J.T. Cooke on a second pass of the sandblaster. Photo by Chuck Stanion, used by permission of Pipes and tobaccos magazine.
No discussion of pipe sandblasting is complete without referencing J.T. Cooke. I've referred to J.T. in the past as the Thomas Edison of pipe sandblasting, but I think that's unfair. Edison was a jerk, and J.T. Cooke is the opposite. He's intelligent, warm, and rational in all the right proportions. I think a better comparison would be to Nikola Tesla, a genius who experimented endlessly and made brilliantly innovative discoveries that changed the world. J.T. Cooke has done the same for the world of pipes, and with even less fanfare.
J.T. is a musician/biker/pipemaker, and a throwback to the 1960s. He looks like a hippie transported by hallucinogenics to 21st-century Vermont. Long hair and a philosophical approach to life and art are as much a part of him as his dedication to pipes. His mind is sharp and insightful. He's so physically slight that you could almost slip him under a door, but when he starts talking about pipes, he is a giant.
He's also compulsive to an immeasurable degree. Give him a puzzle of some sort, especially one related to pipemaking, and you won't see him again until it's solved. He completely disappeared from this plane of existence for 5 months when he decided to change blasting mediums for the third stage of his sandblasting. Everyone thought a polar bear had dragged him off (Vermont is dangerous) but he eventually reappeared with a new process/medium, and with sandblasted pipes unlike any before seen.
When I first met J.T. in 1998, he was known primarily as a stem replacement and reburbishing guy. He could replicate stems in the style of any major brand, including correct stem logos. They were not identifiable as replacements, except that J.T. etched "J.T. Cooke" on the stem faces at the tenon so they would be recognizable as such when the pipe was disassembled. He didn't want that pipe to be sold later and misidentified as including an original stem. J.T. replaced three or four stems for me around that time and I preferred them to the originals. A J.T. Cooke replacement stem was often highlighted as a positive selling point for those who would let those pipes go.
J.T. was adept with replacement stems not only because he's a compulsive nutjob for whom only perfection will suffice, but because of his experience. He started as a pipemaker 46 years ago by taking a pay cut, quitting his position as a graphic artist with a TV station, and making pipes with The Briar Workshop, run by Elliott Nachwalter. "It was a stupid financial move," he says, "but I wanted to be a pipemaker." Personal comfort has always come second to pipemaking in his life.
Photo by Chuck Stanion, Used by permission of Pipes and tobaccos magazine.
The Briar Workshop moved to Florida a couple of years later, and J.T. stayed in Vermont to make his own pipes, now entranced by the possibilities of improved internal engineering and the reduction of smoke turbulence within a pipe. Cooke pipes began to get some moderate distribution in shops, but he wasn't progressing the way he wished. Then he met Barry Levin.
Levin Pipes International (LPI) was Barry Levin's company in Craftsbury, Vermont. He was a pioneer in estate pipes, sending photographs through the mail and receiving orders by phone. J.T. took some of his pipes to Levin, who was impressed but relatively uninterested. He was dealing in world-class estate pipes of a quality unknown to J.T. at that time, but he did begin including a few Cooke pipes in his mailers.
J.T.'s experience increased dramatically when he agreed to refurbish pipes for Levin. They arrived in batches of 200-300 pipes. Like most things in his life, the challenge was met as a learning opportunity. He studied them. He took them apart and measured every aspect. Those that couldn't be saved were dissected (he still regularly slices his own stems down the middle to check on the internal construction). He began to see what worked and what didn't and attributed it to engineering. "The pipes that were clearly loved by their owners had precise machining, careful measurements, no moisture trap that clogged the airflow with gurgle or pipe cleaner fuzz or gunk. As thousands and thousands of used pipes went through his hands, and he saw with his own eyes what attributes contributed to a fine smoking instrument, his theories on airflow stabilized and he began applying what he learned to his own pipes.
He was particularly smitten with old Dunhill Shells and the incredible texture they provided, craggy, deep and undulating. He couldn't figure out how it was done. He couldn't wrap his mind around it.When Levin decided to pursue an LPI branded pipe, though, another opportunity arose. "Barry had gone back and forth to Italy for pipes," says J.T., "and he brought back some inexpensive sandblasted test pieces. They were horrible. They were not realistically anything that should ever be sold."
