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21 June 2010

A Pipe Family
 Radice pipes at 30

       -Posted by sykes-

Luigi "Gigi" Radice started making pipes in 1960, working at the Castello factory as a young man. He spent eight years there, leaving in 1968 to co-found Caminetto with fellow Castello veteran, Peppino Ascorti. Eleven years later, that partnership ended. And in 1980, Luigi founded Radice pipes. With a career length rivaled (though not surpassed) only by Hans "Former" Nielsen in Denmark, he is also unquestionably the world's oldest full time pipe maker. And for Luigi, full time denotes, well, pretty much all of his time. His sons, Gianluca and Marzio, are very hardworking men, putting in long days in the workshop. Luigi's life is dedicated to his craft at this point, beginning work at seven, stopping for lunch and wrapping up at six, and returning to work late in the evening most nights. Saturdays and Sundays also see Luigi working away, making pipes, though he often reserves Sunday afternoons for the more whimsical creations for which he is famous. Keep in mind that this grueling pipe making pace is maintained by a man in his seventies, though Luigi acts nothing like his age. Stylistically, Radice owes much to its Castello roots, and the evolution of that style that Radice and Ascorti developed for Caminetto, but the soul of the brand is Gigi's. His playfulness, almost childlike delight in tinkering with pipes, his creativity and his relentless dedication to quality established the brand some thirty years ago, and kept it focused, consistent, and innovative ever since.

We arrived, as usual, slightly late, having become slightly lost on the brief journey from Cantu (having visited Castello) to Cucciago. Yes, it is supposed to be just a ten minute drive, but between my predisposition towards being lost (I have indeed developed it into something of an art form), and tiny little roads in Italian towns, it took about twice that. Luca di Piazza, Radice's general representative outside of Italy, met us outside and ushered us into the narrow, long workshop. The workshop is by no means small, but it felt cozy and homey in a way that the larger factory's impressive scale and painstaking cleanliness precluded. While I'd been very impressed by Castello, this felt more like the pipe workshops that I've known and loved all over the world. When we arrived, Gigi was doing the first cuts on a block of briar on the band saw, removing big chunks of unwanted wood before he took the block to the sanding disk for shaping. He looked up, smiled, and returned to what he was doing. Marzio and Gianluca ushered us into a room adjoining the workshop that seems to serve as one part office and one part dining room, perhaps just a general sanctuary from the workshop. Plied with excellent espresso coffee, we chatted about Radice, its recent history, and the sorts of things they are working on these days. We've seen a fair number of recent Radices; we've had about 120 come through our doors so far this year, but the discussion certainly served to put what we'd seen so far into perspective. The three Radices target 1,200 pipes a year, though it seems that they'll make rather more than that given they're already about 700 pipes in, not yet half way through the year.

After perhaps twenty or thirty minutes, Gigi, having completed what he was working on, joined us and, through Luca as translator, showed us around. He pulled out a collection of tiny Radice pipes, plus a series of rather bizarre contraptions, including a three bowled pipe with little nozzles to turn each bowl on and off. He also showed us the founding document that created the Caminetto brand in 1968 (a picture of which failed to come out very well, sadly). Then he showed us a pipe with 360-degree birdseye, an almost impossible feat given that briar grain radiates from the center of the burl, with the center always being unusable. But, here it was, with grain radiating out from the chamber on the wide rim and birdseye right the way around the bowl. Finally, we moved on to more conventional Radices and took perhaps an hour to pick roughly sixty pipes, of all shapes, sizes and finishes. I am particularly partial to the two very small lovats that will be coming, though there are some Collect grade pieces that are as gigantic as the lovats are tiny, so there really is something for everyone upcoming over the next few weeks and months.

Having finished selecting from finished pipes, we moved back out to the workshop to look through some lovely nearly-finished pieces, adding another two dozen to the impressive selection we'd amassed in the other room. At this point, Gigi went back to work, both because we wanted photos of all of them working, but also, I suspect, because he'd already sat still for many times longer than he normally does. At 72, Gigi has more energy than I do, at less than half his age. He started work, first at the band saw and then at the sanding disk, on a Collect grade piece that will probably end up as a sandblasted or rusticated pipe, given the contours of the grain and a minor sand spot on the side of the bowl. As he worked, Gianluca began rusticating and Marzio started filing stems. All Radice stems are cut from plate acrylic, except for the few that they make from high grade vulcanite rod, either black or in cumberland (marked with a small 'v' stamp on the shank).

