The Ashton Pipe Story
THE ASHTON PIPE STORY, by R. D. Field
"Being the only true and complete chronicle of the Ashton smoking pipe from its inception to the present day"
(This version is unedited)
Let’s start at the beginning- the real beginning. I’ve liked briar smoking pipes since I was a kid- and not necessarily to smoke either; but to possess and to work with (or fool with). I was twelve when I went to a nearby drug store and spied something special- two packs of Holiday pipe tobacco and a briar pipe, all for 79 cents. I had to have that pipe, and so I bought the package. I smoked the pipe of course, but didn’t like it much. Taste was rather rough. And I really didn’t like the shiny surface of that pipe. So grabbed some sandpaper and took that shine right off. Looked much better then- but not good enough. After all it was a pipe, and to my twelve year old mind pipes should look old. So I went back to work with various tools and made that pipe look- different. Not at all satisfied with my workmanship I went out and bought another pipe- this time without the tobacco. Didn’t even smoke this one before I started in changing its appearance. And I think I did a damn good job. Made that pipe look as if it had gone through all sorts of catastrophes and come out sort of all right. I was pleased.
My pipe smoking kind of ebbed and flowed over the next several years, but didn’t really amount to much. I messed with cigarettes a lot while in high school and some in college but gradually shifted over more to pipe smoking until I stopped cigarettes completely. Helping the shift immeasurably was my father who, a month before I was to begin my freshman year in college, took me to the John Middleton shop in Philadelphia and allowed me to select a Dunhill pipe for myself. Now, as I said, I had been messing with pipes for awhile and I had about 10 or 12- mostly Middleton Old Mariner’s and some Kaywoodie’s (made in London). So I knew that a Dunhill was considered to be, at that time, the best. And I really found it to be the best- in terms of smoking quality and sheer craftsmanship. That pipe helped turn me into not only a confirmed pipe smoker, but a Dunhill pipe smoker. Coming home from college on some weekends I would visit the Dunhill Shop in Philadelphia (the John Middleton shop being no longer good enough for me), and with money scrimped and saved I could occasionally purchase a Dunhill pipe. I was now a connoisseur.
I also became an addict. I had my own tobacco blends mixed specially for me in the Dunhill Shop (yes, put a little more of that crosscut tobacco in please); I had Dunhill tobacco pouches (should I take the cloth rotator or the napa leather tonight); I had Dunhill cologne (and I didn’t wear cologne). Everything was Dunhill; I was a Dunhill man, therefore I had status (Dunhill status). Yet I was still in college and had no money (but some damn nice pipes and accessories).
But the Dunhill pipes were good- make no mistake about that. Oh, I had purchased other brands (one has to try others, in case one is missing out), but none was as good as Dunhill to my mind’s eye- not in taste nor in materials nor in the way the pipe was made. And as the twelve year old kid was still somewhat in me (but not to the extent of altering the finish of any pipe) I would study all the pipes in my collection- trying to learn their secrets.
All through the sixties and seventies my interest grew. I began to feel that a well made briar pipe was akin to art, but art that could be used instead of only viewed for its ascetic qualities. I had to learn more. But how? I had read the few books and magazines on the subject of briar pipes, and my need to know only increased. In the spring of 1978 I decided to take a flyer and so placed a small classified ad in the Collectibles column of the Friday Philadelphia Inquirer:
Briar Smoking Pipes Wanted, Cash Paid Telephone XXX-XXXX
Surprise surprise- I received telephone calls from folks and went to visit them in their homes (it still never ceases to amaze me that so many folks would let a complete stranger have access to their home). Found some superb briar pipes too, amid others not quite so nice. At the end of a few weeks I had a nice little collection of some very good names, but I also found that I was visiting too many folks that had nothing but Medico’s and the like to show me. So I modified my ad to include Dunhill, Charatan, and Barling as the only pipes in which I had interest. This did manage to cut down on the number of visits I made, and the collection continued to build.
Now, what did I do with this collection? I studied the pipes therein, trying to learn as much as I could about every aspect- from the basics of condition to the quality of materials used (sheet or rod vulcanite as opposed to injection- molded mouthpieces for example) to such abstracts as to why various grain patterns or sandblast patterns emerged. I also bought a buffing machine, not having the patience to hand-restore a vulcanite mouthpiece.
