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.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Scott Thile, who was introduced to me by Brian Levine as the ‘man behind Pipedia.org’, or something along those lines, two or three years ago at a show in KC, on the Missouri side of the sprawling metropolis, at the Club’s Saturday evening banquet event, where we sat next to one another over our meals. While Scott supped on salmon and I picked at a salad, he and I talked at lengths about a great many things besides his conceiving and then managing Pipedia.org, which takes up a considerable amount of his precious free time, in case you didn’t know. We talked about his passion for music that has happily coincided with his career of tuning and repairing pianos. We talked about his extensive touring where he plays Stand Up Bass – sometimes called Double Bass, or as Adam Davidson confusingly calls it ‘Nipple Bass’– in a couple of different jazz bands in a couple of different locales. But perhaps most importantly we discussed his ardor for pipe making.
And therein lies the cause for our meeting. Pipe makers go to pipe shows for a handful of reasons, like to sell pipes for one thing. But pipe makers go to pipe shows to ‘get out there’, to ‘put [themselves] out there’, to be seen and to be heard, and to get acquainted, for the unknowns, or the lesser well-knowns, with those in the pipe world that it’s good to get to know. We at Smokingpipes.com go to pipe shows for much the same reasons: to sell pipes, and to get to know all the different folks that buy and sell pipes. It’s networking, it’s marketing, it’s selling, it’s buying, it’s biz, and we find it fun.
So Scott Thile is a heck of a nice guy. Heck of an interesting guy. Totally loves pipes and the all things adjunct, superjacent, and microcosmic to pipe smoking which can tend to happen I assume after 38 years of pipe smoking. But he’s a heck of a good pipe maker too. Through his work he’s channeling greats like Jeff Gracik, Todd Johnson, and Bruce Weaver, continuing the riff on highly aesthetic Scandinavian functionalism as filtered through the American lens. Scott Thile’s pipes are beautiful, in part because he’s making time to study the best pipes he can get his hands on and with the best carvers out there making pipes. He’s ‘getting out there’. I say you should get to know him and his work because he’s one of those carvers it’s good to get to know. (Bear has an interestingly entertaining or entertainingly interesting blog post on Scott here.) And if you can grab a meal with him at a pipe show you should.
Thursday means ‘new stuff’ here at Smokingpipes.com. New pipes, sometimes by makers new to the site, Scott Thile for instance, will end up on Smokingpipes.com on a day like Thursday. And when we say ‘for instance’ we mean as you read this we’ve just uploaded to our virtual storefront six Scott Thile pipes. Likewise we’ve added five fresh works from Kevin Arthur. So if you’re in the mood for American-made pipe goodness you’ve got a wider selection available here than can be counted on all of your fingers unless your name is Count Tyrone Rugen, and you’re the vizier of Prince Humperdinck, in which case you’ve got bigger problems vis-à-vis you killed Domingo Montoya and by-the-way his son is looking for you.
We’re also happy to host new pipes from Rattrays, Ardor, Ser Jacopo, Mastro de Paja, Brebbia, Savinelli, Neerup, Nording, Brigham, and of course Peterson. Likewise, you’ll find an intercontinental mix of 74 recently restored estate pipes added to the site from Denmark, France, Ireland, Germany, Italy, the US, Russia, Turkey, Norway, South Africa, and Portugal. All over the place, really.
Also new to the site this afternoon: a gorgeous (naturally) leather briefcase by Claudio Albieri. This latest model is presented in two distinct flavors, one of which is hued a soft butternut-acorn and trimmed in chocolate, the other a medium-grade charcoal balanced in burnt chestnut leather accents, and is somewhat less briefcase and a little more pipe bag than the model we introduced in late 2012. While you might not be able to stuff a 15.6 inch Samsung Series 7 Chronos laptop in this Claudio Albieri briefcase, you can certainly get a Chromebook in there, as well as, more importantly, eight pipes, the briefcase coming complete with a matching set of eight leather pipe socks/bags, in addition to a rather handy leather rollup pouch that can be affixed to the front of the briefcase with leather straps. Voila.
"Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none, but self, expect applause."
Consider, for a moment, the staunchly held notions of what constituted ‘proper conduct’ for those who held a commission in Queen Victoria’s ground forces. Now consider an officer whose regard for his superiors ranged from mild amusement to undisguised contempt. A man who, rather than ‘standing with his own’, ‘went native’ at every possible opportunity, spending his time with indigenous people, becoming so immersed in their language and culture that he was often conferred honors which previously would never be considered for a Westerner, much less a member of the occupational force. It was even said that the scoundrel had converted to Islam (as if being half-Irish wasn’t enough of a barrier to his acceptance). How could such a seemingly contemptible renegade eventually become a Knight Commander of (the) Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George? The answer is, he couldn’t, unless he was Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton.
