The Charm of Handmade Pipes


2012-06-04
by Yu-ting Chang / Savinelli image provided by/Tom Eltang

As a child watching Popeye cartoons, I never understood why he always had a pipe in his mouth. Understanding came to me as an adult, having discovered the pleasure of collecting handmade pipes. Pipes are not merely tools for smoking tobacco, but works of art, carefully crafted by artisans. Their value as collectors' items far exceeds their practicalvalue. Like a good cigar, the first and most important step in crafting a pipe is the sellectio0n of what material to use.

Materials In realizing what makes a pipe precious, one must understand the wood it is made of. Briar root proves to be an ideal material because its infinite pores that are invisible to the naked eye give it characteristics that make it very unique. It is very conducive to even distribution of water vapor emitted during the process of burning, and it promotes cooling as well. It would seem that using a combustible material like wood as an apparatus to burn tobacco does not make sense because wood itself is combustible, but briar root is extremely dense, and its durability and exquisite grain lend it characteristics which make it ideal. Briar root pipes typically come with three distinct surface finishes.

Different finishes depict varying levels of quality. "Smooth finish" pipes tend to receive the highest demand, as the nature of the wood with both blemishes and unique kind grain are readily visible. "Sand blasted" pipes are subjected to metal or glass beads or sand which are sprayed at high velocity to remove the softer wood and leave an uneven surface. The craftsman needs not consider further shaping, as what result are no two pipes that are the same. With "rusticated finish" pipes, the craftsman uses specialized chisels to roughen contours into the surface by hand. Both sandblasted and rusticated pipes are easy to grip and display superior heat dissipation.

In the crafting of pipes, the older the briar root the better. Ideally the roots should be left to grow for at least 15 years before harvesting, because this maximizes porosity, richness of grain patterns and lightness. Weight is important because a heavy pipe can be a burden on the mouth. Before even starting to craft a pipe, the preparatory procedures are extensive. The root must be dug out of the soil, cut, boiled and dried to maturity. All of these steps are meant to rid the root of its residual fragrance so that the true flavor of the tobacco is maximized. The process requires several years before its evolution towards being a pipe may commence. As each pipe undergoes its creation, what finally emerges depends on the skills of the craftsman. Pipe crafting techniques True pipe enthusiasts are all familiar with those crafted in Denmark.

What makes them special is a combination of intricate detail and creative freedom. One craftsman in particular is Tom Eltang. He is revered for his thirty years of mastery in his domain and considered to have brought pipe making techniques to ultimate heights. Tom Eltang has been christened "The devilish genius of pipes", because his pipes glisten and sparkle like works of art from out of this world. Tom Eltang started off as an apprentice. His master was a woman named Julie. She would provide him with blanks that she had already roughed out, and Tom's task was to complete them. She taught him how to use grinding and sanding wheels which are the most important tools in the process. These tools reveal inspiration as they remove material and expose characteristics in the grain, which eventually depict the ultimate shape of the pipe. Gold contrast staining is a technique that Julie taught Eltang, and eventually it became one of his trademarks. Gold contrast staining involves the combination of two specially formulated stains, one yellow and the other green. When mixed together they take on a black color, and when applied to the briar root the mixture penetrates deeply to accentuate contrasts in the grain.

The next step is to buff the piece to a high luster. Bringing out the full potential of the grain can take a whole day. Italian made pipes are also highly respected. Savinelli started making traditional pipes in 1876 with briar root from Sardinia and Corsica islands which was carefully aged and processed for 15 years. Among the designs are the "Rural Rustic Series" and the "Autograph Series", pipes that are coveted among serious collectors as treasures. Savinelli pipes are respected for their excellent quality, a reputation that begins with its most affordable pipes through its range to the most exclusive.
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