Go West

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Go West !, by Erwin Van Hove, owing a large debt of gratitude to Georgia Lee Patterson and Art Ruppelt for their valuable help with the translation.

(published in the June issue of the French magazine Pipe Mag), and Published In: Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine (Spring 2004)

Come on, list the names of five American pipe makers. What ? You can’t ? You may not be aware that on the other side of the Atlantic there are dozens of pipe makers. And what’s more, talented ones. Don’t blush, most assuredly you are not alone. For the vast majority of the European pipe smokers, the United States is a terra incognita. However, it is now time to set out once again on Christopher Columbus’ adventurous voyage to the New World.

One must admit it is no surprise that the continent where the natives amazed, then seduced our ancestors with their smoking habits, is still home to many fans of the pipe. And that in the land of virginia and burley, of Kentucky and divine Perique, there exists a strong pipe tradition. In addition to this tradition, recently the USA has shown a renewed and striking interest in the pipe. Indeed, the cigar boom of the 80s was followed by another genuine vogue. For about ten years now, the pipe has flourished as never before. Gone is the image of the old farmer sitting in his rocking chair peacefully smoking his Half & Half in a Missouri Meerschaum. Pipes have become fashionable. Numerous pipe clubs have been founded, and every self-respecting town organizes its own annual pipe show. Pipe and tobacco magazines, as well as competitions for carvers, prosper. The Internet is loaded with web sites, commercial and otherwise, dedicated to pipes and smoking weed. Further, on several digital boards and newsgroups, pipe collectors continuously exchange information and advice about the object of their passion. For the most prestigious Danish and German carvers, the American market has become their primary outlet, and the demand is exceeding the supply. In this extremely favorable context, it is not surprising that America was ready to welcome with open arms the hand made in USA.

Of course, the pipe production in the United States is nothing new. Since 1869 Missouri has been the homeland of the famous corncob, and for almost a century several American brands such as Kaywoodie, Medico, Dr. Grabow and Yello-Bole have supplied the local market with affordable pipes. But the point of interest of this article, namely the birth and the development of the hand crafted pipe, is a much more recent development.

The handmade pipe has its precursors, today long forgotten, that were carving for American brands such as Wilke, Barclay Rex or Custom-Bilt. It also has its veterans. Although some of them have exercised a certain amount of influence on the work of contemporary pipe makers, their fame was often local and consequently very limited. As this paper makes no claim whatsoever to be exhaustive, we will respectfully look beyond them and concentrate on the two individuals who, undeniably, were the founding fathers of the American high-grade pipe. The facts are remarkable. Strictly speaking, one is not even a pipe maker, and while the other for sure is an artisan of the briar, his production is very limited, even a rarity. Still they have changed the face of the pipe universe across The Pond.

Artist and pipe smoker Ed Burak walked into the New York shop of Austrian born Paul Fischer to have his meerschaum repaired. They fraternized and Burak ended up as an apprentice in the workshop of this meerschaum manufacturer. He was later engaged by Wally Frank, where he designed pipes for that popular brand. Then, In 1968, he took over New York’s Connoisseur Pipe Shop. It was there that he revolutionized the American pipe. Not as a pipe maker, but as a designer. There are obvious striking similarities between Burak and the mythical Italian pipe pope Alberto Paronelli. Like Paronelli, Ed Burak focuses on creating pipes on paper, but for the execution in briar of his designs he engages mercenary hands. From the start his designs have astounded. He relegated the notion of the pipe as a mere smoking tool, utilitarian and boring, to the attic. Under his guidance the pipe was transformed into an object of art, collection, and passion. As refined and sensual sculptures, his pipes ended up in museum exhibits. And what’s more, the Connoisseurs of Burak opened the eyes of both the collectors and his colleagues : an American made pipe was not condemned to be mediocre and cheap, lacking personality and beauty. It could be original, innovative and seductive. Last but not least, the success of his enterprise demonstrated that there existed a niche for higher end pipes stamped Made in U.S.A.!

