As the pipe manager for Smokingpipes, I have the privilege of not only viewing and holding many of the pipes sold on the site, but also witnessing where and how they are born. When arriving at a pipemaker's workshop for the first time, in the back of my head there is an expectation of what I think the workspace will look like, yet, somewhat often, I'm surprised. Below is an account of my journey and observations on my recent trip to Peterson's storefront and workshop.
Ireland has been a favorite destination for me since my first trip in 2007. After a bit of roving, I arrived in Dublin the night before my Peterson visit and stayed at a small but accommodating bed and breakfast in the city's center. Although I opted for this location because it had decent public transportation connections to Sallynoggin, the Dublin suburb where Peterson holds headquarters, this would prove more difficult than I imagined.
I heard something vague in the press about "planned industrial action" (strike) at Dublin Rail, but on the morning of August 5th, I awoke to the news that my plan to ride the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) was dashed. It was a damp day in Dublin, but I braved the belting rain for a short walk around O'Connel Street, the General Post Office, the Ha'penny bridge on the River Liffy, where I proposed to my wife seven years earlier, and made my way to southern routes bus terminal at Nassau Street. Along one side of Nassau Street is the beautiful Trinity College, and directly across from it is a red brick building with frosted windows at number 49, on the ledge of which is the unmistakable script lettering of Peterson.
When I walked into the store, I was immediately and quite warmly welcomed. It was a comfortable place, and I was free to look throughout the entire Peterson collection; every series, shape, and finish. After I grabbed a few tins of tobacco and proceeded to cash out, I mentioned I was on my way to Sallynoggin, and the very helpful staff exclaimed, "you must be Dennis!" and "We thought we'd see ya here with the DART being down." They went back and forth as to which bus route would suit me best, and they finally agreed on the 46a. The man at the register even went so far as to hand me my change arranged in to piles of exact bus fair. Now that's service.
After a bus ride to Dun Laoghaire (Dun-Leary), I met with Conor Palmer of Peterson, Tom Palmer's son, and we moved towards what I expected to be the Peterson Factory. I took a tour of the administrative area, had a cup of tea, and then headed back to see where the pipes are born. What I discovered was not a factory at all. A large workshop, maybe, but not a factory. I found a group of kind people, all specialized in their particular area of pipe making, working together to create fantastic looking pipes. During my tour, each person's role was explained with detail and passion. I particularly loved learning that many had been working for Peterson for 15, 20, and 30 years, while there was an equally surprising number of young faces. The younger crew had been working as apprentices (a term almost unheard lately) to learn specific crafts and skills in the pipemaking process.
The part of the process that stood out to me most was what the silver workers did, maybe because I've had the least exposure to that kind of thing, or maybe because their system for this was just so impressive. For the past 51 years David Blake has been the silver worker for Peterson, and, as he looks to retirement, Jason Hinch, who has been with Peterson for eight years as a silversmith apprentice, will be taking over when he leaves. They spend their day shaping each silver ring, spigot, and cap to fit every pipe, making each of them shine with turned silver carrying the famous Peterson font and hallmark. This is quite a special craft, and a skill I'm glad to see being handed down, to keep Peterson pipes looking sharp.
Before my tour, I hadn't the slightest idea how the silver was turned; in fact, I thought the silver cap may have even come pre-formed or cast in the shape it was. Although the silver does come in a kind of pre-cast ring, the shape of those rings and their curvature around the shank is all done by hand. Since the diameter of each pipe shank is different, the silver worker starts by placing a large wooden dowel in a lathe and, with a chisel, brings the dowel down to the diameter of the pipe shank. They then shape the end of it to match the pipe, apply the silver ring, and begin to slowly work the silver around the end of the dowel. Each piece of silver takes, by my estimate, 3-4 minutes. For each pipe, they sand down the dowel to meet the diameter of the next pipe and the process repeats. Jason demonstrated this over and over, with precision, as you can see from the short video I took while I was there. All that work, and this is just one of the many processes for silver work at Peterson.
After I wrapped up my tour and headed back to the hotel, I contemplated the many things I took away from the experience. At the forefront though, was that Peterson isn't a factory; it's sole purpose isn't just cranking out pipes. Peterson is a workshop, full of dedicated and passionate people with the goal of turning out pipes that look and smoke perfectly. There was a closeness amongst the group there, and it left me feeling quite honored to have had the opportunity to see it.