Pipe smoking worldwide declined steadily for the half century between 1960 and 2010. Once home to dozens of pipe manufacturers making many millions of pipes, St. Claude now has three that make fewer than a quarter million pipes a year among them. As has been the case the world over, factories were consolidated. The Ropp factory, unusual among French pipe manufacturers in that it was not in St. Claude, but rather some 150km away in Baume-les-Dames, closed in 1991 and was absorbed by Chapuis-Comoy shortly thereafter, where briar Ropp pipes continue to be made.
Chapuis-Comoy makes a variety of brands these days, though by far the most significant and the most intertwined with the company's history is Chacom. I wrote about my visit to the factory more broadly earlier this week and you can find that here. Following our exploration of the factory, we wandered down to massive storage rooms filled with pipes. In some ways, this was no different from any other pipe manufacturer. Many of Chacom's most significant lines are simply kept in inventory to be shipped to distributors around the world.
In pretty much every large pipe factory I've been to, there's also been a few dozen or a few hundred pipes that are interesting, and are great pipes, but don't fit anymore: the last few of a line that was discontinued from a catalog or an order that was manufactured before a customer went out of business. I relish buying these. Smokingpipes.com's one-at-a-time approach to putting pipes on the site is perfect for great jumbles of good things. We don't need ten of the same shape-finish combination as another retailer might. We're delighted to get ten different, interesting pipes instead. I've done this with lots of different manufacturers over the years: Peterson, Savinelli, and Tsuge also come to mind. Sometimes it happens on scale (think last year's Tsuge sale, which amounted to some 1,500 pipes) and sometimes it's not quite so huge (my purchases at Peterson, where we've bought a handful of a few different things they don't know what to do with on a couple of occasions). Now, keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with these pipes. Often they're really good. They're of the same quality as the rest of what the factory produces. They're just the forgotten ends of lines that have become extinct or custom orders that were made with the wrong ring and then made again. It often means we can offer unusual things at lower prices.
But, the experience at Chapuis-Comoy, while not qualitatively different, was quantitatively different. Antoine Grenard, Alyson (my wife) and I walked through room after room of dusty shelves, each holding pipe boxes, or boxes with dozens of pipes or giant bins of finished and semi-finished pipes. I did what I always do. I asked Antoine if there was anything he wanted to sell. We started slowly. He showed me some English made Comoy's pipes from the 1970s and I bought a few of those for the estate section (at one point, Chacom was Comoy's French distributor). Then he showed me some Jean LaCroix pipes. I bought a few dozen of those, which will also appear in the estate section.
Then we got to the real prize. He had dozens--I had no idea how many at first, but it turned out to be around a hundred--of beautiful old French shapes--delicate billiards and acorns and apples--with horn stems. Now horn is a beautiful material for stems, but it's also not terribly practical. It's not as durable as acrylic or vulcanite and takes a little more care in the teeth. It's also difficult and expensive to make, so no one does it very much anymore. A hundred years ago, with few alternatives, it was all but ubiquitous in French pipe making, but seeing a hundred pipes with horn stems these days is unusual. Antoine didn't know how old they were, though from the stems and bowl shapes they seemed decades old, but from the stains, they couldn't have been too much older than about 1970. So, I'd guess they were made--or at least mostly made--forty-odd years ago. I bought them all.
And that was the starting point for what became the 'Ropp project.' At this point, those pipes weren't stamped, but they needed a brand name, and a prestigious one at that. They are beautiful pipes with clean wood and great shapes. It seems arbitrary, but Ropp seemed the best fit as a brand name among the major brand names that Chapuis-Comoy owns (and Antoine didn't want to use Chacom for a variety of reasons having to do with US distribution rights and the overall direction for that brand). This whole thing was a very organic process that was born out of discussion and shared passion for great pipes.