At the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, a comet blazed across the heavens of the American pipe universe. Mike Butera, an American insurance broker and passionate pipe smoker, an admirer of the technical perfection and of the aesthetics of the famous Italian and Danish pipe makers, made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of pipe design. He traveled throughout Europe, visiting among others one of the most prestigious carvers of that time, Baldo Baldi. During those travels he became friends with Carlo Scotti, the owner of the most famous Italian brand, Castello. He studied their techniques as well as the refined aesthetics of their creations. Mike Butera had found his vocation. After returning to the United States not only did he enter the cigar and tobacco trade, he also started to carve pipes. He did so meticulously, with the soul of a perfectionist. Straight away he won a competition for pipe makers, amazing colleagues and connoisseurs alike by the quality of his work. This had never been seen before! An American was able to produce pipes that could rival European high grades, pipes that were beautiful and presented an execution and finish that were beyond reproach. The era of the ugly and monstrous freehands was over. The genuine American high grade had been born. From then on, the American pipe makers had a role model, a point of reference. More than just an admired carver, Mike Butera became a living legend. All passionate pipe lovers knew his name and his reputation, but those who had the privilege of smoking a Butera were few. Being an overworked businessman, he produced only a few pipes a year. His creations are therefore, even to this day, prized collectable pieces that sell for exorbitant prices.

The real awakening of the American artisan pipe occurred in the 80s. Dozens of carvers entered the craft. While many proved to be nine-day wonders, and are now only obscure footnotes in the annals, some succeeded and today have a good twenty years of experience. Artisans such as Elliott Nachwalter, Clarence Mickles, Randy Wiley, Tim West, Steve Weiner, and Samuel Learned , for instance, have made noteworthy contributions, but without having reached the pinnacle of the art of the best European pipe makers.

And today, who are the carvers that stand out from the lot, that deserve for one reason or another to be presented in this article? Evidently, any choice is subjective, and somewhat arbitrary. I realize this. However, after having talked to a dozen of American pipe makers and connoisseurs, it turns out that the same names are mentioned time after time. Here then are a few of those icons.

J.T. Cooke, Jim to those who know him, is one of the veterans. Active for 25 years as a pipe maker and repairman, he enjoys a solid reputation. The taste of his pipes is excellent as he has developed a technique for extracting the tannins from his briar, a source of bitterness. Cooke is equally famous for his comfortable stems that are hand made from an acrylic material that he produces himself. His models reflect a contemporary classicism. While he produces smooth pipes, oddly enough his fame and reputation was built upon his amazing sandblasts. Though in Europe, the old Dunhills, Bill Ashton-Tayor, and several Italian brands distinguish themselves by their seductive sandblasts, they are all surpassed by J.T. whose triple blast technique is probably the most stunning in the world. Through successive sandblasts, he manages to make the grain of the wood perfectly discernible, producing wonderful and impressing ring grains. His pipes have only one disadvantage : his blasts are far more expensive than the European counterparts!

The same cannot be said of the products from Mark Tinsky. His more than reasonable prices, and his good-natured personality, have made Mark the favorite of many Americans. It is difficult to find an amateur who does not possess at least one pipe made by the American Smoking Pipe Company, that Tinsky founded in 1978 with his friend Curt Rollar. In 1990, after the departure of his associate, Tinsky continued on by himself building a solid reputation using quality briar from Greece and stem blanks imported from Italy, offering collectors a vast assortment of models and finishes. In short, his pipes are beautiful and well-made pieces that produce a taste beyond reproach. Neither off-the-shelf nor haute couture, they are solid hand mades for an affordable price. And by the way, it is Mark’s pleasure to carve the pipe of your dreams as he readily accepts commissions. Also noteworthy is a future changing of the guard of sorts, as his son Glenn has inherited his father’s talent, and, at the age of 16, is selling his own creations.

