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
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