I think it’s safe to say that I never have, nor ever will be accused of being a “Will Rogers”. I have met men that I didn’t like and, though damned few, I have met pipe carvers with personalities that left me wondering how they could give away a stick of gum, much less sell a $1000(+) pipe. That said, the overwhelming majority of pipe artisans that I have known/interviewed, I have at least felt an affinity with, some (especially upon greater exposure) I have found to be incredibly cool to the point that it felt like I had discovered a kindred spirit. Then I began talking to a pipemaker, whom, within the first 45 minutes of what turned out to be about eight hours of conversation, I perceived such a degree of brotherhood, that it felt like I could burst into a room with a satchel, breathlessly blurt “Hide this!!”, run out, and know (after 5-7 years, 3 with good behavior) that the only change in its condition would be a patina of dust. That pipemaker is Scott Thile and, contrary to the Leo Durocher misquote, this is one nice guy that will never finish last.
Being the only person attached to marketing who was so out of touch with today’s pipe circuit that he didn’t know who Scott was, made me a natural candidate to conduct a ‘new to us’ interview. Having no preconceptions about the maker reduces the chance of subconsciously skewing questions in a manner that would emphasize preconceived strengths and downplay perceived weaknesses, in both the man and his craft.
While, in theory, it’s the interviewer’s job to rapidly establish a sense of ease, from the start it was Scott’s geniality and enthusiasm that set the tone for relaxed conversation. Scott began smoking a pipe because an older colleague whom he admired, Charles Wheeler, smoked one and it seemed ‘incredibly cool’. Mr. Wheeler smoked Dunhill's 'My Mixture 965' and (thus) so did Scott, and '965' is still a staple in Thile's tobacco rotation today. It wasn't until 2004 that the idea of carving a pipe started to have some appeal; being an adroit woodworker, pipe carving seemed like a natural extension of already present talents. Having said, it wasn't until 2006 that Thile actually sat down and carved his first pipe. In the tradition of most aspiring American carvers, he started with a kit, and (again) like most first time carvers, he was horrified with the outcome. Scott, as I would soon come to find out, is a man who understands where his strengths lie, and he had little doubt that those strengths would eventually produce fine smoking instruments. Though his training has been largely autodidactic, Thile has spent time with Todd Johnson and Bruce Weaver and cites Todd and Adam Davidson as influences. When asked what overarching aesthetic holds the most influence/fascination for his inner artist, Scott's answer was as interesting as it was succinct, "The Danish neo-classics as interpreted by the North American greats."
By the end of what (usually) would have constituted as the only interview, I had his basic biographical history, insights about his craft, visions as a pipemaker, plus a pleasantly daunting list of additional interests and passions which eerily coincided with mine. It turned out that we were within a couple of months of the same age, as enthusiastic about acoustic jazz as we were ambivalent about its ‘smooth’ cousin, and started smoking a pipe within about 45 days of each other. On a lark, as something of a fun test question to discover just how close some of our thinking processes worked, I asked. “Stuck in traffic, you notice a huge truck in front of you with a personalized license plate that reads “Stud19”. What’s your first thought?” “That there are another 18 idiots out there with ‘Stud” on their license plates?” Oh yeah, a fellow traveler on the highway of Snark. In addition, I came away with a ton of cool (and usable!) tidbits. Things like he has played the bass since he was young, continues to keep his hand in as a professional even today, and his son (Chris) is a very gifted mandolin player.
Thus armed, I came in the next morning, chest already puffing in anticipation of the praise that would be heaped on my head for the INCREDIBLE amount and quality of intel that I had gleaned from Scott. It was during the wait for the marketing meeting that my confidence started to shake and, of course, it was Adam with the jackhammer. “It turns out that Scott’s son is quite the talent with a mandolin” Adam reached into his desk and flipped a CD at me titled “Yo-Yo-Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace” Upon opening the trifold cover, there’s Chris Thile in the middle panel, holding his mandolin, surrounded by Diana Krall, “Sweet Baby” James Taylor, Allison Krauss, Renée Fleming, Josh Redman, Dave Brubeck…. “Oh Chris also has an impressive list of Grammy awards and nominations, and became a MacArthur Fellow in 2012 (think “John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation”) (cack!) “Well… did you know that Scott’s also a professional bass player?” “Google ‘Nickelcreek’, Bear” God help me, I did. (Channeling Ricky Ricardo) “Scoootty… choo gots some ‘splaning’ to dooo”
Then came the marketing meeting. Ted: “Took a look at the notes, pretty good job Bear. I think that you should also include that Scott Thile started and has maintained Pipedia at considerable personal cost and labor” (Pipedia: the number one repository of pipe knowledge in the world, a priceless resource from which I stolen… erm, ‘researched’ a fair amount of information, and yet never took the time to find out who created the treasure). “I think that level of passion and selfless support to the pipe community is something all of our customers can get behind”. Now sporting what Vietnam vets referred to as the “thousand meter stare”, I replied something like “Yup, mmmhmm, that they would”, and added “Call Scott” to my must-do list.