Referred by contemporary scholars as both ‘The 007 of the 19th century’ as well as ‘…a James Bond’s James Bond’, Burton’s Wiki-listed occupations include “geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat”. The inventory of his lifetime accomplishments would be a bit much for this type of blog (we have to have room for the pipes, eh what?), but some of the highlights include: saber fencing champion, mastery of at least 23 separate languages + eight different dialects of Arabic, and was the first non-indigenous person to be honored with the Janeu (Brahmanical thread). Not only was Burton the first European permitted to enter the (then) ‘forbidden’ City of Harar, he was asked to do the honors of reciting the bow to prayer, as well as read the 18th chapter of the Koran to the faithful. Disguised as a Dervish, Burton made a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and, along with his partner John Speke, was one of the first Euros to set eyes upon Lake Tanganyika.
The above accomplishments were in his rear-view mirror by the age of 36… and he had 33 more years of achievements ahead of him.
Referred to by his peers as ‘Ruffian Dick”, due to his “demonic ferocity as a fighter and because he had fought in single combat more enemies than perhaps any other man of his time.”, Burton’s world perspective of being an outsider looking in, and not particularly caring for the view (nor the opinions of those within it), was well established by the age of nineteen. He was nearly expelled in his first year at Trinity College for challenging another student to a duel because the latter mocked his mustache. He then completely kicked his collegiate career into a top hat by not only attending a student-banned event, but later telling the Oxford authorities that he had attended, and (further) challenged their stance on attendance. Rather than being penalized with the same temporary suspension that some of the other offenders (most of whom were scions of the upper-crust) received, Burton was expelled. True to his nature, as a final gesture of defiance towards an institute and mindset that he had come to despise, Burton took his horse and carriage on a long and circuitous route out of Oxford… trampling a myriad of flower beds on the way.
Analyzing his situation as being "fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day", RFB joined the East India Company, was posted to the 18th Bombay Native Infantry and found himself serving under General Napier; a circumstance that would prove to be pivotal in transforming something of a loose cannon into a nearly unclasped cannon, but one with purpose.
Working in India, Burton was in his true element; his near supernatural affinity for language led to his becoming proficient in Sindhi, Gujarati, Persian (Farsi), Hindustani, Marathi and Arabic, and his immersion in/understanding of the local culture was so profound that he was honored with the previously mentioned Brahmanical thread. He soon thereafter joined the Sindh survey and started to learn the equipment and sciences that would become crucial to his future success and an explorer and cartographer. While his initial mission was to map and level some of the canals in the Indus Valley, his ability to speak the local dialect without accent combined with his newfound penchant for wearing disguises (masquerading under the name of ‘Mirza Abdullah’, he often tricked the locals and even fellow officers into not recognizing him), caught the attention of General Napier who, in turn, felt Burton’s talents were better suited to other tasks. Finally sanctioned to conduct the most sweeping, comprehensive investigation of the region yet attempted, Burton’s intelligence on matters that ranged from geography/topography, to the smallest items used in religious rituals, made their way up to the Bombay government, which subsequently published two intelligence reports based on his notes.
Burton took sick leave in 1849, and returned for a couple of years to Europe. It was during this period that he wrote his first book, a guide to the Goa region, continued to hone his fencing skills in Boulogne, and met his future wife; a young woman from a highly respected Catholic family named Isabel Arundell. Well before he left India, however, Captain Burton was already toying with the unthinkable; making a hajj to Mecca. An adherent of Islam or not, the discovery of his true origins would result in death, and not likely a quick or painless one. By 1852 the idea had grown from a notion to a full blown obsession.
On a covert expedition, such as Burton was planning, the phrase “leave nothing to chance” was as ludicrous as it was impossible. The best RFB could work toward was minimizing the chance of maximum regret. Being discovered as an Englishman was far from his only worry; while all of Islam might worship the one Abrahamic god, that commonality vaporized when one rival sect or clan decided to dry-gulch another. To this end, he constantly practiced on-the-fly switches of dialects and accents, studied the minutest details of a daunting number of sub-sects, and created a core set of clothing with enough subtly differing elements that he could transform his appearance to match a new character. Perhaps one of the best examples of Burton’s fervor in preparation would be his submitting to circumcision (khitan).
