Bear Graves and Ryota “Our Man in Japan” Shimizu, sat down and had a chat with Reiichi “Ray” Kurusu. Ryota, pipe man and translator extraordinaire, amply demonstrated his value throughout the interview, by correcting Bear’s poor Japanese. Thus, questions which arrived as “Do you have any sisters at home?” became “Do you smoke a pipe yourself?” SPC extends its deepest thanks to Ryota-san.
Bear Graves:When and where were you born?
Reiichi Kurusu: I was born on the 21st of November 1977, and I’m from Osaka Japan.
Bear Graves:What career path did you take immediately upon graduation?
Reiichi Kurusu: After graduating high school in Osaka, I lived abroad for about a year in New Zealand. When I returned to Japan, I moved to Tokyo pursuing my love for music. I worked at a tattoo studio, not really having clear vision of what to do.
Bear Graves:Where do you live now? Is your workshop in your home?
Reiichi Kurusu: Right now, I’m back home in Osaka and my workshop is there as well.
Bear Graves:At what age did the idea of pipe smoking appeal to you? Did you have men in your life, whom you looked up to, who might have smoked a pipe?
Reiichi Kurusu: When I visited the 2011 Pipe Fest in Tokyo, I met with Tokutomi-san for the first time and pipe making sounded so interesting that I thought of giving it a shot. I asked Tokutomi if he could teach me and that also got me seriously thinking of pipe making as a career. After that, I’ve been visiting his workshop countless times trying to learn as much as I can.
Bear Graves:Do you smoke a pipe yourself?
Reiichi Kurusu: I smoke about every other day when I want to relax after work.
Bear Graves:What types of blends do you prefer?
Reiichi Kurusu: My favorite is SG’s 1792, but I usually smoke my mixture of Virginias. Dunhill Flake is one of my favorite as well.
Bear Graves:What, aside from pipemaking, is your vocation?
Reiichi Kurusu: I still love tattoos and music. Sometimes, I enjoy playing the piano and singing.
Bear Graves:Who was the maker of your first quality pipe?
Reiichi Kurusu: My first high end pipe was a Jess that I was able to acquire 10 years ago from a friend. He was kind enough to let me have it for a very reasonable price. I can still remember how fascinating the stem work was.
Bear Graves:Your first pipe was a Jess?! I wish I had friends like that! When did you create your first pipe that you were proud of, one that you felt was worthy to sell?
Reiichi Kurusu: It’s only been 3 years that I started making pipes and looking at some fantastic handmade pipes that my friends show me, I realize how much I still need to work. But I think this past 6 months has been a huge leap for me.
Bear Graves:What is the origin/source of your briar, and, roughly, how long is it seasoned prior use?
Reiichi Kurusu: All my briars are from Mimmo, and I let them sit for about 2~3months before using them. Personally I would like to season them for at least 6 months or more in the future.
Bear Graves:What is your stem material of choice?
Reiichi Kurusu: I use vulcanite for my stems and never acrylic. I sometimes use Cumberland as well.
Bear Graves:Do you hand cut your stems?
Reiichi Kurusu: All my stems are cut from rods. Never a mold.
Bear Graves:What size are your draft holes?
Reiichi Kurusu: Draft holes are all 4mm.
Bear Graves: We have noticed a couple of different aspects of approach to your shaping. If you have a prevailing theme for your work, how would you describe it?
Reiichi Kurusu: I don’t really have a theme per se, but I try not to overuse complicated lines or curves. There are the soft gentle lines and simple curves that I am very fond of. But I do like those lines that just click on blowfishes as well.
Bear Graves:What pipe makers, if any, have aided you in your progress as a pipe maker?
Reiichi Kurusu: As I’ve mentioned, Toku has helped with me from the beginning and has taught not only how to carve pipes, but also what it means to be a pipe maker. Ichi [Editorial note: Ichi Kithara] as an elder student, has been a great mentor as well.
Bear Graves:I have noticed some beautiful lines in your work that are quite evocative of Tokutomi’s aesthetic Looking at the broadest spectrum of great pipemakers, either living or passed, whose work do you most admire?
