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!"
If you’ve been smoking pipes, buying pipes, collecting pipes, or even just looking at pipes over the last ten years, chances are you’re already pretty familiar with the work of American carver Michael Lindner. You may even be familiar with his story. Way back in 2000, Michael got his hands on a lathe in order to ease the restoring and selling of estate pipes through The Piperack, the online pipe retailer he’d established only three years prior. Fast forward a dozen years and Michael is a staple in the pipe world, a fixture at the Chicagoland and Richmond pipes shows, and a well-known, respected pipe maker.
I thought it would be a lot of fun to pick Michael’s brain under the pretense of sharing it with our readers. Thankfully he consented and allowed me to do so!
I think most people figure that you got into pipe making on account of having already established The Pipe Rack; pipe retailing and repairs go hand in hand. So... how did you get into the business of selling pipes? Was it just a matter of having been a collector with too many pipes?
Well, I think the opportunity just kind of presented itself to me. I already was in business for myself; I had owned a janitorial and maintenance company for a number of years and I saw an opportunity to make enough money to make my pipe collecting hobby self-sustaining. Ebay had been around for only a couple years, and I would often buy a group of pipes there, clean them up, keep one or two and then sell off the rest. I quickly realized that there was a solid business plan there if done in volume, and done correctly. At the time, honestly there weren't many "professional" websites for pipes, running it as a legitimate business. So I developed the model. Prior to The Piperack, there weren't any websites doing weekly updates, or restoring their pipes so that they showed up ready to pack and light, or taking credit cards, or giving detailed descriptions, or applying a points rating system to give people an idea of condition. There was PCCA, but they were mainly unsmoked Castellos with the occasional estate pipe collection. So it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of this new selling platform (the internet) and applying a proper business framework to it.
Do you still actively collect pipes? What's your prized pipe?
Actually, no not really. I have a motley bunch of pipes, some were gifts, some were the first pipes I smoked. I have a lot of pipes that I couldn't sell on The Piperack - you know, Dunhills with cracked bowls and that kind of thing. They're great smokers, by the way. And of course I have some of my own pipes. I suppose my most prized pipe would be a 1948 patent Sasieni Four Dot that was one of the first pipes I ever had. But really, once you start selling them and especially start making them, the idea of a favorite pipe just kind of goes away. ALL the pipes I make are my favorite pipe, for that day. Some I like more than others, but they are all special to me.
How many pipes did you have to make before you were satisfied that it was something you should keep doing? At what point did you think "Yeah, this is what I'm supposed to be doing?"
Pipe making came very intuitively to me; after the first pipe I made, I decided to pursue it professionally. I mean, a week after I made my first pipe, I had stamps for the nomenclature. It may seem odd or overly confident to the casual observer, but those who know me well weren't surprised at all. I have a tendency to immerse myself in something and, being a perfectionist, really work toward honing my craft. But knowing the path and walking the path are two different things, and it did take me a little while to get my production to the point where I could say I was happy with it. I think the first pipe I sold was my 15th pipe, or something like that. But frankly looking back on these early pieces (I still have pipe 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and a few others) I can see that I was not as polished as I would have liked. Certainly though, within six months or so I had really polished things up, and within a year I had developed the basic Lindner pipe you see today with regard to all the details (button, tenon, fit and finish, et cetera). Of course I am still learning and will be for the rest of my career but it's all about fine-tuning at this point, and occasionally exploring new techniques.
You're as seriously adept as any American carver when it comes to producing Danish influenced designs, but you seem to create plenty of classic, English inspired shapes as well. Is that a conscious effort? What kind of shaping preferences do you have as a maker?
In my opinion, the classics are really where you develop your skill as a pipe maker, because the rules for each shape are so rigid. Once you learn the shapes, you can start experimenting with them, which leads to developing your own style as well as crossover into new shape interpretations. And the lessons you learn from the classics (proportion, cut, balance, proper engineering, et cetera) are necessary in order to create art shapes.
Besides, I love the classics. I started my collection with Sasienis, and over the years have had literally thousands of Dunhills, Barlings, Ashtons, Sasienis, and so on, through my hands. Classics are what I smoke today. I have an immense appreciation and respect for what the French and English contributed to pipe design, and I try to emulate that today in the pipes I make (albeit at a much higher level with regard to engineering and fit & finish).
So, yes, it's a conscious effort on my part. There are collectors who only go after my art shapes, and there are those who only pursue my classics. By doing both styles well, I feel I can serve the needs and desires of more people. Not to mention that making a billiard versus making a blowfish use different parts of your brain; by making both classics and art shapes, I never get bored with what I'm doing and it helps me stay balanced. I wouldn't have it any other way.
What's been the most surprising aspect of being a professional pipe maker? What's made you reel back and think "this never would have happened if I were still doing something else"?
Hmm, that's really a tough question. I suppose the realization that, and this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, that I'm a "world famous artist". When I was younger, I was quite active [in] painting and drawing and wanted to someday make my living as an artist. And while I consider myself more of an artisan craftsman rather than an artist, it did kind of hit me a few years ago that things I created are in collections around the world, are cherished (I hope) by those who own them and use them, and that in a way, my childhood dream did come true. I really don't think that would have happened any other way; I wasn't that good of a painter or illustrator. It's very humbling to think about how fortunate I am to be able to do what I love and to affect so many people.
I wanted to talk a little bit about pipe making in future blogs because, as Sykes points out, we each have something unique to contribute. And as the only pipemaker here at Smokingpipes.com, I wager there’s at least a little bit of pipe making knowledge rattling around in my cranium like a moth in a mayonnaise jar, so here I’ll try to share some of what I've learned and observed over the years. When we had a blog meeting a number of weeks ago between John, Sykes, Eric, Ted, and me, a lot of great ideas were pitched about and a lot of them were geared around pipe making and/or materials. I figure the best place to start was with a material I love for both its working qualities and its overall appearance: bamboo.
Bamboo is a pipe making ingredient that that gets talked about a lot. Just like the piece of briar the bamboo is attached to, some people either can be drawn to a pipe with bamboo and some might wish it wasn't there at all. In future posts, I'll talk more about techniques related to working with bamboo and other types of bamboo, but in this first installment I’ll focus on black bamboo.
There’s over 1,000 species of bamboo in the world, most of which have been used to produce everyday items for thousands of years. However, it wasn't until the early 20th-century rolled around that pipes began to feature the exotic material. Without a doubt, there were pipes made from bamboo well before this, but our focus here is using the roots as an accent for modern briar pipes.
I can’t say for sure which varieties of bamboo I use in my craft because I really have no idea. It’s harvested for me so I get specifically what I want: thin pieces of bamboo with close "knuckles" and a surface that is either chocolate brown or mottled. The mottled pieces are especially beautiful, I think. Some of my favorite bamboo is no larger in diameter than a pencil, but this isn't practical for most pipe shapes outside of Cuttys or other designs that have small bowls or shanks that would be equally lovely if made from briar.
Many people seem to think that bamboo used for pipe is what grows above ground, but 99% of the bamboo used in this focus is actually its root. When one sees how bamboo grows, it's easy to understand how it can quickly become such a pest if not desired in a garden. I was at an undisclosed location a year ago (not trespassing) and stumbled into a small bamboo patch. The plants towered above my head and the ground was covered with partially-exposed pieces of the root. As bamboo grows, these roots shoot out in all directions like trees do, but they are all relatively close to the surface. It's these roots that absorb water and sprout to make new plants. I cut a small piece out with a key to use on a pipe for myself. It needed to be boiled and dried before use, but will end up being pretty much the same color it is in the ground. Black bamboo comes from a different species than this one, but it should be noted that many people think pipe makers stain bamboo this color. They don't. Stain simply won't take to the root like it will briar. Experiments have been done and they usually look ugly, if I do say so myself. It's best to leave it how nature makes it. Bamboo is the only material pipe makers use in pure form and try their darndest not to even scratch it. Often times, a pipe and stem are designed around the piece of bamboo.
The root is thoroughly dried before it gets to the pipemaker. It’s cut, drilled to 3/16" on both sides for a double-mortise, and then drilled through the middle with a 5/32" drill bit. Further facing, capping, fitting a stem with 3/16" stainless steel tubing (as well as the bowl itself) can make for a rather time-consuming process. (a process I’ll share in another blog post). While "white" bamboo is the most common (indeed, I've only seen the "black" variety in use for the last decade), "white" bamboo will absorb moisture for a drier smoke and color over the years like a meerschaum, but usually ends up a warm yellow-orange with possible darker spots around its knuckles. Black bamboo will not color noticeably on the outside, but still does absorb moisture internally. While this darker variety is often harder than the lighter, the brown skin is very thin. Brushing it with a file or coarse sandpaper will leave a patch of cream-colored material below.
Some pipe makers decide to leave the little bumps (which sprout to absorb water) simply sanded, while others like to drill them out and put little dots of epoxy. The epoxy dots can look like beautiful little light-catching jewels, but further serve a purpose to seal the bamboo so moisture will not leak out. I do it both ways, depending on the piece or the customer’s desires.
If care is taken while working with this dark variety, the results can be beautiful. I love working with this stuff!
One of the highlights of my trip to Italy each year is my afternoon with Claudio Cavicchi, his wife Daniela and his good friend (and occasional translator) Gianfranco Musoni. There area handful of reasons for this, but it boils down to two things: Claudio's pipes and Daniela's cooking. Daniela is as masterful in the kitchen as Claudio is in his workshop, but since this is a blog about pipes and not about food, we'll talk about pipes…
After lunch (which was extraordinary lasagna followed by a delicious artichoke and meat dish, but I digress…), Claudio, Gianfranco and I went out to Claudio's workshop, which adjoins the house. We started talking about this and that related to Claudio's pipes when I asked Claudio what inspired his shapes. Solely from his pipes, it's clear that shaping is far more central to Claudio than it is to a lot of Italian pipe makers. His shaping voice is clear and well articulated. There's a lot of variance to his shapes, but there's a consistent voice from shape to shape; there's a cleanness to the lines that they all share. Though not necessarily aesthetically, Claudio's shaping philosophy is more akin to the Danes than it is to most Italians.
Claudio makes pipes in fairly large batches, usually working with fifty or sixty simultaneously. This is about a month's production (Claudio makes around 700 pipes each year), so he starts a new batch about once a month. The first two days are dedicated to sorting briar and finding shapes for each block. Claudio has perhaps two hundred shapes cut out on little pieces of paper that serve as approximate templates as he ponders each block. Of course, these aren't set in stone. He scales the shape as needed and modifies the shape if the block requires it or if he discovers a flaw in the briar that necessitates a change of plan.
For Claudio, looking at the structure of the grain in a block and matching it to a shape is the single most important, and most interesting, step in the pipe making process. He stresses that he makes pipes for himself: he does it because he loves to make pipes. That he makes pipes that customers also like is nice, but not central to the creative process for him. Claudio stresses that at this point in his life, with a career as a farmer and a second career as a pipe maker, he doesn't need to make pipes for money. He does it because the process itself is rewarding; he loves making beautiful pipes. And he likes that others enjoy them.
Claudio has paper shape templates going back more than twenty years and he's always developing new ones. They have been inspired by a wide variety of things. In one case, Gianfranco's daughter (age eight) drew a pipe shape while they were visiting with Claudio once that went on to become a Cavicchi template and ultimately a number of pipes! But most are based on shapes that Claudio sees from other pipe makers. They're not copies; they're very much reinterpretations.
One such example is the S. Bang volcano from the Uptown's advertisement in P&T a few years ago pictured to the right. The Cavicchi sitting atop the ad was being smoked by Claudio himself and we snagged it for a minute to present it in this photo. It's far from an exact copy, but the family resemblance is definitely there: the curve of the bottom of the bowl and the angle and curve of the front of the bowl lean heavily on the S. Bang. Other areas differ: length of the shank, the paneling of the shank and the unique Claudio shank treatment mark it out as an unmistakable Cavicchi.
Another great example of this is the volcano shape to the left sitting atop José Manuel Lopes' original Portuguese version of Cachimbos, translated unsurprisingly as Pipes: Artisans and Trademarks for the English edition. That is, of course, Teddy Knudsen and a volcano he made in about 2003 with a bamboo shank. Cavicchi liked the idea, but modified it to have a regular shank and a decorative wood (in this case, boxwood) ferrule that nonetheless echoes the bamboo, with the flaring at the end of the shank, echoed by the decorative flourish on the stem. Contextualized, it does look rather like a little playful hinting at the knuckles of the bamboo in the Teddy original. Similarly, the base of the pipe is totally different: where Teddy emphasized the rugged plateaux contrasting against the smooth sides of the bowl, Claudio offers a gently convex smooth surface. The important line here is the front of the bowl though; that's the element that holds both of these shapes together and serves as the clear commonality between the two. While Claudio's rendition is quite different, the dialogue that goes on between the pipe makers is certainly evident.
