Pipe revival : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Pipe revival

•By Russ Oechslin•

Being so good at what he does keeps Tim West busy

When a visitor walks downstairs to the basement workshop in Tim West’s suburban Columbus home, it’s immediately obvious just how much pipe repair work he has lined up. The incoming boxes from UPS and the Postal Service line one side of the steps in an orderly fashion.

“This is the way I sort—by date—the oldest date here,” he explains from the bottom of the steps. “The ones just coming in are up there by the door.”

West says that his wife, Carla, has become accustomed to living in his home workshop. And his cats, Max and Pearl, avoid contact with the pipes when they go up or down the steps and walk around his very cluttered but efficient shop.

The 12- to 14-week backlog is there even though West works a lot more than eight hours a day. Mornings are spent in the shop. Afternoons see him doing billing, shipping and returning phone calls and emails. After supper he’s back downstairs in an attempt to catch up on the volume of work sent to him by pipe smokers and retailers who today have few other places to send their work.

“I can do 15 or 25 pipes a day if I am really cranking. But they’re coming in the door faster than I can get the work done.”

West enjoys living near his hometown, just as many other pipe repair people opt to live where they want because their work follows them.

West gets his work from pipe smokers and retailers all over the country. “There are only about six shops in the U.S. doing repairs on my level. They’re located in places they want to live, too—California, the Dakotas, Montana, Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.”

 Rarely a smoker

Surprisingly, West smokes pipes only occasionally. “I don’t generally have enough time to sit down and enjoy a pipe,” he explains.

When he is smoking, it will most often be pipes he has made, even though he has more than 100 pipes he has collected for more than 40 years.

“Mostly if I’m smoking a pipe I’m probably smoking one of my pipes because I’m at a pipe collectors’ show, and I’m with a bunch of people who kind of expect me to be smoking one of my pipes. But I do enjoy smoking other people’s pipes that I’ve collected over the years.”

His favorite tobaccos? J.F. Germain English types and Esoterica blends.

Even though he smokes very little when he’s working, the aroma of pipe tobacco lurks in his shop and on his clothes at the end of the workday.

 Began in high school

BeforeWest’s pipemaking began in his senior year of high school in Hilliard, just a few miles south of his present home. He graduated from Hilliard High School in 1968.

Making pipes was something of a necessity for West, since he wanted to smoke pipes but couldn’t afford to buy the pipes he wanted. This was at a time, West admits, when he probably should have been doing his homework instead of making pipes in the basement of his parents’ home.

West first became interested in pipes when he saw his best friend’s father’s enormous pipe collection. “He was a pipe smoker and his house was like a museum of Oriental collectible stuff and pipes.

“We also had Smokers’ Haven here in Columbus, which was one of the largest smoke shops in the country at the time,” with thousands of pipes and a large variety of tobaccos.

“Mr. Ormerod had this really great GBD and Charatan collection of pipes and all kinds of other sculptured pipes—heads and animals, things like that, made by Marxman. His collection was very, very expensive. As a teenager I was just totally impressed. We were allowed to smoke with him at their kitchen table.”

AfterWhile teen smoking may not have been legal even at that time, “It was not that big a deal,” West says. “We were opened up to good tobaccos from Smokers’ Haven and good, well-made pipes.

“But I didn’t have the money to buy the really expensive pipes downtown at Smokers’ Haven.

“I decided I could probably make a pipe. Sid Ritter at Smokers’ Haven sold me a block of briar and a couple of mouthpieces. I started working on a block of wood that was not predrilled. I had to do all the drillings and the stem mounting. And I ended up with a skull’s head pipe—in the same vein as Mr. Ormerod’s collection.

“I was interested in that kind of pipe. I carved a hand holding a bowl. Then I did a clown’s head. And I made about three or four other smooth pipes before I quit making pipes and moved on to college.”

West still has most pipes he carved in the late 1960s, except for that first skull pipe.

After college, West found himself married and fixing mechanical cash registers just as electronic cash registers were coming of age. Then there was a gig with a band for a couple years. “We were just about ready to make it good and strong and successful when a couple of the guys joined the National Guard and the band broke up,” he explains.

Needing something to do, West opened a small shop—about 100 square feet—in a place called Monkeys Retreat near the campus of The Ohio State University, and he started making pipes again while waiting for a job that never came along.

After five years at Monkeys Retreat, West moved to the mall in the Columbus Convention Center, where he opened Tim West Pipes and Tobaccos in 1980. He spent 11 years there selling cigars and tobaccos and his pipes along with other brands.

It was a good pipe store with cigars, he says, looking back. “One entire wall was covered with about 300 pipes. It was a pipe store because I was a pipe man.”

West closed that store too early to enjoy the cigar boom of the mid-’90s.“If I had stuck it out for another couple years, it probably would have expanded into a much bigger cigar business,” he admits now.

Today, West notes, most tobacco shops concentrate on cigars, with a small selection of pipe tobaccos and only a few pipes—basket pipes and low-end pipes because shop owners don’t have to invest a lot of time or money in inventory.

“There was a time back in the day when fills were the norm. They didn’t throw anything away. It wasn’t all about quality briar. It was about the smoke, and the wood and the pipe shape as a tool. Today it is much different. Today there is a different standard for flaws and putty fills and the design of a pipe. Pipe quality has changed much over the years.”

And, West adds, “Filled flaws have never made a pipe smoke bad.”

“Human nature turns us off to imperfections. We’re a society with perfect beliefs. Smokers today like pipe perfection. If it’s not, then we look down on it.” Still, West admits, “There’s nothing better than to be working on a piece of briar or a pipe repair and see it come to perfection—just everything about the shape, the grain, the balance makes it all right.

“High-quality pipes have their place in a cigar and pipe shop. But the proprietor must understand and cultivate his clientele to a better smoking pipe so the customer will return to buy his pipe tobacco. Many of the cigars today sell for a very high price. The quality is justified for a better smoke. This is also true for pipes. A pipe smoker will have a better chance for a high-quality smoke with a better-made pipe and when he finds that favorite tobacco to put in it.”

Read the rest of the story in P&T magazine or the online digital edition.

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