Portrait of Smokingpipes' Restoration Department (Russ Davison, Romeo Stan, and Adam Davidson) by Artur Lopes.
The building housing Smokingpipes is the size of a respectable big box store. There's a lot it has to fit: offices, warehousing, a gigantic walk-in cigar humidor, a kitchen large enough to accommodate 70-80 people, photo and video rooms, conference rooms, and a shipping department that's a visual extravaganza of conveyor belts, industrial wrapping rolls, shipping scales, carts, shipping boxes (so many boxes) and immediate access to the thousands of items we carry. This building often feels like a small metropolis, with its own traffic patterns, subliminal background sounds of busy people, necessary infrastructure, and constant movement of persons and inventory in and out.
Different departments have their own general areas, but everyone sees just about everyone else daily. There's a lot of passing through other areas and briefly visiting with folks with other responsibilities. Smokingpipes feels not like a conglomeration of separate departments, but like one community where everyone knows everyone.
Except for the Estates department.
We keep those guys far away and underground in the farthest back corner, behind their own impenetrable firewall, which is long because there's a big workshop on the other side, with only one, reinforced door, which is always tightly closed. For newer colleagues, those who have not yet explored and mapped the building's most remote recesses, the Estates department can be found only with the help of an experienced guide, a spelunking helmet, and an unshakable determination to survive.
Initial access is in a remote corner of the shipping department, through a trapdoor over which is kept a rolling palette of heavy boxed merchandize. Down the enormous ladder, a long, black tunnel leads to the north, and the path includes small foot bridges, accessible only with authorized security cards, that traverse pools of black water containing venomous snakes, piranha, and alligators kept just hungry enough to make them foul tempered. If one doesn't wander down a side tunnel, like the two copywriters who disappeared in 2016, the Estates department waits behind that reinforced door at the end of the tunnel.
You'd think we kept large carnivorous alien monsters in there. I wouldn't go near the Estates department my first four months of employment, sure that if I passed through that ominous door, I'd be doomed to some unbearable horror featuring ants, grape jelly and an industrial wood chipper, or possibly even worse, like a time-share presentation.
We'd see an Estates guy now and then, maybe in the kitchen or walking through the merchandising department. I immediately noticed the deference paid by my colleagues. When an Estates guy walks by, everyone stops in silence. Estates guys are accorded the respect due to magical beings able to transform used pipes into beautiful, like-new smoking instruments. Sykes Wilford himself, founder and Grand Potentate of all things Smokingpipes, pauses in admiration and esteem when they pass.
Those guys, I reasoned, should not be messed with. They are a different species, the next step in evolutionary advancement. If they can make neglected, carbon-rimmed, green-stemmed, over-caked monstrosities look and smoke like new again, there's no telling what they may be capable of. They might turn me into a newt.
I found, though, that they can be messed with, just like anybody else. They're talented, sure, but not as dangerous as their location hints. Once I was accustomed to the Estates workshop, I was more comfortable there than in my own office, and talking with the guys is always amusing, educational, and fun.
It's an important department because estate pipes are important, presenting opportunities unavailable with new pipes. Vintage pipes from the late-1800s and 20th century would not otherwise be realistic options. Or those made by particular artisans of the past, or even those of the present whose new pipes are too rare to attain. My first artisan pipe was an estate, because I had not yet experienced artisan pipes and was unwilling to pay the entry fee for a new piece in that expense tier. That experience made me understand the value of more artfully and slowly created pipes, pipes whose cost I would not have previously considered. Without that option to save significantly with a used pipe, I may have missed some of my most contented moments with artisan pipes.
Additionally, the popularity of estate pipes provides opportunity to improve my pipe collection by selling pipes that no longer resonate with me, and buying pipes that meet my current interests with the proceeds. My collection would not have evolved the way it has if I'd kept every pipe I ever owned. Some do collect that way, and I applaud them and wish I could do the same, but I need to rotate pipes on occasion.
Our Estates staff does important work. But it turns out they aren't the unreachable wizards I expected. They're three perfectly reachable wizards.
We have two guys that restore pipes fulltime and we clean 10 times as many as we did 10 years ago. And they're better now than then, they're cleaner.
While a large number of people working at Smokingpipes came here specifically because of their interest in pipes, Russ Davison knew nothing about them when he accepted a position in shipping. While there, he became more and more interested in pipes. The more he saw, the more fascinated he became, and everyone around him seemed to enjoy their pipes so much that he started smoking pipes himself. That made him even more interested, and when a position in Estates became available, he applied.