Finally, we come to what I think is the most fun of the pipe shapes Claudio, Gianfranco and I discussed. To the right is something of a bent apple-cavalier hybrid. It's based loosely on the Adam Davidson pipe that Claudio saw on Smokingpipes.com pictured below it. In some respects, these shapes couldn't be more different. For starters, Adam's is a derivation of a blowfish shape, itself based loosely on a couple of shapes Hiroyuki Tokutomi has done (which in turn were based very loosely on shapes by Sixten and Lars Ivarsson). The defining characteristic of the shape is the crosscut grain, the large panels on the sides to display birdseye and the balanced asymmetry of the composition. In Claudio's version, all of this is abandoned. Claudio used just the outline of the shape, re-imagining everything else about it. Looking at the two pipes together, one wouldn't guess that the Davidson led to the Cavicchi. Yet, since it did, the ideas that Claudio pulled from the shape are clearly evident in his version. What makes this even more satisfying for Claudio is that a few weeks after he developed this shape based on the photo of Adam's pipe, Adam emailed him to ask him about some of the woods that he uses as shank adornments. He was delighted to be able to reciprocate the unintended favor that Adam had done him.
The copying of shapes is something that seems to cause a whole lot of angst in the pipe world, but not a whole lot of thoughtful discussion. Bo Nordh once said that there's a Swedish expression, "I steal with both arms and both legs," that applies here: all pipe makers borrow, reinterpret, reinvent and reimagine. Pipe makers each add a little bit to the greater aesthetic discussion, but the act of copying and interpreting other works is as central to pipe making as it is to furniture design, knife making or any other aesthetic craft. These are wonderful examples of this: ideas that caught the attention of a creative mind, then filtered and reinvented they become something quite new. For thirty-odd years now, Claudio Cavicchi has contributed his voice to that symphonic aesthetic discussion.
I spent two full days visiting Savinelli for the first time this past Monday and Tuesday. I've decided that one blog post simply can't do the whole experience justice, so I've opted to split it into two (or even three; we shall see). Almost the entire first day was spent poking around the factory. I love pipe factories. And I've been in bunches of pipe factories and workshops all over the world. I can't make a pipe to save my life (I've tried; it was a disaster), but I'm about as familiar with methods, machines, materials and the like as someone who doesn't actually make pipes can be. Giacomo Carlesi, Savinelli's export manager and my factory guide, suggested that the factory tour took much, much longer with me than it does with most folks because, well, I actually knew what I was looking at. I had tons of questions. As I said to Giacomo, it's not the things that are the same at each factory that are interesting, it's the differences from operation to operation.
Savinelli's production is really split into two distinct pieces. There's the factory piece, which accounts for the overwhelming majority (98%?) of Savinelli's production, and the artisan piece. The Autographs, Briar Lines, Linea Artisans and Milanos are all the result of the second set of processes. Both are fascinating, but they're so different, that I've decided to split off the factory discussion for a second article to follow in, hopefully, a couple of days. So, today, we're going to discuss Autographs and we'll follow one through a number of the processes in the photos on the left.
Briar for the Autographs and other freehands is sourced specifically for those pieces. Extra grade ebauchon blocks are used for most of Savinelli's production, but Savinelli keeps a separate supply of Extra Extra plateaux blocks for the freehands. Savinelli has about one million blocks of briar on hand (yes, that's a whole lot), which amounts to a ten year supply. This ensures that they're only using top-quality thoroughly dry briar, and it also gives them the ability to weather supply shocks if they were to find themselves unable to secure as much briar as they need for a few years.
Though the shapes are unmistakably Savinelli's, the blocks are shaped first and drilled afterwards, using the same method the Danes use to maximize flexibility when shaping. It requires greater skill on the part of the maker, but generally yields better results as the carver is able to work around problems in the wood and cut to maximize the quality of the grain. Three artisans in the factory are responsible for all of the Autograph and other freehand pipes. Ignazio Guarino, who has been with Savinelli for fifty years, worked on the piece that we're following through some of the steps to the left, but every piece is touched by each of the three senior artisans in the factory.
First the pipe was shaped almost completely. Ignazio works on the sander (which is structured with the sanding area on the outside of a spinning disk, perhaps an inch wide, quite different from the disks I've seen elsewhere) faster than anyone I've ever seen: decades of practice making variations on the various iconic Savinelli Autograph shapes means that he can do it almost without looking. Then it's taken to be drilled on three different machines (this being an artisanal process in a factory, most everything is set up for exactly one process) and the plateaux top lightly is blasted to remove the bark. Then a stem is fitted, shaped to match the bowl, and bent over an alcohol lamp. Then the pipe is stained, polished, stamped and it's done. (I've omitted a number of steps from the photos to the left since some of them aren't terribly photogenic and I'm not a terribly good photographer).
All Savinelli pipes, including the Autographs of course, are stained with natural dyes mixed in the factory, primarily by the factory manager, Luisa Bozzetti. Savinelli has bags and boxes of various components to create the various stains. The area used for this has a sort of medieval herbalist or apothecary character to it. The recipes are loosely interpreted, executed through trial and error with tests on scraps of briar since there's considerable natural variance in the dye components. I don't think I've ever encountered anything like this. It gives Savinelli considerable flexibility to create new stains, which is perhaps one reason that there's such color variance from series to series, instead of just a few stock colors employed over and over again.
Of course, only a fraction of the free hand pipes that come from Savinelli bear the Autograph stamp. And such was not the happy destiny of this pipe. The grain was stunning, but a small fissure emerged while the bowl was being shaped. It would have ended up a Milano Handmade, but as I learned while all of this was being discussed, it was to be very kindly given to me, so it just bears the Savinelli stamp, my name and the year, and I'm smoking it (in a smoking hotel room, no less) as I write this.
I'm beginning this little missive while Marco Parascenzo and Franco Coppo are locked in detailed discussion. I love listening to the lilting, almost musical, Italian, though I have little sense of what they're discussing. Marco flew up from his home in Rome for the day, while I traveled from Varese, about an hour from here, assuming one doesn't get lost. Marco was here to meet me, but also to select pipes for the United States and China, where he represents Castello. We finished selecting pipes a few minutes ago. Selecting pipes at Castello has an almost ritualistic character, a process laden with meaning, as three men who love pipes come together to pore over perhaps a thousand beautiful Castello pipes.
Appropriately, this process takes place in a small room, protected by a heavy steel door, with no windows and thick stone (or at least stone-like) walls, off of the factory. The room is lined with drawers of pipes, shelves of beautiful Castello wooden boxes, paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and assorted bits of Castello memorabilia. The room's mood has an almost religious character to it; it feels rather like a small chapel in a medieval church. A single source of light, a bright lamp, sits over the central felt covered table. And on this table, we look at pipes. This is my third visit to Cantù to spend the day with Marco and Kino, so I know what to expect.
The process always starts with things like Sea Rocks and Trademarks and we work our way up to the Collections and Collection Fiammatas. I'm not sure if I can properly articulate how much fun it is. I select pipes all the time. It's a huge part of what I do. I do it in the office. I do it at shows. I do it in various countries. But, somehow, the whole Castello experience is just different. I don't know whether it's the atmosphere, the scale of the project, or the pipes themselves, or some combination of the three, that make this one of my favorite pipe experiences each year. Perhaps it's because all present take it all so seriously. It's not that we're terribly solemn; it's actually a lot of fun. It's more that there's a reverence there and none of us take the pipes lightly. Ourselves we may take lightly, but for all involved, these are objects of value well beyond the economic. These are special objects, worthy of care, even love.
For the first couple of hours, we wended our way from Sea Rocks through Castello "Castello". Standard practice is for me to pick out those that catch my eye and then thin the selection afterwards. It's just too hard to pick and prune at the same time. It's far better to just pick out those that I think are best and then cull by perhaps a third at the end of the process. We broke for lunch around 1:30pm, having looked at pipes for almost two hours. I'd probably selected more than a hundred, out of perhaps eight or nine hundred, by then.
A lovely lunch of a proscuitto and cheese antipasti and a pasta course later, we returned to the selection process. Now, this is where it gets difficult. Out came the Collections, Collection Fiammatas and Collection Fiammata Great Lines. I could easily, happily have taken more than half of what was on offer. I ended up selecting about thirty, knowing that serious pruning would be required. There were Occhio di Pernice, Fiammata and Great Lines all on offer. It was an astounding variety of extraordinary pipes.
Finally, it was time to discuss the Pezzo Unico. We did this last year too, with two superb pieces. Franco sets aside pipes that are particularly special, important, significant to him or otherwise sufficiently noteworthy that he doesn't really want to sell them. While it's a little odd to own a pipe factory and not want to sell pipes, I sort of sympathize with him: the number of times that I wished I could keep a pipe at Smokingpipes.com as a museum peice of sorts attests to at least the same impulses on my part. From this selection, with some begging, pleading and prying, come the Pezzo Unico. Last year it was a 150th Anniversary Collection Fiammata. This year, in a truly extraordinary briar and Canadian cedar presentation box, it will be a spectacular Great Line Fiammata. This was an achingly difficult decision to make. And trying to get Franco to part with the pipe was difficult in its own right. It took me a few years of getting to know Franco for any of this to even become a possibility. At one point, he rather dramatically declared to Marco, but in English for my benefit, "But this is my art! You're taking my art!" He did finally relent. Franco's wonderful, though: he's totally serious--he has flatly declined to sell me certain pipes on a number of occasions, and it's often hard to tell those apart from the ones that just require extra pleading--but he also recognizes that the whole thing is a little comical nonetheless.
Having scaled the Pezzo Unico summit, it came time to prune. I had about 120 pipes picked out and I needed to get it under 80. I selected Castellos in Chicago three weeks ago and will again in August at IPCPR and will likely have at least one more opportunity to do so by the end of the year. I did not need to be selecting 120 Castellos at once today. Besides, Lisa (she who is in charge of Smokingpipes.com's finances) would not have been happy. And while keeping Lisa happy is important in and of itself, I also recognize that Lisa is sort of my business-man conscience. When I want to do something like, say, buy 120 Castellos, including no fewer than four Collection Fiammatas plus one Pezzo Unico for the website in one throw, I think "what would Lisa say?" I've worked with Lisa long enough to know the answer to this. I usually end up splitting the difference between crazy pipe guy and imaginary Lisa when pipe budgeting. She's not too upset and I can almost justify the pipes I purchased for the website.
I love the process of picking Castellos. I hate the pruning part. It's excruciating deciding which pieces won't make the cut. While I think it ultimately ensures that only the best of the best pipes make it on to Smokingpipes.com, it can be really hard narrowing it down. I'll get it down to two pipes: each of which is a keeper for eighty two different reasons, but one of which really, really has to go. And so I stare at them stupidly for minutes on end. Anyway, in the end, I did it. All told I chose 78 pipes total. 78 jaw-dropping Castellos. Hopefully they'll arrive quickly…
And below, you'll find a selection of photos I took at the factory: folks making pipes, great piles of briar (Castello has about 30,000 blocks on hand, enough for almost ten years work, including one large pile of blocks that are more than twenty years old), hundreds of rods of acrylic from which they cut each stem by hand, and much more…
In the decade-and-change since Smokingpipes's founding there have been a handful of truly memorable times where I've found myself looking at a particular example of a pipemaker's work which has left me so amazed at the effort and artisanship that went into it, and so humbled by the implicit responsibility to act as a representative for it on my own part, that I've been left speechless. Receiving Nanna Ivarsson's first-ever set - a seven day set at that - was one of those moments. We received the seven briars and their hardwood case two days before we were to leave for the Chicago Pipe Show, where they would be displayed and sold, so after I spent some time ogling, they were immediately whisked away to be photographed by John Sutherland just prior to being packed up for Chicago.
Fortunately, I still had plenty of time to look at them, discuss them and ponder them while at the show itself. I arrived at the resort late on Monday and Nanna didn't arrive until Thursday, so I had plenty of time with the set all to myself even before she and I had a real opportunity to discuss it in detail. While I realized it was a monumental achievement and a piece of pipe history even before I arrived with the pipes at the resort, it was really during those few days that the importance of what Nanna had accomplished really had a chance to sink in.
I think a little background from a few different angles is in order. Nanna Ivarsson has been talking about making a seven day set for almost as long as I've known her. Sitting somewhere in the back of her mind was the desire, the conceptualization incubating for years, slowly maturing before she finally began to shape the briars that would in their final form render it all a reality. Indeed, she'd told me so many times of her plans to make the set that when she mentioned to me again back in January that she would do it, I didn't by any means expect to see the whole set finished and presented in less than a year. Pipe makers, especially great pipe makers, are always ambitious and always plan a little bit beyond their present ability to execute. This is hardly unique to Nanna. I've had similar experiences (though not necessarily associated with a set) with Jess Chonowitsch, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, Kei Gotoh and Nanna's father, Lars. There's something about a brilliant, artistic mind and temperament that causes these folks to expect slightly more of themselves than is immediately possible; it's what drives the discovery of new techniques, acquisition or invention of new tools and mediums, and of course the evolution and refinement of their own skills. Whether they consider themselves artists or artisans or both, there's always that nagging thought in the back of their head that by delaying a particularly important piece by another few months, or even years, they'll be able to create something that much greater. So, as it became increasingly clear that Nanna actually was taking the plunge and making the set this time, the reality of it took a little while to properly sink in.