We continued to chat with Luca, with Marzio periodically throwing in a comment in Italian as Luca translated for us, but Gigi was back to work and beyond discussion. Finally, when it became clear that we were nearing our departure time (for we had a four hour drive ahead of us), Gigi moved from the sanding disk so that we could see the carving work that goes into Radice's special Underwood finish. Almost to the last, Gigi continued to work. It wasn't that we felt ignored by him, just that this is what he had to offer us. His English is about as good as my Italian, which is to say nonexistent, so what he could offer were his pipes and his efforts.

And indeed that is what every pipe maker has to offer at the end of a day's work. Like the fabrication of anything, the end product is what matters. But with pipes, the process is very important too. The enthusiasm, the soul of the pipe maker, is visible in the finished product. And Gigi's vision is there in every pipe that leaves that small workshop in Cucciago.

Posted by sykes at 7:47 PM | Link | 0 comments

One vision, one factory, two men
 63 Years of Castello under Carlo Scotti and Franco Coppo

       -Posted by sykes-

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, 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.

Posted by sykes at 7:07 AM | Link | 3 comments

19 June 2010

Where tradition meets innovation
 Ardor Pipes

       -Posted by sykes-

My apologies for my protracted absence from my blogging duties. We have been very much on the move and time and solid internet connectivity have not coincided until today. We've now completed the first leg of the trip, visiting five pipe makers and a briar cutter so far. I'll write an entry about each over the next couple of days. I had hoped for something a little closer to real time, but, as is so frequently the case, my plans were just a tiny bit too ambitious. So, we are now in Florence, and amidst the visiting of churches and museums and great restaurants, I hope to spend a little time writing here and there.

Three days ago, on our third day on the Italian and German (and a bit French) pipe maker tour, we visited Ardor. We were running a little late, having decided to take the mountain pass out of Switzerland instead of doing what sane people do, take the tunnel. It was raining; we found ourselves in the clouds. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but rather slow as we inched our way up and then down the Simplon pass. Nonetheless, we arrived late in the afternoon, to be warmly greeted by Dorelio and Damiano Rovera, the father and son team that make Ardor pipes. Ardor has been a special brand for us for many years. has carried it without interruption for nearly a decade now. We've watched the aesthetic evolve, the engineering improve, and the finishing and detail work get better with each passing year. That is not to say that it wasn't excellent ten years ago; it was. But, all good pipe makers make refinements over the years, slowly improving technique, engineering and, perhaps, shaping. I just think that Ardor has done a better job of that incremental improvement than most.

Damiano Rovera, having lived for a few months as a child with a family friend in London, speaks very good English. His father speaks none at all. And while I was able to navigate a little in France and Switzerland using my horrifyingly bad French, my Italian extends exactly far enough to make out about half of what's on a menu. We started out by poking around their little shop above the workshop, looking at the displays of Ardor pipes, some of which constitute the family collection of sorts. Angelo, Dorelio's father, was a remarkable carver of briar, not just for pipes, but for other little items and objet d'art. Dorelio is also remarkably skilled at this, though his passion runs more towards pipe shaping and less towards this sort of figural work (which one does see in the Ardor tampers and, from time to time, on a rare Ardor figural).

From there, we descended to the workshop. According to Damiano, this is a rare privilege. Unlike our previous pipe visit, Ardor does not accept visitors into the workshop. Damiano said that I was the fourth man to enter the workshop to visit that he could recall. It's very much that Dorelio just considers the workshop a private domain. The shop is for the customers; the workshop is his (and Damiano's) alone. We were very flattered. And we were much impressed by the large, well equipped, sophisticated workshop. Yes, like almost every workshop that I've ever entered, it was messy. It's awfully difficult to keep a workshop where flecks of wood and sawdust fly every which way clean, but there was a certain order and precision, a contained chaos, that I've only seen a couple of other places. I was surprised that it reminded me a little of Tom Eltang's workshop. They're so different in so many ways that I couldn't put my finger on it. I think now that it is simply that both are thoughtfully structured, organized, and efficient.

Perhaps what I find so curious about Ardor is that the company will celebrate its one hundredth anniversary next year. Yet, they have all of the youthful energy of a young partnership. Damiano especially draws heavily on Danish and German stylistic influences. Close collaboration with customers also leads them in new and interesting directions. This is a company with both an extraordinary tradition and a constant thirst to evolve, improve, and explore, both artistically and from a craft perspective. Having intuited this from the pipes for years, it was a particularly special experience for me to be able to see it, meet the men behind the brand, and to understand what it is that makes Ardor so special.

