Sunday
Feb262012

An artisanal case for artisanal pipes.

As AutoCAD illustration of the 283 case in closed position.many pipes as I’ve collected over the years, until late last summer, I’ve never owned a 7-day set. While I suppose I could have created a set according to some organizing principle, I am a bit of a purist in how I think about 7-day sets.

To me, they were created toward the end of being together. They belong together. They should stay together.

7-Day set of 283 Jack Howell pipes with the original Comoy 283 (top left)It Artisan Jack Howellis especially meaningful to me that my first, and perhaps only, 7-day set is comprised of pipes made for the Passion for Pipes 283 project by Jack Howell. I love this smallish, chubby Rhodesian shape. Aesthetically, it brings a smile to my face. As a smoker, I find it perfect in capacity, proportions, weight, balance, draw, and flavor.

These pipes also remind me of those fifty or so pipe friends who also bought the pipe and who share my enthusiasm for its wonderful smoking properties. Finally, the pipes were made by Jack Howell, an artisan who I respect and admire for more reasons that I can enumerate here. He is not only a terrific pipe maker, he is a good man and a good friend.

Because I believe that a 7-day set is completed by a case that keeps the pipes together, I commissioned my case from my designer-friend, Scott Stultz. Like Jack – who is not only a pipe maker, but a bamboo fly rod maker, a rebuilder of vintage lathes, and a classical musician – Scott is a Renaissance man: a kitchen and furniture designer, an artist, and a fine writer, too.

7-Day Set Case built by Jim Fiola for Quality BriarScott’s last 7-day set case design – a Jim Fiola-built case that was commissioned by Quality Briar – so inspired and impressed me that I asked him to design a case for me, too. To my immense delight, he consented. As it turns out, it was no small task since Scott will have invested some 200 hours in the design development, engineering, and construction of the case. And the case construction? Its builder anticipates that he will have put in between 100 and 120 hours in prototyping and building the case.

When I initially asked Scott to design a case for me, he asked me what style case I wanted. Having anticipated this question, I had given it serious consideration.

“I am down to two possible styles, Scott,” I declared. “I love the sleekness and richness of Biedermeier, and I love the masculine ruggedness and functionality of Arts and Crafts. What to choose?”

We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each style. In the end I decided upon Arts and Crafts – and for a serendipitous reason. During a visit, Scott took me on a tour of the Premier Custom Built factory in New Holland, Pennsylvania wherein our route took me by the large and impressive stock of solid, exotic woods used in Premier’s manufacturing operation. When I saw Premier’s inventory of solid fumed European White Oak, I immediately decided on an Arts and Crafts case design.

Raw and unfinished fumed European Oak“Look at the rays and flecks in these boards!” Scott exclaimed as he sighted down the length of the boards. Fumed white oak is beautiful when it is plain, but when it is as flecked and tiger-stripe figured as are these boards, it is breathtakingly beautiful. I had to have fumed oak in my case. When I told Scott I had decided on Arts and Crafts, he was full of questions for me: things he would need to know to think through his design strategy.

“Are you thinking Scottish Arts and Crafts? Or are you thinking Arts and Crafts as it evolved with Gustav Stickley? Or Roycroft, maybe?” Scott asked.

As things turned out, my Arts-and-Crafts design choice became more a compass point than a destination that Scott would travel toward.

“I approached the design style in terms of period,” Scott mused, ‘but the case design almost transcends period because I really didn’t approach it from a period style. The case will wind up looking like that, but that’s not what it’s really about. I looked at trying to detail this thing in Scottish Arts and Crafts, but it was too much. It obscured what’s so exciting and what’s so elemental. I’m not being an historicist here. It is a very clean piece that almost doesn’t have a period. But the little details, the little setbacks, the steps along the edges of the legs, those were just enough detail to hint at its roots in the Arts and Crafts style from a hundred years ago.”

As a pipe collector who wanted a case for my 7-day set, I never could have imagined the philosophical and aesthetic questions that would be wrestled with in thinking through what I imagined to be simply “building a box.” How hard could it be? I was fortunate in that Scott lifted the veil.

Three of the seven cradles without finish“How do you create something like this and ensure that it has its own presence on its own as a fascinating artisanal object?” Scott said. “That doesn’t compete with and behaves as a foil for the objects it is meant to display and protect?

At every step of the way, we applied as much restraint as possible while making what we thought were extremely important small refinements of detail. A great case in point was the bottom piece of each cradle. The radius is cut at an angle that follows the slope of the cradle edge. It would have been a lot easier to cut them at a 90-degree angle, but this is a detail that makes a huge difference. It’s a very quiet, but important detail that is not showy at all.”

