Saturday, October 22, 2005

What a long, strange trip it's been....

Pipes on the Internet: Has availability ever been better?

Do you remember the time when if you were looking for a Castello pipe to buy then you'd either have to have a lead on where the Castello might be - or, simply call shops that you knew until you found one?

Pipes are more easily available now than they ever have been, without a doubt. Believe it or not, there was a time when finding a particular pipe was tough! It may take a year or two to find what you were looking for if there was a particular shape or finish that you wanted.

My experience in collecting pipes started in 1981. I was fortunate in that PCI Magazine started to be published during this time and a magical insert in one of those early issues stated that: "New and Presmoked Pipes from only the Finest Craftsmen...LEVIN PIPES INTERNATIONAL. YES! I would like to receive the NEXT color mailer." So I filled out the card and sent it. Lo and behold, every month or so I would receive a magical parcel from a man named Barry Levin that had high quality pictures of many high grade pipes with a price sheet that corresponded to each pipe. This was literally "pipe manna"!

There may have been other mailers in the mid 80's but Barry Levin was the first to heavily market this concept and it took off like wildfire!

You see, before PCI magazine carried this insert many of us would simply dream of seeing an old Charatan or a specific shaped Caminetto or Castello! There were not any other ways to see these pipes if they weren't at our local tobacconists (B&M's as they now refer to them online).

If one was well connected enough (and I certainly wasn't) then there did exist a coterie of collectors who knew each other and would stay in touch via letter or phone but for the most part, we unconnected pipe collectors were relegated to finding those particular pieces by less than easy methods. And the phone bills were astronomical.

Fast forward from the early 1980's to 1996: Ebay. Even before the proliferation of the many web pages dedicated to pipes, ebay was incredible for finding pipes. The first person to tip me off about ebay was Mike Hagley. To say that I was like a kid in a candy store doesn't do my amazement justice. I had never seen, in person, a Charatan Supreme or a Dunhill Magnum. And then the web pages started popping up. My first web page was text on a grey background with no pictures! Pictures (digital cameras) were just coming about (in 1996) and the first pipe pages on the internet were text with no pictures! How far we've been allowed to advance in 9 years is considerable when taken in context. I'm still a bit amazed by the whole phenomenon.

Back to the 80's - I can remember gentlemen who were obviously traveling through town who would come into our tobacco shop and say in a hushed voice, "Got any Castellos"? I didn't know about this... of course, I knew what Castello pipes were but had seen only a few! I'd ask, "What do you mean..."? The gentleman would then say something like, "Well, I know that if you have any Castellos then you probably keep them behind the counter in a drawer and save them for your best customers. So I'm asking, if you have any Castellos then I'd like to buy them".

This happened more than once. I use Castellos in this missive because this actually happened to me various times when I was in the shop! There was no internet, there was no HUGE circle of collectors that would know each other and had easy access to speak with each other regarding where a particular pipe might be. I'm not making this up.

In this environment it was very tough for collectors to find particular shapes in brands that they may collect. You may collect Sasieni 4 dot pipes.. but Lord help you if you only collected Sasieni 4 dot Canadians. You'd be extremely happy to own one or two of these pipes - and you would tell every other pipe collector that if they ran across a 4 dot Canadian then to please buy it for them.

So, condition of the pipe wasn't at a premium at this time. It was rare enough to find one, much less find a NEW one. Grain wasn't an issue (of course, good grain was a big plus!) and even original stems weren't as much of an issue. Just to find that shape in that brand was a triumph!

And then came Barry Levin. I remember getting phone calls from fellow collectors (locally) regarding Barry's mailer! "Did you see that Caminetto, #8? Man, that's a rare pipe!" Barry did very well with that mailer and one of the upsides of the mailer was that it put people in contact with each other. In addition, the PCI Magazine did a good job of hooking people up and also in promoting The Pipe Smokers Ephemeris.

