I would love to say that I was prepared to take on whatever could be thrown my way, but that would be a drastic overstatement. You see, I’m a bit new to the business of tobacco pipes. I’ve enjoyed a pipe for over 3 years, but that only amounts to about half of a percent of the pipe retail world. When I said I was new to the business, I didn’t mean a few months on the job or even weeks. In fact, at the time we left for Chicago I could count the number of full days worked at Smokingpipes.com on one hand. At the end of my first week, I was whisked away to the Chicagoland Pipe Show for a week of total immersion in everything pipes and tobacco. It wasn't just sales and such going on, but the meeting and befriending of some of the finest pipe makers on earth, while trying not to look like a twit. I've had little exposure to people of celebrity status in my life. Sure, I've read about noteworthy people, but almost never come face to face with them. So imagine my reaction when Adam Davidson is now a coworker, and I've just ran into Benni and Lasse, Lars and Nanna, Tokutomi, Eltang, Armentrout, Lobnik, and so many more. Luckily, the great many pipe makers I talked with were most personable. They were accepting, and willing to answer the most basic of questions, ones they’ve been asked countless times. Interestingly enough, our conversations would frequently stray from pipes and arrive at subjects like photography, music and vinyl records, or the day to day of our home lives. If a week spent with pipe makers taught me anything, it taught me that this is not an industry of competing production, but a family of very talented craftsman and artists who are proud to have common ground.
As exciting as all of this was, there was the other side of the coin: the logistics of presenting Smokingpipes.com in the flesh. Moments before our departure, I was up to my neck in some of finest pipes I’ve seen, assisting in their safe transportation. Then was the task of creating a visual display that represents Smokingpipes in the same way you'd expect from viewing the website. No pressure, right?
When I came to Smokingpipes.com, I imagined I would use some of the skills I acquired as a Firefighter/EMT such as logistics, inventory control, and communications skills. I didn’t realize, though, that I would also make use of skills like working while sleep and food deprived, working under intense pressure, and organizing chaos. Fortunately, we had a dedicated group of people traveling, backed by some top notch folks at the home base, and a world-class shipping department, so as a team we overcame the obstacles and pulled off a great show. I enjoyed meeting those of you who came to visit us, and I'm looking forward to meeting many more pipe enthusiasts, carvers, and collectors. My door and inbox are open to those seeking answers or conversation, and my thanks go out to those who have welcomed me so warmly into this community. I'm happy to be the new Pipe Manager, I'm happy for the freedom to make this unique position my own, and I'm happy to be considered part of the Smokingpipes.com family.
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.
The day before Valentine’s Day I flew to Japan. Actually, I flew to Georgia, then to California, then to Japan, but you get the gist. The purpose of all this travel? To represent Smokingpipes.com at the Fourth Annual Pipe Fiesta in Tokyo, of course.
I was met at Haneda airport by our very own Ryota Shimizu. He whisked me away, and over the course of the next few days I met with friends, pipe makers, business folks, and customers alike. I'm pleased to report that the show, which was held Sunday, February 17, was a complete success. Just like last year, it was a blast. This year, however, the venue was bigger, the turnout of pipe smokers and collectors was better, and even more international travelers turned up to take part, like Luca Di Piazza of Neat Pipes and Sebastien Beaud of Genod (and the man behind our very own line of Sebastien Beo pipes).
Japan is awesome. The people are gracious, generous, and extraordinarily congenial. Tokyo is beautiful, wild, exotic, and captivating. It was especially cool to hang out with other pipe people who are super excited about the hobby, even if we couldn’t understand one another. That’s a magical thing right there.
Tomorrow morning I fly home to the States. Right now, I am rather happily ensconced in a smoking room at the Holiday Inn walking distance from Terminal 2 of the Cologne-Bonn Airport, which is where I need to be at 5am tomorrow morning. But this little missive isn't about airports or hotel rooms in Germany. It's about pipe tobacco. Or, at least, my very disappointing quest to purchase some this afternoon. The irony of it all, of course, is that I was just at the Dortmund Inter Tabac Fair. Indeed, this very morning, I chatted with folks from both Mac Baren and Samuel Gawith. And at about 2pm, I didn't have any pipe tobacco left.
I had brought most of a tin of lovely, aged GL Pease Haddo's Delight with me on the weeklong trip. I had thought that I also had a tin of Mac Baren Navy Flake with me, completely forgetting that it wasn't in my laptop bag because Alex Florov and I smoked the last of it last weekend on the way home from Morganton, NC, where we were (along with Alex's wife, Vera, and Susan Salinas from Smokingpipes.com) for Craig Tarler's funeral. Suffice it to say, that if I had been at home, that much Haddo's would probably have seen me through the five days I have actually been on the ground in Germany (apparently even I don't fly enough with Delta for them to let me smoke my pipe on the plane). But this trip was all about pipes and pipe tobacco and I have had a pipe in my mouth pretty much permanently since Wednesday morning when I arrived. I spent my first two days here with a dear friend and fellow pipe smoker who lives in Cologne. While neither of us are particular intemperate pipe smokers individually, you put us together for a couple of days and we can consume some pipe tobacco.
Then came the Dortmund show, and the smoking continued apace. Friday night, I had dinner with folks from Brigham pipes from Canada at a place that was supposed to allow smoking, but didn't. They were irritated and disappointed we couldn't smoke. My tongue was actually a tiny bit relieved.
Last night and the previous night, I stayed a few kilometers from the Dortmund show because I'd procrastinated in booking my hotel room and all the nearby hotels were sold out. This really wasn't such a big deal, though. I was rather enjoying the twenty minute drive to and from the show. It gave me a chance to collect my thoughts and smoke my pipe (don't tell Avis). This morning, I realized that I was rapidly nearing the end of my supply of Haddo's. The situation was dire; I had maybe two bowls left. But, not to worry, I was going somewhere with pipe tobacco; I'd have a ready supply at the show.
My first stop at the show this morning was to have a quick word with the folks from Mac Baren. While I was there, I loaded half a bowl from their sample jars, and proceeded to chat with them. Now, if I'd had the inclination to ask Per Jensen for enough Navy Flake to make it through the day, he, I am quite sure, would have happily obliged. I just don't want to be that guy. I just didn't want to ask Per, again, to solve my tobacco emergency for me (I admit it, this isn't the first time I've planned poorly in the pipe tobacco department while traveling).
But, I wasn't terribly worried. This is Germany after all, isn't it? Doesn't Germany consume more pipe tobacco than any other country? Per capita, it has something like five times as many pipe smokers as the United States. Surely, I'd find pipe tobacco at a gas station on the way to the airport. Since it's Sunday, and since Germany has laws prohibiting most retail on Sunday, a side trip into Cologne to go by Peter Heinrich's wonderful shop to buy some pipe tobacco wasn't in the cards.
I figured there was a decent chance I'd find some Mac Baren Navy Flake even or maybe some of the Virginia Ready Rubbed we can't get in the States. At the very least, I thought, I would find some Mac Baren Mixture or Virginia No. 1. I know epically vast quantities of Mixture are smoked in Germany and figured it'd be the corner store standard. And while there are a couple of Mac Baren blends I'd reach for before Mixture, Mixture is really good. I'd have been perfectly happy.
Alas, such was not the case. I stopped twice, perused the tobacco offerings and didn't see any pipe tobacco in either case. I was a little surprised and a bit miffed with the first stop, but figuring it was an aberration, a little hole of pipe tobacco sadness amidst the riches of such that one would expect of Germany, I stopped a second time. Again, no luck.
I got to the hotel and checked in and was pleased that they could give me a smoking room, until, of course, I realized I had nothing to smoke. I took it anyway, hoping at least that I had a bowl's worth of in the pipe tobacco crumbs at the bottom of my briefcase.
