Having a Blast : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Having a Blast

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Spend a few minutes talking to Bruce Weaver about pipes and pipemaking and it’s clear how enthusiastic and passionate he is about his second career. Speaking with a rich, deep and booming voice, he fervently, and often humorously, tells anyone who’ll listen how much he enjoys pipemaking—and how humbled he feels to even be considered a professional pipemaker.

“I love making pipes,” he says as he takes a seat at his workshop inside his suburban Nashville, Tenn., home. “When I go out to the shop I can let loose and concentrate on making pipes and let my mind wander—it’s a wonderful diversion. And it’s a great thrill to think that someone out there might enjoy smoking one of my pipes as much as I enjoyed making it.”

A natural salesman, the gregarious, 60-ish Weaver treats everyone he meets with a kind word and a firm handshake. If he wasn’t such a talented pipemaker, he would still be a popular person to visit with at pipe shows because of his friendly nature and his penchant for telling an entertaining story. Fortunately for collectors and smokers alike, Weaver transformed his interest in collecting pipes into a desire to make them himself.

Like many who discover passions and talents later in their lives, Weaver’s journey into pipemaking began on a whim while he was on a business trip to Lexington, Ky., in 1984. He was working for a company that made snap fasteners for industrial uses and for blue jeans and bib overalls. After finishing a visit to a client, Weaver stopped in at a Tinder Box store and purchased a Comoy bent billiard—a pipe he still owns.

He enjoyed smoking that pipe so much that he began collecting other pipe brands. A visit to Mr. Ed’s Pipe Shop in Nashville introduced Weaver to Dunhill pipes, which quickly became his favorite pipe brand to collect. Then he met Edsel James, a Nashville-area resident who collected Dunhill pipes so avidly that he became known among collectors as Mr. Dunhill.

“Buying, selling and trading with Edsel was an experience in its own right,” Weaver says and then laughs, a frequent Weaver trait. “I never felt that I got the better end of a trade, but I enjoyed his good company.”

Collecting up to the mid-1990s was mostly conducted through catalogs from retail pipe sellers, buying pipes from local shops, trading with other pipe collectors in the area or by traveling to a pipe show. However, the late ‘90s brought the Internet to the pipe collecting trade, which connected pipe collectors around the world.

“I was lucky that I got to work from home and raise three children,” Weaver comments. “I also had some free time to pursue pipe collecting. Over the years I bought and sold Dunhills. I kept buying and selling Dunhills on eBay and AOL and amassed quite a nice collection. Then I got into refurbishing them. I set up a buffing wheel and got into re-staining or touching them up, making them look right for sale, and that got me interested in pipemaking.”

Weaver hoped to enroll in the pipemaking seminar at the 2005 Chicagoland International Pipe & Tobacciana Show, but the class was full and he had to wait until the 2006 show to take the class, which was taught by Lee Von Erck.

“There were no lessons on drilling or stem work,” Weaver explains. “You were simply given a stummel to learn the sanding process. It’s very important to learn how to progress from 180-grit to 400-grit sandpaper and to try to eliminate scratches on the wood. What made it different was that I chose to shape the stummel too while the rest of the class concentrated on sanding. Thirty minutes into the class, I knew that pipemaking was for me. Lee and Gunnar Weber Prada congratulated me for taking the extra step. Every man needs a hobby, and I wanted to see if I had the ability to tap into the creative talent that I believe is within all of us. I became fascinated and started mulling over how I might become a pipemaker.”

A few weeks after the pipemaking seminar, Weaver arranged a visit to Columbus, Ohio, for a pipemaking lesson from Tim West. West showed Weaver the basics of drilling and shaping. Weaver then went home and bought a drill press and a dust collector and created an enclosed space off his garage to make a pipe workshop. A year later, he felt comfortable enough to travel to Columbus again—this time to attend the North American Society of Pipe Collectors Show as a pipemaker.

“I sat next to Rad Davis, who was extremely open, and I hold him in high esteem because he’s such a nice man and answered every single question I had,” Weaver explains. “I was told afterwards that he went home after the show and gave me accolades on a private message board as a pipemaker to watch out for in the future, and commented that I had a good eye for finishing a pipe. From that time, I felt a great appreciation for Rad.”

That show in Columbus was successful for Weaver not only because he had won the praise of a well-known and highly skilled pipemaker, but also because he sold four of his pipes.

“I was ecstatic because I didn’t expect to sell any,” he says with a bit of wonderment in his voice. “When I began making pipes I decided that I was going to give it two years before I’d sell a pipe or two. To my joy I beat the curve a little bit.”

Coming back home to Nashville, Weaver decided that he could indeed become a professional pipemaker, but he wasn’t—and isn’t—completely comfortable giving up a more than 35-year career in the snap fastener business. Weaver’s work-from-home job gives him the flexibility to pursue his passion while also earning a comfortable income. He works from his workshop, surrounded by pipemaking tools and sandblasting equipment. White wire racks containing curing briar blocks line part of the shop. There are also vintage pipe tobacco and pipe ads hanging from the walls. A small bed lies near the door to the workshop from which Weaver’s Pomeranian and Chihuahua mix dog, Boo, supervises Weaver’s activities. Weaver works with a cell phone attached to his hip, and a laptop computer is always turned on in the workshop so that he can communicate with his colleagues as quickly as if he were in an office.

