I wouldn't be surprised to hear that we all do it - see a sufficiently old photo, start scanning the crowd for a hand or clenched jaw containing a pipe. Sometimes you can spot them right away, sometimes you can see a photo a half-dozen times before realizing there was a pipe hiding somehwere in there. What follows are three historic photographs, each with at least one pipe in evidence... including one I only spotted this morning while looking for photographs, despite having originally come across the picture over a month ago.
[Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum]
Unidentified (but presumably Australian) yacht club. Man at far left, holding rail, has been identified as noted sailor Frank Albert.
Date and location unknown.
[Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum]
Crew of the four-masted steel barque Magdalene Vinnen.
[Photo courtesy of the National Library of Ireland on The Commons]
Soldiers marching during the handover of the Custume Barracks from Britsh to Irish control.
Back on 4/02, Carlos Torano fine cigars, by way of their personable rep, Armando Lapido, sponsored one beauty of a cigar party (herf, to those who speak cigar) at our brick and mortar, Low Country Pipe & Cigar. Standing up from my desk, located in what I affectionately refer to as “the south 10,000”, I grabbed Calvin Miller, our new visual arts & design wizard (and nicotine neophyte) and asked if he’d like to try a great, free cigar? His answer being enthusiastically affirmative, we threw on our coats, and beat feet to the herf-in-process 100 yards to the north.
While turn-outs a cigar event can vary a bit, Torano really brought ‘em in: Calvin and I must have squeezed past close to 50 cigar enthusiasts in order to get to Armando and his recommendations. He picked out a medium-full selection for me and, inexplicably, a dark, nicotine-nuke for Calvin – yeah, the man whose sole lifetime exposure to nic began with a few experimental bowls of mild tobacco some weeks ago. After wandering through fragrant clouds, introducing Calvin to those I remembered, and both of us making the acquaintance of the new gents, it was time for me to pass on my years of wisdom to the “initiate” (ok, I read a book once). My last bit of advice to C was to smoke his Torano as slowly possible, without allowing it to go out. “A good cigar should be like a short vacation.”
I wandered over to talk to Josh Burgess, enjoying the cigar and fine camaraderie and, after about 10 minutes, Josh asked “Didn’t you and Calvin start your cigars at about the same time?” I arched a questioning eyebrow, and turned to look in the direction Josh had just indicated. Whereas my cigar had a minimum of 3/4s left to go, Calvin had smoked his so far down, he was all but looking for a roach-clip to keep it going! I hustled up to him. “How many fingers am I holding up?” “Huh?” “Dude, you are, essentially, a non-smoker. In your hand is, ok – was - the nicotine equivalent of a cobalt bomb. Right now the inside of your head should be looking like a Jackson Pollock.” “Nah, I’m great. In fact I’m going for another!”
For the past week, I have been trying to convince Calvin to volunteer for blood & neurological studies: I can’t fathom how he so easily metabolized a massive amount of parasympathomimetic alkaloid, and have to know. He has yet to agree, but I’m working on it.
Looking back at older images of people with their pipes, there seems to be a natural theme. From sailors to passengers, being out on the water seems to be the perfect time to strike a match, which is what brings us to this somewhat nautical look at pipes in days past.
Above: With a pipe and a bottle of whisky labelled "W. Lumsden & Co, Aberdeen" this passenger is travelling in style. Circa 1900
[Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum]
Above and Below: The smoking lounge in a luxury passenger ship, Hamburg-Amerika. Circa 1888-1894
[Photos courtesy of Southern Methodist University Libraries and DeGolyer Library]
Above: Author Sawyer poses with his pipe and a young Elephant Seal during the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Circa 1911-1914
[Photo courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales]
Above: Karl Muller smokes his pipe while washing the deck of the ship SEETEUFEL. Circa 1938
[Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum]
I have a confession. In my (now) four decade love affair with pipes, at least thirty-five years of which (to greater and lesser extents) I have had my hand in retail, I have never watched a pipe being made in person. I would ask you to consider, before any cat-calls, that very few Mercedes-Benz salesmen have watched the "One Man, One Engine", master mechanics of AMG do their stuff. Then again, I suppose the analogy loses some traction, given that I sit three feet away from a master carver (Adam Davidson). Well, when Ernie Markle came to town to spend four days at Adam's workshop, nothing was about to stop me from filling in this glaring gap in my education.