That's where he's been for almost two years, the first months of which were exclusively spent cleaning pipe shanks. It was part of the training process, but eventually he was restoring his own trays of pipes every day.
"I line up the day's work on the day before," says Russ, "so I know what I'm walking into every day. We have trays of 12 pipes, mainly, with some half trays occasionally. I start by taking out the stems, then cook the stems."
The stems aren't cooked the way one might cook, say, a fried chicken; "Cooked" is a shorthand term used in the department to refer to the initial process of cleaning vulcanite and acrylic stems using an ultrasonic cleaner with warm denatured alcohol. "We accidentally put a Bakelite stem in there once," says Russ. "It was of a yellow hue and looked like acrylic, but when we checked, it was almost entirely dissolved.
"The process removes the gunk from around the tenon and from inside the stem. While the stems are cooking, I put alcohol-dipped fuzzy pipe cleaners in the pipes' shanks and let them sit. Makes them easier to clean later." Typically, after it moistens the shank with alcohol and dissolves gunk for a while, the cleaner is taken out, reversed, and the process repeated. Those pipe cleaners can sit in the shank until they dry, or not, but it speeds up the cleaning later to just a couple of minutes by soaking into whatever gunk may be lurking within.
After that, and while the stems cook, Russ cleans the shanks. "For me, the shanks are the last step before the buffing wheel." He pulls three Q-tips from a box, dips them in alcohol, and runs them simultaneously into the mortise of a pipe on his workbench. "The buffer will take off any carbon buildup on the rim and shine the whole piece up." He nods toward the buffing wheels, one after the other lining a long workbench, 19 of them, used for various stages of buffing.
"Minor toothmarks can be filed with an Emory board," says Russ, "if they're more than the buffing wheel can take off. Every pipe is cleaned the same way, whether it's extremely valuable or an economical, mass-produced pipe. We've recently been doing between 130 – 150 pipes a week each."
Russ is married to Cassie Davison, one of two Customer Service Supervisors here at Smokingpipes, and they have two children, four and three. They were married before working here; Cassie started after Russ, when a position was advertised. Russ had told her it was a good place to work.
Russ enjoys his job, and his pipe collection is growing. He became a pipesmoker because of his job and has found his work experience advantageous in choosing pipes. "I have my hands on thousands of different pipes," he says, "so I know what's comfortable to me. I wouldn't know otherwise what a Bulldog feels like. Now I know what I like."
Every pipe is cleaned the same way, whether it's extremely valuable or an economical, mass-produced pipe. We've recently been doing between 130 – 150 pipes a week each.
Romeo Stan, another talented restoration specialist, has been with us longer than Russ. "Six years ago we decided to relocate here from Anchorage, Alaska," he says. "We needed a change and had vacationed here. I was a customer of Smokingpipes and I thought working here would be fun, so I applied for a customer service job." He didn't get that job. However, when a position in restoration became available, he was hired. "That was better. I like to tinker with stuff. In Anchorage, I was buying pipes on eBay and cleaning them up and reselling them, so I wanted to try it here." He has become accomplished in his craft and is rightfully proud. "When people ask what I do, I say I'm an artisan. This isn't just a job."
Romeo says the work environment is particularly inviting. "There's a lot of cooperation back here, asking each other for advice and opinions. We depend on each other."
And Romeo finds it is easy to get along with his coworkers, not only because they're pleasant people, but because they now have the space they need to work and don't get in each other's way. Before moving to this building, everything was housed at Low Country Pipe and Cigar, with the Estates department particularly tight. "We were doing the work in the attic at Low Country," says Romeo, "and it was cozy. We have all this beautiful workspace here, but back then we were cramped. It was always too hot or too cold, and too smoky. We had to get along; the space was too small not to. We had eight linear feet of workspace for a tray of pipes, and alcohol and buffer, and if you weren't buffing you'd move the buffer to the back to make work space."
Since then there have been significant changes, and not only with a more spacious workshop. "We've industrialized more. Back then you'd clean pipe by pipe individually. We had tried the way we do it now, a dozen at a time, because back then the guys had more responsibilities, like doing the weights and measurements, and there'd be a lot of confusion, mismatching stems and wasting time trying to sort it all out."
While each restoration specialist follows approximately the same routine, they each do things their own way. "I pick up a tray of 12 or six, separate the stems, if they're acrylic or vulcanite, and put them all in the ultrasonic cleaner. For the outside, we just polish it. Dirt comes off under the buffing wheel. For the chambers, we scrape out the cake with oyster knives, wonderful tools."
