As 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.
It is 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.
Scott’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.
“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.
“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.”
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.’”
This 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.
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.
“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.”
There 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.
Modest 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.
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?
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wayne worked out fitting details this past week, finding a few more refinements he wants to make. There will be slight cut modifications to the post capitals.
The picture was taken without drawers inserted - even though they have been made - because they are still fitting a bit tight.
The case is still unfinished, but the overall design is easier to see in this photograph. Thanks to Scott for snapping the pic with his phone.