One vision, one factory, two men
Castello is something of an anomaly in the world of modern Italian artisan pipe making. Carlo Scotti, when he founded Castello in 1947, did more than anyone else to create the idea of the modern Italian hand made pipe as we've come to know it. Today, Castello pipes, roughly 3,500 each year, are crafted by six men under the aegis of Franco Coppo. Most Italian pipes of the variety that Scotti's vision ultimately spawned are smaller workshops, with perhaps one to three pipe makers. Each Castello pipe is hand shaped; it is Coppo's guidance and vision that keeps Castello pipes consistent in terms of shape and engineering. It is impossible to overstate how central Castello has been to Italian pipe making. When Carlo Scotti founded Castello, millions of pipes were being made in Italian factories. It wasn't that he created a pipe making tradition; it's that he created a new sort of pipe making tradition. Through the 1940s, high quality pipes principally came from London. Cheaper pipes were made elsewhere, especially in Italy. Scotti recognized what Italian craftsmanship and sense of style could bring to pipes, just as it was doing so for everything from clothes to cars at the time. The historical significance of this factory weighed heavily on me as we made the 50km drive from our hotel to Castello. I had the sense that I was about to tread upon hallowed ground. I knew that this would be a special experience. I had yet to discover how special.
When we arrived Franco Coppo and Marco Parascenzo met us outside and quickly brought us in out of the cold, wet drizzle. Entering Castello, even before reaching the factory, is a special experience. Pipes are everywhere, lining the walls and in cases. These aren't pipes that will ever be for sale. These are simply a mix of Coppo's collection, examples of shapes, and some experiments. We were bundled into the factory without too much ado, supplied with much needed espresso after our rainy, circuitous journey to the factory, and began to poke around. There was something different about Castello from almost every workshop or factory I'd ever been to. It was clean. It was also massive. In part, this sense was lent by the simple fact that it was one massive, rectangular room. Briar filled bin after bin, extending for perhaps sixty feet down the right side of the factory. The cleanliness and massiveness seemed to accentuate each other. It's not that most pipe workshops are particularly dirty or messy. Well, actually they are. But that's rather to be expected for small enterprises that make briar dust and vulcanite shavings for a living. While I'd be disinclined to perform surgery in the Castello factory, it was remarkably clean. The briar in the bins extending down the right side of the factory represented only a part of what Castello has on hand, representing the last stage of the ten year storage and drying process that each Castello block goes through to ensure that it is completely dry.
Running the length of the left side of the factory was a long work table, terminating into a series of smaller work stations. Six men worked diligently while we watched. One sanded stems, another rusticated bowls for the Sea Rock finish, one worked on slotting and rough shaping stems, yet another carved one of the rare, celebrated Flame series of pipes. Watching this last process was particularly special. These stunning pipes are only worked on in the morning, when the light is perfect to be able to see the work properly, then executed extremely slowly: one pipe might take two or three weeks to complete in this fashion. Each is done with a series of tiny chisels and sharpened spoon-like instruments, slowly painstakingly letting the flames that encompass the bottom of the bowl emerge.
Watching the steps that went into the rustication of the beloved Sea Rock finish was equally fascinating. First, deeper channels are dug with a rounded-chisel-like instrument, followed by lighter rustication with a home-made doodad that looks like a bunch of nails protruding from a small, round block of wood, with a handle affixed. Finally, two different grades of wire brush are used to rough the remaining smooth areas and graduate the transitions. Mr. Coppo suggested that I try my hand at rustication. The chisel is unwieldy and the briar is extremely hard. After a few minutes of diligent effort with the chisel, my rusticated half of a pipe looked not nearly as good as that of the Castello gent who had kindly let me play at his station. I moved on to the nail contraption and that was equally challenging. The wire brushes I managed without incident. The finished result was, well, not quite as good as Castello's normal Sea Rock fare. I suspect that they'll have to clean up the rustication on that one. Perhaps what surprised me most is what hard work it is. Briar is an amazingly hard wood, which is what makes it the perfect material for pipes. It also makes it extremely difficult to cut in any controlled way. My hands were exhausted after a few minutes. I'm left very impressed by men who can do this for hours at a sitting.
We moved on to watching stems be shaped and finished. Every stem at Castello is cut from sheet acrylic-- there isn't a pre-made stem to be found in the factory. I've watched stems being made elsewhere-- Denmark, Japan-- and the process is what I would have expected. The results, as any Castello aficionado would attest, are a remarkably comfortable stem. Apparently, the acrylic stock that Castello uses is also specially mixed for them to be slightly softer on the teeth and less brittle than most acrylics used for stems.
The Castello factory is the only facility that Castello has ever inhabited. Every single Castello pipe, for all sixty-three years of its existence, was made here. The first pipes, those that established Castello as a new force in pipe making in the late 1940s and early 1950s were made here. And those early creations have been joined by hundreds of thousands of pipes since. Today, approximately 3,500 pipes are made by Castello annually. From the perspective of a small artisan, that's an extraordinary number. From the perspective of the middle-sized enterprise that it is, it is truly tiny. The care, the diligence, the reverence, the love that Franco Coppo and his team of pipe makers bring to the process is extraordinary.
The factory was an extraordinary experience, but the real treat was entering the pipe room. Case upon case of pipes line the walls of this tiny room, surrounding a large wooden table. The room feels like the crypt of a church: for its closeness, as well as for the sense of reverence that one has upon entering. This is very much Coppo's domain. A handful of Renaissance frescoes, rescued from churches over the years, hang on the walls, high above head height. The best pipes in the Castello museum are lovingly kept here in glass cabinets. It's not that Coppo describes it as a museum, but it's far more than a collection. It feels almost like a shrine to great pipes of years past.
And that is where the selecting began. We had perhaps 1,500 pipes to select from. This was very much a surfeit of riches. In the world of selecting pipes, more is almost always better. But to go from 1,500 to our planned seven or eight dozen was quite a challenge. We selected some 150 pipes, then weeded from there. The most difficult, painful part of the weeding was on the Castello "Castello" and Collection grade pieces. We ultimately picked 96 pipes, but all of those 150 would have been happily selected (and indeed more that we passed up in the first round) had I been choosing from a less extraordinary array of pipes. Franco, Marco, my girlfriend all watched as I made excruciating choices to return some of the pipes back to the cabinets. It was a bittersweet process, letting great pipes go like that, only to have the best of the best remain. Indeed, we had planned to go out to lunch, the four of us, but that plan was abandoned in favor of quick sandwiches that Marco went out for as I labored slowly through the selection process.
As we sat down for lunch, having picked out nearly a hundred Castellos for Smokingpipes.com, I began reflecting on what had just transpired. I love pipes. I love being in the pipe business, at the nexus of maker and collector. There is something about the tradition of pipe making and the tenacity and perfectionism of pipe makers that I love. I also love the pipes that result from that. And Castello is an extraordinary institution devoted to those virtues.