Quad City Pipes : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Quad City Pipes

By H. Lee Murphy

When he was a pre-teen in Cub Scouts, Andrew Petersen was the kind of kid who won the local Pinewood Derby race every year. He and his stepfather devised a way to shave the plastic wheels on their pinewood car with an Exacto knife to a fine V-shaped point, thus eliminating surface drag and sending their vehicle barreling down the track at the annual event at winning speeds. The other kids and their dads tried to copy the ingenious design, but none could exactly reproduce the perfection of the Petersen Pinewood racer.

When the rest of us were building basic models from plastic kits we got at the hobby shop, Petersen and his father were building entire Starship Enterprises and Klingon Warbirds with hundreds of pieces, custom paint jobs and lighted windows. Andy was creating bird houses and gun racks while his father made stereo cabinets and his mom renovated antique furniture. Woodworking, you could say, was always a big part of the Petersen household’s daily routine.

So was smoking. Andy started with cigarettes in the eighth grade and worked his way up to three packs a day until he quit all at once in April 2007. His whole family smoked, but his greatest influence was his grandfather, who was rarely to be seen without a Peterson bulldog clenched in his mouth. A neighbor smoked a Dunhill with Captain Black tobacco, while Andy’s dentist puffed away on a straight billiard in the middle of teeth cleaning. When he quit cigarettes, Andy gravitated almost immediately to pipes and cigars.

“As soon as I found out how much flavor a pipe offered, I decided I had been wasting my time with cigarettes,” Petersen says. “I went out and spent $65 on a Stanwell Golden Danish in 2007, studied it for awhile, and thought that it didn’t look all that hard to make.”

The thought wouldn’t go away, in fact. After years away from woodworking, toiling at a variety of jobs such as a mechanic, truck driver and trash hauler, Petersen was looking for a change, or at least an after-hours diversion. He found it in pipes, and in short order was spending a good bit of time on the Internet soaking up any shred of instruction and technique he could find from various pipemakers’ forums. He’s turned out to be a quick study. In just a few years Andy Petersen has built a promising, thriving business under the title Quad City Pipes, named for the four cities straddling the Mississippi where Petersen has lived practically his entire life (he’s 42)—Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side and Moline and Rock Island on the Illinois side.

The Quad City table had been easy to miss along the back wall each spring at the Chicago Pipe Show, but then Petersen jumped into the big leagues of pipemaking in 2010 when a half-bent blast volcano of his was selected by judges at the Kansas City Pipe Show to be encased in a special seven-day pipe set for charity alongside creations from such industry luminaries as Michael Parks, Bruce Weaver and Tonni Nielsen. There were some 36 different pipemakers competing for the seven-day honor.

“My jaw hit the floor when I was selected. I was a nobody. The name A. Petersen signed on the pipe wasn’t recognized by any of the judges, I’m sure,” Petersen says now. “This was the biggest pat on the back anybody could have given me. It has been a huge morale-booster.”

Nonetheless, making a success of Quad City Pipes has been no slam dunk since. Partner and childhood friend Mike Olsen, himself a woodworker and budding pipe enthusiast, had to drop out when he contracted a rare muscle disease that left him unable to work a lathe. The 42-year-old Olsen still helps maintain the Quad City Pipes website, which is surprisingly detailed and sophisticated for such a small business, and continues to turn out tampers as a sideline.

“With my disease I can’t work on things like stems anymore—that requires holding on to a file for an extended period of time,” says Olsen, who still works a day job as an electrician. Meantime, he’s proud of his best friend Petersen’s growing expertise. “Andy’s work gets better every week. He is a traditionalist, and so most of his pipes are fairly conservative in style. I’d like to see him do some more off-the-wall stuff eventually, and maybe he will. But for now, he’s turning out a hell of a product.”

There isn’t another pipemaker within 100 miles of the Quad Cities, so both Olsen and Petersen lacked access to any mentors who might have hired them on as apprentices when they got their starts back in 2007. Early on, Petersen made his way to Michael Parks’ website and ordered 28 blocks of briar, priced from $15 to $45 each. Then he tried to reproduce the processes he read about on pipemaker websites and blogs. He bought pipes on eBay to have some models for inspiration. He practiced drilling straight holes at the outset on scraps of wood. He made five pipes, then brought them to his first Chicago show in 2008.