And I smoked these briars. All (but a few) being used pipes I wanted to determine if one or another of the various brands smoked better (to my taste) or if the flavor was determined by the person who broke the pipe in.
More ads (every Friday, remember) produced more calls which created more visits which begat more pipes in my collection and then… THEN! An epiphany. I got a call from a fellow collector (and I didn’t even know that there were fellow collectors) who invited me over. It was during this visit that I came into contact with a publication that, literally, changed my life… THE PIPE SMOKER’S EPHEMERIS. Not only was I not alone (as my visit to this erstwhile collector had shown) but in reading this publication I found that there was a whole community of folks all across the country, perhaps the world, with an interest in the briar smoking pipes. WOW!
I found that, with a community of collectors, one could exchange ideas as well as pipes. So I continued my education, doing as best I could to separate the wheat from the chaff. I also found that some collectors were willing to pay dollars for name brand pipes if the condition of the pipe was sound; thus began the business side of my education.
In cultivating those pipe collectors with whom I’d spoken I found that I had to expand my horizons in terms of brands, as many thought highly of hand-crafted Italian pipes. So I sought out those brands also (Castello and Caminetto being two that come immediately to mind) and gleaned more knowledge concerning acrylic mouthpieces and hand rustication.
In time I had a little mailing list (never over forty names) of collectors to whom I would periodically mail what I guess would be called inventory sheets of the pipes I had to sell. And I was actually earning some money. Now, what to do with these $$. My ads were not producing a great deal at this point, and some of my collector pals had expressed interest in new pipes so…. As I knew the Dunhill pipe very well indeed I decided to become a Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealer. How to do this as I didn’t have a shop? Only one way- send ‘em money. I wrote a very nice letter to Alfred Dunhill Ltd. In New York expressing my keen interest in becoming a Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealer, and I enclosed a check for $3,000. Some time later I received twenty four Dunhill pipes in a Principal Pipe Dealer’s Cabinet… and change. I was in the new pipe business.
Now that I could sell new Dunhill pipes I again wanted to know more about the brand, but this time not from afar. So I wrote to Dunhill, London and asked if I could have a look round. As I received a positive response I left for London in the fall of 1979. During this trip I was to meet some fabulous folks who worked for Alfred Dunhill- the then archivist one Mr. Gomersall who, though he knew even more about Dunhill lighters, could and did certainly shed light on many aspects of the Dunhill pipe from its creation to the time of my visit; and one David Webb, then just starting his tenure as manager of the Cumberland Road pipe factory who taught me a thing or two about a world market when it came to Dunhill pipes.
Besides touring the Dunhill Cumberland Road pipe factory and having a look through the Dunhill archives I did quite a bit more. Spent days in the British Museum Patent Library going over all briar pipe patents filed from the mid 19th century onward; visited every pipe shop in the West End where I was able to speak with some very knowledgeable folks; hit the Bermondsey and Portobello Road Antiques Markets with an eye out for good briar. I returned home more fully equipped than when I started.
Now that I was a retailer of Dunhill briar pipes I wanted more, but only a little more… Castello. The brand was then distributed by Hollco-Rohr and so I wrote to them expressing interest. I was rebuffed. Stunned, I decided that if the normal channel is closed I would have to find an alternate. And so I did.
I packed myself off to Italy in search of Castello pipes. Not only did I want the pipes, but I wanted to meet the man. I landed in Milan, stopped at a small and rather dingy hotel by the train station (didn’t have money to spend on hotels- only pipes), and set off the next morning for Cantu- home of Castello.
At the train station I found the train for Cantu and boarded. Got off at the end of the line, Cantu Cermanente- not Cantu. Now, at this time I spoke not a word of Italian, and I was in a little village where no one spoke English. I thought I might die in that village because I couldn’t speak with anyone; I couldn’t even get lunch. An irrational fear? In this case yes, because through sign language and an address written down on a scrap of paper I found that I could board a bus and arrive in Cantu (the real Cantu) in ten minutes.
