Just a little while back, we had a visitor. You’ve probably heard of him: Canadian pipemaker Michael Parks. He’s made quite a name for himself with his great interpretations (and re-interpretations) of traditional designs, not to mention some really stellar sandblasting. And, of course, we feature his pipes in our regular updates.
He flew down here a few weekends ago to spend several days collaborating with our own resident pipemaker, Adam Davidson, and I was asked to join them in order to observe and report – the latter of which I’m doing right now. John also joined us on my second day there, and between the four of us conversations ranged across such subjects as the evolution of the “behaviorally modern human”, pipes, automobiles, pipes, flowers gardening, pipes, what to do if attacked by a bear in Canada, and of course, pipes. Michael is a proper outdoorsman, Adam was raised in a small town in Indiana, and though I grew up in New Jersey, my parents’ families hail from the outskirts of the Appalachia on one side, and deep in the hills on the other – resulting in quite a bit of common context between three thirty-something fellows who grew up hundreds of miles apart.
And of course, we all enjoyed a good meal. And because Adam is Adam, it was only natural that excellent, home-cooked fare was provided each evening. (He also took Michel out to a Cracker Barrel breakfast on Sunday morning, and, as is only fitting to a true Canadian, Michael made sure to taste and assess the maple syrup before applying it to his pancakes.)
But the real reason we were there was pipes, or more to the point, pipe-making, and regarding that there was plenty to learn of and observe. Between one day and another, John, Kat, or I had cameras at the ready to document Michael and Adam at work, and a picture is, as ever, worth a thousand words. So let’s all have a look at what went down, shall we?
Conceptualizing - Failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes. While there are those out there who can just pick up a piece of briar, or stone, or a blank canvas, and create something technically proficient and aesthetically engaging on the fly, they are very much a minority – akin to those who can produce the answers to complex mathematical problems at a moment’s notice. For the rest of us mere mortals, forethought and preparation are in order. As a special project for this visit, Michael and Adam were handed a big chunk of plateau briar, with the idea of producing a pair of matched-shape pipes. Not identical, mind you; the artisans would each apply their own final tweaks, as well as their own finishing techniques, but both pipes would share in a common concept, as well source material. Even this foundational step in the pipemaking process (developing a shape) absorbed plenty of time and a lot of thought, Adam and Michael sketching, rubbing out, re-sketching, and passing the block back and forth, all while carrying on a running discussion covering flow, aesthetic balance, engineering, and grain.
Shaping – That sleek, modern Dublin seen above is Michael’s. He spoke to us about how when hand-filing he gets into a deep focus that he thoroughly enjoys, and how the time flies as he works to perfect the pipe’s design. And, sure enough, once he started, he was off in a world of his own, patiently puffing on his pipe and making no noise but the measured rasping of wood and steel, and the periodic scratching of a pen as he paused to plan out his next moves. The results speak for themselves, even when looking at an unstained stummel, sans stem, and still sporting some of Michael’s pen-marks– I really liked this pipe. The ability a pipemaker has to develop and intuitively conceive a design in three dimensions, and confidently understand how altering a line or plane in one place will affect other aspects of a shape’s balance, is, by itself, impressive.
Drilling, Engineering, and Stem-work- It’s all well and good to make a pipe look fine, but if the drilling and engineering isn’t solid, looking fine as it sits collecting dust may be all it ends up doing. Both Michael and Adam recognize this, and though they had different methods for ensuring that chamber and draft-hole were cleanly executed and precisely aligned, each clearly put a lot of thought into the process. As artisans, they don’t just want their fellow pipe aficionados to purchase and collect the briars they create, they want them to smoke them, enjoy them, and, hopefully, praise them to others. A lot of work, as well as a whole lot of patience goes into building up a reputation as an artisan whose works can be counted on as an investment – pipes that one can trust to provide enjoyment for years to come. Developing and maintaining habits and methods that produce consistent results were clearly a point of pride for both Michael and Adam. At the same time, both were more than willing to observe and learn from the other.
Adam also demonstrated his stem-making to both Michael and me. As with most things, Adam takes a systematic approach. Even with the aid of a lathe set up specifically for the task, buffing wheels, etcetera, it can take two or more hours to complete a single, custom-shaped stem. Quality of stem work is something many consider to be a major aspect of pipemaking, distinguishing the skilled artisan. Although I wasn’t there to catch Michael working on his stems, I did get to see the materials he’d brought along, including some really gorgeous cumberland. As with the briar from which bowls and shanks are fashioned, for an artisan, after investing countless hours developing your skills, making the best of your efforts begins with acquiring appropriately high-quality materials to work from.
