We sell pipes. We sell a lot of pipes. By the time you receive your pipe from us, your briar or meerschaum has passed through more than a dozen sets of our hands and eyes. Though our individual investment in a given pipe can range from a quality inspection upon arrival, to a near-bonding experience when describing, that new friend which just arrived in your favorite brown truck, in at least some small way, carries much of our thoughts and energy with it.
You purchase a pipe. You purchase many pipes. At some point you gift a pipe to someone you feel worthy, perhaps you even surprise them with a shipment directly from us. That instrument of meditation and solace, with the addition of your care and energy, now travels and the metaphysical river lengthens. From time to time we receive emails with photo attachments from customers showing us where their Smokingpipes briar is presently located, and the impact of actually getting to see how this beneficent butterfly effect is currently manifested, well, it’s downright magical.
We have received emails from missionaries like John Michael George in Papua New Guinea who is ministering to the needs of the Hewa tribe, along with a photo of his new friend, "Nafas" enjoying an (originally) Smokingpipes Stanwell Bulldog. Due to the kindness and generosity of a SPC customer (Alex Kummel), many of our pipes wound up in the hands of the brave American men and women currently stationed at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Fenty. The philanthropist emailed us with not only the story, but pictures of some of the recipients, along with the video of a push-up contest with a pipe originally purchased from us as the grand prize.
While not the easiest thing to articulate (we didn’t personally create these vessels of solace, and their further travels resulted from your generosity), seeing a briar that we once held continue to provide happiness to yet another person, in an unexpected part of the globe, feels quite amazing. If one of your Smokingpipes.com briars is presently in the service of another, far from your home, we would love to hear about it.
In 2001, my wife and I went on a Scuba trip to Belize. It was a fantastic trip; being an avid underwater photographer, we elected to stay on a live-aboard called 'The Wave Dancer,' a 120’ vessel that went all over the Belizean coral reef and allowed me to dive and shoot up to six times a day (breathing oxygen enriched EANx Nitrox II). Given that it was in 2001 and in Belize, a country that to this very day has yet to impose any smoking restrictions, smoking abounded on the Wave Dancer. While Cuban cigars were essentially omnipresent, it appeared that I was the lone pipe smoker... or at least I thought I was. One of the hands on the ship was a native Belizean, John, a man of about 55 years who was, without question, the finest natural born diver that I have ever met. When he wasn't tending to the guests, he would strap on a tank (no buoyancy control vest or gauges... just mask, tank and fins), and, if asked, he would enigmatically answer that he needed to "visit his friends."
One time, around an hour from nautical twilight, I was at about 150 feet, getting ready to ascend, and down (way, way down) below me I spotted John. When we got to the surface I asked the Captain "What the hell is John doing down at that depth?!” The Skipper shrugged and replied, "He’s a friend of the sharks, that's where they hang out, and so that's where he hangs out." He also related to me that John had never been bent (that is, stricken with the "bends" or decompression sickness). Being a fairly proficient technical diver, with a solid ability to do on-the-fly gas law/physic calculations, and knowing the rough depth/bottom time involved, as well as having personally observed that John filled his single tank with the same stuff we all were breathing, what "Captain Ron" had just nonchalantly imparted was flat impossible. And yet (yet), I had just observed it.
"Belize Wave Dancer" image courtesy of Bear Graves
On our fourth night, following a dive/shoot of the infamous Blue Hole, and after everyone had gone to their cabins, I was feeling restless. Not wanting to disturb my slumbering mate, I quietly exited our cabin and headed up to the observation deck. All the lights on the ship, but save a couple of small navigation beacons, were out, and the stars burned with a ferocity that I had rarely encountered. I pulled out my old tobacco pouch and pipe, thumb-packed, and fired. A voice came out of the dark (damned near ruined my pants) "Mm - Mm... Smells good, Mon... ya got some extra?" It was John. I gave him my pouch, and he loaded some of my aged bright leaf into a very old, small meerschaum and fired up as well. In reciprocity, John cracked a bottle of Cubano "Gold Label" rum. For about two hours we made small talk. He pointed out the Southern Cross, which, of course, I had seen many times… but never nearly so clear and bright as on that night. We talked about navigation without modern instruments, diving, how to find his "friends." Just two guys with nothing in common but a love of the ocean, diving, Cuban rum, and smoke. In John's words, "Dat' US Virginia is da tits, Mon, I dream of seeing your country someday."
