For a little chunk of the past couple of days, Sykes and I have been working on getting much of our estate restoration process on film. We think, but we're not sure, that this will go up in five parts, with this little introduction to what we do and who we are in the estate department is the first part.
Oh, and we're including the outtakes from the entire series here. Enjoy!
When Kevin Godbee and I were at the Orlik factory, we inquired about Dunhill tobaccos. Having been routed to a few different people at British-American Tobacco (BAT), we finally have an answer. It will be available in September or October and the importer will be CAO. You can read about it here at PipesMagazine.com.
Initially these five will be back in 50g tins:
Early Morning Pipe
Standard Mixture Medium
The Royal Yacht
My Mixture 965
These three will be available in 5lb bags again:
Dunhill Early Morning Pipe
Dunhill My Mixture 965
Frankly, I think this is one of the coolest videos we've yet posted. Troels Mikkelsen has been in the tobacco business for thirty years, first at A&C Petersen, then at Orlik. He manages production at the Orlik factory and I can't imagine a better guide to the operation. The visit was an absolute delight, and Troel's discussion of the various tobacco varietals was one of the highlights.
Most of you have probably never heard of Boyd Rice, yet if you've listened to just about any form of electronic or avant-garde music made within the past few decades, you've likely heard his influence (and if you're the summer intern, you have, during brazen displays of nonchalant contrarianism, been forced to listen to his "non-music" - a coincidentally appropriate epithet given his usual nom-de-plume, "NON"). But I haven't come here to wax poetic about such classic obscurities as Cleanliness and Order, or Disneyland Can Wait, nor even the time he was detained for attempting to present a lamb's head to former First Lady Betty Ford. No. I'm here to discuss how he created, and, with the aid of the Denver Gentlemen's Pipe Smoking League, ultimately destroyed the only Tiki bar in the city of Denver, Colorado.
The Ramada Inn of Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood had long been home to an ill-conceived and conspicuously unsuccessful drinking hole, one whose management had inexplicably attempted to achieve financial solvency through the delicate blending of bland sports-bar and vaguely Southwestern themes with a highly incongruous and rather forgettable name: The East Coast Bar. However, once Denver Gentlemen's Pipe Smoker League member Lorin Partridge began tending bar there, things were destined to change; for with him came a gaggle of regular customers (the bar's only regular customers, at that time) - an assorted mix of other DGPSL members, as well as several staff writers from Modern Drunkard Magazine. Not the least of the latter was Boyd Rice, a man notorious for his disregard for the mundane, and, just as crucially, a man who loved Tiki. (Boyd Rice had not only written the introduction for Martin McIntosh's Taboo: The Art of Tiki, but had also acted as a consultant for the BBC's Tiki-culture documentary, Air-Conditioned Eden.)
When The East Coast Bar's desperate straights met Boyd Rice's burning desire to create his own Tiki bar (and, ultimately, mischief), a Faustian pact of urban-legend proportions was all but inevitable. And so it was that, in exchange for an open bar tab, Boyd Rice completely remade the blase East Coast Bar, working tirelessly to transform it into a lavish, life-sized diorama of colored lighting, wooden masks, hanging lanterns, and bamboo-covered... everything, all perpetually soaking in the tunes of Martin Denny, Authur Lyman, and other such founding figures of the Tiki/exotica genre. From the ashes of the East Coast Bar, "Tiki Boyd's" was born: A strange and exotic, never-ending beach party in the dead center of the Mile High City.
Well, perhaps not quite never-ending, for with Tiki came booming success, drawing not only droves of locals just looking for a lively night out, but various celebrities ranging from The Delphonics to the creators of South Park. Reviewers raved. Drinkers drank. Yet as is too often the case, from such sudden and unexpected success through the efforts of another, there was born a juggernaut ego-trip. To quote Lorin Partridge, "The manager went mad with hubris and paranoia," and, despite all evidence to the contrary, came to the conclusion that Tiki Boyd's explosive popularity was the result not of Boyd Rice's efforts and vision, but perhaps merely some strange aligning of the planets with his own, now much-inflated financial status. Rice perceived, it would appear, that an example had to be made, that such injustice would not stand... and who better to rectify the tyranny of narrow, grasping minds than a league of gentlemen? And what better a league of gentlemen can there be, than a league of pipe smoking gentlemen?
As has often been observed by men since antiquity immemorial, to create something beautiful takes great time and patience; to destroy such a thing, but a moment. In the case of Tiki Boyd's, it is said to have taken roughly forty minutes. With the aid of a crack team of well-dressed, pipe smoking gentlemen armed with hand tools, stylish facial hair, and impeccable manners, Boyd Rice infiltrated the bar which had for a year and a half born his namesake, and saw that every trace of Tiki-ness was well and thoroughly pillaged. Every slender reed of bamboo, every record, the drink menus, the lights, the wooden masks - every scrap of it had been Boyd's, and nothing of it was to be left to sustain the management's prideful, pedestrian avarice. He took with him even his name: Tiki Boyd's was no more.
From the cold, bland ashes of the East Coast Bar, Boyd Rice had created something strange and thriving, and when his hard work and vision were ultimately betrayed by shameless philistinism, it was none other than the Denver Gentlemen's Pipe Smoker League who answered the call to return it to those ashes once more.
I've visited the Mac Baren factory every year for five years now. And every time, I come up with a way to get Per to take me through the factory. Sometimes it's because they have new stuff he wants to show me and sometimes, as with this trip, it's because I have someone with me who hasn't experienced it before. I'm starting to run out of reasons to see it again, other than that I think a giant tobacco factory is probably the coolest place on earth. My inner eight year old loves all the giant whirring machinery, and the slightly more grown up me loves the resulting product. Slightly more seriously, I've always been impressed by Mac Baren and the people I've worked with there. There's a dedication to what they do that is impressive. Per Jensen's enthusiasm for pipe tobacco is infectious. In this video, Per guides us through the flake pressing and cutting process.
A year ago, when I last visited Tom in his workshop, he was pondering getting a laser engraver, rather than continue to use his existing engraver, which is both finicky and quite limiting, since plastic templates are necessary for any engraving. At the time, he was very much on the fence. He and I talked about it again last week, and in the next few days, Tom's picking up the laser engraver in Germany, and in this video he talks about the process of getting it all up and working, plus the general challenges of using this sort of set up on pipes.
I'm now back in South Carolina (which is so terribly hot that I'm already ready to go back to Denmark, or perhaps move the entire business to, say, Edmonton), and I've been working on getting some videos, photos and written bits and pieces from the trip together for a series of blog posts over the next few days. In no particular order, I hope to get a whole bunch of fun stuff up on the blog over the coming two weeks.
Kicking it off is a long video of Lasse Skovgaard at work. For various camera reasons, the video quality isn't as good as the others we've been doing lately, but I decided to run with it anyway: watching the lathe work is particularly interesting here.
Kevin and I were running around Denmark and we met with a total of ten pipe makers. I've watched other pipe makers work all over the world. Much of the equipment is the same, but the methods can be surprisingly different. From the amazing exacting Kei Gotoh, who can take weeks to finish a pipe, to super-speedy, efficient pipe makers like Peder Jeppesen (Neerup) and, especially, Johs, different ends require different methods. Johs makes about 2,000 pipes a year, by himself. At his peak, he made 4,500 pipes between him and his wife. He shapes everything by hand, but does so incredibly efficiently, making his pipes very, very affordable.
Johs, in two minutes, went from a shape turned on the lathe to a fully rough shaped bowl ready for the belt sander. That is wickedly fast. Indeed, it's so fast that I've never tried to get the whole disk sander work into one clip, let alone one take in one clip.
Anyone who has read my writings about pipe makers knows the reverence in which I hold the best of the best, the guys that take days to make a pipe perfect, to bleed the boundary between craft and art, creating something special. I also have tremendous respect for pipe makers that figure out how to do things efficiently, save time, save money and create an awesome pipe that is affordable. This is why I'm almost as fond of Tom Eltang's Sara Eltang line as I am of his own. Similarly, I've been a Stanwell evangelist for years. And Johs also fits well into this paradigm. His talents are for doing things efficiently and quickly, to create something very good, but doesn't cost hundreds, or thousands, of dollars. I think that's pretty awesome. And here's a video of Johs at the sanding disk. The man is fast. Really fast. And the results of two minutes are really impressive.