A little later, I took my rental car back to the airport and walked on back to the hotel. Within easy walking distance of the route was another gas station. I figured I'd take one more shot at it. I peruse the tobacco selections and again see nothing. I begin to despair. I tentatively ask (I speak almost no German) "pfeifentabak?" The woman behind the counter looks at me funny; I'm not sure if it's because my accent is so bad that she couldn't make out what I was saying or that being asked for pipe tobacco is just not something that she is accustomed to. But, she suddenly gets it and turns around. I expected her to point towards the selection of pipe tobacco that I had just failed to see. A small ray of hope was beginning to break through the clouds. My personal sound track began playing something rather inspirational, like the chorale from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. She turned back around and slapped a pouch of Exclusiv Royal on the counter. The rather celebratory music suddenly screeched to a halt like someone knocked the needle across the record.
At this point, I just sputtered. All pretense of German ended and I blurted out, in English, "Is that it? Is that all the pipe tobacco you have?" I was so disappointed. And the woman, who is perhaps the only person in Germany who does not speak English, looked at me perplexed and slightly offended. She eventually figured it out from my tone and general exasperation and rather exasperatedly pointed at the pipe tobacco section. Which had exactly one facing. I bought the pouch of Exclusiv Royal. What else could I do?
I pondered, extremely briefly, not buying it. I could make it through thirty-six hours without tobacco; no problem. But I had this smoking room at the hotel that was desperately needing to be smoked in. And I pictured myself with a very sad face sitting in the Atlanta airport smoking lounge tomorrow with nothing to smoke. Seriously, I really enjoy being the only guy I ever see who smokes a pipe in the Atlanta airport smoking lounges. So, I relented and plopped my 6.25 Euros on the counter. At least it was pretty cheap. Any other European country and the taxes would have made it 10 Euros.
I mean, I expect that sort of selection in the US. A gas station, if they have any pipe tobacco at all, has maybe a pouch of Captain Black and a pouch of Half & Half for sale. But this is Germany, Dammit! I held Germany in a sort of pipe tobacco esteem. My vision of this country involves rolling hills, buxom blond girls in traditional German outfits carrying large beers, and a good pipe tobacco selection on every corner. I've spent a lot of time in Germany over the years and realized that the first two images weren't really all that true, but I'd never tried to purchase pipe tobacco outside of Peter Heinrich's shop ever before. The last piece in my slightly irrational vision of German greatness was dashed.
But, I'm smoking the Exclusiv Royal as I write. It really could be a whole lot worse. I vaguely remember carrying it eight or so years ago, but I don't think I ever tried it at the time. It's lightly flavored straight virginias with sort of an odd square cut (it says 'granulated' on the pouch). It's smokable. But definitely not Mac Baren Mixture. Tuesday morning, when I'm back in the office, I'm buying a small stack of tins of Mac Baren Navy Flake and sticking them in my briefcase, my rolling carry-on luggage and the garment bag I usually check. We will not have a repeat of this little adventure.
As many of you likely know by now, Sykes and I were in Denmark a couple of weeks ago to visit pipe makers, look at pipes, buy pipes, and talk about the current state of pipedom. Because I fail at math, and because it was a pretty hectic trip, what with having missed another flight on top of the sheer number of people to see and things to do, when Sykes says we saw eleven pipe makers in five days, I believe him. It was a whirlwind. And it was awesome (in the not over-used, absolutely literal sense of the word).
Certainly one of the highlights of the trip was whisking away to tour the Mac Baren factory, as I've long been an ardent fan of many of their blends. Plus, factories are cool. Sykes and I sat down with CEO Simon Nielsen and Product Manager Per Georg Jensen and talked pipe tobacco (only a slight deviation from the normal conversation to be had on the trip), new pipe tobacco blends, and the current state of pipe tobaccodom. Then Per guided us through the warehouse and factory, paying attention especially to those things pertaining to Mac Baren's latest creation, HH Old Dark Fired. Thankfully, we had the presence of mind to bring a camera...
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…
I landed at Milan-Malpensa airport at 8:30am, Sunday morning. Yes, I was tired, but I was also far too excited about the next few days to let something like a little sleep deprivation bother me. My first appointment would be that very afternoon at Radice, and with an itinerary that starts as such it is difficult not to be enthusiastic. And yet I still found myself with a few hours to kill, first. I tried to check into my hotel in Varese, but I found no luck there so early in the day, so instead I opted to make a pleasurable opportunity of the extra time by journeying along the most roundabout way I could find for traveling from Varese to Cucciago (home of Radice). I angled through a sliver of Switzerland and spent part of the afternoon in Como, next to the famous lake of the same name, sitting and smoking a pipe and generally taking it all in, at least until a spring shower drove me off.
As I eventually meandered closer to the Radices' workshop, I got to poke around lovely little towns in the foothills of the Alps while still also managing to arrive right on time at 2pm. Luca diPiazza (Radice's agent, translator and all-around helper, promoter and business-guy) and Maurizio Radice met me, ushered me in and promptly plied me with much needed espresso. Maurizio's father, Luigi "Gigi" Radice, had another engagement (I was asking them to meet me on a Sunday, after all), as did Gianluca, his brother. Gianluca did, however, manage to stop by briefly to say hello, but he couldn't stick around, sadly.
We chatted about pipe making, touching on topics ranging from the ins and outs of the business, to the zany pipe creations that Maurizio's father Gigi often makes when left to his own devices. He showed me an Oom Paul, for example, that Gigi had carved to look like an elephant's head, with the trunk forming the shank. Apparently, Maurizio and Gianluca won't let Gigi make crazy stuff when they're in the workshop, so Gigi only does it when they're at lunch or otherwise away. Frankly, I think that if Gigi wants to make silly pipes, he's entitled to after 52 years as a full-time pipe maker.
Having chatted and played around, we eventually settled down to seriously important matters: looking at pipes. I picked out 54 pieces, some of which were complete, but many of which were in various stages of not-quite-completeness: a handful still didn't have finished stems, some just needed polishing, and so forth. And there were a bunch more pipes, such as the Underwoods to the right, which I would have happily made off with if Maurizio hadn't kept me from picking pipes that hadn't even been stained yet. I made Luca and Maurizio promise to email me when some of these were done though, since there was some seriously cool stuff on that bench.
Speaking of seriously cool stuff, the Radice’s had several shapes intended for their 'Classic' series to show me, and I was able to pick freely from those. The Bulldogs, pictured to the right, weren't quite done yet, so they'll be sending those along in a few weeks when the batch is completed. The whole Classics project is pretty impressive: a set of nine shapes, available in all the Radices' signature finishes, emphasizing Radice’s interpretations of the core traditional shapes. Since they're all hand turned, there's definite variance from pipe to pipe, but it's really only obvious when you see a whole lot of them in one place (a slightly longer shank here, slightly squatter bowl there, etc). The series has been around for a few couple of years now and has proven incredibly popular.
On a less serious note, Maurizio showed me a briar burl that he wants to turn into a coffee table. Yes - a coffee table. Some burls may have obvious problems that make them unsuitable for burning tobacco inside of them, but for the resourceful artisan this only leaves the wood to all sorts of other uses. The Radices have a line of high-priced briar ashtrays made from entire burls in an upscale department store, for example. Some blocks simply end up being used decoratively: we ourselves have one in the front windows of our shop. This one, though, if Maurizio gets his way, will be topped by glass supported (somehow - I'm sure he has it figured out) by the branches that extend from the briar burl… now that would make an awesome smoking table!
Tune in next time (which will be whenever I next get a chance to write some more while I'm here) to read about my visit to the Savinelli factory in Barasso!
We've been teasing you with news that the Smokingpipes crew made a trip up to scenic Morganton, NC to visit the folks over at Cornell & Diehl last week. That's not exactly what this newsletter is about, however; but you can expect a full report on the actual event soon (I promise). This story is instead about a little road trip game we invented during the long ride.
Given the all-day-and-late-into-the-night nature of the journey, the subject of distracting car games of course came up, amidst all the other topics ranging from business discussion to deep introspection. We are all pipe-people, though, and the classics "I Spy" and "Punch Buggy" simply would not do. Our game was born when Ted suggested a theme for a imaginary new line of our Low Country tinned tobaccos, which led to round after round of potential titles bouncing around Sykes's little Jetta, and eventually spilling over into our dinner at Ruby Tuesdays as well. What a hoot it was! Some of our imaginings were good, some were bad (some intentionally so), some (er, mine) were absurd, and who knows - some might one day fill your bowl.
