Clay Pipe Making: The Victorian Way

By Jason Sandy

English clay pipe making

Beginning in the late 16th century, clay pipe making has been a long tradition in England, passed on from generation to generation. From the 17th century onwards, pipe makers used iron molds in order to produce their clay pipes. Historians were not exactly sure how the earliest clay pipes were produced in the late 16th century until Mudlark Alan Place miraculously found the earliest known clay pipe mold in the River Thames in 2011. Based on the size and shape of the pipe carved into the mold, the Museum of London has dated it to AD 1580—1610. Surviving over 400 years in the waterlogged conditions of the Thames foreshore, this wooden mold is the only known example in Britain which still exists.

To regulate the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes, the Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders was granted a charter by King James I in 1619. Because of the rising popularity of smoking, there were over 1,000 clay pipe makers in London by the end of the 17th century. While beachcombing along the River Thames, a mudlark found a beautiful 17th century token with three clay pipes depicted on it (below). The brass token is possibly from a clay pipe making business located south of the River Thames in London. The pipe making industry flourished until the beginning of the 20th century when cigarettes became more popular than pipe smoking. As a result, the commercial production of clay pipes dwindled and ceased in the 1960’s. 

english pipe token

17th century clay pipe token, photo by Tony Thira

In Broseley, England where clay pipe production began in 1590, there is one man who is the only pipe maker in the world who still produces clay pipes using the traditional Victorian methods with original pipe molds from the 19th century. Rex Key has been making clay pipes for over 50 years, and he has a collection of over 14,000 clay pipes which he has acquired over the years. I had the fortunate privilege of interviewing Rex in his clay pipe workshop. During my four-hour visit,
Rex kindly demonstrated the traditional Victorian method of producing clay tobacco pipes, illustrated and described in the following photos and text.

victorian clay pipe making steps

Step 1: Originating in Cornwall, the fine grey clay was shipped to Rex’s production facility in large sacks. Rex took a handful of soft, moist clay out of the bag and beat it repeatedly on the worktop in order to release the tiny air bubbles caught in the clay. 

Step 2: Next Rex set the ball of soft clay on his work bench and gently rolled it into a long tube using both hands. At one end, he left a lump of clay which would eventually become the pipe bowl. At the other end, Rex carefully inserted a long, straight piercing rod through the centre of the pipe stem. 

making clay pipes step by step

Step 3: In his workshop, Rex has several shelves full of beautiful clay pipes molds to choose from, so I asked him to make an eagle’s claw clay pipe because of the intricate, detailed design. After retrieving the iron mold from the shelf, Rex used a small paint brush to gently apply paraffin (a type of oil) to both sides of the iron mold to ensure that the clay didn’t stick to the sides of the mold. 

Step 4: Then Rex took the long clay roll and bent it to fit in the shape of the mold. He gently pressed the clay into one side of the mold and put the other half of the mold on top. 

english clay pipe making

Step 5: After securing the two sides of the mold together, Rex set them in a table-mounted clamp which he slowly and firmly tightened. Using a traditional “gin press,” he pulled down the lever arm which extended a rounded stopper into the open hole at the top of the mold. When the steel tip entered the hole, it created the hollow in the pipe bowl. In the process, the soft clay was pushed firmly against the sides of the mold, impressing the intricate design into the soft clay. After releasing the lever handle, Rex carefully pushed the piercing rod into the newly formed pipe bowl to ensure there was a continuous air path from the tip of the pipe stem to the bowl.

Step 6: After releasing the clamp and trimming the excess clay from the top of the bowl, Rex laid the mold on its side and opened it, revealing the incredible design of the clay pipe. He took his custom-made steel stamp and pressed his maker’s mark (REX M KEY—BROSELEY) into the clay pipe stem. 

victorian clay pipes england

Step 7: After removing the long wire from the stem, he extracted the soft clay pipe from the mold and laid the pipe on a tray to air dry. After several days, Rex used a small trimming knife and carefully removed the burrs along the seam of the clay pipe. Most of the moisture had evaporated, and the pipe was ready to be fired. 

Step 8: Traditionally, Victorian pipe makers used a wood fired kiln made of bricks to fire the clay pipes at 900° C (1,650° F). To expedite and regulate the process, Rex uses a modern electric kiln which can fire over 1,000 pipes at one time. After the firing process, the pipes are complete and ready for use.

During his 50 years of pipe making, Rex has produced clay pipes for a wide variety of clients including Pinewood Studios, Warner Brothers and even Princeton University. His pipes have appeared in several Hollywood movies including The Pirates of the Caribbean and many period dramas on British television. At 73 years old, Rex is now retired and is looking for an apprentice whom he can teach in order to keep this long tradition going for future generations. In the summertime and for special occasions, Rex still demonstrates pipe making at the Broseley Clay Tobacco Pipe Works. If you want to find out more about clay pipe making and see an incredible array of clay pipe designs, I would highly recommend a visit to the museum in Broseley located west of Birmingham, England. www.ironbridge.org.uk/explore/broseley-pipeworks

Read more about antique clay pipes found on the banks of the River Thames in Mudlarking: The Art of Smoking.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2019 issue

1 comment

Hi there, could you please contact me with regards to getting some more information about this apprenticeship? Thanks so much.

Kerry Rex January 09, 2020

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