North American quality : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

North American quality

The North American pipe-carving contest taking place at the Greater Kansas City pipe show each year has become an event of major importance. The main idea of the competition is to promote and support the pipemakers of North America. Participants include carvers with decades of experience as well as hobbyists and those just a couple of years into promising careers.

Here’s how it works: A general shape is chosen—this year it was the bulldog. Carvers submit their pipes before the show. Three judges examine the pipes in a private room the night before the show officially begins and discuss each pipe, finally putting together their assessment of the seven finest pipes for a seven-day set of staggering quality. Anthony Harris of Acme Pipes, himself one of the most innovative woodworkers and pipemakers anywhere, has made a custom display case for the set each year of the contest. The set is put up for raffle at the show and the proceeds split between the winning carvers. But the money is secondary, if not even further down the list. The satisfaction of winning this contest and the prestige associated with it far outweigh any other considerations.

Because the creativity and innovation of pipe carvers never reaches a pinnacle, there were astounding entrants this year displaying ideas no

Chris Morgan

one has previously seen. Who would have thought the traditional idea of the bulldog shape could be pushed to such dizzying elevations? It was truly an education for everyone.

The winners of the 2012 contest are Rad Davis, Steve Liskey, Chris Morgan, Joe Nelson (Old Nellie Pipes), Tonni Nielsen, Brad Pohlmann and Thomas Richards (Thomas James Pipes).

P&T magazine has covered this contest each year by displaying photos of all the pipes entered, and this year is no different, as you can see on these pages. But this year we thought it would be interesting to talk with the judges and learn a bit about their perspective and the challenges of choosing seven pipes out of 45 entered to represent the best of North America.

The judges were Gregory Pease, a collector of pipes for many years and the man behind the famously popular G.L. Pease Ltd. pipe tobacco blends; Tad Gage, known to P&Treaders as an insightful reviewer of

Brad Pohlmann

tobaccos but also well-known for decades in the hobby as a premier collector of Barling pipes, among others; and George Dibos, legendary in his knowledge of pipes and a pipe repairer of extraordinary skill, seeing what goes wrong with thousands of pipes through his business, Precision Smoking Pipe Rejuvenation & Repair in Kansas City.

It was a very warm day in Kansas City when P&T sat down with the judges in the smoking tent at the pipe show. These gentlemen love talking about pipes, though, and the conversation was lively.

P&T: Forty-five pipes—that’s a large number to assess. How do you start?

G.L. Pease: First, does it fit the category? Is it in the family? Can it be

Thomas James Richards

characterized as a bulldog in some way? There were a couple of pipes that weren’t bulldogs, even according to the broadest interpretation.

Tad Gage: I think coming out of the box, it’s the initial aesthetic appeal—really kind of a gut feeling of whether it trips your trigger. Does it make a statement? Before you look at the engineering or anything else, the shape and the look must speak to you. And then we passed the pipes around very quickly and took a cursory look at the engineering of each to see if there were any obvious errors that could knock them out of competition.

George Dibos: Initially, we ended up with three groups: The ones that we could immediately tell were quite likely to be in the finals, so to speak; the ones that clearly needed several more years of carving experience to get there; then the ones that were in the middle. And they were actually about equal in number. We ended up with 15 or so in each group.

G.L. Pease: Then we took a much closer look for things like technical flaws, construction flaws, things like that—like a wavy stem, or

Tonni Nielsen

something that wasn’t buffed quite right.

Tad Gage: And I will say that the quality of the workmanship and craftsmanship and the engineering were really astounding. And particularly, bulldogs are difficult to make. There really weren’t any pipes that were just obviously out there with a shank that was off-center or a bit that just took a right turn somewhere. They were well-made.

G.L. Pease: There were some really exceptional pipes and when it got down to the final hour it was pretty tough. Is this the best of the best or is it just a really great pipe? There were some really great pipes.