Silverwork - Annealing is an important step, preventing the sterling silver (hardened by its extrusion into tubes) from folding or cracking during shaping into a mount. Adam was kind enough to display for Michael and me just how important this step is, by first attempting to shape a mount from silver he hadn’t annealed. Granted, this wasn’t intentional – it was a piece that he had thought he’d annealed previously - but it was instructive. As Adam good-naturedly put it, “There goes about five dollars. As you can see, making mistakes with silver can get expensive.”
R & R - Both days that I was present my arrival didn’t come until afternoon. For Michael and Adam work began around 9:00AM. This meant that by the time I’d been poking around for several hours, everyone was hungry, and both artisans could use a bit of a wind-down to refresh their grey matter and give their hands a break. (And just let me say, I’ve yet to meet a pipemaker with anything like a weak handshake.) Grilled meat, a bit of drink, and plenty of coffee and tea were provided by our host in short order – all of it excellent. Along with this came of course a bit of simply lounging around, passing about our various personal supplies of tobacco, and enjoying our pipes while the birds chirped, cats wandered through the yard, and the lathes, sanding disk, and what have you cooled off in silence.
Final Notes– Like I said, I really liked this pipe. (Also, while I’m not a terribly photogenic fellow, I do think I looked damn good in this picture, rather stately - so onto the internet with it.) Michael and I had discussed various marques the first day I was over, and one that had come up was the old Kriswells, which had given Stanwell a lot of competition back in the 1960s, offering as they did a lot of lean, trim, streamlined designs. Though Michael’s design featured a touch more substantial bowl than most of the old Kriswells I’ve seen, (which often looked like sharpened-up variations of the Sixten Ivarasson look) I saw in it the same kind of confident dynamism in line, form, and posture that I think of when I picture one of the really good, vintage Kriswell shapes. This struck me as something of a happy coincidence, given both that I’d not even seen this pipe yet when we’d had our discussion, and Michael mentioned that this design was something of a departure from the variations on classical shapes that he usually concentrates on. I think both the classic shapes and this more dynamic, direct, and active style strike as a natural fit for a man who is both an artisan and an outdoorsman, and hope to see plenty more from Michael in the future.
Since our 2013 poster not only accompanied the most recent issue of Pipes and Tobacco Magazine, but was also promoted on our social media, and was announced in our newsletter, hopefully most of you have seen it by now. If not, the images can be seen HERE. But this isn't about the official images. This is about the folders full of various unofficial, behind-the-scenes photos that I believe should be seen too.
The first side of the poster features a step-by-step guide to making origami pipes (disclaimer to the more impressionable: please do not try smoking these). Since it was originally Ted's idea, he oversaw the process. It seemed like the entire marketing department was folding tiny papers into letters and figures for hours, but eventually they all came together. Katie (who made many of the tiny pipes and things) was asked to take the poster photo, and if you ask me she did a great job. Although the photos of this process don't lend themselves to blooper-type humor as those from the other side of the poster did, it was still a lot of fun.
The other half of the poster went through more of a journey, and I had the pleasure of taking the photos as we worked on it. Brandon's idea evolved from old-timey boxing photos to Monty Python-like taunting, from solidly black and white, to playing with slight color and saturation.
It spawned team-building exercises like rubbing hot pipe-ash on one another because "we need to look period-correct dirty," and, in one case, actual sparring that Brandon took way too seriously. What ensued made us realize that John, normally the most laid-back and cheerful person in the marketing department, is probably not to be messed with. And of course, we learned that it's hard to make a pipe (and yourself) look good while fighting and making menacing faces.
Hopefully we'll have time to put more of the blooper shots up in a Facebook album soon, but until then, you don't need fisticuffs and mustache wax to have fun smoking your pipe. Enjoy.
Currently sitting on my desk is a beautiful piece of art. It happens to be a Danish Estate crafted by Tonni Nielsen, fresh from estate restoration, and scheduled for today's update. Though I could write a thousand or more words about this Bent Brandy, its fine-looking grain and exotic wood accent, there are times where words simply fall short. That's why the images on Smokingpipes.com are so important. Although text relates information not outwardly visible and gives a little historical context for brands and pipemakers, it is the photograph that best describes -- and often sparks an infatuation with -- a pipe.
