A Penny for Your Thoughts

21st August, 2019: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Enjoyment, Editorial

Penny Farthing and an Everyman cutty

Finally releasing Penny Farthing has been really exciting for me. Doing a shag cut tobacco is one of those “dreams” that I’ve had for a long time, but a lot of things had to come together to make this happen, the most important being working with C&D to get the cut into the Goldilocks zone. Too coarse, it wouldn’t be a shag. Too fine, it would burn too fast, and compromise the flavor development throughout the bowl. It had to be just right. We tried a few different experiments until finally agreeing that a cut width of 0.8mm, about 32cpi (cuts per inch) delivered the optimal smoking and flavor characteristics. I burned through the final prototype greedily, not even sharing it with close friends. I’d been working on this in relative silence for a long time, and wasn’t going to let the cat out of the bag until it was time to make it a real product.

For the label art, I worked closely with Calvin, the talented artist at Laudisi, who beautifully realized the vision in my head. I had ideas, thoughts about color palettes, graphical elements, typefaces, placement. I sent him sketches, and a design brief filled with lots of words, but it was his skill and talent that brought it all to life. It’s a joy working with people of his caliber who are patient enough to hear me out, smart enough to understand the direction I was going, and confident enough to take the reins when I lost my grip on them. I couldn’t be happier with the result.

And, I couldn’t be happier with the tobacco. It’s already been talked about on many forums, and the words of those who have found their own pleasures in the blend are far more interesting than anything I would say about it, but there is a bit to add to the story, some random thoughts regarding my own personal journey, both with this blend, and especially the pipe pictured above.

For as long as I can remember, many of the tobaccos that I’ve loved most have been presented with a fairly fine cut. Many of the vintage UK tobaccos that I have always enjoyed were cut quite a bit finer than more recent versions, and certainly finer than most US produced leaf. I also often experimented with old cigarette tobaccos in a pipe, and found something really fascinating about them. An old tin of Three Castles comes to mind; it’s smoke was almost transcendent, and I never fully got it out of my head. Then, a while back, a good friend sent me some from a very old tin that he’d scored on ebay. It deliciously rekindled those old memories, and squeezed a little thought juice out of my brain for a new project.

Even when I began exploring plugs, my favorite way to prepare them was to slice them very thin and rub them up fully, resulting in what was basically a fine, shag cut. I had to do it. I had to make a shag, and many months later, Penny Farthing is the result of many influences coalescing into a new product.

But, the pipe. I’ve always loved cutties. It’s a shape that traces its roots to the very early days of the pipe’s antiquity. Old clay pipes could be long or short, but for practical reasons, were made with relatively small, narrow bowls, canted forward, often with a small spur on the bottom. The purpose of the spur has been the subject of much speculation (a way to rest the pipe on a table without burning it, something to hold that doesn’t scorch the fingers, reduction of the fragility of the thin clay, &c), but its most important virtue today is probably just the aesthetic appeal it offers.

Adam Davidson cutty, and the antique clay pipe that inspired it

When briar became the medium of choice for pipe making, many pipe makers took a page out of the clay pipe’s history book, and made models that emulated it, both with and without spurs. Because of briar’s robustness, the bowls could be made larger without fear of breaking, so the elegance of the shape could be translated into something better suited to the modern smoker. While the shape has fallen in and out of broad favor throughout the decades, it’s never completely disappeared, and recently seems to be experiencing something of a revival. Classics never die.

One day I was scrolling through a friend’s pipe photos on social media, when I came upon a beautifully cut, Everyman (made by Comoy) cutty. “That pipe is fantastic!” We talked about it a bit, about collecting, about how we get on better with some pipes than with others - the usual pipe smoker prattle. This cutty turned out to be one he didn’t spend much time with. Hmm.

Over the coming months, that cutty came up a couple times in conversation. He told me, “You really should have this pipe.” I agreed, but didn’t give it much further thought until a couple weeks ago when a care package arrived in my postbox. Mike was in the process of moving, and wanted to send a few trinkets my way before he hit the road. It’s always a treat to get a surprise package, and this one was no exception. A couple very interesting old pipes, a knife that he’d made himself, fitted with a lovely stag handle and sueded sheath, an interesting lens he lent me to try out, a tiny antique cigar cutter - some really fun stuff. And, there, in its distinctive red, white and black box, that beautiful cutty. I pulled it out with all the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning.

The pipe had not been smoked in some time. It smelled a bit stale, and the stem had suffered a bit of oxidation, but it had no significant tooth marks or other damage, needing only a little restoration to bring it back to life. A bit of polishing, a touch of wax, a swab with a couple pipe cleaners dipped in alcohol, and it was ship-shape, ready to smoke.

Cutties are just plain cool, but, they don’t come without their quirks. Their forward tilt can make them tricky to light without benefit of a mirror, and their generally narrow bowls makes them somewhat fussy to keep alight, compounding that first quirk. Too, they seem to perform best with a fairly narrow range of tobacco types. From my experience, shags and well rubbed flakes are pretty close to ideal. I gave it a fill of Penny Farthing, and took it for a trial sail.

The first couple bowls tasted a bit off, echoing the staleness that I’d sniffed out when I opened the box. But, there was also a promise of something much better on the horizon, and after a few bowls, it became clear that it was going to become one of those special pipes. After a few bowls, the cutty really started to come alive, and now, this particular combination of pipe and tobacco has become almost magical. The smoke from the tall, narrow chamber evolves throughout the bowl, with every puff offering just a little more than the one before it. Already, I can’t imagine smoking any other blend in this pipe. Why mess with success?

Which reminds me - I’d better get an order off for a few more tins. Mine seem to be disappearing. Must be the cat.

A cluster of cutties