From the start, RBF was a diarist for whom no detail was too small to be noted, and these diaries would eventually serve as the basis for 40 publications. Burton’s works are compelling and fascinating reads. The three volumes of “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah” is one of this author’s personal favorites. Within this work, a reader can find perhaps the best description of the Arabic “”Kaif” ever penned:
“In the East, man requires but rest and shade: upon the banks of a bubbling stream, or under the cool shelter of a perfumed tree, he is perfectly happy, smoking a pipe, or sipping a cup of coffee, or drinking a glass of sherbet, but, above all things, deranging body and mind as little as possible. The trouble of conversations, the displeasures of memory, and the vanity of thought being the most unpleasant interruptions to his Kaif"
As a pipe enthusiast, treats like the following passages abound in “Personal Narrative”:
“There are four types of tobacco smoked in Egypt. The first and best is the well known Latakia, also called "Jabali". Either from a small seaport town, about 3 hours south of Latakia or, more probably, because grown on the hills near the ancient Ladocia. Pure, it is known by its blackish colour, fine shredding, absence of stalk, and an indescribable odour, to me resembling that of creosote; the leaf too is small, so that when made into cigars, it must be covered over with a slip of the yellow Turkish tobacco, called "Bafra"...
...Except in the highest houses, unadulterated Latakia is not to be found in Cairo. Yet, mixed as it is, no other leaf exceeds it in flavour and fragrance. The best Jabali in Cairo costs about seven piastres the pound; after which a small sum must be paid to the Farram, or chopper who prepares it for me"
Shortly after his (relatively) unscarred return from Mecca and Al Medina, and now the proud recipient of the green turban that only the men who have made the hajj were permitted to wear, Captain Burton met Lt. John Hanning Speke; the man who would accompany Burton on the greatest and most dangerous adventure of either man’s career.
Some twenty-odd years ago Simeon Turner was an American teenager who’d ventured out upon a school trip to the United Kingdom, and who was trying to figure out what he could pick up as just the right souvenir, a physical object which might serve as an enduring anchor for his memories from the other side of the Atlantic after he returned home. He wanted something signally “British”, of course... and what, short of a knighthood from Her Majesty or a bulldog (of the actual canine variety, not the pipe) named “Winston” could have been more English a thing to pick up than a classic English briar? Of course, the gentle encouragement of a chaperoning teacher who happened to be a pipe man himself (oh, how times have changed, even for our generation) didn’t hurt any either. Like the old poem about a single horse-shoe nail changing the tide of a battle, in our personal lives, as in the history of man as whole, these little things can lead to big changes as time, and their influence and consequence, progresses onward.
As things played out, it was actually not until a few years later, post-graduation, that Simeon even got around to taking his teacher’s advice that he might actually enjoy smoking the thing. (“Enjoy” being the key word – he did try the pipe once, while he was still in the UK, but as with many of us the results of his first foray were less than auspicious.) With time and patience, however, Simeon came upon the learning of how to make smoking a pipe a pleasing and satisfying experience. Since it’s a familiar progression, you can probably guess where this next led: Simeon, having learned to enjoy the pipe, eventually got it into his head that he might enjoy making his own, as well. By this time he had become a high school teacher himself, and no doubt the ready access to the school’s fully-equipped wood shop seemed fortuitous. Unfortunately, Simeon was an English teacher, and not a shop teacher, and once again the results of his initial, inexperienced efforts were, to say the least, mixed (and no doubt once again quite familiar to many who are reading this).
There’s an old Japanese tale about a young man who wished to avenge his father, and so traveled to the home of a great sword-fighting master, intent to become a formidable swordsman himself. The master left the young fellow waiting for months, through day and night, sun and storm, before even taking him in - at which point he set the lad to fetching heavy pales of water, every day, for over a year. When the young man finally began pestering him again, the master sent him to chopping wood – for three years. At that point the young man questioned the master again, wondering if he was ever going to be taught the old man’s art at all. At that point, at last, the old man handed him a sword and commanded him to cut a target. And the younger man did – landing a powerful blow with speed and precision, and as naturally as he might have slapped the target with his own hand. It was that at that point that the old man accepted the younger as a student who might even begin to be taught his techniques, including the most important of all – those of how to defend against another man’s cuts.