The tobacco chambers are thoroughly cleaned, with no residue left behind. All the carbon powder from reaming is carefully removed. "That's why it's necessary to remove most of the cake, but it depends on the individual pipe. Precarb [bowl coating] will usually flake out on its own. There are some factory precarbs that are interesting. Some will just fall out with little trouble after a single smoke. If you smoke it once, you just wipe it out. Other precarbs turn into goo and have to be removed entirely. Otherwise it would not pass our quality control. If you put your finger in the chamber, it comes out with no soot, no dirt, no stickiness. Basically, we strive to remove all remnants of the previous owner, leaving as like-new a pipe as we can."
One recurrent problem is a buildup of carbon on the rim of a pipe. "Gel hand sanitizer works great for that. It has enough alcohol to dissolve the carbon buildup, but not enough to damage the stain of the pipe. Works great on sandblasts. We had a sandblasted Dunhill 407 with what appeared to be a smooth rim. But it wasn't smooth, it was just full of gunk that had been buffed. It took us a long time to remove all that and get it clean. That's when Gel works. We don't top bowls, we don't re-stain anything. We go more for cleanliness and functionality, and maintaining the original integrity of the pipe, rather than just making them pretty."
Basically, we strive to remove all remnants of the previous owner, leaving as like-new a pipe as we can.
Adam Davidson, our Estates manager, is also a celebrated pipemaker, in the top echelon of North American pipemaking, in my opinion. We have a few of his pipes in stock occasionally, but they are rarities. His education includes a degree in industrial design from Purdue University in 2003.
"I don't want to say I was good at it, but I was. However, I wasn't great at the computer application of it. I couldn't figure out all these weird curves, because the instructor didn't know how. The students figured it out. So when it was time to submit a design, instead of a computer prototype, I always opted to physically make it. I enjoyed the thought process. Industrial design isn't just about designing something; you have to break it down to its core, deconstruct it to figure out how things are manufactured.
"I smoked a pipe in college, so naturally I also drew some pipes. The way to draw a pipe is not to very slowly draw each curve, but to do it quickly. You should be able to draw a Horn, with the right shape and stem, in about four seconds and with about three lines. And you want to draw it a couple dozen times and choose the best."
He was advised that a career in industrial design was mainly sitting at a computer, and that it wasn't as fun as it might seem. Adam liked a more hands-on approach. "What I really needed to be," he says, "was a craftsman. But I didn't want to go out and make brooms or something like that. Todd Johnson, then in Myrtle Beach, was looking for a craftsman to help with his Medici line of pipes, so I sent him a portfolio, and then I flew down to see him." Todd thought Adam was overqualified and wondered why he wanted to make pipes. "I'd been building houses after college, and I wanted to do something different." That was good enough, especially after Adam revealed his craftsman's nature. He moved 800 miles to this area from Indiana.
He was doing Medici designs in 2005 and working at Smokingpipes in restoration, as well as working at Low Country Pipe and Cigar. Eventually Medici pipes came to an end and Todd moved to Charleston, and later to Nashville. Adam's design skills helped him find new ways to do things, over the years honing each individual process in restoring pipes.
Adam isn't currently a pipe restorer. Besides managing the department, he researches each pipe and determines its value according to its condition and collectibility. Hundreds of pipes a week. He's been doing that for so many years that it's difficult to imagine anyone knowing more than he about estate values. He maintains a working knowledge of fluctuating pipe prices by monitoring websites and auctions, and researching with vintage pipe brochures and catalogs.
Industrial design isn't just about designing something; you have to break it down to its core, deconstruct it to figure out how things are manufactured.
A family man with a daughter and wife, and a pipemaker, Adam is also an accomplished cook. He's accomplished in many things, having one of those minds that absorbs everything of interest to him. But he most often talks about his various new methods for concocting and preparing astonishing dishes, which he often shares with us here at work.
Even more important than occasional food, Adam brings with him an unrivaled expertise. We are always calling him with pipe questions, because he knows everything. And within his department, he's relied upon even more, and has been since the beginning."I would teach new pipe restorers what I knew. As years passed, various people cleaned pipes. And I would remember that so-and-so who worked here last year did it like this and we should do that all the time. For example, we would clean the pipes and ream them and they would look great, but one guy who worked here said when we put our finger in the bowl it should come out clean and dry. In the early days, your finger would come out black because we thought scraping out the cake was good enough, but this guy said when he bought a pipe he preferred it clean. So we started cleaning the bowls, and then someone else would figure out something else, so it's a matter of compiling tricks and techniques from a lot of people."
