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

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Further Digging Into Our Colonial Past, Uncovers a Truly "American" Clay Pipe

      While I was researching 17th Century clay pipes for an earlier post, I came across a style of pipe that I had never seen before. It wasn't at all like the common Dutch or English, white (ball) clay variety, with their bulbous, tiny bowls. This completely different style of pipe is known to archaeologists as a Chesapeake or Colono Pipe. You will sometimes see them identified as Local Pipes, Terra-cotta Pipes, Virginia Pipes or even just Red or Brown Pipes. The evidence suggests that they were produced by local craftsman during most of the 17th Century but apparently fell out of favor by the 18th Century.

A Classic But Plain Chesapeake Pipe
from Emmanuel Drew, 1650-1669
Image Courtesy losttowns.com

     For decades there's been an ongoing debate as to who actually produced these pipes. Strong cases have been made for a probable Native American origin. Other scholars contend that the West African style designs, found on some versions, point to enslaved or indentured African craftsman. This discussion took on a new dimension when it was discovered that an Englishman named Emmanuel Drue, was making his own version of Chesapeake pipes at Swan Cove Maryland. This discovery suggested the possibility that a variety of people were producing this style of pipe at the same time, for personal or local consumption. It now appears that there may have been some sort of "cultural fusion" going on in the early colonies, as these groups freely borrowed from each other in the expression of their craft.

Chesapeake Pipe Fragments Showing Typical Decorations
Image Source Unknown

     What made these pipes interesting to me, is that with the "blending" of cultural influences, in their form and decorations, they became distinctively "American". I think that is worth celebrating, and for me, what better way than to create a replica. There was only one problem, I knew nothing about how to make a clay pipe. Now that this project is behind me and I know a little bit more, I would like to share what I learned with the reader. What the heck, you might want to try it yourself.  I found it a very rewarding and successful project.

An Original Brass Pipe Mold
 19th Century
Note the Bowl Shaper and Vent Wire
Image Courtesy pijpenkabinet

     The first thing I decided, was that I wanted to press solid clay in a mold, rather than pour liquid clay slip into a mold. I felt that this would make a sturdier product and be closer to the way many originals were made. It appears that most original molds were made of cast metal although I did find some primitve wooden ones. I chose to make my mold out of plaster-of-paris, poured around a wooden model of the intended pipe. I also had to plan out how the bowl's interior would be shaped during the clay molding process and how the wire would be inserted for the vent hole. Many clues as to how this was accomplished came from watching a youtube of the last Dutch clay pipe maker at work. He made it look so easy but I knew better.

One of Drue's Pipes
Showing the Use of Rouletting
Image Courtesy chipstone.org

     I decided to use the pipes of Emmanuel Drue as my inspiration, mostly because of a fascinating article by Al Luckenbach about the discovery of Mr. Drue and the importance of his work ( Ceramics in America 2004, "The Swan Cove Kiln: Chesapeake Tobacco Pipe Production, Circa 1650-1669 "). Plus, I really loved the way he decorated his pipes using rouletting wheels and custom made stamps. I felt that with enough effort, I could replicate the look and feel of his pipes.

Another of Drue's Pipes
Showing His Custom Stamps
Image Courtesy chipstone.org 

     After crafting the wooden model for the pipe, I sealed it with beeswax, which hopefully would act as a mold release. When designing  the two-part plaster mold, I took into account the usual indentations that key the two halves together. In addition, I thought it best to include two stable dowel slides to guide the halves during the pressing of the clay. Next, I shaped the bowl's interior forming tool of wood and sized it to allow for a fairly thin walled bowl. The depth of the tool was critical as it has to connect with the vent wire, when inserted in the clay. The vent wire had to be thought out as well, as the clay shrinks a little when drying and a little more during firing in the kiln. I used a 1/8" brass rod for the venting wire and gave it a stop collar to maintain its proper depth, when inserted.

My Pipe Factory
Showing from the bottom up,
 Pipe Pattern, Paper Template, 2 Piece Mold,
Bowl Shaper, Vent Wire, Knife, Stamps and Rouletting Wheel
Photos Lindy Miller 2012

     After the plaster mold dried for several days, I bravely began experimenting with the clay and immediately found that there is no substitute for time and patience. The clay I used was Rustone from Columbus Clay in Ohio. It has great modeling properties and fires to a nice terra-cotta color at cone 6. One of earliest challenges after hand rolling out the basic clay form, was carefully piercing the soft clay stem with the vent wire. You have to do it without poking it out the side. I kept thinking of the Dutch pipe maker when he was a beginner, not how skilled he was after thousands of pipes.

Step #1
Rolling Out the Clay
Note the Inserted Bowl Shaper

          I found that by inserting the bowl tool first and then removing it, I could at least see the end of the wire poking into what would become the inside bottom of the finished bowl. All of this is before you go near the plaster mold. Once the vent wire was is in place and the bowl tool removed, I trimmed the clay to a proper length. Next came bending the soft clay into the proper angle and laying it all into one half of the plaster mold.

Step #2
Inserting the Vent Wire

     Once that was accomplished, I lined up the other half of the plaster mold on the wooden dowels and pressed the two halves together. You have to press pretty hard but also keep in mind that the mold is only fragile plaster. In the original process, with metal molds, they used a leverage press or a vise. Once the mold was closed as far as possible, I inserted the bowl tool once more but only to the allowable depth. A few turns of the tool and it was removed.

Step #3
Clay Form is Layed in Mold Half

       Next came checking the vent wire, to see if it was visible at the bottom of the bowl. If all was well, I gently pulled the mold halves apart and released the pipe from one half of the mold. After trimming off the flashing around the pipe outline, I gently lifted it out of the mold, using a finger in the bowl and the end of the vent wire for support. What comes next is more than a little tricky. You have to pull out the vent wire from the soft clay without making a mess of the whole thing. This took practice and produced a number of failed attempts but hey.....that's half the fun. It's only clay you know. You roll it up and try again.

Step #4
After the Pressing
Ready for Trimming and Removal

     After the blank clay pipes were air dried for a couple of hours, I carefully picked them up and began the decorating process. Yeah !! Now we're into the fun stuff, right ? Maybe. This was also the best time to clean-up any left over flashing and check for cosmetic problems. To recreate something approximating the original rouletting tools, I used old clock gears that I was lucky to have. After stacking three gears together, I soldered them into a single tool. For the stamps, I carved the ends of dowels to match a negative of the original designs. By experimenting with their impression, I finally came up with something close to Drue's originals. I found out that it took a direct and slightly firm hand to stamp and roll out the designs in the soft clay. By inserting the bowl tool back into the pipe for support, I could decorate the outside of the bowl without collapsing it. I learned all of this the hard way.

The Fruit of My Labor
Note the Stamped Designs

       Once all the finished pipes were dry enough, they were fired in our kiln to turn into what I think are reasonable replicas of an obscure but important piece of Americana. A little bit of recreated history from the forgotten century of our great nation's past.

Lots of Fruit !!