There is also a special Ardor project that is upcoming, something that has been in the works for perhaps a month or two now. I've been involved in discussions about shape and adornments with Ardor and Steve Monjure, Ardor's representative in the United States. I shan't divulge too many details now, but I will share a picture of some drawings and two prototypes that were worked on while we visited. All photos accompanying this blog entry revolve around those prototypes and that project. Hopefully it won't be too long before we can also share the finished project with you.

Following a couple of hours in the workshop as we looked at the machines, watched Dorelio shape a pipe, and generally talked pipes, we went out to dinner with Damiano and his wife and two young boys. Meals are central to everything in life in Italy and it was a particularly special experience for us to be able to join this Italian family for the evening at a restaurant owned by Damiano's wife's cousin. If you ever find yourself in the neighborhood of Varese, Ristorante La Casa del Ghiottone Errante is definitely worth a visit! The food was superb, especially the risotto with Barolo sauce. However, having the opportunity to chat for two hours with Damiano was wonderful. Damiano is as passionate about pipe making as he is gifted a pipe maker. And it is this passion that makes each Ardor pipe a treasure.

Posted by sykes at 3:03 PM | Link | 1 comment

16 June 2010

Home of the Briar Pipe
 St. Claude, France

       -Posted by sykes-

Yesterday, we drove through St. Claude on our way from northern France to Italy. Historically, hasn't worked too much with French pipe makers or French pipe brands. We've been talking here and there with Sebastien Beaud, owner of Genod Pipes. Genod has a storied history, reaching back decades. Its previous owner, Jacques Craen, was famous in France, but less well known elsewhere. Indeed, Genod itself has a dedicated following in France, even if it has been less well known outside of its home market for the past couple of decades. We had a nice chat about pipes--French pipes in general and Genod in particular--and, of course, had a lovely lunch. St. Claude is beautiful, clinging to both sides of a steep valley, with bridges crossing between the sides as various altitudes and intervals. It seems an unlikely place for industry-- even light industry like pipe making-- until one considers the fact that it has abundant water power, which is what originally drove the machinery. So, while it is rather remote, it had the absolutely necessary condition for early manufacturing: water power. The Genod workshop has been there a long time. Sebastien showed us the shaft that drove the old water powered machinery by way of belts. Of course, none of that has been used in decades, but it's neat that the shaft is still there.

For us, perhaps what is most remarkable is that this is a city that celebrates its history as the birthplace of the briar pipe and the center of French pipe making. About one hundred and fifty years ago the first briar pipes were made in St. Claude. Fifty years ago, millions of pipes were being made each year in St. Claude. Today, fewer than 80 people work in pipe manufacturing in this city of perhaps 12,000. There are just four independent outfits left: Butz Choquin, Chacom, Genod, and LaCroix. And the last two are small workshop sized rather than factory sized, with a handful of makers rather than a large staff. Still, from the topiary pipe in front of the cathedral to little bits of pipe artwork here and there, and the ubiquitous murals, almost all of which feature pipe making or pipe smokers, this is a city that does not shy away from its cultural heritage, even in this climate of anti-tobacco hysteria. Apparently, Genod workshop tours are even quite the tourist attraction for St. Claude, with groups of 30-50 people coming multiple times a week to see a pipe being made. We arrived early and Sebastien was wrapping up with one group when we arrived. We joined the tour part way in. Given my familiarity with the stuff he was doing, I was more curious to see and hear reactions from the group. These folks were genuinely interested and curious about the process. My French is far from great, but I answered a couple of questions as best I could once Sebastien introduced me to the group. None of the questions that I could understand suggested any round rejection of tobacco; they asked about the process, the methods, even the market for pipes (some questions I just missed amidst the whirring of the machines; it's tough enough for me to understand French without a disk sander in the background!). And these were just run of the mill French tourists, not people with a particular interest in pipes. I was pleasantly surprised.

St. Claude is also in a part of France that is quite new to me. I've spent a lot of time in this wonderful country, though never in the Jura mountains. It's rugged and beautiful, an awesome setting for the birthplace of briar pipe making. And kudos to the good citizens of St. Claude for preserving that tradition!