The lesson that old story was meant to illustrate was that by leaving the young man to wait, the old master tested his dedication and patience, that by setting him to fetch water, he built his strength and endurance, the physical foundation upon which fighting skill would rely, and that by ordering him to chop wood, he gave the young man the chance to teach himself how to use a tool (and a weapon is, fundamentally, a tool) as an extension of his own body, allowing it to do the work it was designed to do with one’s own strength and coordination acting simply and subconsciously to control and stabilize its path.
Simeon isn’t some magical prodigy who picked up a block of briar and, bam, turned a spot-on beauty of a stummel the very first time– I can’t think of any pipemakers who are, even amongst the most renowned. Those very, very few who can claim to have made a pipe that was so much as “passingly good” from the very beginning are also those who happened to already have had years of experience in other fields of design and craftsmanship. It takes a lot of work, and patience, to learn how to make something not only beautifully, but even properly, by hand. And it’s the very willingness to put work and patience into practice, and to listen to any established artisan who will lend him an ear and a bit of advice, that Simeon does show, and he does so to a degree that’s hard to come by. When we first heard Simeon had won the Most Improved Pipemaker Award at last year’s West Coast show, and that he had sought out and studied under Jeff Gracik in order to learn anything he could from the artisan behind J. Alan pipes, it was a good sign. Like professional talent scouts, we picked Turner pipes up not just on what we saw was already there, but, just as importantly, the potential we saw in their creator’s attitude and spirit.
My wife is from Russia, and I got the chance to read her "Traveling to the United States" handbook when we first met in 2008. I found it entertaining how accurately it illustrated the American inclination for chit-chat. Frankly, we're nosy.
"Americans can be very friendly, but are generally very curious about other people's affairs. When you first meet an American, they may ignore you, but if you find yourself in a cab, on a plane, or sitting with them for any extended period of time, they will start asking you a lot of personal questions."
"What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "What kind of work do you do?" "How long are you visiting?" "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" "Where did you go to school?" "Do you like it here?" "What do you do after work?" "Tell me more about your job."
To us, this seems like perfectly normal, innocent conversation. To others around the globe, we can't mind our own business. I have noticed that people frequently ask about my profession, but they rarely stay engaged for the answer.
We pipemakers sometimes have difficulty relating our craft. We make pipes, sure, but this process can be described in a variety of ways. While some folks are generally curious, the majority of people ask just to ask. I find it difficult to explain what briar is, how stems are made, how pipes are priced, or describe different shapes and creativity, without noticing that the person who asked 1) doesn't really care. 2) can't follow what I'm describing. Fortunately, there are those rare encounters...
When I was at the dentist office a few weeks ago, my dentist had to grind down part of a filling that was too high. A really nice guy, he asked me about my personal life to make me more comfortable. "Well....I work for Smokingpipes.com, an internet source for pipes, tobaccos, and cigars. I also make pipes at my workshop at home." (He got a more direct answer than some people. If a nosy neighbors asks me what I do, and I get a bad vibe, I just tell them I make dollhouse furniture. No more questions after that.) My dentist is a cool guy, but I could tell he was struggling when I went more in-depth. Looking over at a poster, I mentioned that briar is like a tooth, only upside down. He became more interested.
"On a tooth, the outside is the hardest, nicest area. Picture a briar cutter taking a bowling-ball-sized thing out of the ground and cutting it in half. The outside is good, but the inside is typically not used for pipes. When I get a block of wood, it has plateau - the bark - on it, and when I start carving, at times this bark can be deep. Sometimes it goes away, and sometimes it shows up on the sides of the pipe. Think of these sandpits as 'cavities'. Some pipe makers and factories fill these, just like you filled my tooth. Heck, a lot of us even use scrapers and little rotary tools like you do to shape some areas of the pipe."
As I was showing him pictures of blocks and finished pieces, he seemed excited, and even brought in another dentist to see them. "Teeth have growth rings and 'grain' just like those blocks have!" he said. I found that really interesting; he was teaching me about teeth as much as I was teaching him about briar. I enjoyed explaining my profession to him, in a back-and-forth conversation. The only disappointment: I learned he did not smoke a pipe.
To quote one of the coolest and most unusual comments I've ever heard: "Man, those pipes are so cool. If this was my own private practice, I would totally trade you dental work for one of those pipes!"
If you’ve been smoking pipes, buying pipes, collecting pipes, or even just looking at pipes over the last ten years, chances are you’re already pretty familiar with the work of American carver Michael Lindner. You may even be familiar with his story. Way back in 2000, Michael got his hands on a lathe in order to ease the restoring and selling of estate pipes through The Piperack, the online pipe retailer he’d established only three years prior. Fast forward a dozen years and Michael is a staple in the pipe world, a fixture at the Chicagoland and Richmond pipes shows, and a well-known, respected pipe maker.