As we mentioned yesterday in our post comparing the two factories, after the factory tour, Per Jensen, Mac Baren's product development and all round Mac Baren tobacco evangelist guy, sat with us over coffee. The conversation turned to what he thinks is the best flake tobacco packing method. Not only did he describe it, he felt obliged to pack Kevin Godbee's Dunhill Ruby Bark with some Mac Baren Virginia Flake to show us how it's done by guys that play with tobacco all day, every day. We gave Mac Baren the nod for personal pipe packing service for this extra effort on their part when we visited, but we also took a little video of it so that you can, hopefully, enjoy the little lesson as much as we did.
For seven weeks now we have been extremely lucky to have an intern helping us with the daily duties that make our updates possible. Sarah has turned out to be an awesome asset to us. Not only has she done everything expected of her, but she has also contributed ideas in areas where most of us are still uncomfortable.
Sarah, in a short time, has turned into an important member of the team. We joke with her, con her into having lunch with us (even though she has brought her lunch) and ask for her input on ideas. She has been efficient, thorough and capable while performing her work here at Smokingpipes.com. She has made us all look at pipes through the eyes of Lady Gaga while staring at a milkshake. In other words, we’ve become quite fond of her.
But, alas, today is her last day. Sarah will be leaving us this afternoon to prepare for her return to college. Knowing how much she will be missed, we surprised her this afternoon with a cake and a card. I think she was shocked and, in the words of Lady Gaga, we left her “Speechless”.
by Sykes Wilford, Smokingpipes.com, and Kevin Godbee, Pipesmagazine.com
When one has an opportunity to visit two of the largest pipe tobacco manufacturers in the world on back to back days, comparing the two is all but
impossible. Mac Baren and Orlik, between them, produce over half of the world's pipe tobacco. Along with the Lane factory in Tucker, GA, they make up the big
three pipe tobacco producers in the world. And they're both on the island of Funen that sits between Sjaelland, the largest of the Danish islands, and
Jylland, the peninsula that juts off of the European mainland. Indeed, they're an hour drive apart on either side of the island. Having had a thoroughly
hospitable reception at both factories and being tremendously impressed by both operations, we nonetheless found ourselves drawing some comparisons.
Having left Orlik, we started discussing the differences between the two. Perhaps the similarities are more obvious: both operate massive, modern
factories, both are fanatically dedicated to the quality of their tobaccos, and both have a long history and make famous brands that have stood the test of
time. But this, our dear readers, is about the differences.
For starters, no pun intended, let's talk about lunch. Typically, large companies have cafeterias. In the United States, outside of Google, such places
offer fare that make sixth grade school lunch seem palatable. At both Mac Baren and Orlik, we were pleased to discover that the Danes have a subtly different
approach to such things. They serve edible lunches in company cafeterias. Offering traditional Danish comestibles, including black bread, a variety of
impressive cheeses and cold meats, paté, and full salad bars, Sykes wants one of these for the Smokingpipes.com campus. Imagine visiting a tobacco company and
coming away with company catering ideas. Picking a winner in this category was impossible.
Both Orlik and Mac Baren have machinery that causes otherwise reasonable grown men to act like eight-year-old boys who just saw a backhoe. Conveyor belts,
automatic weighing machines, little robotic arms to fold packaging, slides, chutes, and sundry whirring doodads abound, but the nod, if only a half-nod, goes
to Mac Baren, who can go from tobacco coming in from the ceiling, to pouches, to cartons, to outer cartons, to pallets, all without ever being touched by a
human hand. Orlik was close, requiring slightly more human intervention, but in this category, Mac Baren is a clear winner.
Both factories produce rope tobacco. Rope tobacco is a traditional method of fabricating tobacco for transport, back when finding a way to keep tobacco smokable after a transatlantic journey on a wooden sailing ship was a serious problem. The tobacco is literally spun into ropes: the process lies somewhere in between cigar rolling and rope braiding. But, the factories' respective methods are a little different. Mac Baren uses whole leaves as something comparable to the binder and filler. Orlik uses thin pressed sheets of tobacco, similar to those used for flakes, but much thinner. Inside, Mac Baren generally uses loose leaf dark fired Kentucky, whereas Orlik uses pressed perique or black cavendish. From this process comes some of the world's most famous, most tastiest blends, including Mac Baren Roll Cake and, Sykes' personal favorite, Escudo, which is made by Orlik (which we both happen to be smoking while engaging in this absurd literary exercise). However, the nod goes to Mac Baren in this category, for they have what looks and works like a giant RYO cigarette machine. Frankly, the little machine that presses it into a rope at Orlik just isn't nearly as cool.
About an hour on the road after our visit to Orlik, Sykes turned to Kevin and said "did the tobacco blender guy make you think mad scientist too?" To which Kevin retorted with a maniacal laugh. Yes, Orlik has its very own evil genius tobacco blender. Here in Denmark they offer a personalized blending service where different stores or individuals can choose to craft their own blend. The idea started in the 1930s and grew into Paul Olsen's My Own Blend, which Orlik purchased from the Olsen family in the 1980s. Today, roughly eight metric tons of pipe tobacco is custom blended for customers and stores to the exact recipe, based on almost fifty component blends and dozens of flavorings, by Lasse Berg, Chief Evil Tobacco Genius (ok, we made up the title). It is abundantly clear that a) Lasse thinks he has the best job on the planet, and b) he played with chemistry sets as a kid. At one point, he showed us a cola flavored tobacco topping of his own creation, of which he was very proud, but then went on to admit that he doesn't use it very much because, apparently, no one really thinks of cola as a tobacco flavoring. He went on to create for us, sans cola topping, individualized blends based on our preferences. Sykes' had more perique, Kevin had more rum. Also, during this exercise, Kevin drank a bit of the rum used on the tobacco (he approves), also giving Orlik the nod for best adult beverages (Mac Baren did not offer adult beverages at 10am when we arrived there). So, two categories at once to Orlik: mad scientist tobacco blender and best adult beverages. Does it surprise anyone that the mad scientist blender was also the keeper of the adult beverages?
While we were visiting Mac Baren, after the factory tour with Per Jensen, who is something between a product development guy and a general Mac Baren evangelist, we sat and had coffee with him. As our conversation meandered from topic to topic, we ended up with Per showing Kevin, with Kevin's pipe, how to pack flake tobacco by folding it and packing it vertically. So, not only did they humor us with a factory tour, fed us lunch, plied with coffee and tobacco, they even had a Mac Baren executive pack Kevin's pipe.
On net, it was a tie. Both organizations are impressive and were wonderfully accommodating to two very excited, tobacco crazed Americans.
While I am not a huge fan of all bulk tobaccos, some strike the right
chord with me. Stokkebye tobaccos are definitely gems in jars, so to
speak. Since Sykes is traveling all around Denmark, meeting with
various pipe makers and tobacco houses, it seems fitting to do a brief
post about one of the best blenders in the world.
I remember when I first began to smoke a pipe in college.
Driving to the local shop was like going into a wonderful bakery, but
this was a bakery full of wonderful smells of things burning. While
the tobacco shop was rather small, they did have a couple dozen pipes
on hand. Along with less than a dozen tinned tobaccos, they had a few
dozen glass jars on a rack with blends from McClelland, Lane, and
Stokkebye. I must have picked up every single jar in the place for a
deep-lung whiff. Really great cheese stores frown upon this, but good
cheese and good wine, as well as tobacco, deserve a good sniffing to perk up olfactory sensations.
Of course, the Stokkebye
tobacco caught my eye immediately. While most of the jars were full
of ribbon-cut blends with various liquors, fruits, and syrup flavors
poured over like a sundae, the Stokkebye tobaccos were different. They were beautiful. As I talked with Betsy, the nice lady
who owned the store, she informed me that they were not only pretty,
but they had a great taste. I wondered how someone could
take tobacco and shape it into gorgeous flakes for smoking. Years
later, I came to understand that they were not doing this with ribbon
leaf, but were actually laying out sheets of perfect tobacco for some
really, really, REALLY hard pressing. The bullseye flake is actually
shaped like a rope, and eventually ends up looking like a long roll of
nougat. After these tobaccos are shaped, and aged for their necessary
time, a super-duper sharp guillotine cutter cuts off the pressed
flakes into very uniform thicknesses.