“Hey Bear, how the hell are ya doing?” “Pipedia” “Sure, what about it?” “You started and have maintained it” “Well… yeah” “Why didn’t you mention that?” “You didn’t ask” (…..) “You played bass on a CD that went Platinum and was nominated for two Grammys” “Only for a couple of tracks, and they never sent me the Platinum Award”. “Before we debate the merits of the designated pitcher, are you either; a: A Nobel Laureate, b: A leading cancer researcher with a major breakthrough awaiting FDA approval or C: An ultra-secret, high level ambassador who, unbeknownst to the world, has been manipulating the delicate threads which have kept the peace between the superpowers for decades?” (laughing) “No, no, and I’m a pipe maker”. “One more question?” “Shoot” “Are we still going to “meet for a beer and talk sedition”?” “You bet!”
Please don’t misunderstand, I was the cocky pratt who walked into a marketing meeting with only a partial glimpse of the immense talent that laid within a remarkable man and, to my mind, Scott’s combination of natural modesty and ‘just is’ mindset makes him all that more exceptional. After more than 33 years of association with pipe retail, I can declare that collectors will naturally gravitate to the carvers who not only create magnificent pipes, but who are extremely likable as well. Having described Thile’s work and having talked extensively with the man himself, I’m quite confident that this already popular carver will become a universal favorite.
So, what do you use to light your pipe? Are you a Zippo type of person, with the oh-so-famous click? Do you like to live hot and dangerously with the torch lighter? Maybe just a simple Bic lighter is enough for you, or you like to do with the fancy Old Boy. On the other hand, you might like the classic appeal of plain matches. Did I cover just about everything? Yes?
Wrong. I have an alternative to all of these to recommend for you, but you have to keep your mind open. Okay, toss out all of your preconceptions about lighters and matches and what you think is best. Did you do that for me? Okay.
Most people tend to agree that a lower internal temperature in the tobacco chamber yields a more flavorful, more enjoyable, and (naturally) cooler smoke. There are two main ways of achieving this lower temperature: puff slower and don't over-light your tobacco. Many people tend to avoid the torch lighter because they have a higher temperature, which transfers more heat to the tobacco and thus to the smoke.
A Bic lighter, for example, burns around 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Butane torches frequently reach up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Propane lighters tend to get between 2,000 and 3,000 degrees. Matches, on the other hand, are composed of an ignition agent, such as sulfur or phosphorus, and wood. Once the ignition agent burns away, which typically disappears after two seconds or so, a match burns at about 1100 to 1500 degrees. While that is still ridiculously hot, that different of between 500 and 2,000 degrees can make a lot of difference on the temperature of the smoke.
There is another option that burns at an even lower temperature, is very affordable, and avoids most of the toxic chemicals associated with lighters or matches. That option is hemp wicks.
I first heard of this when I saw Dustin using it at the 2012 Chicago Pipe Show. I'll admit, it's strange looking to use. But since hemp is not a gas and is a less-dense material than wood, it burns at a lower temperature than both matches and wood. I did some searching, but could not find the exact temperature, though some rough guesses placed it well less than 1,000 degrees, closer to 500, actually. I cannot confirm that and will happily change my numbers if any of you find more exact information.
Every little degree can make a difference. From personal experience using hemp wicks to light my pipes, I can tell the difference. Well, at least I think I can. Sure, it's possible that it is entirely a placebo effect. However, we know that a cooler smoke often yields a better smoke, so I will happily use a different means of lighting my pipe to increase the ease of achieving that cool smoke.
So, go on, Try something new. I hear it's catching on...
