First Bowls - Impressions of a new Will Purdy Pipe

11th November, 2005: Posted by glpease in Pipes


I was working on an article, This Old Pipe, about restoration of vintage briars, when I was derailed by something else; I don’t always have the longest attention span in the world. As I was writing, I was also smoking, really “breaking in” my latest pipe by Will Purdy, and simply HAD to take some time to put a few words on the page about the pipe, its aesthetics, it’s construction, its maker, and its characteristic Purdy smoking qualities. The other thing will just have to wait.

This pipe, one of his “007” models, was one of those unexpected gifts that sometimes arrive to bring some light to a dreary day, and it did that well. It’s a smallish pipe, with a conical bowl, somewhat narrower than Will’s “Martini,” and fitted with one of his exquisite saddle stems in brindle (“Cumberland”) vulcanite. The tobacco chamber, about 19-mm at the top, is drilled almost parabolically, to fit within the constraints of the bowl’s exterior. It’s 29-mm depth provides room for about 3-g of tobacco, just right for a morning’s smoke. Rather than a flat top, this one has a slight chamfer that extends to about half of the top’s surface - a very nice aesthetic detail. Some general background before delving into this particular pipe.

I’ve been a fan of Purdy’s work since I had the opportunity to see some of his earliest pieces in 2001. His attention to detail, even in the beginning, was notable, and those first “kit pipes” demonstrated a wonderful understanding of aesthetics, as well as attention to proper construction. But, as good as those pipes were, he’s come a long way, and I think he’s well positioned to become one of the great makers of our time. I don’t just say that because Will and I have become close friends during the course of our association. True, I’m somewhat biased, but I also know a good pipe when I see one, and especially when I smoke one, and his now find themselves among the best in my collection.

Will’s pipes are made from old Italian briar, well seasoned and aged sufficiently to eliminate the sharpness that sometimes accompanies this wood. They are skillfully crafted and aesthetically fascinating. He has shown me a cross-section of one of his stems, and the precision of the airway was striking. The “Deep Vee” treatment he applies to the button end is not merely a gimmick designed to impress, either; few of us are willing to slice our stems open to see how they’re made. The shape of the internal pathway actually seems to direct a broader stream of smoke to the palate, filling the mouth, rather than concentrating it on one spot. It works. These are among the most articulate smoking pipes I’ve ever experienced, delivering a wide range of the tobacco’s subtle nuances, even during the first bowls.

I made the mistake of smoking my first bowl in this one while at the Sacramento pipe show on Saturday. This wasn’t an entirely stupid thing to do, but I certainly missed out on some of the pleasures of that initial smoke. It’s difficult, at best, to fully appreciate the pipe and tobacco YOU are smoking when so many others are smoking something else in such close proximity! Still, that first smoke was easy going, without incident. The road from first match to dry ash was smooth and effortless, requiring only the slightest attention; delicate tamping, and the periodic light.

In a bowl of this shape, I’d usually expect much more heat near the bottom than I actually experienced. The walls near the bottom are somewhat thin, though not perilously so, and any pipe with this sort of geometry should be smoked cautiously until a cake is well established, However, I never once felt a need to baby it more than I would any virgin briar untarnished by the almost ubiquitous silicate bowl coatings that plague so many of today’s high-grade pipes. (More on that subject in a future article.) With old wood, of course, there’s a slightly greater risk of excessive charring during those first bowls, so I always approach untreated bowls with slightly more caution than usual, Not that I am ever reckless in breaking in new pipes, but the first bowls in a pipe will influence the way the thing smokes forever, so a little extra care is well spent.

I’ve subsequently smoked it a couple more times, and the pipe is already showing its real colors. This morning, I opened an aged tin of Campanile, a lovely Virginia/oriental blend originally produced for J. Fox, now made by Kohlhase & Kopp in Germany. The combination of “007” and this tobacco seemed the perfect one, and so it is! This blend is one that rewards delicate sips, rather than furious puffing, so it’s well suited for break-in smokes. Too, it’s clean and full of subtle tastes and aromas - a perfect test for a pipe’s smoking characteristics.

Having experienced five of Will’s pipes in the past has led me to have fairly high expectations, and I’m happy to report that I am far from disappointed. His “engineering” seems to almost guarantee a smoke of distinctive, undemanding quality. The taste of the tobacco is presented eloquently, with the flavor of the briar only occasionally adding its own distinctive spice. That’s not to say it’s a woody smoke; I’ve smoked “fireproofed” pipes that present more of the burned wood taste during the initial bowls. Here, the draught is open and easy, perfect for sipping - Paul Szabady’s so-called “Breath Smoking Technique,” ideal for break-in smoking. Only at the very end of the bowl was I reminded that this is, in fact, a new pipe, and the requisite care should be taken in this critical area.

When the final wisps of smoke had cleared, all that remained was a little ash and a single, surprisingly clean pipe cleaner. In fact, the entire smoke was very dry, requiring no attention at all - another characteristic of every Purdy I’ve smoked to date. No hot spots are in evidence, the bowl showing nothing but a very even darkening. Overall, an excellent experience.

As I said, I think Will is destined to be one of the great pipe makers of the 21st Century. He’s made great strides, going from promising amateur to talented professional in a few short years. His interpretation of classical shapes is artuful, yet restrained, and his unique freehand shapes, with names like “Alchemist,” “Altamont,” “Garlic,” and “007,” are inventive and elegant, without neglecting the fact that they are intended to be fine smoking instruments, above all else. Currently, his prices are very reasonable, considering the quality of his work and the care that goes into each pipe. I almost hesitate to publish this, selfishly wanting to keep this pipe maker in Colorado a little secret, known only to a few fortunate collectors. But, that hardly seems fair. All I can hope for is that I’ll manage to get a few more examples of his work before the values rise to where they really should already be.

As I come to the close of this, I also arrive at one of my favorite parts of breaking in a new pipe; I can smoke it again. Keep an eye on this guy.