A few suggestions to get you going: It can be helpful to pick a theme, as we did, as a guide, such as nautical or late 19th century mustache stylings of cantankerous men, especially if the road trip is on the longer side, as you'll eventually find yourself piecing together an entire line of themed-titled tobaccos.
Or, if you prefer, you can just freestyle. This tends to work best when you simply string together as many words and syllables as you can, such as Sir Stodgington's Surly Hedonist Burley Admixture or Billiam Bisquit's Moonbase Thunder-Plug.
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!
We visited the Castello factory the day after we arrived and visited the Radice workshop the following day. It's been over three weeks since then, but I wanted to share some photos I took during the two visits. The Castello factory wasn't operating that day because it was an Italian national holiday, but we met with Franco and Marco and looked at pipes. The following day, we met with the Radices and Luca diPiazza, their agent for the US and other countries and picked out pipes there, took some video and some photos. We hope to have that video to you soon. In the mean time, enjoy the photos!
Yes, that says what you think it says. It's the dessert menu from dinner three days ago. It literally reads "Chocolate fondant cigar 'cru Acarigua' with sweet Scandinavian style pipe tobacco ice cream". I didn't even read the rest of the menu. I had to have it. Alyson and I split it; it was fantastic, but the ice cream wasn't quite as pipe-tobacco-y as I would haved hoped. Still, for an evening after a day visiting the Castello factory, it was the perfect conclusion to the perfect pipe day!
In the past three days, we've visited Castello, Radice, and Sébastien Beaud, owner of the Genod pipe factory and maker of the Sébastien Beo line of pipes available on Smokingpipes.com. We promise to blog about those visits over the next few days.
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.
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.
Alyson and I arrived fairly late on Friday in Las Vegas, at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino, site of the 2010 West Coast Pipe Show. This was the second year of the show, and the first time I'd attended, since Tony and Bear went last year. New shows are always a challenge, both for organizers and attendees. While we had high hopes for the show, we didn't really know what to expect. We attended, in part, because we think that the western half of the country desperately needs a good show, and any serious effort in that regard is worthy of support. The show far exceeded our expectations and we had a wonderful time.
Our table was back to back with Rex Poggenpohl and Steve Leader, two gents I've known for some years and always enjoy spending time with. Rex was, as he tends to do at pipe shows, selling off small bits of his vast collection. The show was very well attended by pipe makers. Jeff Gracik, Brad Pohlmann, Tonni Nielsen, J. T. Cooke, Todd Johnson and many others, including some impressive younger pipe makers, were there. Our tables were almost right next to Rick Newcombe's, who had a couple of examples of the new edition of his book, In Search of Pipe Dreams, available for perusal, though it won't be available for sale for another week or two (yes, we have hundreds of copies in route). We had much on offer, from lots of great pipe makers.
The variety of vendors, pipe makers and collectors displaying at the show was impressive, especially given that it was just the second year. Over a hundred tables were sold for the event, with a rather striking variety of pipes, pipe tobacco, accessories, and pipe related books for sale. Perhaps best of all for us was meeting so many pipe collectors and smokers who are customers and fans of Smokingpipes.com, but that we'd never met in the flesh. Person after person came up to tell us that they were long time customers and after some conversation, it became apparent that these were folks we knew well, but that we'd only gotten to know by phone or email. With our regular trips to shows in the East and Midwest, the attendees of which know us pretty well at this point, this was a really special experience for us.
Adam Davidson was there with his wife Lera, too. While Adam is an integral member of the Smokingpipes.com team, he's also a very talented pipe maker and usually does shows with his own pipes, independent of Smokingpipes.com. Still it's always nice having him around, as an emergency Smokingpipes.com backup person, if needed. Lera (as Adam shared in a recent newsletter intro) was particularly excited about the Vegas trip. I'm not entirely sure why, but she was rather more delighted at the prospect of a weekend of shopping and eating in Vegas than she was about the prospects of the pipe show.
Satuday night saw a surprisingly tasty dinner, plus speakers and awards event. Kevin Godbee, my good friend and owner of PipesMagazine.com, spoke about a subject near to my heart, the attraction of college age and twenty-something folks, especially cigarette smokers, to the joys of the pipe. Kevin and I have spent a lot of time over the past few months talking about this. We hope that the recent influx of newer pipe smokers that we've seen is a harbinger of a trend.
After Kevin finished up, Fred Hanna, noted pipe collector, author and PhD psychologist, offered up an excellent talk on pipes, managing stress, and recent research on nicotine and neurochemistry. While all agree that inhaling tobacco smoke is a distinctly unhealthy practice, it seems that there are a number of benefits of nicotine, given its unusual properties as both a mild stimulant and a mild depressant.
An awards ceremony followed the talks. J. T. Cooke, Michael Parks and Kurt Balleby won much deserved awards for their pipe making. Much to my surprise, I was honored with an award for Outstanding Contribution to Pipe Collecting, though that award rightfully belongs to everyone here at Smokingpipes.com. Sunday was quieter on the show floor and we enjoyed having the time to catch up with folks that we hadn't yet managed to see. That evening, having lost just a little on slots and won just a little at craps, we headed to McCarran for our flight to San Diego for the next leg of our trip, to visit Jeff Gracik's workshop, and go to see Rick Newcombe in LA.
Having the office in Little River, South Carolina makes the trip to the Richmond Pipe Show easy. Normally, we have to pack all necessities and ship them days in advance. Then we hop on a plane and head to the show.
Richmond, on the other hand, is close enough that we can drive. Since I own the largest land assault vehicle in the company, I have had the pleasure of gathering part of the entourage and driving to Virginia for the last two years. The drive up has been the same. Everyone excited about the show, the people we will see and the work we have to do. The drive home however was a little different this year.
I started the drive home with Brian Levine as my co-pilot. (Despite what you may think, he did do a great job.) Adam Davidson, Ted Swearingen and Jeff Gracik filled up the second row. Supplies for the show occupied the space behind them. We met up with Sykes and his passengers in Rocky Mount, North Carolina for a nice dinner before finishing the trip home. This is when the ride deviated from last year.
After being on the road for a while, statements like “Use the shovel on him” and “Pick up the axe” along with beeps and bleeps started coming from the back seat. The “boys” were playing adventure games on someone’s smart phone. For a second I thought my seven and nine year olds where in the truck. Miles upon miles passed before the back seat became utterly quiet. Brian turned around to see what happened. The picture says it all…
A pipe show isn’t just a chance for pipe pals to come together and smoke. Don’t get me wrong on this point; there were a lot of varied friendships kindling anew at
the CORPS show in Richmond. However, that a convention is also monumental opportunity for a lot of guys in the industry to network with each other (or at least rub
elbows) dawned on me pretty early Saturday morning. Seeing pipe makers like Peter Heeschen talk with Alex Florov or Jeff Gracik, I sensed that while these guys may
exchange phone calls occasionally, they put the effort to travel in from around the world so that they can show off their work as well as see each others'. Whether
it happens in the middle of a stolen moment during the show or over a dinner accompanied by an eight year old tin of ‘Bohemian Scandal’, these estimable artisans are
sharing ideas and trade secrets in order to improve their craft. By doing so, they are boosting the health of the entire community and enriching the collective pipe
smoking experience. And for that we give thanks.
Alright, I confess, I'd sort of forgotten that we still had some great footage from the IPCPR show in New Orleans in August. We took a lot of video at the show and with fully three of us behind the camera at various times, I sort of lost track of what all we had. The upside is that trolling through the raw footage is sort of like a treasure trove, as I eliminate video of me tripping over my own words, or Alyson and Susan not realizing that the camera is rolling and continuing their discussion on how silly the boys get when presented with all of the smokable goodies at the show (which, I might add, took place while they themselves were enjoying Kristoff coronas, so I think they have little room to stand on when mocking Brian and me).
