when I receive a request for a sculptural pipe on commission, I often deal with subjects that I never thought of sculpting, or even of which I was unaware of their existence. My latest sculpted pipe, of which I write here, represents the emblem of the Seabees (it reads as “C B” in English, which stands for Constuction Battalions). It is the symbol of the “Sea Bees”, military engineers of the United States Navy, a unit founded during the Second World War.
The customer, a proud Seabee, also requested a nice 1950s-style pin-up girl in a sailor’s uniform sitting on the Seabee. This, of course, complicated the work a lot, but at the same time made it more fun and interesting.
The main difficulties of this pipe, and novelty compared to the works I usually do, were the presence of two characters in dynamic pose (usually my sculpted pipes have, on the contrary, a certain symmetry), the study of their interaction and therefore of the volumes and positions, and the minuteness of the work. To enclose this complex sculpture in an ideal (and not disproportionate) size for a pipe, some elements turned out to be really small for my standards. For example, the lady’s face measures 7mm from chin to her forehead. The bow on her uniform and the fingers on her hand are perhaps among the smallest things I have ever carved.
First, I looked for numerous images of the Seabee, as well as sculptural versions of the same. Many of the images were provided to me by the client himself.
I obviously looked for pin-up reference images possibly in the pose I had in my mind.
The first drawing put on paper, as I usually do, is the side view, which defines the “shape” of the pipe. In this step I tried to establish general dimensions (also based on the briar blocks I had available), to look for the ideal positioning of the tobacco chamber, and the positioning and shape of the shank and stem. The elongated and “S” shape of the latter, in my idea, could have given a sense of dynamism, as if it were a “trail” of the flying bee.
After making the side drawing, I sketched the front view, also to evaluate the maximum width of the briar block. Not having available an infinite variety of seasoned briar blocks, the project was partly a work of “adaptation” to the candidate piece among those I had available.
At this point, given the high complexity, I still did not feel at all sure to put my hand on the wood, and it was essential for me to proceed with the creation of a clay sketch to study the volumes and to have available, during the wood carving , a reference model to be observed and studied constantly.
The model was made with traditional clay; I made it on a larger scale than the final dimensions of the pipe, also because it was difficult for me to handle too small pieces and obtain detail with traditional clay. Subsequently, for other works, I found the “Super Sculpey” type polymer clay more suitable for this purpose, much easier to manage and which allows a very high detail even in small … and above all it has the advantage of not changing consistency or harden over time until you decide to cook it in the domestic oven to make it solidify definitively.
At this stage, of course, “cleanliness” didn’t interest me. I’ve also left out some details because the goal was the study of the elements that make up the figures, and of the volumes.
Once the clay model was completed (one or two days of work were enough), the making of the pipe officially began. As usual, the first step was to draw the side shape of the “bowl” on the block of Erica Arborea briar from Tuscany, with the traces for the holes. The piece was then shaped with a band saw and the drillings executed on a lathe.
At this point I started the roughing stage. Looking at the clay model, I drew some lines with a pen to identify the areas of material to be removed, obviously leaving a certain margin so as not to accidentally remove too much wood. I started from the bee’s head, which I thought was an easier place to start.
For this purpose I used the Dremel mini-drill (the first edition, made in USA) with flexible extension, mounting carbide cutters that remove the material very quickly, but leaving a not very clean surface.
This phase is quite long and, as you go along, you have to constantly observe the piece as a whole. I try to remove material constantly from all parts of the pipe, without going down to perform the details of a single area.
Once the rough shape was obtained, I made the mouthpiece, in order to work better in the connection area between it and the pipe. Together with the customer we opted for a classic uniform black color, and not a bright color or a variegated color, to focus attention on the sculptural part of the pipe, that is already very “rich” in details.
The stem has been drilled, then worked by hand, like all those I make, and I modeled the double curve with the help of a heat gun.
Then a first detailing stage began. The elements are better defined, always with the aid of carbide bits of various shapes. At this stage I start using smaller bits. I removed material in the bee’s arms.
In some places I have already started to use manual carving tools. For example to define the character’s fingers.
As I reached higher levels of detail and began to define all the elements, I abandoned electric tools to continue exclusively with hand tools, for more control, precision and cleanliness. I have an abundant variety of tools. From palm gouges (some made especially for me by Ben Bartalesi, really excellent workmanship and quality) to micro tools, knives, to a versatile scalpel with interchangeable blades (I’m talking about the Bayha with stainless steel handle, which I personally love).
To obtain a clean surface on the briar (and on this piece in particular, very hard and prone to “tear out”) you need very sharp tools that keep their sharpness for a long time. The advantage of cleaning the surface with the ac “cutting” action of the tools, is that fewer passes of sandpaper are subsequently required to “smooth” the surface. You can start with fine abrasive papers, with the advantage of avoiding visible scratches at the end of the job. In fact, during the sanding phase, I started with p240 grit sandpaper (also p320 for some areas).
To reach “difficult” areas, for example between the arms of the bee, I used small pieces of sandpaper glued on curved and thin pieces of wood.
In this phase it is necessary to try to obtain high cleanliness inside corners and narrow areas: in these areas it is advisable to intervene directly with very sharp tools by making “notched” cuts to obtain a clear, clean, and deep separation between the parts ( this helps to obtain a greater “readability” of the sculpture. Obviously it is necessary to have a great variety of “blades” and tools with different shapes.
The finishing phase is extremely long. On the verge of exhaustion. On the other hand, it is in this phase that we begin to see the fruit of hard work. It should not be neglected because otherwise scratches and defects on the surface will be highlighted after polishing. At this stage, I added more details, such as the pin-up’s face and the military ranks engraved on the Seabee’s arms.
Given the remarkable “cleanliness” of this piece of briar (intended as the absence of natural defects like sandpits), with the customer we decided not to apply colors, and not to darken it to avoid the risk of a difficult reading of the numerous details.
The finishing was done with shellac wax (a wax with a melting point higher than that of carnauba wax), in 3 passes.
The display stand
I wanted to create a stand for this pipe, with an elegant design that would enhance the work I’ve done. I liked the idea that the pipe was almost suspended, as if it were in flight.
The support is made of beech and ash with black tint, and in the attachment point I have inserted thin strips of leather to avoid creating marks on the mouthpiece. The pipe is held firmly and can be extracted and inserted only laterally, so as to avoid the possibility of accidental falls.
This pipe is probably one of the most complex works I have ever done so far. Net of the hours followed, I think it took a little less than a working month.
An experience that made me grow further.
Sure, the subject is very “niche”, but it was extremely appreciated by the customer.
The pipe arrived in the customer’s hands exactly one day before the Seabees’ birthday, in time to be smoked exclusively on special occasions, such as on this particular anniversary.
Seabees – “We build, we fight!”
More pictures here!