Ernie was staying in town at Adam's from Thursday, 02/27 until Sunday, 03/02 and everyone wanted to watch the duo work. Being a major player 'round these parts, I was assigned a (cough) Saturday. Driving to Adam's place, I found myself chuckling at what I assumed I would find upon arrival: Adam in his Pope's hat, snappy banter being slung between the two nearly as fast as the nerf softballs that surely be present. Not exactly.
Adam let me in, and I followed him into his workshop where I found Ernie intently concentrating on the first-stage rough out of a new project. Ever cordial, Ernie briefly looked up, grinned, and asked "'Sup, Bear?!", but clearly his mind had already returned to the beautifully grained block that was eight inches in front of him. As I started to follow Adam over to a different area of his shop, where he was about to begin an initial shaping as well, he pulled up short and pointed to three (frankly gorgeous) pipes which were resting on pegs, all of which appeared to be awaiting stem work. "Just got them to that stage" "Beautiful! Can I handle them?" "Only if you want to pull a chisel out of your hand -- they're still drying. The reason that I'm pointing to three all-but-finished pipes, and am only now starting another, is actually one of the major things I am helping Ernie work on, something that doesn't get addressed enough, but can really make or break a carver in the long run." Adam paused a sec, giving me some time to follow the preface to a conclusion. After realizing that he gave my intellect far too much credit, we restarted our journey to the other side of the shop and he continued: "Workflow discipline, the lack of which, in retrospect, really hampered my ability to complete work in a timely manner way back in the day. You start one shape, another block catches your eye and you switch over to the new one. Then a shape comes to you, one which requires yet another block. Eventually, you have partially completed briars, at various stages, scattered all over the shop and a big pipe show immediately on the horizon. You have to set maximum number of ongoing projects and complete them, before starting the first pipe of a new group. The number that works best depends on the individual carver. Mine's three, Ernie's natural number might be different."
Though Adam was in the process of positioning a block of briar and firing up his disc sander, my mind was still mulling what he imparted a scant 15 seconds earlier. Though not a romantic art revelation that rivaled the (probably apocryphal) "If the wine is sour, throw it out!" moment from "The Agony and the Ecstasy", it was totally logical. Where there is creation, there also has to be an underlying, pragmatic foundation of work practice. As Twyla Tharp put it "Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits." The sound of heath meeting grit snapped me back. With deft (and surprisingly quick) 180° paired rotations, followed by a shift of roughly 45° and another twin-180° repeat. I noted that, while moving his hand positions faster than a three card Monty hustler, he was also pretty conservative in the amounts that came off in a given planning. As if he was reading my mind, Davidson mused "You'd be amazed at how easy it is screw up a potentially great shape through over-enthusiasm at this point." Over the din I heard Ernie say "Adam's sanding disk has to be spinning at least twice as fast as I have seen". Adam shrugged "Usually a disc spins at about 1800 rpm. One day, I forgot to reduce speed when shifting from stem polishing to shaping. Turns out I prefer about 3875 rpm -- who'd have figured?"
It was Ernie's turn to employ the disc. As he arrived at the chair, he groaned, "God, I REALLY hate this part... " "You hate the initial shaping?" "No I hate Adam's set up -- the bloody sander is at a 90 degree angle from the natural sitting position -- my back is killing me." Thinking back, it was a stupid question, it just popped out, "Back home, you're set up directly facing the disc?" Though in an amiable manner, Ernie gave me something of a "Well, Duh" look, squeaked a bit in pain, and touched briar to disc. Adam just shrugged "All depends on what you're used to".
That afternoon was filled with confirmations about how I had envisioned a good deal of the process (no simple "eye-balling" will ever beat perfect measurements, etched with a pencil over laser-confirmed lines) as well as scads of revelations. As far as the latter? I had a more accurate understanding of the principle benefits that carvers reap when collaborating with one another. Sure, there's some "I really like that one line you incorporate into your ("X") shape, but can't quite seem to pull it off". What they are usually seeking, however, is what tool their temporary partner employed to create it? That answered, they head back to their home shop and create a tool that's pretty close, just one that is more suited to what they have and the way they like to work.
