Scott Klein: A Long And Fruitful Apprenticeship
Scott Klein Pipes at Smokingpipes.com

Scott Klein's handmade artisan pipes

Scott Klein was a young, on-again, off-again pipesmoker, smoking the pipes his grandfather had left him when he could get them to work. He didn't know what he was doing. "I couldn't get any consistency out of them," says Scott. "One day I'd love pipesmoking, the next I'd hate it."

But he was always fascinated by pipes as objects, so he kept smoking until he got it right. That's how he learned to make pipes, too, though that process started in a bit more haphazard, but fortuitous, way.

He was doing construction work during high school, having grown up in a family of craftsmen. "It gave me a really good base of knowledge," says Scott, though he already had a good foundation of skills. From the time he was four years old, he was involved in various crafts. "I tried building furniture for a while, but I didn't know anybody that could get me into high end furniture or anything like that."

It was through the friend of a friend that he discovered artisan pipes, and the first he saw were those of none other than Alex Florov, who is among the most creative and admired pipemakers in the world.

"He was a family friend," says Scott. Alex was a friend of the father of Scott's girlfriend at the time, Maryana Yurchenko. They were visiting her father, Michael, one night when the subject of pipes arose, and Michael showed Alex's website to Scott. As Scott viewed the pipes on that site, he realized the incredible crafting potential of pipemaking and discovered he wanted to try pipemaking for himself. "Do you think I could message Alex to see if he could show me how to make a pipe?" he said.

Michael was unsure, saying "I'll give you his information, but he's real big into this, the real thing. He's big-time, so he may not be able to teach you." I said, "Well, I'll message him. I'm real good with people. I'll just get ahold of him and see what he says."

Alex was friendly. "Since you're a friend of Michael, I'm happy to teach you to make a pipe. I'll help you make one but then you're on your own; I've got a life and a family and all that."

Scott Klein's pipemaking workshop

Scott working

So Scott made a pipe in Alex's workshop. Instead of saying, "There you go, it was nice meeting you," Alex said, "This is really good. This is your calling."

"I had enough innate talent early on," says Scott, "that Alex told me, 'You need to really pursue this professionally.'"

The two entered into a five-year, very-informal-but-still-semi-formal apprenticeship agreement. "Alex and Vera, Alex's wife, sat me down to discuss it, and they had just a couple stipulations. They said, 'Please don't tell anybody anything proprietary we tell you, and don't teach anybody else for five years, and consider yourself a student for the next five years.' I said, 'Absolutely, I can do those things.' Then I did more like seven years, six, seven years. Something like that, before I moved from Chicago to Tennessee. That's how long I studied under Alex directly."

Scott's second pipe turned out very well, and he sold it, along with every other pipe he's made since then, except for rejects, which Scott smokes himself, if they're smokable; otherwise they go in the trash. Like most pipemakers, he doesn't indulge himself with his own pipes. "I can't afford my own pipes." Every pipe needs to be sold to keep the business healthy.

I had enough innate talent early on that Alex told me, 'You need to really pursue this professionally.'

His apprenticeship started in 2009, and Alex asked if he'd like to go with him to the Richmond show to sell some of his pipes. "No," said Scott. "I can't afford to do that." He was 20 years old and struggling. "Alex offered to take my stuff and show it around." Alex introduced Sykes Wilford of Smokingpipes to Scott's pipes, but Sykes didn't think they were quite ready. However, Premel Chedda of Smoker's Haven in Columbus offered to take them on. "So that first Richmond show, six months in, I acquired my first dealer with Premal. Six months after that I got Neatpipes with Luca Di Piazza in Italy. Six months after that I got Scandpipes in Sweden and then a week later, Smokingpipes offered to take my pipes. It's been pretty much those four retailers ever since."

Although he was selling all of his pipes, they did not make him independently wealthy. He was spending everything he had on materials and gas, and it was rough going. Scott was working fulltime as chief of operations for a large, Chicago-based coffee distributorship, and driving an hour every night to work with Alex, staying up until midnight or 1:00, or whatever time the Florovs told him it was time to go, driving home and doing the same the next day. Five nights a week for about two years. But it got a little easier, with fewer trips required, after Scott was able to set up his own workshop.

Scott Klein's pipemaking workshop

Scott's workshop

The workshop evolved slowly, with humble beginnings, starting with a plastic folding table, six files, and some sandpaper. "After a while I built a workbench, but it wasn't large enough, so I built it again. It filled a quarter of the garage."