Rick Hacker saw this happening and wrote a book in the mid 1980's and the whole hobby started to snowball because collectors (the masses) were finally finding out who to network with!

Prior to this there had always been a "hardcore" group of collectors. These were the Basil Sullivans, Ed Lehmans, Ken Coffelds, Portor Loring Jrs., Sam Highsmiths, Bill Bagleys, Jerry Ballards, Edsel James and many others. Countless names, I'm not even going to try and capture them all - these are the names that first came to mind. These guys all knew who collected what and they (for the most part - I'm being a bit generic here) knew how to contact each other if need be.

But for the "masses"... this was the breakthrough! And guys like Barry Levin, Bob Hamlin, Jack Ehrmantraut took this breakthrough and popularized the hobby and helped us all to get connected. Bob Hamlin was probably the first to utilize the internet so he's arguably the "father" of what we now know to be the mass availability of pipes on the internet.

Well... since Al Gore invented the internet we'll have to give him props too.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Burnout or Buyers Remorse?

With the proliferation of pipes on the internet, what do you in order to insure that you're getting what you pay for?

Recent threads and subsequent emails currently circulated on the web are those of an ebayer who didn't "get what they paid for". This predicament has drawn the attention of those (most of us) who are buying and selling pipes on the internet. Without going into detail or naming names, this missive is intended to help both buyers and sellers of pipes understand that what they may be getting is not really the same product that left the pipe makers workshop.

It's tough to tell "what is what".

Buying a pipe on the internet can be a joyous occasion or a nightmare. Most often than not, the pipe you buy on the internet will be exactly as described. The number of folks that recondition pipes is pretty small; However, once the pipe has been changed from it's original condition then the pipe is no longer "as new".

I don't own a buffing wheel. Sometimes I wish I did - but if I did then my stems wouldn't be as crisp and sharp as they were when they left the craftsman's bench though they would undoubtedly be a lot shinier than they are right now.

So, what does 'reconditioning' mean?

There are a few sellers (websites/ebay/combined) who do recondition pipes. Reconditioning is a very broad term! This reconditioning could mean that the pipe has been boiled out with a retort, the cake trimmed and the pipe buffed with carnuba wax. Traditionally, this has been the reconditioning method used.

As pipes have become a more active "trade" on the internet, there have been a very few who will recondition pipes in more drastic measures; Shaving the tops of bowls to make them look crisp, completely refinishing the pipe and sanding down dings and fissures; Replacing stems that have teeth marks or scratches - or even sanding down the original stem. This is altering more than reconditioning because you're removing significant wood from the pipe. But, the term "reconditioning" still covers (in part) what has happened to the pipe.

The question you must ask yourself is, "Does this matter to me"?

If the answer is "YES, it does matter to me" then you have a pretty big dilemma on your hands. The dilemma is to deduce whether or not the pipe you're looking at has been buggered with - and that is a pretty tough call to make.

Let's use a Dunhill Shell LB as an example. Earl's ebay shop has a Dunhill Shell LB that is advertised "as mint". Chances are that Earl is a reputable guy! If I was interested in the pipe then I'd shoot old Earl an email and ask about the pipe: Has the pipe been "topped or shaved"? Are there any stress marks or cracks in the bowl? Is the stem seemingly original? Is the pipe "in round"? Where did he get the pipe? Can I return the pipe should it not meet my expectations?

Earl may have bought that Dunhill from a collector - and the pipe may be exactly original with a slight round in the bowl rim, otherwise mint. Or, Earl may have shaved the top until it's crisp, back in round and then took a dremel tool to the top, roughing it up a good bit in order to give it a sandblasted look and then refinishing the top to make it look "mint". Or, Earl may have sent this pipe to a repair shop and had the work done.

There is very little that you can do to tell the "original" from the "reconditioning" if the person who did the reconditioning is good. The only way you could tell, from a picture on the internet, is to have seen enough of these pipes to be able to tell if the picture (pipe) "looked right". Some are obvious, most are not so obvious.

