Kirsten Pipe Company

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I'm a long-time lover of both Kirsten and The Doodler pipes, which I started smoking back in the late 1950s about the time I got out of the Army.

The Doodler was Tracey Mincer's latest innovation and was a wonderfully picturesque pipe, not to mention it was a great smoker. I smoked it through two or three replacement mouthpieces and eventually it got lost as my pipesmoking waned over the years.

Kirsten, Courtesy Doug Valitchka
Courtesy, Doug Valitchka
Kirsten Patent, courtesy Doug Valitchka
Courtesy Doug Valitchka
The first and only Kirsten I had, had to be an old Companion model that came from one of the Kirsten cards you found in those days in some smoke shops. It might even have been in some small-town drugstore. If I recall correctly, it did not even have the Kirsten name on it - just "Companion".

It would be another four decades before I ran into the Kirstens again as I began buying and restoring old pipes. I had accumlated about a half dozen Kirstens from several lots I acquired and they lay around in my work area for several months before I decided to see what I could do with them.

Old Kirstens are a problem. When bought in lots of other pipes, and many times when bought used individually, they are a mess. By the very nature of the pipe, which is made up of five basic components - mouthpiece, radiator body, valve, bowl and bowl screw (a sixth component, the bowl ring, is found in many Kirstens) - there is a lot of room for problems. For the most part, used Kirstens have set for some time, usually in an uncleaned state, and the old tobacco juices have created a sort of binder that holds them tightly together.

My experience has been that only about three or four out of every five used Kirstens I buy are completely restorable. The remainder furnish parts for those that are restored.

By the time I had completely restored my first half dozen Kirstens I came to realize there are many variations in the pipe, designed in 1936 by Professor Frederick Kirsten - the man who invented Boeing's first wind tunnel - after he has been advised by his physician to stop smoking. Kirsten was looking for a way to trap the tars and moisture from tobacco and the Kirsten pipe was his solution.

Some Kirstens had "O" rings on the valve and mouthpiece and others had none. Some had an "O" ring on the valve and not on the stem. Some had bowl rings and others not. Some came with shiny finishes, others were a rough Parkerized-like finish called "Heritage." Some were silver, some were gold, some were black, and yet another was a gold-tone finish with an overlay of what looked like tarnish made from “Eternalum” and referred to as Kirsten's “Traditional” finish.

There were straight Kirstens, quarter bents and full bents. Some sat flat on their radiator body, others stood tall on a special valve with a flat plate on the bottom.

From collector's standpoint, there were more variations than one could hope to acquire.

It dawned on me that there had to be some way to classify Kirstens. An e-mail or two to the Kirsten factory in Seattle, Wash., showed the company had not kept exacting records as to their years and types of production. So I borrowed from the Colt Peacemaker collectors and decided to try to classify Kirstens by generations, including some transitional models and some non-traditional Kirstens.

Since the pipe was invented in 1936 and some of the early pipes were stamped "PAT APPLIED FOR" it was easy to establish these as the Generation 1 pipes. But, although the basic pipe models offered in that generation - S for Standard, M for Medium and L for Large - continued to be produced after the stamping was changed to "PATS & PATS PENDING" it appeared there would be some divisions even within the generations.

It was determined that the 'PAT APPLIED FOR" stamp was only used for a couple of years so I concluded that those pipes were probably produced in 1936 and were produced until 1938 and the ones stamped "PATS & PATS PENDING" were most probably made from around 1938 until about 1958 - a somewhat hypothetical date albeit maybe more accurate than we think when it comes to dividing the Kirstens into generations.

Lynn Kirsten, granddaughter of the founder and daughter of Gene Kirsten who ran the factory for many years, said the biggest change in models and pipemaking techniques took place around 1958 when the company was incorporated. She confirmed that clear records of year of manufacture, model types and styles, and other basic information about the Kirsten pipes had not been kept by the company.

However, she made one statement to the effect that during the transition period between what I have classified as Generation 1 anf Generation 2, Kirsten used up a lot of miscellaneous parts. Therefore, I have found many pipes that do not clearly fit the generation classifications I have developed but are clearly what I call "transition" pipes or Generation 1.5.

Altogether, there are three distinct Kirsten generations, 1, 2 and 3 by numerical order. Generation 1 runs from 1936 to roughly 1958. Generation 2 runs from 1958 to about 1985. Generation 3 runs from 1985 to the present with possibly some backward overlap. And, the pipes from the transitional period, or Generation 1.5, can be grouped in the mid-to-late '50s.

