We're emerging from an attitude about sandblasted pipes that has been entrenched for decades. Common knowledge said that sandblasting was reserved for pipes with flaws, and was thus a second-tier finish. Typically, a smooth pipe is always the best hope of a pipemaker, and a sandblasted finish is applied only after discovering that small fissures or sand pits mar the surface. The sandblast is a way of saving the pipe from the furnace. It was never an efficient savings, though. Pipemakers put lots of extra work into a sandblast, and they receive a lower price for it. Smooth straight grain is what fetches the high prices. However, I have become a sandblast enthusiast who appreciates the grain of a blast even more than that of a smooth straight grain, and I am far from alone.
I started buying sandblasts because of the savings. I preferred smooth pipes, but my dollar stretched farther and I got the same high level of engineering and finish on an artisan sandblast as I did with a smooth. After a while, though, I started appreciating the texture and grain of a good sandblast, until I found myself preferring the finish. I love a pipe with great smooth grain, but I find I'm now more interested in sandblasts with great grain.
There is some controversy regarding the beginning of pipe sandblasting. The most common story is that it started with Alfred Dunhill. In 1914, Dunhill experimented with Algerian briar, and the story goes that Algerian briar is softer than other briar. According to John Loring's exhaustively researched book, The Dunhill Briar Pipe, this batch of Algerian briar was used for smooth pipes but was too soft and was set aside near a stove and forgotten. Months later, it was found that the briar had shrunk, leaving the grain to stand out in relief, like the surface of a sea shell, and furthermore "sounded like rattling seashells" in the bag. That's where the "Shell" designation started.
Dunhill was awarded a patent for sandblasting pipes in 1918. In the patent application, Alfred Dunhill explained the process:
This invention relates to the treatment of the surface of the wood of wooden tobacco pipes, for decorative purposes, and refers to a process by which the grain is accentuated or made to stand out in relief, thus giving the wood a very elegant appearance, without interfering with the durability of smoking qualities of the pipes.
Dunhill further stated that briar will crack and deform under sandblasting, but that a method had been found to circumvent the damaging effects:
In carrying out my invention, I shape the pipe in the ordinary way .... I then steep it for a suitable time in a mineral or vegetable oil. For instance, in the case of Algerian briar, a wood very suitable for the production of these new tobacco pipes, the article may be steeped for a long period say for several weeks, in olive oil.
After the oil bath, the briar was subjected to heat for several days, and the oil that seeped to the surface was periodically cleaned off. The process was then repeated.
Early Dunhill sandblasts were misshapen to the point of being unable to retain their shape numbers. It was an aggressive finishing technique brought under control in the late 1920s, when deep, craggy blasts became the standard, and Dunhill became more adept at retaining the shapes. During this period, Dunhill blasts were priced higher than their smooth Bruyere counterparts. Algerian briar has been mostly unavailable since the 1960s, and shallower sandblasts resulted. In 1986, the "Ring Grain" pipe was introduced, with a deeper blast and stacked concentric growth rings rising up the bowl, and in 1995 the name was changed to "Shilling."
That is a brief summary of the Dunhill sandblast, but there were other pipe manufacturers sandblasting too. The late Tony Soderman, a collector of long-shanked pipes and obscure pipe knowledge, insisted that Dunhill could not have been first because he had examples of sandblasted pipes made after the Dunhill patent was granted when others could theoretically have no legal right. Just because Dunhill patented pipe sandblasting, his thinking went, doesn't necessarily mean he invented the idea. Others may have used sandblasting techniques but not patented their process. Tony said that sandblasting originated with Barling on their Fossil pipes. He cited examples, such as Yello-Bole, that used sandblasting on pipes made only a few years after the Dunhill patent, when they should not have been allowed to do so if not grandfathered, indicating that other manufacturers used the process before Dunhill.
What history we have is insufficient for determining exactly what the sandblasting landscape looked like at the beginning. We do know where sandblasting went, though. It went to North America and became an artform in its own right.
Sandblasting is an industrial process for engraving and cleaning surfaces. For pipes, it is accomplished in two ways. The first is drum sandblasting, in which stummels are placed in a drum with a blasting medium and left to turn for several hours. The other is with a pressure nozzle aimed directly at the surface, which is the method used by artisan makers.
In Vermont during the 1980s. J.T. Cooke began refurbishing pipes for the late Barry Levin, who ran the first truly successful mail-order pipe business. Levin would send photos of pipes to his clients and they would telephone him to make purchases. Cooke handled tens of thousands of pipes, cleaning and revitalizing old briars.
That experience led him to a profound appreciation for early sandblasts, and he started experimenting. He wanted to regain and improve upon the techniques of the past, and trial-and-error was his only path. It was a remarkable journey, and Cooke's work would influence and revolutionize pipe sandblasting worldwide.
This is the first part of a series on sandblasting. Check out Part Two.