Anyway, there's still lots of good stuff left, not least of which is this great interview with our friend Pete Johnson. When Pete launched Tatuaje, we were early, enthusiastic fans of the luscious Tatuaje Brown Label, rolled in Miami. Since then (perhaps a little more than five years ago), Tatuaje has continued to occupy a hallowed place in our humidor and continues to be a disproportionately popular brand both in the store and on Smokingpipes.com.
My wife and I recently went to Russia for a vacation, and to spend time with her family and friends. We landed in Moscow on the hottest day in the city's recorded history (102F), and then took a train ride up to St. Petersburg in the early evening. I may seem a little biased because I've never traveled outside the United States before this trip, but St. Petersburg must surely be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Granted, something founded by a ruler with such wealth is sure to have amazing architecture and splendor. We spent four days there, having plenty of time to walk around, visit museums, partake in amazing foods, and relax. I'll spare you from an entire blog post of our time spent there, but wanted to share some things about what we saw.
St. Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter I of Russia on May 27th, 1703. Sparing the details of empire expansion, the main idea of this city was to open Russia to the great cities of Europe, and the rest of the world (by having direct sea travel). This would allow for a better flow of ideas and goods into, and out of, the expanding empire. In 1705, Peter first mentions building a palace near the sea to oversee ships of war and trade. In 1714, two years after moving the capitol from Moscow to St. Petersburg, construction (based on his own drawings) began on his summer palace: Peterhof (you can see the picture I snapped of the grand fountains that look toward the sea). Like any shrewd ruler, Peter wanted to show the world the majesty and beauty of Russia and, by extension, the strength of his rule. This city, indeed, is considered by many to be the most European, and perhaps the cultural gem of Russia.
As in many of the great ports in northern Europe, tobacco and fish were heavily shipped and traded. And with the presence of the imperial court, this helped to bring in architects, artisans, and merchants competing for favor. While my wife and I did not enter the Summer Palace, we did walk the extensive grounds. Strolling along the paths, people were dressed in period clothing for pictures, but I was more relaxed to stroll and think about Peter the Great taking steps in the same place that I was. While we did see many statues of Peter, one in particular really made me take notice - he was sitting on a cannon holding a pipe! This was not on the grounds of Peterhof, but was one of the beautiful pieces in the center of city where we purchased a few smoked fish, beers, and relaxed in the evening air. It would make sense for him to be smoking a pipe - but I wondered what kind it was. Clays were the most common in his day, and briar pipes were not made at the time. I suppose the sculptor didn't want to make a tiny pipe, but the fact that he is sitting there smoking it is really cool.
During our trip, I was able to enjoy my own pipe outdoors, and even saw others enjoying their briars. Sometimes, though, I simply chose to buy one of the hundreds of smoked, salted, fish to taste with some of the exquisite Russian beers. As you can see in the picture, there was a lot to choose from. I actually got in trouble for taking pictures of smoked fish in a supermarket there, but it probably did look rather silly or suspicious now that I think about it.
Peter the Great passed away in 1725, but while he lived, he enjoyed food and drink to the fullest. So, while I sat in the city with my smoked fish, beer, or countless other gastronomic delights, it came to mind that so many people can have something in common. For most of us, it's the joy of pipe smoking. For others, sharing foods can be equally enjoyable. Smoking during the evenings in St. Petersburg will be one of my fondest memories of a city, a pipe, and a large dose of enjoyable history.
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.
Tom Palmer, Managing Director of Peterson of Dublin, took a few minutes at the IPCPR show in New Orleans last week to talk with Alyson about all of the new stuff Peterson is doing this year, including the Pipe of the Year, the Christmas Pipe, the Writer's collection, and an assortment of new tobaccos.
The new Stanwell Hans Christian Andersen VII shape is a little special. For the first time, Stanwell is trying to tie it all together a little bit, presenting the first 3,000 pipes in a presentation box, complete with a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The shape was designed by Poul Winslow with the particular fairytale in mind. Anyway, I'll let Soren Lundh Aagaard, Managing Director of Stanwell, do the talking...
We snagged Rocky for a quick interview on the IPCPR show floor in New Orleans last week. He was super-busy, but kind enough to take a couple of minutes with us to talk about his new cigars, especially the Fifteenth Anniversary cigar. He also touches on the new Cargo line.
While we were at the IPCPR show in New Orleans, we made a quick stop to chat with our good friends Chris Tarler and Keith Toney from Cornell & Diehl (Craig and Patty Tarler weren't at the show, unfortunately). Amidst the general chatting, we thought it'd be fun to get one of them to do a couple minutes on video about new blends. Chris took a minute to talk through stuff with us. Enjoy!
Stepping back to a couple of
weeks ago for a moment, when Kevin Godbee and I were in Denmark in late July, we established, finally
and definitively, that Dunhill tobaccos would be coming back to the United States in September or
October, first through conversations with Orlik and then, finally, getting confirmation from British-
American Tobacco. The first day of the show, Tuesday, while we were at the Ashton booths, talking about
Petersons with Tom Palmer (Managing Director of Peterson), Michael Walters (Sales Manager for Ashton),
and Evan Carpenter (our regional sales representative), it became clear that we better get an order
together for CAO for the Dunhill tobaccos. Susan and Brian dashed over there, while Alyson and I
continued to work on Petersons. They placed an order for many thousands of tins of Dunhill tobacco for
late September delivery (which might be a slightly optimistic ETA, so we're actually figuring on early
October). The really important thing was to secure the Dunhill in appropriate quantities. Even in these
truly massive amounts, we are a little concerned with stock problems in the autumn given all of the
folks out there waiting for it to become available again. We'd return to both Ashton and CAO later in
the show to conduct cigar and accessory business, but getting the pipes taken care of with Peterson and
the tobacco taken care of with CAO took priority over all else late Tuesday morning.
Having wrapped up all of the pipe buying,
we moved into a more normal pace for the rest of the show. After a quick lunch, we had a meeting with
General Cigar to talk about their new products, including some really interesting new cigars from La
Gloria Cubana, including the new Serie-N cigars, plus the new Artesanos Obilisks. While Susan and Brian
actually conducted the business-y bits, Alyson and I set about interviewing Yuri Guillen, factory manager for La Gloria Cubana about all the new stuff. General also had a cigar roller based in
Miami up for the show, so that was fun to watch too (and we have video of all of this we'll work on
getting up over the next few weeks).
After that, the chronology of it all starts to get a bit blurry. Brian and Susan had a meeting with
Oliva Cigars, of which I caught the tail end, while I did some quick following up with pipe folks that
we'd already been to see, and tobacco folks to set things up for later in the show. As the day wore on,
we visited the Villiger-Stokkebye booths, both because we needed to give them an order and also because
they were in charge of feeding us Tuesday night. We spent some time talking with Kevin and Gary from
Villiger-Stokkebye, plus Brian and I touched base on a couple of projects with Erik Stokkebye and the
representative from Scandinavian Tobacco (Orlik's parent company) who was present for the show. Susan
set to work structuring our ordering for the next couple of months with Gary, Villiger-Stokkebye's all
round logistics guy, which requires a fair bit of planning: a whole lot of tobacco travels from
Charlotte, NC to Little River, SC every week. After that, Erik, Brian and I attended a short trade
organization / legislative meeting that started right after the show, while Susan and Alyson went
immediately to Altadis' cocktail party. Altadis puts on quite a party and had we not been anticipating a
serious dinner with the Stokkebye folks later that evening, we could have spent all evening there. We
did get a chance to talk to a couple of senior people about the tobacco regulatory environment, which
was good for keeping us in the loop.
Speaking of which, a major topic of conversation at the show was the TTB's definitions of pipe
tobacco and according regulations. It's terribly esoteric and convoluted, but the short and long of it
is that, after extended conversations with Mike McNiel from McClelland and Paul Creasy and others from
Altadis, we're actually feeling better about the situation than we have in recent months. The TTB and
ATF seem to be handling this fairly transparently and fairly, at least by governmental regulatory body
standards. Much remains to be seen, which may take years to be established, but it seems like everything
will generally remain as is in the mid-term.