So, from there we moved to other things as Antoine remembered various odds and ends he didn't know what to do with. We found some great extra-long shank canadians in a bin. The shape was awesome, but the stain, frankly, was not. It was a sort of funky reddish-brown color that didn't really work and didn't get absorbed into the wood properly, leaving a bit of a mottled mess. Obviously, that's why these were just hanging out in a giant bin of 50-odd. Looking closely, though, it was obvious the wood was very good. These were great pipes that had something go horribly wrong in staining. I was beginning to tell Antoine that I wasn't interested when he proposed, knowing as I did that the stain was the problem with these otherwise great pipes, that we blast them and restain them. I took him up on the offer. The results, which I didn't see until they arrived a couple of weeks ago, are awesome. They're on the site now.
Rounding this out, we found another few dozen sandblasted pipes that looked great. Antoine couldn't remember what they were for, but it was a classic tail end of a series. There were three or four of each of a bunch of different shapes. We rolled those into the project.
So, these Ropp pipes you started seeing on the site last week were all from this first round of treasure hunting that we did in the factory in St. Claude. We have quite a few of each, though they won't last forever. We're restarting the brand in the US with a couple hundred pipes, but Antoine and I also discussed finding other things to roll into the line as time goes on.
We want to make the brand quirky and interesting. The world has enough great classic pipes. The Chacom line from the same factory is filled with such things. What makes this project different is it's a place for great pipes that don't fit elsewhere to have a home. We'll emphasize classic French shapes and styles: delicate, elegant, perhaps with interesting stems. No one in their right mind would create a big line with horn stems these days. They're just not practical enough to have the wide appeal a factory needs for a big new release. But, that's exactly the sort of stuff I love. Little niche things that a certain number of people will think are really cool. That's the awesome thing about the internet and the long-tail of product availability that it makes possible. Just because something can't be a blockbuster doesn't mean that it isn't awesome and wouldn't be great pipes to folks looking for something unusual and interesting.
Some of the most rewarding things we've done with pipes over the years are like this. Cool, interesting, smaller projects with a more limited audience that let us get creative and do what we do well. And I hope that the Ropp project seems as exciting to you as it does to me.
Establishing the estate 'grade' is something of a challenge. It's a somewhat subjective process and there are dozens of possible factors involved. We get questions about it a lot, so in addition to his recent blog series, Adam, with the help of Ted and Pam organized some of his thoughts, and we rolled it into an estate grading guide of sorts.
Additionally, this would be a great place for us to field questions on the subject. Please do post comments questions in response to this post!
We put a lot of effort into cleaning our estate pipes. And when I say we, mostly I mean Tom and Bill. These guys arrive at the office earlier than all of us just to get a head start on restoring old, often beat up pipes. They’re pros.
We thought it would be fun, in light of a lot of the recent on-going discussion regarding our estate restoration process, to show off just what these two do.
Many of the pipes we receive from customers look a little something like this:
Then Tom and Bill get their hands on the pipe. The result? This:
Thanks, fellas, for your hard work up there in the attic.
Most guys I know could wander around a hardware store equally as long as our wives could browse every style of shoe in a large department store, but after Sykes and I drove to Harbor Freight a few weeks ago to pick up a 7" x 10" metal lathe everyone wanted to play with it. Aside from being fun to use, it’s proved to be a great investment in time, efficiency, and control.
Cleaning estate pipes can often take quite a while. An estate that is lightly smoked usually just needs a few pipe cleaners run through the shank with alcohol. When a pipe is really dirty in the shank or full of cake, hand reamers and bowl reamers are necessary to bring it back to life. A reamer doesn't drill a shank because the tip has no cutting edges and the sharpened sides run parallel along the shank. Ordinarily we use a 4mm reamer that I put in a vulcanite handle to run down dirty shanks and remove quite a bit of tar, ash, and gunk just so we can continue with a few pipe cleaners soaked in alcohol. The same is pretty much true for the bowl. When the cake is thin, light reaming can be done with the senior reamer, or just a piece of sandpaper wrapped around a dowel. If using a knife or a pipe tool, it should be flat against the bowl to allow it to scrape the cake out. Quite often we get estate pipes that have thick cake and we have to use a hand reamer with different diameter scraping heads. It can be tricky to twist both the pipe and the reamer to clean out the bowl and hands get rather fatigued after just a few.
