Smoothing Out Ruff Edges

James Foster
I had first heard about some of Rik’s custom tampers
after seeing a tamper that looked very much like a cigar, ash and all. Doing a double take I had asked where did that come from and I was pointed to Etsy to a new pipe smoker and new carver who has a unique talent for making exquisite tampers, many of which are one of a kind.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Rik and interview him about how he got into making tampers and pipe smoking and thought I’d share with you, so here we go:

First thing’s first, how did you get into pipe smoking?
It started in July of 2013 when a co-worker and I were talking about tobacco pipe smoking and that he was considering trying out a new hobby. I considered it as well because it brought back memories of my wife’s uncle Bill who smoked a pipe. You see, I was a cigarette smoker for 20 years up until 2006, and when Shari and I would visit family, Bill and I would smoke together. I just remember the aroma of pipe tobacco and thought smoking a pipe was interesting, but I never thought I’d pick it up. To me, smoking a pipe was an older gentleman’s gig…and here I am almost 20 years later, smoking a pipe.

What was your first pipe?

Rick’s Vauen Ascot 443

My first pipe was a Vauen Ascot 443 that I purchased from the Tinder Box in Fairview Heights, Illinois back in August 2013. My wife and I were visiting family and before we arrived at the in-laws, I made the decision to try pipe smoking so we made a detour to the Tinder Box. I didn’t know what kind of pipe to buy so I spent several minutes looking at each one and I’m sure the tobacconist was wondering why it was taking so long. After some time I decided to take home the Vauen. I liked the look and feel and it seemed like this pipe was calling my name. And so the pipe smoking journey began.

From pipe smoker to tamper carver how did that happen?
When I purchased my first pipe, I picked up the usual accessories–pipe cleaners, a lighter, and a Czech tool. It didn’t take long for me to find other things to use as tampers whether it was a piece of bamboo, a Japanese porcelain knickknack, deer antler, or a spent bullet shell. But it wasn’t until I noticed other handcrafted tampers from artisans on Instagram before I eventually decided to made a few purchases and add to my little collection. After seeing these pieces of work up close and personal, I thought that this is something I could possibly do. I’ve always considered myself artistic and fairly good with my hands, so I went to work with the tools that I had on hand, specifically a Dremel tool. Now it was time to procure some materials. After creating a couple of pieces and posting photos on Instagram, I began to receive positive feedback which is always good for the ego. More interest in my work led me to buy more tools, which not only made things much easier to create but also reduce the time it was taking me to finish a piece.

Mustache Tamper

Was there anyone that encouraged you or that inspired you to carve?
I’d say that it was works of Aaron Strange (BriarBoy on Instagram) that got me interested in tampers. He creates beautiful tampers out of briar that look like pieces of art. The shaping of each piece and the added accents make each one unique. I eventually bought a couple of his tampers for my own collection. From that point on I just started to buy some tools and do my own thing.

Where do you get your inspiration to carve these tampers from?
I’m on Instagram about 95% of the time, so I get my inspiration from photos posted from others in the pipe community. Several times it’s just someone asking if I could make a tamper that looks like such and such. For example, Dave Caplan of Cibolo, Texas (fellow Instagrammer) asked if I could make a tamper that looks like a cigar. I said I’d give it a try. Within a day I finished a cigar tamper with a spent shell casing at the tamping end and called it the “Cibolo Cigar”. Dave made the first purchase of this line of tampers.

I’ve tweaked the cigar tamper slightly by replacing the spent shell casing with a carved and painted tamper end so that it looks like an ash. Even the band around the cigar tamper has been changed from paint to stain. This has been my most popular tamper amongst the pipe and cigar smokers in the Instagram community. Another example would be Mark Balkovec’s Ring Of Fire pipe which is owned by Mike Lancaster of This pipe features a ring of flames carved into the pipe. This inspired me to carve flames into deer antler and I was able to create a pair of unique tampers which I still own today.

Do you smoke your pipes when you carve?
But of course! I don’t think I carve or turn a single tamper in the garage without smoking a pipe. It’s only natural.

Ok what’s your tobacco of choice?
My favorite tobacco is Esoterica Penzance. It was through several comments by other pipe smokers on Instagram that piqued my interest. When I started drawing portraits of a few pipe smokers last year an individual said, “There’s a tin of Penzance for ya if you do me!”. My typical response was, “Let me think about it.” But it didn’t take long for me to accept that offer! I received the tin of Penzance which was aged for almost 2-years, and the first smoke was amazing! I’ve been hooked since.

I really like English blends with lots of Latakia and also blends with Virginias. Lately I’ve been enjoying Mac Baren Vintage Syrian, G.L. Pease Gaslight, Balkan Sasieni, and Orlik Golden Sliced just to name a few. There really isn’t a tobacco I don’t like, but I must say that I rarely smoke aromatics. I just prefer the “in your face” tobaccos and the aromatics don’t do it for me. But when I do smoke them, Peterson blends are what I lean towards.