Glasgow, a Stultz design currently in development for PremierDesigner Scott Stultz at work in his studio.Scott Stultz is an articulate and fluent design polyglot. Books about art, art history, architecture, and design line the shelves throughout his study. His command of periods and styles is foundational to his thinking and to his environment.

Mid-century Modern Danish lighting instruments spray light on vintage furniture pieces–each of them emerging from particular artists and styles. Proportional systems, colors, material contrasts, and textures comprise Scott’s design vocabulary. But, as exuberantly fluent as he is employing various design languages, he is obsessed with functionality. Beauty is not enough; things must work.

“What this design is really about is creating a reconfigurable storage and display system for a one-of-a-kind, 7-day set of artisanal pipes. Everything was driven by that: the choice of materials, the configuration, and proportions of the piece. It didn’t necessarily have to stand on legs, but we wanted visually to say: ‘This is not just a box. This is a piece of furniture that will be put on a tabletop.’”

The standing septagon of cradles as initially conceivedThis 7-day-set case is not just one piece of furniture; it is 8 pieces of furniture where 7 pieces nest inside the outside case. The 7 nesting pieces – the pipe cradles – may be removed from the larger case and reconfigured into a standing pipe rack. When removed and stood on end, they create a perfect radial septagon of cradles, each of which hold one of the Howell 283 pipes. All the cradle sides and ends were milled from one piece of solid birds-eye maple.

Scott Stultz’s finished drawings of the septagonal array geometry.The cradle sides are book-matched so that when one looks down at them – nested in their large walnut receiver – the maple pieces, punctuated with solid black walnut spines, establish a visual rhythm. One sees a poem of rhyming grain, where the organic, birds-eye patterns contrast with precise repetitive shape geometry.

When the pipes are placed in their cradles, another layer of curvilinear repetition is established. That repetition is embellished and subtly interrupted by differences in briar grain, color, and finish.

Finally, when you look down at the cradles arranged in their radial array, you see a kaleidoscopic effect. That was a principal reason Stultz and Ritchie decided to bookmatch the cradle sides.

The cradles as initially mocked up in foam core and wood.“Each of these cradles are as carefully designed as a lounger or as a recliner,” explained Scott. “Except, instead of people sitting in them, pipes sit in them.”

“The case is an environment. It is more complex than a simple functional piece of industrial design or furniture. It has to present itself in two strikingly different configurations (as a nested set or as a radial pipe rack and case). The detail is really minimal. Because the form of the pipes is deceptively simple, the proportions either work or they don’t work. It’s either right or it’s not. The band of what’s right is extremely narrow in a universe of possibility.”

Premier Custom Built artisan Wayne RitchieThere have been more than a few times in the development of this case when I’ve felt like I followed a pocket-watch toting, white rabbit down a hole into a woodcrafting wonderland of esoteric design considerations, exotic wood arrays, zillion-dollar, high-technology tools, and artisanal traditions that are preserved by craftsmen who seem one-third wizard, one-third gnome, and one-third engineer.

Wayne Ritchie exemplifies what I mean. A longtime colleague, Scott believed Ritchie’s patient and painstaking temperament suited him well to what Scott was convinced would be a challenging project. Not solely a craftsmen, but having also done design, Ritchie came to Premier from Martin Chair, a fine furniture maker situated at the other end of New Holland – a quaint borough surrounded by picturesque Mennonite and Amish farms.

A Premier Custom Built KitchenModest and soft-spoken, Ritchie is just one of Premier’s tribe of artisans – the men and women who make the world’s most sought-after case-goods environments: primarily kitchens. When superstar Celine Dion had her kitchen crafted, Premier conjured it.

When I first walked through Premier’s manufacturing facility, I was agog at what I encountered there. Artisans–any one of whom could have gotten a job working for Christopher Wren–work alongside one-of-a-kind machines that Premier’s engineers have created to render unduplicable results.

Tools range from chisels and knives to giant computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) machines. Carts laden with fumed larch, rosewood, bubinga, Peruvian mahogany, ebony, cherry, and unpronounceable woods dot the floor. There are research and development labs not far from massive stockpiles of solid, rare woods. Overhead, water mists issue from a network of pipes to maintain optimal humidity levels. And although you can’t see it, a reverence for craft, for culture, and for the wood, itself, is as present in the atmosphere as oxygen.