The reason why I like flake tobaccos the best because when I give
them a quick rub between my hands, they form very uniform ribbons that
pack and light easily. It's impossible to get a chunk of tobacco the
size of my fingernail in the bowl. Pictured below are the Stokkebye
Navy Flake, Luxury Bullseye Flake, and Luxury Twist Flake (of which I
constantly inhale the sweet-buttery notes). I've purchased a few
pounds of each of these blends, and they age extremely well. If you've
not tried them, I would highly recommend doing so. Betsy used to sell quite a bit of the blends because she said they were 'pretty'. While they
are very attractive tobaccos, they also have a good taste and great
Today Kevin and I spent the entire day with Tom Eltang, arriving at his shop around noon and leaving around 9:30pm. We shot a ton of great video while we were there, much of which will have to wait until we can work on it, making it look more, uh, professional. In the meantime, I wanted to get some little bits and pieces up that were either situations where the camera happened to be rolling, or little snippets where I asked a question, but then had Tom restart because I thought it'd be fun on video. Tom's capacity for conversation is nearly inexhaustible and I'd really hoped that I'd get some of the sorts of conversations that he and I have had for years on video this time to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy it!
Chronology, the cornerstone of the blogging world with its reverse chronological organizational structure, can be terribly challenging while traveling. I haven't had nearly as much time to write about the visits as I'd hoped and I'll be putting up bits and pieces over the next few days as I can get videos and pictures edited and some thoughts on paper. This is my eighth visit to Denmark during the past six years; it is always a particular treat to be here. So, as I'm working on that, here's a quick overview of each visit.
Kevin Godbee, of PipesMagazine.com, and I arrived on different flights from the US, but within a few minutes of each other. After taking care of airport necessaries and a quick stop at the hotel to clean up, we set out for Peter Heding, who lives and works in a small town near Roskilde. Peter holds a PhD in biology and until a few years ago worked in diabetes research. Deciding that wasn't the life for him, he became a full time pipe maker in 2006. Today, he's making some amazing pipes and we got to see a couple of stunning diamond graded pipes that he had just completed, plus got to spend some time watching him work and generally chatting about goings-on.
That afternoon, we swung south on Sjaelland to Praesto, where we met Lasse Skovgaard Jorgensen at his new workshop. Lasse grew up in this beautiful part of Denmark, so this is actually near where I visited him when we first started working with Lasse's pipes in 2005. Lasse has been playing musical workshops lately, in large part because he rented space from Stanwell a couple of years ago, and then Stanwell shuttered that factory this spring. For now, he's using some space near his grandmother's home, not far from where he grew up. Officially, he's on vacation right now, something that Lasse takes particularly seriously, so he met us at the workshop and he hadn't been there in a couple of days. With a spread of perhaps a dozen beautiful pipes (most of which will arrive at Smokingpipes.com sometime soon) on the table, we set about playing around in the workshop and he shaped a pipe while we took a little video and shot some pictures. We went out to dinner, but I was so tired and jetlagged by then that I was a bit hazy, I think we had a really nice time.
The following morning (yesterday), we got up and drove up to north-eastern Sjaelland to visit Lars Ivarsson. I've already mentioned this some in my one previous trip post, so I won't delve into again here, except to again say that Annette's (Lars' wife) lunch was amazing. Given that Lars smoked the fish (that sounds like something pipe related, but he smoked a literal salmon, which we literally ate!) and shot the deer, perhaps he should get a nod for his culinary contributions too. We also spent a bunch of time talking about Sixten's early career, as well as Lars'. I'd heard all of this before, but in bits and pieces but never felt like I had the story coherently. I recorded the conversation and I'll turn it into something readable sometime soon. Five hours visiting Lars and Annette sped by in what felt like about an hour. I could (and have on a number of occasions) simply listen to Lars talk about pipes and pipe making in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s for hours.
That evening, almost on a lark, I called Tom Eltang while we were driving back towards Copenhagen from Lars'. Tomorrow, we'll spend the whole day with Tom in the workshop, so last night's visit was very much on a whim. Tom gave Kevin the grand Eltang workshop tour, which never ceases to be fun for me too, though I've probably seen him give it a half-dozen times. Then I showed Tom my wounded soldier, one of the new Tubos pipes that I'd been smoking since Chicago that I had unceremoniously bitten through the stem of during a particularly intense meeting one afternoon (for the record, smoking a pipe in a meeting makes you seem smarter; biting through the stem and spitting out bits of vulcanite does not). In classic Tom fashion, he whipped out a new stem for me and I was smoking it again an hour after I showed him the problem. We'll see Tom again tomorrow.
This morning we set out at a little after 9am to visit Peder Jeppesen of Neerup Pipes. Peder makes about 2,500 pipes a year, so the whole structure of his workshop and his methods are rather different from those we're seeing elsewhere on this trip. Given that he makes about ten pipes a day on average, he must work with speed and efficiency, making excellent pipes available at reasonable prices. With the closure of Stanwell and the distribution of its production to various countries, Peder is the last factory-shape pipe making in Denmark, and he is indeed something of a one-man factory. I got some great video of his various processes, so I'll get that up in the next few days also.
Jess Chonowitsch has not made pipes since mid-2006, when his wife Bonnie fell ill; he has spent his time in the past four years caring for her rather than making pipes. I last saw him in 2007, and while I've called periodically and suggested we have coffee now and then when I've been in Denmark, it's been so difficult for him to get away that we'd not been able to make anything happen. This trip, I was delighted to be able to finally see Jess again. I've always enjoyed my time with both Jess and Bonnie. Jess has a quiet gentility that is so evident in his pipes. And he has such a rich history in the pipe world that simply being able to sit with him and pick his brain about pipes or pipe making is a very special experience. So, we sat in the garden for an hour and a half and just chatted. Jess is starting to get to where he can make pipes again, having spent time cleaning and organizing his workshop properly for the first time in a long time. I am very excited to see what he does over the next year or so. There's been much speculation as to whether he would start making pipes again; I'm quite confident that he will.
So, tomorrow, on to Tom Eltang's shop for the day. That should be a lot of fun. On Tuesday, we're headed to Mac Baren in Svendborg in the morning and to see Peter Heeschen in the afternoon. Wednesday we go to Orlik in Assens, then to Kent Rasmussen in Aarhus. On the last day, we'll head up to the tip of Jylland to visit Mogens Johansen (Johs) in Frederikshavn, then on back to Copenhagen. To misquote Tom Eltang, "It's good to be a pipe seller!".
I will be adding much more here as I have time over the next few days (I find myself already behind on my blogging duties after only two days in Denmark!), but until then, I have a short video of Lars Ivarsson shaping at the sanding disk. I'm here with Kevin Godbee of PipesMagazine.com and we spent yesterday with Peter Heding and Lasse Skovgaard, and today with Lars Ivarsson and his wife Annette. We had a lovely lunch in the garden (complete with unbelievable home smoked salmon), talked about pipes, and played in the workshop all in one beautiful Danish summer afternoon. So, great company, wonderful food, looking at some of the best pipes in the world, talking with pipes with a man at the apex of the pipe making world, and a beautiful mid-70s, gently breezy, Danish summer day: yeah, this is one of those days that I am quite sure that I have the best job in the world...
We also had the particular pleasure of watching Lars work. I last saw him work back in 2006; mostly when I visit, we sit and chat and eat extremely well. As one would expect from Lars, he works so effortlessly that it is a joy to watch. He's among the most exacting pipe makers in the world, of course, but he's so facile that each of his movements is deliberate, even elegant. I took a little video while I was there to share the experience with you.
Part way through there, you catch part of a quick exchange we have about the pipe he's working on. Like all briar, there's a tiny flaw in the wood on the shank and he's finally made sure that it will disappear as it's sanded further when he remarks on it. Much of the challenge of briar as a material is its tendency towards internal flaws and a big part of any pipe maker's work is to work around those flaws. As he had shaped the shank, the flaw became apparent, but he'd hoped that it was only in the wood that he was removing. He suspected so, but even Lars isn't certain of such things in a definitive sense. With more sanding at the disk (which you see in the video), the flaw has shrunk to a pin prick, assuring that it will disappear when the shank is sandblasted (which is what Lars does with all pipes of that shape, blasting the shank and leaving the bowl smooth, so this worked out rather well).
