"Celebrate good times, COME ON!" Yes, it takes one helluva special update to get me to quote a Kool & the Gang song, especially one that has been beaten to death by every wedding/birthday/bar mitzvah DJ since 1980, but today's announcement and special event has me forgetting every watered down drink and room-temp hors d'oeuvre that I have consumed to the tune.
At this very moment, 'we've got a party going on right here' at Low Country Pipe & Cigars; a pre-Richmond Show and celebration, where we find ourselves honored to unveil the vanguard of the Luciano Pipe revamp. Crafted from top-tier Mediterranean plateau briar, which was hand selected and seasoned by Luca di Piazza himself, the first four all-new series (Breakfast, Lunch, Snack and Dinner) feature elegant, deliriously elongated shapes, exquisite bamboo ferrules, as well as an aesthetic paradigm heretofore unseen from Italy. In addition. each of these new pipes comes with a designer zip-up pouch, organic cotton sleeve, and a technical paper about the pipe.
Accompanying the new Luciano introduction, Radice is doing some special unveiling of their own; their limited edition Christmas pipe for 2013! This year's yuletide offering is a generously sized straight apple, available in the 'Rind', 'Pure', 'Silk' and 'Clear' finish, and all sport a handsome band of antler on the mount, as well as a tamper crafted from the same with briar to match. This will be the last year that the Radice Christmas pipe will feature antler, so collect them while you can. As an extra special surprise, Luca has created a one-time set of the 2011-2013 Christmas pipes, using pipes that he reserved for the specific purpose. Also accompanying any Radice pipe you purchase, for a limited time, is a prettykickin tamper
I hope to see you all at our store show but, for those who cannot attend, all of these offerings (perhaps the three-pipe set not withstanding) and more will be available at the upcoming Richmond Pipe Show.
In the great marital ledger, I, like most husbands, have some entries in both the credits and debits column. Specifically, I've gained credits for taking my wife to Europe five times in the five years we've been together. But those credits have been partially offset (as my wife rarely fails to remind me) by debits associated with dragging her to a few dozen pipe maker workshops, pipe factories and the like during each of those five trips. My wife and I enjoyed our honeymoon two years ago in Italy. We enjoyed it, in part, in the Castello workshop, Mimmo's briar cutting operation, and other, similar, august sites of Italian culture. However, this year's trip to France was to be a vacation. And a vacation alone. Well, mostly. Except for one little side trip to St. Claude...
Antoine Grenard and I have known each other for a few years. The young--my age; in his early-mid thirties--managing director of the Chapuis-Comoy factory and I have always gotten along well, but I'd never visited the factory on my previous trips to St. Claude. Grenard's team of thirty make Chacom (the flagship brand's name is a portmanteau of Chapuis-Comoy) and a variety of other brands, including Ropp, Jean LaCroix and others.
The factory itself is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. Even my wife was delighted to have her vacation interrupted by the tour. Built in 1910, the factory once had more than two hundred workers, busily making pipes. Two hundred people and the concomitant equipment take up a lot of space. That leaves a lot of interesting underused space and artifacts of pipe making of decades past.
Much of the equipment used has been in continuous operation for decades. We met Antoine in a conference room filled with a century of pipe memorabilia and started the tour in the vast spaces reserved for shaping pipes. The available shape chart from Chacom is vast. Hundreds, if not thousands, of templates for classic French and English shapes are on hand. As is the case with almost all pipe factories, the bowls are rough shaped using fraizing machines, a multi-step process where a given machine will cut a specific angle--the back of the bowl, or the area around the rim. Making a given shape requires setting up the equipment for a production run, so runs of hundreds of stummels at a time are cut and then stored to be completed, sometimes having the shape further tweaked. The factory also has a newer template-based shaping machine from Denmark that shapes an entire bowl based on a plastic template of the shape, similar to the equipment that Stanwell used before it closed a few years ago. The Eltang designed Oscar series, with its more challenging angles and modern shape, is made using this method.
From there, we worked our way across rooms and floors, seeing pipes being sandblasted, stained, rings and silver bands added and finished. Many factories outsource the preproduction of their decorative bands, but Chapuis-Comoy does almost all of this in house, with specialized lathes turning and then cutting decorative rings for the ends of shanks at a spectacular pace.