I thought it would be a lot of fun to pick Michael’s brain under the pretense of sharing it with our readers. Thankfully he consented and allowed me to do so!
I think most people figure that you got into pipe making on account of having already established The Pipe Rack; pipe retailing and repairs go hand in hand. So... how did you get into the business of selling pipes? Was it just a matter of having been a collector with too many pipes?
Well, I think the opportunity just kind of presented itself to me. I already was in business for myself; I had owned a janitorial and maintenance company for a number of years and I saw an opportunity to make enough money to make my pipe collecting hobby self-sustaining. Ebay had been around for only a couple years, and I would often buy a group of pipes there, clean them up, keep one or two and then sell off the rest. I quickly realized that there was a solid business plan there if done in volume, and done correctly. At the time, honestly there weren't many "professional" websites for pipes, running it as a legitimate business. So I developed the model. Prior to The Piperack, there weren't any websites doing weekly updates, or restoring their pipes so that they showed up ready to pack and light, or taking credit cards, or giving detailed descriptions, or applying a points rating system to give people an idea of condition. There was PCCA, but they were mainly unsmoked Castellos with the occasional estate pipe collection. So it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of this new selling platform (the internet) and applying a proper business framework to it.
Do you still actively collect pipes? What's your prized pipe?
Actually, no not really. I have a motley bunch of pipes, some were gifts, some were the first pipes I smoked. I have a lot of pipes that I couldn't sell on The Piperack - you know, Dunhills with cracked bowls and that kind of thing. They're great smokers, by the way. And of course I have some of my own pipes. I suppose my most prized pipe would be a 1948 patent Sasieni Four Dot that was one of the first pipes I ever had. But really, once you start selling them and especially start making them, the idea of a favorite pipe just kind of goes away. ALL the pipes I make are my favorite pipe, for that day. Some I like more than others, but they are all special to me.
How many pipes did you have to make before you were satisfied that it was something you should keep doing? At what point did you think "Yeah, this is what I'm supposed to be doing?"
Pipe making came very intuitively to me; after the first pipe I made, I decided to pursue it professionally. I mean, a week after I made my first pipe, I had stamps for the nomenclature. It may seem odd or overly confident to the casual observer, but those who know me well weren't surprised at all. I have a tendency to immerse myself in something and, being a perfectionist, really work toward honing my craft. But knowing the path and walking the path are two different things, and it did take me a little while to get my production to the point where I could say I was happy with it. I think the first pipe I sold was my 15th pipe, or something like that. But frankly looking back on these early pieces (I still have pipe 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and a few others) I can see that I was not as polished as I would have liked. Certainly though, within six months or so I had really polished things up, and within a year I had developed the basic Lindner pipe you see today with regard to all the details (button, tenon, fit and finish, et cetera). Of course I am still learning and will be for the rest of my career but it's all about fine-tuning at this point, and occasionally exploring new techniques.
You're as seriously adept as any American carver when it comes to producing Danish influenced designs, but you seem to create plenty of classic, English inspired shapes as well. Is that a conscious effort? What kind of shaping preferences do you have as a maker?
In my opinion, the classics are really where you develop your skill as a pipe maker, because the rules for each shape are so rigid. Once you learn the shapes, you can start experimenting with them, which leads to developing your own style as well as crossover into new shape interpretations. And the lessons you learn from the classics (proportion, cut, balance, proper engineering, et cetera) are necessary in order to create art shapes.
Besides, I love the classics. I started my collection with Sasienis, and over the years have had literally thousands of Dunhills, Barlings, Ashtons, Sasienis, and so on, through my hands. Classics are what I smoke today. I have an immense appreciation and respect for what the French and English contributed to pipe design, and I try to emulate that today in the pipes I make (albeit at a much higher level with regard to engineering and fit & finish).
So, yes, it's a conscious effort on my part. There are collectors who only go after my art shapes, and there are those who only pursue my classics. By doing both styles well, I feel I can serve the needs and desires of more people. Not to mention that making a billiard versus making a blowfish use different parts of your brain; by making both classics and art shapes, I never get bored with what I'm doing and it helps me stay balanced. I wouldn't have it any other way.
What's been the most surprising aspect of being a professional pipe maker? What's made you reel back and think "this never would have happened if I were still doing something else"?