Reiichi Kurusu: There are so many that I admire… Tokutomi Hiroyuki, Kei’Ichi Gotoh, Takeo Arita, Bo Nordh, Jorn Micke, Jess Chonowitsch, Bjorn Bengtsson, Sixten, Lars and Nanna Ivarsson… I like how Tao and Poul Ilsted make their bulldog shapes.
Now, to the more 'personal insight'?
Bear Graves:Do you have a nickname, one that you like and we might use on occasion? An odd question, but a nickname, even if simply a shortened version of your given or surname, creates a greater sense of personal connection with collectors, as well as allows us not to simply repeat your same first/last name in a description (reads a bit better).
Reiichi Kurusu: My nickname has always been Ray. My real name is Reiichi but I’ve been using Ray for so long that I used Ray Kurusu as my brand name.
Bear Graves:What kind of music do you like?
Reiichi Kurusu: Tom Waits and Nina Simone, and Fiona Apple. I respect their ability as musicians, as well as their vocal talents. I used to like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, but now I enjoy the quieter music.
Bear Graves:What are your favorite things to do, when away from work?
Reiichi Kurusu: Right now, I use every second I have on pipe making, but I love traveling and so one of these days I would like to go on a trip for a change.
Bear Graves:Do you have a favorite sports team?
Reiichi Kurusu: I'm not much of a sports guy and have no clue! [Laughing.]
Bear Graves:Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
Ray Kurusu: You are very welcome, it’s been my pleasure.
Jared Coles (J&J Pipes) and Adam Davidson discuss the best way to clean the knuckles of bamboo, while Steve Liskey talks about different ways to drill and fit bamboo with Nathan Armentrout. Meanwhile Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes), who is hosting this get-together at his home and workshop in San Diego, bounces about, playing the consummate host, making sure everyone has what they need, whether it's a certain drill bit or some of Jeff's famous (at least in the pipe world) coffee.
Jeff Gracik sketches on a rough shaped stummel as Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey look on.
Adam Davidson and I are attending the first of what will perhaps become an annual event for pipe makers that Jeff Gracik, of J. Alan pipe fame, painstakingly organized over the past few months: the West Coast Pipe Maker's Pow Wow. The feel was sort of like a very small, very relaxed pipe maker version of a professional conference. The two day event has been broken into a series of technical demonstrations, short seminars and roundtable discussions. It's a small, select group of fourteen, of which eleven are pipe makers. It is very possibly the first of its kind, anywhere in the world. Sure, American pipe makers have a history of getting together to share ideas and processes, but never with this much structure, nor on this scale.
As, I write, sitting in a folding camping chair on Jeff's driveway, Jeff stands at a lathe demonstrating how to properly execute a military style mount for a stem as ten other pipe makers look on. The other pipe makers are a pretty select group. These are mostly guys that have been making pipes for at least a few years, here to learn new techniques. Jeff is one of the top pipe makers in the country--perhaps the top pipe maker in the country--and while these guys are already professional pipe makers, there's still much that they can learn from Jeff. But it isn't limited to Jeff. All of these guys have areas of expertise that they can share with the group.
Jared Coles drills on Jeff's lathe.
Earlier, Steve Liskey led a seminar on bamboo, detailing methods ranging from digging it out of the ground to using it as a shank on a pipe. Yesterday, I led a discussion on some of the business aspects of the pipe world. Later today, pipe maker and longtime Smokingpipes.com Estate Manager and Pipe Specialist Adam Davidson will discuss quality control and the pitfalls pipe makers can avoid if they want to make the best pipes possible.
What's truly remarkable, to the point that it would utterly baffle an outside observer from most any other industry, is that this actually happens in the pipe world. Jeff is completely open with how he does things, unconcerned that he's teaching his competition. Perhaps it’s the security he feels regarding his place in the pipe world that makes this so natural for him. Or perhaps it's simply the master's desire to share his knowledge. There have been a handful of pipe makers over the decades who have been happy to disseminate the skills that they've mastered. It's part of the craft and part of being a great pipe maker.
Sixten Ivarsson, to take the most famous example, was great because he thought about pipes in a new way, and because he taught others how he thought about pipes. If he'd done the former without the latter, Sixten's historical role as the progenitor of the modern artisanal pipe would simply not be. He would have been a brilliant, but relatively insignificant, dead end in the history of pipe making. At the end of the day, Sixten is important because he passed on what he'd learned and what he'd developed.
