Earlier this year Sykes and I made our way to the Savinelli factory in Barasso. This trip was of particular interest to me personally because it was the first time that I'd been able to see pipe production on such a large scale. I've been fortunate enough to see a number of small workshops and artisanal studios, but I'd always wondered if the big factories still had "soul." I had plenty of questions that needed answers and just as many curiosities that needed satisfying.
After we arrived (and after some espresso), we strolled through the halls full of memorabilia and framed advertisements from decades past, and we all headed down to the factory floor.
Savinelli does every step of their production in house, from curing their briar (a massive amount that's held in a separate warehouse outside the main factory floor), to turning and even hand-shaping bowls, to mixing their all-natural stains. I watched as a single craftsman specializing in various rustications manned his station and worked away on some of the more time-consuming styles of texturizing while another sat amidst a huge pile of briar blocks, sorting them into various piles based on what individual shapes they'd be suited for. I saw bowls being turned and witnessed several additional sorting processes used to determine quality and grade by series. Across the floor, other craftsmen were fitting stems to stummels while others stained, polished, and stamped the final products.
It was immediately evident to me that Savinelli's employees are not just workers in a factory; they are craftsmen who care deeply about upholding the tradition and fine quality of the Savinelli name.
Luisa, the Factory Director, walked us through the entire process. She has been involved in all aspects of production during her time with Savinelli. Her passion and pride are both immense. She took us outside to show us the briar storage and curing process, and she graciously allowed me to ask a few questions about her career and about Savinelli pipes in general:
How long have you worked for Savinelli, and how long have you held your current position?
I started with Savinelli in February of 1973, so it's been 42 years. And I have been the Factory Director for the past 5 years.
42 years is a long time! How many different positions have you held since you started?
I've had many jobs; most notably the Chief of Stations for the entire production line. I oversaw everything from stemwork, to sandblasting and rustication, to staining and finishing. Some of my other responsibilities included sorting both raw briar and turned bowls by quality (by overall dimension and grade), keeping track of turnover quantities, and moving large amounts of briar from drying into actual production.
How much has changed over the years and what would you say has been the most significant innovation?
Actually nothing has really changed, and the pipes are still made the same way that they have been from the beginning. The machinery has not changed. What has changed is the hands of the makers; they have honed their skills and talents. The demand for certain lines has also changed. The highest quality lines were once more in demand due to extreme rarity, and now that we have more high-quality briar, the spectrum of demand has shifted slightly. There is also a lot more attention to safety. Certain techniques have also changed, such as our sandblasting, which has moved from actual sand to a crystal medium. This produces a better result, and as you grow, you must be flexible in changing these types of processes.
What would you say is your favorite Savinelli pipe shape and finish?
Easily the Giubileo d'Oro "920." But of course any of our shapes with the right quality of briar and grain are beautiful.
How large is your production team?
Around 30 people. When I started with the company that number was closer to 100. We used to work longer shifts and produced around 400,000 pipes each year; now our production is 80,000 each year. People like to claim that pipes were made better 40 years ago, but that is simply not true. We make fewer pipes, but they are higher in quality.
What are some of the challenges of production on this scale?
The difficult part is that there are so many people working through the many processes; it's the personal management of individuals that proves to be challenging. I know each part of the production very well, but it is split up between so many people that I really have to get to know their individual personalities and talents to help realize their potential. It takes a lot of attention and concentration.
Is it difficult to switch gears between producing the standard shapes and the higher-grade Freehands?
It is difficult because our approach is completely different. When we choose to make Freehand pipes we must stop production on the standard shapes. The process for Freehands is much more involved and takes much more time. Finding the best people from the production line and pulling them to make Freehands is challenging since it's not an assembly line, but rather a one or two man operation.
After the rough shaping of the stummel, we must get together and brainstorm which style of stem will be paired before the pipe can be finished since we do not use pre-shaped stems. All accents and stems for the Freehands are cut from rod here in the factory. A lot of care goes into the few pieces lucky enough to make the cut; to end up with a certain number of Autographs, for instance, means that many, many more will be made, and only the few will be selected.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Is there anything else that you'd like the pipe smokers of the world to know about Savinelli pipes?
You're welcome! I would like the people to know that although they may see us as industrial, I truly believe that our work is just as important as artisanal workshops. It might even be superior in some cases since our craftsmen focus on each individual step of the process, mastering that step instead of one person having to be adequate at each.
Another important factor is that our production is so large that we can select only the highest quality briar out of a vast supply. When you buy a Giubileo d'Oro, for example, that pipe might have been one out of one-thousand blocks, if we're that lucky! I'm just pleased to know that there are people who are passionate enough about pipes to want to understand fully what goes into making them.
All too often we pipe smokers and collectors overlook the fact that a pipe doesn't have to hail from a small workshop to be beautiful and a wonderful smoker. The folks at Savinelli, under Luisa's watchful eye, lovingly and carefully craft some of the finest pipes available, and we can all count on Savinelli to continue to uphold the brand's quality and traditional techniques for generations.
Tagged in: Behind-The-Scenes Interview Pipe Makers Pipe Making Savinelli