Bear Graves and Ryota “Our Man in Japan” Shimizu, sat down and had a chat with Reiichi “Ray” Kurusu. Ryota, pipe man and translator extraordinaire, amply demonstrated his value throughout the interview, by correcting Bear’s poor Japanese. Thus, questions which arrived as “Do you have any sisters at home?” became “Do you smoke a pipe yourself?” SPC extends its deepest thanks to Ryota-san.
Bear Graves:When and where were you born?
Reiichi Kurusu: I was born on the 21st of November 1977, and I’m from Osaka Japan.
Bear Graves:What career path did you take immediately upon graduation?
Reiichi Kurusu: After graduating high school in Osaka, I lived abroad for about a year in New Zealand. When I returned to Japan, I moved to Tokyo pursuing my love for music. I worked at a tattoo studio, not really having clear vision of what to do.
Bear Graves:Where do you live now? Is your workshop in your home?
Reiichi Kurusu: Right now, I’m back home in Osaka and my workshop is there as well.
Bear Graves:At what age did the idea of pipe smoking appeal to you? Did you have men in your life, whom you looked up to, who might have smoked a pipe?
Reiichi Kurusu: When I visited the 2011 Pipe Fest in Tokyo, I met with Tokutomi-san for the first time and pipe making sounded so interesting that I thought of giving it a shot. I asked Tokutomi if he could teach me and that also got me seriously thinking of pipe making as a career. After that, I’ve been visiting his workshop countless times trying to learn as much as I can.
Bear Graves:Do you smoke a pipe yourself?
Reiichi Kurusu: I smoke about every other day when I want to relax after work.
Bear Graves:What types of blends do you prefer?
Reiichi Kurusu: My favorite is SG’s 1792, but I usually smoke my mixture of Virginias. Dunhill Flake is one of my favorite as well.
Bear Graves:What, aside from pipemaking, is your vocation?
Reiichi Kurusu: I still love tattoos and music. Sometimes, I enjoy playing the piano and singing.
Bear Graves:Who was the maker of your first quality pipe?
Reiichi Kurusu: My first high end pipe was a Jess that I was able to acquire 10 years ago from a friend. He was kind enough to let me have it for a very reasonable price. I can still remember how fascinating the stem work was.
Bear Graves:Your first pipe was a Jess?! I wish I had friends like that! When did you create your first pipe that you were proud of, one that you felt was worthy to sell?
Reiichi Kurusu: It’s only been 3 years that I started making pipes and looking at some fantastic handmade pipes that my friends show me, I realize how much I still need to work. But I think this past 6 months has been a huge leap for me.
Bear Graves:What is the origin/source of your briar, and, roughly, how long is it seasoned prior use?
Reiichi Kurusu: All my briars are from Mimmo, and I let them sit for about 2~3months before using them. Personally I would like to season them for at least 6 months or more in the future.
Bear Graves:What is your stem material of choice?
Reiichi Kurusu: I use vulcanite for my stems and never acrylic. I sometimes use Cumberland as well.
Bear Graves:Do you hand cut your stems?
Reiichi Kurusu: All my stems are cut from rods. Never a mold.
Bear Graves:What size are your draft holes?
Reiichi Kurusu: Draft holes are all 4mm.
Bear Graves: We have noticed a couple of different aspects of approach to your shaping. If you have a prevailing theme for your work, how would you describe it?
Reiichi Kurusu: I don’t really have a theme per se, but I try not to overuse complicated lines or curves. There are the soft gentle lines and simple curves that I am very fond of. But I do like those lines that just click on blowfishes as well.
Bear Graves:What pipe makers, if any, have aided you in your progress as a pipe maker?
Reiichi Kurusu: As I’ve mentioned, Toku has helped with me from the beginning and has taught not only how to carve pipes, but also what it means to be a pipe maker. Ichi [Editorial note: Ichi Kithara] as an elder student, has been a great mentor as well.