That willingness to share, exemplified by others--Tom Eltang also comes to mind as a particularly open and willing teacher--is important not only for those who take the opportunity to learn. Indeed, nothing further refines skills as well as teaching them. It forces the teacher to refine amorphous thoughts into coherent structures, furthering his mastery of the material. Jeff Gracik, along with Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey, are confident teachers this weekend.
The goal for the weekend was to help good pipe makers get better. Some of the subjects covered were fairly straightforward: drilling techniques, for example. Others were more sophisticated, such as working with oddly shaped pieces of bamboo. Some of the focus had little to do with how to make a better pipe, but rather addressed individual development as a pipe maker. Adam didn't hold forth before the group about how to make pipes (though he did give a lot of one-on-one advice throughout the weekend), instead he talked about common quality control pitfalls, the small (but crucial) things that pipe makers can watch out for, in order to help them catch errors before they leave the workshop. As long time quality control guy at Smokingpipes.com, Adam's in a unique position to talk about common pipe maker errors. My presentation was about how to navigate the business end of being a pipe maker, how to manage brands, how to avoid potentially bad, short-term focused decisions in favor of better, longer-term decisions, and the like. Indeed, of all of them, my talk was the only that didn't really have much to do with the pipes they make, but hopefully it gave them some insight into how to think about managing the business and marketing side of what they do.
Adam Davidson sketches a mortise, while Nathan Armentrout holds the board for him.
Adam and Ernie discuss a rough shaped pipe made by Ernie (E. Markle Pipes) on Jeff's driveway.
While the centerpieces of the weekend were the formal demonstrations by Jeff and the seminars led by Steve Liskey, Adam and me, much of what made the event exceptionally special was the ad hoc discussion about pipe making that took place during the weekend. At one point I was looking at some pipes Ernie Markle was working on (seriously nice stuff, I might add), when Adam wandered over and started offering his thoughts. One of the pipes Ernie had at hand was a partially finished long-shanked acorn. The shape, while impressive, wasn't quite what he was looking for. He and Adam ended up sitting on Jeff's driveway with a sketchpad, working out the problems of the shape. I'm not sure what will come of the particular stummel that Ernie had been working on, but it was clear that this was a valuable, collaborative learning experience for both Ernie and Adam.
It was an enlightening experience for me as well. Obviously, I'm not a carver. The finer points of how to make an army mount were interesting, but didn't mean much to me. What I did take away from it, however, was how hard it is to be a top-tier pipe maker. Of course, at some level, I knew this; I've probably been in more different pipe maker workshops than anyone else in the world. I know how hard these men (and women) work. But usually I'm in the workshops of established pipe makers. Seeing Jeff instruct less experienced pipe makers helped to crystalize, on a personal level, how hard it is to transition from being a good pipe maker (of which there are many out there right now) to a great pipe maker (of which there are few). The difference is mostly in the mastery of thousands of little technical details. This past weekend Jeff demonstrated a bunch of those details, but pipe making can't be learned in a weekend. It can take a lifetime of continuous effort. Even in cases of exceptional natural talent (like Jeff Gracik, who now has over a decade's worth of experience, and whose work enjoys immense demand), you'll still find artisans very eager to listen, and eager to reciprocate by teaching and passing on what they've learned. It's this that makes "greats" from the "good".
Attendees use the sanding disks while Adam Davidson watches.
Most images kindly provided by John Klose of J&J Artisan Pipes.
Given that nearly all of the lauded artisans/masters who have emerged over the past decade began, and progressed, in their art largely of their own efforts, with only internet forums, the occasional ‘workshop’ and the rare 1-2 day stopover at a senior carver's place, it would be fair to ask: “Is there still a place for a staunchly traditional Master/student relationship?” Given the amazing debut pipes of Asami Kikuchi, I believe the answer is ‘yes’. Due to the required alignment of situations and circumstances between both parties, however, the actual chances of such a relationship forming ranges between ‘highly unlikely’ to ‘damned near impossible’.