And that evening, we had an amazing culinary and historical experience courtesy of the wonderful
folks at Villiger-Stokkebye. And for that story, you'll have to tune in again for the next part of the
IPCPR trip overview...
It's been a whirlwind here in New Orleans over the past few days. Providing any sort of logical, or even chronological, order is beyond me at this point. So, in addition to eating our share of beignets and drinking coffee at Café du Monde, though really, Brian ate his share and nine other shares, and listening to Jazz in the Quarter, we've actually done some work. Or, whatever it is we actually do that we pretend is work to the folks back home so that they don't know what a raucously good time we're having while we're away. Seriously, the show has been lot of fun, but we've also covered tremendous ground, literally and figuratively. Here are some highlights from Monday through Wednesday, picking up where we left off after the last IPCPR post, where we'd just finished up picking out tons of particularly pretty Dunhills...
Oh, and also, we'll have a bunch of videos when we get home. Our cunning plan to edit and push videos from the road has hit a technical snag or six, so I think we're surrendering on that particular front until we can use real hardware and software back at the office. We do have some seriously fun stuff, including videos with Soren Lundh Aagaard, Managing Director of Stanwell, Rocky Patel, and many others...
Monday afternoon we picked out a few dozen Castellos at the Castello pre-show event. Usually, we'll pick out months worth of updates of pipes, but we were a little more restrained this year because we'd just bought a ton of awesome Castellos when we were in Italy in late June. Still, we added some great pieces, especially Sea Rocks and Old Antiquaris, which were a little thin on the ground when we were at the factory eight weeks ago. You'll have to wait to see what we have, but there were some sandblasts that had Brian and me swooning...and Susan and Alyson rolling their eyes a little bit at our enthusiasm (though, secretly, they're super-excited too; they just pretend they're not sometimes; simply witness Susan's intent pipe selecting to the right).
That night, we met Kevin Godbee from PipesMagazine.com for dinner at Susan Spicer's restaurant, Bayona. As I might have suggested previously, and while I don't want to turn this blog into a restaurant review page, I have a bit of weakness for the culinary arts. And Susan Spicer is an artist. The food was excellent and the company was even better. We spent a great five hours talking about the growth in pipe smoking among younger men that we've all been noticing and what we could do to help foster that and ease their entry into the hobby.
The first morning of the show is always a mad dash for us. No one needs to particularly hustle to cigar booths: it'll be the same cigars later that afternoon, but for pipes, it's imperative that we get to pick early. I hit Tsuge immediately, while Brian and Alyson went to Savinelli, and Susan went in search of Stanwells. After selecting a dozen Tsuges, I dashed over to pick out two dozen (or thereabouts, counting and speed picking tend not to go together) awesome Paolo Beckers. He's been experimenting with a new wood that has properties very similar to briar, but is lighter and blasts beautifully. We'll have more on that later, though. We all ended up back with the Stanwells, and picked out lots while we were there, including, we think, some pretty interesting stuff.
From there, the entire crew visited the Ashton booths to select Petersons. There are a few really nice new lines that will be available over the coming months, including the new version of the Kapet with a nickel band and a fantastic new Mark Twain shape. Plus, of course, the Peterson Pipe of the Year, of which we've already received the first few, pictured to the right. They also had a particularly good selection of Spigots that we could select from this year, plus we finalized an amazing deal for some very special Petersons that we'll be able to share with you in about two weeks, but for now, I'll have to keep mum-- I promise it'll be huge, though!
Tune back in tomorrow evening for more notes from the show...including our discussions with CAO about Dunhill tobaccos coming back to the US...
Fortunately, the British are a little more welcome here this time than in 1814; rather than muskets, they come bringing pipes, which is far more congenial to the denizens of New Orleans, not to mention those pipe seeking visitors from South Carolina. Every year since Dunhill began working with Music City Marketing as their US importer, they've hosted a private Dunhill selection room before the IPCPR show actually begins. We were in there bright and early at 8am this morning.
I've written 'pipes abound' in more places and contexts than I care to remember. It's one of those little Sykes phrases that elicit gentle mockery in the office at this point. Well, in this particular context, it would have been a woeful understatement of the extraordinary spread of Dunhills we had to choose from. We selected about 130 pieces (we sort of lost count there at the end), but we had so many to pick from that our selection barely left a dent. It is a truly wondrous experience to be able to select, say, three dozen Shell Briars from among four or five hundred. We buy so many pipes (very large percentages of some makers' productions) that those sorts of selection ratios are something we are rarely able to enjoy. It was extraordinary.
I shan't let this particular cat out of the bag, but Dunhill had some very special series that will be available later this fall. I'm super excited about these and, having seen the packaging, but not the final pipe, containing my enthusiasm is almost impossible.
We are momentarily off to look through Castellos, though because we selected so many in June when we were at the factory, we won't be going quite as crazy this afternoon as we did this morning. I'll keep you posted here as things develop!
Much of my past week has been spent prepping for our trip to New Orleans for the annual IPCPR trade show. Hotel rooms and transportation are all set; we have great dinners lined up and I'm excited to make my requisite pilgrimage to Café du Monde on Jackson Square for beignets and coffee at least once (or about eight times if time permits). Susan, Alyson, Sykes and I met this past Wednesday to plan day one of the show, our pipe day. Knute Rockne would not be impressed, but Sykes was actually drawing football plays by the end of the meeting (which, among other things, is why we try to avoid having meetings). Ron, our store manager, handed me a list multiple pages long that reads like an eight-year-old's list for Santa Claus and we have appointments lined up with makers of pipes, pipe tobacco and, especially at this show, cigars.
I've already received many ideas from friends for cigars and other products to be on the lookout for, plus one unsolicited, but much appreciated, jazz club recommendation. Now is your chance to help: tell us what you'd like to see in the comments section of this post! I'll see what I can do at the show and I'll follow up with another post when I return.
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.
While we were visiting the Orlik factory (about ten days ago), the first thing we happened upon when we entered the production floor was a woman working on making rolls of pipe tobacco. At first, I mistook it for Escudo (y'all know where my particular heart lies), but I was almost as excited to see Bullseye Flake being made as I would have been to see Escudo (Luxury Bullseye Flake is great too). The process, by which they take a thin pressed flake and wrap it around a pressed rod (of sorts) of a mixture of perique and fermented virginias, is, frankly, pretty cool. Check it out!
Frankly, I think this is one of the coolest videos we've yet posted. Troels Mikkelsen has been in the tobacco business for thirty years, first at A&C Petersen, then at Orlik. He manages production at the Orlik factory and I can't imagine a better guide to the operation. The visit was an absolute delight, and Troel's discussion of the various tobacco varietals was one of the highlights.
I've visited the Mac Baren factory every year for five years now. And every time, I come up with a way to get Per to take me through the factory. Sometimes it's because they have new stuff he wants to show me and sometimes, as with this trip, it's because I have someone with me who hasn't experienced it before. I'm starting to run out of reasons to see it again, other than that I think a giant tobacco factory is probably the coolest place on earth. My inner eight year old loves all the giant whirring machinery, and the slightly more grown up me loves the resulting product. Slightly more seriously, I've always been impressed by Mac Baren and the people I've worked with there. There's a dedication to what they do that is impressive. Per Jensen's enthusiasm for pipe tobacco is infectious. In this video, Per guides us through the flake pressing and cutting process.
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.
As we mentioned yesterday in our post comparing the two factories, after the factory tour, Per Jensen, Mac Baren's product development and all round Mac Baren tobacco evangelist guy, sat with us over coffee. The conversation turned to what he thinks is the best flake tobacco packing method. Not only did he describe it, he felt obliged to pack Kevin Godbee's Dunhill Ruby Bark with some Mac Baren Virginia Flake to show us how it's done by guys that play with tobacco all day, every day. We gave Mac Baren the nod for personal pipe packing service for this extra effort on their part when we visited, but we also took a little video of it so that you can, hopefully, enjoy the little lesson as much as we did.
by Sykes Wilford, Smokingpipes.com, and Kevin Godbee, Pipesmagazine.com
When one has an opportunity to visit two of the largest pipe tobacco manufacturers in the world on back to back days, comparing the two is all but
impossible. Mac Baren and Orlik, between them, produce over half of the world's pipe tobacco. Along with the Lane factory in Tucker, GA, they make up the big
three pipe tobacco producers in the world. And they're both on the island of Funen that sits between Sjaelland, the largest of the Danish islands, and
Jylland, the peninsula that juts off of the European mainland. Indeed, they're an hour drive apart on either side of the island. Having had a thoroughly
hospitable reception at both factories and being tremendously impressed by both operations, we nonetheless found ourselves drawing some comparisons.