Nanna has a lot riding on her shoulders. As the third generation of the Ivarsson dynasty, she is inevitably held to a remarkably high standard. Perhaps this is less of an issue for her now that she's been a professional pipe maker for well over a decade, but the sort of infelicities that would not cause a second glance, that one would expect from a pipe maker in his or her twenties, were subject to extraordinary scrutiny for Nanna: she had to live up to her name; a name shared by a father and grandfather who were both considered masters. I think far too often collectors and other pipe makers point to the benefits she's derived from bearing that name without properly considering what goes with it: the additional scrutiny and pressure that other young pipe makers simply are not subject to. Frankly, I would not want to have to fill my father's shoes in the same way she has had to fill her father's (and grandfather's). Comparisons along those lines are inevitable though, and Sixten and Lars are standards against which many a pipe maker, even some of the great ones, might have withered had they found their earlier efforts judged next to them by default.
It means that anything Nanna Ivarsson produces has to be pretty much perfect. Fortunately, as one of the most talented pipe makers in the world, she consistently pulls this off. It also means that anything she does that's particularly special, a seven day set for example, must be that much more special. It has to be a pipe-making accomplishment of eclipsing importance and quality. It not only has to be representative of her very best work, it has to be a fitting culmination of three generations of the greatest pipe-making family to have lived.
The set lives up to that and more. All seven briars are among her best work. Three of them bear her Fish stamp, denoting them as pipes that are the best of the best of her work. Indeed, these three bring the total number of uses of the Fish stamp to this date to five. Given that she's been making pipes for more than fifteen years now, that's an average of one every three years. So, three of the five finest pipes she's made, out of a career output that is somewhere north of five hundred pipes, are presented here. Moreover, the other pieces are so good that I couldn't guess which of the seven the Fish pipes were without actually checking shanks. I picked one out of three correctly at my first pass. After careful inspection and discussion with Nanna, I came to understand what makes those three extra special, but the level of quality on display as a whole was so high that the difference between the Fish-grade pieces and non-Fish just wasn't that pronounced to the eye of someone who hadn't actually made the pipes himself, and who therefore didn't know every detail of every step in the process of creating each one.
And more than just a collection of great pipes, these pieces fit together in non-obvious ways. A good friend at the show observed that it was a little odd that she didn't opt to use all silver or all boxwood or all mastodon ivory for the shank treatments. I'm sort of glad she didn't, though. Each of the seven pieces is capable of standing alone and would be an extraordinary example of pipe-making even without being part of the set. But rather than having a fixed shape, she varied; rather than conspicuously tying them together with identical shank treatments, Nanna emphasized variety. And yet there's still coherence there. All together in the box, for reasons that I cannot articulate, the pipes simply seem to belong together.
The box itself is simple, clean, minimalist and beautifully executed. It's mid-century modernism at its finest, emphasizing function over form with unobtrusive elegance, and serving to emphasize its contents over itself. The interior is finished in beautiful, supple white suede, contrastingly pale and pliant, almost vulnerable, compared with the severe jet-black finished hardwood and polished stainless steel hardware that serve as a protective layer to it all. The case as a whole is beautiful in its own right, but what it does most effectively is emphasize the pipes, acting as frame and gallery alike to their art. The case's aesthetics retreat to serve as simultaneous periphery and background both, highlighting and nestling the seven briars, giving them context and presenting them to the viewer without imposing on the experience.
Nanna Ivarsson created something rarely seen in the pipe world with this set, something that is a piece of pipe history. The set should be celebrated (as it was at the Chicago show) and Nanna herself should be proud of having added a remarkable accomplishment all her own to the rarefied reputation of the Ivarsson name.
After some discussion, it was decided that we wanted to make, or have made, another limited edition run of pipes exclusive to Smokingpipes.com, the only contingency being that we wanted to see produced a significantly larger quantity of pipes than we have in the past.
This year we were decided on designing something for Luciano to make, so I set out to blueprint a pipe that would fit their visual style and manufacturing capabilities. We wanted to see something that wasn't a Billiard, Bulldog, Apple, or Pot - forms Luciano does quite well, mind you. Further, the pipe had to be able to be reproduced primarily by a copying machine, which roughs out the bowl, and it also had to look equally nice in smooth, sandblasted, and rusticated textures. After sketching out some ideas and sharing them with Sykes, Ted, and Eric, we gravitated toward this inverted Bell shape.
The tobacco chamber on this piece is quite generous, yet the overall design is more of a compact, chubby, and delightful shape. The beading on the top of the bowl divides the shape between an interior beveled rim that tops the piece with interesting facets while fluidly pinching the body of the bowl. A short shank echoes this rim slightly by softly repeating the bell flare. The face of the shank is slightly countersunk, which hides the junction of the acrylic and briar. This detail looks especially nice from the smoker’s perspective.
After talking with Sykes and Luca about the design, it was agreed that a physical model would be more beneficial to the manufacturing process than a simple drawing. So I made one. My model was not carved from briar, but from a very dense, pink foam called RenShape. This material is used in many industrial design applications by model makers because it’s as hard as wood yet has no grain pattern or hidden flaws. Since many designers use this for physical prototypes, I knew it would be the perfect material for such a project. When completed, we shipped off the model to Italy where Luca arranged for the machining and production of the design.
The pictures below show some progress in manufacturing. We were all very happy to see how a machine turned out the design, and were interested in all of the extra lathe and hand work that went into final stages. When they arrived, we were floored! Our hats go off to Luca and crew for their efforts.
Each pipe is stamped "Luciano Hand Finished in Italy, [number]/50" and bears the Smokingpipes.com logo.
These pipes will be available starting today, February 6th, in the afternoon in the Luciano section.
It's now day two of the get together at Jeff Gracik's workshop in San Diego. I'm still writing live from the scene. In fact, Eric just turned on the disc sander, making the surface upon which I'm typing vibrate rather disconcertingly. It does leave this author feeling particularly connected to his subject matter, though. The same cast of characters are continuing their work from yesterday. Adam Davidson shaped up a a beautiful larger version of his fig shape. Eric Heberling has been working on a very respectable billiard. Jeff's been sanding the little blowfish that he shaped last night. Work is winding down though, in advance of tonight's barbecue. Joining the five pipe makers, Ted Swearingen and me, a number of members of the San Diego, Orange County and LA pipe clubs are collecting here for the festivities.
In addition to his talents as a pipe maker, Jeff seems pretty adept with his smoker, from which he extracted a 16lb hunk of pork a little while ago. At least it looked promising. I'm not sure if this particular boy from Tennessee can quite bring himself to believe that it's possible to smoke pork properly in California. I'll reserve judgement until I get to taste it later. We shall see…
Smokingpipes.com has been represented at all three of the annual West Coast Pipe Shows held thus far. Last year, my wife (then fiancee) and I represented us at the show and came out to San Diego to spend a couple of days with Jeff and his wife Melissa before heading back home. This year, Ted and I are in the middle of the same pilgrimage.
The West Coast show itself seems to be growing and attracting more exhibitors and attendees each year. The number of hobbyist pipe makers and aspiring pipe makers at the show this year was quite extraordinary. If the number of people interested in making a career of making pipes is any indication, the pipe world is indeed healthy. Neill Archer Roan, known for his impressive A Passion for Pipes blog, delivered a passionate speech on the pipe community, discussing the centrality of that community to pipe smoking. The pace of the show was a little slower than Chicago or Richmond, giving me the opportunity to enjoy the sort of long, in-depth discussions that are just not possible for me at those venues. I enjoyed long discussions with Neill about his speech and with my friend Rick Newcombe, author of In Search of Pipe Dreams, about pipe makers, pipes, his collection and a variety of other topics.
Monday morning, Ted and I got up at 3am to make it to the airport to head to San Diego. When I get home to South Carolina, I'll have to find out what Ted and I did to make Susan angry enough to book a slew of 6am flights for us. A word of advice for business travelers everywhere: do whatever you can to keep the person in your company booking the travel happy. Anyway, after grabbing some breakfast and a nap, we headed up to Jeff's workshop to find the five pipe makers hard at work.
Since I began writing this little missive, the sun has gone down and everyone but Adam and Ernie have moved from pipe making mode to celebration mode. Lots more folks have arrived to join our little party, driving in from all over Southern California to join us for the evening. And now I think that should go for me too, so I'll leave the narrative there, grab my pipe and join the festivities.
Writing this, standing up, at the entrance to Jeff Gracik's workshop, as machines whirr and briar dust flies, conversations on the finer points of tool use are audible over the general din. Jeff asked us out here after the West Coast Pipe Show in Las Vegas, so we find ourselves in a surprisingly cool San Diego in the company of five American pipe makers: Jeff, Brad Pohlmann, Adam Davidson, Ernie Markle and Eric Heberling. Ted Swearingen, Smokingpipes.com's indefatigable Sales Manager, roams the shop, entranced by the myriad simultaneous processes, snapping photos of Ernie and Eric at the lathe and Adam at the shaping wheel. I've been in pipe workshops in eight countries on three continents, but this is a special visit for me, spending time with some really talented artisans and some of my closest friends in the pipe world.
Adam and Brad are holding forth on the finer points of shaping while Jeff explains rather complicated details on the chemistry of certain staining methods. Jeff has become something of a nexus for pipe makers in the United States. It's a role that reminds me a little of the way Tom Eltang serves as such an important resource for younger pipe makers across the globe. What's so interesting is that Jeff is just 32. A combination of a passion for learning, passionate hard work and a formidable intellect has raised him to the upper echelon of global pipe makers in less than a decade. But what makes this such a special event is that it's not all about Jeff. We're similarly joined by Brad Pohlmann, who has been making pipes for over thirty years, and Adam Davidson, whose brilliant, incisive shaping has garnered him legions of followers.
Ernie and Eric have only been at it for a short time. I first met them both a year ago in Las Vegas at the 2010 West Coast Pipe Show. I've been earnestly following the progression of their work since and we've been working with Ernie since earlier this year. These are guys still relatively new to the craft, having been at it just a couple of years each, but they exhibit the same passion that their more experienced pipe making brethren do.
As the sun begins to set over this San Diego neighborhood, the scene in the shop is much as it was when I arrived. The pipe makers have changed places, with Adam at the lathe and Eric at the shaping wheel, but the same sort of conversations go on, and the work continues unabated.
Back in June, Alyson and I visited Sébastien Beaud, owner of Genod and maker of the Sébastien Beo pipes. We took lots of great video that day and I conducted an interview with Sébastien about Genod, St. Claude, and, of course, the new Sébastien Beo line. Enjoy!
0.0002"x0.0000". Two-ten-thousandths of an inch. Those are the sort of tolerances that Alex Florov works with. While that is perhaps a large measurement in circuit board manufacturing, it is infinitesimally tiny by pipe standards. Alex is a model maker. He creates metal and plastic prototypes for industrial and commercial applications. Alex is also a pipe-maker. Clearly his long career as a designer and maker of models has influenced his pipe making.
I'm sitting in Alex Florov's workshop as I write this; it's the day after the Chicago pipe show and Ted and I are in Round Lake, IL visiting Alex and Vera Florov with Hiroyuki Tokutomi and our friend Tom Looker. The screams of briar being pressed against a sanding disk and the roar of a dust collection system fill the room. Six of us fit in here quite comfortably, with Alex Florov and Tokutomi both working, and the "piperazzi" (to quote Adam Davidson) snapping pictures and filming in the background.
Alex is one of the very few pipe-makers in the world with a milling machine. Though I've been in lots of pipe makers' workshops, I didn't recognize the thing at all - it sort of looked like a drill press to me at first. Well, one with a bunch of extra knobs and buttons. And a digital readout. Which displays measurements to the ten-thousandth of an inch (or one thousandth of a millimeter). This is not even a machine designed for woodworking. This is a machine designed to machine high-precision metal parts, large or small, for industrial applications. But, of course, it can be used for pipes too - and so Alex does.
Alex is a perfectionist. I knew this of my Russian-American pipe-making friend before I stepped foot in his workshop. I imagine that if one spends enough of one's life working with industrial models that require those sorts of tolerances, it will inevitably instill a certain perfectionism in one's pipe-making. With Alex it means that most pipe-makers' tools would not even be able to measure, let alone replicate, his drilling tolerances.
Tokutomi, in many respects, couldn't be more different. It's not that he doesn't measure when he works sometimes, but his attitude is much more that of the creative artist than the careful machinist. His background is as an artist. Alex's is that of a machinist and engineer. These two men, while they very much like each other and respect each other as pipe-makers, could not possibly be more different.
“What’s the difference between a $1000 and $2000 briar pipe?”
This question actually comes up quite a bit. It’s a valid query; we’re talking about objects that are all roughly the same size, made of the same materials, which do only one thing: smoke tobacco. So where’s the $1000 dollar difference?
Today Adam and I ended up with Sykes in his office discussing some of the finer details of eight or nine pipes he had sitting on his desk. They were very expensive pipes.
Our discourse became an examination as we critiqued and quibbled over the minutia of shaping, stem work, and use of accents. At different points in our conversation both Sykes and I had confessed to being extremely nitpicky with several of the pieces.
