Pipefuls : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine


Pipefuls iconby William Serad

I had expected an avalanche of response to Stanley Nigro’s letter about making required adjustments and modifications to pipes. I know there are people out there hard at work with their rat-tail files and 5/32” drills, having at pipes with poor draw. They just don’t seem inclined to admit it. Proving that there is someone else, I received a let- ter from Daniel B. Mendelow, principal trumpet for the Sydney Symphony from 1978–2011, professor of trumpet at Australian National University from 1991–2010 and trumpet clinician with Conn-Selmer. This is a man who should know about airflow. He writes:

In reading your column today in the latest issue of Pipes and tobaccos magazine, I happened to see you mention the subject of pipe modification and engineering, and refer to your column in the fall issue. This finally prompted me to come out of the wood- work, so to speak, and introduce myself. … I’ve been a pipe enthusiast, collector and smoker for nearly 40 years (I can’t believe it’s been that long!), as well as a professional symphony musician for about the same time.
I’m a professional trumpeter, and my career consisted of two years in Israel as a young man, one of which in the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, and then 34 years as principal trumpet of the Sydney Symphony at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Touring with the various orchestras has always made it a bit more accessible to seek out and buy pipes from all over the world, whether it was that nice Upshall I found in Birmingham, the Castello in Rome, or the amazing pipes in Copenhagen, where in the ’70s it seemed every other shop sold beautiful pipes! Now I have 200 or so pipes in two different parts of the world—Sydney, Australia, and Longboat Key, Florida, where I’m now semi-retired but still playing and teaching. I think I’m actually afraid to count them!
I suppose I count myself amongst those many pipe smokers who, due to reading that particular section in Rick Newcombe’s book, took a good look at the pipes I was enjoying and especially the ones I wasn’t and compared the various elements of what makes a good pipe perform well. The funny and, for me, ironic thing is that I feel that achieving a good airflow in a pipe is very similar to achieving the same thing in trumpets and mouthpieces, some- thing of which I am very experienced. Too little airflow and the sound is restricted and tight, and too much, the sound is diffuse and hard to control. These factors are controlled not only by the actual bore size but by the rates of taper as well in the mouthpiece, the leadpipe and the rest of the instrument. At this point in time, I have to say that I would modify most pipes that I acquire, to achieve that “relaxed” airflow and most certainly to eliminate turbulence and the “whistling” that is most always the indicator of such. Even “high-end” pipes such as Upshall, Castello and Dunhill most of the time need to be “tweaked.”
When I was in Rome, I actually went to the Castello shop and after picking out two beauties asked Marco why the stems were finished the way they were, which in my humble opinion are not really at all! His response was more to do with not compromising the thickness and durability of the stem at the button for people who clench their pipes. I found if you patiently take a flat diamond warding file and trim the shoulders on the button into more of a “V,” the difference is amazing, and in most cases the whistle is gone. I’ve done this with each and every Castello (and most others) I own, and it always improves radically. I also use some tapered drills for other brands, where I feel the mortise end of the stem is not opened enough, but always with care. Like my trumpets, too much and the glorious taste of the tobacco turns into hot air, so it’s about achieving a balance. Just like putting too large of a throat into a trumpet mouthpiece, it becomes useless, but at least in the case of a pipe, the stem can be replaced if need be.
I feel that there are a couple of American pipemakers who possibly have gone too far with eliminating the resistance in their stems—with some Ruthenbergs, for example, one has to pack the tobacco so tightly to compensate for this to get any of the character of the tobacco at all! I apologize for the long-windedness of this letter, but I suppose now that I’m not playing full time, pipe modification has become a bit of a passion with me. It’s particularly rewarding to get hold of an inexpensive pipe, say a David Jones or a Chuck Sands, spend 15–20 minutes with it, and that pipe is singing like a much more expensive one. Even Petersons, which I feel are pretty hopeless out of the box, will sing after the air- way and even the P-lip is modified.
I totally agree with the person who stated that they couldn’t understand how anyone can enjoy a pipe with a 6 or 9 mm filter, especially if the draw is optimized.

So, Mr. Nigro and I are not the only ones who make these adjustments. And what is most interesting in Mr. Mendelow’s erudite and well-considered story is that some of what unfavorably influences performance is purposeful on the part of the manufacturer. It seems that Castello, in the interest of accommodating the bit-clencher, does not compromise. Older pipes had more oval than flat bits, like a bunch of old Ben Wades I have, and I find these to be very uncomfortable today. But it would be impossible to crunch them short of having a bite like a bulldog. The airway is quite open on them. For that matter, I recently bit through a very nice Ash- ton that was a favorite because of the comfort afforded by the thin button, and I am not a clencher. The airflow was fine, though the button evidently was inadequate. I have opened Castello pipes. I also had a conversation with Mr. Nigro specific to Petersons, and the P-bit is engineered with the same idea as an exponential horn in speakers. A small diaphragm pushing air in an increasingly large tube produces high efficiency in sound out-put. Similarly but in reverse, the P-lip opening is very small, increasing to a large size with the objective of making the puffing easier. I have opened these, and I find that this is only an improvement. I don’t know that the decreasing diameter from shank to the little hole in the button performs as expected.

So thank you, Mr. Mendelow, for coming clean. And I am certain there are more of you out there. Your motivations, techniques and experiences would only benefit other readers.

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Category: Pipefuls, Spring 2016

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