Even though residing within the same city, the combination of timing, factors and coincidence required for the Tsuge/Fukuda/Kikuchi match to occur would have Vegas bookmakers scratching their collective heads - and yet it happened. Kazuhiro Fukuda needed a successor. A talented art student, with a demonstrated affinity for working with small wooden objects realized that, for her entire life, this was what she was born to do, but simply needed exposure to the idea in order to realize it. An agreement was struck, and the most traditional/formal of Master/apprenticeships began, within the framework of (arguably) the most formal of artisanal societies: Japan.
By traditional standards, while Kikuchi didn’t have to wait (in the rain) in front of the master’s door to gain eventual entry, her apprentice path began with arriving every day and prepping her master’s work area. From there, she was allowed to handle small, indirectly related tasks and quietly ask questions. On the cusp of apprentice and journeyman, the crucial steps in creating a perfect airflow were addressed, the kohai begins to help with sanding, and even takes the first faltering steps of carving discarded blocks. Depending on the teacher, even at this early stage, the sensei might demand an opinion regarding a shape in progress. While her answer was inevitably ‘wrong’, and the teacher patiently explains why, this is where the two parties begin to truly connect with each other’s approach to visualization, as it addresses translating the idea of a shape, into the corporeal. By the time Kikuchi hit advanced journeyman, if her art was regarded more advanced than any other, save the master, the kohai becomes sempai (think ‘top student’) and helps mentor others, as well as now having a full hand in the creation of pipes worthy of the top marque. It is at about this point where progress stops being discussed, and, often for months, the obvious (but never referred to) question hangs in the air. One day, deliberately calculated as a surprise and often falling on the heels of being taken to task over some small detail, the master (and principles, if involved) will suddenly appear, smile broadly, and confer the status the student has so diligently pursued.
Asami Kikuchi went from a simple awareness that briar could represent the pinnacle of a carver’s art, to the new Master of one of the most revered pipe marques in the world in less than a year. Something that, at first blush, would seem highly improbable, until you ask yourself what results might occur from (say) a Jeff Gracik spending eight hours a day, six days a week, right next to a Teddy Knudsen, when both knew that a new master needed to step on the world stage in less than a year. Yes, the traditional master/apprentice system still works.
Smokingpipes.com interview with Michail Kyriazanos
The update for today (January 9th) features a carver new to Smokingpipes.com. As always, we were contemplating the way in which we could introduce him to you; the pipe enthusiast. What better way than to actually introduce him? It is for this reason that the following interview was conducted, as a precursor to the update. So, without any furthur delay...
Born in Athens, October of ’89, Michail Kyriazanos (Mi-ha-il Ki-ria-za-nos), with the exception of five years of collegiate study in the city of his birth, was raised in, and continues to live on Paros Island. Greek law and custom requires young men to serve 9-12 months in the armed services and until he completes his year in the Hellenic Navy, pipe making is his sole profession.
Bear: At what age did the idea of pipe smoking appeal to you?
Michail: In my late teens. I don’t think I had what anyone would consider a major epiphany; I saw a man in a drugstore smoking a pipe and thought, “Why not?”
Bear: Do you smoke a pipe yourself? If so, what types of blends do you prefer?
Michail: Of course I smoke pipes, I began pipe smoking with a Stanwell Zebrano and a Larsen 1864. As far as tobacco, I prefer VA/Pers, lightly cased Virginias and I also enjoy the occasional English blend.
Bear: Did you acquire any skills from previous jobs or hobbies which you found to be of help, once you started pipe making?
Michail: Even as a small child, I showed a strong aptitude for both handcrafting as well as quickly mastering the use of a wide variety of hand tools. Eventually, this led to my 2-year occupation of making stands and furniture for Hi-End audio systems during my collegiate studies. From the age of 15, every summer I worked with a marble sculpture artist who lives in Paros, but I never tried to make a marble sculpture myself from scratch, because Parian marble is still the most precious marble on earth.
Paros Island, Home to Kyriazanos
Bear: Who was the maker of your first quality pipe?
Michail: Dunhill. Specifically, an estate Cumberland 3103
Bear: When did you create your first pipe that you were proud of, one that you felt was worthy to sell?
Michail: I started pipemaking as a hobby on November 2010, and my first pipe was a saddle stemmed Dublin. My 3rd pipe was a Pickaxe shape and it was the first pipe that I thought I could sell, and finally did. My first pipe that I was really proud of, not only in terms of grain, shape, finish but in further determination of today's work, was my thirteenth: a Liverpool/Dublin.