Posted by sykes at 6:09 PM | Link | 3 comments

12 June 2010

France/ Italy/ Germany Itinerary -- June 2010
 Google Maps is seriously cool

       -Posted by sykes-

View Larger Map

Most of the stops along the way are for pipe makers, pipe collectors and the like. Some of them (yes, Florence) are because I'm bringing my girlfriend and heeding the good advice of an industry veteran: "if you want a longterm relationship with this woman, make sure you don't spend every last minute you're in Italy in pipe maker's workshops. You'll still be hearing about it thirty years from now if you do." So, Reims and Florence are in the interest of long term domestic happiness (and, yes, ok, I'm super excited about them also) and the rest are pipe visits.

Posted by sykes at 3:00 PM | Link | 3 comments

International business, Italian style
 Why I love my job, reason 342

       -Posted by sykes-

I'm headed to the airport to fly to Brussels tomorrow. From there, I'll wind my way south, visiting St. Claude in the Joura mountains as the first stop on my trip. I'll visit the Genod workshop, have lunch with folks there, and head east to Switzerland, where I'll spend the night, before going on to visit Ardor, Castello, and Radice over the following two days. And from there, south into Italy, visiting folks, then across the peninsula, visiting more folks, up into Germany and eventually back to Brussels.

I'll blog as I go, with photos and descriptions, but much of the reason that I like visiting our suppliers and partners in Italy is that we, as one might expect, do everything Italian style. This means that we actually talk business for about, it seems, four minutes. Then we eat lunch for two hours. Then business resumes for about six minutes. It's not that Italians don't work hard; these guys really work hard. It's just that business is done over great food. That, I think, is yet another Italian import that we Americans need. Breakfast meetings at 7:30am with everyone scribbling on legal pads while sucking down tepid coffee do not count, my fellow Americans.

About a year ago at the IPCPR show in New Orleans, we had four person team: three veterans (Tony, Susan, me) and one person new to the whole experience (Lisa). Lisa couldn't quite figure out the division of labor. It seemed to her that I spent more time trying to figure out what restaurants we wanted to eat at (this is New Orleans, after all) than I did on the business. Susan and Tony expected this. The three of us had eaten our way through Las Vegas for the previous IPCPR. But Lisa was baffled. I knew I'd done all the prep I could do back at the office, that I'd be at the show or in outside meetings with folks ten hours a day, and that I really wanted to make sure I could experience the culinary delights that New Orleans had to offer. Such as Susan Spicer's restaurant Bayona, which if you ever happen to find yourself in New Orleans (or, well, within 200 miles of New Orleans) is a must visit. Food is really important. Returning to my original point, the Italians have it right.

So, starting in a couple of days, I'll blog diligently about my first love, pipes and pipe tobacco, and I'll probably squeeze some meal descriptions in there while I'm at it. I couldn't be more excited to make this trip. I'm in Denmark and Japan each annually, but this'll be my first trip to Italy in a couple of years.

Posted by sykes at 12:39 PM | Link | 1 comment

10 June 2010

Musings from a Novice
 The Summer Intern's first week at

       -Posted by the.summer.intern-

I’m the summer intern here at This means I have managed to infiltrate a close-knit community at the heart of the pipe industry. But, really, this means I measure pipes and make coffee. I have quickly learned that both the pipes and the coffee at the offices of smokingpipes are of exceptional quality. Of course, I knew nothing about pipes before I started working here Monday, so I'm not sure if I'm in any sort of position to judge yet, but they do seem pretty...and I'm quite certain of my assessment on the coffee.

I have learned that the tasks of measuring pipes, entering data, and identifying shape from a chart, while tedious matters of minutiae, are fundamental to the product updating process. So I have tried to be very careful. My inner monologue for most of the day runs a little something like this… “ok, bowl diameter is 1.51 or was that the chamber depth? or are they just the same… just measure both again… ok enter the last of that data… click submit load, load...hmm, wait I think I just need some coffee first… ah yes… it’s all under control now… measure, measure, next, next… ok shapes…

And, to quote the inestimable Vonnegut, 'so it goes'...