And that’s when Adam nailed it. “When hundreds of dollars depend on millimeters you should be picky.”
The difference between that $1000 and $2000 pipe are millimeters. When a pipe maker is good enough to affect a better transition from the bowl to the shank simply because he can operate at such a minute scale his work becomes incredibly special. And pricy. When a pipe maker can keep a shape together because his stem maintains the right line through the pipe’s profile he’s piloting microscopic terrain. He’s making an extraordinary pipe. That’s the difference.
Now, this is not one of the pipes we were looking at today. Those pipes have yet to be photographed. Instead, I’ve dug up a photo from our archives a pipe by Hiroyuki Tokutomi that I hope will illustrate Adam’s point.
As many of you may know (or perhaps all of you, as far as I know) Sykes and Alyson recently adventured to Ireland in order to shake hands with the lovable folks at Peterson of Dublin. Just as we were receiving our shipment of Peterson’s St. Patrick’s Day pipes here at Smokingpipes.com, the two were touring the Peterson factory, snapping pictures and shooting video.
I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by spending the evening whipping up this rather ‘decontextualized’, though no less engaging, web featurette on the best Irish pipe company in history.
You just have to love Peterson pipes; I know I do. Actually, I know you do too as we just recently put up our ten-thousandth Peterson pipe offering through Smokingpipes.com. And what’s even better was having the opportunity to actually visit the Peterson factory (or “shop” as Tom Palmer calls it) in Dublin just last month. While we have a bunch of videos that we are going to post in the near future, I thought I would put together a few photos I took while roaming the facility and hanging out with Tom. Enjoy!
On a rather chilly, blustery Saturday morning, Hiroyuki Tokutomi pulled up at my hotel to pick me up for the three hour drive to Maebashi, a mid-sized city on at the northwestern fringe of the Kanto plain. Tokutomi lives on the far side of Maebashi from Tokyo, an area that starts to feel rural, in the foothills of the mountains that dominate vistas from the city. While the Kanto plain is home to some forty-million people, being the largest plain in the Japanese archipelago and home to Tokyo, Tokutomi's home is more suburban. His neighbors have large vegetable gardens, extending well past what a normal family could consume. Tokutomi lives at very much the edge of urban and rural Japan, a contrast that seems far starker than in other countries.
I spent two days in Maebashi with Tokutomi, spending most of the time watching him work, taking photos and video of the process. I've spent many hours watching Tokutomi work over the years, but this is the first time I've made a seriously concerted effort to document the process while in his workshop. Tokutomi's workshop is decidedly well appointed. Multiple sanding disks, set up for a left-hander, buffing wheels and lathes dominate the space, split into two large rooms by a half wall. He also has an entire arsenal of air powered tools, drawing compressed air from his sandblaster compressor. Not being an expert on such things, I asked him about the relative benefits. He explained that the airpowered tools were higher torque than their electricity powered counterparts, plus the flexibility of one power source for many different attachments is quite a boon. In the past, he's also showed me the knives he used in his pre-dremel days, and still breaks out occasionally for certain work, but the mix of air-powered tools radically improves his productivity.
We spent most of the time with Tokutomi at the sanding disk, doing what he does best. Watching Tokutomi at the disk is a pretty remarkable thing. He works so efficiently and effortlessly. It seems to be an entirely intuitive process for him, envisioning the pipe in the block of wood. He shaped two pipes while I was there, a squat tomato shape for which Tokutomi is quite famous and a beautifully grained volcano. He also drilled both pieces and worked on a stem on a third pipe, the pipe for the three pipe set that he, Jeff Gracik and Adam Davidson started at Adam's workshop here in Myrtle Beach after the Richmond show in early October. Tokutomi's three-year-old grandson Rinto spent the entire time in the workshop too, though he isn't really a terribly helpful helper (though no one told him that).
All in all, it was a really special experience. Watching someone of Tokutomi's caliber work is special in its own right. To have a two day all-access pass is special indeed.
I've been back from Japan for a couple of days now, starting to recover from jetlag and starting to look through the vast number of photos and perhaps two hours of video I took while I was there. These are all photos from my first day in Japan. Kei Gotoh and Takeo Arita picked me up at my hotel in the morning and we visited (I had no idea this was planned) a small museum of work by the celebrated painter Gyokudo Kawai, known for his naturalistic melding of traditional Japanese artistic themes with western modernist influences. After the museum visit, we had lunch with Sab Tsuge, who was wearing (I think) a hakama and smoking (and this I know) a kiseru, the traditional metal pipe that was used to smoke tobacco in Japan starting in the late sixteenth century.
Extremely fine tobacco--much finer than cigarette tobacco-- is used with the kiseru. According to Tsuge, the kiseru is making something of a comeback, in part because of recent tax increases on tobacco. That's actually rather ironic because that exactly was the genesis for the kiseru: heavy taxes were levied on tobacco during the Tokugawa shogunate, so the pipes shrank accordingly.
We enjoyed a wonderful, traditional lunch together in a beautiful tatami private dining room overlooking the river. I shan't try to detail the food; I don't know what much of it was, though it was all good. Following that, we had coffee outside and Gotoh, Arita and I headed back to Gotoh's workshop to chat, take pictures and videos, and actually conduct three minutes of honest-to-goodness business. Perhaps the best thing about my job is that the actual transacting of business is done in about three minutes and the rest of the time is spent on the concordant rituals, which largely consist of eating and talking about pipes.
Kei Gotoh took the third and the twelfth photos in this series. Since those are definitely the best, kudos go to him.
Not too long ago, pipe makers Brad Pohlmann and Jeff Gracik put their heads together and puzzled out this year’s Smokingpipes.com Christmas
pipe. Since then they’ve produced a total of seven, gorgeous sandblasted pear shaped briars all of which have been banded in sterling silver. Luckily, Sykes and Alyson were ‘video recorder ready’ when present at the conceptualization of this series.
By the way, these pipes will be made available to you very, very soon…
I've been pestering Adam to give me a shot at pipe making for weeks. Sure, I got to see it first hand back in September, but I wanted to
get my hands dirty this time. So we got a pipe kit not too long ago and started planning out the details for such an adventure. This Saturday
we sent our wives out Christmas shopping and spent a few hours in his shop. Of course, we spent the first and last thirty minutes of our time
together completely idle, sitting around smoking.
Adam quipped a few times that the whole process of making pipes is harder than it looks. Now, while I certainly never claimed that pipe
making was easy, it proved to be as difficult as he had suggested. While shaping and sanding and chiseling I felt awkward and out of my
element, like a dancer with atrophied muscles and amnesia. Of course, Adam helped me quite a bit (when the pipe is finished I will hardly be
able to call it ‘my own’), and as I watched him I realized how efficiently he moved, how he seemed to streamline his every wrist motion and
how every movement appeared articulately rehearsed.
We had some good times hanging out making a pipe. Adam took a few pictures to document the occasion. Soon we’ll work out the stem;
something I’m to understand is very tricky. When all is said and done, this will likely be my favorite pipe!
Below are a smattering of photos from our visit to Jeff Gracik's workshop in San Diego, California last week. Brad Pohlmann was also in town, so they were working together, which was a particular treat to witness. Alyson took most of the photos, she being the designated photographer for such outings (and for good reason; I have an extraordinary ability to make even the simplest photos come out blurry).
Jeff and Brad were working on the six Smokingpipes.com Christmas pipes which will be available in the next few weeks. After much discussion, we opted for a pear shape (largely because Brad broke into the chorus of Twelve Days of Christmas). We tried to get them to make a giant pipe holder shaped like a tree and a partridge shaped tamper, but I think that was a bit much to ask. The pipes will come with a nice leather presentation bag, plus a beautiful, if somewhat more conservative, tamper. During the day of working together, they (mostly) completed one pipe, and rough shaped one more. You can see the completed pipe in the last photo.
Putting together this video was incredibly satisfying. When we were shooting all this footage, now two Mondays past, Tokutomi took a moment to talk freely on his experience in the workshop with Adam and Jeff. Because he is more comfortable speaking Japanese than English he opted to share his thoughts with us in his native language. Eager to understand his sentiments we employed a translator and were pleasantly surprised to learn just how touching his words had been that day.
And now for the second installation of "In The Workshop" with Adam Davidson, Jeff Gracik, and Hiroyuki Tokutomi.
As you likely know, on Monday, Jeff Gracik (of J. Alan Pipes) and Hiroyuki Tokutomi met with Adam Davidson at his workshop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina again this year after the annual CORPS show in Richmond, Virginia, so that they might collaborate on a set of three pipes. Fortunately, Sykes was mindful enough to have brought along a camera and a video recorder. The collaboration was an all day affair and from it we've put together the video before you. Enjoy!
(Sorry about our false start with the video. Apparently, we goofed when we rendered it the first time. Audio and video tracks, rather conveniently, now match...again, we're sorry).
I’d never had the opportunity to see a pipe made. I’m familiar enough with some of the tools that get used in such a process, like lathes and drill bits and jigsaws and what all, but the step-by-step process of manufacturing a pipe by hand had remained to me elusive. One of the first questions I asked Adam Davidson after starting work here at Smokingpipes.com a month ago was if he might eventually show me around his workshop. This Monday I was blessed at long-last with the chance not only to see Adam but also Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes and Hiroyuki Tokutomi rough out a few pipes. The experience was as incredibly fascinating as it was inspiring. I’d so many questions to ask (many of which I did), but I felt a little guilty about bothering an artist while he works with his fingers less than a quarter inch from punishing sanding disks that can spin at 4,000 RPM. Mostly, I just quietly watched.
This isn’t the first time that Jeff, Tokutomi, and Adam have come together to collaborate in pipe making. Last year at this time, just after the Richmond show, the threesome met in Adam’s shop and jointly produced a beautiful two-pipe set and matching case. In that spirit they’ve huddled again and brainstormed new ideas on a fresh endeavor. This time it was agreed that they'd make a three-piece pipe set with bamboo shank as the cohesive component.
Jeff worked out the first sketch and with a thumbs-up from Adam and a nod from Tokutomi they set to work. With three pipe makers and only so many machines available to use their production processes required some thoughtful stage staggering. And as Adam pointed out, for Jeff and Toku to get around in his foreign work space is akin to preparing a Thanksgiving dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. If you’re talented enough the outcome will be expectedly outstanding, but not without having to go through the headaches of first hunting around for every single tool and utensil. Keep in mind the added challenge for Toku who is left-handed and had to work with a couple of lathes setup for Adam, a right-handed craftsman.
After a full day’s work, the three had fleshed out enough of their project that they could afford to take back to their respective studios the unfinished pieces for the last stages of production. It was pretty awesome to behold. A month ago I’d never held an Adam Davidson or J. Alan pipe; I’d never been privileged to touch one of Tokutomi’s masterpieces. Now I’ve done just that, I’ve also got to know them some, and I’ve been awarded the rare fortune to see them work.
So I’ve seen some pipes get made. Sweet. I can check that off my to-do list. Next up? Start pestering Adam to let me try my hand at making a pipe. Hopefully I can keep all of my fingers in the process.
Today we were lucky enough to have pipe maker Alex Florov and his wife Vera visit with us over here at the Smokingpipes.com campus. After a thorough tour and a fine lunch, we got to sit down and pick the man's brain.
At times, Adam demonstrates a brilliance that far surpasses my wildest expectations. Recently, he's been making homemade (or, I guess, office made) donuts in our office kitchen. Who, my dear reader, other than Adam, would think that a) bringing a massive cast iron wok to work, and b) frying donuts in it, would be a normal thing to do at ones job. Granted, this is not a work environment devoid of eccentricities, not least of which are my own, but Adam is the current champion of office eccentricity. It's a good eccentricity, however.
Today, I happened to be in the kitchen when he was frying up another batch. Somehow we got talking about making pipe-shaped donuts. I took first crack at this and my pipe-shaped donut looked like, er, not a pipe. Let's just say that it has been safely eaten and will not be photographed. Let's also suggest that, were it presented on broadcast television, the FCC would likely fine me. Adam's, as one might expect from a pipe maker of his caliber, was rather impressive. It even had a chamber, though no draft hole. One of the most talked about aspects of sandblasting among pipe makers is the trade off of shape integrity and sandblast depth. Well, those pipe makers should try shaping in dough and deep frying; that'll seriously screw up your shape's lines...
Having crafted this magnificent shape, Brian walked in and immediately recognized the pipe-donut for what it was: an interpretation of Alex Florov's Callalily. Now, while it is generally common for pipe makers to borrow ideas from each other, it is less common to render each others work in deep-fried biscuit dough.
Of course, this also gives a whole new meaning to "Fresh pipes served daily". Suffice it to say that, our tagline notwithstanding, there will not be a baked (er, fried) goods section on the website, pipe shaped or otherwise...
In keeping with the previous theme, I'm
further obfuscating the Danish chronology by finishing blogging about that trip half way through our
blogging about the IPCPR show in New Orleans that took place almost two weeks later. Still, not one to
leave a chronology without its terminus, it seems time for me to launch into the last day and a bit of
that trip before I write any more about New Orleans...