The metal lathe we purchased is pretty much a heavy, bench-mounted, strong-armed employee that can turn the shank reamer and bowl reamer with a lot of torque at low, safe speeds. The shank reamer spins at about 400 RPM, and the bowl reamers spin between 100 RPM and 300 RPM (slower speeds for more control on heavily caked pipes). We've tried using hand drills before, but they spin too fast and there isn't enough torque (or control).
Bill and I went to another hardware store recently looking for a way to modify the square shafts on the bowl reamers expecting that I would just need to take them to my workshop to fit them with aluminum extensions. Finding a 3/8" square socket extension worked perfectly when we wrapped one layer of duct tape around the shaft to make the fit snug. This, my friends, is when the light above our heads went on and smiles covered our faces.
Again, we use the lathe at a low speeds and have surprisingly excellent control over the pipe with both hands. Since the 4mm shank reamer is pointed (but not sharp) we can use two hands to hold the pipe and push it onto the reamer. We also took a 6-inch-long 5/32" bit and ground the tip dull and round in order to ream longer pipes. An unmodified drill bit that is sharp will self-feed into the shank and front of the bowl, so rounding the tip avoids these problems.
In chucking up the socket extension and pushing in the smallest reaming head, we are able to slowly ream the cake and work our way up to larger diameters if needed. Even rotating the pipe is safe on these slower speeds because it only scrapes the cake out of the bowl and isn't sharp enough to cut wood; plus, this comes close to solving how to ream so many bowls of different chamber configurations.
After we ream the bowls and shanks fine detail work is easy. There is very little we can do to improve pipes that had chambers poorly reamed or were smoked out of round. Soft spots in the bowl, which char faster and are noted as spider webbing, are often the cause of uneven reaming if done by hand. If using a knife, these softer areas could concave and cause a bigger problem in the future, so great care must be taken to ream the chamber evenly. With the lathe we are able to restore the chamber so the end result is a smooth surface that is clean to the touch.
The video below is simply a demonstration of these tools without sound or commentary. A machine turning and scraping isn't all that pleasant to listen to, but we felt a short clip of a pipe being reamed would answer a lot of questions about how we do this.
This awe-inspiring and truly magical work of art comes to us from some long forgotten box of oddities likely stashed away for decades in a hateful basement filled with dead dreams. Verily, it is a shame that this pipe, something so beautiful and magnificent, should come to us void of context and without any hint of its heritage. What nameless, faceless innocent belongs to this tiny foot? Why did the master choose to model a pipe after this particular anatomical feature instead of another? Is not a hand as noble as a foot? Have we not all marveled, at one time or another, at the proud profile of some particularly notable proboscis? So many questions come screaming from the night and like terrible cretins we are left to only empty, trivial conjecture. Every mundane conception, every time-honored conviction, every ill-fated attempt at interpretation is kicked away like wood dust by the foot of time. Breathtaking.
Condition: 4.25/5 Rim darkening, toe jam, and a strange odor. There are a few small scratches on the heel (literally). Note that this pipe does not come with a sock.
Out of rounding is just what is sounds like. Aside from an opera pipe, tobacco chambers are drilled or turned with a gouge that leaves a perfectly round hole. It’s rare that pipes will be conditioned with varying degrees of ‘out of round’, but here are some of the causes and effects of this condition.
Smoking: Proper packing, lighting, and tamping will ensure that a small ember centers in the tobacco and doesn’t come in contact with the wood, but uneven packing could cause the flames upon lighting (and re-lighting) to work their way toward one side. Sometimes a condition statement will say “slight out of rounding due to reaming and/or smoking” and this is usually a result of this. Gentle smoking and cake buildup may help the issue.