Bear Graves:I have noticed some beautiful lines in your work that are quite evocative of Tokutomi’s aesthetic Looking at the broadest spectrum of great pipemakers, either living or passed, whose work do you most admire?
Reiichi Kurusu: There are so many that I admire… Tokutomi Hiroyuki, Kei’Ichi Gotoh, Takeo Arita, Bo Nordh, Jorn Micke, Jess Chonowitsch, Bjorn Bengtsson, Sixten, Lars and Nanna Ivarsson… I like how Tao and Poul Ilsted make their bulldog shapes.
Now, to the more 'personal insight'?
Bear Graves:Do you have a nickname, one that you like and we might use on occasion? An odd question, but a nickname, even if simply a shortened version of your given or surname, creates a greater sense of personal connection with collectors, as well as allows us not to simply repeat your same first/last name in a description (reads a bit better).
Reiichi Kurusu: My nickname has always been Ray. My real name is Reiichi but I’ve been using Ray for so long that I used Ray Kurusu as my brand name.
Bear Graves:What kind of music do you like?
Reiichi Kurusu: Tom Waits and Nina Simone, and Fiona Apple. I respect their ability as musicians, as well as their vocal talents. I used to like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, but now I enjoy the quieter music.
Bear Graves:What are your favorite things to do, when away from work?
Reiichi Kurusu: Right now, I use every second I have on pipe making, but I love traveling and so one of these days I would like to go on a trip for a change.
Bear Graves:Do you have a favorite sports team?
Reiichi Kurusu: I'm not much of a sports guy and have no clue! [Laughing.]
Bear Graves:Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
Ray Kurusu: You are very welcome, it’s been my pleasure.
We all know the drill now: I pick a tobacco, I choose a few victims volunteers and we get their impressions of a particular blend or leaf without prejudice. Well, in theory at least. As you’ll see, sometimes there’s just no disguising certain “real McCoys”.
“The appearance of this tobacco is unusual. The majority of the tobacco is a deep brown, almost black, rough cut that looks a bit like a rubbed out flake or coin, but there are a few golden ribbons here and there. The pouch note is subdued and natural, with hints of spice, charred meat, and what we euphemistically refer to as “barnyard” in wine tastings. The charred meat notes that were discernible in the pouch predominate upon the first lighting. As the bowl progresses, this flavor settles down a bit into a richer, more well-balanced smoke. By mid bowl, the tobacco has taken on added intensity and complexity with notes of spice (black pepper in particular), cedar, leather, and tar with a very subtle sweetness.
This blend is a big, full-bodied tobacco that produces copious amounts of pungent smoke. The flavor profile suggests that this is primarily a Virginia tobacco that has been dark fired. I’d wager that it’s one of the Kendal twists, although I’m a bit puzzled by the presence of the thin, golden ribbons. (Maybe this is some of Eric’s chicanery.) While this tobacco is interesting and definitely packs a nicotine punch, I can’t imagine smoking it unless I were impressed into hard labor onboard a 19th-century whaling vessel, where its pungency would mask the smell of death and despair, or attempting to understand Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, where the very generous nicotine dose would help me share in a vision of Xanadu.“
“Upon opening the zip-lock bag ambiguously marked "3/18/14" I noted a very subdued but deep aroma similar to must and smoke. Big chunks of black tobacco and thin ribbons of gold spread lightly throughout, Virginia Ribbon perhaps. Inhaling more deeply, the smell of this blend comes across with subtle spiciness, oil, hints of clove, but no sweetness. Packs easily and takes flame slowly. The flavor is unmistakably that of Black XX Rope or Black Irish X, both of which I smoke regularly. It looks as though a small amount of Kendall Gold has been blended into this, but the majority seems to be a chopped black rope. The taste is a strange amalgam comprised of meat, motor oil, sage, chipotle, creosote, graphite and occasionally BBQ sauce. Not for the faint of heart (or lung) where the pouch note was subtle and subdued, the strength and body and room-note are potent. Not acrid or tinny at all, much more earthy, musty, muddy, boggy. Let me be clear, since I realize that the descriptors I have used may sound off-putting to many; I like this blend. A lot. File this under "Acquired Taste" alongside Islay Single Malt Scotch, Chocolate Covered Bacon, Dirty Oysters, Bone Marrow, Calf's Brains, etc...“
[Ed. – He’s being serious here. In Jeremy’s company I’ve taken part in the tasting of everything from tinned seal to lambs’ livers.]