Having left Orlik, we started discussing the differences between the two. Perhaps the similarities are more obvious: both operate massive, modern
factories, both are fanatically dedicated to the quality of their tobaccos, and both have a long history and make famous brands that have stood the test of
time. But this, our dear readers, is about the differences.
For starters, no pun intended, let's talk about lunch. Typically, large companies have cafeterias. In the United States, outside of Google, such places
offer fare that make sixth grade school lunch seem palatable. At both Mac Baren and Orlik, we were pleased to discover that the Danes have a subtly different
approach to such things. They serve edible lunches in company cafeterias. Offering traditional Danish comestibles, including black bread, a variety of
impressive cheeses and cold meats, paté, and full salad bars, Sykes wants one of these for the Smokingpipes.com campus. Imagine visiting a tobacco company and
coming away with company catering ideas. Picking a winner in this category was impossible.
Both Orlik and Mac Baren have machinery that causes otherwise reasonable grown men to act like eight-year-old boys who just saw a backhoe. Conveyor belts,
automatic weighing machines, little robotic arms to fold packaging, slides, chutes, and sundry whirring doodads abound, but the nod, if only a half-nod, goes
to Mac Baren, who can go from tobacco coming in from the ceiling, to pouches, to cartons, to outer cartons, to pallets, all without ever being touched by a
human hand. Orlik was close, requiring slightly more human intervention, but in this category, Mac Baren is a clear winner.
Both factories produce rope tobacco. Rope tobacco is a traditional method of fabricating tobacco for transport, back when finding a way to keep tobacco smokable after a transatlantic journey on a wooden sailing ship was a serious problem. The tobacco is literally spun into ropes: the process lies somewhere in between cigar rolling and rope braiding. But, the factories' respective methods are a little different. Mac Baren uses whole leaves as something comparable to the binder and filler. Orlik uses thin pressed sheets of tobacco, similar to those used for flakes, but much thinner. Inside, Mac Baren generally uses loose leaf dark fired Kentucky, whereas Orlik uses pressed perique or black cavendish. From this process comes some of the world's most famous, most tastiest blends, including Mac Baren Roll Cake and, Sykes' personal favorite, Escudo, which is made by Orlik (which we both happen to be smoking while engaging in this absurd literary exercise). However, the nod goes to Mac Baren in this category, for they have what looks and works like a giant RYO cigarette machine. Frankly, the little machine that presses it into a rope at Orlik just isn't nearly as cool.
About an hour on the road after our visit to Orlik, Sykes turned to Kevin and said "did the tobacco blender guy make you think mad scientist too?" To which Kevin retorted with a maniacal laugh. Yes, Orlik has its very own evil genius tobacco blender. Here in Denmark they offer a personalized blending service where different stores or individuals can choose to craft their own blend. The idea started in the 1930s and grew into Paul Olsen's My Own Blend, which Orlik purchased from the Olsen family in the 1980s. Today, roughly eight metric tons of pipe tobacco is custom blended for customers and stores to the exact recipe, based on almost fifty component blends and dozens of flavorings, by Lasse Berg, Chief Evil Tobacco Genius (ok, we made up the title). It is abundantly clear that a) Lasse thinks he has the best job on the planet, and b) he played with chemistry sets as a kid. At one point, he showed us a cola flavored tobacco topping of his own creation, of which he was very proud, but then went on to admit that he doesn't use it very much because, apparently, no one really thinks of cola as a tobacco flavoring. He went on to create for us, sans cola topping, individualized blends based on our preferences. Sykes' had more perique, Kevin had more rum. Also, during this exercise, Kevin drank a bit of the rum used on the tobacco (he approves), also giving Orlik the nod for best adult beverages (Mac Baren did not offer adult beverages at 10am when we arrived there). So, two categories at once to Orlik: mad scientist tobacco blender and best adult beverages. Does it surprise anyone that the mad scientist blender was also the keeper of the adult beverages?
While we were visiting Mac Baren, after the factory tour with Per Jensen, who is something between a product development guy and a general Mac Baren evangelist, we sat and had coffee with him. As our conversation meandered from topic to topic, we ended up with Per showing Kevin, with Kevin's pipe, how to pack flake tobacco by folding it and packing it vertically. So, not only did they humor us with a factory tour, fed us lunch, plied with coffee and tobacco, they even had a Mac Baren executive pack Kevin's pipe.
On net, it was a tie. Both organizations are impressive and were wonderfully accommodating to two very excited, tobacco crazed Americans.
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!
Chronology, the cornerstone of the blogging world with its reverse chronological organizational structure, can be terribly challenging while traveling. I haven't had nearly as much time to write about the visits as I'd hoped and I'll be putting up bits and pieces over the next few days as I can get videos and pictures edited and some thoughts on paper. This is my eighth visit to Denmark during the past six years; it is always a particular treat to be here. So, as I'm working on that, here's a quick overview of each visit.
Kevin Godbee, of PipesMagazine.com, and I arrived on different flights from the US, but within a few minutes of each other. After taking care of airport necessaries and a quick stop at the hotel to clean up, we set out for Peter Heding, who lives and works in a small town near Roskilde. Peter holds a PhD in biology and until a few years ago worked in diabetes research. Deciding that wasn't the life for him, he became a full time pipe maker in 2006. Today, he's making some amazing pipes and we got to see a couple of stunning diamond graded pipes that he had just completed, plus got to spend some time watching him work and generally chatting about goings-on.
That afternoon, we swung south on Sjaelland to Praesto, where we met Lasse Skovgaard Jorgensen at his new workshop. Lasse grew up in this beautiful part of Denmark, so this is actually near where I visited him when we first started working with Lasse's pipes in 2005. Lasse has been playing musical workshops lately, in large part because he rented space from Stanwell a couple of years ago, and then Stanwell shuttered that factory this spring. For now, he's using some space near his grandmother's home, not far from where he grew up. Officially, he's on vacation right now, something that Lasse takes particularly seriously, so he met us at the workshop and he hadn't been there in a couple of days. With a spread of perhaps a dozen beautiful pipes (most of which will arrive at Smokingpipes.com sometime soon) on the table, we set about playing around in the workshop and he shaped a pipe while we took a little video and shot some pictures. We went out to dinner, but I was so tired and jetlagged by then that I was a bit hazy, I think we had a really nice time.
The following morning (yesterday), we got up and drove up to north-eastern Sjaelland to visit Lars Ivarsson. I've already mentioned this some in my one previous trip post, so I won't delve into again here, except to again say that Annette's (Lars' wife) lunch was amazing. Given that Lars smoked the fish (that sounds like something pipe related, but he smoked a literal salmon, which we literally ate!) and shot the deer, perhaps he should get a nod for his culinary contributions too. We also spent a bunch of time talking about Sixten's early career, as well as Lars'. I'd heard all of this before, but in bits and pieces but never felt like I had the story coherently. I recorded the conversation and I'll turn it into something readable sometime soon. Five hours visiting Lars and Annette sped by in what felt like about an hour. I could (and have on a number of occasions) simply listen to Lars talk about pipes and pipe making in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s for hours.