Reaming: Perhaps I should say ‘uneven reaming’. This is the real culprit for most ‘out of round’ chambers. There are various reamers on the market that evenly and gently scrape the sides of the cake. Sometimes, when a smoker encounters a particular stubborn piece of cake, they might use a knife, rotary sanding drum, or any other tools to scrape and scratch. Unless they really know what they are doing (meaning being careful and even), this can cause serious damage.
In the first photo, you can observe a smooth pipe that has been ‘over reamed’. By looking at the parallel, yet uneven, scratches in the chamber, I can see that this was poorly reamed with a drum sander on a rotary tool. The bowl is slightly larger, and uneven.
In the second photo, you see a sandblasted bowl that has an ‘out of round’ area near the front – most likely the result of using a knife so scrape thick cake near the top. Since this makes the wall thinner in one area, the burn will be uneven and it could really damage the pipe.
Obviously, the pipe in the third photo would never be for sale. It has been reamed extremely unevenly, over reamed, and even funneled. This happens once in a while and the thinner walls simply can’t take the heat, which warped and cracked the bowl.
In conclusion; use proper reaming techniques. Your pipe will last longer (especially if you wipe it out after every few bowls to prevent too much build-up in the first place). Very minor ‘out of rounding’ is often just at the top of the rim (from using a knife) and the knife bouncing will make ‘chatter marks’. Once a pipe gets over or unevenly reamed, there is no going back, and each is reduced in value and condition accordingly with explanations.
Even with close attention to care, scratches and dings sometimes happen. Initially, I was considering writing about how we rate smoked pipes but, thinking back to my first post in this series, issues such as these can happen with new pipes as well. Consequently, I’ll briefly go over the cause and effect of pipe scratches and dings while roughly assigning rating numbers to exampled instances.
As I mentioned in the first entry, an unsmoked pipe ought to receive a 5/5 rating. However, a significant scratch may decrease its value. Keep in mind that surfaces issues just plain happen. Many of these will occur from moving a pipe on a gritty desk and accidentally scratching the base or sides of the piece. Although this will create shallow scratches, they don't tend to be as severe as the scratches resultant of an improper cleaning. People will too often use a finger nail to try and gently remove a bit of wax or other such blemish from the side and in doing so will scratch the pipe. We see the same thing happen when someone tries to scrape off buildup on the rim. More severe are the scratches that result from having used sandpaper or even steel wool in such a process.
Dings present a similar dilemma. Most of these are simply due to carrying multiple pipes in one bag without properly protecting either; the pipes, rattling around in the bag, can add minor blemishes to each other or severely ding one another if dropped (gasp)! Although briar is a very hard wood, a swan-dive from a desk or from the hand will make a little ding on the bowl or rim. Depending on what the pipe falls on (a tile floor, for example) there might be a line created instead of a rounded dimple. Hence we’ve my confusing (to some customers, perhaps) “linear ding” notes. While some very shallow dimples can occasionally be steamed out by an expert (which will raise the grain without removing the stain), these “linear dings” are often too deep and sharp to do be fixed.
The obvious: Scratches and dings can and will happen. Applying a soft cloth or Q-tip to a rim may take off the darkening without scratching. Dings can be avoided. Otherwise, the condition rating of the pipe will drop a bit. A minor scratch or ding on an unsmoked pipe will usually rate between 4.95/5 and 4.98/5. Depending on how severely a rim is covered in dings (from, say, knocking the pipe against an ashtray), with or without a darkening, the pipe will often rate anywhere between 4.25/5 and 4.9/5. Points are not subtracted for each ding. Rather, the condition is assessed based on the general quality detracted by the blemishes.
After the initial post done last week about the evaluating the condition of estate pipes, we will now move past examining the unsmoked pieces and
work our way down the line. With each additional blog post, the evaluating numbers will start to trickle down from
5/5 with the range being noted and explained along the way.