Here's an example of the style he's making with the sandblasted shank. The shape he's working on in the photo is a little different, but it's the same smooth bowl / sandblasted shank combination as below (oh, and this pipe was sold two years ago; it's just an example):
Claudio was a farmer for most of his adult life. He had also been the world slow-smoking
champion for years, and held the world record for many years (as documented by the Guinness Book of Records). Claudio made his first pipe in 1974 because
he'd already waited more than a year for a Caminetto pipe that he'd ordered. For some years, he made pipes for himself and friends. Some years later, as
he became prominent in European and world slow smoking competitions, he began giving serious consideration to the internal dynamics of pipes, rejecting
the traditional Italian model and creating something that, at the time, was quite new, especially in Italy. He continued this way for some years, slowly
making more pipes and farming less, until he ceased to be a farmer at all (except for some very well tended vegetables) and became a full time pipe
Before we sat down for lunch, we looked over perhaps 100 Cavicchi pipes, selecting about half that have since arrived in Little River. We could quite
easily have selected them all--each was excellent--but we had just received a shipment of 50 pipes at the office, and adding another 100 to that seemed
excessive. So, painful decision followed painful decision as we wittled down the selection to something more manageable. Plus, upon our arrival, he had
already fallen far below what Claudio considered his prudent reserve of pipes, and as Gianfranco joked about what would happen if Cladio ever, gasp, ran
out of pipes, we thought it better to not put such strain on Claudio...
Exploring Claudio's home and garden, it becomes quite apparent that this is quiet man is
exacting in all he does. His vegetable garden is perfectly tended. His yard is verdant, model ships he built as a young man are displayed in his dining
room. Everything about his life is exact and methodical, diligently nurtured. Daniela, Claudio's wife, exhibits many of the same attributes. She works as
a quality control specialist for a food packaging company and the lunch she prepared for all of us was divine, beginning with homemade tagliatelle alla
ragu (bolognese; we are just a few kilometers from Bologna, after all), continuing onto a regional pork dish, the most extraordinary fried
potatoes that I have ever tasted, and finishing with some of the finest cantelope that I have ever experienced. Clearly, Claudio's talents in the
workshop are only exceeded by those of his wife in the kitchen.
Lunch conversation ran from pipes to the regional differences among various
prosciutti and the general reverence with which everyone at the table holds the pig, to Claudio's magnificent vegetable garden (about which
Claudio, in his matter of fact manner, says, "well, I'm a farmer"). Open and hospitable, the opportunity for me to finally get to know Claudio and
Daniela was priceless. The impressions about the man that I gleaned from seeing a few hundred of his pipes were partially confirmed. He is as exacting
and methodical as I had supposed, yet also possessing a gentle kindness, a self-comfort, a quiet modesty, that earned my respect as much for the man as
for his pipes.
Part III of the interview that Kevin Godbee did with me a few weeks ago is now up at PipesMagazine.com. In this part, Kevin and I discuss what makes Smokingpipes different from others out there and what the future may hold for the pipe world. Read on as Kevin and I ramble on about Smokingpipes.com, what we do here, and why I think what we do is really, really cool.
This was a little while in coming because I wanted to clear it with the Roveras first. Watching Dorelio was amazing; he works so effortlessly. The disk he's shaping on (at about 1:40 in the video) isn't sandpaper; it's a specialized metal disk that his grandfather made, which they've never been able to get a machinist to replicate. I've only ever seen one other workshop where the primary shaping disk was metal rather than sandpaper, and that was Lars Ivarsson's. The actual style of the two disks couldn't be more different, the idea is the same: in the hands of a really experienced pipe maker, a rougher, more durable surface allows for more accurate, faster work. Of course, one misstep and one destroys what one is working on, and perhaps loses a finger.
Touching again on the theme of summertime cigars, I wanted to share of
of my favorite smokes. There are a ton of good cigars out there, and
some are still priced for us to enjoy them more often. When I began
working in our store, Low Country Pipe & Cigar, there were a lot of
choices and I didn't know where to begin. Even after I did a great
deal of research, limited funding and enormous choices still made
tasting less frequent than I would like. Sure, it's great to help
customers pick out a cigar, but it's equally nice when an enthusiastic
patron suggests something to me.
Enter Rocky Patel cigars. These have always been a great seller in our
store and on our website, but there was about to be a huge spike in
sales. The customer, a doctor, enjoyed these with his buddies while
golfing, and explained how they are mild and flavorful. Well, needless
to say, my interest increased. When I would work the store on
Saturdays, I would arrive about 45 minutes early to prep a pot of
coffee (many times two) and fire up a cigar. While walking through our
humidor and taking in the sweet-cedar aromas, the Edge
Lite was calling out. I do enjoy rich maduro smokes later in the
day, but they are too bold for the morning. Taking the torpedo in
hand, and cutting the tip, I could tell good things were to come. It's
probably something all of us do, actually. We clip the cigar and take
a draw to make sure it's going to smoke well. No problems there. Every
single Rocky Patel stogie is hand-rolled and test-drawn with a machine
designed to only pass cigars that have a specified resistance. It's no
surprise that I've never come across a more consistent smoke. Funny
thing, but the sweet taste drifting through the leaves and upon my
lips made me not want to light for a few minutes. Briefly toasting the
foot with a wooden match, and taking one delicate puff, the smoke
drifted around my head in plumes.
It's no surprise why these became the #1 cigar sold in our stores for
a year. Whenever someone would want to try something new, this was an
easy direction. Actually, I believe these are still in the top 1 or 2.
Even though I have a humidor full of good smokes, I picked up four of
these to have after dinner with friends last Thursday. A wonderful
fish fry and mahi-mahi roasted with butter and salt during a
thunderstorm was capped with four embers on the front porch facing the
Atlantic. My three buddies had never had one of these before, but all
thoroughly enjoyed them. In fact, multiple sticks sold to them the
next day. Even if you're a maduro-hound, trying one of these is
something that just might bring you back for more.
Some of you probably noticed that reaching the website between about 6pm and 3am, last night and this morning, alternated between excruciatingly slow and impossible. I am very sorry for the inconvenience caused.
Apparently, a bad NIC card on one of the servers where we co-locate our servers (but not on ours) created tremendous latency problems for every server hosted at the data center. We could do nothing but sit and wait until the problem was diagnosed and fixed. Fortunately, everything is back to normal. Again, my apologies for the difficulties this caused.
I was trying to come up with an appropriate analogy for what happened, and I think this is the best I can do:
Imagine that the data streams in a data center are sort of like a highway. At each exit, there's an area of toll booths. Our website, our servers, sit behind one of those toll booths at an exit. At another exit on this same highway, there's a problem with the toll booths. They won't accept payment and won't let anyone through (or perhaps instead of 10 lanes to pay, there's suddenly only one). Traffic backs up from those toll booths all the way back onto the highway and the cars trying to get to our exit can't reach it, even though our toll booths are working just fine.
After a couple of missed turns and driving around
in search of the correct address (you're probably beginning to discern a pattern), we pulled up into a small
grouping of plaster clad homes, finding Claudio Cavicchi, and his good friend (and our translator for the day)
Gianfranco Musoni chatting in Claudio's immaculately maintained garden. We were immediately whisked inside,
plied with espresso, and shown Claudio's well-equipped, organized workshop. It's not that Claudio's workshop is
particularly tidy, but it is
definitely the work home of a disciplined craftsman: everything has its place, the main table in the room
serving as a place for stummels and paper templates rather than a repository for general workshop detritus
(unlike my office, where all the horizontal surfaces are repositories for general office detritus, plus pipes that I've smoked and not put away). And the centrality of that table is interesting. Machines--a
bandsaw, lathe, buffers, sanding disks-- surround the room, but in the center is that long table with nothing
but pipe stummels and paper shape templates. Claudio doesn't use the templates to help him shape, but he finds
it an important part of the creative process, helping him to find the shapes in the blocks before he starts
cutting. Clearly, having all of those paper templates littering (seemingly) the central area of his workspace is
somehow essential to his creative process.
Just like an office, or a living room or kitchen in
a home, says a lot about its occupant's personality, a workshop speaks volumes about a pipe maker. Hardly an
entire picture can be discerned from a workshop, but much about the pipes begins to make sense. Something that
we've remarked upon time and again here at the office is that Claudio has a failure rate of zero. We have never,
ever had to return a pipe for a construction error or other problem that we think would pose a problem for the
pipe's future smoker. Given that we have (as of this writing) sold about 600 Cavicchi pipes, this is a truly
amazing feat. Pipes are handmade and mistakes happen every great once in awhile. Most top pipe makers have a
mistake rate (as we define it) of 1-2%. When you sit back and think about it, that's pretty amazing in itself,
but not nearly as impressive as Claudio's unsullied record. Alyson took over as brand manager (which just means
that she's primary contact for business pieces associated with the brand) for Cavicchi a few months ago. One of
her first questions, which is something we always ask, is how we should handle any returns for problems with the
pipes. Claudio, rather matter of factly, replied that it wasn't an issue; they never have problems. At first, we
thought this rather presumptuous, until we gave it a little thought and realized that we'd had, oh, about 450 so
far without rejecting a single one. This wasn't cavalier haughtiness; Claudio's was a statement of fact. He
doesn't make mistakes.
