What Do Pipe Makers Have In Common?

Kevin Arthur at the Chicago Pipe ShowI have been very fortunate, in recent years, to have met and become friends with quite a few talented pipe makers. Some people have asked me, over the years, what traits are common among them? If I were to describe the “average” artisan, I guess it would be that (s)he is on the short side of tall (or vice versa; I can never keep them straight), old, in a young sort of way, and very talented (at least I don’t have to “waffle” about that one).

The truth is that the pipe makers I’m familiar with are as diverse a group of people as I’ve encountered, and you’d be able to observe this at one of the smoking areas at the various pipe shows around the country. The conversations range from fishing to sports to politics to finance to shop talk and everything in between, and although it’s almost always civil, there are usually differing opinions.

But the disagreements end when it comes to actually making pipes. For example, everyone drills the chamber and draft hole first except for the ones who do it the other way around.  They all use vulcanite stems unless they decide to use acrylic. And, of course, they all would rather make a perfect, smooth pipe, except when they like sandblasts or rusticated finishes instead.

By now, I think you’ve gotten the idea- no two pipe makers are alike in personality, style or approach. I think that this is a good thing, as it allows for the greatest variety. There is one trend, though, that I’ve noticed- a lot of the younger pipe makers seem to make more small to medium sized pieces, and the older carvers usually work the medium to larger sizes, but even here there are a number of exceptions. I mentioned my observation to one carver who is neither older or particularly young, and he offered the tongue-in-cheek postulate that pipe makers make larger pieces as they get older because they can’t see what they’re working on anymore.

Luigi Vaprati at a Capital District Pipe Club meetingI find it fascinating to sit among a group of these craftsmen as you’ll come to learn the meaning of “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”, although I’m not in favor of skinning cats. Each maker has certain unique methods that they use in creating functional art, and they share them freely, but if you sit among a group as they discuss their methods, you realize that each artisan approaches the job differently. Some drill the holes and then shape the pipe, while others create the shape first. Some drill the chamber and then the drafthole, while some do the opposite. Every maker seems to rusticate pipes using different tools and techniques than the next.

So, how are pipe makers similar? There seem to be a few common traits among them. I find that almost all of them are pretty calm and patient people, but folks who are craftsmen would certainly benefit from those qualities. They usually are friendly and funny, but become more serious and passionate when speaking about their craft, and they tend to be inordinately accessible and very generous with their time, talent and products. When a pipe club sponsors a show and run a raffle or silent auction, the organizers only have to ask, and they will have more than enough items for their event. My pipe collection has grown quite a bit in recent years because of gifts from a number of my friends who enjoy my tobaccos.

I have said on numerous occasions that I wish I had the ability for just one day to be able to make a pipe, but I don’t have the ability to create the imagery in my mind to do so, and I lack the physical patience necessary to execute the repetitive detail that these amazing artisans do so effortlessly. Lacking that, I take solace in the fact that I have plenty of friends who can take my ideas and make them a reality.

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.