Hmm, that's really a tough question. I suppose the realization that, and this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, that I'm a "world famous artist". When I was younger, I was quite active [in] painting and drawing and wanted to someday make my living as an artist. And while I consider myself more of an artisan craftsman rather than an artist, it did kind of hit me a few years ago that things I created are in collections around the world, are cherished (I hope) by those who own them and use them, and that in a way, my childhood dream did come true. I really don't think that would have happened any other way; I wasn't that good of a painter or illustrator. It's very humbling to think about how fortunate I am to be able to do what I love and to affect so many people.
As many of you know, last weekend we moved our entire shipping and receiving operation out of four rooms spread across two buildings into one 3,500 sq ft space a little down the hill from our other buildings. Our goal was to have absolutely zero service disruption. This required considerable planning. Everything had to be laid out and organized before a single tin of tobacco would move.
As a quick overview, our main building has three floors and about 5,500 sq. ft. We moved into this space in early 2005, with the store and shipping on the bottom floor, and offices on the top two floors. Our building is surrounded on two sides by a commercial complex with various offices and small shops. Immediately across the parking lot, a building came available and we snatched it up in mid-2009, moving our shipping department, plus customer service and a couple of other offices over there (store, some shipping area, offices, photography studio and pipe restoration workshop remained in the main building). After another two years, our new shipping space was splitting at the seams. The whole company had grown, but especially in those areas that require warehouse space: pipe tobacco and accessories. We talked to our landlord for the smaller building and asked what he had available. The first thing he showed us just wasn't going to work; it was too small and oddly located for freight pickups and dropoffs. Then he had an idea. The end/basement of his largest building contained nothing but his wife's decades worth of accumulated junk (I hope you don't read this, Miss Virginia). We couldn't even get in there past the loading door to look at it properly. I cannot properly articulate how much junk there was, nor quite how junky it was. Everything from a dozen early 1990s vintage computers to thousands of plaster molds to a kid's disney themed play car were in there. Along with displays for flooring, displays of fabric, assorted furniture (including some church pews), a half-dozen aging vacuum cleaners, and about ten ceiling fans. Really, it was what my garage would look like without my wife's intervention. But seven times the size...
It took them three weeks to empty it, but we knew we'd made the right call once we could get in there. It was the perfect space for us. And, instead of picking up 4-6,000 sq feet off-site, it was just a few hundred feet from the building, an easy two or three minute walk. We got a golf cart (which doesn't yet have the Smokingpipes.com logo spinners installed) for moving stuff back and forth. Once it was empty, we went to work. UPS Freight dropped off scarily large stacks of metal shelving, a pallet jack, roller-coveyors and assorted other warehouse goodies. Our preferred builder/handyman Billy Harrelson then went to work with his crew to do the upfit. Two weeks later (one of which was while I was in Chicago for the show), everything was in place. With rigorous use of database queries and excel, Tommy, Susan and I managed to layout the warehouse for optimal picking and packing speed, with higher volume items closer to the central packaging area. We then went to work labeling every single slot that a product (tinned or bulk tobacco or accessory) might inhabit: some 1,500 of them (pipes and cigars remain, as always, in the main building).
On Sunday (the only day of the week that shipping is closed), the entire company (save Mark, who was on vacation), some 25 people, showed up to help move everything. Much to our surprise, most of the work only took about three hours. About half of us stayed on to work out little details and kinks, but we pretty much had it knocked out by noon. By three, it was just five of us left. By four, we were done, complete with running four packages through the whole process to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything and that everything was working. Not one single package was delayed due to the move; everything worked perfectly when shipping resumed Monday morning (well, almost everything).
Bobby Altmann, our staff photographer, snapped a few photos of the work on that Sunday, whenever he wasn't busy shelving tobacco.
Last week music lost a living legend and I lost a hometown hero. Pinetop Perkins, a blues pianist legendary of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, passed away at his home in Austin, Texas. Willie Perkins was born on July 7, 1913, in a
small town with a rich blues heritage called, Belzoni, Mississippi. Belzoni is also the town where I grew up. There I was introduced to the blues culture of the Mississippi Delta region and Pinetop. Perkins began playing blues in the
late 1920s. He is regarded as one of the best and most enduring pianist in the blues genre. He was originally a guitar player and switched to the piano primarily because it was louder than a guitar (this was before the electric guitar
was invented). However, he also suffered an injury to his left arm. The injury made it difficult for him to fret the guitar, but not the piano.
During the 1930's and 1940's, he mainly played around the Mississippi Delta, including a three-year stint with Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Then in the 1950s, he worked
with musicians such as B.B. King and Earl Hooker on Sun Records in Memphis (1953) “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”.