The biggest thing that separates the Generation 1 from the Generation 2 pipes are the "O" rings, actually rubber rings on both the valve and mouthpiece that help provide a tighter seal as they are inserted into the radiator stem. Instead of "O" rings, the machining of the Generation 1 pipes was so precise the fit was exact. Hence the difficulty in dismanteling many of the older pipes because residue left in them for years has bonded the two metals.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Take for instance what is referred to as the Kirsten "Thrifty," the only pipe I have run across that actually bears the Kirsten shield logo. Most Kirstens, with the exception of some of the Companions - as noted above - bear the Kirsten stamped script logo. The "Thrifty" has not just an "O" on only the valve but a black offset valve that works in reverse of all other Kirsten valves I have run across. Traditionally the valve on a Kirsten has a flat spot on one wide of its outer rim. When the flat spot is lined up with the bowl, an opening in the inner valve tube is aligned with the air hole in the bottom of the bowl and the pipe is ready to smoke. Adversely, when the flat spot is in any other position about the pipe, the hole is closed and no trapped liquids can run back into the bowl. But the "Thrifty's" flat spot, when lined up with the bowl, indicates the valve is closed so no trapped liquids can run back into the bowl and when it is in any other position the passageway to the bowl is open and the pipe can be smoked.

It's variations like this that give some of the Kirstens extra individualty. There is one pipe, a Generation 1.5, that shows up occasionally and has an entirely different valve than any others. It is a pipe that I have never seen in old Kirsten catalogs or brochures. In addition to the different shaped valve, which has an "O" ring while the mouthpiece does not, the pipe has a flat top with no bowl basin on top of the radiator tube. It usually has the Kirsten script logo but never a model letter on it. It is a short, straight pipe.

Kirstens are kept track of by their model numbers. The following table is an attempt by shape and generation to provide some guide to Kirstens and their genesis:


Sorting by Generations


1st Generation No O rings - stamped “Pat. Appl. For” and “Pats. & Pats. Pending”

Straights

Companion First edition in rough finish.

S Standard 1st generation with full-length cooling fins

M Medium

L Large

A Aristocrat Extra large 1st generation


1.5 Generation O rings either valve or mouthpiece, none on other end - stamped “Pat. Pending” and “Pats. & Pats. Pending” some with “Made in U.S.A.”

Straights

K Companion

M Medium

L Large


Other Transition Models

Thrifty Nice early model with black offset valve that works in reverse - O ring on valve, none on stem ... takes same mouthpiece as No Letter/No Name model

No Letter/No Name Unmarked short pipe w/different valve and O ring, no O ring on stem


2nd Generation O rings - Stamped “Pat. & Pats. Pending” and “Made in U.S.A.”

Straights

K Companion

G Gem

S Sportsman

SX Sportsman Brass

M Mariner

MB Mariner Black

L Lancer


Quarter-Bents

A Aladdin

V Vagabond

CX Cavalier Brass

T Tyrolean


Full bents

W Westerner

B Beau Geste

P Premier

F Firesider


3rd Generation O ring current models stamped “Made in U.S.A.”

Straights

JX Jewel Brass

M Mariner

L Lancer


Quarter-Bents

RX Regent Brass

H Horizon


Full bents

EX Esquire Brass

DX Designer Brass


FOOTNOTE ON VARIATIONS IN LETTER DESIGNATIONS:

Generally speaking, the X added to a model letter like “S” stands for brasstone finish, i.e., “SX.” There is one exception to this: In the 1960s Kirsten made a brass tone model with an “Eternalum” finish that gave the brass tone an antiqued look. They were maked with a “X” designation following the model letter.

The B added to a model letter like “M” stands for black finish, i.e., “MB.”

Kirsten also made some cigarette holders in the '50s and '60s. There are three models, all in Hand Polished finish:

Cigarette holders

Long model 5-inch

Medium model 4-1/4 inch

Short Model 3-1/8 inch


As you can see there is an almost unlimited combination of Kirstens before you even get into the bowls they offer. In the early years a lot of the Kirsten bowls were made by Kaywoodie and fit the top of the pipe's radiator stem tightly without the aid of a bowl adapter. Later models came out with a bowl adapter, somewhere during the transition period.

The Kaywoodie bowls are generally not stamped with anything. Bowls made by Kirsten have the Kirsten stamp on the bottom, but it is not clear when this stamping began.

Gene Kirsten is quoted as once telling a reporter something like: "We don't make bowls for good looks, we make bowls for good smoking." He had a point because some of the early and transition bowls have pits in them but they all seem to be excellent smokers.

The more traditional Kirsten bowl models are the Columbus, Dynasty and Mandarin although there have been many models over the years from which one could choose. Some, like the carved meerschaums and Staghorn, are real works of art. Meerschaums can still be purchased but the Staghorns, actually carved from briar, have moved into the collectibile category.

Kirsten produces sandblasted, carved, smooth and rusticated bowls and combinations thereof. No two Kirsten bowls are ever exactly alike although many of them are made by machine. There are some plain and some with outstanding graining. Kirsten bowls come in various sizes to fit everything from the tiny Gem and Aladdin models of the first generation to the giant Designer model of the current generation. And they are all interchangeable.

I have even found corncob bowls made especially for the Kirsten by, I assume, one of the giant corncob manufacturers from the Washington, Mo., area. The rarest find has been a The Doodler bowl that required a modification to parts of the Kirsten pipe to make a good match. It is unsmoked, and from the condition and Kirsten model that was modified I have to assume it was made under the direct supervision, if not by himself, of Tracy Mincer before his death in 1964.

Dave Whitney - pipesbywhitney (on eBay) Link http://www.kirstenpipe.com/