Going back to a very obvious point from the last post, the condition of a pipe is much different than a
collectible vase or oil painting since it's designed to be used. We all gravitate toward pipes for their overall
shape, design, and finish, though each one ends up calling to us in a different way. Some prove to be better smokers
than others due to size, shape, engineering, and other factors. It should be noted that whether a pipe be lightly
smoked or heavily smoked its condition doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of the piece nor the enjoyment
derived from it.
Usually, a pipe that is smoked will get a rating of 4.9/5 or below. These higher-rated pipes are all in extremely
good condition and often just had either one bowl (or less) run through the pipe. This can be determined
by looking at either the precarb lining (which will be factory-done in most cases) and is even more noticeable in a
bowl that's left natural wood. If the pipe is extremely clean and there is no darkening on the rim, dings on the
briar, or tooth marks, it will typically receive a 4.9/5. Other factors can knock it down slightly. Since this post
is about rim conditions, we will focus on these and ignore any additional subtracted points for tooth marks,
aftermarket stems, replacement tenons, and such (these will come in a later post).
Let’s compare three good examples. In this first photo, the pipe is in really great shape, but the inner rim is
slightly darkened which would give it a rating of 4.85/5. This is simply a result of normal, careful smoking where
the tobacco heats up the wood and wax, so it's more of a coloring issue anything else.
The second photo shows a pipe exhibiting rim darkening that extends well outside the inner rim. Though this is mainly the
result of filling the pipe to the very top with tobacco, such use may cause the briar to patina and will often leave behind some stubborn
tars that can be difficult to remove without topping the pipe (sanding down and re-staining the rim – which we never
do). Some of you may think it’s silly for me to condition a black pipe or a dark sandblast with this 4.8/5 rating
(because it’s already dark), but some of the finish can be burned off of a smooth piece and nearly-impossible to
remove tars manage to work their way into the little nooks and crannies of each blasted ripple (which is why the
photo examples a naturally-stained pipe for reference). Looking closely under the light, there will be a slightly
different color from the original briar, so “4.8/5 Rim darkening” will be noted.
In this last example, the rim is significantly darkened, showing burned marks from a lighter (which will char the
wood, become soft, and later come off on the buffing wheel). Sometimes the inner rim is showing signs of chatter
marks (a result of using a knife which bounces around while trying to scrape the cake). These combined factors,
depending on severity, will give the pipe a rating of anywhere between 4.5-4.75/5. Once again, the focus here is on
the rim, not the reamed chamber (which could drop the rating to 4.25/5 if it has these factors and is unevenly
Rim darkening is relatively easy to rate, but the additional charring, reaming, dings, tooth marks, etc. are all
factors in evaluating the condition. Like I mentioned before, we often get estate pipes in that range between very
clean to heavy rim darkening. Assuming that they all belonged to the same smoker, it’s actually the ones that are in
a lower condition that tend to be their favorites evidenced by how much it they were used.
During our recent update meeting we discussed the usual topics, including this blog. It's been a while since my last post and the time has come for something new. With so many subject options out there, I poised the question to everyone about what they would like me to write about. Brian suggested I do a post about the ratings in condition statements since I'm the one that writes them and has to back up the rating in question. Great idea. After some initial discussions, it seems like a better idea to construct a series that range from new and unsmoked pipes, down to Frankenstein monsters that should never see the light of day again.
Settling on a rating out of 5 is an easy way for all of you (and everyone here) to understand why I assign the number for any given estate. If the system was far too delicate, and I had to literally count each ding to subtract a fraction of a point for each, it would become tiring and ridiculous. A condition statement should be brief and to the point. Praise is given in the description, and the point for the condition statement is to note what someone picking up the pipe at a show or store should be aware of. A huge difference between pipes and, say, an oil painting or vase on Antiques Roadshow, is that pipes are made to be smoked, so blemishes happen. A chip on the rim of a Tiffany vase will considerably drop its value. I sincerely hope that no one has ever used a Tiffany piece as an urn, and would carelessly knock out the ash against a hard surface. This first part will hopefully shed some light on why the two moths fluttering between my ears tell me what to assign each piece. Sometimes it's really easy (5/5 Unsmoked) for example, and then there are times that the two moths each have a different idea about what range it should fall into and I have to make a decision based on the pipe. So, without further narration, it's time jot down some of the many thoughts in my brain.