After we were about three-quarters into the bottle, I worked up the nerve to ask about his (literally) supraphysical abilities to shrug off ‘gas laws’. John paused a moment... “It’s a family thing. By the late 40s, both my grandfather and me pop were loaned tanks by ‘de rich folk to survey spots where profitable underwater salvage were likely. Some jobs pushed ‘dem limits right proper, but ‘dey never got ‘de aches. Turns out the same with all the men of my family.” He punctuated this with only a so-it-is shrug. Both of us weaving a bit, we parted with the best salutes we could manage in our states, and I headed back to my berth.
A scant few weeks later, Hurricane Iris (Category 4) made landfall at Monkey Town/Big Creek, Belize, precisely where the Wave Dancer was moored. The 15' storm surge, driven by 230 km/h winds, compressed into a 40' high wall of death as it moved upriver. The Dancer was hit so hard by the channeled wave that it actually flipped end over end. 20 experienced divers from the Richmond Dive Club drowned in 18 feet of water in the wee, small hours of that morning. I'm told that John was one of them.
Pipes, and chance encounters with strangers whom are no longer strangers upon parting, are blessings and can stay with you for a lifetime. If you guys get down south, when ya look at the Southern Cross, smoke or drink one for John (he also loved Belikan beer, by-the-by). I know he would appreciate it.
It's been a few weeks since Sykes and Dennis went to the Inter-tabac International Trade Fair for Tobacco Products in Dortmund, but it sometimes takes a while for the results of such trips to reach the website; whether it be pipes for you to purchase, or photos for you to view in a blog post. Well, most of the pipes have made it on the site already, but the photos have yet to be seen until now. Most of us may not have been able to go to Germany with them, but we're lucky enough that Dennis took many nice pictures of some of the places and people they saw while they were there. Since another crew has already been sent to the Richmond Pipe Show, there's been no time to annotate them, but as usual, the photos speak for themselves. Enjoy!
Good evening folks, may I join you in a smoke? Perchance would any of you have a pipe that I could borrow? Perhaps a bit of tobacco? Oh, a match, tamper and a punch in the solar plexus to get me started, would also be greatly appreciated. I am swimming in briars and their accouterments, understand; it's simply a matter of finding them within the four-dozen-plus 55 gallon bags and over 70 boxes that have followed me from Columbia to Little River.
Mathematicians maintain that most everything in life boils down to simple numbers, and trying to stuff the contents of an overly crowded 1200sq home, complete with a stuffed-to-the-rafters garage, into an 1150sq condo with no covered parking... well that's one dog that just won't hunt. But, with a keen eye for the necessary/superfluous (as well as a reluctant acknowledgment that you'll never fit into those 30''-waist jeans again), a satisfactory move can become all but a given. A great pre-load/load basically boils down to a process of triage, packing and gently arranging in the truck to maximize allotted space.
Triage: Triage is a simple evaluation of future utility of a given item and, if it passes as useful, just asking: How much of it travels with you? As an example of the latter, when my roommate went to the store she could never remember if we needed soap. Therefore every shopping trip resulted in a growing soap collection. At the time I left, we had over 120 bars of Lever 2000. Given my upcoming space constraints, how many bars would I elect to move? Yeah, all of them (after all, cleanliness is next to godliness). My Alienware computer, three monitors, my sixty inch flat screen, my beloved espresso machine and my pipes/tobacco were a given; but my crystal sorbet service for 12? What if I become the entertaining 'King of my condos'? Chicks dig sorbet, and without that service I'd be screwed! (Hey, it could happen.) Can't leave my baseball card collection (too much sentimental value), ditto with my fuzzy, pink handcuffs. When all was said and done, The only things that stayed in Columbia were a piece of barware that said 'My friend visited an island communist dictatorship, and all he brought me was this stupid mojito jug', and an 800lb, six-grill barbeque (hey, I wasn't going to lift the damned thing).
Packing: Is it something that couldn't possibly become damaged, even with the estimated 17 times that I would accidentally curb the truck over the next 150 miles? Use 55 gallon yard bags. Is there a slight-to-medium possibility of breakage under the above mentioned conditions? Throw it into a 55 gallon bag anyway. Waterford crystal, or that flimsy container of Plutonium-239 that I bought on a lark when I was in Uzbekistan? Throw gently into a 55 gallon bag.