A dremel tool will NOT look like sandblasting. A dremel tool will look more like a sea rock finish with indentions in the wood, not "bringing the grain out" like a sandblast does. If you look at the color of the pipe and then at the inside of the bowl then you will normally be able to deduce whether the "like new finish of the pipe" is in equal proportion to the number of times the pipe has been smoked. When a pipe has been heavily smoked, the inside walls of the bowl will show this. Wood is a natural product and there will be softer areas (small areas) that will burn a bit - so in other words, the inside of the bowl will not be completely smooth if the pipe has been smoked a good bit.

And if the pipe has been smoked a good bit then the finish will not shine like new - it will be dulled a little bit and will not look like it came right out of the box. Again, we're talking about a Dunhill Shell LB here, a sandblasted pipe.

With regards to stems, it's tough to tell a well done Dunhill replacement bit from the original. The older Dunhill bits had registration marks stamped on the underside of the bits - but many of these reg. numbers have been buffed off over the years. Well done replacement bits are very, very tough to discern from the originals. But, if the pipe has been smoked then one should expect a few teeth scratches and possibly some light dents in the end of the stem. And to get even more technical, if the pipe is indeed from the 1930's then one should see a bit more of an oval shaped tip on the bit vs. the flatter bits made today. Alas, a fine stem-maker can make an oval or "orific" bit to match the original so this (again!) is a very tough call to make.

Likewise, the finishing is the same. Jim Benjamin (who is one of the finest men in our hobby!) has a re-finishing method that looks better than the original Dunhill shell finish! Jim can bring out the red highlights and undertones superbly. So - if the pipe is a 1930 Dunhill Shell LB and looks like it's been smoked a good bit yet the finish is sparkling like new and there are no tooth scratches on the stem.. well, you hopefully get my picture.

With regards to refinishing the inside of the bowls, let's just make this general statement: If it looks too smooth to be true then it probably has been refinished if the outside of the pipe looks less than sharp and there are toothmarks on the stem. This is akin to playing Sherlock Holmes and looking at the pipe as a whole and deducing if (as they used to sing on Sesame Street) "one of these things is not like the other".

Let's get away from the Dunhill Shell. We'll now look at a smooth Castello.

On a pipe like this, it's tough to tell if the top has been shaved unless you've seen so many Castellos that you have an idea of something that seems "out of whack". But I use this illustration to talk mainly about the bowl. If the pipe has been smoked and the inside of the bowl has been sanded to look almost like new then you'll know that the pipe has been fiddled with. This too takes an eye for the pipe and some Sherlockian deduction. Of course, if the pipe was smoked once then there may be just a spot or two of black in the bowl - but generally this blackening will be at the top of the bowl and not at the middle. If the previous owner has smoked one "half bowl" to break in the pipe then there may not be any black at the top, only in the middle. Again, you have to talk to the seller and more often than not the seller will tell you what reconditioning has been done.

Let's examine a Bang pipe. Most Bangs come from the bench with a bowl coating. When you see a used Bang (or other pipe) where the pipe has been "reconditioned" and a fresh bowl coating has been applied - well, you don't know what's under that new bowl coating, do you? No, you don't know what's under the fresh bowl coating! On many "high grade" pipes there are no shape charts or good abilities to tell what may look out of the ordinary. This is indeed a tough call. One could shave the top, refinish the pipe, sand out the bowl of any "spots" and make a new stem and it would be hard to tell from the original if the job was done well. Yes, this is kind of scary.

