A portrait of Max Rimensi of Il Duca Pipes by Artur Lopes
Massimiliano Rimensi of Il Duca pipes prefers to be called Max, which makes sense. Few people in this hectic world have the patience to pronounce six full syllables of identification all at once. One syllable, however, is manageable, though "Max" doesn't seem to possess the sheer gravitas of "Massimiliano." Massimiliano is a name better held by an emperor with power of life and death over millions; but Max is a name one can trust in a pipemaker, particularly a pipemaker of extraordinary talent and creative vision. While Max may well have made a terrific emperor, few pipesmokers can view his work without knowing his pipes are better than any dominion he might attain.
Rimensi was an electrician in the 1980s. Generally speaking, electricity and pipes are not particularly entwined. There are no electric pipes, except for battery powered vape pipes. Max doesn't make those. People have probably utilized complex electric cooling systems for pipes in the past, but no one wants to haul around a pipe with an attached air compressor running at 75 decibels, even if it makes their aromatics smoke a little cooler.
Electrical experience may not sound like the most intuitive position for launching a pipemaking career, but Max was able to draw more than watts and amps from his profession. His experience helped him sharpen his critical thinking skills. "I was still young," says Max, "but was given the task of managing and organizing a large worksite." He had a talent for pulling a great many details together for the completion of complex systems. "I was hungry for knowledge," says Max, "and for that reason I studied and learned a lot about new photovoltaic systems, fiber optics, data transmission networks, home automation, medium voltage systems, etc." He absorbed it all and wanted more. "I think that all these specific tasks helped me develop analytic processes and mental dexterity."
Not knowing the impulse would change the direction of his life, Max bought his first pipe in 1990, a cheap Dublin. "I always remembered my grandfather, when he took a moment to relax, he always smoked his pipe. I was fascinated by his ritual and by how much he enjoyed the smoke." As Max smoked his new pipe, he examined its construction, because that's the kind of inquisitive mind he has. His experience included carpentry work in his uncle's woodshop and as a professional cabinetmaker, and he realized his pipe was not particularly well constructed. He was struck by the idea (he calls it a "fever") that he could make a better pipe, so he started experimenting with briar and was soon fashioning pipes for local shops and building a following.
"When I started," says Max, "I didn't have a clear idea about pipemaking and which 'style' was my favorite. I think it is quite common for every pipemaker and it happens for many reasons. First, you have to discover what style the designs in your head may be, then find balance between those ideas, and then choose how traditional to be in regard to both classic shapes and Freehands."
Il Duca pipes are typically of moderate, convenient size, with less emphasis on large, muscular bowls than is often seen in Italian pipe styles.
When he's considering a shape, however, he doesn't think about his style. "To be honest, I usually just read the briar and let it tell me what sort of shape and style a pipe may be. I love to read the plateau and find a mix between it and the idea I have in my mind in that particular moment." Any changes or improvements to his style have resulted merely from his becoming better and better at following the grain of the briar and achieving a pipe that best showcases the natural assets of each block.
It was easier to choose a name for his pipes, and he named his brand after the three great dukes of Ferrara of historical import to his hometown in northwest Italy. In the early years, Max visited many pipemaking workshops and picked up various techniques along the way. "As you know, every workshop is different; there is no one workshop equal to another, and that is true also for mine."
I love to read the plateau and find a mix between it and the idea I have in my mind in that particular moment.
Tooling is always a challenge for young pipemakers, because some of the necessary tools don't exist in the normal world. Max Rimensi solved that problem. "Most of my tools are homemade by my hands: all the blades for shaping, the drill bits and the sanding pads. To stain pipes, I use an airbrush; in that way I need less color and the briar's pores remain more open and free to breath during the smoke."
While his style has evolved as a function of his own creative vision in conjunction with the natural attributes of each individual briar block, the work of both Tom Eltang and Baldo Baldi have been influential. "And I must thank Tarek Manadily, of The Italian Pipe Homepage. He traveled from Switzerland to help teach me. To be honest, at first he told me to stop, that I shouldn't be making pipes. But after a few days, with his advice, I quickly improved and his constructive criticism became compliments."
With a production of about 200 pipes each year, Il Duca pipes are primarily sold in the US, Asia and Italy, though they have been sought by collectors everywhere. Max's shaping and finishing techniques have brought him admirers from all nationalities.
