Finding a voice : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Finding a voice

Connecting with the pipemaking community
helped Charles Cole achieve his dream

by R. “Bear” Graves

voice1At the Chicagoland International Pipe & Tobacciana Show (CPCC)in 2009, at some point between making coffee for customers with my (then) company’s cantankerous espresso machine, and digging through six gigantic boxes of T-shirts to find the one M that I was sure was lurking amongst all the XXXLs, I bumped into Charles Cole and took a look at his briars. As this was our first encounter, I had no previous work to judge progress, but the man was as likeable as all hell, and his work was definitely at that magical tipping point where I thought a few of his pipes would look great on our site now. I also had little doubt that his percentage of highly marketable pieces was high enough to take very seriously. I dragged one of the company’s talent scouts over for a peek, and while he agreed on the potential, an hour before, Massimiliano Rimensi (Il Duca) had come to me with a letter of introduction from Claudio Cavicchi, Nanna Ivarsson designs were about to be launched with Stanwell … this just wasn’t going to be the year. In 2010, I again attended the CPCC (this time as a “private citizen”) and immediately went looking for Charles. Now being able to evaluate progress, I looked at his wares and my knees buckled a bit.

All photos by Charles, Catherine or Jordan Cole

All photos by Charles, Catherine or Jordan Cole

Tall, fit and always found wearing his beloved jeans and western boots, Charles could pass as a casting director’s dream for a frontier movie, or even a promotional figure for his home of Wyoming. Though to the casual observer he might appear to be a rancher, the truth of the matter is that Charles is an American pipe carver of the first rank: the closest he gets to a steer is the “Eat it all, and it’s free!” 80 oz. steak at the local diner, and Wyoming is thousands of miles away from his birthplace.

Charles was born in 1965, the fourth child of parents who lived in Pembroke, Ky. His mother had a college degree and worked as a teacher before becoming (and eventually retiring as) a librarian at the Fort Campbell Army base. His father was a yardmaster for the former L&N railroad and died of a heart attack well before being able to enjoy the benefits of retirement. As the last child of the family with an age gap of five years to his next oldest sibling (his sisters were nine and 10 years older), Charles spent his formative years basically growing up alone.

When Charles turned 11, his father purchased a small farm to raise a modest voice3amount of livestock, as well as the area’s usual cash crop, tobacco, since it was the most lucrative. While most lads his age earned their discretionary money through weekly allowances and paper routes, Charles was given complete control of his own tobacco plot. With a little help from the family, through planting, tending, stripping, curing and baling the tobacco for auction, Charles was allowed to keep the profits that his patch eventually yielded. While tending tobacco from seed to sale is backbreaking work at any age, let alone 11, the experience inculcated in young Charles a deep appreciation and fascination for the noble weed. Perhaps too much so; Charles was rolling homemade cigars and cigarettes, and chewing and smoking his finished product in anything that could pass for a pipe.

Columnist Mary Schmich observed “… the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives; some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.” While Charles always held firm career goals, life often seems to have a set of roadblocks and monkey wrenches just waiting for the perfect moment, and life employed the same with alarming frequency during Charles’ earlier years. From the ages of 19 to 35, he found himself bouncing between Wyoming and his native Kentucky holding situations that ranged from owning 14 properties by age 23 to work he describes as “… little more than slave labor, where I saw many a man cry on the job and even more quit in the middle of the shift.”

One of the few bright spots during this period occurred when Charles left college to live with his older brother Ed in Gillette. The move was motivated by Charles’ desire to get to know his sibling better, and the union paid fine dividends. Charles and Ed worked together for six years, grew to become voice4best friends, and it was while working with Ed that Charles met Catherine, his future wife. It wasn’t until the late ’90s and the acquisition of a home healthcare agency in Wyoming (a business that he and Catherine still own today) that Charles finally achieved the stability and sense of real life progress that had eluded him for so many years.

Present day, living a near-idyllic life, his home and workshop surrounded by beautiful mountains in Star Valley, Wyo., Charles can reflect with some detachment on the chaos of his earlier years. While he wouldn’t wish much of that life on anyone, he admits that performing a mind-numbing variety of jobs, often under arduous conditions, forged a “never settle” perspective, as well as revealed numerous pipe-related skill sets he might not have discovered otherwise.

Today Charles’ pipe work is considered among the best of American pipemakers. His work has garnered accolades from both prominent collectors and fellow pipe artisans, and the waiting list for a Cole pipe is nearly as long as the lunch line of the Chick-fil-A across from Bob Jones University. If you had speculated about this type of success with Charles at the beginning of his serious pipe career, however, he would have advised “Don’t bet a major appliance on it.”

Charles’ first plunge into pipecarving was inspired by a cover story that appeared in a 2006 P&T magazine. The subject was Mark Tinsky and Charles was enthralled: “Pipe making and fly fishing—it can’t get any cooler than that!” His foray into carving began in the same manner as many of today’s best American artisans, with a pre-drilled “carve-it-yourself” block from the cover subject himself. To say the result of Charles’ first attempt left him unsatisfied would be a gross understatement. “An abomination,” was his exact critique. Undaunted, he called Tinsky and asked for some tips. Tinsky explained that either he could explain the basic process over a two-hour period, and Charles still wouldn’t really have a grasp, or he could visit Mark’s workshop. Charles made the trip to Montana, and observing Tinsky’s working processes was a revelation: “It was a real eye-opener for me and made me more determined than ever to make a quality pipe of my own from start to finish.”

Read the rest of the story by subscribing to P&T magazine or the online digital edition.

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Category: Feature Article, Spring 2013

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