The walls seemed to be made of industrial tarps, and the roof appeared to be tin. The space itself was filled with wooden support posts and rustic round tables. It was as if I were sitting in a pub fabricated from an old carport that had been transplanted to the heart of the city. Three feet away, beyond the tarp wall, a cold mist was falling. I struck a match and took a few puffs, pulling the cool smoke into my mouth and savoring the moment. It had been a while since I last enjoyed a good bowl. I had recently made the journey to Nashville from South Carolina, land of tobacco and sunshine, in order to visit a few pipe carvers (Grant Batson, Bruce Weaver, and Pete Prevost). I sat, listening to Pete go through pint recommendations for the evening. We had what Pete called the “Nashville Experience,” which was a trip to a honkytonk and a PBR. Needless to say, it was fun. As the evening progressed, we mapped out the next day, which was to be filled with plenty of pipe enjoyment. Bruce was planning on working out of Pete’s shop that day, due to the construction of his new home and shop.
As I pulled into the drive, I was greeted by the sound of air compressed sandblasting. This is when it occurred to me that I was going to have the opportunity to witness Bruce perform his famous sandblast technique. It should be noted that witnessing certain sandblasting processes is much like witnessing a unicorn having tea with a mermaid… It’s a rare delight (So rare in fact, that it wasn’t captured on film for risk of destroying its soul. Just kidding of course, but seriously). Anyhow, I spent a good portion of my day simply soaking it in. Pete was to my left and Bruce to my right. Pete was working on a few new pipes, one of which was a volcano that I’m particularly fond of, and Bruce decided to take a break from his blasting to shape a blowfish.
Both carvers seemed to work in complete complement of one another, as if they were working on the same project. In a few painless moments, Bruce shaped his blowfish and handed it to me with a quick, “Take a look at that grain.” I slid down in my chair and admired both the grain and Bruce's ability to see it in a piece of raw briar. I could have stayed in that shop the entire day, but Grant Batson was expecting me soon, so I needed to be on my way.
“My house is the one with the pile of bikes in the drive. Just come through the garage.” simple and understandable directions. As one becomes familiar with pipe carvers, one quickly realizes many of their shops are based out of their home. This makes visiting them even more of an honor, because one is welcomed as family or a friend, and that’s exactly what the Batson family did for me.
I followed the instructions and soon found myself greeted by a bearded fellow. He was clinching his pipe between his teeth, with a leather apron strapped across his front, finishing up one of his Tormented Blowfish (Here’s a bit of a side note, but if you’ve yet to see these, you should soon remedy that). Grant and I chatted as if we’d known each other years ago and bumped into one another by sheer happenstance. It was as if we were simply catching up on life. He showed me some of the pipes he’s getting together for Chicago, we shared thoughts on tobacco, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
Grant’s priority in life is certainly his family. This was apparent and refreshing. Periodically, one or more of his children poked their head through the shop door to talk to him, or to ask for help with their geometry homework. It wasn’t long before Jill, his wife and a fantastic hostess, offered us some delicious cobbler and cream.
I placed the spoon in the empty bowl, lifted my pipe and lit it. Surveying the room slowly, I found myself in a moment I would not soon forget. To my left sat Grant in an arm chair, minus the arms, and directly in front of me were Jill and the kids sitting on the couch. The conversation was as rich as the cobbler. Worries seemed to melt away, and so did the evening. I was reluctant to call our evening to an end, but found it necessary considering my early flight.
As the Batson family walked me outside, I found myself wanting to make my way back to Nashville with my family soon, in order for them to meet our new friends, strangers only hours ago. Ah, the power of the pipe.
When I started pipe smoking, there was a lot I wasn't familiar with. I was just learning about pipes, and was admiring my brand new Savinelli Qandale Churchwarden when I realized that I had no idea what to put in it. Yeah, tobacco, I knew that much, but I didn't realize how many different kinds of pipeweed are out there. For a new pipesmoker, it was quite daunting. Between different aromatics, strengths, flakes, blends, and the use of terms like Burly, Latakia and Virginia, tobacco was a new world to explore.
Fortunately, sitting in the offices at Smokingpipes.com surrounds one with plenty of experts and aficionados. Next to me, Adam suggested McClelland Walnut Liqueur. Since this sounded like a good starting point, I headed up the store to get some. While there, I also bought some McClelland Creme Caramel.
