Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Journey to Recreate a 17th Century Pipe Tong or Smoker's Companion

     When I was researching the material for my 17th century conviviality post, I came across a curious object associated with pipe smoking in the period. I'm familiar with the notion of lighting a pipe with an ember and surviving examples of rather large,18th century pipe / ember tongs are well known but it appears that a smaller, pocket-size version may have come first. These smaller tongs are absent from the Dutch still life paintings I studied but I felt it was worth investigating their part in early smoking culture. One thing that got me interested, was the overwhelming evidence for their use in early colonial America. It's very likely that many were created by colonial craftsmen.

Painting of a German Smoker
 Using (large) Tongs to Light His (large) Pipe
  Image Courtesy of pijpenkabinet

    After surveying many examples recovered by archaeologists, I began to wonder if any completely intact versions had survived "above ground". Archaelogists call these little tools Smoker's Companions as they were apparently designed for multiple functions. I discovered that the Jefferson Patterson Park site has an archaeology section with a "Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland" chapter devoted to helping identify Smoker's Companions. Even though many of the featured examples are degraded relics, it's interesting to see the variety of interpretations of this object. A classic version of the tool was found at Jamestown and is posted on their Preservation Virginia site. The fact is, these small, iron objects seem to turn up in 17th century sites all over the east.

 Smoker's Companion, Before and After Lab Treatmennt
Image Courtesy of Crista Alejandre's
flickr Photostream

A Smoker's Companion Found at Jamestown
Image Courtesy preservationvirginia.org

A Nice Example From a Maryland Site
Image Courtesy jefpat.org

     The hunt was on, as I needed to find a more complete example if I was going to make an accurate reproduction. I love the internet when it works and this is a perfect case of why it's worth digging. The example I dreamed of turned up on a relic hunter's forum called treasurenet and lucky for me the owner had posted multiple views of his find.  It was truly a wonder to see a nearly 400 year old iron object so perfectly preserved, even though it had come out of the ground.

     As mentioned earlier, historians have speculated that this tool had multiple functions, not the least of which was its use as a flint striker to spark that neccessary ember. The larger mass of the lower part of most examples does suggests a striker. It's easy to understand the tong function and the turned up and rounded end of the upper handle definitely looks like it could be used as a tamper. Every pipe smoker knows, you need a tamper (or as they called them in the 1600's, stoppers). Lastly, the larger, rounded paddle end of the lower handle has lead to speculation that it functioned as a reamer to clean the clay pipe bowl. Sounds reasonable, don't you think, except when you consider how tiny some of the early pipe bowls were.

The Holy Grail, Lucky Me
Lucky Bob !
Image Courtesy of Bob and treasurenet.com

    So, armed with some idea of size, form and function, it was time to make my own version of this fascinating object. Let me start by saying that I am no blacksmith but I know enough to begin with a sample of high-carbon, hardend steel for the lower, "striker" part of the tool. This came in the form of a 1/4 inch thick leaf spring scrap I scored from work. With an abrasive blade on my saw, I cut out a roughly shaped piece to start . With the help of an acetylene torch, the piece was twisted on one end to roughly define the reamer. By heating the piece, I also removed some of the temper. This really helped, as I was looking at a lot of grinding and filing to bring out the final shape. The upper part of the tool was challenging for different reasons, with its sculptural form and decorative elements. For this I used a piece of 1/4 mild steel stock, which was a lot easier to work with than that old leaf spring.

The Main Two Parts of My Replica, Near Finished,
With Templates and Remaining Scrap
Photo Courtesy Lindy Miller 2011

     After the rough shaping and some tweeks (with the aid of a torch) I filed the two pieces to their final shape and sanded their surface to a near polish. The next step was to heat the lower part to the critical temp and quench in oil. My research pointed to quenching the striker area first and then later lowering the remaining part into the oil. This would hopefully harden the working part (striking surface) more and leave a little temper in the rest. Following this came the final polish of all parts with varying grits of abrasive paper. After riveting the spring in place, the main parts were joined by peening over the pivot pin.

My Replica Version of a Smoker's Companion
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     Now that was a fun project but with all the filing and shaping, it's no wonder these tiny tongs aren't all over the place as reproductions. Now....where's my pipe, I want to try this thingy out !

    Try it out I did, and here's what I learned about a possible way they lit their pipes when a ready source of fire was absent. There is a specific technique that works well when trying to ignite Amadou or Tinder Fungus with flint and steel. Once you've figured it out, it's amazingly simple. I had previously purchased some pieces of this earliest, natural tinder material from Jas. Townsend, so I was ready for the experiment. In one hand I held a nice, sharp shard of flint with a piece of Amadou (about the size of a fingernail ) on top, just back from the edge of the flint. With the pipe tongs in the other hand and the striker surface held out, I struck down on the flint, with the steel. In this manner, you can easily catch a hot spark on the Amadou (it caught on the second try !). With the pincher end of the tongs, I picked off the glowing part of the Amadou (after some gently blowing) and layed it in my clay pipe full of tobacco. WIth a few draws on the pipe, I was puffing away in no time. It might work equally well by just holding on to the ember with the tongs turned sideways and maintain contact with the tobacco until ignition. The Amadou has a pleasant smell when it's burning and didn't conflict with the tobacco's taste at all. Now that was fun and a great lesson about our amazing ancestors.


  1. Hi Jim,

    You are the perfect material culture investigator to ask a question. Could you drop me a line from my blog? I found your blog on an Internet search. PS: I live in MD - and was just at the JefPat Museum about 2 weeks ago.

  2. Dear Jim ;
    I just chanced on your blog -what can I say ??

    Simply SUPER !

    I always admire people who can do something with their hands (slightly ten-thumbed, myself, ahem), and to follow your very different projects leaves me with a child's eyes.

    The topics ,so far ,are all extremely interesting, as I am fascinated by all things history and historical, so your blog is a true find.
    Count me as a frequent future visitor. This is like experimental archaeology .

    Yours sincerely

    Dr. Christian May

    1. Thanks Dr. May. I really appreciate your interest and compliment. As you can see, I love material culture and what it can teach us about past people and their lives. Thanks again.

  3. Jim,

    I am so excited to see that you successfully made one of these! More selfishly, I'm also excited that you used our website to do it. I'm a curator at JefPat and the smoker's companion page is one of my babies. It's nice to know that someone is using it. Perhaps this will motivate me to add new examples we have found in our collections, including our first decorated piece, and another that was rigged with a brass wire when the connecting pin broke. Thanks for sharing your research!

    Sara Rivers Cofield

    1. Greetings Sara,
      Thanks for the kind words. I'm looking forward to those "new" examples when they appear.

      You have a great blog. I certainly see your passion and I learned a couple of things to help in our textile collection. Keep up the good work.

  4. Jim,
    Awesome Job!!!!.....I was wondering what was the overall length/width of the companion?, I am seriously considering making one for myself after happening upon your site. If you would be so generous and would share the patterns I would greatly appreceiate it to make this a reality. I realy like Bobs Pics of his finds from Michigan.
    Be Well

  5. Would you consider manufacturing another one of these?

    1. Thanks for your interest but I'm sorry to say no. There was a supplier called "At the Eastern Door" who had them awhile ago. Good Luck looking.

  6. Excellent. I was researching how an 18th century person might light their pipe throughout the day (without access to a handy lit candle or fire with which to light a wooden spill) and this was one of the first pages that came up on my search.

    Many thanks for this extremely informative bit of archaeology, research, experimentation and living history - you've certainly answered my question.

    Now, of course, I want to make one.

  7. Outstanding research and a beautiful work of art!
    Bob from treasurenet