Loading: I had myself and a two-man crew whom I prepaid for three hours, thus nine man-hours. Talk about shooting sedated ferrets in a burlap bag, right? For the first two hours, damned skippy. Beginning at about t-minus forty-five minutes, however, the gap between that which was loaded and that which had yet to be loaded became apparent even to my (er, let’s say, “ambition-impaired”) helpers, and what had before appeared as controllable chaos quickly accelerated to a panic befitting refugees fleeing the forces of a hostile warlord (picture me grabbing a Lalique vase and yelling 'Go long!!').
Unloading: Unloading and putting things in their proper place, especially without the added stress of having a crew on the clock, can be a halcyon, even meditative activity... unless you made a dog's breakfast of the pack. To borrow a quote from Hamlet's soliloquy "Aye, there's the rub!" Unloading a poor pack is akin to playing with a 100" tall matryoshka (Russian nesting doll) from Satan; every gigantic bundle or box that one peeks into reveals a slightly smaller, equally disorganized and nondescript doppelganger, and so on. I had carefully packed all of my pipes and tampers in a container, swaddled the same with sheets and beach towels, and then placed my precious cargo in a final container inscribed with "Pipes and Tampers!"
So far, roughly 39 of my 50-odd metaphorical matryoshkas have been removed and I have yet to find my pipes. Hindsight being 20/20, using a Sharpie on a black 55 gallon bag probably wasn't such a hot idea...
Pipe smoking worldwide declined steadily for the half century between 1960 and 2010. Once home to dozens of pipe manufacturers making many millions of pipes, St. Claude now has three that make fewer than a quarter million pipes a year among them. As has been the case the world over, factories were consolidated. The Ropp factory, unusual among French pipe manufacturers in that it was not in St. Claude, but rather some 150km away in Baume-les-Dames, closed in 1991 and was absorbed by Chapuis-Comoy shortly thereafter, where briar Ropp pipes continue to be made.
Chapuis-Comoy makes a variety of brands these days, though by far the most significant and the most intertwined with the company's history is Chacom. I wrote about my visit to the factory more broadly earlier this week and you can find that here. Following our exploration of the factory, we wandered down to massive storage rooms filled with pipes. In some ways, this was no different from any other pipe manufacturer. Many of Chacom's most significant lines are simply kept in inventory to be shipped to distributors around the world.
In pretty much every large pipe factory I've been to, there's also been a few dozen or a few hundred pipes that are interesting, and are great pipes, but don't fit anymore: the last few of a line that was discontinued from a catalog or an order that was manufactured before a customer went out of business. I relish buying these. Smokingpipes.com's one-at-a-time approach to putting pipes on the site is perfect for great jumbles of good things. We don't need ten of the same shape-finish combination as another retailer might. We're delighted to get ten different, interesting pipes instead. I've done this with lots of different manufacturers over the years: Peterson, Savinelli, and Tsuge also come to mind. Sometimes it happens on scale (think last year's Tsuge sale, which amounted to some 1,500 pipes) and sometimes it's not quite so huge (my purchases at Peterson, where we've bought a handful of a few different things they don't know what to do with on a couple of occasions). Now, keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with these pipes. Often they're really good. They're of the same quality as the rest of what the factory produces. They're just the forgotten ends of lines that have become extinct or custom orders that were made with the wrong ring and then made again. It often means we can offer unusual things at lower prices.
But, the experience at Chapuis-Comoy, while not qualitatively different, was quantitatively different. Antoine Grenard, Alyson (my wife) and I walked through room after room of dusty shelves, each holding pipe boxes, or boxes with dozens of pipes or giant bins of finished and semi-finished pipes. I did what I always do. I asked Antoine if there was anything he wanted to sell. We started slowly. He showed me some English made Comoy's pipes from the 1970s and I bought a few of those for the estate section (at one point, Chacom was Comoy's French distributor). Then he showed me some Jean LaCroix pipes. I bought a few dozen of those, which will also appear in the estate section.
Then we got to the real prize. He had dozens--I had no idea how many at first, but it turned out to be around a hundred--of beautiful old French shapes--delicate billiards and acorns and apples--with horn stems. Now horn is a beautiful material for stems, but it's also not terribly practical. It's not as durable as acrylic or vulcanite and takes a little more care in the teeth. It's also difficult and expensive to make, so no one does it very much anymore. A hundred years ago, with few alternatives, it was all but ubiquitous in French pipe making, but seeing a hundred pipes with horn stems these days is unusual. Antoine didn't know how old they were, though from the stems and bowl shapes they seemed decades old, but from the stains, they couldn't have been too much older than about 1970. So, I'd guess they were made--or at least mostly made--forty-odd years ago. I bought them all.