Well, I tried. Tried and failed, that is. What I tried was disguise the blend I’d chosen this time around. Why I failed was the same reason I tried: the stuff was just too distinctive. Even after cutting it, rubbing it, shredding it, drying it for 24 hours, and mixing in a tiny pinch of Kendal Gold to add some different color, Jeremy, Josh, and Ted (the lattermost just by being nearby) all at one point or another brought up in conversation the very blend I’d picked – Black Irish X. There is, simply, no mistaking these extra-dark Irish ropes; not if you’ve smoked them before, and not even if you’ve just been in the same building as someone smoking them.
We’re all familiar with the stereotypes surrounding pipes, and those of us who enjoy them. If we have beards, they’re expected to be grey, or at least well-grizzled; we’re to be old-fashioned, steady, inclined to ponder (even to the point of becoming ponderous), restful, quiet, staid, so on and so forth.
While I can’t speak knowledgeably as to whether or not Stuttgart artist and graphic designer Hanns Lohrer himself may have borne or resembled any of these archetypal aspects, I can say that his life’s most famous work certainly didn’t. And that’s because it looked like this:
I’m not a “Porsche guy” – four out of the five vehicles that I’ve owned have been in excess of 18 feet in length, and all have moved out of their own way courtesy of cast-iron V8 engines displacing a minimum of 300 cubic inches. Yet I can’t deny that from the first time I was exposed to Lohrer’s advertising work for Porsche, I was taken. His creations were vibrant and confident, without forced affectation; the stuff a good life is made of. They spoke to that boyish spark in a man’s soul, the one which remembers most fondly those times when with a wink or smile Father or a favorite uncle might have said, “Alright kid, just don’t tell your mother.”
Hanns Lohrer’s artwork is remembered today for his ability to speak to such a spirit. He was good at it, and he had to be good at it – uniquely good at it. That is because attention-grabbing advertising materials were a full one-eighty from Porsche’s own planned approach to building recognition. Word of mouth and face-to-face customer exposure with the automobiles themselves were what Ferry Porsche was comfortable with, trusting that reputation would spread within the sports automobile driver community. Yet Hanns Lohrer’s work wowed and wooed, with brilliant, clean, quite often deceptively simple images, depicting not only Porsche as a car, but Porsche as a chosen mode of transportation in a world made much larger and more exciting. In many of the most famous Lohrer materials, the automobile itself appears only in small scale,
…or only in part,
…or even not at all.
Unlike Ferry Porsche’s far quieter, more old-fashioned approach, Hanns’s work captured the attention not only of those already within the small, exclusive community of sports-car drivers, but those who might have aspired to be a part of it as well. No doubt his work also inspired quite a few lads, and ladies alike, as yet still too young to even get behind a wheel.
Even in his old company headshot Hanns appears to have been playing with the themes seen in his work; the curious forward posture, that satisfaction in his smile, the line and angle of the pipe he holds, and the roundness of the chosen briar’s bowl and the streamlined shape of its stem remembering the lines and contours of the performance automobiles he helped make icons.
Crazy Eddie? I can live with or without home electronics, insane deals or not. Last summer’s biggest blockbuster? Odds are I still haven’t even heard of it. But Hanns’ work, like the restless ad-copy prose of Edward S. Jordan before him, was the stuff of life – that was its theme, and that was its essence. That’s what makes it enjoyable simply as art. And that’s the kind of thing we shouldn’t do without; art, and life, for art and life’s own sake. Can’t say I was surprised to find out he was also pipe man, stereotypes be damned.
Introduction: I tossed little bags of tobacco at Bear, Josh, and Jeremy and told them to smoke it. When asked what it was, I refused to answer, instead opting to repeat my demands, with one small addition: Smoke it, and then write about what happens to you.
The idea of course is to get their impressions uncolored by previous knowledge of brand, blend composition, reputation, and what have you. Clearly, telling them the nature of what they’d be loading into their several pipes was right out, then. They’d have to find that out for themselves.
