I landed at Milan-Malpensa airport at 8:30am, Sunday morning. Yes, I was tired, but I was also far too excited about the next few days to let something like a little sleep deprivation bother me. My first appointment would be that very afternoon at Radice, and with an itinerary that starts as such it is difficult not to be enthusiastic. And yet I still found myself with a few hours to kill, first. I tried to check into my hotel in Varese, but I found no luck there so early in the day, so instead I opted to make a pleasurable opportunity of the extra time by journeying along the most roundabout way I could find for traveling from Varese to Cucciago (home of Radice). I angled through a sliver of Switzerland and spent part of the afternoon in Como, next to the famous lake of the same name, sitting and smoking a pipe and generally taking it all in, at least until a spring shower drove me off.
As I eventually meandered closer to the Radices' workshop, I got to poke around lovely little towns in the foothills of the Alps while still also managing to arrive right on time at 2pm. Luca diPiazza (Radice's agent, translator and all-around helper, promoter and business-guy) and Maurizio Radice met me, ushered me in and promptly plied me with much needed espresso. Maurizio's father, Luigi "Gigi" Radice, had another engagement (I was asking them to meet me on a Sunday, after all), as did Gianluca, his brother. Gianluca did, however, manage to stop by briefly to say hello, but he couldn't stick around, sadly.
We chatted about pipe making, touching on topics ranging from the ins and outs of the business, to the zany pipe creations that Maurizio's father Gigi often makes when left to his own devices. He showed me an Oom Paul, for example, that Gigi had carved to look like an elephant's head, with the trunk forming the shank. Apparently, Maurizio and Gianluca won't let Gigi make crazy stuff when they're in the workshop, so Gigi only does it when they're at lunch or otherwise away. Frankly, I think that if Gigi wants to make silly pipes, he's entitled to after 52 years as a full-time pipe maker.
Having chatted and played around, we eventually settled down to seriously important matters: looking at pipes. I picked out 54 pieces, some of which were complete, but many of which were in various stages of not-quite-completeness: a handful still didn't have finished stems, some just needed polishing, and so forth. And there were a bunch more pipes, such as the Underwoods to the right, which I would have happily made off with if Maurizio hadn't kept me from picking pipes that hadn't even been stained yet. I made Luca and Maurizio promise to email me when some of these were done though, since there was some seriously cool stuff on that bench.
Speaking of seriously cool stuff, the Radice’s had several shapes intended for their 'Classic' series to show me, and I was able to pick freely from those. The Bulldogs, pictured to the right, weren't quite done yet, so they'll be sending those along in a few weeks when the batch is completed. The whole Classics project is pretty impressive: a set of nine shapes, available in all the Radices' signature finishes, emphasizing Radice’s interpretations of the core traditional shapes. Since they're all hand turned, there's definite variance from pipe to pipe, but it's really only obvious when you see a whole lot of them in one place (a slightly longer shank here, slightly squatter bowl there, etc). The series has been around for a few couple of years now and has proven incredibly popular.
On a less serious note, Maurizio showed me a briar burl that he wants to turn into a coffee table. Yes - a coffee table. Some burls may have obvious problems that make them unsuitable for burning tobacco inside of them, but for the resourceful artisan this only leaves the wood to all sorts of other uses. The Radices have a line of high-priced briar ashtrays made from entire burls in an upscale department store, for example. Some blocks simply end up being used decoratively: we ourselves have one in the front windows of our shop. This one, though, if Maurizio gets his way, will be topped by glass supported (somehow - I'm sure he has it figured out) by the branches that extend from the briar burl… now that would make an awesome smoking table!
Tune in next time (which will be whenever I next get a chance to write some more while I'm here) to read about my visit to the Savinelli factory in Barasso!
We visited the Castello factory the day after we arrived and visited the Radice workshop the following day. It's been over three weeks since then, but I wanted to share some photos I took during the two visits. The Castello factory wasn't operating that day because it was an Italian national holiday, but we met with Franco and Marco and looked at pipes. The following day, we met with the Radices and Luca diPiazza, their agent for the US and other countries and picked out pipes there, took some video and some photos. We hope to have that video to you soon. In the mean time, enjoy the photos!
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).