Unsmoked! These pipes provide the best return value for customers since they get more money in trade credit to use in our store, or slightly less for a cash option. In most cases, pipes that arrive to us in factory condition, un-oxidized, and perfect in nearly every way will get a 5/5 Unsmoked.
There are some cases (many, actually) when a pipe will get a rating somewhere between 4.95/5 and 5/5 due to minor blemishes or other issues. The pipe in this photo is a beautiful piece that is unsmoked, but was given a rating of 4.98/5 because there are some very shallow dings on the side. In the hands of an experienced pipe repairman, these dings could be steamed out without blemishing the finish. Had these dings been larger, or more regular, this would have most likely had lower rating.
As always, there is a brief explanation in the condition statement that informs the buyer what defects there are. Sometimes we get a pipe that someone purchased directly from a factory or maker with a small chip, crack, or scratch. These are all pipes that will usually be rated 4.95/5 or higher. In all of these cases I try to begin the statement with "Unsmoked", so the buyer will understand that the price reflects a nearly mint piece with slight issues. And, of course, I note the nature of the problem too.
Sunday Inventory is like Sunday football: People cry
There’s a word here at Smokingpipes.com that brings horror to the face every
On Sunday we will be conducting our quarterly inventory. This unwelcome event takes
place on the last Sunday of every quarter. It also so happens that we are now into
football season, which in my house means Sunday afternoons are booked indefinitely.
My husband and I make total couch potatoes of ourselves, unless, of course, we are
forced to go to the local sports bar when our team’s game isn’t televised. And, no,
Direct TV is not available in our neighborhood – that’s another subject, entirely.
In preparation for this daunting task called inventory, we will spend the next
couple of days ensuring each department is organized before entering the count into
our system on Sunday. Keep in mind that we are very heavy in inventory as we are
just coming out of our annual purchasing trips in Italy, Denmark, and New Orleans.
In fact, I was just downstairs in our retail store to find Kelly wrestling in the
humidor with cigars that seemed to be growing from every nook. Ron is keeping his
cool, but muttering, secretly “What were they thinking, ordering all these cigars
before inventory!?” I noticed Jennifer is reorganizing our bulk tobacco room to
accommodate all the new shipments we’ve recently received. Over in the shipping
department I found Janice on the floor surrounded by tins of tobacco. Janice is
equivalent to the team equipment manager of an NFL team. Organization should be her
middle name. Pam and Alyson are busy on the 2nd floor in our pipe library
organizing new arrivals. Adam is checking-in all the estate pipes. He isn’t
making donuts for us this week. We need to keep our game weight down. No training
room or weight room here at Smokingpipes.com, only stair steps.
After reviewing his playbook and holding a team meeting, Brian has assigned players
to starting positions; teams for a Sunday kick off at 10:00 am. They are as
Sykes (Team Owner) and Pam: Estates
Brian (Head Coach) and Alyson: New Pipes
Susan and Ted: Tinned Tobacco and Accessories
Ron, Kelly, and Lisa (me): Cigars; Ron will be playing with an injured left ankle; we may have to wheel him around the humidor. No injured reserve list here at
Smokingpipes.com. How convenient for me; all the cigars are down in the store where we have a couch and a television.
There will be a halftime lunch with 1st half assessments by Sykes and a motivational
speech by Coach Brian. Hopefully we don’t go into overtime! We will definitely
have some Monday Morning Quarterbacking (aka: the dreaded missing-pipe list). Sykes
will be crunching numbers and reviewing the stats.
While many of you will be home watching football this Sunday, think of me counting:
1 cigar, 2 cigars, 3 cigars, etc...
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