Following the visit at Orlik, we came to the first distance driving of the trip, all the way up to
Aalborg in the far north of Jylland. Crossing over from the island of Funen to Jylland, the only part of
Denmark that is part of continental Europe, and then north from there, Kevin and I spent a few hours in
the car, generally getting goofier and goofier as the lack of sleep and long stretch in the car took its
toll. That, my dear reader, is how the Mac Baren vs. Orlik Throwdown came to be. Put two purportedly grown up men in a
car on little sleep for a few ours without any adult (read: female) supervision and they tend to act
more and more like teenage boys. Give them an internet connection and two highly trafficked websites and
they'll do it publicly. We had it pretty much worked out by the time we made it to Aalborg, then spent
the next couple of hours putting it together and getting it up. The drive is beautiful; to my eye, there
are few places as beautiful as the gently rolling countryside of rural Denmark.
The following morning, we headed even
farther north, to Frederikshavn, near the very tip of Jylland, near where the Baltic Sea and North Sea
come together. This is where Mogens 'Johs' Johanssen makes about two thousand pipes each year. By
himself. I've been in dozens of pipe workshops in a nine countries and I've watched many pipe makers
work. Johs, as one might expect for one who makes that many hand shaped pipes a year, is insanely fast.
We posted a video of
Johs shaping a pipe back in late July, right after I got home from the trip. Johs' pipes are among the best values out there, ranging up from (on Smokingpipes.com) $68, and it's really this execution at speed model that he has that makes this possible.
Having sat and had coffee, Johs took us on a little tour of the workshop. At first, the place seems tiny, but one little room opens into another and it's really a pretty good size. In the back room, he has bags upon bags of briar that he had recently purchased, many thousands of blocks in all. It didn't take much pushing at all to get him to shape a pipe for us, so we could video the process and get some photos of that too. Plus, unlike a lot of other makers, I'd never actually seen him shape a pipe, so that was interesting too.
After a couple of hours, we said our goodbyes and headed back south, for the long trek back to Copenhagen. Kevin's girlfriend had flown in part way through our trip there and I had to deliver him to her, then I had plans to have dinner with Nanna and her family that night. Most every time I go to Denmark, my visit to Lars' home is with his daughter, Nanna. I'll pick her up somewhere in Copenhagen and we'll trek up there together. For this trip though, her second son, Mathis, who was just two months old, made things a little more difficult. Instead, we settled on dinner at her home.
Nanna has been making fewer pipes than she'd like lately, as the two baby boys have consumed a lot of her time. It seems like every time I speak with her, she has plans to spend more time in the workshop; these plans are usually semi-successful. I certainly do not envy her trying to continue to make pipes regularly (which she's done an admirable job of) while contending with two infants. Still, things should begin to settle down some over the next couple of months and she'll be able to return to a more productive routine. There are lots of folks clamoring for her pipes right now, not that they don't when she's in full production mode, it's just a little more extreme right now.
We had a really nice dinner altogether, with Nanna, her husband Daniel, and her kids. I must sadly report that Sixten is now twenty months old and still not making pipes, though Nanna says he's expressing a lot of interest, especially with his experimental 'bite pattern' rustication finish, artistically rendered by trying to eat the briar. This makes sense, I think, given that Sixten smeared, threw, dropped or otherwise did not eat nearly as much food as he managed to consume at dinner. People tell me that this is par for the course, but I think he should really get with the pipe making...
Nanna and I have been friends for years, but I didn't know her husband Daniel terribly well; it was really nice getting to know him, and getting to see Sixten again (even if he isn't pulling his weight in the workshop yet), and meeting Mathis for the first time. Dinner was an excellent, freshly caught salmon from a friend who had just returned from a fishing trip to Iceland, and we spent a few hours just catching up and talking pipes. We could have spent all night chatting, but the travel and short nights were really catching up with me and I called it a night before it got too late.
By the time I was heading to the airport the following morning, I was both a little sad to be leaving, I love Denmark and my Danish friends, but also thoroughly exhausted and ready to be home, at least for a little while before we left for New Orleans altogether a couple of weeks later. While the pace of the trip is anything but leisurely and much of it is work, it's also enormously fun every year. It's a wonderful reminder of how lucky I am to be able to do what I do.
Picking up where we left off at Mac Baren, in Part II of my Danish Chronology, we wended our way from
Svendborg on the southern coast of Funen to Odense in the center of the island to visit none other than
Peter Heeschen. Peter was waiting for us, beer or coffee at the ready, in his workshop. We sat
outside for a time, catching up, with me reintroducing Peter to Kevin, since they'd only met briefly
once before. Having arrived mid-afternoon, we would spend the rest of Tuesday and Tuesday night with
Visiting Peter is an interesting experience, not least of all because he insists that I make a pipe
each time I visit. He knows full well that I have about as much native pipe making talent as a large
tuna, though trusting me with machinery is even more dangerous, since at least I have thumbs that can be
lost in the process. I think this is why Peter insists upon this: if nothing else, it provides endless
amusement, and, as a bonus, I've never bled so much as to stain anything in his workshop. This visit was
no exception. He had the two of us designing and shaping pipes in no time. Kevin had never done this
before, so Peter spent most of his effort helping Kevin. Plus, Kevin seemed to pick things up fairly
quickly and I think Peter was delighted to have a student that was a little easier to teach than it
would have been if he'd tried to instruct one of his horses in the intricacies of pipe making. Note that
the picture is of Kevin with his pipe.My pipe, while it smokes beautifully (Peter did the internals for
me), is so ugly that it will never, ever be seen by anyone. I will only ever smoke it, in the bathroom,
with the door locked and the lights off. This is a pipe so ugly, I wouldn't show it to my mother. Peter
started cooking duck and we continued to work on our pipes. We ran out of time for staining and whatnot,
so I buffed each and laid a coat of wax and that had to suffice for finishing (and even there I managed
to do a better job with Kevin's than mine; not only is mine lumpen, I'll have to sneak into the office
in the dead of night (lest someone see the monstrosity that is this pipe) to refinish it).
Now, cooking duck is something that I actually know something about, though I have to confess that
Peter might have me beat there too. Still, I found it slightly ironic (and violating all sorts of
division of labor principles from Economics 101 freshman year in college) that Peter was cooking and I
was making pipes (for those of you who remember first semester micro, I kinda felt like New York trying
to grow oranges). With pipes (sort of) complete, and dinner ready, we sat down together for some
seriously tasty duck and potatoes, and spent the rest of the evening talking pipes, pipe shows, various
pipe friends and the like, smoking small mountains of pipe tobacco and, in the case of Peter and Kevin
at least, consuming impressive quantities of scotch.
After breakfast the following morning, we set out for the Orlik factory near the western coast of
Funen. One of the greatest things about being in Denmark on a business trip is that it seems like almost
every driving stretch between appointments is forty-five minutes, which is how long it took us to reach
Orlik, in spite of getting slightly turned around on our way there. Having had a little trouble figuring
out where we should be, Troels Mikkelsen discovered us and rescued us from wandering the hallways
indefinitely. This worked out well since Troels was exactly who we were looking for.
If I were to discuss our visit to Orlik in any detail, it would require a half dozen blog posts on
its own. You've already seen two videos from the visit (and if you haven't, see below and check them
out; they're amazing) and I'll probably have one more over the next little while. Troels speaks so
knowledgeably and so lovingly about tobacco that one can't help but be swept up in his commentary. We
started out in the big tobacco warehouses, filled with thousands of 200kg boxes of leaf, waiting for
processing. Countries of origin were stamped on each box: Brazil, USA, Malawi, Indonesia, Malaysia and a
half dozen countries one would never expect tobacco from. Whether he was talking about perique or the
changes in tobacco growing in southern Africa, Troels was erudite and compelling.
From there, we moved into the production facility, first encountering the great rope making station.
When I die, if I end up in heaven, there will be one such station there. This, my dear reader, is where
they make the Escudo. On that particular day, they were making Luxury Bullseye Flake, while is almost as
much fun (and uses exactly the same process). Yielding heavy pressed batons of tobacco, ready for cutting,
the process was a joy to watch (check out the video here). And thence onto the pressing and mixing and blending and topping
and saucing and cutting equipment, much of which is linked together by a bunch of tobacco filled
And onto the packing equipment, which, frankly, might be my favorite. Yes, the processing stuff is
pretty cool, but there's just so much more automated fun to see during the packaging processes. Tobacco
goes in one end and tins come out the other. We watches as tobacco was automatically weighed into little
hoppers, put in tins, the tins sealed, and proper labels applied, all on one big machine, managed by one
woman. It was amazing.
Having enjoyed the tour of the factory, we went to lunch (about which I've posted previously) and
from there visited Lasse, the Mad Scientist Tobacco Blender, in the facility used for the My Own Blend
line of tobaccos for the Paul Olsen shops, now owned by Orlik. Fully eight metric tons annually come
through this small room, hand blended to specification by Lasse Berg based on more than fifty component
tobaccos and countless flavorings. As I said previously, it's clear that Lasse thinks he has the coolest
job ever. And, if it weren't for my job, I might agree with him. Lasse whipped up two blends, one for
each of Kevin and me. Heavy in perique and light in rum, my particular concoction still waits to be
opened. I wanted to give it a couple of weeks to sit before I did so, and now I'm trying to smoke
through open tins before I open anything else, so I hope to get to it in the next few days.
My trip chronology continues to grow faster than I can work my way through it (which is temporally
odd, given that the trip ended almost two weeks ago), so there will have to be a fourth and (I promise)
final episode in this little series during which we visit Mogens 'Johs' Johansen in Frederikshavn and I
have dinner with Nanna Ivarsson, her husband Daniel, and children, Sixten and Mathis.
I find myself yet again chronologically-challenged in this reverse-chronology world of blogging. I've been meaning to pull together the balance of the trip overview, the first part of which was posted on July 18th, from Denmark. The second half of the trip found us leaving Copenhagen in search of pipe makers and tobacco manufacturers away from the Danish capital, visiting towns like Svendborg, Odense, Assens, Aalborg, and Frederikshavn. So, here's an overview of Monday and Tuesday of the trip:
On Monday, July 19th, we spent the day with Tom Eltang. We'd already had a quick visit with Tom the previous Saturday night, but this was the scheduled all-day-with-Tom day. Usually when I travel to Denmark, I tend to fill up my non-scheduled time either by just hanging out with Tom Eltang. Tom's workshop has, over the years, become something of a home away from home for me.
We arrived in the late morning, finally having taken a morning to just get some much needed rest, and Kevin and I found Tom, much as I had expected, working away. He was hand sanding stain off of bowls on one of the four smooth pipes (hopefully Snail graded!) that he's sending our way that he was still working on while we were there. We found ourselves some coffee and bounced some ideas we had off of Tom, for video interviews and whatnot. A couple of those videos are up on this blog now, and Kevin will edit some more and they'll be posted both on PipesMagazine.com and Smokingpipes.com, so I won't spoil the fun that we had. As always, Tom's working on new stuff, the big thing being his new laser engraver, which he discusses in a video on July 25th. We also got to see one of the new Eltang Tubos pipes being made, which we'll have video of at some point in the near future. Tom is always full of energy and this visit was no exception; it's exciting for me to see a pipe maker that is constantly evolving, striving to be better and better. We finished up the day having dinner at Tom and his wife Pia's home, in their garden, with their grandson Oscar. Pia, true to form, put together a fantastic meal, including fantastic pizzas she cooked on the grill. Sometimes I worry that Tom thinks I only spend time with him in the hope that Pia will feed me; sometimes I worry that he's right... Seriously, it was a wonderful visit with old friends, talking pipes, new ideas, and eating great food.
The following morning, Tuesday July 19th, we got up early and headed to Svendborg, about ninety minutes from Copenhagen, to visit Per Jensen at the Mac Baren factory. I've visited the factory four or five times at this point and it is always fantastic. Seeing all of the work, machinery and expertise that goes into bringing us the blends that we love is as special as watching great pipe makers work, except that the machines are massively bigger, which, if, like me, you've never grown out of thinking backhoes are really cool, just makes the whole experience that much more fun. As with everything else on this trip, this was Kevin's first visit to Mac Baren, which gave me an excuse to ask Per to, yet again, show me around the factory. When I visited last year with Tony Saintiague (our now departed, but still involved, VP for Sales, who still pops up for pipe shows and occasional meetings), lots of changes had been made to accommodate great growth in production. This trip, the changes were more subtle-- new, safer, automated cutting machines, new flake tobacco packing machines-- the general little improvements that are the hallmark of any well run company. Per Jensen himself is always a pleasure; he knows so much about tobacco and speaks so lovingly of the Mac Baren factory that it's impossible to not be swept up in his enthusiasm. And, as both a tobacco and Mac Baren enthusiast myself, it doesn't take much to sweep me up in that enthusiasm. Following the factory tour, we had lunch with Per and Simon Nielsen, Marketing Director for Mac Baren, but someone I've known for awhile because he had been the export manager for the United States before he was promoted to his current position. While lacking the extraordinary depth of tobacco knowledge that Per brings to the table, Simon is similarly enthusiastic about Mac Baren and its product and it's always a pleasure to talk about the business end of the business with him. I think that's part of what makes the whole Mac Baren experience so special. These folks really love and care for Mac Baren. They believe in what they do. I love companies, or any organization for that matter, that's like this. It's just always a pleasure to see these guys. Oh, and see giant machines making tobacco...