And this is certainly visible in his workspace. He is
methodical and diligent; his workshop reflects those characteristics. It is obviously carefully organized;
everything has it's own place. Machines are placed relative to each other for ease of use. Tools are carefully
and efficiently organized. The entire workspace exudes a quiet, professional efficiency. The only area of
controlled chaos (most pipe making workshops are either in a state of controlled chaos or outright chaos) was
that center table, so central to both the workshop and his creative process.
Later in the morning, this came up in conversation. We chuckled about it and Claudio indicated that he would
continue to make sure that we never had cause or need to return a pipe. Gianfranco, Claudio's close friend and
our translator for the day, of course quickly added that if there is ever a problem, that Claudio would want to
know immediately, but, then grinning, added that it probably wouldn't ever be necessary.
Claudio speaks as little English as I speak Italian,
so the conversation was mostly with Gianfranco. He could answer a lot of our questions directly, not always
translating for Claudio; his family has been close to Claudio for years, and while he doesn't make pipes (though
he did once just to see, of course), he's intimately familiar with Claudio's process and Claudio obviously
trusts him as if he's family. From our perspective, while it's difficult sometimes to not be able to speak to
the pipe maker directly, it was something of
a boon in this case to hear about the pipe maker from someone who sees him almost every day, cares deeply for
him, but can offer a third-person perspective, of course overlaid with statements from Claudio translated
directly. In some ways, I felt as if I had a better sense of Claudio because of this, in spite of the
impossibility of direct communication.
Listening to Gianfranco talk about Claudio's foibles was a
treat. In some ways, Claudio's perfect record fits in that mold, as does his perfect engineering. Even with the
care to detail he takes, Claudio makes about 700 pipes each year (of which, about 300 end up here with us). He doesn't understand why other pipe
makers make fewer. He thinks it just takes a lot of self discipline, careful routine, and hard work to achieve
this. According to Gianfranco, Claudio also feels uncomfortable whenever he has fewer than 200 pipes on hand. To
any other pipe maker (discounting large workshops or factories), that would sound insane. I can't think of
another individual pipe maker who wants to carry inventory in case someone orders. Claudio is always worried
he'll run out of pipes. I remember once that, per his instructions, we ordered a few weeks in advance of when we
thought we'd need the pipes. He came back three days later with an emailed invoice. This is a pipe maker that
has the precision of an extremely well run large corporation, not a flighty craftsman or business-challenged
As I was reading the last couple of blogs about pets in the work place here at Smokingpipes.com it occurred to me that we already have them! I am still fairly new to the world of fine pipes and during my first few months here I was more than a little confused at all the pipes I was both pulling for orders and putting on display. One could argue that given the
names of the pipes I was handling you could in fact confuse us with an exotic pet store.
I still recall an hour I wasted looking for a Flying Squirrel before finding it on Brian's desk, we also had trouble finding the Angler Fish in the J Alan case and while I'm on fish I shouldn't forget to mention the Speared Fish or Smooth Fish I located in the Gotoh case or the Swordfish in with the Heding pipes. There is an entire school of Blowfish scattered in several cases as well as a Seal in the Danish estates case, and I remember a Dolphin and Killer Whale in the Kent Rasmussen display. If you're noticing a trend here, I assure you I intend to beat this dead horse for all it's worth, which reminds me of the Horse in the Meershaum case which happens to be along side a Lion and an Eagle; there is also a Lion in the Ardor case and I recall a Lion from the Heding case although it has been "re-homed" as have the Rasmussen Armadillo and Knudsen Conch.
If you're still looking for a "pet" we have a large number of Bulldogs in every coat color you can imagine, not to mention a Jumping Horse in the miscellaneous estates along side a Lion and Deer on the same pipe; though things don't look good for the deer. As I turn around in the shop and face the tobacco I also start to see a pattern: Old Dog, Junkyard Dog, Black Parrot and on and on. So as for pets in our workplace I say we have plenty. They cost money, give enjoyment and comfort, require feeding and care, and every time I light mine my wife says to take it for a walk!
Unfortunately two years of begging and pleading have yielded no results for me either (aside from me smuggling my cat in to pose with me for my employee photo). “People are allergic” and “We have expensive pipes lying around” are some of the lame answers I have received in opposition. Although I haven’t completely given up on a corporate feline, Susan and I recently came up the interim solution of fish.
About a month ago we snuck out of the office on our secret mission to acquire fish & milkshakes. Susan already purchased the tank and had worked on getting the water just right in the days preceding the mission. It was now time for some serious fish shopping. We settled on two Tiger Barbs and some live underwater plants before heading to Arby’s for some afternoon milkshakes.
Once the fish were settled in the tank it was time to name them. Bonnie & Clyde? No. Starsky & Hutch? No. Thelma & Louise! YES! (Ok, ok...we are women and we do like the occasional chick flick; cut us some slack.) For our gentleman readership who have not seen the movie, Thelma (played by the beautiful Geena Davis) and Louise (played by the equally lovely Susan Sarandon) are two completely different characters. Thelma was somewhat of a sheltered, emotional disaster, whereas Louise was a tough, no nonsense, take the bull by the horns kind of gal. So it became clear who ruled this tank with an iron fin. Louise swam around with a strong vigor, occasionally nipping at Thelma and Thelma would come out to eat and then retreat behind the filter with her nose pointed downward.
Several weeks went by like this until Tuesday when Thelma started looking a little peaked; swimming crooked and occasionally rolling over. Susan began emergency treatment immediately by removing Thelma from the tank into a separate container placed directly next to her monitor where she could keep an eye on her throughout the day, checking her movements and periodically aerating the bowl.
Alas, it was all in vain. When I came in this morning Thelma was lying sideways and motionless at the bottom of the tank. I broke the news to Susan when she arrived and then went to the kitchen to get a plastic serving spoon to remove the body from the tank. (It’s ok; Adam occasionally uses the same spoon for tilapia.)
We had a small service in the ladies room this morning and sent Thelma off to her final resting place: The Horry County Sewer System.
Lisa, of course, will probably be relieved that she won't have to sign it up for the company health plan.
I've long been a fan of Giancarlo Guidi's work. Much like Carlo Scotti in Northern Italy, or Sixten Ivarsson in Denmark, Guidi first created a new idea, a new approach to pipe making, and then taught others. Is that not the mark of a true master? So, having wound our way over the Apennines from Florence (by way of Arezzo) to Pesaro, I was seriously excited to meet this man I'd thought and written ( this from 2004 being an example) so much about.
Giancarlo Guidi cofounded Mastro de Paja in 1972. In 1983, he left Mastro de Paja to found Ser Jacopo. Giancarlo's work demonstrates an
inventive genius that I can't help but admire: whether it's the Picta series--pipe shapes based upon works by
Van Gogh, Magritte and Picasso--or his standard line of neoclassical shapes, there's an aesthetic inventiveness
and sophistication that Giancarlo brings to pipe making that really sets his work apart.
We arrived mid-afternoon following our beautiful, but at times harrowing, drive over small mountain roads. During the summer, the craftsmen at Ser Jacopo work half-days, leaving around 2pm as the summer heat on the Adriatic coast becomes unbearable.
Giancarlo, and a translator who also serves as the secretary for the business that now owns Ser Jacopo, awaited our arrival. There's an eeriness to any factory or place of business or workshop when it's not operating. It's that way when I'm at the office on Sundays. It's that way in the Stanwell factory when I've seen it on a weekend. Without the rhythm of people at work, something is definitely missing.
Still, this did mean that we were free to ask questions, to roam the long, fairly narrow, workshop, without being in anyone's way. Four people work in this space, including Giancarlo, making roughly 3,500 pipes each year, about a third of which come to the United States (of which about 175 each year end up, well, here). Giancarlo's station is immediately obvious; it's the one with piles of books, pipe stummels, pipe experiments and other detritus. The other stations are those of an efficient factory; Giancarlo's is a space an artist might keep.