Once off the bus I found the correct address, knocked, and was admitted. It was here that I met Carlo Scotti, his daughter Savinella, and his son-in-law Franco Coppo. I wish to tell you all now- Carlo Scotti was a very imposing figure. Tall and lean with a mane of white hair and a hawk-like face here was someone not to be trifled with. This man radiated both ideals and stubbornness in the extreme. When he later found that I was going to shops throughout Italy purchasing Castello pipes he demanded of the shop owners that they not sell to me.
Returning home with loads of Castello pipes (but not purchased at the Castello workshop) I was now a Castello retailer. So what next?
The 1980 Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealer World Conference- it was here that I was able to meet many more fabulous folks in the pipe trade, including one William John Taylor (later to become William John Ashton-Taylor). Though I remember Bill at the conference I don’t think I ever spoke with him, and the same holds true for the 1982 Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealers World Conference which I also attended. I did finally get to meet Bill in early 1983 when I accidentally stumbled across a pipe making demonstration he was giving at one of the West End department stores. I had been importing and distributing pipes from 1980 (Radice, Becker) and I guess I always had my eye at least half open for something new. Watching Bill work that early winter’s day I thought- this man’s got real talent. I can put his work in any of the top pipe shops in our country and it’ll sell. When we had a chance to sit down and talk I found that he had a little business repairing antique pipes for Astley’s and a few other shops in London operating from his back shed. I then broached a question- would he be interested in making his own pipes for the U.S. market. After some hesitation Bill agreed to give it a go.
Our first extended conversations were by phone- trying to lay out what each expected of the other and what each could do for the other. First and foremost- what type of pipe was this new brand to be? I knew and loved Dunhill pipes; Bill was Dunhill trained. It was a natural, but neither of us wanted a knock-off of Dunhill pipes. They stood on their own. We both wanted conservative shaping and a majority to be in the sandblast finish, but we wanted something more. We both wanted a real oil curing process and more hand work- the way it was done in the 1930’s through the 1950’s. And we wanted the pipes to look like they had been hand-worked; perfection was not our goal, personality was.
What was this new brand to be called? Bill and I were on the phone one cold February day in ’83 going round and round trying different names on for size when, for whatever reason, we both started to put our focus on A… then As… Ashley? No- too much like Astley’s, the pipe shop. Asprey? Can’t use it either as it’s a jeweler. And then both of us, at the same time: Ashton! So that was it; the Ashton name was born.
We had a name. Now we needed pipes. Bill thought of the logo- a briar spot inside a silver circle- brilliant. He told me that he was having a hard time setting up the oil curing process in his shed because space was so limited, but he succeeded in the end and production (limited, very limited) was about to begin.
It was then that I again went to London to meet with Bill. I was a bit nervous, didn’t really know what to expect. Would we get on as well as we had during that short meeting six weeks earlier? And could we cooperate with one another? But I had to visit, had to show my support both spiritually and financially.
We met, and a very deep friendship took hold. We found that not only could we work together and exchange ideas together, but that we could also have fun together. Not that there haven’t been moments when one of us would have liked to have rung the other’s neck.
I well remember receiving the very first Ashton pipe- a sandblasted Canadian with primitive nomenclature (there was no finish PebbleGrain stamped on the pipe for instance). I must admit to you all that…I FREAKED! This was not what I wanted. Instead of the black sandblast showing off beautiful reddish highlights the pipe was jet black. And when I rubbed the bowl with alcohol to take off some of the stain it came off blue-black. At that moment I saw my dreams in ruins. He can’t do it, I thought. He can’t make a pipe like I envisage.
But he could, and did. I returned the pipe and it was soon put right. When I received it the second time reddish highlights radiated from the bowl- but how would it smoke? That the Ashton Pipe Company, born in 1983, is now into its eighteenth year answers that question.
That first year Bill made only 31 Ashton pipes. Something would have to change if we were to make an impact on the U.S. pipe market. I made the trip to London in January 1984 so Bill and I could discuss his future in the business. Should he go on his own or stay securely employed? A really difficult decision, this- as there was Irene, Bill’s wife, and two small children to consider, let alone a newly acquired mortgage. I wish to impart to you all that it is a very frightening thing to have another person trust you so much that he will leave his job on your word that you can sell his product. But that is what happened; Bill placed himself in my hands. And we’re both still around. HOORAY!
