Think of a tobacco pipe, and the first image that pops into most people's minds is a briar pipe. Oh, sure, most of us have a few non-briars -- a meerschaum or two, maybe a "Missouri meerschaum" corncob, a clay, perhaps a prized calabash -- but most of the wood pipes are briar. It's not too difficult to find pipes made from other woods, such as cherry or olive, and there are lots of other exotics out there, but, still, briar is the standard.
Briar isn't just the usual material for a pipe, it's become a synonym: You can use the word "briar" in place of "pipe" in a sentence and it will make perfect sense. But why is that? How did briar become the most accepted material, more or less, for tobacco pipes?
The traditional story, repeated in almost every history of pipes, is that a French businessman was traveling through St. Claude in the early 1850s, when he stopped to spend the night at an inn in a little village. Some versions of the tale have it that he'd left his meerschaum pipe behind at his previous stop, others say that it had broken in his saddlebag. Either way, he was horrified at the prospect at facing an entire evening without the solace of a good smoke. Asking the innkeeper for advice, he was directed to an old woodcarver who promised to have something ready for him by the morning. Sure enough, at breakfast the traveler was presented with a beautiful pipe carved out of briar. As the French say, voila. The briar pipe suddenly became wildly popular and everyone lived happily ever after.
Personally, I say that story smells worse than a handful of old, dry oak leaves stuffed into an uncleaned churchwarden. (The pipe, not the person.) Let's see... a woodcarver in a then-obscure rural village just happened to have a chunk of properly seasoned wood, gathered from the root burl of a tough old tree that has little other value. Then, skipping those steps in the process that are hugely labor-intensive and require years of foresight, the woodcarver, without a pattern from which to work, was able to solve all the problems of chamber size, wall thickness, draw hole positioning and stem placement overnight?
At least we weren't asked to believe that the Pipe Fairy left a polished bent brandy with beautiful flame grain under the traveler's pillow. In a village that soon became the center of carving pipes from briar, a large supply of which just happened to be locally available. Well, why not? After all, I believed everything that nice gunnery sergeant told me at the recruiting station 35 years ago.
On the other hand, it might have had something to do with the fact that other materials being used to make pipes just weren't able to meet the demands of a growing pipe-smoking population. Not only was the demand for pipes in the 1850s increasing, but the way pipes were being used was changing: Instead of being exclusively smoked at a home hearthside or in a pub -- London even had smoking clubs where men would gather to enjoy a bowlful or two -- people were carrying pipes with them.
The stone pipes originally used by the American Indians, from whom we learned the joys of tobacco, are slow to make and heavy to carry. Clay pipes, the most common material for European pipes for a couple of centuries, were easily broken. Ceramic pipes, which had become popular in the Low Countries (Holland and its neighbors) were more expensive than common clays, but not much more durable, particularly when carried around. Meerschaum was, and still is, obtainable only from a fairly small area of Turkey. Plus, meerschaum is a fairly soft stone and can easily break.
That leaves wood. It's relatively cheap, easy (sort of) to work and is less likely to break than the other materials that had been used. It seems likely that the traditional story of the origin of briar pipes is probably just a convenient just-so story told by someone who was enjoying a nice pipe in the company of friends.
But why briar, specifically? Well, that's another story. You'll just have to be patient, while I look for my pipe.
Bryan R. Johnson is a freelance writer who lives deep in the North Woods, where pipes and tobacco are delivered by dedicated men on snowshoes.
My wife is from Russia, and I got the chance to read her "Traveling to the United States" handbook when we first met in 2008. I found it entertaining how accurately it illustrated the American inclination for chit-chat. Frankly, we're nosy.
"Americans can be very friendly, but are generally very curious about other people's affairs. When you first meet an American, they may ignore you, but if you find yourself in a cab, on a plane, or sitting with them for any extended period of time, they will start asking you a lot of personal questions."
"What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "What kind of work do you do?" "How long are you visiting?" "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" "Where did you go to school?" "Do you like it here?" "What do you do after work?" "Tell me more about your job."
To us, this seems like perfectly normal, innocent conversation. To others around the globe, we can't mind our own business. I have noticed that people frequently ask about my profession, but they rarely stay engaged for the answer.
We pipemakers sometimes have difficulty relating our craft. We make pipes, sure, but this process can be described in a variety of ways. While some folks are generally curious, the majority of people ask just to ask. I find it difficult to explain what briar is, how stems are made, how pipes are priced, or describe different shapes and creativity, without noticing that the person who asked 1) doesn't really care. 2) can't follow what I'm describing. Fortunately, there are those rare encounters...
When I was at the dentist office a few weeks ago, my dentist had to grind down part of a filling that was too high. A really nice guy, he asked me about my personal life to make me more comfortable. "Well....I work for Smokingpipes.com, an internet source for pipes, tobaccos, and cigars. I also make pipes at my workshop at home." (He got a more direct answer than some people. If a nosy neighbors asks me what I do, and I get a bad vibe, I just tell them I make dollhouse furniture. No more questions after that.) My dentist is a cool guy, but I could tell he was struggling when I went more in-depth. Looking over at a poster, I mentioned that briar is like a tooth, only upside down. He became more interested.
"On a tooth, the outside is the hardest, nicest area. Picture a briar cutter taking a bowling-ball-sized thing out of the ground and cutting it in half. The outside is good, but the inside is typically not used for pipes. When I get a block of wood, it has plateau - the bark - on it, and when I start carving, at times this bark can be deep. Sometimes it goes away, and sometimes it shows up on the sides of the pipe. Think of these sandpits as 'cavities'. Some pipe makers and factories fill these, just like you filled my tooth. Heck, a lot of us even use scrapers and little rotary tools like you do to shape some areas of the pipe."
As I was showing him pictures of blocks and finished pieces, he seemed excited, and even brought in another dentist to see them. "Teeth have growth rings and 'grain' just like those blocks have!" he said. I found that really interesting; he was teaching me about teeth as much as I was teaching him about briar. I enjoyed explaining my profession to him, in a back-and-forth conversation. The only disappointment: I learned he did not smoke a pipe.
To quote one of the coolest and most unusual comments I've ever heard: "Man, those pipes are so cool. If this was my own private practice, I would totally trade you dental work for one of those pipes!"
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.
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'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!
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