So - I bought that LB from Earl and it came in today's mail. I love the pipe, it looks great and every piece of the puzzle seems to check out: The bowl has been smoked a good bit, there is a little rounding on the rim of the bowl but nothing that Earl didn't tell me about. The finish is very nice (for it's age) and doesn't look like it just came out of the box, so that's all in synch with the age of the pipe. The top looks like a sandblast and follows the grain in the wood - it doesn't look like Earl took a dremel tool to the top and tapped some rough spots into the rim and refinished it. The bowl walls are as thick as they should be and have a little irregularity to them - so I don't believe that the bowl has been sanded out. The stem is as it should be though it's hard to tell an original Dunhill stem from a well made replacement. I do look in the shank and the dark spot in the shank (from moisture) correctly fits with the placement of the current tenon... KEEPER!

I send Earl an email and accept the pipe.

Two weeks later it burns out.

Guess what? I bought the pipe, was happy with it and now I'm stuck with it. Earl has no obligation once I've accepted the pipe after close and thorough inspection. It is my decision whether to email Earl and tell him of what's happened - but I should certainly not expect Earl to do anything about it. Once you take ownership of an estate pipe then it's your pipe, your problem.

One can, of course, send the pipe to Jim Benjamin or Ronni Bikacsan and have them work their wonders! However, it is up to you to mention these things if you choose to sell the pipe to another owner.

Last tidbit - I once traded for a Barling EXEXEL Apple, a beautiful and large pre-trans model. The pipe was scuffed severely on the outside but I knew that this would be a keeper for me, not something that I wanted to get rid of. I sent the pipe to Jim Benjamin (I didn't know Ronni at that time) and Jim made that pipe look like new! He shaved the top, removed the scuffing, resanded the stem and completely refinished the finish. I could sell that pipe tomorrow on ebay for upwards of $500.. but it wouldn't be right UNLESS I mentioned the complete refinishing job.

Would it be wrong to list this Barling as "reconditioned"? No. In fact, the pipe has been severely reconditioned! That's the point that drives this whole article.

However, without a detailed mentioning in the ebay listing that the pipe had been topped, sanded, refinished, etc. then I'd not be telling the full truth.

Altering the pipe significantly, removing wood, changing the wood.. it's more than reconditioning - it is severely altering the pipe from it's original state.

And that, my friends, is the difference between "reconditioning" and "reconditioning". Caveat Emptor, Caveat Lector. When in doubt, email the seller and also email a friend or five friends and ask their opinions before buying.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A pipe is just a pipe?

Who says a pipe is just a pipe?

A pipe is a friend, something to cherish when enjoying it. That's not to say that a pipe must be "this or that" with regards to how much one spends for the pipe, the maker of the pipe or what others may think of the pipe.

Simply put, a pipe is an extension of the person smoking it. To some, a pipe may merely be a "nicotine delivery device" and a tool for obtaining smoke. However to many pipe smokers it is the shape of the pipe, the feel, the size and the overall ambience of the smoking experience that determines how an individual enjoys the pipe.

For example, the utilitarian smoker may prefer a more conventional style of pipe. Nothing wrong with that! The collector, on the other hand, may enjoy a particular shape, brand or size of pipe. While the utilitarian pipe enthusiast may desire a good smoke, the collector will factor other interests into the equation of what a "good smoke" entails. This is a highly personal statement and while there is no wrong or right answer as to what each person may prefer, there is a difference as to the criteria that each pipe smoker uses to determine what satisfies their desires with regards to each pipe.

A good illustration of this would be an automobile. In this case, I am the utilitarian who desires a bit of comfort yet I'm not able nor willing to buy a Mercedes coupe. If the Ford Pinto that I bought (used) from Chuck Stanion satisfies me as much as the Mercedes would (in getting from point A to point B) then the Pinto is satisfactory. To me, it is satisfactory. And that's all that matters. To me.

There is no doubt that the Mercedes would probably ride better, would probably be a more aesthetically pleasing vehicle to be seen in.. and would obviously be worth more money (vs. the Ford Pinto) should I wish to sell the Merceces - BUT, I paid more for the Mercedes so I should expect it to be worth more.

But from getting to point B from point A...

well, I'm the doing the driving.

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