Excited, full of energy, Giancarlo set about
showing us around. From time to time, the translator broke in, but Giancarlo and I were doing a pretty good job
of communicating. I don't speak any Italian and he doesn't speak any English, but we're both perfectly fluent in pipe-lish, so we did pretty well. He showed us the sandblasting. First they tumble blast a bunch of pipes to get a sense of the grain pattern, then focus blast each piece, blending techniques that are traditionally Italian (the tumbling) with those that Danish, American and English pipe makers use (a nozzle with a focused stream of media on a particular bowl). Next, we played with standard pipe making bits, from his gigantic lathe (they have a few, but one is truly huge, see below) to the piles of shaped stummels, waiting to have stems added and to be sanded, stained and finished.
Much like the Castello factory, Ser Jacopo's workshop feels like something in between the small artisanal pipe making workshops I've seen all over the world and a larger factory like Stanwell. There are elements of both present: the regularity and efficiency of a factory, combined with the tools of a small workshop. But it's more than that. Pipe factories are inhabited by people who, well, work at factories. They do care about what they do, but it's a job. In a small workshop, it's a passion, the craft is a way of life. That's the difference, really: the smaller multi-person workshops, like Castello or Ser Jacopo, feel like passionate people work there, people who do this because they love it, or need to create to satisfy some inner urge.
Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon was
simply watching the way Giancarlo went from being fairly passive to thoroughly animated whenever he spoke about new shape ideas. To say that he thinks deeply about shape and form is almost trite. He pores through massive table-top art books for ideas. He recently expanded the Van Gogh Picta line when he discovered some more paintings that feature pipes. He's working on a new Picta line based on yet another artist. When he's not doing that, he's dreaming up other crazy ideas, like his recent two person pipe.
From there, we moved to the office, to look through a whole bunch of Ser Jacopo pipes. It's such a treat to be able to select pipes at the factory and to have such a multitude to choose from that one cannot really help but pick a few dozen extra. The new Ebony and Ivory pipes were of particular note, pairing a jet black stain with a white acrylic stem, and they'll be filtering their way onto the website over the coming weeks and months.
Having selected a few dozen pipes and chatted over coffee for a little longer, we headed back on the road, wishing we could have spent more time, both at the Ser Jacopo workshop and in Pesaro, a beautiful small city on the Adriatic. We never actually managed to see the Adriatic, deciding that we better head northwards towards Balogna, in search of a good meal and a good night's sleep before we saw two pipe makers the following day, in small towns near Bologna and Ferrara. And I'll be writing about those over the next few days...
Part II of the interview that Kevin Godbee did with me a few weeks ago is now up at PipesMagazine.com. In this part, Kevin and I discuss attracting younger (20s and 30s) potential pipe smokers to the joys of the pipe. Read on as Kevin and I ramble from anthropological discussions of the way various groups differentiate themselves, the nature of the internet as an informational medium, and how to use all of that to say to a potential younger pipe smoker: "you should smoke a pipe. It's really, really cool."
Let me start by saying my dream job has always been to work somewhere that I could bring my dog to work. Studies have shown that employees who are allowed to bring their pets to work are happier and much more productive. I am an avid pet lover, so you can imagine my excitement when company pets began to show up here at smokingpipes.com.
Here comes the disappointing part: they are all aquatic. That said, I am hoping this is beginning of something really big. Bobby, our resident photographer, has setup an aquarium in his office, across in our other building. We are not talking regular fish, but coral, banded coral shrimp, hermit crabs, and snails. This I knew about, but one day I walked into Susan and Alyson’s office and saw a small aquarium with 2 small fish. My immediate response was, "does Sykes know about these?" (this being my usual reaction when we get new employees). I was told no company pets...anytime I have mentioned to Sykes that we need an office pet, I get a look that speaks volumes (roughly translated): Lisa, don’t even go there. Do you know what kind of damage a pet could do to all these pipes? In a way I can relate: pipes are like Sykes’ children and pets are like my children. We do have a few stray cats that roam around the parking lot and live under our building that Alyson and I feed.
For now, all I can do is dream and keep a picture of my dog as my computer wallpaper: how cool would my Old English Sheepdog look walking around the office or hanging out in our retail store lounge with a Dunhill pipe hanging out of his snoot with a bowl of Low Country Cooper?
I’ll keep you posted, at least the fish food isn’t going to kill our monthly food budget and as of now they are not on the company health plan. We’ll wait and see if they are alive after the 90-day new employee probationary period.
Here's another video from the Italy trip, this one of Massimiliano Rimensi of Il Duca Pipes going from block of briar to the sanding disk, including work on the band saw, the lathe and the sanding disk. I'll have a blog post with the story of the visit and some photos in the next few days.
As I indicated in previous posts, I'm now terribly far
behind in sharing all sorts of little insights about our trip to Italy and Germany, from which we returned
almost a week ago now. In my jetlagged fugue of last week, editing videos just seemed far more tenable than
putting metaphorical pen to paper and stringing words together in some coherent pattern. Now that I lack any
excuse for procrastination (or any videos left to edit to facilitate said procrastination), it seems only
appropriate that I return to the trip narrative and share some details about our visit with Mimmo Domenico of
A famed Hollywood makeup artist or clothier invariably ends up with the "to the stars" monicker. In much the
same way, Mimmo is briar cutter "to the stars". His customer list reads like the who's-who of the world's top
pipe makers: Teddy Knudsen, Lars Ivarsson, Kent Rasmussen, Tom Eltang, Kei Gotoh, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, and on and
on. I've also known Mimmo for perhaps six years and while we've never had any direct business, I've helped
connect pipe makers with him and he's helped with introductions for me in Italy, and during that time we've
become friends. So, along with visiting a host of pipe makers while in Italy, we swung down to the Italian
Riviera, in Taggia, near San Remo. We didn't hobnob with Europe's political or business elite while they were on
vacation, but we did hobnob with some of Europe's pipe making elite, which, frankly, is way more fun.
We arrived in Taggia late at night on the 18th of June; we'd gotten rather lost chasing down a restaurant
near Genoa on our way from the Como-Cucciago area north of Milan. The restaurant, which we finally found at the
top of a small mountain on a perilously steep and winding road, was excellent (with superb views of
Genoa), but it also meant that our planned arrival time was missed by a good two hours. We saw Mimmo briefly as
he helped us get settled into our hotel.
Late the following morning, we reached the factory and
Mimmo embarked upon the tour. We started in the dark, dank cellar where the burls are stored before being cut into blocks. Thousands of briar burls, each weighing a few kilos, were piled high against one wall. And
Mimmo indicated that another truck of briar was to be delivered the following week. Mimmo and his assistant
cutter Nicola, who cut briar in Greece before coming to work for Mimmo, cut 600kg of briar a day. Of course,
only a fraction of that becomes briar usable for pipes, and only a fraction of that actually becomes pipes, but
the scale of the initial inventory of burls is extraordinary for a workshop with just two cutters.
Mimmo's father founded the operation, first in Badalucco, up in the valley from Taggia on the coast, then
moved it to Taggia in the late 1960s. As the pipe industry shrank in general, and especially in Italy, he began
to focus more and more on artisinal pipe makers and small workshops, offering the best briar available. Mimmo,
with a better command of English and a savvy head for business, continued the tradition. It began to a great
degree when Teddy Knudsen showed up with nothing but an address on his first foray to Liguria in search of
briar. Mimmo and his father were exactly what Teddy was looking for and, though perhaps it took a little while
to become apparent, Teddy was exactly what Mimmo was looking for. Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy became good
friends, and this initial contact with a Danish pipe maker blossomed into relationships with many of the best
pipe makers in Denmark, then more in other countries: the United States and Japan are now also important for
We all went back upstairs to the cutting floor, Mimmo
grabbed a homemade wooden cart, threw it into the elevator and we walked back down the stairs. He steadily
filled up the cart using criteria that I couldn't quite discern to pick the briar from the vast cache. Hauling
150kg back to the elevator, he brought it back up, weighed the batch and began work. All this time, Nicola had
been cutting burls from the previous batch, which ran out pretty much simultaneous to Mimmo's return with the
cart load of briar. Nicola took a short break while Mimmo sharpened and straightened his saw. Now, Mimmo has the
largest saw blades I've ever seen aside from those used by stone cutters. Perhaps two feet in diameter, with
sharp, deep teeth on the edge, and sporting almost nothing in the way of safety guards (that's a flap of
cardboard over it to prevent saw dust from flying up), this is one scary piece of machinery. While Mimmo wears
nothing out of the ordinary aside from a newspaper hat, Nicola wears what appears to be a breastplate of sorts,
to protect himself from small pebbles flying out of the briar, coming off of the saw. Tools and I tend not to
get along terribly well; I would never go near the apparatus that Mimmo uses on a daily basis. Perhaps in one of
those suits that bomb squad guys have, but I wouldn't approach it wearing anything less robust than that.