But, the shapes are particularly challenging. They seem thoroughly and completely arbitrary. Really, why is a long, oval-shanked pipe with a tapered stem called a Canadian? Did the shape strike someone back in the early days of pipe naming as just particularly inoffensive, pleasant, and welcoming? And Billiard? To be smoked only during a session of a refined version of pool? By far the most strikingly, well, just silly name I’ve seen is “Oom Paul”. I first saw this in the list of shape options while entering pipe info, and, nonplussed, I immediately thought of Willy Wonka’s oompa-loompas. Later when I came across an Oom Paul with an odd cap on a thin chain, I thought that I could definitely see an oompa-loompa smoking it [I've since learned that Oom Paul refers to Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal Republic from 1883 to 1900, but that's not nearly as funny]. The names of pipe shapes seem to reflect the unconventionality of this area of art. I’ve been told that everyone has trouble with determining shapes at first, and this is not hard to believe. It is hard to believe that I’ll ever get the hang of the less usual shapes.

As I said, I have infiltrated a close-knit community here, and as an outsider I think I have a fresh perspective to share. I am very much taken with the eccentricities of this work environment, which, while very apparent to me, have become commonplace to the permanent team members, much as you overlook the oddities and quirks of your own family.

I am reporting directly to Alyson. She and Pam have been guiding me through the complex updating process. The first thing Alyson showed me was how to make coffee in an intimidating, industrial machine. Next, we turned to pipes. I noted the priorities here: coffee, and then the pipes. A little unexpected, maybe, but I accepted it willingly. Alyson showed me the pipe 'library', the largest room on the 2nd floor of the main building. I understood why the coffee step preceded the pipe step.

Adam’s desk, along with shelves of pipes, is in this pipe library room. Adam immediately struck me as a cool kind of guy. This is probably because he wears a cool-kind-of-guy hat. This week I discovered Adam is also the hub of the eccentricity here, surpassing even Sykes (though Sykes’ tendency to talk about papal history makes him a close second). Adam manages, sometimes quite literally, to spread his idiosyncrasy all over the second floor offices. He draws out the idiosyncrasies of others. For example, Adam causes Sykes to laugh his (I’ve learned) characteristic, very loud and appreciative guffaw; and he draws out Eric’s characteristic, dry and deadpan comments. Another way Adam eccentrically engages his second-floor colleagues is by cooking something delicious and walking around the office, bowl in hand, to visit and let everyone know just how insanely good his food is. Most importantly, though, is his music. Because Adam’s desk is in the center of much activity, and his door is always open, his music choices permeate the second floor. Adam plays a playlist that reduces the word “eclectic” to the foreign cousin of “monotonous”. Kung Fu Fighting is a daily favorite, and when I was retrieving and organizing pipes from the shelves, I was graced with sonorous voice of Jack Black stringing expletives together for several minutes; later in the day, I heard Bach’s cello suites— and later still, Lady Gaga. The musical diversity is truly remarkable, and (I think) much-appreciated entertainment.

This week I have been struck by just how much of a caring team community this place has: Pam kindly and forgivingly correcting my mistakes (usually the shapes); Alyson and Susan brightening the afternoon with milkshakes; Melissa patiently helping everyone with their computers; friendly hellos and goodbyes…it has all combined to create a great first few days. I took this internship because I wanted to work at a small, tech-oriented company (the '.com' in the name clinched it). I discovered that this isn't really a tech company. It's more of an old family store, filled with eccentric characters, who also happen to have massive tech resources at their disposal. That and thousands of pipes. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad combination yet, having not yet figured out exactly how they do what they do, but it's definitely been an eye opening experience so far.

Posted by the.summer.intern at 6:16 PM | Link | 1 comment

09 June 2010

Pictures from a Event
 Chicago 2010

       -Posted by sykes-

Here are a bunch more pictures from our Chicago Show 2010, 10th anniversary festivities:

Sykes Wilford & Joan and Alan Schwartz of XYZ Direct.

Tony Saintiague with Robert and Lynn Lawing.

Pipe maker Rolando Negoita, his wife Alexandra, and Neill Archer Roan, pipe collector and blogger.

Craig and Patti Tarler of Cornell & Diehl.

Sykes Wilford with pipe maker Teddy Knudsen.

Teddy Knudsen (pipe maker), Karin, Rick Newcombe (author & Collector), Mimmo Domenico (briar cutter), and Peter Heeschen (pipe maker).

Pipe collector Eugene Smolar with Adam Davidson.

Kazue Tokutomi (Hiroyuki Tokutomi's wife) and pipe maker Takeo Arita.

Lera Davidson (Adam Davidson's wife) and pipe maker Alex Florov.

