Down This Blasted Path

I began my pipe making, as a hobby, in 1972. In 1975 I joined Jorg Jamelka and Elliot Nachwalter's Briar Workshop in Stowe, Vermont. (Brad Poleman was a fellow employee.) A few years later I went into business for myself. Over the next several decades, I was involved in the production for a variety of American labels, as well as producing my own pieces. I had the opportunity to do most of the restoration and refurbishment for the late Barry Levin's (LPI) collector-grade estate pipes. Of the thousands and thousands of pipes that came through our shops, the pipes that really stood out heads above all others were the early Dunhill Shells and early Barling Fossils. I found that almost all other pipe labels worldwide treated their own blasted pipes as an unwanted, but necessary, afterthought. I was mesmerized by these craggy old beauties. In 1999 I got the opportunity to produce 250 pipes for Pipes & Tobaccos magazine. It was a wonderful chance – an honor really – to spend more than a year to practice and develop my blasting process (“Sand”blast?...I haven't used sand since my very first experiments.) The whole pipe making process still undergoes constant experimentation. The surface of my pieces are not any sort of “carved” artificial texture. This is an evolutionary process, an expanded and modified five-stage blasting process. Mother Nature lays it all out for me; I just do my best to follow her directions. Here are the five stages:

  1. The first stage shows me the over-all grain pattern and how the growth rings are oriented. This is where most (not all) pipe labels stop.First Stage
  2. The second blast stage exposes and defines the hard and soft areas within the grain and ring patterns.Second stage
  3. The third stage brings up even smaller patterns within each individual ring and details both hard and soft areas.Third stage
  4. The fourth blast stage gently but firmly re-establishes the criss boundaries already created by previous blasting.Fourth stage
  5. The fifth and final stage (as of this writing) give final detail to all the tiny individual fibers of wood.Fifth stage
A medium-sized pipe takes 20-25 hours to make, and more than half of that time I'm working in my home-made blasting booth, totally hypnotized. Large and magnum-sized pieces can take up to twice as long to produce. In a good week, if nothing blows up, I can make two pipes. My real world is in my blasting booth, peering through my magnifying glasses, mesmerized by the blasted path Mother Nature has laid out right in front of me -- one foot in front of the other.

J.T. Cooke 2011