Seeing current production was exciting, but the real highlight of the visit was pipe stummel storage. Vast rooms filled with baskets, bins and giant bags of rough shaped stummels occupy a full floor of the massive facility. Rack after rack holds tens or even hundreds of thousands of unfinished pipes. Some of these are shapes in current production, just waiting to be moved to production. But hundreds of different shapes, each with dozens or hundreds of stummels, have sat there for decades, representing the tail ends of production runs for discontinued shapes, now covered in thick layers of dust.
Another flight of stairs up--perhaps the sixth floor in the facility; I rather lost count--takes us to an attic, where the truly ancient stummels are stored. In some cases, huge wooden bins of many hundreds of stummels await inspiration. And inspiration struck. I started accumulating a little group of assorted, old shapes, one example of each of a few different shapes. And my pile grew. Eventually, I was carrying around more than I could hold. I didn't know immediately what we'd do with all of these, but these were old French shapes that simply had to be back on the market. Interesting, smaller bowls abounded. Fifty years ago, the average size of pipes sold were much smaller--equivalent to a Dunhill group 2 or group 3. Modern pipes are larger, driven by a taste for increasingly large pipes in the US and German markets. Not all of the interesting shapes I found were that small, but part of what makes classic French shapes interesting are the delicacy of the lines, something only possible with smaller shapes.
We progressed from there back to a conference room, stopping along the way to wash the accumulated dust off of ourselves. Crawling around in the attic was a particularly messy activity. By this time, it had become clear that a few special series based on these shapes would have to happen. I couldn't give up the prospect of bringing these beautiful, delicate shapes to life. We slowly pared down the shapes from the eighteen or so I'd pulled out of bins down to eleven and began to explore stains, stems and decorative rings. Ultimately, we opted to create three new series, each available in multiple finishes and with multiple shapes.
All three series will be available on Smokingpipes.com starting in the next few weeks. In some cases, these will be fairly limited editions. There are no plans to produce many of these shapes again, so we'll keep the lines going for as long as we can.
I hesitate to admit it, but of all the wonderful things we saw and did during our vacation, the visit to the Chapuis-Comoy was the highlight of the trip for me. People ask me whether, after fourteen-odd years in the pipe business, it ever gets old. It doesn't. I love it. More than that, Chapuis-Comoy is an undoubtedly special place. There are few businesses in the early twenty-first century that have operated in substantially the same way for a hundred years. The materials of historians are records and written documents and, at times, physical artifacts. But rarely does the historian get to experience something so similar to life as it was lived. For an avid pipe man whose whole career has been in the pipe business, who also has an academic background in history, it was a unique and special experience. Perhaps even more importantly, my ever patient wife not only tolerated this side trip, she enjoyed it immensely.
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.
Tuesday isn't particularly important for the Smokingpipes team. It's a graceful point in the week after the stress of Monday's update melts, and before the stress of Thursday arises. It's the hour of orange glow between night and day. It's a moment for us to slow down and recollect ourselves. For some, this could be turning the music up a little, or shooting rubber bands at one another. For many, it is an opportunity to pull out some nice tobacco and have a long smoke. Whatever your Tuesday therapy may be, there is something else to add to that routine, starting today: YouTues! (YouTube Tuesday) Today we bring you a video tour of Lasse Skovgaard's workshop, and a conversation between Sykes and Lasse about his first experiences with making pipes. There is more to this interview, which will be making its way to YouTues soon, along with many others from Eltang, Heding, and our recent visit with Michael Parks. We will post most of them here, but don't forget to follow our channel to stay up to date. So, without further delay, Happy Tuesday, and Happy YouTues!
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.
