Just a little while back, we had a visitor. You’ve probably heard of him: Canadian pipemaker Michael Parks. He’s made quite a name for himself with his great interpretations (and re-interpretations) of traditional designs, not to mention some really stellar sandblasting. And, of course, we feature his pipes in our regular updates.
He flew down here a few weekends ago to spend several days collaborating with our own resident pipemaker, Adam Davidson, and I was asked to join them in order to observe and report – the latter of which I’m doing right now. John also joined us on my second day there, and between the four of us conversations ranged across such subjects as the evolution of the “behaviorally modern human”, pipes, automobiles, pipes, flowers gardening, pipes, what to do if attacked by a bear in Canada, and of course, pipes. Michael is a proper outdoorsman, Adam was raised in a small town in Indiana, and though I grew up in New Jersey, my parents’ families hail from the outskirts of the Appalachia on one side, and deep in the hills on the other – resulting in quite a bit of common context between three thirty-something fellows who grew up hundreds of miles apart.
And of course, we all enjoyed a good meal. And because Adam is Adam, it was only natural that excellent, home-cooked fare was provided each evening. (He also took Michel out to a Cracker Barrel breakfast on Sunday morning, and, as is only fitting to a true Canadian, Michael made sure to taste and assess the maple syrup before applying it to his pancakes.)
But the real reason we were there was pipes, or more to the point, pipe-making, and regarding that there was plenty to learn of and observe. Between one day and another, John, Kat, or I had cameras at the ready to document Michael and Adam at work, and a picture is, as ever, worth a thousand words. So let’s all have a look at what went down, shall we?
Conceptualizing - Failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes. While there are those out there who can just pick up a piece of briar, or stone, or a blank canvas, and create something technically proficient and aesthetically engaging on the fly, they are very much a minority – akin to those who can produce the answers to complex mathematical problems at a moment’s notice. For the rest of us mere mortals, forethought and preparation are in order. As a special project for this visit, Michael and Adam were handed a big chunk of plateau briar, with the idea of producing a pair of matched-shape pipes. Not identical, mind you; the artisans would each apply their own final tweaks, as well as their own finishing techniques, but both pipes would share in a common concept, as well source material. Even this foundational step in the pipemaking process (developing a shape) absorbed plenty of time and a lot of thought, Adam and Michael sketching, rubbing out, re-sketching, and passing the block back and forth, all while carrying on a running discussion covering flow, aesthetic balance, engineering, and grain.
Shaping – That sleek, modern Dublin seen above is Michael’s. He spoke to us about how when hand-filing he gets into a deep focus that he thoroughly enjoys, and how the time flies as he works to perfect the pipe’s design. And, sure enough, once he started, he was off in a world of his own, patiently puffing on his pipe and making no noise but the measured rasping of wood and steel, and the periodic scratching of a pen as he paused to plan out his next moves. The results speak for themselves, even when looking at an unstained stummel, sans stem, and still sporting some of Michael’s pen-marks– I really liked this pipe. The ability a pipemaker has to develop and intuitively conceive a design in three dimensions, and confidently understand how altering a line or plane in one place will affect other aspects of a shape’s balance, is, by itself, impressive.
Drilling, Engineering, and Stem-work- It’s all well and good to make a pipe look fine, but if the drilling and engineering isn’t solid, looking fine as it sits collecting dust may be all it ends up doing. Both Michael and Adam recognize this, and though they had different methods for ensuring that chamber and draft-hole were cleanly executed and precisely aligned, each clearly put a lot of thought into the process. As artisans, they don’t just want their fellow pipe aficionados to purchase and collect the briars they create, they want them to smoke them, enjoy them, and, hopefully, praise them to others. A lot of work, as well as a whole lot of patience goes into building up a reputation as an artisan whose works can be counted on as an investment – pipes that one can trust to provide enjoyment for years to come. Developing and maintaining habits and methods that produce consistent results were clearly a point of pride for both Michael and Adam. At the same time, both were more than willing to observe and learn from the other.
Adam also demonstrated his stem-making to both Michael and me. As with most things, Adam takes a systematic approach. Even with the aid of a lathe set up specifically for the task, buffing wheels, etcetera, it can take two or more hours to complete a single, custom-shaped stem. Quality of stem work is something many consider to be a major aspect of pipemaking, distinguishing the skilled artisan. Although I wasn’t there to catch Michael working on his stems, I did get to see the materials he’d brought along, including some really gorgeous cumberland. As with the briar from which bowls and shanks are fashioned, for an artisan, after investing countless hours developing your skills, making the best of your efforts begins with acquiring appropriately high-quality materials to work from.
Silverwork - Annealing is an important step, preventing the sterling silver (hardened by its extrusion into tubes) from folding or cracking during shaping into a mount. Adam was kind enough to display for Michael and me just how important this step is, by first attempting to shape a mount from silver he hadn’t annealed. Granted, this wasn’t intentional – it was a piece that he had thought he’d annealed previously - but it was instructive. As Adam good-naturedly put it, “There goes about five dollars. As you can see, making mistakes with silver can get expensive.”