I admit that if I stopped here, this would be an impressive resume. However, we have forty years or more to go. Pinetop played piano for the Muddy Waters band for over ten years taking the place of Otis Spann in 1969 (yet another
musician with Belzoni roots). He backed Muddy Waters from 1969 to 1980 touring and playing keys in
the band, and in 1980 he and several members left to start a new group (Legendary Blues Band).
He had a wonderful personality and a familial demeanor. For instance, one of my favorite quotes is when he told the New York Times, “I remember the days when I played at chicken fights and your only pay was the dead chicken... now I
can’t retire even if I want to. Everybody’s calling me.” According to his biography, "the irony of Pinetop’s career is that he didn’t blossom as a headliner until his eighth decade." That just goes to show it is never too late. Mr.
Perkins and John Lee Hooker did a cameo in the Blues Brothers movie. They are outside Aretha's Soul Food Cafe. John Lee Hooker says, “...that is a song called Boom Boom I wrote in the 50’s.” Pinetop’s jumps up to say, “Naw you didn’t!
Naw you didn't! Naw you didn't!"
Other achievements and awards include:
- National Heritage Fellowship, from the National Endowment of the Arts (2000).
- Piano Blues, directed by Clint Eastwood for the Martin Scorsese PBS series, The Blues, featured Mr. Perkins.
- He won the Blues Music Award for best blues piano so many consecutive years that in 2003 he was retired from the running. The award was renamed the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year. My good friend Eden Brent won and
accepted the award from Mr. Perkins in person last year. (2010)
- He accepted a well deserved Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2005 and Pinetop won Best Traditional Blues CD for Joined at the Hip Grammy in 2010 for his work with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
In addition to live shows and session work Pinetop Perkins has a large selection of solo recordings. Here are just a few:
- After Hours
- On Top
- Portrait of a Delta Bluesman
- Live Top
- Eye to Eye
- Born in the Delta
- Legends (with Hubert Sumlin)
- Live at 85! (with George Kilby Jr)
- All Star Blues Jam (with Bob Margolin)
- Ladies Man
- Joined At the Hip (with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith)
Best Traditional Blues Album for his collaboration on the “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas
The Pinetop Perkins Foundation
The Pinetop Perkins Foundation is a tax-exempt non-profit organization. Its mission is to provide encouragement and support for youth and young people at the beginning of their musical career; and help provide care and safety for
elderly musicians at the twilight of their career.
I have been a little sad this week - and I guess that is why they call it the blues.
Therefore, here is a tribute to Pinetop Perkins, a blues legend and one of my hometown heroes.
Willie “Pinetop” Perkins
July 7, 1913 - March 21, 2011 at age 97.
Here is Pinetop with BB King doing a song called Down in Mississippi that mentions Belzoni.
In addition to Perkins and Spann, other blues artists who were born in or near Belzoni or who lived there include Denise LaSalle, Boyd Gilmore, Eddie Burns, Paul “Wine” Jones, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, and Elmore James.
Blue and yellow lights penetrate drifting whorls of pipe smoke suspended in silence. I can feel the audience’s anticipation. A tall man takes the microphone and announces, "Memphis - the moment you have waited for - Clarence Gatemouth Brown." The band kicks off a swing tune and Gatemouth saunters onto the stage, smoking a pipe and wearing western garb. He's in his seventies, with his custom Gibson Firebird guitar hanging over his shoulder. He begins to play swing lines as a horn player would, but on his guitar. As the set continues, Gatemouth moves from Texas swing, to a bluegrass fiddle tune on the viola. I really enjoy an eclectic set list and Brown always delivers. A voice like gravel mixed with molasses comes from the lean old music veteran. It's more powerful live than any recording can capture.
Throughout his career, Clarence Brown cleared hurdles and broke the rules of the music business as a matter of course. Brown loved the blues and played them well. However, he did not like the classification of "blues musician", or even "bluesman". He preferred no label at all, stating that he plays, “American and world music, Texas style.” He was born in Louisiana and his family moved to Texas when he was young. Although T-Bone Walker influenced Gatemouth, his music was not limited to blues. It was eclectic mix of Cajun, blues, country, rhythm & blues, and jazz genres. He approached classical style as well as roots and contemporary music. Perhaps he would be better known if he had chosen a less diverse repertoire. However, his influence on music is evident, and his criticism on musicians is harsh. He spoke his mind. For instance, when critiquing blues musicians Gatemouth said, "They were just coppin’ off of [T-bone Walker]. Now, when I first started I played a couple of T-Bone’s licks…I got away from that and I developed my own style…I can play stuff now that there’s no way in the world that B.B. King or any of those other guys can play…they’re all friends of mine, and they’ll admit they can’t play it.” He commented on the music scene of New Orleans in the1970's stating, "Everybody’s trying to sound like each other and they’re doing a damn good job of it. But I don’t want to be associated with it.”