“The pouch note promises a mild aromatic: smells of a grassy Virginias with a light topping—anise, oats, vanilla, and fruit. Appearance is golden and light brown, cut into long, thin ribbons that pack easily. Upon the first lighting the tobacco’s aromatic qualities, particularly berries and vanilla, come to the forefront of the smoke. A quarter of a bowl in, the topping is less pronounced, replaced by hay-like golden Virginias along with a little spice and nuttiness. The latter suggests a pretty significant Burley component that becomes more pronounced near the bottom of the bowl. Flavors become deeper and earthier, with only a whisper of vanilla. Overall, this is a mild smoke, what I would consider a Danish aromatic, reminiscent of Mac Baren’s Golden Extra with a light topping. Not a tobacco that I would reach for often due to its lack of depth or complexity, but it is not without its advantages. Room note is pleasant, which would make this a good choice for a smoker who wants a more natural tobacco flavor while still pleasing any non-smokers in his company. Smoke can become a little acrid upon relights or if pushed.”
“I find this medium golden ribbon to be long and stringy in its cut and subtly sweet and boozy in its aroma. Prior to the light I am fairly certain that this contains Burley and Virginia. No darker tobaccos or oriental component is notable at this point. On the light Burley makes itself most noticeable and then settles down, letting VA take the fore. Mellow and sweet, kind of boozy topping, I can tell that this tobacco would bite back if puffed too heartily, but sipping suits it just fine. On the relight, I got kind of a sour note like oriental but once again this just trails off land eaves the VA with a slightly more pronounced Burley component. This reminds me of Sherlock Holmes by Peterson.”
“Reaching into the unlabeled baggie (reminding me a bit of my youth), I pulled out a generous amount of my mystery blend. Springy, slightly wiry and already at what I consider perfect moisture level, I spread out the same to do my usual “pick the clumps apart” ritual, which turned out to be pointless (there were no clumps, just ribbons, ready to be smoked. The tin (ok, ”baggie”) note was that of a fairly light aromatic. Hints of vanilla, caramel, maybe even a bit of maple-like fragrance wafted up, but (again) light.
It packed beautifully, and the toasting light released a scent which I can only refer to as “Pancake House”. No, not choking syrupiness; the smell of pancakes cooking on a hot griddle in the back, maybe combined with some bread in the toaster for the folks sitting at table #4. Full light: for about the first three minutes, the dominant room note stayed faithful to the charring light, so much so that I found myself wondering when more “pure” tobacco elements would start to assert themselves. I received my answer about five minutes into the smoke - quite a nice balance started to present. As I moved further into the bowl, the maple/vanilla/caramel faded a bit, and hints of cassis started winking at me. It was something that, while pleasant, I would never had anticipated. Usually, berries/cassis/kier-like elements will make themselves immediately known from the pouch note, and not only had I detected none, I didn’t notice any for the first third of the bowl. The new notes and the formerly dominant ones shifted back and forth for the remainder of the bowl, which, along with some very subtle spice I couldn’t identify, amounted to be the major points of interest about the tobacco. I found it overall to be (basically) dichromatic in flavor, simply shifting in note dominance at different points. While not likely to become one of my go-smokes, I could see this becoming a staple for a light aromatic smoker who isn’t obsessed with layering or nuance, and would like something that’s consistent, easy to pack, and easy to light and keep lit.”
And the blend was?Norway Pipe Cut, by Newminster. Despite differing palates and differing pipes, Josh, Bear, and Jeremy all readily identified the primary VA/Burley content of the blend, though the Oriental leaf’s presence seemed to be more elusive. Curiously, both Bear and Josh noted a slight spiciness that neither one could pin down, even though out of the three guinea pigs contributing pipe-fellows, Bear was the one picking up the aromatic qualities more than the base tobaccos, while Josh and Jeremy were getting more from the VA and Burley.
Jared Coles (J&J Pipes) and Adam Davidson discuss the best way to clean the knuckles of bamboo, while Steve Liskey talks about different ways to drill and fit bamboo with Nathan Armentrout. Meanwhile Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes), who is hosting this get-together at his home and workshop in San Diego, bounces about, playing the consummate host, making sure everyone has what they need, whether it's a certain drill bit or some of Jeff's famous (at least in the pipe world) coffee.