Adam himself has a facility for discovering new methods for accomplishing tasks. "I had to find new ways to do things because the old ways didn't work well or took too long, and so the way that we clean pipes now is almost entirely different from what it was 14 years ago. We're able to clean them faster and better, we have a lot of techniques, but some of it was from my industrial design background, asking how was this built, what did the previous owner do to it and how can we undo it."
One particularly important skill Adam has pursued is in determining whether or not a stem on a used pipe is a replacement of the original. "I'll look at a pipe with a really good stem, and say this is a replacement, because after so many years I recognize individual factory techniques. Dunhill, for example, their tenons all have this little bevel at the end, so if I see a really nice Dunhill stem that doesn't have that bevel at the end, it's either a replacement stem, or someone has made it short, though that's unlikely. We don't know everything that's been done to a pipe. But I have to figure out what isn't original, what doesn't have the wear and tear you'd expect for the age of the pipe. I was pretty good at industrial design when I graduated, but it took longer to become pretty good with pipes, and I'm still learning a lot. But I'm really proud of what we do in restoration. I think we clean pipes really well, especially given the volume we have. We have two guys that restore pipes fulltime and we clean 10 times as many as we did 10 years ago. And they're better now than then, they're cleaner."
For a restoration associate to clean 100 pipes per week is far beyond industry averages. Adam has spoken with other restorers and says they're baffled by the number of pipes we can refurbish. "They think cleaning four or five pipes a day is a pretty daunting task. Not all the pipes are filthy, some are only lightly smoked, but we still have to figure out a lot. It's not taking shortcuts at all, it's all about more efficiency.
"We have a motto back here: It's perfect enough. There's no such thing as perfection, but what we try to do with every pipe is remove the previous owner from it. Figure out what this person did. He smoked it, put some tooth marks in the stem, whatever. We remove those personal remnants and make the pipe as new as possible without leaving any signs that we've been there."
Every step in the restoration process leaves evidence, and that evidence must be removed. If a toothmark is removed by sanding and polishing it, now there's a stem covered with scratch marks from sanding, and they must be removed. "So we don't want to leave any evidence of ourselves. In the end you reach a point where you can tackle the same problem forever and it's never going to improve, so it's perfect enough."
We have a motto back here: It's perfect enough. There's no such thing as perfection, but what we try to do with every pipe is remove the previous owner from it.
Smokingpipes has a few proprietary techniques that save time and produce superior results. Stems, for example, have traditionally been enormously time consuming. A stem might require 30 minutes of buffing to remove years of oxidation, but that process also leaves the stem a bit more rounded and a little smaller, which contradicts the restoration edict of leaving no evidence. Adam found an alternative method that circumvents that eventuality.
"We've figured out a way to remove all the oxidation," says Adam, "and also polish the stem, in a matter of only minutes. At the end of the day we've removed the oxidation and polished it and it looks like glass, and it is actually better preserved than using other traditional techniques."
Still, some stems can never be returned to original, but that's because of the quality of the vulcanite. "If you take an old pre-formed stem that is good quality ebonite," says Adam, "it will look like glass when we're done. If you take a stem and buff it and it's still brownish no matter what you do, that means that stem had lots of tiny air bubbles in it, and all of those bubbles are oxidized on the inside where we can't get to it. You could cut that stem in half and find it was oxidized on the inside, because that's just how ebonite is."
There's a lot of experience and knowledge in the Estates department. Maybe that's why the staff is kept in an underground bunker accessible only by the most adventurous and heroic, and why they emerge only occasionally. They're like the secret recipes for Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Estates staff represents corporate information of arcane and original origin, contributing to the success and individualism of Smokingpipes with an efficiency unheard of elsewhere.
But I think those guys are segregated behind an impenetrable firewall in a cave because they're too talented for their own good. They're like government scientists who hold secrets so important that they aren't permitted to see daylight. When they emerge blinking and confused by the presence of other humans, they're naturally quiet, and we know better than to ask their secrets lest we be sequestered as well.
They seem happy, though, in their private cave. It's where they want to be, doing what they want to do, and the benefits of their skills are reaped by the pipe community. Tens of thousands of pipes have been returned to service thanks to our Estates department, pipes that have brought satisfaction to pipesmokers around the globe. That's important work, well worth the confinement. That perspective makes the safety and well-being of the Estates staff a priority. We can't risk them running wild. They're lucky they get bathroom breaks.