Our photography and videography team: Peter Kogler, Katie Ranalli, Chris Johnson, and John Sutherland have perfected their craft. For each update, they have less than three days to capture and edit photos and video for an average of 200 pipes. Additionally, many of these pipes get multiple photos from various angles -- all told, the gang takes well over a thousand photographs each week. Great pains are taken to ensure that what is seen on the web is exactly what sits in the tray in front of them. The light cannot just bounce off the shiny finish of a smooth pipe, it has to illuminate the intricate details of the grain. The stain needs to be just the right shade, which can be difficult for some of the colorful pipes we offer. The silver needs to be polished, and the stamping needs to be as legible as possible.
Of course, all of this effort would be pointless if we used one photo to "symbolically represent" a category of pipes like many other online retailers. For us, that is not enough. The pipe you see is the pipe you get. We do not use stock photography. We do not use bulk photography. This means, if we get 10 Peterson Darwin System Smooth (B42) with P-Lip pipes, we photograph each one with the knowledge that, although they are given the same title, each pipe is unique. Isn't that part of what makes pipes so special after all?
I could tell you that these guys work really hard, and that each photo is perfection... but why not go with the theme of this blog post and show you? It is for this purpose that we have stalked them with cameras and created a short video illustrating just that. So, without further rambling from myself, please take 2 minutes and 40 seconds to witness the endless work the guys and gal do to make the Smokingpipes.com update stand out.
Vladimir Grechukhin is, in my opinion, the least appreciated of the widely known Russian Masters, and I view this as tragic.
Many know Viktor Yashtylov for his pipes of unusual shapes, proportions, and dimensions and his craggy sandblast, Sergey Ailarov for his intensified and rethought versions of classic shapes, especially the calabash, Michail Revyagin's double chamber pipes of truly unusual and phenomenal design, and Boris Starkov for his asymmetrical creations and minimalistic beauty.
So, what is Vladimir Grechukhin known for?
First, a little background. Grechukhin started making pipes in the 1970s after training with one of the earliest Russian masters: Alexei Fyodorov. After spending only three years with Fyodorov, Alexei publicly stated that Grechukhin had surpassed the master. Now, Grechukhin has taken the place of Fyodorov as the revered master of Russian pipes. Interestingly, he has said that he prefers to get his inspiration for his work not from others pipes, but rather from cars and other technological beauties.
So, why is it that, despite all of this, Grechukhin is less known than the other Russian carvers, at least outside of the circles of those who collect Russian pipes with a passion? I cannot give an honest answer, but I can speculate. His work is not nearly as flashy as most of the others that I mentioned above. This is certainly not to say that the others are superficial (far from it), but Grechukhin's work is characterized by skillful simplicity.
To try to bring a bit more attention to this under-appreciated master, let me show you a pipe of his that I consider myself lucky to own.
This little beauty, just a tad over four inches long, seems to defy classification. It is clearly a hybrid between a Dublin and a horn, but also contains hints of a calabash shape – not the gourd calabash, but the briar rendition. My mind constantly evokes the word “mushroom” every time I hold it.
As someone with rich Russian roots, I cannot help but believe that this defiance of classic categorization is at the very heart of what it means to be Russian: we are said to be gloomy (have you seen the weather in Russia?), yet we are so often joyful; we are thought of as bleak and bland, but we have produced masterful writers, musicians, and artists.
The pipe itself thrusts forward defiantly, with bursts of beautiful grain accompanying this momentum. The chamber, however, is placed asymmetrically towards the rear. This placement helps to temper the forward push of the rest of the pipe, adding a sense of balance that clearly required a masterful hand to accomplish. Additionally, it gives opportunity for a stunning amount of birdseye to piece through on the rim.
The pipe is squat in proportions, but momentous nonetheless. In a single piece, Grechukhin succeeds in capturing the Russian experience and producing a piece that helps to explain his contributions to the pipe field: he is continuously pushing forward and defying simple categorization, yet still is able to produce the classically beautiful and, just as importantly, functional pipe.
Like most creative types, I fancy myself a problem solver, and when one discards an object deeming it no longer of worth, I say “Nay, good Sir or Madam, you just haven’t thought up a good way to recontextualize it.”
My desk, as I type, is covered, and I mean filled to maximum capacity, with discarded pipes that didn't make the cut that we’ve received with estate batches from good folks just like you, dear reader. They are set aside serving no other purpose but sentimentality, and occasional employee pilfering.