Jeff Gracik sketches on a rough shaped stummel as Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey look on.
Adam Davidson and I are attending the first of what will perhaps become an annual event for pipe makers that Jeff Gracik, of J. Alan pipe fame, painstakingly organized over the past few months: the West Coast Pipe Maker's Pow Wow. The feel was sort of like a very small, very relaxed pipe maker version of a professional conference. The two day event has been broken into a series of technical demonstrations, short seminars and roundtable discussions. It's a small, select group of fourteen, of which eleven are pipe makers. It is very possibly the first of its kind, anywhere in the world. Sure, American pipe makers have a history of getting together to share ideas and processes, but never with this much structure, nor on this scale.
As, I write, sitting in a folding camping chair on Jeff's driveway, Jeff stands at a lathe demonstrating how to properly execute a military style mount for a stem as ten other pipe makers look on. The other pipe makers are a pretty select group. These are mostly guys that have been making pipes for at least a few years, here to learn new techniques. Jeff is one of the top pipe makers in the country--perhaps the top pipe maker in the country--and while these guys are already professional pipe makers, there's still much that they can learn from Jeff. But it isn't limited to Jeff. All of these guys have areas of expertise that they can share with the group.
Jared Coles drills on Jeff's lathe.
Earlier, Steve Liskey led a seminar on bamboo, detailing methods ranging from digging it out of the ground to using it as a shank on a pipe. Yesterday, I led a discussion on some of the business aspects of the pipe world. Later today, pipe maker and longtime Smokingpipes.com Estate Manager and Pipe Specialist Adam Davidson will discuss quality control and the pitfalls pipe makers can avoid if they want to make the best pipes possible.
What's truly remarkable, to the point that it would utterly baffle an outside observer from most any other industry, is that this actually happens in the pipe world. Jeff is completely open with how he does things, unconcerned that he's teaching his competition. Perhaps it’s the security he feels regarding his place in the pipe world that makes this so natural for him. Or perhaps it's simply the master's desire to share his knowledge. There have been a handful of pipe makers over the decades who have been happy to disseminate the skills that they've mastered. It's part of the craft and part of being a great pipe maker.
Sixten Ivarsson, to take the most famous example, was great because he thought about pipes in a new way, and because he taught others how he thought about pipes. If he'd done the former without the latter, Sixten's historical role as the progenitor of the modern artisanal pipe would simply not be. He would have been a brilliant, but relatively insignificant, dead end in the history of pipe making. At the end of the day, Sixten is important because he passed on what he'd learned and what he'd developed.
That willingness to share, exemplified by others--Tom Eltang also comes to mind as a particularly open and willing teacher--is important not only for those who take the opportunity to learn. Indeed, nothing further refines skills as well as teaching them. It forces the teacher to refine amorphous thoughts into coherent structures, furthering his mastery of the material. Jeff Gracik, along with Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey, are confident teachers this weekend.
The goal for the weekend was to help good pipe makers get better. Some of the subjects covered were fairly straightforward: drilling techniques, for example. Others were more sophisticated, such as working with oddly shaped pieces of bamboo. Some of the focus had little to do with how to make a better pipe, but rather addressed individual development as a pipe maker. Adam didn't hold forth before the group about how to make pipes (though he did give a lot of one-on-one advice throughout the weekend), instead he talked about common quality control pitfalls, the small (but crucial) things that pipe makers can watch out for, in order to help them catch errors before they leave the workshop. As long time quality control guy at Smokingpipes.com, Adam's in a unique position to talk about common pipe maker errors. My presentation was about how to navigate the business end of being a pipe maker, how to manage brands, how to avoid potentially bad, short-term focused decisions in favor of better, longer-term decisions, and the like. Indeed, of all of them, my talk was the only that didn't really have much to do with the pipes they make, but hopefully it gave them some insight into how to think about managing the business and marketing side of what they do.
Adam Davidson sketches a mortise, while Nathan Armentrout holds the board for him.