First of all, in my defense, I have to say that I firmly believe that anyone who has ever been a pipe smoker for any length of time has wanted to try their hand at carving a pipe themselves. Surely, I can't be the only one. It seems to be a reasonable impulse, much like, when I was a kid and heard stories about what would happen if you put a really powerful firecracker under a tin can, I just had to try it out for myself. Which, come to think about it, is a pretty good analogy.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Personally, I blame the South African. I won't give out his name, because he doesn't know what havoc he caused. Still, I blame him, anyway. If I hadn't read his blog about pipemaking and seen photographs of his little workshop, then I wouldn't have ordered one of his pipes. Then, when I got it and turned it over and over in my hands and saw just how fantastic it was, I just naturally thought, "Well, I wonder if..." (Yes, yes, I know, I know. Now.)
Plus, there are so many places where you can buy blocks of briar. It's not as if they're marked, "For The Use Of Professionals Only" or anything. There are even instructions you can buy. Call it implicit encouragement.
Not having a drill press (and being a coward, besides), I decided to get one of those pre-drilled blocks to start with. A trip to the hardware store for a couple of fine files and a bunch of sandpaper and I was set. Sort of. First, I had to decide what kind of pipe I wanted. I'm partial to the bent apple style, and the block looked like the right sort of shape, so I sketched the outline in pencil on the side of the block and got down to business.
Of course, the pencil marks were the first thing to disappear once I got to filing. So, I had to go by guess and by-golly for the remainder of the project. Then, there was the matter of the filings. I live at latitude 47 degrees north, which is very far north, so the snow was already building up -- this was definitely not going to be a project for outside. (Nobody told me pipemaking was seasonal, for pity's sake.) As things progressed and the filing turned to coarse sanding (not to mention coarse language, I'm sorry to say), the filings turned to sawdust. Since I was doing all of this in my office, my computer began to make strange grinding noises. I decided to retreat into the garage for the balance of the work. The unheated garage.
Every evening, after some quality pipemaking time, I'd down tools, satisfied that I'd made progress. The next morning, I'd pick up the poor, abused block of briar and wonder why I'd ever thought I was even close to finishing. This went on far too long, until I decided that I'd done as much damage as I could. That, plus my fingers were getting raw from rubbing extra-extra-fine sandpaper.
I suppose you've heard of some pipes being called "seconds"? Add a few digits. What the bowl lacked in balance of form, it made up for in unevenness in the width of the rim. And the shank doesn't quite meet the base of the stem. Not quite at all, in fact. Plus there is that pit. I could have sworn that the surface had been sanded and hand-buffed as smooth as a baby's butt. When I applied the stain, however, there was this place on the left side of the bowl that made it look like a teenager's face just before an important date. Dang. Oh, and let's not forget the stain. I thought the package said "walnut", not "mud". A few more fingertips were sacrificed in the re-sanding and re-staining before it began to look half-way -- okay, tenth-way -- decent.
Oddly enough, I'm glad that I took on this project. No, not that the result was anything to write home about (although that's exactly what I do for a living). I'm glad because I learned a lot about pipes in the process. What I learned was just how talented, patient, clever and darned good those pipemakers really are. Their rims are precisely, absolutely even in thickness. How do they do that? The bowls are completely symmetrical and shanks meet the stems perfectly, too. Since I didn't even try drilling the chamber and shank hole, I can't even begin to imagine the art involved in that aspect. Yes, I know that they have years of experience and specialized tools, but I'm just as sure that they heat their garages with their mistakes. But they also have the "eye" -- the ability to see the pipe within that block of briar.
Well, I got a pipe out of it, anyway. Yes, I do smoke it. I figure that, somewhere, there is a briar bush that gave up part of its burl for me and I'd be ungrateful if I didn't honor that poor plant by at least taking responsibility for my part.
I'll tell you one thing, though: Tomorrow, I'm sending that build-it-yourself rifle kit back.
Bryan Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in the snowy North Woods. He is probably the only person to have been barred for life from a craft store.
Back in August, Ted and I went on the annual pipe pilgrimage to visit lots of Danish pipe makers, plus the Mac Baren tobacco factory. As always, it was a bit of a whirlwind. Ten pipe makers and a tobacco factory were crammed into just five full days on the ground. Even so, we were able to spend quite a bit of time with each of them and were able to chat on camera with a few, including Peter Heding, our interview victim in today's video.
Peter was about as excited about being interviewed on camera as I would have been (as in, not terribly excited), but being the incredibly nice, accommodating guy that he is, made this video possible. So, thank you Peter, as well as thanks to Ted Swearingen for taking the video and Alyson Wilford for editing it.