After handing in his notice and going on his own in 1984 Bill needed more capital. For one, he needed a damn good sandblaster as he had been having that work done elsewhere. Both of us had envisaged hands-on sandblasting as essential to the brand, and so it had to be. In Spring 1984, after Bill had done some preliminary research, I came over and off we went to a specialist in sandblasting machines. Bill brought some bowls and showed them to our assigned rep as to how he’d be using the machine. “No problem, guv.” And the guy leads us to this little dinky machine. “I don’t think this’ll do.” says Bill. And sure enough- it didn’t. Bill worked at the machine for ten minutes with no visible effect on the pipe bowl, and so we went through machine after machine, going up in size and capacity all the time until we came to the second largest in the range. Hands go into huge rubber gloves, gloved hands are pushed into slots in a giant cabinet, pipe bowl is held directly under the sand jet, foot hits the compressor treadle… and the shank of the bowl is totally blasted away in a split second. “Now that is a lovely sandblaster” says Bill. Deal done.
After securing the proper sandblaster we were off to Italy to buy wood. As Bill was familiar with a few of the sawmills there he made the arrangements and we arrived at a mill which was a short drive from Pisa, early on a Tuesday morning. The next three days were spent up to our eyeballs in briar, surrounded by mountains of the stuff. I can’t begin to describe the air in and around the outbuildings which were situated in a lonely region of Tuscany- only that it had a real tang, almost a stinging quality- which came from the briar in its various stages of preparation. After three days of sifting and sorting we came away with seven bags of wood- to be delivered. I later learned that fourteen bags had actually arrived and that the extra seven bags had wood of good quality but each block was much smaller in height though larger in width. In the end, rather than send them back, Bill and Frank were able to get fabulous cross grains by turning each block on its side before working it.
In preparation of the first full year of production I was introduced to some processes of which I had neither seen nor read. One process smelled so horrible that I readily recall it today: the boiling of foot-long pieces of rod vulcanite in a large kettle for three hours at a crack, so as to remove as much sulfur as possible before the mouthpiece was actually cut to fit the pipe. This, I was told, kept the vulcanite mouthpieces of all Ashton pipes from oxidizing for a much longer period of time than other brands
As we became better acquainted I learned more of Bill’s training at Dunhill Pipes Ltd. Hired as a capstan-lathe operator at the age of fifteen he did little more than sweep floors for quite some time. All the craftsmen on the floor in that era knew how to make a pipe from start to finish, and each had his own jealously guarded secrets. Gradually, Bill was taught all the general processes, and since he showed such keen interest in pipe making a few of the old guard actually shared their treasured secret knowledge with him. To become a pipe maker for Dunhill in those days the apprentice had to demonstrate his skill by making a usable pipe of Dunhill quality from start to finish. When Bill brought his finished pipe in to be critiqued the masters laughed at his work- until they examined the pipe closely and found it to be both flawless and usable. For the pipe he made was only one inch long.
From the very beginning Bill has tried to cater to the American Collector- not with series upon series of limited edition pipes, but by making the largest briar smoking pipes to come out of England. The first of these pipes were sized ELX and appeared in 1984, but these were soon to be dwarfed by the very limited series of MAGNUM pipes which first appeared in 1985. From 1985 till today no more than seventy-five MAGNUM pipes have been made, the zenith for this series being 1986 when twenty were produced. Low point was throughout the 1990’s with the scarcity of really large pieces (I won’t dare to call them blocks) of briar . A MAGNUM in any smooth finish has yet to make an appearance.
1984 saw the emergence of Ashton as a comer in the high grade pipe market. Very quickly the brand gained a reputation for fine smoking characteristics overall and the deeply sandblasted PebbleGrain finish in particular. Bill believed so much in the brand and what he was able to accomplish that he decided to add Ashton to his surname, and so in that year he became William John Ashton-Taylor. In the same period my friend Robby Levin decided to bring out a new cigar brand and had no idea of what to use for a name. I convinced him, based on the excellent reputation of the Ashton pipe in the U.S., to name his cigar brand Ashton. And so he did.
