60 Seconds of Skill: Pipemaker Oliver Meeson

60 Seconds of Skill is a moment to reflect, a minute from the ads to take a break and watch Craftspeople from the UK make some beautiful objects. Often these items are made in the same way that they have been made for hundreds if not thousands of years. They remind us that History is Alive.

We talked to Oliver Meeson a Clay Pipe maker from Newport in Shropshire. He is the last know Pipe maker in the UK and is single handily keeping this craft alive.

Oliver Meeson: The UK's last working pipe maker

Having a lifelong interest in history and a background in art, through an accidental introduction to pipe making and learning of its decline, Oliver Meeson was inspired to learn the craft of clay tobacco making and thereby hopefully ensure this aspect of social history is not forgotten. He specialised in making traditional 19th century tobacco clay pipes using original moulds and techniques. The pipes are made using white earthenware clay, fired in a kiln and then each pipe is individually checked and finished by hand to provide a smooth finish and ensure perfect quality. Oliver is the last working pipemaker in the UK, if he doesn’t pass on the techniques this skill will die with him.

How long does it take to make a pipe like the one you made for 60 Seconds of Skill?

It depends on the size of the pipe, somewhere between 3-5 minutes. This is for the initial mould of the pipe, it is then left to air dry for 24 hours before firing.

How did you get into pipe making, and how long have you been doing it?

I got into pipe making purely by coincidence, my father is in the Newport History Society and at one of their meetings a man by the name of Rex Keys did a talk about clay pipes. My father came home and told me all about it and I was hooked. I spoke with Rex and he invited me to spend a day with him learning the ropes. I have now been making pipes for three years.

What period of Pipe making do you specialize in?

I mostly make pipes dating from the Victorian period (18th Century) however I do make some that were in production in the mid 19th Century also.

Do you know how long people have been making pipes throughout history?

Pipe making has been around in the UK for roughly 400 years, since the end of the Tudor period.

How long did it take for you to learn to make a clay pipe?

I spent a day with Rex learning the basic techniques and skills that were historically used to make clay pipes. Then it was down to me and lots of practice, combined with my previous experience working with clay at college that helped me perfect my skill.

How endangered is this craft of being lost forever? What are the reasons?

I am the only known remaining pipe maker in the UK and unless others learn the skill and continue this craft it will die with me. I believe the reason for this is because not only is there little interest in pipe making in practice and custom, there’s the fact that the moulds and required apparatus are near impossible to acquire.

As part of your business, who do you sell your finished pipes to?

I sell my pipes at craft fairs and shows. Most of the pipes I sell are bought by people who use them as ornaments in their home or as part of a collection. I do demonstrations and sell pipes at the same time. I also sell directly to museums, shops and online. These groups often buy my pipes to sell on themselves, in addition, I have made cane caps as a new product. I have done this by using just the bowl of one of the pipe patterns that I have which looks attractive.

If someone wants to take up this craft, what do you suggest they do to get started?

Firstly, they would need to get their hands on some moulds and secondly spend some time with an experienced pipe maker and have a go. It’s not for everyone as you need a steady hand and lots of patience. But once you’ve got the hang of it it’s quite therapeutic and rewarding.