Sandblasting Briar

Sandblasts begin they're lives as partially unfinished and generally flawed pipes. Pipes that have surface flaws rather than small sand pits are generally candidates for sandblasting. My theory is that any flaw noticeable after staining should be blasted. Certain pipe manufacturers are more discriminating than others about where to draw the line between smooth and sandblast but most of the high end makers are pretty strict. Another line must be drawn is between when to blast and when to carve a pipe. A big flaw in the wood will literally be blasted away when subjected to the rigors of sandblasting. If the flaw is of this nature than most pipe makers choose to carve the pipe instead with a dremel or various carving tools. There's another line that has to be drawn between carves and rejects. I generally don t carve. Any pipe with flaws I subject to the leak test. I put a couple of coats of stain on the flaw. If any permeates the briar through to the bowl the pipe is said to have become a " leaker " and is summarily deposited in the burn basket.

Assuming a pipe has passed the leaker test and is too visibly flawed for a smooth it winds up in the box of pipes to be sent out to Curt Rollar to be sandblasted. As I mentioned in a previous post I am no expert in sandblasting. However I know enough to describe the process as I was intimately involved with its development at American Smoking Pipe Co. In fact I think it was my idea in the first place.

As we initially knew nothing about sandblasting we called on Steve Anderson , a good friend , from S&R Pipes in Columbus, OH. Steve was one of those rare individuals we could share knowledge with and get more than we could offer in return. In fact, I believe Steve to be the most versatile pipe maker in the country. He knows the machine making end of pipes as well as hand making. He's been on the craft show circuit , has a retail shop, and runs a mail order business.

Of course we tried to do it on our own first and failed miserably. I will detail it a bit to save any future sandblasters the same mistakes. First we bought the most reasonable compressor available. That was mistake # 1 as what we wanted to spend was about good enough for pumping up bicycle tires; which is what we subsequently used it for. What we bought was a 3 horse power 30 gallon tank compressor. It does a fabulous job on those bike tires but didn't t make much of a dent in the briar.

Next, I paid a visit to a sand factory in Paterson NJ. What a scary place that was. They gave you a code before you came that you d have to repeat to gain entrance to the plant. There I was allowed to use various grits of sand, glass and other media to determine what would work best on briar. They were real nice and let me play for hours with their puny blaster and materials. As there were many variables involved that I didn't know about it took a couple trips to the plant to come up with the best medium. I bet you didn't know someone out there uses walnut shell pieces for blasting something. I returned home with ten bags, 100 pounds each of very fine grit sand to blast our pipes.

As I previously said our first attempts failed. We blasted and blasted and barely scratched the surface. After talking with Steve we acquired a two stage 5 HP compressor with an 80 gallon tank. This is an impressively large piece of machinery. We also were persuaded to purchase a pressurized hopper. Most commercial sandblasting is done with gravity fed units. The sand literally falls into the path of pressurized air . With a pressurized hopper that sand is forced into the path of the air. This gives the sand much needed added force. Briar after all is tough stuff.

After fooling with the proper size nozzle and finding the right air pressure we were in business. So we thought anyway. Soon after the lines seized up from condensation , an inherent by product of compressed air. We bought line filters which reduced the problem. Then we had visibility problems. Trying to see what your doing in the sandblasting cabinet is like trying to cross a desert in a sandstorm! For that's what you created in your little blasting cabinet. The cabinet comes with a little glass window that you look through. Fortunately it comes with two as the first was completely frosted by the third pipe we did. We discovered by covering it with a plastic bag you could do 5 pipes before it was totally frosted.

Now that we discovered what was necessary in order to blast pipes doing it well was another story entirely. As the fine sand easily clogs in the pressurized hopper; in order to get a decent feed of sand and air you have to shake the hopper as you are blasting. This is best done by slipping your foot under the handle and kicking vigorously and continuously. All the while you 've got your hands in two oversize thick rubber gloves, clumsily gripping a pipe in one hand and the wild snake of the air/sand line in the other; trying to look through this little slot and through the semi-frosted plastic covered glass, through the wildly swirling sand, to the poorly gripped pipe. Even with the heavy glove on if you turn the blaster on your hand it hurts. With all the jumping and kicking you get hot and that combined with the breathing mask that must be worn causes your glasses or goggles to fog up! I don t like sandblasting!

About 5 minutes of this is all I can take at one time. You shut everything down, its finally quiet, you get to examine the fruits of your labor. Visions of old Dunhill shell type finishes dancing in your head. What you 've got is 3-4 partially blasted pipes with lots of spots missing. Back to the sand mines again! We found it best to color these spots with magic marker as its the only way you can see what you 've missed. Hopefully when the black is gone you 've gotten all the missed spots. Another problem is over blasting. If you keep the blaster very long on one spot you 've got a cavity . As most blasters are aiming for as deep a blast as possible there s a fine line that is very hard to follow due to the very difficulty of the process itself.

I'm sure big pipe companies have found better ways to do this. When I visited the Weber factory years ago I saw they had giant tumbling cylinders which spun for days with pipes and sand in them. A slower but easier solution. Though I don t know how deep and beautiful a blast you could get in this manner as I think it would tend to produce rounded rather than sharp finishes. Maybe others of you who have visited pipe factories can describe what you have seen. There has got to be a better way , though I suspect the experiences of others won t be that much different than ours.

Now I m going to start trouble with all you sandblast lovers. Its taken for granted that only the briar with the hardest wood will make a great sandblast. This is due to the sand carrying away the softer wood first. As I mentioned above leave that blaster in one spot too long and it carries away everything and your hand also if you re not careful. I think the making of a good sandblast is a combination of starting with a well grained briar and great blasting technique. Its the right pressure and feed . Its the proper blasting material, and its just the right touch of the blaster himself that leads to a great sandblast. If the briar is well grained its up to the blaster to bring out the definition. It doesn't t matter the genus of the wood, Algerian, Italian or Greek. The sandblaster cuts through it all equally. I know this shoots a lot of holes in theories why Dunhills before such a date were better than after another. My guess is that one of their blasters retired and no one else could do his job as well. Or a certain material they used for blasting was no longer available. There could be lots of reasons but I doubt it is as dependent on the briar as most people tend to think.

In conclusion: In my opinion if most sandblast lovers had to blast their own pipes; me thinks they wouldn't like them so much! Mark Tinsky

American Smoking Pipe Co.
HC 88 Box 223
Pocono Lake, Pa. 18347

Return to Main Menu
Return to Pipe Musing Index