Luigi "Gigi" Radice started making pipes in 1960, working at the Castello factory as a young man. He spent eight years there, leaving in 1968 to co-found Caminetto with fellow Castello veteran, Peppino Ascorti. Eleven years later, that partnership ended. And in 1980, Luigi founded Radice pipes. With a career length rivaled (though not surpassed) only by Hans "Former" Nielsen in Denmark, he is also unquestionably the world's oldest full time pipe maker. And for Luigi, full time denotes, well, pretty much all of his time. His sons, Gianluca and Marzio, are very hardworking men, putting in long days in the workshop. Luigi's life is dedicated to his craft at this point, beginning work at seven, stopping for lunch and wrapping up at six, and returning to work late in the evening most nights. Saturdays and Sundays also see Luigi working away, making pipes, though he often reserves Sunday afternoons for the more whimsical creations for which he is famous. Keep in mind that this grueling pipe making pace is maintained by a man in his seventies, though Luigi acts nothing like his age. Stylistically, Radice owes much to its Castello roots, and the evolution of that style that Radice and Ascorti developed for Caminetto, but the soul of the brand is Gigi's. His playfulness, almost childlike delight in tinkering with pipes, his creativity and his relentless dedication to quality established the brand some thirty years ago, and kept it focused, consistent, and innovative ever since.
We arrived, as usual, slightly late, having become slightly lost on the brief journey from Cantu (having visited Castello) to Cucciago. Yes, it is supposed to be just a ten minute drive, but between my predisposition towards being lost (I have indeed developed it into something of an art form), and tiny little roads in Italian towns, it took about twice that. Luca di Piazza, Radice's general representative outside of Italy, met us outside and ushered us into the narrow, long workshop. The workshop is by no means small, but it felt cozy and homey in a way that the larger factory's impressive scale and painstaking cleanliness precluded. While I'd been very impressed by Castello, this felt more like the pipe workshops that I've known and loved all over the world. When we arrived, Gigi was doing the first cuts on a block of briar on the band saw, removing big chunks of unwanted wood before he took the block to the sanding disk for shaping. He looked up, smiled, and returned to what he was doing. Marzio and Gianluca ushered us into a room adjoining the workshop that seems to serve as one part office and one part dining room, perhaps just a general sanctuary from the workshop. Plied with excellent espresso coffee, we chatted about Radice, its recent history, and the sorts of things they are working on these days. We've seen a fair number of recent Radices; we've had about 120 come through our doors so far this year, but the discussion certainly served to put what we'd seen so far into perspective. The three Radices target 1,200 pipes a year, though it seems that they'll make rather more than that given they're already about 700 pipes in, not yet half way through the year.
After perhaps twenty or thirty minutes, Gigi, having completed what he was working on, joined us and, through Luca as translator, showed us around. He pulled out a collection of tiny Radice pipes, plus a series of rather bizarre contraptions, including a three bowled pipe with little nozzles to turn each bowl on and off. He also showed us the founding document that created the Caminetto brand in 1968 (a picture of which failed to come out very well, sadly). Then he showed us a pipe with 360-degree birdseye, an almost impossible feat given that briar grain radiates from the center of the burl, with the center always being unusable. But, here it was, with grain radiating out from the chamber on the wide rim and birdseye right the way around the bowl. Finally, we moved on to more conventional Radices and took perhaps an hour to pick roughly sixty pipes, of all shapes, sizes and finishes. I am particularly partial to the two very small lovats that will be coming, though there are some Collect grade pieces that are as gigantic as the lovats are tiny, so there really is something for everyone upcoming over the next few weeks and months.
Having finished selecting from finished pipes, we moved back out to the workshop to look through some lovely nearly-finished pieces, adding another two dozen to the impressive selection we'd amassed in the other room. At this point, Gigi went back to work, both because we wanted photos of all of them working, but also, I suspect, because he'd already sat still for many times longer than he normally does. At 72, Gigi has more energy than I do, at less than half his age. He started work, first at the band saw and then at the sanding disk, on a Collect grade piece that will probably end up as a sandblasted or rusticated pipe, given the contours of the grain and a minor sand spot on the side of the bowl. As he worked, Gianluca began rusticating and Marzio started filing stems. All Radice stems are cut from plate acrylic, except for the few that they make from high grade vulcanite rod, either black or in cumberland (marked with a small 'v' stamp on the shank).
We continued to chat with Luca, with Marzio periodically throwing in a comment in Italian as Luca translated for us, but Gigi was back to work and beyond discussion. Finally, when it became clear that we were nearing our departure time (for we had a four hour drive ahead of us), Gigi moved from the sanding disk so that we could see the carving work that goes into Radice's special Underwood finish. Almost to the last, Gigi continued to work. It wasn't that we felt ignored by him, just that this is what he had to offer us. His English is about as good as my Italian, which is to say nonexistent, so what he could offer were his pipes and his efforts.
And indeed that is what every pipe maker has to offer at the end of a day's work. Like the fabrication of anything, the end product is what matters. But with pipes, the process is very important too. The enthusiasm, the soul of the pipe maker, is visible in the finished product. And Gigi's vision is there in every pipe that leaves that small workshop in Cucciago.
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