Adam and Ernie discuss a rough shaped pipe made by Ernie (E. Markle Pipes) on Jeff's driveway.
While the centerpieces of the weekend were the formal demonstrations by Jeff and the seminars led by Steve Liskey, Adam and me, much of what made the event exceptionally special was the ad hoc discussion about pipe making that took place during the weekend. At one point I was looking at some pipes Ernie Markle was working on (seriously nice stuff, I might add), when Adam wandered over and started offering his thoughts. One of the pipes Ernie had at hand was a partially finished long-shanked acorn. The shape, while impressive, wasn't quite what he was looking for. He and Adam ended up sitting on Jeff's driveway with a sketchpad, working out the problems of the shape. I'm not sure what will come of the particular stummel that Ernie had been working on, but it was clear that this was a valuable, collaborative learning experience for both Ernie and Adam.
It was an enlightening experience for me as well. Obviously, I'm not a carver. The finer points of how to make an army mount were interesting, but didn't mean much to me. What I did take away from it, however, was how hard it is to be a top-tier pipe maker. Of course, at some level, I knew this; I've probably been in more different pipe maker workshops than anyone else in the world. I know how hard these men (and women) work. But usually I'm in the workshops of established pipe makers. Seeing Jeff instruct less experienced pipe makers helped to crystalize, on a personal level, how hard it is to transition from being a good pipe maker (of which there are many out there right now) to a great pipe maker (of which there are few). The difference is mostly in the mastery of thousands of little technical details. This past weekend Jeff demonstrated a bunch of those details, but pipe making can't be learned in a weekend. It can take a lifetime of continuous effort. Even in cases of exceptional natural talent (like Jeff Gracik, who now has over a decade's worth of experience, and whose work enjoys immense demand), you'll still find artisans very eager to listen, and eager to reciprocate by teaching and passing on what they've learned. It's this that makes "greats" from the "good".
Attendees use the sanding disks while Adam Davidson watches.
Most images kindly provided by John Klose of J&J Artisan Pipes.
Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (way back in the 1980s), I spent a few years in the Meerschaum Capital of the World. I was in the Air Force, stationed at Incirlik Air Base in the Republic of Turkey. In addition to experiencing the beautiful Turkish culture and lifestyle I had only read about in books, I saw some examples of the most amazing artistry and craftsmanship one could imagine.
The village located just outside the Base had an area known as “The Alley”. To tell the truth, it was nothing more than a short access road leading towards the highway, but that quarter-mile strip of roadway was jam-packed with stores and shops. Everything the local shopkeepers had to offer was there, from brass and copper pots and pans, to gold jewelry, furniture, carpets, a restaurant (aptly named for the BP Gas Station) and of course, Meerschaum pipes. Lots of Meerschaums. I remember one shop that had a dozen glass cabinets filled with pipes. They were displayed like a museum exhibition on the glass shelves, row upon row of pipes. From the small, simply carved smooth bowls to the most elaborate portraits, animal busts and geometric patterns; they had them all.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, I still remember the clerk telling me I could have one custom carved. I could have my own face on a pipe, or one made in the image of my favorite pet. And this personalized souvenir would have been mine for the paltry sum of $20. Looking back, I’m still glad I chose one already carved. The thought of having this face carved into a piece of sepiolite, forever memorialized, still scares me...and my wife.
The one I chose smoked okay, though I admit that after only a few times, I put it back into it’s case. There it sat, undisturbed for the next 28 years. It wasn’t until I answered a job ad for a Shipping Manager that it would see the sunlight, be taken up and smoked again.
Funny, isn’t it? Sometimes things that you found so beautiful and intriguing will come back and rekindle your interest, no matter how much time has passed. They can also bring back fond memories of friends and family, even when those memories were half a world, and what seems like whole a lifetime, away.
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Our website is always open and you can place an order at any time. Phone/office hours are 9am-7pm US/Eastern (GMT -5:00) Monday-Friday and 10am-5pm US/Eastern (GMT -5:00) on Saturdays. Our Little River, SC showroom is open 10am-7pm US/Eastern (GMT -5:00) Monday-Saturday. We are closed on Sundays.
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