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.
Ted Swearingen: Vice President, General Manager