Another veteran is Lee von Erck. Lee is a fascinating personality. He is a solitary individual with ascetic looks and a sense of humor as dry as a dry martini. Without doubt he is one of the most distinctive American carvers. His work does not leave one indifferent. One either loves his very organic shapes, inspired he says by the nature that surrounds his workshop in Michigan, or one profoundly dislikes his bizarre and rustic pipes. Anyway, collectors of small pipes should beware ! Lee loves big bowls. Also noteworthy is that Lee has perfected a method, kept quite secret, of oil curing, which means that the wood is treated with a mixture of oils to chase away the tannins and other impurities. The result is a pipe that produces a pleasant and typical flavor from the first puffs onward. The molded ebonite stems Lee uses, undergo a lot of modifications. As for the finishes, few smooth pipes, but lots of partially or completely rusticated ones with a very surprising appearance. Lee is said to rusticate with a dentist’s drill ! Just recently von Erck has presented a series of pipes which are sand blasted to offer a wonderful, bee hive effect : the morel finish, an impressive illustration of his craftmanship. In short, Lee manages to produce an American pipe that does not have its counterpart in Europe.

Halleluiah! One of the very best American artisans has recently settled on French soil. Trever Talbert has actually taken over Patrice Sebilo’s business, the carver whose name is associated with morta pipes, the fascinating material that is half way between vegetable and mineral. Trever gives free rein to his creativity in shaping elegant and refined mortas. Yet, briar is still his primary material, where something is offered for every taste. The Ligne Bretagne, made out of an old stock of preturned stummels, appeals to collectors of classic shapes, and to those that want to acquire a pipe from a high grade artisan at a very attractive price. For the aficionados and collectors, Trever presents the Talbert Briar series. These pipes are superb creations, made entirely by hand, that truly reflect his remarkable talent. Eclectic in style, often very personal in nature, featuring construction and finish of the highest caliber, these masterpieces can satisfy the most blasé of collectors. In turn, the most uncommon and therefore the most expensive series, baptized Halloween, really raise some eyebrows. Like the name implies, they are often bizarre creations that look like they came straight out of a Bosch painting or a horror movie. Amazing tours de force, these pieces might be more appealing to the experienced collector than to the mere common pipe smoker. It should also be noted that since Trever set up his new sand blast equipment, he has produced blasts that are simply breathtaking.

Larry Roush is considered by some of the bigwig American collectors to be the very best pipe maker at the moment. Supported early in his career by Mike Butera, Larry has inherited from his mentor the aspiration for technical perfection. Appearing in the 90s, then disappearing from circulation, Larry Roush has this past year made a remarkable comeback. Since his return, his pipes have progressed and reflect a real passion and an impressive command. His stems, which are entirely hand made, are finely executed and exceptionally comfortable. His tenons, which are made from Delrin, are perfectly adapted to the size of the shank of each pipe. The balance of his bents is excellent. Since Larry is also a goldsmith, the silver work that decorates his pipes is splendid, yet discrete. Overall, Roush’s work presents the quality that few pipe artisans can lay claim to : while staying within the bounds of contemporary classicism, his style can be recognized from across the room, offering a perfect balance between virility and elegance. They are striking and compact forms with natural and harmonious flowing lines and curves. His specialty is rusticated pipes in different colors that are in perfect harmony with the cumberland, ebonite or bakelite stems. Just recently Larry Roush has started to experiment with sand blasting and the first results look very promising. His pipes are a feast for the senses, for both the eyes and the touch. They are unpretentious pipes. Serious. Solid. Timeless.