That evening, almost on a lark, I called Tom Eltang while we were driving back towards Copenhagen from Lars'. Tomorrow, we'll spend the whole day with Tom in the workshop, so last night's visit was very much on a whim. Tom gave Kevin the grand Eltang workshop tour, which never ceases to be fun for me too, though I've probably seen him give it a half-dozen times. Then I showed Tom my wounded soldier, one of the new Tubos pipes that I'd been smoking since Chicago that I had unceremoniously bitten through the stem of during a particularly intense meeting one afternoon (for the record, smoking a pipe in a meeting makes you seem smarter; biting through the stem and spitting out bits of vulcanite does not). In classic Tom fashion, he whipped out a new stem for me and I was smoking it again an hour after I showed him the problem. We'll see Tom again tomorrow.
This morning we set out at a little after 9am to visit Peder Jeppesen of Neerup Pipes. Peder makes about 2,500 pipes a year, so the whole structure of his workshop and his methods are rather different from those we're seeing elsewhere on this trip. Given that he makes about ten pipes a day on average, he must work with speed and efficiency, making excellent pipes available at reasonable prices. With the closure of Stanwell and the distribution of its production to various countries, Peder is the last factory-shape pipe making in Denmark, and he is indeed something of a one-man factory. I got some great video of his various processes, so I'll get that up in the next few days also.
Jess Chonowitsch has not made pipes since mid-2006, when his wife Bonnie fell ill; he has spent his time in the past four years caring for her rather than making pipes. I last saw him in 2007, and while I've called periodically and suggested we have coffee now and then when I've been in Denmark, it's been so difficult for him to get away that we'd not been able to make anything happen. This trip, I was delighted to be able to finally see Jess again. I've always enjoyed my time with both Jess and Bonnie. Jess has a quiet gentility that is so evident in his pipes. And he has such a rich history in the pipe world that simply being able to sit with him and pick his brain about pipes or pipe making is a very special experience. So, we sat in the garden for an hour and a half and just chatted. Jess is starting to get to where he can make pipes again, having spent time cleaning and organizing his workshop properly for the first time in a long time. I am very excited to see what he does over the next year or so. There's been much speculation as to whether he would start making pipes again; I'm quite confident that he will.
So, tomorrow, on to Tom Eltang's shop for the day. That should be a lot of fun. On Tuesday, we're headed to Mac Baren in Svendborg in the morning and to see Peter Heeschen in the afternoon. Wednesday we go to Orlik in Assens, then to Kent Rasmussen in Aarhus. On the last day, we'll head up to the tip of Jylland to visit Mogens Johansen (Johs) in Frederikshavn, then on back to Copenhagen. To misquote Tom Eltang, "It's good to be a pipe seller!".
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):
Claudio was a farmer for most of his adult life. He had also been the world slow-smoking
champion for years, and held the world record for many years (as documented by the Guinness Book of Records). Claudio made his first pipe in 1974 because
he'd already waited more than a year for a Caminetto pipe that he'd ordered. For some years, he made pipes for himself and friends. Some years later, as
he became prominent in European and world slow smoking competitions, he began giving serious consideration to the internal dynamics of pipes, rejecting
the traditional Italian model and creating something that, at the time, was quite new, especially in Italy. He continued this way for some years, slowly
making more pipes and farming less, until he ceased to be a farmer at all (except for some very well tended vegetables) and became a full time pipe
Before we sat down for lunch, we looked over perhaps 100 Cavicchi pipes, selecting about half that have since arrived in Little River. We could quite
easily have selected them all--each was excellent--but we had just received a shipment of 50 pipes at the office, and adding another 100 to that seemed
excessive. So, painful decision followed painful decision as we wittled down the selection to something more manageable. Plus, upon our arrival, he had
already fallen far below what Claudio considered his prudent reserve of pipes, and as Gianfranco joked about what would happen if Cladio ever, gasp, ran
out of pipes, we thought it better to not put such strain on Claudio...
Exploring Claudio's home and garden, it becomes quite apparent that this is quiet man is
exacting in all he does. His vegetable garden is perfectly tended. His yard is verdant, model ships he built as a young man are displayed in his dining
room. Everything about his life is exact and methodical, diligently nurtured. Daniela, Claudio's wife, exhibits many of the same attributes. She works as
a quality control specialist for a food packaging company and the lunch she prepared for all of us was divine, beginning with homemade tagliatelle alla
ragu (bolognese; we are just a few kilometers from Bologna, after all), continuing onto a regional pork dish, the most extraordinary fried
potatoes that I have ever tasted, and finishing with some of the finest cantelope that I have ever experienced. Clearly, Claudio's talents in the
workshop are only exceeded by those of his wife in the kitchen.
Lunch conversation ran from pipes to the regional differences among various
prosciutti and the general reverence with which everyone at the table holds the pig, to Claudio's magnificent vegetable garden (about which
Claudio, in his matter of fact manner, says, "well, I'm a farmer"). Open and hospitable, the opportunity for me to finally get to know Claudio and
Daniela was priceless. The impressions about the man that I gleaned from seeing a few hundred of his pipes were partially confirmed. He is as exacting
and methodical as I had supposed, yet also possessing a gentle kindness, a self-comfort, a quiet modesty, that earned my respect as much for the man as
for his pipes.
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.
After a couple of missed turns and driving around
in search of the correct address (you're probably beginning to discern a pattern), we pulled up into a small
grouping of plaster clad homes, finding Claudio Cavicchi, and his good friend (and our translator for the day)
Gianfranco Musoni chatting in Claudio's immaculately maintained garden. We were immediately whisked inside,
plied with espresso, and shown Claudio's well-equipped, organized workshop. It's not that Claudio's workshop is
particularly tidy, but it is
definitely the work home of a disciplined craftsman: everything has its place, the main table in the room
serving as a place for stummels and paper templates rather than a repository for general workshop detritus
(unlike my office, where all the horizontal surfaces are repositories for general office detritus, plus pipes that I've smoked and not put away). And the centrality of that table is interesting. Machines--a
bandsaw, lathe, buffers, sanding disks-- surround the room, but in the center is that long table with nothing
but pipe stummels and paper shape templates. Claudio doesn't use the templates to help him shape, but he finds
it an important part of the creative process, helping him to find the shapes in the blocks before he starts
cutting. Clearly, having all of those paper templates littering (seemingly) the central area of his workspace is
somehow essential to his creative process.
Just like an office, or a living room or kitchen in
a home, says a lot about its occupant's personality, a workshop speaks volumes about a pipe maker. Hardly an
entire picture can be discerned from a workshop, but much about the pipes begins to make sense. Something that
we've remarked upon time and again here at the office is that Claudio has a failure rate of zero. We have never,
ever had to return a pipe for a construction error or other problem that we think would pose a problem for the
pipe's future smoker. Given that we have (as of this writing) sold about 600 Cavicchi pipes, this is a truly
amazing feat. Pipes are handmade and mistakes happen every great once in awhile. Most top pipe makers have a
mistake rate (as we define it) of 1-2%. When you sit back and think about it, that's pretty amazing in itself,
but not nearly as impressive as Claudio's unsullied record. Alyson took over as brand manager (which just means
that she's primary contact for business pieces associated with the brand) for Cavicchi a few months ago. One of
her first questions, which is something we always ask, is how we should handle any returns for problems with the
pipes. Claudio, rather matter of factly, replied that it wasn't an issue; they never have problems. At first, we
thought this rather presumptuous, until we gave it a little thought and realized that we'd had, oh, about 450 so
far without rejecting a single one. This wasn't cavalier haughtiness; Claudio's was a statement of fact. He
doesn't make mistakes.
And this is certainly visible in his workspace. He is
methodical and diligent; his workshop reflects those characteristics. It is obviously carefully organized;
everything has it's own place. Machines are placed relative to each other for ease of use. Tools are carefully
and efficiently organized. The entire workspace exudes a quiet, professional efficiency. The only area of
controlled chaos (most pipe making workshops are either in a state of controlled chaos or outright chaos) was
that center table, so central to both the workshop and his creative process.
Later in the morning, this came up in conversation. We chuckled about it and Claudio indicated that he would
continue to make sure that we never had cause or need to return a pipe. Gianfranco, Claudio's close friend and
our translator for the day, of course quickly added that if there is ever a problem, that Claudio would want to
know immediately, but, then grinning, added that it probably wouldn't ever be necessary.