And that was the starting point for what became the 'Ropp project.' At this point, those pipes weren't stamped, but they needed a brand name, and a prestigious one at that. They are beautiful pipes with clean wood and great shapes. It seems arbitrary, but Ropp seemed the best fit as a brand name among the major brand names that Chapuis-Comoy owns (and Antoine didn't want to use Chacom for a variety of reasons having to do with US distribution rights and the overall direction for that brand). This whole thing was a very organic process that was born out of discussion and shared passion for great pipes.
So, from there we moved to other things as Antoine remembered various odds and ends he didn't know what to do with. We found some great extra-long shank canadians in a bin. The shape was awesome, but the stain, frankly, was not. It was a sort of funky reddish-brown color that didn't really work and didn't get absorbed into the wood properly, leaving a bit of a mottled mess. Obviously, that's why these were just hanging out in a giant bin of 50-odd. Looking closely, though, it was obvious the wood was very good. These were great pipes that had something go horribly wrong in staining. I was beginning to tell Antoine that I wasn't interested when he proposed, knowing as I did that the stain was the problem with these otherwise great pipes, that we blast them and restain them. I took him up on the offer. The results, which I didn't see until they arrived a couple of weeks ago, are awesome. They're on the site now.
Rounding this out, we found another few dozen sandblasted pipes that looked great. Antoine couldn't remember what they were for, but it was a classic tail end of a series. There were three or four of each of a bunch of different shapes. We rolled those into the project.
So, these Ropp pipes you started seeing on the site last week were all from this first round of treasure hunting that we did in the factory in St. Claude. We have quite a few of each, though they won't last forever. We're restarting the brand in the US with a couple hundred pipes, but Antoine and I also discussed finding other things to roll into the line as time goes on.
We want to make the brand quirky and interesting. The world has enough great classic pipes. The Chacom line from the same factory is filled with such things. What makes this project different is it's a place for great pipes that don't fit elsewhere to have a home. We'll emphasize classic French shapes and styles: delicate, elegant, perhaps with interesting stems. No one in their right mind would create a big line with horn stems these days. They're just not practical enough to have the wide appeal a factory needs for a big new release. But, that's exactly the sort of stuff I love. Little niche things that a certain number of people will think are really cool. That's the awesome thing about the internet and the long-tail of product availability that it makes possible. Just because something can't be a blockbuster doesn't mean that it isn't awesome and wouldn't be great pipes to folks looking for something unusual and interesting.
Some of the most rewarding things we've done with pipes over the years are like this. Cool, interesting, smaller projects with a more limited audience that let us get creative and do what we do well. And I hope that the Ropp project seems as exciting to you as it does to me.
In the great marital ledger, I, like most husbands, have some entries in both the credits and debits column. Specifically, I've gained credits for taking my wife to Europe five times in the five years we've been together. But those credits have been partially offset (as my wife rarely fails to remind me) by debits associated with dragging her to a few dozen pipe maker workshops, pipe factories and the like during each of those five trips. My wife and I enjoyed our honeymoon two years ago in Italy. We enjoyed it, in part, in the Castello workshop, Mimmo's briar cutting operation, and other, similar, august sites of Italian culture. However, this year's trip to France was to be a vacation. And a vacation alone. Well, mostly. Except for one little side trip to St. Claude...
Antoine Grenard and I have known each other for a few years. The young--my age; in his early-mid thirties--managing director of the Chapuis-Comoy factory and I have always gotten along well, but I'd never visited the factory on my previous trips to St. Claude. Grenard's team of thirty make Chacom (the flagship brand's name is a portmanteau of Chapuis-Comoy) and a variety of other brands, including Ropp, Jean LaCroix and others.
The factory itself is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. Even my wife was delighted to have her vacation interrupted by the tour. Built in 1910, the factory once had more than two hundred workers, busily making pipes. Two hundred people and the concomitant equipment take up a lot of space. That leaves a lot of interesting underused space and artifacts of pipe making of decades past.