Tad Gage: I think one of the interesting things was that for our initial cut, we were being really open-minded about the concept of a bulldog and where the carver went with it. With almost every one you could definitely tell it was a bulldog, but I think there were some that took an interesting direction and there were some that were very standard that

Steve Liskey

were also exceptional, maybe for reasons of a combination of blast and smooth, or staining, or even the bit material or inlay on the shank cap. Our most frequent notations this year were mortise-to-tenon fit; I think we found a couple pipes that had issues there that made them non-starters. There were several pipes where the heel on the bottom of the pipe was not straight.

George Dibos: Yes, some were not in line. You could find a pipe, for example, where everything was correct on the bowl and then the stem was shaped in a way that looked like it had been done separately from the pipe. The lines didn’t follow. What would get something kicked is when we’d say, well, I really love this pipe and I can see where he was going with it, but it’s not quite right.

G.L. Pease: There were pieces I really wanted to love and really wanted to put into the final set, but the execution suffered. Those were hard calls to make.

Tad Gage: Well, you reach a point where you have let’s say 20 exceptional pipes and you’ve got to find a reason why some of those aren’t going to make the final seven, so you have to look carefully with pipes of this caliber.

G.L. Pease: The hardest part was determining what the carver had

Rad Davis

overlooked. You’ve got something that is fine artistry, but there’s some kind of execution flaw—do you reject it, or is it one of the seven best? You’re narrowing it down.

George Dibos: What’s difficult is when something is uninspired in design but absolutely perfectly executed. Something else is when there’s an exceptionally creative design and you say, “Wow, who ever thought of making something like that?” Now which represents the greater value? And then you have to start weighing the pros and cons in a subjective way. That’s when the debates came on.

G.L. Pease: We threw only a couple of punches during that stage.

P&T: Were there disagreements about what factors should have most weight in determining overall quality?

Tad Gage: We were pretty much in agreement about almost everything.

G.L. Pease:  Everything was near unanimous.

Tad Gage: I think when it came down to the final 12 or 13 pipes the deciding factor was aesthetics. And I think Greg made the point where there were a few pipes where you could actually see where the

Joe Nelson, Old Nellie Pipes

pipemaker was going with this unbelievable concept, but with us having a perspective of a little more distance, we could see where it fell just a little bit short.

George Dibos: In the final group there were no glaring mistakes on any of them. The level of workmanship was extremely high.

Tad Gage: The seven-day-set concept is perfect. It provides enough variety, and what certainly impressed me was that, with rare exceptions, the air holes were perfectly drilled, and that’s not easy on any pipe. We ran pipe cleaners through all the pipes; the air holes came out right at the bottom of the tobacco chamber. There were no pipes where it was off.

G.L. Pease: Overall the pipes were made to a very high level of standards—really impressive work. I think there was one pipe the three of us really disagreed on, and one we disagreed a little on, but when we made our final cut it was unanimous.

George Dibos: We didn’t have to go two out of three, majority rules on any of them. At the end of the night, looking at the final group, we asked if there was anything there that any of us would be ashamed to have our name connected with for this set, and we were confident.

G.L. Pease: Another consideration near the end was, do these seven pipes hold together well as a set? Does it make a seven-day set?

P&T: So there’s an aspect where individual pipes have to work together with others within a theme?

G.L. Pease: I don’t think that was a conscious choice until the very end. But when we were looking at the seven pipes after they’d been chosen, we saw that not only were they seven exceptional pipes, but they went together beautifully, they worked together really well.

George Dibos: We had six that we agreed on without a problem. Getting the seventh one was a stylistic choice, and that’s when we said, OK—we can disagree on which is the stylistically superior example—therefore, which one fits the set better? That’s how we actually picked the seventh one.

Tad Gage: I know it doesn’t sound official but we found ourselves so often saying: “This is so cool.” It might have been about design, or about a particular material or the way something was done, but what else could you say except, “This is so cool.”

George Dibos: Between us we’ve seen a whole lot of pipes, about a century’s worth of pipes between us, and we still saw things that made us say, “Holy crap, look at that.” To this day we can still be surprised.

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

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Category: Fall 2012, Feature Article, Pipe Articles

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