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.
"The best decision I ever made was to become a pipe maker," says Tom Eltang as he sands a billiard that will soon make its way to South Carolina to Smokingpipes.com. I'm sitting in Tom Eltang's workshop as I write and we've discussed everything from the political situation in Botswana to manufacturing in China, but the conversation, as it always does when I'm with Tom, returned to pipes. Tom Eltang is now one of the most successful pipe makers in the world today. But it has been a long road.
A Tom Eltang pipe also stamped 'Pipe Dan'
Tom first went to work with Anne Julie in 1974. She had taken over the operation when her husband, Poul Rasmussen, died in 1968, and continued to run it as a small operation for the following few years. Tom, who had wanted to make pipes since he was a little boy, had a three year agreement for an apprenticeship with Anne, but at the very end, a position opened at the famous Pipe Dan shop as a pipe repairer. At the time, Pipe Dan had a full time craftsman repairing fifty or more pipes a day. When the repairman died suddenly, they were scrambling to replace him. P. E. Hermann, a briar and pipe making supplies importer, connected Tom with the Pipe Dan folks and Tom became the new repairman for Pipe Dan. The repair work proved to be not quite a full time job for the young Tom Eltang and he also made pipes at pipe Dan, making perhaps two hundred during his three year tenure there.
In 1980, Tom set out on his own, moving into a new workshop he shared with cabinetmakers, and continued to make pipes for Pipe Dan. Many of those pipes, like most Pipe Dan pipes, bore both Tom's name and the shop name. During this period, Tom also made pipes for a German importer under his own name.
Stanwell, the largest and most famous of the pipe factories in Denmark, had long maintained a pipe maker on the road visiting shops in Germany and Switzerland to demonstrate pipe making. In 1982, the craftsman who made these trips for Stanwell died and again P. E. Hermann, having heard this, mentioned the opening to Tom. Tom jumped at the opportunity and found himself on the road in his little VW Polo with pipe making equipment, visiting shops at least six weeks a year in three trips. Tom and a representative from Stanwell would visit the shops for three days at a time, finishing half-made pipes in front of throngs of pipe enthusiasts. The pace was grueling, with extremely long days and constant travel. This continued for four years, until the birth of his second daughter, Sara, while he was on the road in Germany. At that point, he decided he was done with the German pipe tours.
Tom's relationship with Stanwell continued, with Tom finishing the Stanwell Golden Contrast series until 1995. Indeed, Tom continues to design shapes for Stanwell to this day. During this whole period, Tom of course continued to make pipes under his own name that were sold to various shops in Denmark and Germany. The Stanwell Golden Contrast series pipes were made from bowls that Tom specifically selected at the factory and then finished the same way he finished his own pipes.
Tom suggests that his iconic Golden Contrast stain was actually first developed by Bjorn Bengtsson, but he's not certain. The stain itself (actually a two part stain that oxidizes on contact) had been used for black dress pipes previously. The insight was to sand the black stain off, creating the contrast between the harder wood that didn't take as much of the black stain and the softer wood that did, thereby highlighting the grain. Regardless of who first came up with the idea of the stain, it has been in Tom's hands that it has become famous.
During the late 1980s and parts of the early 1990s, a difficult period for many pipe makers, Tom had to find work in addition to pipe making. He always continued to make pipes, but other work here and there was necessary to support his young family. Tom says he was always a full time pipe maker and worked a full schedule pipe making, but at the time, this just wasn't enough. As the 1990s progressed and the pipe market improved, Tom Eltang began to receive the recognition that he deserved. He made his first journey to the Chicago Show in 2001 and moved into his present, now rather famous, workshop in 2004.
Tom has made pipes for almost forty years now. It's easy to forget that the extraordinary popularity and success that his pipes now enjoy is relatively recent, really just the past decade. Yet Tom has always felt it was special to be a pipe maker. It's good now with the global reputation he has and far more demand for his pipes than he could ever satisfy, but for Tom it was always good because it was always about the pipes. As Tom says, "It's good to be a pipe maker!"
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!"
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