Claudio speaks as little English as I speak Italian,
so the conversation was mostly with Gianfranco. He could answer a lot of our questions directly, not always
translating for Claudio; his family has been close to Claudio for years, and while he doesn't make pipes (though
he did once just to see, of course), he's intimately familiar with Claudio's process and Claudio obviously
trusts him as if he's family. From our perspective, while it's difficult sometimes to not be able to speak to
the pipe maker directly, it was something of
a boon in this case to hear about the pipe maker from someone who sees him almost every day, cares deeply for
him, but can offer a third-person perspective, of course overlaid with statements from Claudio translated
directly. In some ways, I felt as if I had a better sense of Claudio because of this, in spite of the
impossibility of direct communication.
Listening to Gianfranco talk about Claudio's foibles was a
treat. In some ways, Claudio's perfect record fits in that mold, as does his perfect engineering. Even with the
care to detail he takes, Claudio makes about 700 pipes each year (of which, about 300 end up here with us). He doesn't understand why other pipe
makers make fewer. He thinks it just takes a lot of self discipline, careful routine, and hard work to achieve
this. According to Gianfranco, Claudio also feels uncomfortable whenever he has fewer than 200 pipes on hand. To
any other pipe maker (discounting large workshops or factories), that would sound insane. I can't think of
another individual pipe maker who wants to carry inventory in case someone orders. Claudio is always worried
he'll run out of pipes. I remember once that, per his instructions, we ordered a few weeks in advance of when we
thought we'd need the pipes. He came back three days later with an emailed invoice. This is a pipe maker that
has the precision of an extremely well run large corporation, not a flighty craftsman or business-challenged
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...
I haven't yet finished my blogging from my last trip to see pipe makers and I'm off again in ten days to see all of my Danish pipe making (and tobacco manufacturing) friends. This is a trip I've made every year for six years now and it's always a highlight for me. Whether it's risking my fingers in Peter Heeschen's workshop or dreaming up ridiculous schemes (and an occasional practical plan) with Tom Eltang, visiting Denmark is just way too much fun for me. Three days ago, the prospect of getting back on the road in two weeks was as daunting as a lonely night in the alligator swamp down the road from my house. Now, well, now I'm ready to go. Bring on the smoked fish and delicious butter and cheese; I'm ready for Denmark! Here's a snapshot itinerary of where I'll be between the 15th and the 23rd of July.
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).
I'll have something of a write up on the visit to Mimmo's briar cutting operation later today or tomorrow, but in the mean time, I thought I'd get this little video of Mimmo and his colleague Nicola at work. Mimmo supplies briar to many, if not most, of the top pipe makers in the world. Here he is at work!
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.
Yesterday, we drove through St. Claude on our way from northern France to Italy. Historically, Smokingpipes.com hasn't worked too much with French pipe makers or French pipe brands. We've been talking here and there with Sebastien Beaud, owner of Genod Pipes. Genod has a storied history, reaching back decades. Its previous owner, Jacques Craen, was famous in France, but less well known elsewhere. Indeed, Genod itself has a dedicated following in France, even if it has been less well known outside of its home market for the past couple of decades. We had a nice chat about pipes--French pipes in general and Genod in particular--and, of course, had a lovely lunch. St. Claude is beautiful, clinging to both sides of a steep valley, with bridges crossing between the sides as various altitudes and intervals. It seems an unlikely place for industry-- even light industry like pipe making-- until one considers the fact that it has abundant water power, which is what originally drove the machinery. So, while it is rather remote, it had the absolutely necessary condition for early manufacturing: water power. The Genod workshop has been there a long time. Sebastien showed us the shaft that drove the old water powered machinery by way of belts. Of course, none of that has been used in decades, but it's neat that the shaft is still there.
For us, perhaps what is most remarkable is that this is a city that celebrates its history as the birthplace of the briar pipe and the center of French pipe making. About one hundred and fifty years ago the first briar pipes were made in St. Claude. Fifty years ago, millions of pipes were being made each year in St. Claude. Today, fewer than 80 people work in pipe manufacturing in this city of perhaps 12,000. There are just four independent outfits left: Butz Choquin, Chacom, Genod, and LaCroix. And the last two are small workshop sized rather than factory sized, with a handful of makers rather than a large staff. Still, from the topiary pipe in front of the cathedral to little bits of pipe artwork here and there, and the ubiquitous murals, almost all of which feature pipe making or pipe smokers, this is a city that does not shy away from its cultural heritage, even in this climate of anti-tobacco hysteria. Apparently, Genod workshop tours are even quite the tourist attraction for St. Claude, with groups of 30-50 people coming multiple times a week to see a pipe being made. We arrived early and Sebastien was wrapping up with one group when we arrived. We joined the tour part way in. Given my familiarity with the stuff he was doing, I was more curious to see and hear reactions from the group. These folks were genuinely interested and curious about the process. My French is far from great, but I answered a couple of questions as best I could once Sebastien introduced me to the group. None of the questions that I could understand suggested any round rejection of tobacco; they asked about the process, the methods, even the market for pipes (some questions I just missed amidst the whirring of the machines; it's tough enough for me to understand French without a disk sander in the background!). And these were just run of the mill French tourists, not people with a particular interest in pipes. I was pleasantly surprised.
St. Claude is also in a part of France that is quite new to me. I've spent a lot of time in this wonderful country, though never in the Jura mountains. It's rugged and beautiful, an awesome setting for the birthplace of briar pipe making. And kudos to the good citizens of St. Claude for preserving that tradition!
Most of the stops along the way are for pipe makers, pipe collectors and the like. Some of them (yes, Florence) are because I'm bringing my girlfriend and heeding the good advice of an industry veteran: "if you want a longterm relationship with this woman, make sure you don't spend every last minute you're in Italy in pipe maker's workshops. You'll still be hearing about it thirty years from now if you do." So, Reims and Florence are in the interest of long term domestic happiness (and, yes, ok, I'm super excited about them also) and the rest are pipe visits.
I'm headed to the airport to fly to Brussels tomorrow. From there, I'll wind my way south, visiting St. Claude in the Joura mountains as the first stop on my trip. I'll visit the Genod workshop, have lunch with folks there, and head east to Switzerland, where I'll spend the night, before going on to visit Ardor, Castello, and Radice over the following two days. And from there, south into Italy, visiting folks, then across the peninsula, visiting more folks, up into Germany and eventually back to Brussels.
I'll blog as I go, with photos and descriptions, but much of the reason that I like visiting our suppliers and partners in Italy is that we, as one might expect, do everything Italian style. This means that we actually talk business for about, it seems, four minutes. Then we eat lunch for two hours. Then business resumes for about six minutes. It's not that Italians don't work hard; these guys really work hard. It's just that business is done over great food. That, I think, is yet another Italian import that we Americans need. Breakfast meetings at 7:30am with everyone scribbling on legal pads while sucking down tepid coffee do not count, my fellow Americans.
About a year ago at the IPCPR show in New Orleans, we had four person team: three veterans (Tony, Susan, me) and one person new to the whole experience (Lisa). Lisa couldn't quite figure out the division of labor. It seemed to her that I spent more time trying to figure out what restaurants we wanted to eat at (this is New Orleans, after all) than I did on the business. Susan and Tony expected this. The three of us had eaten our way through Las Vegas for the previous IPCPR. But Lisa was baffled. I knew I'd done all the prep I could do back at the office, that I'd be at the show or in outside meetings with folks ten hours a day, and that I really wanted to make sure I could experience the culinary delights that New Orleans had to offer. Such as Susan Spicer's restaurant Bayona, which if you ever happen to find yourself in New Orleans (or, well, within 200 miles of New Orleans) is a must visit. Food is really important. Returning to my original point, the Italians have it right.
So, starting in a couple of days, I'll blog diligently about my first love, pipes and pipe tobacco, and I'll probably squeeze some meal descriptions in there while I'm at it. I couldn't be more excited to make this trip. I'm in Denmark and Japan each annually, but this'll be my first trip to Italy in a couple of years.
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