That afternoon, we traveled on to visit Peter Heeschen, but that's the subject of the next post in this occasional series...check back for Danish Chronology, Part III.
A year ago, when I last visited Tom in his workshop, he was pondering getting a laser engraver, rather than continue to use his existing engraver, which is both finicky and quite limiting, since plastic templates are necessary for any engraving. At the time, he was very much on the fence. He and I talked about it again last week, and in the next few days, Tom's picking up the laser engraver in Germany, and in this video he talks about the process of getting it all up and working, plus the general challenges of using this sort of set up on pipes.
I'm now back in South Carolina (which is so terribly hot that I'm already ready to go back to Denmark, or perhaps move the entire business to, say, Edmonton), and I've been working on getting some videos, photos and written bits and pieces from the trip together for a series of blog posts over the next few days. In no particular order, I hope to get a whole bunch of fun stuff up on the blog over the coming two weeks.
Kicking it off is a long video of Lasse Skovgaard at work. For various camera reasons, the video quality isn't as good as the others we've been doing lately, but I decided to run with it anyway: watching the lathe work is particularly interesting here.
Kevin and I were running around Denmark and we met with a total of ten pipe makers. I've watched other pipe makers work all over the world. Much of the equipment is the same, but the methods can be surprisingly different. From the amazing exacting Kei Gotoh, who can take weeks to finish a pipe, to super-speedy, efficient pipe makers like Peder Jeppesen (Neerup) and, especially, Johs, different ends require different methods. Johs makes about 2,000 pipes a year, by himself. At his peak, he made 4,500 pipes between him and his wife. He shapes everything by hand, but does so incredibly efficiently, making his pipes very, very affordable.
Johs, in two minutes, went from a shape turned on the lathe to a fully rough shaped bowl ready for the belt sander. That is wickedly fast. Indeed, it's so fast that I've never tried to get the whole disk sander work into one clip, let alone one take in one clip.
Anyone who has read my writings about pipe makers knows the reverence in which I hold the best of the best, the guys that take days to make a pipe perfect, to bleed the boundary between craft and art, creating something special. I also have tremendous respect for pipe makers that figure out how to do things efficiently, save time, save money and create an awesome pipe that is affordable. This is why I'm almost as fond of Tom Eltang's Sara Eltang line as I am of his own. Similarly, I've been a Stanwell evangelist for years. And Johs also fits well into this paradigm. His talents are for doing things efficiently and quickly, to create something very good, but doesn't cost hundreds, or thousands, of dollars. I think that's pretty awesome. And here's a video of Johs at the sanding disk. The man is fast. Really fast. And the results of two minutes are really impressive.
Today Kevin and I spent the entire day with Tom Eltang, arriving at his shop around noon and leaving around 9:30pm. We shot a ton of great video while we were there, much of which will have to wait until we can work on it, making it look more, uh, professional. In the meantime, I wanted to get some little bits and pieces up that were either situations where the camera happened to be rolling, or little snippets where I asked a question, but then had Tom restart because I thought it'd be fun on video. Tom's capacity for conversation is nearly inexhaustible and I'd really hoped that I'd get some of the sorts of conversations that he and I have had for years on video this time to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy it!
I will be adding much more here as I have time over the next few days (I find myself already behind on my blogging duties after only two days in Denmark!), but until then, I have a short video of Lars Ivarsson shaping at the sanding disk. I'm here with Kevin Godbee of PipesMagazine.com and we spent yesterday with Peter Heding and Lasse Skovgaard, and today with Lars Ivarsson and his wife Annette. We had a lovely lunch in the garden (complete with unbelievable home smoked salmon), talked about pipes, and played in the workshop all in one beautiful Danish summer afternoon. So, great company, wonderful food, looking at some of the best pipes in the world, talking with pipes with a man at the apex of the pipe making world, and a beautiful mid-70s, gently breezy, Danish summer day: yeah, this is one of those days that I am quite sure that I have the best job in the world...
We also had the particular pleasure of watching Lars work. I last saw him work back in 2006; mostly when I visit, we sit and chat and eat extremely well. As one would expect from Lars, he works so effortlessly that it is a joy to watch. He's among the most exacting pipe makers in the world, of course, but he's so facile that each of his movements is deliberate, even elegant. I took a little video while I was there to share the experience with you.
Part way through there, you catch part of a quick exchange we have about the pipe he's working on. Like all briar, there's a tiny flaw in the wood on the shank and he's finally made sure that it will disappear as it's sanded further when he remarks on it. Much of the challenge of briar as a material is its tendency towards internal flaws and a big part of any pipe maker's work is to work around those flaws. As he had shaped the shank, the flaw became apparent, but he'd hoped that it was only in the wood that he was removing. He suspected so, but even Lars isn't certain of such things in a definitive sense. With more sanding at the disk (which you see in the video), the flaw has shrunk to a pin prick, assuring that it will disappear when the shank is sandblasted (which is what Lars does with all pipes of that shape, blasting the shank and leaving the bowl smooth, so this worked out rather well).
Here's an example of the style he's making with the sandblasted shank. The shape he's working on in the photo is a little different, but it's the same smooth bowl / sandblasted shank combination as below (oh, and this pipe was sold two years ago; it's just an example):
This was a little while in coming because I wanted to clear it with the Roveras first. Watching Dorelio was amazing; he works so effortlessly. The disk he's shaping on (at about 1:40 in the video) isn't sandpaper; it's a specialized metal disk that his grandfather made, which they've never been able to get a machinist to replicate. I've only ever seen one other workshop where the primary shaping disk was metal rather than sandpaper, and that was Lars Ivarsson's. The actual style of the two disks couldn't be more different, the idea is the same: in the hands of a really experienced pipe maker, a rougher, more durable surface allows for more accurate, faster work. Of course, one misstep and one destroys what one is working on, and perhaps loses a finger.
I've long been a fan of Giancarlo Guidi's work. Much like Carlo Scotti in Northern Italy, or Sixten Ivarsson in Denmark, Guidi first created a new idea, a new approach to pipe making, and then taught others. Is that not the mark of a true master? So, having wound our way over the Apennines from Florence (by way of Arezzo) to Pesaro, I was seriously excited to meet this man I'd thought and written ( this from 2004 being an example) so much about.
Giancarlo Guidi cofounded Mastro de Paja in 1972. In 1983, he left Mastro de Paja to found Ser Jacopo. Giancarlo's work demonstrates an
inventive genius that I can't help but admire: whether it's the Picta series--pipe shapes based upon works by
Van Gogh, Magritte and Picasso--or his standard line of neoclassical shapes, there's an aesthetic inventiveness
and sophistication that Giancarlo brings to pipe making that really sets his work apart.
We arrived mid-afternoon following our beautiful, but at times harrowing, drive over small mountain roads. During the summer, the craftsmen at Ser Jacopo work half-days, leaving around 2pm as the summer heat on the Adriatic coast becomes unbearable.
Giancarlo, and a translator who also serves as the secretary for the business that now owns Ser Jacopo, awaited our arrival. There's an eeriness to any factory or place of business or workshop when it's not operating. It's that way when I'm at the office on Sundays. It's that way in the Stanwell factory when I've seen it on a weekend. Without the rhythm of people at work, something is definitely missing.
Still, this did mean that we were free to ask questions, to roam the long, fairly narrow, workshop, without being in anyone's way. Four people work in this space, including Giancarlo, making roughly 3,500 pipes each year, about a third of which come to the United States (of which about 175 each year end up, well, here). Giancarlo's station is immediately obvious; it's the one with piles of books, pipe stummels, pipe experiments and other detritus. The other stations are those of an efficient factory; Giancarlo's is a space an artist might keep.
Excited, full of energy, Giancarlo set about
showing us around. From time to time, the translator broke in, but Giancarlo and I were doing a pretty good job
of communicating. I don't speak any Italian and he doesn't speak any English, but we're both perfectly fluent in pipe-lish, so we did pretty well. He showed us the sandblasting. First they tumble blast a bunch of pipes to get a sense of the grain pattern, then focus blast each piece, blending techniques that are traditionally Italian (the tumbling) with those that Danish, American and English pipe makers use (a nozzle with a focused stream of media on a particular bowl). Next, we played with standard pipe making bits, from his gigantic lathe (they have a few, but one is truly huge, see below) to the piles of shaped stummels, waiting to have stems added and to be sanded, stained and finished.
Much like the Castello factory, Ser Jacopo's workshop feels like something in between the small artisanal pipe making workshops I've seen all over the world and a larger factory like Stanwell. There are elements of both present: the regularity and efficiency of a factory, combined with the tools of a small workshop. But it's more than that. Pipe factories are inhabited by people who, well, work at factories. They do care about what they do, but it's a job. In a small workshop, it's a passion, the craft is a way of life. That's the difference, really: the smaller multi-person workshops, like Castello or Ser Jacopo, feel like passionate people work there, people who do this because they love it, or need to create to satisfy some inner urge.
Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon was
simply watching the way Giancarlo went from being fairly passive to thoroughly animated whenever he spoke about new shape ideas. To say that he thinks deeply about shape and form is almost trite. He pores through massive table-top art books for ideas. He recently expanded the Van Gogh Picta line when he discovered some more paintings that feature pipes. He's working on a new Picta line based on yet another artist. When he's not doing that, he's dreaming up other crazy ideas, like his recent two person pipe.
From there, we moved to the office, to look through a whole bunch of Ser Jacopo pipes. It's such a treat to be able to select pipes at the factory and to have such a multitude to choose from that one cannot really help but pick a few dozen extra. The new Ebony and Ivory pipes were of particular note, pairing a jet black stain with a white acrylic stem, and they'll be filtering their way onto the website over the coming weeks and months.
Having selected a few dozen pipes and chatted over coffee for a little longer, we headed back on the road, wishing we could have spent more time, both at the Ser Jacopo workshop and in Pesaro, a beautiful small city on the Adriatic. We never actually managed to see the Adriatic, deciding that we better head northwards towards Balogna, in search of a good meal and a good night's sleep before we saw two pipe makers the following day, in small towns near Bologna and Ferrara. And I'll be writing about those over the next few days...
Here's another video from the Italy trip, this one of Massimiliano Rimensi of Il Duca Pipes going from block of briar to the sanding disk, including work on the band saw, the lathe and the sanding disk. I'll have a blog post with the story of the visit and some photos in the next few days.
As I indicated in previous posts, I'm now terribly far
behind in sharing all sorts of little insights about our trip to Italy and Germany, from which we returned
almost a week ago now. In my jetlagged fugue of last week, editing videos just seemed far more tenable than
putting metaphorical pen to paper and stringing words together in some coherent pattern. Now that I lack any
excuse for procrastination (or any videos left to edit to facilitate said procrastination), it seems only
appropriate that I return to the trip narrative and share some details about our visit with Mimmo Domenico of
A famed Hollywood makeup artist or clothier invariably ends up with the "to the stars" monicker. In much the
same way, Mimmo is briar cutter "to the stars". His customer list reads like the who's-who of the world's top
pipe makers: Teddy Knudsen, Lars Ivarsson, Kent Rasmussen, Tom Eltang, Kei Gotoh, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, and on and
on. I've also known Mimmo for perhaps six years and while we've never had any direct business, I've helped
connect pipe makers with him and he's helped with introductions for me in Italy, and during that time we've
become friends. So, along with visiting a host of pipe makers while in Italy, we swung down to the Italian
Riviera, in Taggia, near San Remo. We didn't hobnob with Europe's political or business elite while they were on
vacation, but we did hobnob with some of Europe's pipe making elite, which, frankly, is way more fun.
We arrived in Taggia late at night on the 18th of June; we'd gotten rather lost chasing down a restaurant
near Genoa on our way from the Como-Cucciago area north of Milan. The restaurant, which we finally found at the
top of a small mountain on a perilously steep and winding road, was excellent (with superb views of
Genoa), but it also meant that our planned arrival time was missed by a good two hours. We saw Mimmo briefly as
he helped us get settled into our hotel.
Late the following morning, we reached the factory and
Mimmo embarked upon the tour. We started in the dark, dank cellar where the burls are stored before being cut into blocks. Thousands of briar burls, each weighing a few kilos, were piled high against one wall. And
Mimmo indicated that another truck of briar was to be delivered the following week. Mimmo and his assistant
cutter Nicola, who cut briar in Greece before coming to work for Mimmo, cut 600kg of briar a day. Of course,
only a fraction of that becomes briar usable for pipes, and only a fraction of that actually becomes pipes, but
the scale of the initial inventory of burls is extraordinary for a workshop with just two cutters.