The Gatemouth brown Philosophy:
Gatemouth played numerous instruments, including the guitar, viola, mandolin, drums, and harmonica. He began playing drums in his teens, and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin by age ten. The swing music he played in his youth influenced the way he approached other instruments. This is around the time he received the moniker "Gatemouth". I have heard a few accounts that differ on who gave him the nickname. However, the reason for his nickname is the same in all accounts. Here is the story in Gatemouth's own words: When asked who gave him the nickname he said, "The kids, actually… we used to have to go in Chapel and sing these spiritual songs before we would go to class. The PA system went out and when it did, I kept singing over the chorus. I was the lead singer. And when we finished the teacher said, "Brown, you don't need no microphone, you've got a voice like a gate." And the kids started saying "Gatemouth" and, man, I got mad a while, but the hotter I got the more they would call me that. So I got stuck with it and just worked with it to my advantage."
In addition to his nickname and signature western clothing, Gatemouth was known to be a pipe smoker. Several of his album covers have pictures of him smoking a pipe. When I lived in Dallas, I had many talks with Sam Myers (blues singer and harmonica player). In one conversation, we discussed Brown's versatile style and the fact that he enjoyed to smoke a pipe. Sam recalled a story from the 1940’s wherein Gatemouth stole a T-bone Walker show. Walter was feeling ill and dropped his guitar by accident. Gatemouth took the opportunity to grab the guitar and play. Sam said, “The crowd loved it. They started throwing money at Gatemouth. T-bone was not happy about it at all!” Gatemouth would, as a rule, sit at shows smoking his pipe with his custom blended pipe tobacco. Sam also told me that if he could not smoke - he would not do the performance. Adam recalled one particular interview he had seen with Gatemouth. When asked about smoke-free venues, Gatemouth told them sternly if he could not enjoy his pipe, he would play elsewhere - no smoke, no show.
Throughout his career, Gatemouth continued to redefine himself. For instance, while in Nashville in the early 1960's he made several appearances on the TV program Hee Haw, and recorded a series of country singles. He also hosted an R&B television show in Nashville called The Beat. In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded "Makin' Music," an album of blues and country songs that includes a cover of the Duke Ellington classic "Take the A-Train." In the late 1960's Mr. Brown was a Sheriff in New Mexico. Talk about breaking barriers!
His discography is too large to list in this forum, but here are a few of my favorite Gatemouth albums:
Alright Again, 1982. Grammy Award/ Best Traditional Blues Album
Pressure Cooker, 1986. Grammy nomination for Best Blues Recording (my favorite blues label- Alligator Records)
Gate Swings, 1997, Produced by Jim Bateman and John Snyder.
He played fiddle and guitar on Professor Longhair’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo album. (1974)
In addition to countless recordings, other credits include eight W.C. Handy Awards, and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999. Gatemouth influenced numerous guitar players such as Albert Collins, J.J Cale, Guitar Slim, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Copeland, and countless others. Frank Zappa named him his all-time favorite guitarist and it has been suggested that "Okie Dokie Stomp" should be the new Texas National Anthem.
Here is a video of Gatemouth Brown and Roy Clark on the TV show Austin City Limits. They are doing a cover of a Louis Jordan - Fleecie Moore song called "Caldonia":
Have a listen, and a bowl in honor of Clarence Gatemouth Brown… and pack a custom blend.
Albert King, (Albert Nelson) was born in the central region of Mississippi called the Delta. The region is saturated with blues heritage and Albert King is a pioneer of modern music. In addition to being hailed the "King of the Blues" - He was a pipe smoker. The bluesman was often seen smoking a pipe and playing a Gibson Flying V guitar (strung right-handed but played left-handed). He named the electric guitar Lucy, and she became his signature instrument.
His influence flows into present day through Blues, R&B, and Rock genres. It is apparent that Jimi Hendrix was influenced by Albert King. Jimi used a right handed guitar flipped over and played left handed. Even Hip-hop owes a toast to Albert King, with samples from his recordings used by Biz Markie, Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy.
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