Todd Johnson is studying towards a Ph.D. in classical languages and theology. Hence it is hardly surprising that this young scholar has baptized his brand STOA Briars, or that his three finishes bear names that come from Greek antiquity. There are the rusticated Spartans, blasted Athenians and the smooth Alexandrians. Attracted and inspired by the Danish master carvers, Todd Johnson went through a phase where his primary objective was to master the style of his heroes, and to pay them homage. Recently however, he has shown himself to be more and more relieved from the “burden” of the Danish tradition creating a style of his own. He has become a master in his own right producing genuine high grades with excellent engineering and finish. His most stunning pieces are remarkably elegant pipes crafted in a superb smooth finish with beautiful decorative accents or bamboo shanks. From now on, this young American is the peer of the Danes. Consequently his creations sell for prices that equal those of Tom Eltang or S. Bang.

A special case for several reasons is Rolando Negoita. He is not American, and, it has hardly been a year since he made his entrance into the pipe world. Indeed, of Romanian origin, and from a family of artisans, Rolando Negoita studied at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Bucharest. Due to the shortage of decent pipes, he taught himself to carve pipes from all types of wood. He then came to the United States where he became a professor of jewelry and design. At the same time he started his own workshop where he began to create jewelry, knives, clothes, accessories, and, as was to be expected, pipes. Anything can inspire this designer, from whales to walnuts, from Greek amphoras to the Bauhaus aesthetics. If there is one single pipe maker about whom we can predict with certainty that one day his pipe creations will end up in museums, it is Rolando. Elegant, sensual, fascinating, perfectly proportioned and, above all, innovative, his pipes have revolutionized the appearance of the object that is so dear to us. Yet, they do not shock or fall into the trap of being too flashy or far out in style. As for the finishes, Rolando not only produces very appealing smooth pipes that are only waxed, he is also the creator of a new rustication style, the walnut finish, that imitates the look of a walnut. Does this great designer necessarily make great smoking tools ? Not to worry, as thanks to the advice of pipe makers such as Tom Eltang and Trever Talbert, Rolando’s engineering is exemplary. This is great pipe art with an immense potential. As a matter of fact, during the last Chicago Pipe Show, Rolando won the prestigious award for Best Briar Display. He’ll go far. Very far.

Todd Johnson and Rolando Negoita aren’t the only young lions who have benefited from the pipe boom in the United States. Among the dozens of new pipe makers that have emerged these last few years, several deserve to be mentioned. Michael Lindner, who is clearly inspired by the Danish masters, is creating shapes that he can call his own. Moreover, his perfect execution and finish have become famous. Tyler Lane and Brian Ruthenberg are still searching for their own styles, but are already producing beautifully made pipes, with remarkably comfortable stems. The work of Jody Davis (J. Davis) is obviously influenced by his mentors Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch. Even the smoking properties and the taste of his pipes remind one of the legendary Jess. Walt Cannoy (W. Cannoy), after several months of inactivity, has returned to the scene, impressing collectors with his creative and personal style and attention to finishes. As a matter of fact, some of his creations would be perfectly suited for an unorthodox use during a black mass. And finally, but keep this a secret, a name to remember is Will Purdy. This amateur carver has not yet entered the arena. For the moment he refuses to sell his creations. He is perfecting his craft in peace. And believe me, this guy has talent.

Having completed this little survey, it’s time to address some issues. Does the American hand made distinguish itself from its European counter-part? What is striking at first sight is that the experience and accomplishment of the typical American pipe maker is in no way comparable to that of the typical carver from the Old World. Over here, be it in France, in the United Kingdom, in Italy or in Denmark, the key words are tradition and continuity. The know-how is transmitted from generation to generation, thanks to the guilds and to the workshops where masters and apprentices work side-by-side. Moreover these intensive and daily contacts between established carvers and young lions are facilitated by the fact that pipe production is often concentrated in a very limited geographical area. Saint-Claude, Pesaro or Svendborg are perfect illustrations. Conversely, in the United States, there are no guilds or workshops, such as Larsen, that engage, guide and systematically develop new talent. Moreover, in this gigantic country where the artisans are scattered from Florida to Montana, and from New York to California, frequent face-to-face contacts are by definition out of the question. Hence the American pipe makers are fundamentally self-taught. And proud of it!