Brian Levine.

Susan Salinas, Joyce Donatelli, and Mary McNiel of McClelland Tobacco Co.

Many thanks to Rich Perkins of Pipes & Tobaccos Magazine for all of the photos!

Posted by sykes at 1:44 PM | Link | 1 comment

03 June 2010

Food for Thought
 A window into the smokingpipes kitchen

       -Posted by adam-
We all need something to get us going throughout the day, and most times this is coffee (we use copious amounts of coffee here in the office). Besides coffee, we all need to eat. There were some days when I would actually wake up early and make a hearty breakfast at home before my 25 mile commute to the office. For whatever reason, I had a lot more energy on these days and repeatedly said I would always eat breakfast. Like so many resolutions, they were only a wish that blew away after a few days like a dandelion in the wind.

Breakfast, as we have always been told, is the most important meal of the day. Our bodies need the fuel to help us make good decisions, and think critically. Tom Marsh has his morning yogurt, and often shares part of an avocado with me in the early afternoon. Brian likes to eat bananas and, being older than most of us, plays BINGO before the sun rises. I'm not really sure what anyone else does around here for food, but probably not very much. Maybe once or twice a week, I will be a stellar employee and make a late lunch for everyone. While I haven't the means to make an 8 foot sub, many foods are plentiful for others to try. Often, I insist they give it a go. Lisa is the pickiest eater of all. She almost never tries anything I make, but did enjoy a few dried apricots one time. Sykes and I are frugal adventurers and often bring in something cool for the other to try. Stinky cheese, imported salamis, ham and beans, garden veggies, etc. Food excites us, like pipes do, so we like to share what we have with those interested.

Today I made green curry. This is wicked fast to prepare, and delicious. After finishing all of my estate descriptions, into the kitchen I went to butterfly a chicken breast to brown in an old cast iron skillet. When done, it rested for 15 minutes before a quick chop, and in went the delicious curry mixture. The green (as opposed to red or masaman) has a healthy addition of kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, tender bamboo shoots, and rich coconut milk sweetness to mingle with heat and flavor. Warm fluffy rice topped with the mixture, drizzled with soy sauce and garnished with sweet basil (that is growing just outside) makes for one whopping visual composition and olfactory explosion. Sykes likes this a lot, and all of us seem really productive in the afternoon after such a meal. Heck - I just had the idea for this post when I was cooking. Today's lunch went over much better than yesterday, when I made scrapple. Poor Lisa.

Posted by adam at 5:11 PM | Link | 0 comments

Mini Cyc Wall

       -Posted by bobby-

Hey guys to start off my blog post let me introduce myself a little. My name is Bobby Altman and I am the staff photographer here at I have a background in editorial and commercial photography specializing in sports, product, and food. My blog posts are going to be about recent photo projects we have worked on and the execution of the photos.

For this first post we wanted to have a slideshow playing at our tent after the Chicago pipe show this year so I figured just shooting on white would be the best way to go, however I wanted the background to be seamless, simple yet still interesting and showing the shapes of the pipes we selected. To illustrate how simple it is to do this I have also provided a shot of the set up.

I set up some white photo paper long ways on a table and placed a piece of glass on top of that to give a light reflection. for the pipes glass works great but for people I used white tile board from Lowes. (Tile board is about $12 and comes in a 4X8 sheet...and wont break if you stand on it.) The table was positioned about 3 feet from a white wall. The key to doing this is to get the object you are shoot as far from the white background as possible because the light will bounce back onto your subject. The main light is bouncing out of an umbrella to camera right and the background light is pointed at the wall directly behind the pipe. I used some white foam core board to stop any spill from the background light onto the pipe and to bounce a little of the main light back to fill in the shadows a little on the left of the pipe. The background lights in a shot like this generally need to be about one full stop brighter than the main light to blow it out.

Posted by bobby at 3:36 PM | Link | 6 comments

02 June 2010

Monty Python's Tobacco Shop
 Musings on pipe tobacco availability

       -Posted by sykes-

"So I curtailed my Walpoling activities, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some tobacco-y smokables." "Come again?!" "I want to buy some tobacco!"

"How about a little Full Virginia Flake?" I'm afraid we're fresh out of Full Virginia Flake, sir." "Never Mind."

"How are you on Stonehaven?" "Never at the end of the week, sir. Always get it fresh first thing on Monday."