“I go downstairs and upstairs between my real business and my joy business,” he says. “I’m fortunate to have done my real business for so many years that my customer base is large and I don’t have to travel so much—I used to go to China and Hong Kong frequently, as well as Africa, India and Sri Lanka—to take care of any problems that might arise. I don’t have to do it that much anymore.”

Weaver’s travel schedule now includes more trips for his joy business than his real business. He went to Romeo Briars in Italy for the retirement party of Romeo Filippo, where he met many great pipemakers during the two-day event and was given some great advice by pipemakers such as Tom Eltang and Teddy Knudsen.

“Pipemaking is not a guarded secret at all,” Weaver comments. “It’s like Lee said, ‘I’ll teach you everything I know and it’s up to you to catch up.’ There are some things that are proprietary, such as oil-curing or sandblasting processes, that make one pipemaker a little different from another, and pipemakers work diligently to develop one little nuance in their artistry. There are just so many ways you can make a pipe. You want to get to that point where you can make it distinctive. That’s why I’ve developed my own sandblasting method. I attack the growth rings in a different fashion from everybody else.”

In 2006, Weaver was in his office admiring his pipe collection and he noticed something—up to that point he had made nothing but smooth pipes, yet virtually every one of the pipes he had collected were sandblasted. He wondered why he was making so many smooth pipes when he really enjoyed sandblasts. He started doing some research into sandblasting in hopes of finding something that would be distinctive from the normal blasts that use high pressure and glass beads as the blasting medium. Weaver eventually settled on something other than glass beads as a blasting medium and works with a very small nozzle under lower pressure, which allows him to blast in very fine detail. He describes his technique as defining the rings and then enhancing their flow.

“The rings are never straight-on,” he says. “I angle them, which gives them a true definition. The type of sandblasting I do isn’t for everyone. Most pipemakers wouldn’t do it, but I find it relaxing to sit for hours staring through a magnifying glass at a block of wood. I love it. As you slowly work with the briar and the blasting medium, you get to study the flow of the rings. You can see where it might not have rained much for a couple of years in the area that the briar might have come from because the rings are so tight. You get a good idea for the natural history of the region from which the briar came. It takes many hours and depends on how many rings there are. I’ve blasted pipes with as many as 30 rings, and that takes all day but I never notice it.”

The most difficult aspect about sandblasting for Weaver to master was learning to be unafraid to make mistakes, a lesson that continues to arise as Weaver explores the depth of his talent. Fortunately for Weaver, those mistakes became a little rarer after he met Todd Johnson through a former girlfriend who was Johnson’s neighbor.

“We were on a date and I was telling her about a young pipemaker who had recently moved back to Nashville, and I told her his name was Todd Johnson,” Weaver explains. “She said I was kidding because he had waved at us when we left. I immediately turned around, got out of the car and introduced myself to Todd, and we became friends in short order. He invited me to apprentice under him, which has been the single greatest privilege and learning experience I have had the fortune to have in pipemaking.”

Before he worked with Johnson, Weaver made approximately 80 pipes a year. He estimates that he now makes around 70 a year because Johnson has taught him to slow down and concentrate on the symmetry of a pipe’s design to ensure that it has a smooth flow from the top of the bowl to the end of the stem—to create something that allows the eye to flow uninterrupted from one end of the pipe to the other.

“Todd taught me to strive to attain perfection,” Weaver says. “We’re working in the thousandths of an inch and if something is a little bit off, it’s off. Always symmetry—making sure the flow is right. You don’t want your eyes to ever stop on a section of the pipe; you want them to go from end to end. If your eye stops anywhere, it’s done, unless it’s due to an adornment.”

Some might think that an older man learning from a younger one would be unnatural, but both Weaver and Johnson consider it a natural extension of their friendship. They mentor each other—Johnson to Weaver, in terms of pipemaking, and Weaver to Johnson in other aspects of life.

“He’s a tremendous guy and kind of like a throwback to the classical gentleman,” Johnson describes Weaver during a visit to his workshop. “I value his friendship. We relate to each other as colleagues and friends on many levels. Maybe I’m mentoring him in the realm of pipemaking and he’s mentoring me in the realm of life. He has a lot of wisdom and experience from which I can learn.”

And by all accounts, Weaver’s pipemaking skill has grown significantly since he began studying under Johnson.

“He has improved quite a lot,” Johnson says. “He has a pretty narrow shape spectrum, but people love those shapes and he can repeat them endlessly, which will be Bruce’s bread-and-butter—a limited amount of shapes that he executes incredibly well that have incredible blasts. Variations of classical shapes are where he excels. He has unique flourishes on them. He looks at pipes as smoking instruments, so he’s not interested in advante garde pipemaking. He knows that and he doesn’t try to replicate it because he recognizes that it’s not who he is as a pipemaker. Right now, Bruce’s pipes are a little underpriced, so I see them going up in the next couple of years. He’s only recently been handcutting his stems, and that adds tremendous value to a pipe.”