When I saw the enthusiastic acceptance of the Ashton pipe by the U.S. pipe smoking public in 1984 I decided that the newly formed Ashton Pipe Company needed an archive of its ongoing history. Not a paper archive, but a pipe archive. I already had two pipes from the thirty-one made in 1983 and so in 1984 I started to set aside representative examples of Bill’s work for each year. The Collection should provide visual clues to the ongoing development and changes in the pipe making process that would otherwise go unnoticed. The Ashton Collection now comprises nearly two hundred pipes, and it continues to slowly expand, year by year.
Bill and I have taken many trips together- to visit other pipe makers, to select briar, and to vacation with our families. On an early trip in 1985 we visited Radice, and I asked Gigi to show Bill what I thought was a really neat finish- a combination of rustication and sandblasting. We also bought cappuccino makers in Milan before we returned to England. And why are you mentioning that you both bought cappuccino makers you ask. Because Bill brought his to the workshop where it became an essential part in developing his PebbleShell process. After seeing what Radice had done Bill took it another step; he first steamed the outside of the oil cured bowl (using the steam jet of the cappuccino maker) raising the soft grain up just so, and then carving it away. Only after this process would the bowl be sandblasted- the result being the gnarled appearance that we in this country love. Bill applied for and received a British patent for the PebbleShell process, and each PebbleShell pipe sold today bears this patent number.
As an innovator on the English pipe making scene Bill has no peer. I may give him a suggestion which he will then take and run with, so that it goes far beyond what I originally conceived. A primary example is the Ashton quaint series. I well remembered Barling quaints and suggested that Ashton might want to try something in that line. In no time Bill was creating a masterly series of quaint shapes the like of which I had not seen before, and which are a backbone of the line today. But this innovation is also a two-edged sword. For when Bill is working the new he can sometimes forget the old. Not the most organized person I have ever met Bill will write processes on odd scraps of paper- and then lose them. The popular Brindle finish was absent for a period of five years because of the loss of the paper scrap bearing the Brindle stain formula. And that it was found again was just the purest luck.
The Ashtonite mouthpiece proved to be another innovation- this one taking place in the early 1990’s when Bill found a material that was somewhat of a cross between traditional vulcanite, used by English pipe makers from the beginning of the craft, and the acrylic material favored by Italian craftsmen. That this material would not tarnish yet was a bit softer on the teeth than acrylic was like having the best of both worlds. And, to be truthful, I didn’t know a thing about the impending change until the first pipes with Ashtonite mouthpieces arrived at my warehouse door.
From its inception the Ashton Pipe Company has never had more than two full time folks, plus a series of part-timers. Skilled pipe makers are a dying breed in the England of today and no one there seems to have the interest to apprentice. It really is no wonder as the trade in pipes is shrinking all the time- the irony being that there are more good hand made pipes being made today than ever before.
To begin with, Bill is an all-rounder; he is familiar with every part of the pipe making process and does it all. The first bowl-turner was Frank Lincoln, also ex-Dunhill and a wonderful man. Frank’s specialty was hand-turning on a lathe which he did for Ashton until health problems caught up with him. He died in 1991. The present bowl-turner is one Sid Cooper, all of seventy-eight (he looks fifty-four). Sid started at the original Hardcastle Pipe Co. (not Parker-Hardcastle, mind) in 1938, and he is a genius at setting up machinery in order to make one-off shapes. He also knows more stories of the English pipe trade than anyone I have ever met.
Personality, not perfection. Little did I know at the time of our first meeting that Bill Ashton-Taylor was superbly suited to injecting immense portions of his personality into the brand. His pipes are a reflection of the man- polished yet comfortable, warm and gentle, true friends.
The Ashton Pipe Company today is still evolving, and there is really no telling where it will go. One can easily see this evolvement when viewing the Ashton Collection in its totality; each year’s examples are different than the previous year’s- in shape, in finish, in feel. As long as William John Ashton-Taylor continues to make pipes I feel sure that we are all in for more pleasant surprises.