Could you describe your carving process?
Well, if it’s a simply turned piece such as a cigar tamper, I start off with a piece of wood…normally a pen blank. So far, I’ve purchased my exotic wood from eBay (10-pound bundle) which varies in types and sizes. I turn the shape of a cigar with my chisels and then add a band and carve the ash with a dremel. After sanding, staining, and buffing with carnauba wax, I’ll paint the ash end and then finish it off by adding a clear coat (most of the time).

Carving a Tamper

If it’s a commission piece, then there’s a little more preparation. Once I get an idea from a customer, whether it’s an idea on paper, an actual sketch or even a photo, I do a little more research just to gather more reference material. Most of the time it’s just a idea and everything is left to my interpretation or creativeness. But there have been a few customers that already have a photo of what they want. I would Google the subject, compile some photos and then create my own sketch as a reference.

Custom Carved Airplane Propeller

The airplane propeller is a good example. I was provided a photo of an airplane propeller. I Googled the subject so that I could find other photos taken at different angles. At that point I grabbed a blank piece of wood and drew an outline. I cut out the shape and then used the Dremel to quickly shape the piece. Then I used files and sandpaper to smooth it out. When I was happy with the propeller shape, I needed to create a base so I grabbed some scrap pieces of briar and glued them to each side of the base. Once the glue dried, I shaped the base with my sanding disc. All that was left was to add a couple of details on the propeller and that was left for my Dremel once again. I left it unstained and just buffed in some carnauba wax. I was quite happy with the results.

Aside from the Dremel what other tools are you using?
All of my wood turnings are on a JET mini-lathe which is my primary tool. And you can’t turn any wood without chisels which I picked up on eBay. I’m currently borrowing a more “robust” set of chisels from a co-worker until I decide to get a good set of my own. I also have a bench grinder that I converted to a buffing/sanding tool; one end has a sanding disc and the other has a buffing pad. I recently added a drill press and small table jigsaw. And then there are other inexpensive tools; calipers, rulers/measuring tapes, files and various leather dyes, paints and sanding blocks. All of the tools I own are simple, reliable, and help me to get the job done.

Intricate Detail Work in the Tampers

You mentioned you borrowed tools from a co-worker what do you do for your day job?
I’m a technical adviser in the Aerospace industry and work as a government contractor for the Air Force at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

You’ve decided to sell your carvings on Etsy, how is that working out?
Etsy has been a great platform and has definitely allowed me to reach a wider audience. It was my fellow pipers who suggested I open up a shop and at first, I really didn’t think my tampers were good enough to sell or that there was an interest, so I chose to give them away as gifts. And how would I choose the recipient on Instagram? Well, it could have been someone who posted the first comment on one of my photos or that they wanted one like it. I gave away a dozen or so tampers before I decided to open up my own shop on Easter Sunday of this year and call it “RuffWorksUSA — Handcrafted in the Heartland of America".

Tamper with Snuff Spoon

How well is it going so far?
So far business has been good and I am grateful for the support. Since I started selling my tampers on Etsy, I’ve had the opportunity to venture out and sell them through Abram Lynch at, and more recently, Ben of Again, I’m grateful for the opportunity and hope every single tamper sells at their location.

My new hobby is challenging, especially carving since I don’t consider myself a carver. Trying to create detailed work on a small piece of wood or deer antler is tough, especially with a Dremel. I may need to upgrade to a better carving tool for more intricate work and also to improve my skills. I’m going to work it as hard as I am able and while it is still fun, because my hobbies come and go like the wind. I’ll get into something and stick with it for a few before I lose interest and move onto something else. I really hope this lasts a long time because I really enjoy it. Especially for the people who show an interest in my tampers and put them to good use.

Are you thinking about carving pipes?
I thought about it, but it’s just tampers for now. Maybe someday down the road I’ll attempt to make a pipe of my own. But for now I’m enjoying the tamper work.

You can find out more about Rik Ruff’s tampers by going to his Etsy Store here or follow him on instagram



James Foster goes by the online handle of Pylorns in the forums, and he is the creator of an app for keeping track of your tobacco cellar inventory called The Pipe Tool.


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4 Responses

  • Wow! What a prolific and creative artisan! Thanks for a great interview and wonderful illustrations. Very nicely done!

  • Awesome photo-interview. He makes some amazing tamps. It’s refreshing to see the creativity and playfulness of the designs.

  • I have the pleasure if owning his work. Rik makes very high quality tampers that are incredibly affordable. He’s also a class act! Do yourself a favor and check out his work, I bet you won’t leave the page without purchasing one of his tampers.
    Great interview Mr. James Foster!

  • Rik is doing some amazing work, I am honored to know I gave him some inspiration to get started.