Updated: Oct 24, 2020
People exhibit a range of reactions when they discover that I make pipes. You know, for tobacco? Sherlock Holmes? A few are visibly disturbed, as though I were making electric chairs or iron maidens, while others smile, remembering a father or grandfather. Most are merely bemused, as they would be to encounter a maker of buggy whips. Everyone, though, wants to know how (or maybe why) I got started.
As with many of my endeavors, it started with those simple words, “How hard could it be?” It’s something of a pattern that I’ll want something I can’t afford, decide I can make it myself, then wind up spending at least what the item cost in materials and tools by the time it’s all said and done. Someday I’ll learn. Although, learning is kind of the whole point so I take that back.
On tour with the PSO in Dublin in 1999, I saw a beautiful smooth Peterson Lestrade in a shop window. I was unexpectedly seized by the urge to buy it, went in, and found that the price was, I forget, 180 Euro sticks in my head. I thought, “Oh, HELL no,” and moved on. But now I was thinking pipes. In London, I wound up at the Dunhill store, where I saw what a real price tag looked like and wished I’d bought that Peterson. I continued to A.H. Fox, where I bought a Butz-Choquin from a barrel.
I had thought I was done with pipes, but I should have known better because I’ve always loved them. My grandfather Howell smoked Prince Albert, and the olfactory memory is deeply rooted — indeed, one of my earliest memories — sitting in his lap, he with his pipe and me with mine. A pipe was imprinted with warmth and contentment. I smell Burley, I relax. And books. You can’t read Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle ("Nothing has more individuality, save perhaps watches and bootlaces.") and Tolkein as many times as I have without having a soft spot for pipes. I read Rick Brant Science Adventures over and over; the protagonist’s father, the famous scientist Hartson Brant, smoked a pipe. More reinforcement came from outdoor writers; Gordon MacQuarrie and Patrick McManus for starters. My father smoked a pipe as a young man; my mother persuaded him to quit, lest he set a bad example for me. When I came home from college with a pipe, he said, “Well, THAT didn’t work” and we went to the Silver Dollar Smoke Shop, where he bought a pipe. Some of our best and last times together we were smoking pipes.
I fell away from it, though. As a wind player I was (and remain) extremely cautious and only smoked occasionally; I had maybe a half dozen inexpensive pipes and after my father died (47 for him, 23 for me) I lost interest and gave them away. But, for whatever reason, I saw that Lestrade in Dublin and was interested in pipes again.
Back home, I decided to try my hand at pipe making. How hard could it be? I thought the expensive pipes I’d seen on tour were beautiful, but it didn’t seem like there was all that much to them. I’d had a bit of industrial arts training, I’d made bamboo fly rods, a pipe seemed pretty achievable. Hedging my bets, though, my first pipe was a kit, the archetypical carve-your-own block of briar with the drilling done and a cheap molded stem stuck in it. For tools, I had a bandsaw, a four-in-hand rasp and sandpaper. Some powdered red stain came with the kit. The resulting pipe, well . . .
It was hideous. It has rattled around in one drawer or another ever since because it was my first pipe. My baby pictures aren’t particularly handsome, either, but my mom still has them. I made a couple more kit pipes which were slightly less awful, but not good either and were given away long ago. Then I decided that I should graduate from kits and make pipes from scratch. I am actually somewhat proud of my fourth pipe, my first from block and rod. It was made from an ebauchon billed as 70-year-old Algerian briar from some factory that had closed. I don’t remember who was selling them, but they were cheap so I bought a bunch. This pipe was drilled on my Craftsman drill press — an import, really a terrible machine. It is perhaps the most difficult method to get good, centered drilling, even on a drill press that isn’t crap, but this pipe turned out well. If I handed it to you, you’d think it was turned on a lathe. I remember sanding it in a hotel room in St. Louis the night before an audition where I was runner-up for associate principal and E flat clarinet. It sports my first handcut stem, turned on my long-departed 6” Atlas lathe. Maybe the shank is too long; yes, the stem was tapered too much before bending. But it is a fairly recognizable Dublin, and symmetrical. The bowl/shank transition is reasonably clean. The bit is thin and comfortable. It is an excellent smoker.
The years between those pipes and the 2004 Chicago show are a bit of a blur. I auditioned for the PSO second clarinet position in 2000 and was a finalist but there was no winner. I was playing second full-time as a sub when I auditioned again in 2001 and was runner-up. The day after the 2001 audition I climbed on my motorcycle, grabbed a pissed-off handful of throttle in the driveway and high-sided, spraining the ever-loving hell out of my left ankle. Which was a valuable lesson on several levels, and now a quick pre-ride self-assessment is part of my routine. Line of the decade from the emergency room nurse (I needed stitches too): “This is not satisfying. You’re going to leave here feeling just as bad as when you arrived. If you had something simple like a rectal impaction I could send you home feeling better.“ The next morning I had to get on a plane to play Mahler in Carnegie Hall.
Those were difficult years, eased by my tiny, basement furnace-room workshop. I made pipes out of the 20 or so Algerian ebauchons, and a few plateaux blocks from here and there. I gave all but the Dublin away, including one to a now-retired PSO violinist who, if I saw him today, would grab my arm and tell me how well it smokes. Those Algerian blocks weren’t much to look at, but they sure made people happy. I bought a Delta woodturning lathe and removed two jaws from a Nova four-jaw scroll chuck. It was crude, but better than a drill press. Then I bought my 1923 Hardinge 2nd operation lathe, and my 80-gallon air compressor for sandblasting.
When I met Paolo Becker in early 2004 I had some idea what I was doing but was still clearly a hobbyist. I called him from my hotel room in Rome (playing with the PSO, Mahler 3 needs five clarinets) and he invited me to his shop. I should probably devote a post to that visit. He was working on a batch of rusticated pipes for the Chicago show. I fell in love with a diamond-shanked Apple, but the pipes could only be sold at the show. I suggested that I attend the show and buy it from him there. Agreed.
Well, since I was going to the Chicago show and was already making pipes, I thought perhaps I should try making some to sell. Which dovetails with my previous post about getting briar from Tom Eltang, and some other posts. Greg Pease, Peter Heeshcen, etc. The time between January and May was a little intense, but it doesn’t matter now. I sold one pipe in Chicago and was lucky to sell it. The remainder I sold on my new website, or at the Columbus show. Underway. Pipes, like bamboo fly rods, filled the need I've always had in my life for something that, unlike music, stayed done. And turned spare time into income, of a sort. I worked on pipes at summer festivals, at hotels on Wheeling Symphony school concert tours, at softball tournaments.
In 2007 we moved to a larger, 5-bedroom house. Our previous home had two adults and three kids crammed into two bedrooms and there wasn't room for another smell, so it was a welcome change that included a larger basement shop space for me. I restored the Logan lathe that has been my workhorse ever since. That shop (also my practice room/man cave) is where I’m writing this. It’s where most of my pipes have been made, and will continue to be made, although my wife read Dream On and started designing our dream house, which would include my dream shop. We’ll see. Things don’t seem all that dreamy right now, but I take comfort in a something written by one of my favorite pipe smokers.
Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain wrote: “I am an old man. My life has been filled with a thousand tragedies, the vast majority of which never happened.”
Anyway, that’s how I started.