to clean.
  9. Mortise – the portion of the airway that holds the inserted tenon. It is drilled larger than the standard airway as it is the size of the outer diameter of the tenon.
  10. Shank – the part of the pipe that joins the bowl and stem.
  11. Countersink – this is the area where the stem and shank join. It is often countersunk to accommodate the flare on the tenon where it joins the stem. It is this feature which allows the stem to seat well against the shank
  12. Bands/Ferrules – are made of a variety of metals, some are decorative and some are functional as repairs for a cracked or damaged shank. They can be applied to the shank or actually in many new pipes, to the stem.
  13. Shank extensions – exotic woods, vulcanite, or other materials that extend the length of the shank and give a decorative flair to the pipe. They can be added as decoration or later as a repair on a broken shank that needs to be extended. Lately I have seen these also added to the stem.


Stem parts:

  1. Stinger/condenser – is either an insert into the airway of the tenon or is an integral part of the tenon and glued into the stem material. If it is an integral part it is often threaded and screws into a tapped insert in the mortise.
  2. Tenon – the portion of the stem that is cut to fit within the mortise of the shank. It is smaller in diameter than the rest of the stem. It can be an integral part of the stem material or it can be an insert made of Delrin, bone, metal, wood. The metal, bone, wood tenons that I have seen are threaded on both ends. One end screwing into the shank and one end screwing into the stem.
  3. Countersink – the end of the tenon can be countersunk to facilitate airflow into the stem. It can be visualized like this ) – kind of concave end which accommodates the opening in the airway at the end of the mortise. I have found that this kind of countersink drilling can be used to repair a misaligned airway where the airway in the pipe shank is either higher or lower than the airway in the tenon.
  4. Shoulder – the portion of the stem that fits against the end of the shank. A well-made stem has the shoulders sitting tightly against the end of the shank with no rounding. It should be a smooth transition between the stem and shank.
  5. Saddle – on some stems the first part of the stem after the shoulder extends to a slope on the top and the bottom of the stem. From that point it is flat and proceeds to the end of the stem.
  6. Blade – the flattened portion of the stem after the saddle. This may well be a term that I have used to describe that part of the stem and is not universally used. To me it is a good description of the part of the stem that flattens out after the saddle.
  7. Taper – a sloped stem tapering from the shank connection to the end of the stem. The slope varies in degree and decline from the shank to the end.
  8. Button (tip/bit/lip/mouthpiece) – the portion of the stem that fits in the mouth. It generally has a sharp edge on the inner edge and then slopes neatly back to the end of the stem. It is the portion of the stem that sits in the teeth. The sharp edge provides a ridge for holding it in the mouth.
  9. Slot – end of the button where the airway exits the stem. It is usually a straight line but can be shaped into an oval. It is usually flared inward into the shape of a Y into the airway of the stem.
  10. Orific opening – on older pipes the slot is not present and an O shaped opening is the end of the airway at the button. Generally the button is shaped differently than on the slotted button. It is more crowned or rounded to the opening of the O.
  11. Airway – describes the internals of the stem. Depending on how the airway is drilled it is either tapered or a straight line moving from the tenon into a flattened portion of the airway at the button end of the stem. Sometimes it is stepped down or threaded if a stinger apparatus has been in place in the past.


If others who are reading this have other terminology for the parts of the pipe or other materials that have been used for tobacco pipes please feel free to add them to this article through commenting on it. Input is sought and appreciated so please post your additions.

10 thoughts on “Pipe Composition and Toward a Definition of Pipe Parts

  1. Jay

    This is great. So now my suggestion is:
    please rename this
    A basic guide to pipes and stems
    And put a dedicated link to it on the menu.

    Additional question:
    If I do order a replacement stem, will there be any tenon already or will I have to cut one totally from scratch?

    You mentioned having some stems from pipe makers emporium. I tried to find them online but it looks like they’re gone. Do you have any suggestions for a place to order stems from.


    1. rebornpipes Post author

      You will always have to fit the tenon. It is there but will need to be sized.. You have two places to order stems – JH Lowe (call do not order online. Tim West is a great guy and can help you with the sizing as he is a repair guy) the other is Vermont Freehand (don’t let the name fool you).

      1. Jay

        You have been very helpful and it is much appreciated. I am going to be reading and rereading your description of the pipes and stems.
        You have given me enough information to make informed choices, which is exactly what I was looking for when I put my question up.
        Thanks again,

  2. Robert M. Boughton

    I cannot believe what totally unexpected things I learn about pipes from blogs in this forum every time I research something or other that oftentimes has nothing to do with what I was looking for. In this case there are far too many to mention, but the fact that the type of gourd used for a gourd calabash pipe is grown and shaped only for that use stands out! Alas, I was looking for the specific kinds of animals that end up donating their bones and horns to such things as screw tenons and stems, but if I don’t find the answers, my upcoming blog will still work out!

  3. David G.

    ooops, I should have said the tube extends from the shank into the stem. If one epoxy’s it, the stem will no longer be separable from the shank, correct?. That would still allow it to be cleaned, running a pipe cleaner from the lip. that’s doable. Thank you very much for your attention and help.
    David Goodwin

    1. rebornpipes Post author

      I misunderstood you – I did not realize that the tube is not free floating. I was thinking it was free of the stem and sat loose in the shank. Do not glue it in place. Leave it as is. You might be able to craft a ring from a small washer or such

      1. David G.

        Great idea, that’s just the thing!

        Thanks also for the information on bands. I just bought a Dunhill 1969, with a hairline crack in the shank. ($25.00 not bad), and will follow your directions. Thanks again,


  4. David G.

    Thank you for the illustrations and descriptions. I’ll try to use them accurately.

    I have a Bewlay from the early 70’s. A thin metal tube (might this be called a filter?) extends from the stem into the tenon. The tenon was very short and there was a little ‘collar” around it on the stem face which fit into the countersink on the shank. The tenon and collar broke off. The “filter” will still go into the stem satisfactorily, but it’s not a tight enough fit to hold the stem securely. I think it was the collar around the tenon that went into the countersink that provided the correct
    My untrained idea is to somehow rebuild up the collar to fit the countersink. Any ideas.

    Thank you,,

    David Goodwin

    1. rebornpipes Post author

      Sounds like an inner tub fitting David. I have had success in epoxying the tube into the tenon for a good tight fit. I have seen the collar on others but have not tried to reproduce that on a repaired stem.


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