Mimmo's father founded the operation, first in Badalucco, up in the valley from Taggia on the coast, then
moved it to Taggia in the late 1960s. As the pipe industry shrank in general, and especially in Italy, he began
to focus more and more on artisinal pipe makers and small workshops, offering the best briar available. Mimmo,
with a better command of English and a savvy head for business, continued the tradition. It began to a great
degree when Teddy Knudsen showed up with nothing but an address on his first foray to Liguria in search of
briar. Mimmo and his father were exactly what Teddy was looking for and, though perhaps it took a little while
to become apparent, Teddy was exactly what Mimmo was looking for. Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy became good
friends, and this initial contact with a Danish pipe maker blossomed into relationships with many of the best
pipe makers in Denmark, then more in other countries: the United States and Japan are now also important for
We all went back upstairs to the cutting floor, Mimmo
grabbed a homemade wooden cart, threw it into the elevator and we walked back down the stairs. He steadily
filled up the cart using criteria that I couldn't quite discern to pick the briar from the vast cache. Hauling
150kg back to the elevator, he brought it back up, weighed the batch and began work. All this time, Nicola had
been cutting burls from the previous batch, which ran out pretty much simultaneous to Mimmo's return with the
cart load of briar. Nicola took a short break while Mimmo sharpened and straightened his saw. Now, Mimmo has the
largest saw blades I've ever seen aside from those used by stone cutters. Perhaps two feet in diameter, with
sharp, deep teeth on the edge, and sporting almost nothing in the way of safety guards (that's a flap of
cardboard over it to prevent saw dust from flying up), this is one scary piece of machinery. While Mimmo wears
nothing out of the ordinary aside from a newspaper hat, Nicola wears what appears to be a breastplate of sorts,
to protect himself from small pebbles flying out of the briar, coming off of the saw. Tools and I tend not to
get along terribly well; I would never go near the apparatus that Mimmo uses on a daily basis. Perhaps in one of
those suits that bomb squad guys have, but I wouldn't approach it wearing anything less robust than that.
And Mimmo set to work. First he'd make a deep cut in a large burl, hand it to Nicola, who would use a press
with a wedge mounted in it to split the burl the rest of the way. Apparently, this is another technique used to
avoid getting hit by high speed pebbles. Almost every briar burl has a red, pebble ridden center that is
unusable for pipes, so with half of a burl (think of something vaguely spherical, so a half sphere of briar),
Mimmo begins by cutting away the obviously bad bits. From there, he reads the briar so that he can cut it
optimally, to maximize the quality of what the burl produces.
When Teddy Knudsen arrived at the door of the briar cutter in Taggia, what he found was a father and son team
that thought far more deeply about briar than most cutters. Most cutters cut for speed, yielding lots of nearly
cookie-cutter blocks, some of which happen to be beautifully grained. Mimmo takes the time, drawing also on
decades of cutting experience, to try to optimize what each block with yield. Then, on the best pieces, he
leaves as much briar as possible. Of course, as with any cutter, only a tiny fraction of the briar is the top
stuff, so most is cut into simple ebauchons to feed the machinery of the pipe factories of northern Italy and
Germany. But this studious process yields more of the good stuff, and his intimate knowledge of the pipe makers
and pipe making give him a real edge in making good cutting decisions. And, indeed, these decisions really
matter. A normal ebauchon might sell for about a dollar; a top-top quality piece of beautiful plateau sells for
twenty or thirty times that.
More important than the price difference, though,
is the dialogue that Mimmo has with each pipe maker. He makes impressive high grade pipes himself and has become
intimately acquainted with his high grade pipe making customers. He builds batches for his customers over time,
knowing which pipe maker is likely to be happiest with a given block shape. Some of his craziest blocks,
especially narrow blocks with horizontal grain orientation, go to Tokutomi in Japan because it's what he favors.
It's not that he segments based upon the quality of the briar; he segments based on what sort of block--large
and odd shaped, smaller and more proportionate, better for a horizontally oriented pipe, etc--a given pipe maker
is likely to be able to make the most of. Mimmo sees himself, and I've heard this sentiment echoed by pipe
makers, as a collaborator in the finished product, serving to inspire, challenge and meet the needs of his
customers. He is far more to them than just a man who sells them briar.
Continuing to watch Mimmo work, it becomes clear that far more briar ends up in the furnace than it does in
pipes. A massive 10kg burl might yield three or four smallish ebauchons or a couple of good plateau pieces. Most
it cut out because it's bad, or to shape the ebauchons to the standardized sizes and shapes that the factories
need, or simply in the process of determining what part of the burl is good. And while I've described this as a
painstaking process, Mimmo actually works extremely quickly. In the low light conditions of the cutting room, it
was extremely hard to capture him working as his hands flew around, pushing massive hunks of briar against the
saw, inspecting his work and deciding on the next cut. Since we were there, this whole process was interspersed
with Mimmo's rapid-fire, stoccato, Italian-accented English explanation of what he was doing and why. Like any
craftsman who so thoroughly knows his work that he could do it by instinct, Mimmo makes the process look easy,
but it becomes, through is explanation, abundantly clear that it is anything but. He's pointing out things in
the briar that, even looking at it, I can't see, explains he's using that information as to where to make the
next cut, cuts, and then shows me the result. What he says makes sense at some literal level, but I fear a real
understanding of what he describes requires a few months, if not years, at the cutting wheel. It is clear that
Mimmo is as much a world class craftsman as the pipe makers to whom he sells briar.
Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy have become so close that Teddy and his wife Mette selected Montalto, a small
mountain-top village in the valley above Taggia as their second home in Italy, where they spend about six months
of each year. This decision has a little to do with briar and much to do with the region, which is stunning: rugged mountains
extend into the Mediterranean, creating some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. And the friendship
between Teddy and Mimmo anchors both of them, on each side of the process that turns briar burls into beautiful
Having cut a few briar burls, yielding a handful
of ebauchons and one nice plateau piece that he will grade a notch below his top-top grade, Mimmo breaks to show
us the rest of the process. After the blocks are cut, they're placed into a giant water-filled vat for boiling.
The boiling process is key to the expulsion of bitter, acrid saps and other impurities from the briar. Keep in
mind, also, that the briar is wet when it's cut. It is intentionally kept wet to keep it from splitting. It
isn't until after the boiling process (heated, not surprisingly, by briar scraps) that the slow, methodical
drying process begins. Again, if it happens too rapidly, the briar will crack, so it is done in various stages,
both outside, but covered, in the breeze and inside the large cutting room, across weeks and months.
From there, we looked through his small pipe making
workshop, where he makes perhaps a hundred pipes each year. I wonder how he does all he does so well, given his various commitments to briar cutting, pipe
making, and generally running the briar cutting business. While inspired by the Danes, Mimmo's work retains
something that is prototypically Italian. His shapes seem more at home among the land of Versace and Ferrari
than the home of Arne Jacobsen. At the same time, his construction techniques are undeniably Danish, having been
taught primarily by Danes. It's a fascinating hybrid to which Mimmo brings his own particular personality.
After a morning of looking at briar in various stages of completion, we retreated to Mimmo's apartment above
the workshop to enjoy more conversation, coffee, and, of course, an excellent lunch that Mimmo whipped up, using
fresh ravioli and homemade sauce that he and Karin, his girlfriend, had prepared. I grew
up in a household where the kitchen was the central room in the house, to parents who are both capable amateur
cooks, so I particularly appreciate the Italian approach to food and its centrality to everything that they do.
The conversation was as good as the food and Mimmo and I discussed the nature of the pipe and briar business in
Italy (doing better, from Mimmo's perspective, it seems) and rambled across a half dozen subjects, generally
catching up on various goings-on.
After lunch, we left Mimmo to visit Teddy Knudsen in
Montalto. We made it to Montalto without incident (that much is hard for even me to screw up, and since I'd gotten
lost once before, I knew which turn, that leads to a certain tiny logging track, not to take this time). Montalto itself is accessible only on foot. The little town features
narrow stone passageways and alleys, with frequent arches containing homes over them, and we, of course, became
terribly lost before I called Teddy and told him where we'd ended up and he came and got us. We weren't even
close. I should have known better than to try to navigate a maze-like, if beautiful, little medieval town based
on a three year old memory. Teddy walked us through his new Italian workshop that he's recently finished
renovating, complete with, literally, red wine on tap (a contraption that only Teddy would have a) decided was
necessary, and b) have the ingenuity to construct) and then sat on his balcony with a stunning view of the
entire valley. We hadn't long with Teddy before we all met at a restaurant about half-way between Montalto and
Taggia for dinner with a small host, including Teddy, Mimmo and Karin, Gabriele and family of DG pipes in
Bologna, other friends and family of Teddy and Mimmo. Having settled upon English as the lingua Franca (both
because of us English speakers and because it's the common language for the Danish camp and the Italian camp),
we enjoyed a spectacular four course meal that stretched on for four hours. With us seated between Mimmo and
Teddy, facing Gabriele, there was never a dull moment.
This was only my second visit to Taggia and Montalto, but it will certainly not be my last. To some it might
seem odd for a briar cutter and a pipe retailer to develop the sort of business-friendship that Mimmo and I have
developed, but good things always come from these sorts of collaborations. Knowing what Mimmo's up to helps me
to do a better job of helping pipe makers find great briar, while Mimmo is, as one would expect, wired into the
Italian pipe making scene in a way that, from this side of the Atlantic, I'm simply not. Oh, and yeah, we have
way too much fun when we all get together. But let's pretend that isn't the real reason I hope to continue to go
to Taggia from time to time for years to come...
Here's yet another video from the trip, this one a little longer and more involved, though my video editing skills leave much to be desired (of course, I am the guy that hated the idea of having an HTML newsletter and rather wishes the internet were still entirely text based). Some of the best video we had from the trip was visiting Radice in Cucciago. Here they are, making pipes (plus Luigi playing with his ridiculous three-bowled pipe).
While I work on more substantial posts about the trip, I'll offer up some little videos we took along the way. The video below is, well, pretty much self explanatory. I will offer that there's a reason that I do not make pipes for a living. Watching the Castello worker rusticating for the Sea Rock finish makes it look easy. It isn't. And that music in the background was coincidental, yet perfectly appropriate, no?
Luigi "Gigi" Radice started making pipes in 1960, working at the Castello factory as a young man. He spent eight years there, leaving in 1968 to co-found Caminetto with fellow Castello veteran, Peppino Ascorti. Eleven years later, that partnership ended. And in 1980, Luigi founded Radice pipes. With a career length rivaled (though not surpassed) only by Hans "Former" Nielsen in Denmark, he is also unquestionably the world's oldest full time pipe maker. And for Luigi, full time denotes, well, pretty much all of his time. His sons, Gianluca and Marzio, are very hardworking men, putting in long days in the workshop. Luigi's life is dedicated to his craft at this point, beginning work at seven, stopping for lunch and wrapping up at six, and returning to work late in the evening most nights. Saturdays and Sundays also see Luigi working away, making pipes, though he often reserves Sunday afternoons for the more whimsical creations for which he is famous. Keep in mind that this grueling pipe making pace is maintained by a man in his seventies, though Luigi acts nothing like his age. Stylistically, Radice owes much to its Castello roots, and the evolution of that style that Radice and Ascorti developed for Caminetto, but the soul of the brand is Gigi's. His playfulness, almost childlike delight in tinkering with pipes, his creativity and his relentless dedication to quality established the brand some thirty years ago, and kept it focused, consistent, and innovative ever since.
We arrived, as usual, slightly late, having become slightly lost on the brief journey from Cantu (having visited Castello) to Cucciago. Yes, it is supposed to be just a ten minute drive, but between my predisposition towards being lost (I have indeed developed it into something of an art form), and tiny little roads in Italian towns, it took about twice that. Luca di Piazza, Radice's general representative outside of Italy, met us outside and ushered us into the narrow, long workshop. The workshop is by no means small, but it felt cozy and homey in a way that the larger factory's impressive scale and painstaking cleanliness precluded. While I'd been very impressed by Castello, this felt more like the pipe workshops that I've known and loved all over the world. When we arrived, Gigi was doing the first cuts on a block of briar on the band saw, removing big chunks of unwanted wood before he took the block to the sanding disk for shaping. He looked up, smiled, and returned to what he was doing. Marzio and Gianluca ushered us into a room adjoining the workshop that seems to serve as one part office and one part dining room, perhaps just a general sanctuary from the workshop. Plied with excellent espresso coffee, we chatted about Radice, its recent history, and the sorts of things they are working on these days. We've seen a fair number of recent Radices; we've had about 120 come through our doors so far this year, but the discussion certainly served to put what we'd seen so far into perspective. The three Radices target 1,200 pipes a year, though it seems that they'll make rather more than that given they're already about 700 pipes in, not yet half way through the year.
After perhaps twenty or thirty minutes, Gigi, having completed what he was working on, joined us and, through Luca as translator, showed us around. He pulled out a collection of tiny Radice pipes, plus a series of rather bizarre contraptions, including a three bowled pipe with little nozzles to turn each bowl on and off. He also showed us the founding document that created the Caminetto brand in 1968 (a picture of which failed to come out very well, sadly). Then he showed us a pipe with 360-degree birdseye, an almost impossible feat given that briar grain radiates from the center of the burl, with the center always being unusable. But, here it was, with grain radiating out from the chamber on the wide rim and birdseye right the way around the bowl. Finally, we moved on to more conventional Radices and took perhaps an hour to pick roughly sixty pipes, of all shapes, sizes and finishes. I am particularly partial to the two very small lovats that will be coming, though there are some Collect grade pieces that are as gigantic as the lovats are tiny, so there really is something for everyone upcoming over the next few weeks and months.