And so begins our dusty journey together finding new uses for old, chewed-up, burnt-out pipes. We may not actually reach one-hundred and one (this sounds much more intimidating all spelled out), but I bet once we put our heads together we’ll come up with all sorts of new and inventive ways to repurpose that which I know most of you will never throw out anyway.
I’ll start (this was, my idea, after all) with what has to be one of the world’s tiniest planters:
What do you think? The pipe (and yes, Magritte, this still be a pipe) continues to carry with it all its “pipe-ness” and the cultural baggage there within-- nostalgia, masculinity, etc. minus the smoking part-- even juxtaposed with feminine beauty of the colorful little wildflower I picked behind my office.
And now that you’re stimulated, it’s your turn, dear Sir or Madam. What ideas have you? Tell us in the comments, or better yet send us some pics to email@example.com or post them on our Facebook page. Please, do not be afraid to think outside the box (one-hundred and one is a lot).
John Sutherland: Marketing Mngr and Sr. Photographer
These are busy, busy days here at Smokingpipes.com, what with the Holiday Season and all, and when word came through the grapevine that the Monday following Thanksgiving is pretty crazy in our warehouse, I thought I might wonder over there and grab a pic or two before the outgoing packages began their merry voyage to new homes.
Unfortunately, there was really no way to get a photo that could convey the sheer scale of the hundreds and hundreds of boxes due to be shipped. That said, I thought you may enjoy a couple behind-the-scenes images from late yesterday, the above featuring the wonderful Janice, our Shipping and Receiving Supervisor.
Today, we're putting up the very first examples of something that we've been working on during the past few months. You'll find the new 360-degree flash models used for the new Sillem's lighters. Frankly, I think this may be the coolest thing ever. Or at least the coolest thing to happen this month. Alyson, Bobby and Melissa have been working really hard to pull this together. I think they've done a tremendous job. We're still very much in the Beta phase with this, rolling it out here and there as we can, making sure we have it down before we try to bite off more than we can chew. It's been a long road to get it this far; we have some ways to go before it's more widely implemented.
So, I figured a quick Q&A followed by two examples below might be in order.
Q: What in the world is this and where can I find it?
Q: Wow, cool! How did you make it go?
A: USB driven turntable and Canon DSLR camera are slaved to a desktop computer running specialized software. Flash apparatus is slaved to the camera. We pretty much set it up (which is far harder than it seems like it should be, as we've discovered over the past couple of months) and it takes care of the rest.
Q: What does the setup look like altogether?
A: See the photo below! The odd-looking wooden apparatus (which, frankly, looks like part of a medieval siege engine) lets us orient the turntable either right side up or upside down, depending on what we need it to do. Oh, and I know that which is in the booth isn't that which is on the screen. Alyson was busy with the update, so I took the picture, and it's far too complicated for me to actually make go, so I just pretended it was going. And then realized that I had a pipe on the screen and a humidor in the light tent...
Q: Again, seriously cool! When can we expect to see it on more stuff? Yeah, I am talking about pipes here...
A: Frankly, we're not sure. We have more work to do on lighting and reflections, and on how to consistently get good results with a variety of pipe shapes and finishes. This might take awhile, though we certainly hope it happens sometime soon.
Q: Well, can I see an example?
Sure! See below: (Note, of course, that you need the Flash plugin installed to see these).
Hey guys to start off my blog post let me introduce myself a little. My name is Bobby Altman and I am the staff photographer here at Smokingpipes.com. I have a background in editorial and commercial photography specializing in sports, product, and food. My blog posts are going to be about recent photo projects we have worked on and the execution of the photos.
For this first post we wanted to have a slideshow playing at our tent after the Chicago pipe show this year so I figured just shooting on white would be the best way to go, however I wanted the background to be seamless, simple yet still interesting and showing the shapes of the pipes we selected. To illustrate how simple it is to do this I have also provided a shot of the set up.
I set up some white photo paper long ways on a table and placed a piece of glass on top of that to give a light reflection. for the pipes glass works great but for people I used white tile board from Lowes. (Tile board is about $12 and comes in a 4X8 sheet...and wont break if you stand on it.) The table was positioned about 3 feet from a white wall. The key to doing this is to get the object you are shoot as far from the white background as possible because the light will bounce back onto your subject. The main light is bouncing out of an umbrella to camera right and the background light is pointed at the wall directly behind the pipe. I used some white foam core board to stop any spill from the background light onto the pipe and to bounce a little of the main light back to fill in the shadows a little on the left of the pipe. The background lights in a shot like this generally need to be about one full stop brighter than the main light to blow it out.
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