And he started adding machinery. "About a year and a half into carving, I really made a push to get some machinery so I could reduce the amount of road time I was putting in to get to Alex's shop and back. It was insane. I was working at the coffee company and I would get off work at 5:00, get home by 5:30, eat some food, and by 5:45, I was back on the road. I'd drive an hour to Alex's, then work until Vera came home from work, usually around midnight, and she'd kick me out."

With the addition of tools and machinery, he was able to slow the frequency of his trips to Alex's shop. "Before that," says Scott, "I couldn't do anything at home except for just a little bit of finish work here and there. It was a real struggle to get any machinery, even to do a stem or to drill at home, sandblast at home. Each of those processes was an hour drive. If I needed to drill a pipe or sandblast a pipe or cut a stem, each one of those three main processes, you're looking at an hour drive each way and then, you know, Alex is a talker, so it's two hours of talking, an hour of working, and two hours of driving to accomplish one process that should take 20 minutes. It didn't make a lot of business sense."

It was insane. I was working at the coffee company and I would get off work at 5:00, get home by 5:30, eat some food, and by 5:45, I was back on the road. I'd drive an hour to Alex's, then work until Vera came home from work.

He was always exhausted, working six or seven days a week like that. Scott says he thought about giving it up a hundred times. "Every pipemaker will tell you they've been through that, they've thought about quitting 100 different times, and it'll be the stupidest little things that motivate those thoughts. You'll be sitting there trying to do this little decoration, you've got this beautiful pipe, the stem's done, you just need a little accent to go along. It's thin and it's delicate and that's how you designed it, but it'll keep cracking. You'll be on your fourth attempt and you'll just, well, you'll walk away. I'm done. I'll sell all this crap in the morning. This is over with. This is done right here. Then you go and you have a beer and the next day you come back to it. You get through it. If you get through it enough times, you become a really good pipemaker."

Scott Klein Pipes at Smokingpipes.com

Scott Klein in his workshop

Scott thinks most artistic pursuits are fraught with that self-doubt. "I think a lot of people who accomplish great things can become frustrated, and that frustration is key. If you just kind of throw stuff at the wall and are happy with whatever sticks, then you're not going to produce creatively. But if you really want to produce something excellent and of superb quality and be super proud of it, not just, oh I made this, but that this thing I made actually means something, to me, that's what it takes. It takes the resolve not to pull all your hair out while running into the woods to become a hermit. That's success."

Every pipemaker will tell you they've been through that, they've thought about quitting 100 different times...Then you go and you have a beer and the next day you come back to it. You get through it. If you get through it enough times, you become a really good pipemaker.

Scott's carving style has been likened to that of the Danish/American school, but he rankles a bit at that characterization. "A lot of guys disagree with me, but I always say, 'My style is Scott Klein.' I mean, people will say, 'Oh, your stuff looks a little Danish.' Well, my pipes are smaller than those of any Dane on the market, so I don't agree. But a second point is that the Danish school, as it's been called, adopted shape chart standards from 150 years ago and added some curves and larger proportions. That standard shape chart isn't a Danish invention and adding some soft curves and ridgelines doesn't make it Danish. I can make the most classic Billiard you've ever seen and get, 'Oh, that looks very Danish.' Why, because it's stained? It's shiny? You could literally pick any elements and call it Danish, maybe because it's a large version of a tear drop shank. That's pretty Danish, but pretty much everything is claimed to be Danish now, and that's one of my pet peeves. My style is kind of just more American; that's the best way to put it. I have a very simple aesthetic. It's a very flowing aesthetic."

People will ask Scott what he was thinking when he puts a ridgeline through the stummel, or why two lines go in different directions. "The fact is, I wasn't really thinking about it. It flows. If I went this way, it wouldn't flow. If I went that way, it'd be out of proportion. For me, it's closer to Japanese style, where everything's in balance."

I think a lot of people who accomplish great things can become frustrated, and that frustration is key. If you just kind of throw stuff at the wall and are happy with whatever sticks, then you're not going to produce creatively.

Scott thinks most modern American pipemakers experience those Danish comparisons, inevitable because the Danes have made enormous strides in pipemaking. "I think the American carvers' biggest claim to fame and style was just doing. We're standing on the shoulders of others. I don't think that we've necessarily changed style too much. I think where we've made the biggest improvements is in quality. I think we've really pushed to have just super high-quality, perfectly engineered pieces. In North America, our style basically shifted, I'd almost call it forward five degrees, because in a lot of the Danish stuff, you'd get these real extravagant bends and real, real abrupt transitions, often because of drilling techniques.