He told Levin that if he'd provide supplies, materials, briar, stems, that he would make the LPI pipes for him. These were meant to be reasonably priced, sandblasted pipes, though an occasional smooth appeared. "I made the first half dozen in a variety of shapes. Billiard, Dublin, straight Bulldog; I knew how to do production work. No hand cut stem, no curing, no care for engineering. I could make one or two a day. They sold for about $100. They still appear now and then. I object when someone tries to eBay an LPI pipe and call it one of mine. They were not Cooke pipes." Levin made arrangements with a local garage for J.T. to use their air compressor for sandblasting. "I had no idea what I was doing. I had a 5 gallon pail of sand. I loaded up my $25 J.C. Whitney blasting setup, and the best I could do was something that looked like the skin of an orange, couldn't see any grain at all. It was like throwing manure at a grain silo—nothing will happen with the silo, but it sure stinks."
"I started experimenting with different mediums and nozzles and pressures, different everything. It's a blur. The memorable point is I had a pipe I had tried a lot of stuff on; it wasn't happy looking but was still a pipe. I tried a different medium. I had my own compressor. I point the gun and pull the trigger and the pipe was immediately destroyed, like a blowtorch to an ice cream cone. It disintegrated, evaporated instantly. It disappeared. That was my first try at sandblasting."
And so the experimentations of a mad scientist began. He made his own blasting nozzles and valves. He tried different pressure tanks, blasting materials and mixtures of blasting material. "Different mixtures of medium require change in pressure and nozzle, too," he says. He's spent all of his years since then tinkering with his technique and trying to improve it.
In 1999, I was working for Pipes and tobaccos magazine when I asked J.T. to make our Pipe of the Year, and he accepted. We needed 250 pipes, a crazy number for a single artisan, but he did it. The project was another opportunity, and he decided to concentrate on and try to perfect his blasting technique. "I learned something new with every pipe," he says. "Can you imagine what a perfect classroom that was? All the same classic Billiard shape, no confounding factors. I think I blasted all but six of those 250 pipes. That experience was like having the keys to the candy store. Total immersion in the blasting process. What an education. It was perfect. I learned a lot and I knew what I needed to do next. The amount of time I was spending, they were getting a fine pipe at a good price, but there was more I needed to do to do my best." As he continues to learn decade after decade, continuously chasing an impossible point of perfection, he has relied not only on his own experiments, but on accidents. When an air compressor exploded a few years ago, briar dust got into his medium, and he thought he'd go ahead and see what happened. Briar dust turned out to be a great blasting material that provided good definition of grain, except it tended to scorch the wood. But that led him down another path toward better mediums.
Sandblasting can be a complex process. Drum sanding, where stummels are placed in a rotating drum with blasting medium and turned for hours, is not complex. Here, though, we're talking about artisan sandblasting. When blasting a pipe for maximum grain, definition, finesse, experience and the proper tools are essential. None, however, are easily found. Cooke had finesse, built his experience, experimented and manufactured his own tools, and over the course of 46 years has absorbed the skills for what he does.
In 1999, it took J.T. about 12 hours to make a pipe. It now takes a week. All of that experimentation has not made the process faster for him, it has only shown him how much more he needs to do to attain the texture he knows is possible.
J.T. designs his pipes to be sandblasted. That is, unlike those who try to make a smooth pipe and then sandblast it when necessary, he designs a pipe so the proportions will be correct after sandblasting. J.T. knows classic shapes and is a stickler. All that experience with Dunhill and Barling classics made him a devotee of traditional shapes. In my opinion, J.T. Cooke is nearly alone in his ability to make a perfectly proportioned, sandblasted Billiard (I know that's a bold statement. Please address hate mail to [email protected]). His pipes can appear a little on the chunky side until you realize that you're just not accustomed to seeing sandblasted pipes with proper proportions. Generally, deep, craggy blasts are necessarily reduced from their original proportions. Not so with Cooke pipes.
Sandblasting is not just a matter of holding a stummel in front of some pressurized sand. J.T. does a preliminary pass with a particular medium, just to define the grain. He then goes over it again at different pressure, using a different nozzle, to further define the grain. Then the nozzle gets even smaller and he etches along each individual strand of grain, meticulously following the natural lines and coaxing the softer wood from between the hard lines of grain. Then he does it again. Each pass is a setup for the next pass. Generally, a Cooke pipe has seen at least five passes through the blasting cabinet. No wonder it takes a week. As far as I know, J.T. Cooke is the only pipemaker whose sandblasted pipes are more valuable and popular than his smooth pipes. And his pipes are in demand. He and I are close friends, and when I asked him to make a pipe for me, it still took three years. His waiting list is long.
J.T.'s sandblasting was admired, and other pipemakers decided to explore deeper, craggier sandblasting as more customers found themselves captivated by this tactile dimension to pipes. Now we see excellent, deep sandblasts from many makers. But no one has put the time, experimentation, and sheer sweat into the pursuit that J.T. Cooke has. And he continues to find new and better ways to chase that elusive texture that may one day bring him satisfaction.
This is the second part of a series on sandblasting. Check out Part Three.