Much of the equipment used has been in continuous operation for decades. We met Antoine in a conference room filled with a century of pipe memorabilia and started the tour in the vast spaces reserved for shaping pipes. The available shape chart from Chacom is vast. Hundreds, if not thousands, of templates for classic French and English shapes are on hand. As is the case with almost all pipe factories, the bowls are rough shaped using fraizing machines, a multi-step process where a given machine will cut a specific angle--the back of the bowl, or the area around the rim. Making a given shape requires setting up the equipment for a production run, so runs of hundreds of stummels at a time are cut and then stored to be completed, sometimes having the shape further tweaked. The factory also has a newer template-based shaping machine from Denmark that shapes an entire bowl based on a plastic template of the shape, similar to the equipment that Stanwell used before it closed a few years ago. The Eltang designed Oscar series, with its more challenging angles and modern shape, is made using this method.
From there, we worked our way across rooms and floors, seeing pipes being sandblasted, stained, rings and silver bands added and finished. Many factories outsource the preproduction of their decorative bands, but Chapuis-Comoy does almost all of this in house, with specialized lathes turning and then cutting decorative rings for the ends of shanks at a spectacular pace.
Seeing current production was exciting, but the real highlight of the visit was pipe stummel storage. Vast rooms filled with baskets, bins and giant bags of rough shaped stummels occupy a full floor of the massive facility. Rack after rack holds tens or even hundreds of thousands of unfinished pipes. Some of these are shapes in current production, just waiting to be moved to production. But hundreds of different shapes, each with dozens or hundreds of stummels, have sat there for decades, representing the tail ends of production runs for discontinued shapes, now covered in thick layers of dust.
Another flight of stairs up--perhaps the sixth floor in the facility; I rather lost count--takes us to an attic, where the truly ancient stummels are stored. In some cases, huge wooden bins of many hundreds of stummels await inspiration. And inspiration struck. I started accumulating a little group of assorted, old shapes, one example of each of a few different shapes. And my pile grew. Eventually, I was carrying around more than I could hold. I didn't know immediately what we'd do with all of these, but these were old French shapes that simply had to be back on the market. Interesting, smaller bowls abounded. Fifty years ago, the average size of pipes sold were much smaller--equivalent to a Dunhill group 2 or group 3. Modern pipes are larger, driven by a taste for increasingly large pipes in the US and German markets. Not all of the interesting shapes I found were that small, but part of what makes classic French shapes interesting are the delicacy of the lines, something only possible with smaller shapes.
We progressed from there back to a conference room, stopping along the way to wash the accumulated dust off of ourselves. Crawling around in the attic was a particularly messy activity. By this time, it had become clear that a few special series based on these shapes would have to happen. I couldn't give up the prospect of bringing these beautiful, delicate shapes to life. We slowly pared down the shapes from the eighteen or so I'd pulled out of bins down to eleven and began to explore stains, stems and decorative rings. Ultimately, we opted to create three new series, each available in multiple finishes and with multiple shapes.
All three series will be available on Smokingpipes.com starting in the next few weeks. In some cases, these will be fairly limited editions. There are no plans to produce many of these shapes again, so we'll keep the lines going for as long as we can.
I hesitate to admit it, but of all the wonderful things we saw and did during our vacation, the visit to the Chapuis-Comoy was the highlight of the trip for me. People ask me whether, after fourteen-odd years in the pipe business, it ever gets old. It doesn't. I love it. More than that, Chapuis-Comoy is an undoubtedly special place. There are few businesses in the early twenty-first century that have operated in substantially the same way for a hundred years. The materials of historians are records and written documents and, at times, physical artifacts. But rarely does the historian get to experience something so similar to life as it was lived. For an avid pipe man whose whole career has been in the pipe business, who also has an academic background in history, it was a unique and special experience. Perhaps even more importantly, my ever patient wife not only tolerated this side trip, she enjoyed it immensely.
Yes, our crew has come home from the IPCPR trade show in Las Vegas. Not only did they lug back hundreds of beautiful pipes, which are soon to hit the website, but they also managed to take some video to showcase the many brands represented there. A quick warning: the video below may cause extreme jealousy and drooling. Don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more clips like this one. Without any further delay, here are the highlights:
It seems Sykes and Alyson can't escape work. Loving what they do makes it less like work, I'm sure, but even whilst on vacation enjoying the balmy weather in France they are sending me photos of their tour of the Chacom factory with Antoine Grenard. Riveted by the historic building, the endless stacks of briar, and the scenic views, they didn't have time to provide a narrative for these photos, except Alyson's back-story for Baya, Antoine's dog, who apparently followed them throughout the tour, chewing on a block of briar, and who has her very own line of pipes. They'll be home soon to tell us all about it, but until then enjoy some of Alyson's handiwork behind the camera.
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.
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