Scott Stultz and Wayne Ritchie inspect progress on the case.When one thinks about the time spent making a pipe – even for slower pipemakers – 320 design-build hours for a case boggles the mind. Including design and construction efforts, two full months of 8-hour work days were expended in the creation of a case that I initially believed would be a simple, straightforward task: building a box. While I’m used to being wrong about a lot of things, I am unaccustomed to being this wrong. What I didn’t anticipate was that Scott Stultz envisioned a piece of furniture that would exemplify the pinnacle of American craft. By craft, I mean design and execution in the tradition of Thomas Sheraton, George Hepplewhite, Gustav Stickley, and Sam Maloof. Stultz envisioned an heirloom.

So, what is involved in conceptualizing, designing, and manufacturing an heirloom?

Alternating triangular geometries make cradle nesting efficient.First, Scott conceived the case by hand, making sketches and notes. After satisfying himself that he had developed his concept sufficiently, he worked out the component geometries using 3-D autocad, computer software that creates three dimensional renderings.

Interested in finding out how components felt and worked in the real world, Scott mocked up the pipe cradles and cradle-carriers in foam core and scrap wood in his studio shop. These mock-ups allowed him to understand what tweaks were required before he created his final, measured, 3-dimensional engineering drawings in autocad.

Maple cradles nest perfectly in the black walnut recess, looking like they were not meant to be removed.At this point, it was necessary for Scott to hand the project off to Ritchie who would begin by translating Stultz’s engineering drawings into CNC (computer-numeric-control) software language. Both Ritchie and Stultz planned to target measurement tolerances in thousandths, a degree of precision recently unimaginable in the world of woodworking. Premier’s manufacturing equipment and materials quality combine to make such precision achievable so that what the eye encounters can be summed up in a singular term: perfection.

Ritchie made a protractor to perfect the complex negative space anglesThe case could have been hand cut, but the complex geometries and tolerances required to achieve the final result dictated using the best equipment in the industry: among them a big Martin table saw (the best production saw in the world) and Premier’s CNC machinery, a manufacturing platform requiring not only a quarter million dollar investment, but also significant training for its operators – and the experience that accompanies the inevitable hiccups and heartbreaks that pile up over time.

Precise placement of the box hardware was prototyped to ensure perfect placement.When I first heard about Premier’s technology, I assumed that somehow wood would be fed into a machine on one end and precisely measured, perfect parts would be spit out the other – an assumption so rife with naîvete as to be laughable.

The expensive, fumed European white oak that was hand-selected by Ritchie and Stultz for the case would not be touched until dry-run prototyping was completed with less expensive materials. Because the case would be fashioned from one board, milled and mitred so that the wood grain would be perfectly continuous across all joints, the tiniest error would destroy the continuity. An unfixable error means starting over. Because every joint in this case is mitred, any slightly sloppy work cannot be fixed with sanding. Even slightly too much sanding destroys the crisp, perfect joint.

Case designer Scott Stultz and the case, in progress.Constructing this case is similar to the process used by the finest Savile Row bespoke tailors. A suit is first measured, cut, and sewn using linen. Then, the suit’s fit is tested on its prospective owner. Adjustments are made and the suit’s fit is appraised again. When the fit is perfect, the linens are deconstructed to fashion a pattern. It is only then that the intended fabric is cut, then sewn.

The cradles and their walnut carrier space must be precisely angled so that all the cradles are interchangeable and fit perfectly. Work making the fit perfect is still under way.It is only upon prototype-completion that case components were crafted with their finished materials. It should be noted that things did not always proceed according to plan.

Ritchie discovered that the cradle geometry was extraordinarily complex. The cradle set had to not only nest precisely inside their trapezoidal walnut carrier space – the construction of which required Ritchie to design and build a special protractor to achieve precise complementary angles – but they also had to comprise a perfect radial septagon when assembled into a table-top rack. Either of these spatial requirements would have been easier taken singly, but together required Herculean precision. Neither Ritchie nor Stultz would tolerate so much as a hair’s width gap anywhere.

Premier’s President, Sheldon Horst, inspects the case’s progress.A compelling side-effect of Ritchie’s case project is the attention it has garnered from the Premier tribe-at-large. Other craftspeople routinely stop by to learn about the project’s progress. The company’s founder – an entrepreneur and engineer legendary in the industry, who also hand-crafts full-sized, functional, reproduction-antique airplanes (both from scratch and basket cases) – has inspected its progress and kibitzed about its drawer construction techniques. Premier’s president, yet another engineer, has inspected and marveled at Ritchie’s work. Then, there is Scott Stultz who is monitoring the realization of his vision with eyes calibrated to microns.