However, this is only part of the real picture. Living in the era of communication tools and the digital highway, the American carvers are less isolated than one might expect. Most of the young lions are able to contact their elders by telephone and e-mail. Furthermore, Trever Talbert, one of the most respected artisans, has published on his website a rather detailed description of his working methods and a wide range of practical tips and advice. Many neophyte carvers will admit that this website has been very useful in getting them started. And finally, there’s this typically American phenomenon of pipe shows. Many of the established, even legendary, artisans from Europe, and the best American pipe makers, attend these shows, where the less experienced carvers take advantage of the opportunity to ask them questions. During these meetings pipe makers from both sides of the Atlantic fraternize and exchange tips, ideas, and resources. In sum, there definitely is some kind of transmission of the know-how, though obviously it is in no way as systematical as in Europe. And that’s not all. Certain American carvers have set out on a pilgrimage to the paradise of the high grade : Denmark. Todd Johnson for instance has had some training in Tom Eltang’s workshop. Tony Rodriguez, an artisan who is unknown to the average collector, has been guided by the legendary Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch. And as the artisan pipe made in USA has now existed for at least two generations, naturally certain pioneers have helped or influenced some of their successors. Trever Talbert doesn’t hide his appreciation for the advice that he received from Paul Perri. Mark Tinsky made his debut under the wing of Jack Weinberger. Mike Butera has helped and influenced several contemporary carvers such as Larry Roush, Mike Frey and the recently deceased Steve Weiner.

So where’s the common style in all of this? Is there a typical American style just like there is a typical Danish, Italian, English style? The answer is both simple and undeniable: not at all. Remember, there are neither guilds nor workshops employing several carvers, nor any organized apprenticeship. Under these conditions, it was to be expected that these artisans, scattered to the four corners of a huge territory, were destined, or even condemned, to be real individualists. The most fundamental characteristic of the hand made in USA is its eclecticism. However, while observing the work of the best artisans, one can clearly distinguish two contradictory tendencies.

On the one hand, and even if this might be rather regrettable, it is nonetheless a phenomenon that is quite understandable, there are pipe makers that are so inspired by the European production that their work shows an obvious lack of personality and originality. John Eells, for instance, is aiming at equaling the Dunhills of the grand era. The work of Michael Kabik, retired years ago, looks quite similar to that of Preben Holm. It is striking to what degree the aesthetics and technical perfection of the Danish masters inspires an almost obsessive fascination among so many young carvers. It is symptomatic that many Americans make every effort to copy typically Danish creations, such as the blowfish, the pickaxe and the ukulele. Incidentally, it is this awe that risks to paralyze the personal creativity, and irritates some American pipe makers and collectors. But hush, this must remain between us!

On the other hand, there are those pipe makers that are indefinable, that escape each attempt to classify, that are fiercely individualistic and original. Their work has nothing in common with either the European aesthetics, or with the production of their American colleagues. The creations of Joe Mariner or Denny Souers for instance look more like Martian sculptures than smoking tools. And we have already emphasized the innovative originality of the work of carvers like Lee von Erck, Trever Talbert, Walt Cannoy and Rolando Negoita.

If the hand made in USA is tempting you, it is useless to run to your favorite pipe store : the American pipe makers are not distributed in Europe. The reason is two fold. For one, the European market is saturated. Also, the local demand exceeds the supply. However, Trever Talbert intends to introduce, in his business in Britanny, the products of several American pipe makers. But the easiest and perhaps the most pleasant way to acquire American pipes is to contact the carvers directly by e-mail. In addition, most of these craftsmen have a website to sell their products. Go visit them and feel quite safe about it. Moreover, you will be impressed by the warm welcome from these passionate artisans that share with you the love of the pipe. And what about the language barrier ? Be assured, pipe lovers will always find a common language.

Erwin Van Hove, owing a large debt of gratitude to Georgia Lee Patterson and Art Ruppelt for their valuable help with the translation.