"I really love to use color contrast both in sandblasted and in smooth finishes," says Max. Il Duca sandblasts are contrast stained in one of four combinations: all natural; contrast black/yellow; contrast black/orange; contrast black/tan; and all-black. Smooth pipes are finished in honey-blonde, contrast black/yellow, and contrast black/orange.
To accent those finishes, Max uses a number of materials. "In my workshop there are many drawers full of different materials that I love to use on my pipes. Mainly, I use boxwood, white and black bamboo, giraffe tibia, warthog tooth, Ivorite, and masur birch. I have also a bison's fang from the Pleistocene era, which is a lot of fun."
In addition to briar and a range of accents, Max also incorporates a number of alternative materials in his pipes, primarily morta. Essentially, morta is semi-petrified oak found underground beneath bodies of water. One of the best sources for morta is peat bogs, where the acidic and oxygen-poor environment in the soil and water contributes to the wood's petrifying process. While popularized by Trever Talbert, who has posted extensively on both sourcing the medium and using it to craft quality tobacco pipes, morta as a pipemaking material has become a staple of Il Duca pipes. But working with the material is no easy process. Morta requires a larger cut than a typical briar block, as its petrifying process often results in more cracks, fissures, and natural flaws that have to be removed before shaping. Even then, some flaws just can't be cut out. Max discards around 70% of all of his morta blocks. After they've been cut, the morta blocks then have to cure. For Max, that process takes an additional year.
In my workshop there are many drawers full of different materials that I love to use on my pipes.
The medium is also quite hard, perhaps not completely petrified, but still much harder on tools than normal wood — making shaping a meticulous task. Max takes special care to use properly aged morta as well. If it's too old, it could smoke wet. If it's too young, it might not have the desired resistance to flame and heat. Then you have to consider density. You can crudely assess the density of a piece by comparing it to similarly sized blocks, but Max will also cut a block of morta on its end and sandblast it to get a better idea of what he's working with. This is an important step because denser morta will yield tighter grain, and will also provide better smoking qualities as well.
While harmony with natural grain patterns helps shape his style, Max says that the internal engineering is the primary factor in a high-performance pipe. "We can speak about every aspect of a pipe, but the most important thing is that it has to smoke well, and to achieve that, you have to be very precise about the drilling. Some of my collectors can recognize my pipes blindfolded, just by blowing through the stem and listening to the sound. My drilling is totally open, free from obstacles, and is designed to prevent condensation."
For his own personal pipesmoking, Max prefers a slim Billiard shape, which is also his favorite shape to carve. "It's a very difficult shape to get right, to find the perfect lines and balance. I love that shape also because it dissipates heat so evenly."
Although he never times himself, Max says it takes anywhere from eight to 16 hours to complete a pipe. He spends particular time when sandblasting, a skill he's renowned for. He prefers deep, craggy, aggressive blasts, which he achieves in two steps, first taking a lighter pass to highlight the natural grain of the briar, and then a detailed pass with a more precise sandblasting nozzle to differentiate the growth rings and natural details of the wood.
We can speak about every aspect of a pipe, but the most important thing is that it has to smoke well, and to achieve that, you have to be very precise about the drilling.
Max takes particular pride in the drilling of his pipes, which is perfectly aligned, with no gap in the mortise that can accumulate gunk. Condensation is primarily caused by interrupted airflow, and Il Duca pipes maintain carefully consistent airflow from heel to lip button. He also invested enormous quantities of time perfecting his contrast stain technique with the use of an airbrush, similar to his detailed sandblasting in its tendency to follow particular paths of grain.
The combination of all those artistic elements unite in Il Duca pipes, and Max Rimensi is enjoying the artistic expression and crafting skills necessary for pipemaking, with few plans for change in the future, except for new shapes, shapes that crowd his fertile mind. "I usually draw designs by hand and I can tell you that the most beautiful come from external inspiration, from something I noticed during my travels for business or for fun." He attends pipe shows, particularly the Chicago show every May, so there will be no shortage of inspiration to continue commending Il Duca pipes for enthusiasts everywhere.
Note: Special thanks to Claudio Albieri for providing translation for this interview.