I tried the Walnut first, followed by the Caramel a day or so later (I am by no means a heavy smoker, enjoying my pipe only once or twice a week). Both of these made for a fine introduction to pipe tobacco. Over time, I was offered bowls of this or that, and I can't say that I found any that I didn't enjoy. However, the real surprise came with the suggestion that I get some Gawith Hoggarth & Co. Bob's Chocolate Flake.
What really got me about it was how the smoke coated your tongue with a silky layer of chocolate. It was as if you had popped a piece of Hersey's into your mouth and just let it melt on your tongue. That was great, but even more surprising was how it reduced the lingering tobacco aftertaste, which I found very pleasant. So, I started to experiment, mixing in a little Bob's with my next Caramel bowl. Just as they go in the food world, Chocolate and Caramel seem to be made to go together in the tobacco world as well.
It was then that I threw in some of the Walnut Liquor, and I really began to enjoy the blend of the three tobaccos. It is currently my go-to bag when I desire a smoke, and have begun to call it my "Snickers" blend. Of course, it was all made with a bit of this and some of that, so I can't give you a recipe, but it is more Walnut Liquor and only a bit of Chocolate with a helping of Caramel in the middle. Bob's is very light but goes a long way in reducing the aftertaste. Adam has also suggested McClelland Just Plain Nut for a more accurate "Snickers" blend, should anyone be interested in experimenting further.
Of course, after a month or so of this mixture, I am starting to look around for new tobaccos to blend. So, off I go to the tobacco jars; the adventure continues.
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.
I've never blogged before; I think that my particular need to share thoughts in writing manifests itself elsewhere. But I have toyed with the idea from time to time, utterly failing to come up with a unifying theme, assuming I'd just do it under my own name as a person, rather than as a company. I briefly considered documenting my culinary efforts (and failures, which would be far more entertaining), but the idea sputtered fairly quickly-- it was obvious it'd have three great posts and nothing further. As far as pipes go, it would have been terribly odd for me to blog about pipes outside of the Smokingpipes.com context; my love for pipes and my life with pipes is so inextricably intertwined with this company that I couldn't see myself describing one without the other. Other ideas presented themselves, usually when I found something particularly clever and witty. Later, of course, I realized that I wasn't nearly as clever or witty as I'd thought to begin with and that a blog entitled "the woefully self-indulgent musings of a pipe retailer, student of history, and mediocre cook" was just not going to fly.
We'd also discussed a group blog for the website since the earliest days of blogging. In some respects, various iterations of the newsletter provided this, especially the introduction and various columns that have been included over the years. In recent months though, the newsletter has become less fluid. Some of that is a good thing-- we finally figured out what the newsletter should be-- though much of it is a function of the scale of the organizational task that is bringing you the newsletter and the need to regularize it some. Anyway, it's become abundantly clear that the sort of informal and semi-formal 'behind the scenes' commentary that we wanted to provide simply didn't fit the newsletter very well. We have all these different communication channels, but they're all very one-way and all fairly formal: articles on the site, pipe descriptions, newsletter content etc. What we wanted was a fairly informal, somewhat two-way avenue for communication.
So, we started this blog, of which this is the first post. It took a little longer than anticipated to implement because most of the off-the-shelf software out there didn't fit our needs (and long term plans for greater integration with the rest of the site), so we're using a heavily modified version of BlogCFM sitting atop our Postgresql database. Melissa did most of the work for this, so kudos to her.
So, what is this blog and what will it be? For starters, I don't really know. All good projects tend to take on a life of their own and develop characteristics different from what their originators predicted. Still, I do know that this won't be about new products on the site, though we may occasionally mention such. Mostly, I hope it'll serve as something of a backstage pass into life at Smokingpipes.com and give us a place to share general pipe and tobacco thoughts in a less formal, less structured medium. When we sat altogether yesterday (the people I expect to participate most with the blog: Brian, Alyson, Bobby, Eric, Adam, Melissa and me) and discussed it, the only thing we concluded is that this shouldn't really be company communication, it should be communication from a bunch of individuals within the company. Bobby should talk about photography, Adam could talk about pipe making or esoteric estate pipes, Eric could write about, well, writing, Alyson about the process of organizing the update etc. In all, we'll just see what happens. I hope it flowers into something interesting and compelling over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
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