“Alex Florov liked a few of my pipes. We talked about dos and don’ts. And I met people like Rad Davis and Brian Ruthenberg. They were all willing to share critiques of my pipes with me. Some of my air holes were off center. Some of my shanks were too narrow. I was making my share of mistakes, but that was OK with me at that early point. The other guys were encouraging me to continue,” Petersen remembers. “Some of the prices these guys were getting for their pipes blew me away. It suddenly came to me that this could be a pretty decent business.”

Petersen built himself a real workshop in the basement of his vintage home in Davenport, outfitted with a Midi wood lathe with special jaws for gripping briar along with belt sanders, chisels, drill presses, rasps and buffing wheels. And he ordered serious Italian briar from Romeo “Mimmo” Domenico, of Romeo Briars.

Through it all, however, Petersen hasn’t given up his day job as a trash hauler for Republic Waste Services. That’s led to an extraordinary household routine. The pipemaker is up at 2 a.m.
every day, working on briar in his basement for four hours before leaving for an early shift at work at 6 a.m. He works another 90 minutes in his basement after dinner before heading off to bed at 8 p.m. There’s little let-up on weekends: Petersen rises at his customary 2 a.m. and works until noon on Saturdays, then has a few beers while buffing stems in the afternoon.

His wife and daughter have adapted with little complaint. In fact, daughter Ayana, 15 years old and in ninth grade, is quick to give opinions on shapes and colors as a pipe progresses. Petersen figures he spends more than 30 hours a week on his pipemaking, with each pipe requiring 10 to 11 hours of attention from start to finish. He’d love to make the leap to full-time craftsman but worries about the loss of health benefits—he has a bad back—and the security of a big corporate employer. “The economy is so bad now that I just don’t see how I can make this a full-time living,” he says.

He has some patrons who continue to support him, at least in part. John Wittasek, a pipe collector and part-time refurbisher in suburban Cleveland, has acquired two dozen Petersen pipes since he met the pipemaker in Chicago in 2009. “I smoke at least one of his pipes every day. I own more than 70 pipes, but Andy is my No. 1 man,” Wittasek says. “His pipes are worth it. They’ve got great potential value. I think there will eventually be a resale market for Andy Petersen pipes, in fact. The award in Kansas City was the big step up he needed. He deserves more attention from the industry.”

Wittasek hasn’t slowed his ordering. He’s asked Petersen to make two monster Canadians, each at least eight inches long with five inches or more of shank. He’s also asking for add-ons like ribbon spacers and white acrylic stems. “Andy’s got the briar for these pipes,” Wittasek says. “Any other pipemaker would charge me at least $800 for what I want. But Andy will charge me closer to $500. He’s been very fair with his prices. I told him to keep his prices low until he’s better known. Get them off the table at shows and into people’s mouths. Once they smoke them, as I have, they’ll be back for more.”

For now, Peterson produces about 40 to 50 pipes a year at an average price of around $200, though some go for as much as $350 without custom details. About half are blasts and the other half smooths. He hasn’t graded his pipes so far but is considering a one, two and three tobacco leaf system to separate his pipes by quality, not size. Early on, a local tobacco retailer, Baker’s Street in Davenport, was an important venue for his pipe marketing, but the shop has lately downplayed its pipe business and Petersen has had to increasingly depend on pipe shows and his website, along with word-of-mouth among clients, to get his products sold.

Every block of wood is different, and you have to go where the wood takes you, Petersen likes to say. He’ll keep cutting and sanding around pits and blemishes; none of his pipes have any fills. “I’ve taken an 8-ounce block of wood and ended up with a 1-ounce little acorn pipe because I kept running into pits,” he explains.

Who are his influences? Parks is one, Teddy Knudsen is another. But he isn’t out to copy anybody. “I like to take somebody else’s ideas and then put my own twist on them,” he says.

His biggest influence is almost certainly Florov, though their styles don’t look anything alike. Petersen professes no great genius at the lathe. But “Alex is a musician writing symphonies with the way his pipes flow into unique shapes,” Petersen says admiringly.


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Category: Pipe Articles, Winter 2012

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