Chambersburg Pipemaker Combines Today’s Technology With Old World Craftmanship
J.M. Boswell of Chambersburg, PA, is a part of a rare group of American craftsmen – he is one of a few professional pipemakers in the United States. “A lot of hobbyists make pipes”, he points out. “But only a handful of people in this country make pipes as a profession.
The Alabama native moved to central Pennsylvania, where his career as a pipemaker began by accident when he was 18 years old. As a favor, he gave a friend a ride to the unemployment office. “The unemployment office was next to a tobacco shop and pipemaking business where I delivered newspapers when I was a boy,” J.M. recounts. While waiting in the car for his friend, the owner of the business came out of his shop, apparently on his way to do some errands. “We started to talk and he asked me if I wanted a job,” J.M. says. “I wasn’t working at the time, so I took the job and I’ve been making pipes ever since.”
After serving an apprenticeship of between six months and a year, J.M. managed the business for the next four years. In February 1980, he opened his own shop, J.M. Boswell’s Handmade Pipes at 170 S. Main Street, Chambersburg.
Each handcrafted pipe, called Freehand, begins as a small block of briar wood. The wood, which is imported from Greece, is cut into blocks at a local sawmill. “The actual name of the wood comes from the White Heath tree”, he explains. “It’s in the same family as Mountain Laurel and Rosewood.”
Wood used to make pipes comes from the root of the tree. The root forms a ball that stores water to keep the root system alive during the dry months of the year. The size of the rootball depends on the amount of rainfall. J.M. points out that the rootball gets larger as it absorbs more water, but does not actually shrink during the dry season. “The rootball is the portion of the root that is used for making pipes,” J.M. says. “The reason the graining patterns are the way they are is because of the direction the water travels in the rootball.”
J.M. draws the outline of the bowl on the block with a pencil. His pipes are made in a dozen different standard shapes. Using a bandsaw, he cuts away the outside of the block until the shape of the bowl appears. Then, he uses a drill press to make the hole that will hold the tobacco. All of the machines that J.M. uses are power tools that he has customized. “I took the old and combined it with the new,” he says. “Because I just can’t buy pipe making machinery.”
The next step is to smooth the bowl of the pipe. “I use 50-grit paper on a sanding belt to actually shape the pipe,” J.M. says.
Using a customized “stem cutter”, J.M. bores the tenon to which the stem is attached. The next machine drills the draft hole or air hole. “This is the hole that creates the draft that brings the smoke back through the mouthpiece,” J.M. says. With a large amount of the work on the bowl completed, J.M. begins to concentrate on the stem. Each stem has to fit securely to the bowl. Stem material is imported from Italy. The boring of the stem hole is also completed at this stage. “Then,” J.M. says, “I cut the stem to fit the tenon and create and that creates the mouthpiece to hold the pipe.”
Once the two parts are put together, J.M. must complete three different sanding processes. Once the pipe is smooth, the stem is shaped and sanded. After this process is finished, the bowl of the pipe is buffed on an electric buffer. The final process is to stain the bowl of the pipe. Using a brush, J.M. stains his pipes in six different colors: black, burgundy, medium brown, dark brown, cordovan, and light brown.
“After the stain is buffed, it shows the grain of the pipe and the way the water traveled in the rootball,” he says. J.M. has also developed an exclusive coating that is applied inside the bowl. This innovative coating shortens the “break-in” time of each new pipe and provides a sweet smoke from the first bowlful.
“Everything is real labor intensive,” J.M. comments. “But it’s the process that works best.” For the finishing touch, each pipe is signed.
In addition to making pipes, J.M. also mixes custom hand blended tobaccos. The 22 blends are cured with natural flavoring and are free of chemicals.
J.M. will make about 3,200 pipes this year. In addition to selling his pipes at his shop, he also sells his pipes wholesale to more than 200 smoke shops throughout the United States. In his biggest production year – 1990- he made 5,200 pipes. “That was the first year we did the National Trade Show in Washington D.C.,” he says. “The size of the wholesale business doubled after that show.”
Although high rents have forced a large number of smoke shops out of business, more than 3,000 remain nationwide. Despite the decrease in smoke shops, pipe smoking continues to be popular. Quality is what pipe smokers appreciate the most.
“People are buying better and smoking less,” J.M. comments. “It’s going back to the way it was a hundred years ago when a man worked in the fields all day and then came home and enjoyed a smoke in the evening.”
However, it isn’t only men who enjoy a relaxing smoke. According to J.M., pipe smoking is becoming popular with more and more women. Whatever blend of tobacco a pipe smoker selects, unwinding with a good smoke is what matters the most. “That’s the way pipe smoking is intended to be,” J.M. reflects. “Never habit forming, but something to relax and enjoy.”
By Joseph Weagley
Published in “Warm Welcome Magazine”, November 1993.