"Tish Tish. No Matter. Um, well, four ounces of Best Brown if you please, stout yeoman." "Uh, well, it's been on order for two weeks, sir. I was expecting it this morning."

"Yes, it's not my day, is it? Ah, Blue Note?" "Sorry." "1792?" "I almost said yes, but today the van broke down." "Penzance?" "Sorry." "Dunbar? Squadron Leader?" "No." "Any German Hamborger Veermaster?" "No."

Between Samuel Gawith, Esoterica, Dan Tobacco and assorted other things, running a major purveyor of pipe tobacco in the United States right now feels a bit like running Monty Python's Cheese Shop. Every time I have one of these discussions with a customer, I can't help but think of the above exchange. I love the Cheese Shop skit; it's right up there with the football match between German and Greek philosophers and Ministry of Silly Walks among the pantheon of great Monty Python moments, but I don't particularly like living it. Especially given I'm the guy that gets shot at the end of it.

Short and long of it is that we're working on it. We hate not having some of the best tobaccos in the world in stock all the time. We love these blends as much as you do. Last Samuel Gawith shipment (and it was a big shipment) lasted three days. We're getting as much as we can. In the meantime, enjoy the original...

Posted by sykes at 1:08 PM | Link | 5 comments

Milder Maduros
 Cigar musings from a guy that really doesn't know all that much about cigars

       -Posted by sykes-

We have some cigar experts here. Brian's been kicking around the cigar business for years, Ron knows his stuff. As do Kelly and Adam. I've deferred to the cigar knowledge of others for some time. The cigar business changes too quickly for me to keep up. So, while I think I write and speak knowledgeably about pipes and pipe tobaccos, I always feel like I'm on shakier ground with cigars, lest someone guess that I really haven't much idea what I'm talking about when I'm talking cigars. So, upfront on the cigar thing, I don't know much of anything about cigars. In theory, I've been in the cigar business for eleven years in one capacity or another. In reality, I've spent 97.5% of that time thinking about pipes and pipe tobacco. For serious cigar insight, I suggest talking with someone else here. That warning in place, read on if you want a pipe guy's musings on cigars...

That said, I am an occasional cigar smoker. And since even occasional cigar smokers like to pontificate about what they like to smoke, I feel like I'm equally equipped to share some thoughts on this. I tend to go in fits and starts with cigars. The pipe is a near constant companion, but I might go a month without smoking a cigar and then smoke a half dozen in a week and then go another month without smoking one. Lately, I've found myself smoking milder maduros. Not necessarily really mild, but I've always liked maduros, but found many (think Camacho, for example) just a bit too much for both a) my tolerance for that kind of nicotine, and b) my rather unsophisticated cigar palate.

Two have jumped out at me lately. Carlos Torano's Virtuoso line, specifically the Baton. I also like the Encore when I haven't the time for the super-long lancero shape (and, seriously, the Baton is the first lancero that I've ever liked; I'm normally a robusto/toro kind of guy). Anyway, this maduro has a lot going for it: rich and earthy, but not overwhelming, almost creamy at times, and subtly spicy here and there. I tried my first Baton at the IPCPR show almost two years ago and have returned to it over and over since then. They're also fairly reasonable price-wise, making them a solid choice for me, a guy who flinches slightly at the prospect of a ten dollar cigar.

Pricier, but not eliciting too much of a flinch, is Ashton's Aged Maduro No. 20. Soft, creamy, gentle, complex: I simply love this cigar. I also have this distinct impression that I might be the only guy in the country who smokes Ashton Aged Maduros. I think some of my more sophisticated cigar smoking brethren might turn their noses up at a mild, gentle maduro, but I think this is one fine cigar-- one that it too often overlooked next to its more famous brethren like the VSG (which, yes, I also like, but that's sort of like saying that I like chocolate ice cream: does anyone not like Ashton VSGs?).

I'm still very much exploring my way through the humidor, taking recommendations from those guys here who know cigars better than I do. It's a fun process. With pipe tobacco, I pretty much know what I'm getting into; yes, I get excited about new blends, especially ones that I think I'll like, but that narrows the exploratory field for me. With cigars, I feel like an early colonial lost in the wilds of Virginia, treading a path entirely unfamiliar. With pipe tobacco, it's sort of like hanging out in a neighborhood I've known my whole life. It's a totally different experience for me, and not just because the flavors diverge so wildly.

Posted by sykes at 11:36 AM | Link | 1 comment



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