And Mimmo set to work. First he'd make a deep cut in a large burl, hand it to Nicola, who would use a press
with a wedge mounted in it to split the burl the rest of the way. Apparently, this is another technique used to
avoid getting hit by high speed pebbles. Almost every briar burl has a red, pebble ridden center that is
unusable for pipes, so with half of a burl (think of something vaguely spherical, so a half sphere of briar),
Mimmo begins by cutting away the obviously bad bits. From there, he reads the briar so that he can cut it
optimally, to maximize the quality of what the burl produces.
When Teddy Knudsen arrived at the door of the briar cutter in Taggia, what he found was a father and son team
that thought far more deeply about briar than most cutters. Most cutters cut for speed, yielding lots of nearly
cookie-cutter blocks, some of which happen to be beautifully grained. Mimmo takes the time, drawing also on
decades of cutting experience, to try to optimize what each block with yield. Then, on the best pieces, he
leaves as much briar as possible. Of course, as with any cutter, only a tiny fraction of the briar is the top
stuff, so most is cut into simple ebauchons to feed the machinery of the pipe factories of northern Italy and
Germany. But this studious process yields more of the good stuff, and his intimate knowledge of the pipe makers
and pipe making give him a real edge in making good cutting decisions. And, indeed, these decisions really
matter. A normal ebauchon might sell for about a dollar; a top-top quality piece of beautiful plateau sells for
twenty or thirty times that.
More important than the price difference, though,
is the dialogue that Mimmo has with each pipe maker. He makes impressive high grade pipes himself and has become
intimately acquainted with his high grade pipe making customers. He builds batches for his customers over time,
knowing which pipe maker is likely to be happiest with a given block shape. Some of his craziest blocks,
especially narrow blocks with horizontal grain orientation, go to Tokutomi in Japan because it's what he favors.
It's not that he segments based upon the quality of the briar; he segments based on what sort of block--large
and odd shaped, smaller and more proportionate, better for a horizontally oriented pipe, etc--a given pipe maker
is likely to be able to make the most of. Mimmo sees himself, and I've heard this sentiment echoed by pipe
makers, as a collaborator in the finished product, serving to inspire, challenge and meet the needs of his
customers. He is far more to them than just a man who sells them briar.
Continuing to watch Mimmo work, it becomes clear that far more briar ends up in the furnace than it does in
pipes. A massive 10kg burl might yield three or four smallish ebauchons or a couple of good plateau pieces. Most
it cut out because it's bad, or to shape the ebauchons to the standardized sizes and shapes that the factories
need, or simply in the process of determining what part of the burl is good. And while I've described this as a
painstaking process, Mimmo actually works extremely quickly. In the low light conditions of the cutting room, it
was extremely hard to capture him working as his hands flew around, pushing massive hunks of briar against the
saw, inspecting his work and deciding on the next cut. Since we were there, this whole process was interspersed
with Mimmo's rapid-fire, stoccato, Italian-accented English explanation of what he was doing and why. Like any
craftsman who so thoroughly knows his work that he could do it by instinct, Mimmo makes the process look easy,
but it becomes, through is explanation, abundantly clear that it is anything but. He's pointing out things in
the briar that, even looking at it, I can't see, explains he's using that information as to where to make the
next cut, cuts, and then shows me the result. What he says makes sense at some literal level, but I fear a real
understanding of what he describes requires a few months, if not years, at the cutting wheel. It is clear that
Mimmo is as much a world class craftsman as the pipe makers to whom he sells briar.
Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy have become so close that Teddy and his wife Mette selected Montalto, a small
mountain-top village in the valley above Taggia as their second home in Italy, where they spend about six months
of each year. This decision has a little to do with briar and much to do with the region, which is stunning: rugged mountains
extend into the Mediterranean, creating some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. And the friendship
between Teddy and Mimmo anchors both of them, on each side of the process that turns briar burls into beautiful
Having cut a few briar burls, yielding a handful
of ebauchons and one nice plateau piece that he will grade a notch below his top-top grade, Mimmo breaks to show
us the rest of the process. After the blocks are cut, they're placed into a giant water-filled vat for boiling.
The boiling process is key to the expulsion of bitter, acrid saps and other impurities from the briar. Keep in
mind, also, that the briar is wet when it's cut. It is intentionally kept wet to keep it from splitting. It
isn't until after the boiling process (heated, not surprisingly, by briar scraps) that the slow, methodical
drying process begins. Again, if it happens too rapidly, the briar will crack, so it is done in various stages,
both outside, but covered, in the breeze and inside the large cutting room, across weeks and months.
From there, we looked through his small pipe making
workshop, where he makes perhaps a hundred pipes each year. I wonder how he does all he does so well, given his various commitments to briar cutting, pipe
making, and generally running the briar cutting business. While inspired by the Danes, Mimmo's work retains
something that is prototypically Italian. His shapes seem more at home among the land of Versace and Ferrari
than the home of Arne Jacobsen. At the same time, his construction techniques are undeniably Danish, having been
taught primarily by Danes. It's a fascinating hybrid to which Mimmo brings his own particular personality.
After a morning of looking at briar in various stages of completion, we retreated to Mimmo's apartment above
the workshop to enjoy more conversation, coffee, and, of course, an excellent lunch that Mimmo whipped up, using
fresh ravioli and homemade sauce that he and Karin, his girlfriend, had prepared. I grew
up in a household where the kitchen was the central room in the house, to parents who are both capable amateur
cooks, so I particularly appreciate the Italian approach to food and its centrality to everything that they do.
The conversation was as good as the food and Mimmo and I discussed the nature of the pipe and briar business in
Italy (doing better, from Mimmo's perspective, it seems) and rambled across a half dozen subjects, generally
catching up on various goings-on.
After lunch, we left Mimmo to visit Teddy Knudsen in
Montalto. We made it to Montalto without incident (that much is hard for even me to screw up, and since I'd gotten
lost once before, I knew which turn, that leads to a certain tiny logging track, not to take this time). Montalto itself is accessible only on foot. The little town features
narrow stone passageways and alleys, with frequent arches containing homes over them, and we, of course, became
terribly lost before I called Teddy and told him where we'd ended up and he came and got us. We weren't even
close. I should have known better than to try to navigate a maze-like, if beautiful, little medieval town based
on a three year old memory. Teddy walked us through his new Italian workshop that he's recently finished
renovating, complete with, literally, red wine on tap (a contraption that only Teddy would have a) decided was
necessary, and b) have the ingenuity to construct) and then sat on his balcony with a stunning view of the
entire valley. We hadn't long with Teddy before we all met at a restaurant about half-way between Montalto and
Taggia for dinner with a small host, including Teddy, Mimmo and Karin, Gabriele and family of DG pipes in
Bologna, other friends and family of Teddy and Mimmo. Having settled upon English as the lingua Franca (both
because of us English speakers and because it's the common language for the Danish camp and the Italian camp),
we enjoyed a spectacular four course meal that stretched on for four hours. With us seated between Mimmo and
Teddy, facing Gabriele, there was never a dull moment.
This was only my second visit to Taggia and Montalto, but it will certainly not be my last. To some it might
seem odd for a briar cutter and a pipe retailer to develop the sort of business-friendship that Mimmo and I have
developed, but good things always come from these sorts of collaborations. Knowing what Mimmo's up to helps me
to do a better job of helping pipe makers find great briar, while Mimmo is, as one would expect, wired into the
Italian pipe making scene in a way that, from this side of the Atlantic, I'm simply not. Oh, and yeah, we have
way too much fun when we all get together. But let's pretend that isn't the real reason I hope to continue to go
to Taggia from time to time for years to come...