Although there is much to do before the case is completed, I can see Scott looking forward through the tunnel of his mind’s eye toward the finished object. Can it be improved? Or is this his ultimate case? Is it good enough for his unabashed love?

William Shakespeare comes to mind. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.”

No worries here. Between Stultz’s obsession with the marriage of beauty and functionality, and Ritchie’s craftsmanship rigor, no alterations will be found. And the sole remover? That would be me.

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Reader Comments (12)

I'm sorry, Neill, I can't help but laugh (in a good-natured way). After having read your post about the exorbitant price of Bo Nordh pipes you describe a custom-made pipe box that must cost almost, if not as much, as a Nordh pipe. I wouldn't be so rude as to ask what you're paying for this. Perhaps your friends are doing this out of friendship, and you're only paying for materials, but I suspect that if I approached equivalently skilled individuals/companies as you have here, such an item would cost several thousand dollars to design, source the materials, and build.

Granted, thousands of dollars for this display box is better spent than thousands of dollars for a single pipe. Nevertheless, to even conceive of something like this, let alone actually set the ball in motion and pay for it? You live in a different world, my friend. Now that is something I could aspire to.
February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick H.
I think it is incredible! Craftsmanship at its utmost. A case to be passed on into posterity. Bravo!!
February 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervaperfavour
It is a beautiful piece! My only question is : How is ventilation ensured? I think that every case used for smoking pipes should have some air flow assured. If the idea is a case for one week of smoking, than each pipe placed in there after use should have at least one day to "breathe".
February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam S
Made by folks who care for folks who care - I thought that type of perfectionism was extinct. Faith restored and thank you.
February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo44
Very impressive !!! My admiration for all involved ...
February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHunter Small
A sterling example of collaboration between people driven by and obsessed with design elegance, precision and a love of fine woods.

Congratulations to the three of you for your relentless pursuit of an idea.
February 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterRichard Friedman
Neill, I so appreciate not only that you gave us the opportunity to do this project, and that you saw fit to become as engaged as you have in a process rarely seen and understood by clients, but most importantly that you really get what the artisanal culture at Premier is about, and have gone to the effort to share a glimpse of it with your readers around the world. I am grateful for the privilege to know and work with people like Wayne Ritchie and his colleagues in this unique conclave of master craftsmen and women, to have the support and enthusiasm of the leadership of the company, and to share in their vision. You clearly understand the skill, experience, toil, investment, vision and passion without which these results are unattainable. It is people such as you, who value the kind of world that we strive to manifest through our work, and to which we’ve dedicated our working lives, that make such wonderful things as this very special piece possible. Thank you.
February 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Stultz
I find this post, and the previous one on aspiring to a Bo Nordh pipe, each interesting for the underlying questions they raise. One thing they have in common, as Rick H. fairly observed, is money. Both deal with goods at the highest economic end of our hobby, and the acquisition of either might be characterized as an example of Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. But is that claim just? And should we care?

I should probably start by saying that motivations matter very little to me. I am much more concerned with what people do, and the consequences of their actions, than I am with what they were trying to accomplish. I cut very little slack for good intentions; outcomes are what drive my judgments about the wisdom or futility of deeds. Moreover if there really does exist an infallible way to infer intent from actions, I haven’t heard of it. In any case most of us are actuated by a multiplicity of goals, many contradictory, and efforts to disentangle them so commonly fail that it’s hardly worthwhile to try. Clearly this perspective is debatable; I just want to make clear my own bias, and the premise which underlies my view of the issue.

It is because of this view that I think the notion of conspicuous consumption, with its implied wellspring of a desire to attract the attention and envy of others, is irrelevant. The charge of conspicuous consumption, relying as it does on the assumption of insight into another man's manifest and latent thoughts, is unprovable and therefore uninteresting. What intrigues me is the more objective question of the consequences of high end expenditures, in this case on pipes or related accessories.

I would argue that there are an interrelated chain of benefits, both tangible and intangible, to the creation and purchase of such objects.

To the buyer, an incomplete accounting would include: the pleasure and convenience of owning a thing that is both beautiful and utile; if purchased as an investment, a source of potential gain; bragging rights to similarly minded collectors; the opportunity to participate in the process of creation; and perhaps a chance to champion specific artisans, artisanship as a field of human endeavor, and its role in our hobby. But such benefits can reasonably be expected to accrue to the buyer; more interesting are the collateral effects.