R & R - Both days that I was present my arrival didn’t come until afternoon. For Michael and Adam work began around 9:00AM. This meant that by the time I’d been poking around for several hours, everyone was hungry, and both artisans could use a bit of a wind-down to refresh their grey matter and give their hands a break. (And just let me say, I’ve yet to meet a pipemaker with anything like a weak handshake.) Grilled meat, a bit of drink, and plenty of coffee and tea were provided by our host in short order – all of it excellent. Along with this came of course a bit of simply lounging around, passing about our various personal supplies of tobacco, and enjoying our pipes while the birds chirped, cats wandered through the yard, and the lathes, sanding disk, and what have you cooled off in silence.
Final Notes– Like I said, I really liked this pipe. (Also, while I’m not a terribly photogenic fellow, I do think I looked damn good in this picture, rather stately - so onto the internet with it.) Michael and I had discussed various marques the first day I was over, and one that had come up was the old Kriswells, which had given Stanwell a lot of competition back in the 1960s, offering as they did a lot of lean, trim, streamlined designs. Though Michael’s design featured a touch more substantial bowl than most of the old Kriswells I’ve seen, (which often looked like sharpened-up variations of the Sixten Ivarasson look) I saw in it the same kind of confident dynamism in line, form, and posture that I think of when I picture one of the really good, vintage Kriswell shapes. This struck me as something of a happy coincidence, given both that I’d not even seen this pipe yet when we’d had our discussion, and Michael mentioned that this design was something of a departure from the variations on classical shapes that he usually concentrates on. I think both the classic shapes and this more dynamic, direct, and active style strike as a natural fit for a man who is both an artisan and an outdoorsman, and hope to see plenty more from Michael in the future.
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!
All of Satou's pipes are finished with urushi,a specialized natural Japanese lacquer from the plant (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) of the same name in Japanese. Japanese lacquer-ware is a traditional process used on wood plates, boxes, vases, bowls and the like to create a largely water impermeable coating that nonetheless allows for gas transfer. It's enormously labor intensive. One of Satou's pipes might get six or eight coats of the lacquer, since each coat is extremely thin, and the curing time between coats can range from a day or two in the right sort of humid climate to weeks during a colder, dryer part of the year.
The finish never needs buffing, with the surface becoming more lustrous with use, developing a patina. Indeed, it should never be buffed as that can damage the finish. A dry, or at most a slightly damp, cloth is all that's required to clean it.
Most of Satou's pipes bear clear lacquer, though that process alone does color the pipe very slightly. On occasion, he's employed colored lacquers on special compositions. Such as with the combination of black urushi and gold used to finish the crane depicted to the right and below.
After the West Coast pipe show in Las Vegas, there was a pow-wow in San Diego. Lucky ducks Sykes, Alyson, and Brad Pohlmann visited Jeff Gracik and captured some great video of the pipe makers working on our Christmas pipes. If you'll scroll down a few posts, you can see a video that Ted matched to wonderful Christmas music. (Personally, the scene with Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the sugar plum Fairy" behind it really put me in the Christmas spirit.) The pipe is a pear shape and features custom J.Alan silver work on the shanks. We just got these pipes in a few days ago, actually, and they are each a beautiful gem. Jeff applied his stamp to the pipe as did Brad. Just yesterday Sykes came into my office and asked if I could stamp them with the Smokingpipes.com logo.
Nearly every pipe has a stamp on it, though many people don't know how it is done. Some companies and makers have different practices (Eltang engraves), but it pretty much comes down to pushing a steel stamp - which is really sharp and rather expensive - freehand onto an expensive pipe. For many pipe makers (this includes me) this final step is part of the finishing process and can be quite risky. If the pipe is stamped poorly it will need to be sanded down before being stained, finished, and stamped again. Some shapes are easier to stamp than others (wide, rather flat pieces, for instance.)
I couldn't put it off any longer. Finding a suitable material to rest the pipe on - an estate leather Castello bag - meant that I could use the hard top of a desk by the back door (near Eric) and the leather would make something soft for the pipe to sit atop. More importantly, the bag mildly grips the pipe so it wouldn't slip on the hard glossy surface of a desk. After borrowing a chair from someone's office and installing an architect's desk lamp for proper light, I gave Eric strict instructions.
"Eric. I need to stamp seven of these pipes with great concentration. They don't belong to me, so if I don't press hard enough, if I partial stamp, or slip (oh, the horror!), I will be Ebenezer Screwed. It's your job to act as my bouncer. We have hardwood floors, so make sure Alyson and Susan (each wearing hard heels) don't come nearby. If anyone tries to sneak up on me or talk - tackle them."
The thought of stamping a pipe that wasn't mine made me a bit trepidacious. Doing it perfectly seven times made me really nervous. I planted myself firmly in the solid seat when no one was walking around and placed the leather bag on the edge of the desk. Firmly holding the pipe in my left hand with the bowl angled to one side, I touched the corner of the extremely sharp, pointy metal stamp on the edge of the hard, shiny, waxed surface of the pipe. Squeezing down with enough force to do a one-handed push-up sunk it into the briar. At this point I was committed. Very slowly, I rocked the round stamp back and forth and slowly rolled the pipe like a door knob with the grace of a juvenile getting home past curfew. It was done.
Whew! It's scarier than it seems. People here in the office laughed at my expense - nothing unusual - so I suggested they try it on some throw-away rejected billiard estates. Good thing for Jeff and Brad that some other employees here didn't stamp the pipes or we would have ended up with some 'okingpipes' pipes and some double-stamped pieces.
Jeff and Brad did a great job with this year's Christmas pipes. Thankfully, I didn't screw them up. ;)
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