I'm a pipe smoker most of the year, but do enjoy the occasional
cigar. Smoking cigars became a pastime my freshman year of college,
and the humidor at the local B&M seemed like a candy store full of
sweet-smelling luxury. Fast forward to 2005, when I began working for
smokingpipes, and my palate had developed. The greatest time for me to
learn about cigars was when I began to work in our store, Low Country
Pipe and Cigar. It's one thing to browse around in a humidor the size
of my apartment, at the time, and another thing entirely to be able to
guide customers toward what they were really looking for. Luckily, I
was not only able to sample cigars that we had to remove from
inventory due to careless fingernail happy patrons, but the employee
Initially, I reached for what I knew I liked. A Padron 1926 maduro
was a favorite smoke for my birthdays, so I decided to figure out what
made the stick so great. Blends in a cigar (filler, wrapper, and
binder) make the smoke what it is. Further experimentation told me
there really is a difference between a $2 cigar, and one that was
closer to $10 or $20. It became important for me to learn about what I
enjoyed with each particular cigar, so listening to the cigar-reps was
actually educational. Long-filler, Nicaraguan, Dominican, Cuban-seed,
Connecticut, Maduro, clipping, punching, etc. became terms I would
absorb and repeat to our customers. Much to my amazement, I began to
know what I was talking about. When a representative from Tatuaje came
into the store, I listened to his explanations of brown label, red
label, and (later) white label. There actually is a difference in
these smokes, and the most prominent is the flavor obtained from the
Cuban-seed plants grown in Nicaragua, and I prefer the brown
I would not explain these smokes as "sweet", because they are not,
but am not hesitant to liken the flavors to toasted nuts. The first
smoke came from a Tatuaje Petite. Smaller cigars tend to have a
different flavor than their big brothers, and that comes from the
proportion of filler, binder, wrapper, and the amount of each lending
their smoke the the appropriate puff. After a brief clip to open the
draw, yet retain a portion of the cap to hold everything together, I
did a brief toast with a wooden match, and the applied a delicate
draw. Flavors of cedar, toast, and nuts swirled around my tongue. What
a fantastic smoke! To me, this is as close to the forbidden-smokes we
can't get. The Noella (center in the picture) was one of the
most popular cigars sold in our store for years, and still holds
strong. Stocking up on these is a great idea. One of the biggest, and
baddest, smokes is the foil-wrapped RC-233. Apparently, Cuban cigars
used to be entirely wrapped in such foils, but customers today want to
see what they are buying (and I agree). For my birthday this year, my
wife and I headed to the state park on the beach to grill out, get
some sun, and I fired up the cigar. Part of me was worried that the
size would make for an extremely strong or bitter smoke toward the
end. Not true. The double-tapered construction allows for brief
changes in flavor toward the beginning, and I smoked this all they way
down to a nub. I enjoy my pipes at work, and in my workshop, but when
I head to the beach for a good part of the day, a great cigar fits the
I haven't yet finished my blogging from my last trip to see pipe makers and I'm off again in ten days to see all of my Danish pipe making (and tobacco manufacturing) friends. This is a trip I've made every year for six years now and it's always a highlight for me. Whether it's risking my fingers in Peter Heeschen's workshop or dreaming up ridiculous schemes (and an occasional practical plan) with Tom Eltang, visiting Denmark is just way too much fun for me. Three days ago, the prospect of getting back on the road in two weeks was as daunting as a lonely night in the alligator swamp down the road from my house. Now, well, now I'm ready to go. Bring on the smoked fish and delicious butter and cheese; I'm ready for Denmark! Here's a snapshot itinerary of where I'll be between the 15th and the 23rd of July.
Here's yet another video from the trip, this one a little longer and more involved, though my video editing skills leave much to be desired (of course, I am the guy that hated the idea of having an HTML newsletter and rather wishes the internet were still entirely text based). Some of the best video we had from the trip was visiting Radice in Cucciago. Here they are, making pipes (plus Luigi playing with his ridiculous three-bowled pipe).
I'll have something of a write up on the visit to Mimmo's briar cutting operation later today or tomorrow, but in the mean time, I thought I'd get this little video of Mimmo and his colleague Nicola at work. Mimmo supplies briar to many, if not most, of the top pipe makers in the world. Here he is at work!
You can read the first part of an interview I did with Kevin Godbee over at PipesMagazine.com about a month ago. We had entirely too much fun poking around here and chatting for pretty much the entire day, so it's a three parter. I hope you enjoy it!
While I work on more substantial posts about the trip, I'll offer up some little videos we took along the way. The video below is, well, pretty much self explanatory. I will offer that there's a reason that I do not make pipes for a living. Watching the Castello worker rusticating for the Sea Rock finish makes it look easy. It isn't. And that music in the background was coincidental, yet perfectly appropriate, no?
Many nights of the past weeks, I’ve found myself measuring pipes in my head before falling asleep. Just going through the motions… length, chamber diameter, chamber depth, etc. It’s actually quite relaxing. This is not a comment on how I feel about measuring pipes during the day, of course. The task is engaging, in that repetitive way, during the day that my mind simply returns to it when it is free to wander that dusky plane of consciousness immediately before sleep. It’s a little like looking at a bright light for too long, you see spots; I look at pipes all day, and I’m starting to see pipes everywhere…
With a couple of weeks at smokingpipes.com behind me, I am certainly beginning to see the world in an entirely new light. Much as an influential Art class would, my elementary education in pipes has enormously affected they way I view everyday things lately. This may seem like an exaggeration, but my new involvement in this world has indeed caused an enthusiasm for pipes I certainly did not expect.
Fairly recently, Lady Gaga came out with her video for the song ‘Alejandro’. Characteristically sensational, the new video features a less than ten second shot (out of a more than eight minute video) of Lady Gaga smoking a pipe. Well, I was so delighted! This affected me in a way it would not have a few weeks ago. Not simply one of my favorites, but *the* worldwide pop-star accessorizing with a pipe! As with all Lady Gaga productions, this video will be one of the most viewed, discussed, criticized, and acclaimed videos of a generation, and she’s smoking a pipe in it (well, holding a pipe that is smoking)! I was thrilled to see the pipe smoking, adding allure, in the already unusual video. I was practically bouncing out of my seat, so happy to see a pipe in such a mainstream context. In keeping with her typical style, Lady Gaga fearlessly incorporates the untypical, and I’m terribly enthusiastic about it. My BP days (that’s Before Pipes, not the much distressed oil company) collided with my AP days! Will the worldwide popularity of pipe smoking skyrocket? What are the exact social implications of these historic ten seconds? Recognizing my audience, I understand that embellishing a music video with (what is to you) an “ordinary” object may not seem as exciting as I am making it out to be. Also, I have a feeling that those reading may not be avid Lady Gaga fans, and may think I’m exaggerating her global reach. I’ll clarify because, as an outsider now semi-initiated into the pipe world, I immediately noted the pipe in the video as well as understood the significance of its presence “out there” in the mostly tobaccophobic world. Let me make my point this way, in the language of the average Gaga fan: pipes are totally unusual, and Lady Gaga is totally huge. Never have I so appreciated Lady Gaga’s tendency to include the esoteric and bizarre in her work as I did with this video. Additionally, I paused, re-watched, paused, and tried to determine the shape of the pipe she’s holding. I simply had to name the shape. But it’s difficult to make the call; I think it’s a sort of short churchwarden, maybe an apple bowl. Knowing pipes and Lady Gaga, I think a churchwarden would certainly be her choice, the more attention grabbing, the better.
Next, the other night I watched ‘National Treasure’, and the meerschaum pipe introduced towards the beginning of the film struck a new chord with me. While this doesn’t have the immediate cultural impact that I perceived in the Lady Gaga video, it did get me thinking. Having learned that meerschaum pipes are from Turkey, I began to wonder what in the world eighteen-century, American freemasons were doing with a pipe from the near East, and why they put a mysterious clue on the shank. Funnily enough, a meerschaum pipe carved with freemason insignia went up here on the site recently. Hmm… well, a connection between Masonic tradition and meerschaum pipes would be well worth scholarly investigation. After I mentioned these observations to Eric, he suggested that our Masonic meerschaum is a cry for help from a freemason stranded in a Turkish meerschaum workshop, however that doesn’t explain the peculiar connection implied by ‘National Treasure’… So, continuing my very scholarly investigation, I googled “meershaum pipes freemasons”. Many hits route you to meerschaums with freemason symbols, but I couldn’t find anything that explained the historical, sociological angle. Perhaps this will require more in-depth research on my part, and perhaps more enjoyable and inaccurate films on the part of Nicholas Cage.
Finally, the most, well, weird way my pipe education has influenced my perspective occurred while buying fast food the other day. When I saw the posters advertising a Chocolate Swirl Shake, I thought immediately “oh! Cool! It’s just a like an acrylic stem!” My next thought: “I am going nuts.” Maybe I’m not going nuts; maybe, I’m just getting good at my job. Or maybe both, which would be ok because I’ve noticed that a level of nuttiness may be necessary for success in this place. Anyway, this is a perfect example of how this internship is affecting that way I see the world. And, I suppose I’m thankful for it. While waiting for my order in an Arby’s, I don’t just see a picture of a milkshake— I see art.
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