Having finished selecting from finished pipes, we moved back out to the workshop to look through some lovely nearly-finished pieces, adding another two dozen to the impressive selection we'd amassed in the other room. At this point, Gigi went back to work, both because we wanted photos of all of them working, but also, I suspect, because he'd already sat still for many times longer than he normally does. At 72, Gigi has more energy than I do, at less than half his age. He started work, first at the band saw and then at the sanding disk, on a Collect grade piece that will probably end up as a sandblasted or rusticated pipe, given the contours of the grain and a minor sand spot on the side of the bowl. As he worked, Gianluca began rusticating and Marzio started filing stems. All Radice stems are cut from plate acrylic, except for the few that they make from high grade vulcanite rod, either black or in cumberland (marked with a small 'v' stamp on the shank).
We continued to chat with Luca, with Marzio periodically throwing in a comment in Italian as Luca translated for us, but Gigi was back to work and beyond discussion. Finally, when it became clear that we were nearing our departure time (for we had a four hour drive ahead of us), Gigi moved from the sanding disk so that we could see the carving work that goes into Radice's special Underwood finish. Almost to the last, Gigi continued to work. It wasn't that we felt ignored by him, just that this is what he had to offer us. His English is about as good as my Italian, which is to say nonexistent, so what he could offer were his pipes and his efforts.
And indeed that is what every pipe maker has to offer at the end of a day's work. Like the fabrication of anything, the end product is what matters. But with pipes, the process is very important too. The enthusiasm, the soul of the pipe maker, is visible in the finished product. And Gigi's vision is there in every pipe that leaves that small workshop in Cucciago.
Castello is something of an anomaly in the world of modern Italian artisan pipe making. Carlo Scotti, when he founded Castello in 1947, did more than anyone else to create the idea of the modern Italian hand made pipe as we've come to know it. Today, Castello pipes, roughly 3,500 each year, are crafted by six men under the aegis of Franco Coppo. Most Italian pipes of the variety that Scotti's vision ultimately spawned are smaller workshops, with perhaps one to three pipe makers. Each Castello pipe is hand shaped; it is Coppo's guidance and vision that keeps Castello pipes consistent in terms of shape and engineering. It is impossible to overstate how central Castello has been to Italian pipe making. When Carlo Scotti founded Castello, millions of pipes were being made in Italian factories. It wasn't that he created a pipe making tradition; it's that he created a new sort of pipe making tradition. Through the 1940s, high quality pipes principally came from London. Cheaper pipes were made elsewhere, especially in Italy. Scotti recognized what Italian craftsmanship and sense of style could bring to pipes, just as it was doing so for everything from clothes to cars at the time. The historical significance of this factory weighed heavily on me as we made the 50km drive from our hotel to Castello. I had the sense that I was about to tread upon hallowed ground. I knew that this would be a special experience. I had yet to discover how special.
When we arrived Franco Coppo and Marco Parascenzo met us outside and quickly brought us in out
of the cold, wet drizzle. Entering Castello, even before reaching the factory, is a special experience. Pipes are everywhere, lining the walls and in cases.
These aren't pipes that will ever be for sale. These are simply a mix of Coppo's collection, examples of shapes, and some experiments. We were bundled into
the factory without too much ado, supplied with much needed espresso after our rainy, circuitous journey to the factory, and began to poke around. There was
something different about Castello from almost every workshop or factory I'd ever been to. It was clean. It was also massive. In part, this sense was lent by
the simple fact that it was one massive, rectangular room. Briar filled bin after bin, extending for perhaps sixty feet down the right side of the factory.
The cleanliness and massiveness seemed to accentuate each other. It's not that most pipe workshops are particularly dirty or messy. Well, actually they are.
But that's rather to be expected for small enterprises that make briar dust and vulcanite shavings for a living. While I'd be disinclined to perform surgery
in the Castello factory, it was remarkably clean. The briar in the bins extending down the right side of the factory represented only a part of what Castello
has on hand, representing the last stage of the ten year storage and drying process that each Castello block goes through to ensure that it is completely dry.
Running the length of the left side of the factory was a long work table, terminating into a
series of smaller work stations. Six men worked diligently while we watched. One sanded stems, another rusticated bowls for the Sea Rock finish, one worked on
slotting and rough shaping stems, yet another carved one of the rare, celebrated Flame series of pipes. Watching this last process was particularly special.
These stunning pipes are only worked on in the morning, when the light is perfect to be able to see the work properly, then executed extremely slowly: one
pipe might take two or three weeks to complete in this fashion. Each is done with a series of tiny chisels and sharpened spoon-like instruments, slowly
painstakingly letting the flames that encompass the bottom of the bowl emerge.
Watching the steps that went into the rustication of the beloved Sea Rock finish was equally fascinating. First, deeper channels are dug with a rounded-chisel-like instrument, followed by lighter rustication with a home-made doodad that looks like a bunch of nails protruding from a small, round block of wood, with a handle affixed. Finally, two different grades of wire brush are used to rough the remaining smooth areas and graduate the transitions. Mr. Coppo suggested that I try my hand at rustication. The chisel is unwieldy and the briar is extremely hard. After a few minutes of diligent effort with the chisel, my rusticated half of a pipe looked not nearly as good as that of the Castello gent who had kindly let me play at his station. I moved on to the nail contraption and that was equally challenging. The wire brushes I managed without incident. The finished result was, well, not quite as good as Castello's normal Sea Rock fare. I suspect that they'll have to clean up the rustication on that one. Perhaps what surprised me most is what hard work it is. Briar is an amazingly hard wood, which is what makes it the perfect material for pipes. It also makes it extremely difficult to cut in any controlled way. My hands were exhausted after a few minutes. I'm left very impressed by men who can do this for hours at a sitting.
We moved on to watching stems be shaped and finished. Every stem at Castello is cut from sheet acrylic-- there isn't a pre-made stem to be found in the factory. I've watched stems being made elsewhere-- Denmark, Japan-- and the process is what I would have expected. The results, as any Castello aficionado would attest, are a remarkably comfortable stem. Apparently, the acrylic stock that Castello uses is also specially mixed for them to be slightly softer on the teeth and less brittle than most acrylics used for stems.
The Castello factory is the only facility that Castello has ever inhabited. Every single Castello pipe, for all sixty-three years of its existence, was made here. The first pipes, those that established Castello as a new force in pipe making in the late 1940s and early 1950s were made here. And those early creations have been joined by hundreds of thousands of pipes since. Today, approximately 3,500 pipes are made by Castello annually. From the perspective of a small artisan, that's an extraordinary number. From the perspective of the middle-sized enterprise that it is, it is truly tiny. The care, the diligence, the reverence, the love that Franco Coppo and his team of pipe makers bring to the process is extraordinary.
The factory was an extraordinary experience, but the real treat was entering the pipe room. Case upon case of pipes line the walls of this tiny room, surrounding a large wooden table. The room feels like the crypt of a church: for its closeness, as well as for the sense of reverence that one has upon entering. This is very much Coppo's domain. A handful of Renaissance frescoes, rescued from churches over the years, hang on the walls, high above head height. The best pipes in the Castello museum are lovingly kept here in glass cabinets. It's not that Coppo describes it as a museum, but it's far more than a collection. It feels almost like a shrine to great pipes of years past.
And that is where the selecting began. We had perhaps 1,500 pipes to select from. This was very much a surfeit of riches. In the world of selecting pipes, more is almost always better. But to go from 1,500 to our planned seven or eight dozen was quite a challenge. We selected some 150 pipes, then weeded from there. The most difficult, painful part of the weeding was on the Castello "Castello" and Collection grade pieces. We ultimately picked 96 pipes, but all of those 150 would have been happily selected (and indeed more that we passed up in the first round) had I been choosing from a less extraordinary array of pipes. Franco, Marco, my girlfriend all watched as I made excruciating choices to return some of the pipes back to the cabinets. It was a bittersweet process,
letting great pipes go like that, only to have the best of the best remain. Indeed, we had planned to go out to lunch, the four of us, but that plan was
abandoned in favor of quick sandwiches that Marco went out for as I labored slowly through the selection process.
As we sat down for lunch, having picked out nearly a hundred Castellos for Smokingpipes.com, I began reflecting on what had just transpired. I love pipes.
I love being in the pipe business, at the nexus of maker and collector. There is something about the tradition of pipe making and the tenacity and
perfectionism of pipe makers that I love. I also love the pipes that result from that. And Castello is an extraordinary institution devoted to those virtues.
My apologies for my protracted absence from my blogging duties. We have been very much on the move and time and solid internet connectivity have not coincided until today. We've now completed the first leg of the trip, visiting five pipe makers and a briar cutter so far. I'll write an entry about each over the next couple of days. I had hoped for something a little closer to real time, but, as is so frequently the case, my plans were just a tiny bit too ambitious. So, we are now in Florence, and amidst the visiting of churches and museums and great restaurants, I hope to spend a little time writing here and there.
Three days ago, on our third day on the Italian and German (and a bit French) pipe maker tour, we visited Ardor. We were running a little late, having decided to take the mountain pass out of Switzerland instead of doing what sane people do, take the tunnel. It was raining; we found ourselves in the clouds. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but rather slow as we inched our way up and then down the Simplon pass. Nonetheless, we arrived late in the afternoon, to be warmly greeted by Dorelio and Damiano Rovera, the father and son team that make Ardor pipes. Ardor has been a special brand for us for many years. Smokingpipes.com has carried it without interruption for nearly a decade now. We've watched the aesthetic evolve, the engineering improve, and the finishing and detail work get better with each passing year. That is not to say that it wasn't excellent ten years ago; it was. But, all good pipe makers make refinements over the years, slowly improving technique, engineering and, perhaps, shaping. I just think that Ardor has done a better job of that incremental improvement than most.
Damiano Rovera, having lived for a few months as a child with a family friend in
London, speaks very good English. His father speaks none at all. And while I was able to navigate a little in France and Switzerland using my
horrifyingly bad French, my Italian extends exactly far enough to make out about half of what's on a menu. We started out by poking around their little
shop above the workshop, looking at the displays of Ardor pipes, some of which constitute the family collection of sorts. Angelo, Dorelio's father, was a
remarkable carver of briar, not just for pipes, but for other little items and objet d'art. Dorelio is also remarkably skilled at this, though his passion runs more towards pipe shaping and less towards this sort of figural work (which one does see in the Ardor tampers and, from time to time, on a rare Ardor figural).
From there, we descended to the workshop. According to Damiano, this is a rare privilege. Unlike our previous pipe visit, Ardor does not accept visitors into the workshop. Damiano said that I was the fourth man to enter the workshop to visit that he could recall. It's very much that Dorelio just considers the workshop a private domain. The shop is for the customers; the workshop is his (and Damiano's) alone. We were very flattered. And we were much impressed by the large, well equipped, sophisticated workshop. Yes, like almost every workshop that I've ever entered, it was messy. It's awfully difficult to keep a workshop where flecks of wood and sawdust fly every which way clean, but there was a certain order and precision, a contained chaos, that I've only seen a couple of other places. I was surprised that it reminded me a little of Tom Eltang's workshop. They're so different in so many ways that I couldn't put my finger on it. I think now that it is simply that both are thoughtfully structured, organized, and efficient.
Perhaps what I find so curious about Ardor is that the company will celebrate its one hundredth anniversary next year. Yet, they have all of the youthful energy of a young partnership. Damiano especially draws heavily on Danish and German stylistic influences. Close collaboration with customers also leads them in new and interesting directions. This is a company with both an extraordinary tradition and a constant thirst to evolve, improve, and explore, both artistically and from a craft perspective. Having intuited this from the pipes for years, it was a particularly special experience for me to be able to see it, meet the men behind the brand, and to understand what it is that makes Ardor
There is also a special Ardor project that is upcoming, something that has been in the works for perhaps a month or two now. I've been involved in discussions about shape and adornments with Ardor and Steve Monjure, Ardor's representative in the United States. I shan't divulge too many details now, but I will share a picture of some drawings and two prototypes that were worked on while we visited. All photos accompanying this blog entry revolve around those prototypes and that project. Hopefully it won't be too long before we can also share the finished project with you.
Following a couple of hours in the workshop as we looked at the machines, watched Dorelio shape a pipe, and generally talked pipes, we went out to dinner with Damiano and his wife and two young boys. Meals are central to everything in life in Italy and it was a particularly special experience for us to be able to join this Italian family for the evening at a restaurant owned by Damiano's wife's cousin. If you ever find yourself in the neighborhood of Varese, Ristorante La Casa del Ghiottone Errante is definitely worth a visit! The food was superb, especially the risotto with Barolo sauce. However, having the opportunity to chat for two hours with Damiano was wonderful. Damiano is as passionate about pipe making as he is gifted a pipe maker. And it is this passion that makes each Ardor pipe a treasure.
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