Scott Klein Pipes at Smokingpipes.com

Scott Klein's handmade artisan pipes

"But in North America, we've concentrated on drilling and alignment for superior smoking qualities rather than style. It's got to align perfectly, the smoke channel has to enter the heel perfectly. If you do this, it won't be right; if you do that, it won't be right. I feel like our style has evolved to basically pursue the perfect smoke, if that makes sense. The engineering has to line up and if you just go for aesthetics, you're going to lose some of the engineering quality that you literally can't provide with that particular aesthetic. We've reached a point where the airflow is particularly important, and designs revolve around that, where the Danes, in my opinion, tend to prioritize shape and grain. For North American artisans, I think perfect engineering is primary. We're transitioning as much as possible to where all things are in balance, including adjusting design to accommodate for perfect airflow and transition. Because that's one thing we do have going for us is that the engineering behind most of the American pipes is excellent."

My style is kind of just more American; that's the best way to put it. I have a very simple aesthetic. It's a very flowing aesthetic.

Scott hasn't concentrated exclusively on pipes that compare favorably with the best in the world. He's dedicated to making pipes with excellent smoking qualities at every price point, and has three different lines of pipes with differing levels of materials and handwork. They're the Burner line, the S. Klein Design line, and the Scott Klein Handmade line. "I always say, good, better, best," says Scott.

S. Klein Design Pipes

S. Klein Design Pipes

Scott's Burner pipes are made from old stummels turned in a French factory in the 1970s, together with their original acrylic mouthpieces. "It's acrylic," says Scott, "but it's also the 50-60 year old stuff that matches the pipes. I don't know what they did back in the day but the acrylics are a little softer. It's almost somewhere between how modern-day acrylic is and Ebonite. I don't know if it's because it's old or if it just had a different recipe back then."

The stumels from the factory he bought out had their stems, but they were horrible. "We rework them until fit and finish are perfect," says Scott. "They go through our whole process and have every bit of our quality." They are not as aesthetically irresistible as Scott's other grades, but they are remarkably inexpensive for pipes with such sophisticated engineering and smoking characteristics.

For North American artisans, I think perfect engineering is primary. We're transitioning as much as possible to where all things are in balance, including adjusting design to accommodate for perfect airflow and transition. Because that's one thing we do have going for us is that the engineering behind most of the American pipes is excellent.

Stummels for the S. Klein Design pipes are shaped in Italy and finished in-house by Scott and his fiancée, Meaghan Hudson, who also does all of the sandblasting. Scott Klein Handmade pipes are completely manufactured, along with everything else, in the workshop. Meaghan is especially popular with Scott's regular customers, who particularly admire her blasting technique.

Scott Klein's pipemaking workshop

Scott inspecting a stummel

And Scott's skills as a pipemaker are admired world-wide. He reveals that he's something of a purist, which may have something to do with it. "I don't use most of the products most use. All that goes on a pipe that I make, is stain, Red Tripoli, White Tripoli [buffing compounds], and wax. And there's nothing else. That's a little bit different. I'm a little bit of a purist in that. I get a super high-gloss finish with just about nothing. Once you get that color, it's really more about the shine because almost anybody can get to the right color, but it's how shiny is it in the end? How good does the finished quality come out? These guys, there's a couple of guys out there that are doing an amazing job. There's a wide range of products they us, while I get one of the best finishes in the industry."

He does that not by endlessly sanding. In fact, he sands only to 600-grit, where some go to 1,000 or higher. "I just make sure it's perfectly sanded. To me, it's more about the application of all the products you use. Making sure that everything is done perfectly. If you sand it perfectly and you don't have any lumps, bumps, anything like that, and you're not over-buffing, and if you apply the product at the perfect, and I mean perfect, amount of buildup and pressure and consistency, you'll get the perfect finish. If you're inconsistent with how much pressure you put the pipe into on the buffing wheel, you're going to get an inconsistent finish. If you don't know how much pressure to use, you won't know how much heat you're supposed to have. All these things matter. So when you're doing it perfectly, you get a perfect finish. If you are just pretty good at buffing, you need to get better. You'd think one guy buffs similarly to another, but no. That's the real art, is how good you are at buffing."

Scott took about six years to learn that, but says once you figure it out, it's easy, and he's shown others how in as little as 5 minutes. But learning it was a bear.

Scott Klein and Shane Ireland

Scott Klein and Shane Ireland.

An extrovert, Scott has experienced some lonely hours making pipes, but with Meaghan helping now, that's better. And he loves pipe shows. But most pipemakers are introverts. "It's like pulling teeth getting some of these guys to talk," says Scott, laughing. But his energetic personality wins everyone over, even though he's one of those people who always look 30 percent younger than their age. But think of that: Sometime in the future, when Scott Klein looks 50 years old, he'll behave 70 years of pipemaking experience and will be astounding everyone with perfectly engineered creations of astonishing beauty.

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