To the artisan(s) involved: an immediate source of revenue; the opportunity for reputational enhancement, which in turn can lead to psychic satisfaction, and to future sales; fulfillment from the act of creation; a stimulus to innovation. Artisans, like everyone else, are motivated by many factors; we all need money to live, but we each choose how we want to earn it. Without seeing into the mind of the artisan, we can infer the presence of such benefits from his behavior (i.e. the acceptance of challenging commissions).

To other artisans: awareness of opportunity, both general to the field and specific to the item made; a chance to learn from peers; a whetstone upon which to hone their own creativity. History teaches us that the presence of economic opportunity draws new entrants to a field, and that the resulting augmentation of choice benefits the consumer. Looked at from the opposite viewpoint, who can doubt that many of our most admired carvers would leave the field, or never have entered it to begin with, if the going rate for a pipe was always twenty bucks? High end expenditures, and their adjunct effects on demand, are one important element in enriching the field with talented artisans.

To other hobbyists: the cross fertilization that comes with exposure to someone else’s ideas; abstruse pleasure from the contemplation of attractive objects; continuing education in aesthetic attributes; the opportunity to purchase similar or identical items as costs decline. In regard to the last point, how many cars routinely have features today that were only available at great cost a decade ago? And while the economics of a highly automated factory and an artisan’s shop are not identical, economies of scale still apply as output expands. Certainly “trickle down” of design concepts can be seen in any industry with a creative component (fashion being the most obvious, but hardly the only, example).

To the community more broadly defined: the creation of an object that will likely outlive its possessor, and be appreciated by others over some extended period of years. After all, at one time most objects in museums were private possessions.

I’m sure this brief list is far from complete. I also know an interesting argument could be made distinguishing between commissioned objects, and those produced on spec by the artisan or purchased by the user in a secondary market. But these are quibbles. My point is that high end expenditures encourage innovation and attention, and therefore are ultimately likely to yield a range of material benefits not just to those most immediately involved in the development of the good in question, but to others as well.

Does the course of creation occasionally lead to evolutionary deadends? Of course. But these are only found through a process of trial and error. While it’s true that without trial, there is no error, it’s also true that without trial, there is no advancement.

Finally, let me weigh in on the idea of how much is too much to spend. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits all answer here. Our budgets vary with our means and our appetites, and barring the kind of dysfunctional PAD/TAD obsession that Scott mentions in his comment, anything people choose to do with their money is fine with me.
February 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterJon Guss
Whether I could afford this wonderful box, or the pipes that go in it, or a Bo Nordh masterpiece isn't really the point. I certainly cannot afford a classic Bugatti roadster, or a Purdey side-by-side, or a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But I am glad, even so, that these things exist. Glad because not being able to own them is not the same thing as not being able to appreciate them. Glad because the character and quality of their design inspires things I can own. Glad because there is a certain joy to be had in seeing any job done very well, in seeing anything made very well. Glad because I am inspired that if these men can perform their craft so wonderfully, then I can perform mine to the same high order.

You can argue that it is just another pretty thing, and that things don't matter. And certainly, if one's entire life is filled by acquiring objects -- however fine, in whatever quantity -- then I'd submit that's not much of a life compared to one occupied with love, family, the business of your fellow man, your relationship with your Creator, your efforts to make the world a better place and so on. But that doesn't mean that there is NO room for the acquisition and appreciation of fine things.

Consider that the men who created and built this box will, ultimately, not possess it either. But that hardly means it isn't of value to them, far beyond whatever remuneration they receive. They have in it expressed their character and a commitment to do something as well as it can be done. That's what all human works are, after all -- expressions of the character of their creators.
March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
One of the best outcomes of this exercise has been that my own interest in the history and ideology of the arts has been revitalized, as I’ve realized that what we’re doing is part of a dialogue that goes back thousands of years. It gives the work a deeper meaning and gives me the will to continue to create and collaborate, and to do the research to better understand the significance of these activities and their products. Robert touched on that in his comment. You also did when we talked about Glasgow and its relationship to the birth of skyscapers, the designer/artisan partnership, and the ethos of the turbulent period between world wars in the 20th century. I believe that part of our mission is to help wealthy clients recognize how important it is that they continue to support the arts, not merely as a means of signifying their success and status, but as patrons who facilitate the thriving of this richness of the human spirit.
March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Stultz
Fantastic piece of work!
William Morris said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful". Looks like you've got a piece that fits both of those criteria.
March 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSwinger of Birches
Neill,

Love the collection of pipes !!!! Also really like the Pipe Holder !!! Being in the high end case goods field shortly after graduation, I see the craftmanship put into the making of the holder. Excellent and hope to see it one day.

Robert
March 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLawdog

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