Bear: What is the origin/source of your briar, and, roughly, how long is it seasoned prior use?
Michail: I use only Greek briar, and my sources are two mills. The first one sells briar that is seasoned 8 to 27 years and I can use it from the moment I buy it. It's the tastiest briar in the world, but doesn’t have much softer wood, making deep, craggy blasts nearly impossible. My other source cures the briar 2-4 years before I buy it, and I cure it for one extra year before I make a pipe from it. It's softer and light colored.
Bear: Having looked at your pipes, it appears that ebonite/vulcanite is your stem material of choice, is that accurate?
Michail: Yes, I prefer to use ebonite to make my stems and I only use acrylic for rings or if a customer specifically orders it.
Bear: Do you hand cut your stems?
Michail: Yes, I hand cut my stems. I believe that a properly shaped and well-crafted stem is an absolutely critical element of a superior pipe.
Bear: Do you prefer delrin for your tenons, or do you elect to turn your tenons in the manner of Chris Asteriou?
Michail: My tenons are integral, like Chris's. Both of us love and admire old English pipe craftsmanship.
Bear: What size are your draft holes?
Michail: I drill my draft holes at 4mm on stummels and 3mm on stems, I then insert a 4mm taper drill to the stem, which makes the transition from 4 to 3 smoother.
Bear: I noticed that 4 of the 5 pipes that we debuted, seem to hold a special reverence for traditional English shapes. Is this a prevailing theme of your work?
Michail: My logo is a modern twist on Cycladic Art Figurine. [Editorial note: first created in roughly 3300 BCE by the Cycladic people of the Aegean Sea] These figurines are the world's first -consciously made- minimalist sculptures. For me and my work they symbolize the importance of functionality and non-superfluous aesthetics. Yet another reason why I like to smoke English shapes, my personal pipes are mostly Billiards and Bulldogs. This, in turn, carries over to my art and my preference for crafting these pipes. I feel that I have a lot to "explore" within the classic shapes. In addition, I feel lucky because there is a great market for these pipes. It's not easy to find a superbly hand crafted classic Billiard, or a Group 2 Prince or, for that matter, a silver army mounted pipe.
Bear: What pipe makers, if any, have aided you in your progress as a pipe maker?
Michail: The Pipemakers forum helped me a lot to progress in the basic creation process and, along with talking with Chris Asteriou and Kostas Gourvelos on many ideas, I managed to advance.
Bear: Looking at the broadest spectrum of great pipemakers, either living or passed, whose work do you most admire?
Michail: I admire Paolo Becker for his ability to match classic shapes and modern design, Michael Parks for his aesthetics in classic shapes and his work's quality and Michail Revyagin for his innovative thinking and crafting.
Bear: Ok, are you up for some personal questions?
Michail: How personal? I’m kidding. Sure.
Bear: Do you have a nickname?
Michail: Well, I don't have a nickname, but in Greece I also called Michalis. It's the "everyday" calling of my name, imagine it like "Misha" in Russian. So Michail or Michalis, will work.
Bear: What kind of music do you like?
Michail: I prefer to listen to classical and jazz music, and some forms of traditional Greek music.
Bear: What are your favorite things to do, when away from work?
Michail: Listening to music, reading a great book, board gaming with good friends. Then there’s snowboarding during winter and having a good aged rum or whiskey along with my pipe in my favorite bars.
Bear: Do you have a favorite sports team?
Michail: I do have a favorite sports team, it's Greek and called Olympiacos. [Editorial note: Olympiacos is the most successful club in Greek football history, having won a record 40 Greek League titles, more than all other Greek clubs combined]
Bear: What is the correct pronunciation of your name? In absence of knowledge, most of us Yanks can mispronounce anything Greek, and will continue to do so. When you are spoken of in the US, we want your name pronounced correctly.
Michail: Ah, I can see what you mean, well I'll try to pronounce it now, and we’ll fine-tune it on Skype. I'll put the intonation on bold. Michail: Mi-ha-il. Michalis: Mi-ha-lis. Kyriazanos: Ki-ria-za-nos
Bear: On behalf of Smokingpipes.com, please accept our thanks, and appreciation, for taking the time to answer a fairly daunting number of questions.
"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.
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