Ever humble, Weaver credits Johnson’s talent and dedication to achieve perfection as the impetus to his own development as a pipemaker.

“Every time I work with him I learn something new, and I learned more in the first month working with him than I learned in the previous three years banging it out on my own,” Weaver explains. “I always look at it in terms of an athlete. If you train with someone who’s slightly faster than you, it makes you work all that harder. Although I’m not at his caliber of pipemaking, I find that when I work with Todd it pushes me to excel and try that much harder to get closer to the end goal, which is to make a really beautiful pipe.”

While making a beautiful pipe is part of the end goal, Weaver says that it’s just as important to ensure that the pipe will smoke well. Weaver estimates that he typically spends six to eight hours working on a single pipe—perfecting both its design and its engineering.

Weaver gets most of his briar from Romeo Briar, which he allows to cure in his garage for a year. He also has secured a supply of rare red Algerian briar that was cut in the 1940s from Hoyt Shuyler, a deceased pipemaker.

“I use that sparingly—only when I need a pipe for myself or if I have a special request,” he says. “It’s cool and it doesn’t impart any taste to the tobacco. The smoking qualities are superb. It’s very old wood that produces very few smooth pipes because there are a lot of pits in them.”

One of the most fascinating aspects that pipemaking holds for Weaver is the ability to work with exotic woods as adornments on a pipe. He pores over wood websites, examining materials and ordering them for experimentation, which often leads to an interesting new embellishment he concocts on a pipe. One of his favorite adornment materials is spalted maple, which he says is very interesting to look at because its grain is so complex.

He hand cuts his stems from ebonite or Bakelite, a material that he says is difficult to work with because of its brittle nature, but the variety of colors available in Bakelite makes the difficulty worthwhile.

Weaver spends a lot of time on the draft hole so that there is no turbulence to stoke up heat and moisture in the smoke and a pipe cleaner will easily pass through the entire pipe. The draft hole’s largest size is five-thirty-secondths of an inch, and he tapers the size down the stem until it reaches about an inch from the lip button, where he widens the channel into a “V” pattern. He also works hard to make the stem as thin as possible for a comfortable feel in the mouth. He tests every stem he makes to make sure that when he puffs on it, there is no whistling sound. Weaver says that his stems can be characterized as being “smooth as silk on the inside,” and that the draft hole is buffed so that it shines when someone looks down the draft hole.

He also allows a very small gap between the mortise and tenon to allow space for the material to expand. He says if you make the mortise and tenon connection flush, the natural expansion of the materials when the pipe is smoked will eventually cause a space to develop that could cause more turbulence.

The size and depth of the tobacco chamber varies by pipe, but most of his pipes’ tobacco chambers are drilled to thirteen-sixteenths of an inch. The shape of the tobacco chamber depends on the preference of the customer.

“A good 50 percent of my work is commission now, which is exciting because somebody gives me an idea and I get to be creative,” Weaver says. “Hopefully they’ll be ecstatic when I’m done. It’s all worthwhile to finish a pipe and send it to the customer and they give me nothing but praise.”

Weaver hasn’t developed a grading system yet because he’s still learning the craft and improving so much, so he “grades” using a price point he determines by a visual inspection of the pipe.

“From the onset I wanted to make an excellent pipe that was affordable, and I still want to stay in that arena,” he says. “At times it causes a conundrum because I’ve made an excellent pipe with stunning grain or a great sandblast, the engineering is perfect and the symmetry is right but I’m selling it for $350 and there’s a similar pipe that’s two tables away that sells for $1,200. It sometimes causes someone who looks at both pipes to wonder what’s wrong with my pipe. So there is a perception out there that a new pipemaker has to overcome. Other pipemakers who might have been making pipes for 25 years and have established their names have every right to charge that much because you know what you get. I’ve made very few pipes that I sell for more than $500. They normally cost around $400. That is what I believe is a fair price for my pipes. If it’s a smooth pipe I price it strictly on the grain and the execution of the design. On a sandblast, I price it according to the pipe’s design and the pattern of the ring grain.”

When he’s finished with the pipe, Weaver stamps it with his initials “B.A.W.,” and the last two digits of the year in which it was made. The pipe is then posted for sale on his website, www.baweaverpipes.com, or sent to the customer who commissioned the piece.

“The main thing that I like about pipemaking is that it gives me a true outlet to explore the creative side that’s within us all,” he says. “The ability to work with a piece of wood, ebonite or Bakelite and then inspect it and say, ‘Wow, I did this!’ and know at some point somebody else is going to enjoy it as much as I did when I made it, is really exciting. Knowing that something you created is going to go into someone’s regular smoking rotation, where it will be enjoyed for many years to come, makes me feel privileged and humbled.”

As more collectors learn about the excellence and value of Weaver’s pipes, those privileged and humbling opportunities for Weaver will only grow, and he’ll have a blast meeting those new customers with a firm handshake, a kind word and maybe a joke or funny anecdote. Perhaps the customers themselves will feel as privileged to meet Weaver as he is to meet them.

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Spring 2011

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