Paul Bonaquisti Sabbia Stack Billiard
26th January, 2001
It's time for another installment of my long-winded, hopefully entertaining, and perhaps useful pipe reviews. Normally, I'd wait until I smoked four, five, a dozen bowls in a pipe before beginning to even think about a review. Not this time. In the middle of the first bowl, it was time to write.
I saw this pipe on Paul's site and something about it really grabbed me. The long, graceful tortoise shell acrylic stem seemed a perfect match to the blonde sandblast bowl. The forward cant, almost jaunty, appealed to me, and I've always been a sucker for a tall Billiard. I went back to look at the picture about a dozen times, wrote to Paul, asked all kinds of annoying questions, got wonderful, detailed answers, and finally decided to break down and order it. It arrived yesterday. (I know Paul is probably losing sleep, quaking in his boots in anticipation of the hatchet job I'm going to give his pipe. I should let him suffer for a while, but his wife's got a baby coming, and I'm sure the stress around the Bonaquisti household is high enough without Paul stalking about, haunting the corners of the nursery-in-progress, muttering under his breath about "that damn Pease.") [The preceding parenthetical comment is meant solely for amusement and entertainment - mostly that of the author - and any resemblance to actual people or events is purely coincidental. -The Editor]
I've got one other Bonaquisti in my collection, so I had some idea of what to expect. Still, I was in for a surprise. Paul's been doing his homework! While the fit and finish of my first is very, very good, this newer example shows evidence of evolution. The stem work is first rate. The bit is thin and comfortable, and the stem button is nicely shaped, and perfectly sized for the pipe. (The only thing that annoys me more than a really thick button, which hits the roof of my mouth, of the back of my teeth, is one that's too thin, allowing the pipe too easily slip if a firm grip is not maintained. Since I don't like to CHOMP on my stems, the button shape is crucial to comfort when clenching. This one is perfect. It both looks and, most importantly, feels good. Specifically, it is completely unobtrusive.)
The pipe is very light, and the wood, when tapped with the nail of my index finger, rings clear and sharp - an indication of dense, hard wood. Another indication of hard wood is the somewhat shallow blast, which nevertheless shows remarkably fine detail. Every bit of grain, every birdseye is beautifully articulated. The grain would best be described as mixed flame grain, running more or less transverse to the pipe, with birdseyes on the back and front of the bowl, and running down onto the bottom. The shank is particularly beautiful, with ring-grain fanning gently from bowl to stem. There's lots to look at. I don't think this would have made a very stunning smooth pipe, but with Paul's skillful blasting, the result is outstanding. It more closely resembles an early Dunhill Tanshell than an Ashton Old Church.
The fit and finish are nearly perfect. The tenon is just a hair shy or reaching the bottom of the mortise, and is nicely countersunk. The stem fits smoothly, without gap at the junction, and is buffed to a mirror polish. My fingernails can detect a very slight step between shank and stem, but this is absolutely invisible to the eye, and the micrometer shows it to be less than 5/10,000" at its most obvious point. (Yes, I'm really picking nits, here!)
The draught hole is concentric to the mortise, and perfectly centered and drilled to the bottom of the tobacco chamber. The tobacco chamber is also nearly perfectly concentric with the 1/4" thick bowl walls, the *very* slight runout probably a result of blasting.
A transparent/translucent stem gives me the opportunity to see what's going on with the drilling there. Here, the airway is smooth, showing no strange kinks or deviations. The funnel at the bit end is a little shallower than I usually like to like to see, but I figured I'd let the smoking tell me whether or not this is something worth mentioning. The draw is silent and free flowing.
The cut of the pipe is very precise, with obvious attention given to the junction between bowl and shank, one of the most difficult things for a pipe maker to get right. Paul does this masterfully, even artfully. To my eye, the bowl could be just a bit more voluptuous, a skosh more curvaceous to be a classic stack. I don't mean fatter, but rounder. But, this more clearly demonstrates my own predilections than any artistic flaw. This is Paul's interpretation of the shape, and it's a very good one. It's well within "tolerance" of a classic, with Bonaquisti's own flair. It is what it is, and a beautiful example at that. (For the record, Comoy used to cut the most magnificent stack Billiard I've ever seen. A good friend of mine has one, and ancient Royal Comoy, that I've been trying to weasel out of his collection for years. If he lets me borrow it to photograph it, it will appear on my shape chart...then, I'll offer him something else in exchange for it!)
The bowl is coated, but my one experience with a Bonaquisti informed me that Paul's coating is very neutral, and whatever effect it may have on the smoke will be only a memory by the third or fourth bowl - so, I left it alone. It's very thin, and would probably have come out easily had I chosen to remove it, but there's just no need. Even with the coating, the bowl felt smooth and free of perturbations or protuberances. (No nooks or crannies, either.)
I was originally going to dedicate this pipes to VA flakes. But, being larger than I really expected, and with my preference for small pipes for VA, I finally, after much deliberation, decided to dedicate it to Latakia mixtures. I finally chose Garfinkel's Orient Express #11 as my break-in smoke. It's a tobacco I know really well, and one which is not at all tolerant of flaws in a pipe. A true trial by fire ordeal for this beauty.
I filled the bowl with my typical "devil may care" method, and struck the first match. Then the second. A quick tamp, and I was smokin'. Through the first half of the bowl, the flavor of the tobacco was delivered clearly and accurately. Every nuance was present. Absent were any strange woody or green flavors, any strange "stain" taste - or any influence from the coating! Nothing. Nada! Just the pure tobacco. In a well seasoned pipe, this tobacco will deliver greater richness than I experience here, but this is a first flight, a maiden voyage, and it's very tasty.
The smoke stream is slightly focused, a little concentrated. I think a little more flare in the stem funnel at the bit end would spread the smoke out and distribute it more evenly over the palate, but this is definitely not a complaint - just an observation.
At about the half-way point, a little harshness flared up for a few puffs. Nothing odd or out of the ordinary, just typical new-pipe syndrome. (I've smoked very few new pipes that didn't exhibit some sort of glitch in the bottom half of the bowl, so this comes as no surprise, though it always bears a mention.) I left it to cool off for a few minutes, and re-lit. Very nice!
The only real problem with the first bowl was toward the bottom, and this is a testament to my very sloppy packing and tamping technique. This is a tall bowl, hence the word "stack" in the shape description. I have always had some trouble getting a stack to smoke to the bottom without resorting to a case of Vestas. It's me. Honestly, I've never really learned how to fill one of these things right, and to make matters worse, I tend to tamp a little too "manly." I can always manage to finish the bowl by dumping the ash, teasing up the tobacco a bit, sticking a pipe cleaner through the thing to loosen the tobacco from the bottom. One of these days, I'll figure it out. Maybe this is the pipe that will inspire me to improve my technique.
Once out, cleaned (one pipe cleaner - quite dry) and cool, I repacked for another smoke, which I'm enjoying as I finish up this review. This is a great pipe, and I know it's destined to be a favorite.
"But, you say that about almost every pipe you review."
It's true. But, don't take this to mean that I've never met a pipe I didn't like. I only review the pipes I really like a lot, pipes that I think are really worth smoking, pipes that have the potential to become favorites. I suppose, in time, I'll review a pipe that is just so damn bad that I have to warn the unsuspecting masses of its evils, but that pipe hasn't come along yet. (Though, there is this bilious green "The Pipe" in my collection that I suspect would hold a singular position in that regard, if I could ever bring myself to smoke the thing. But, that would be more of a revelation of abomination than an actual pipe review...)
Once this pipe has developed a nice cake, and begins to exhibit the richness that only a well smoked pipe can, it'll be truly outstanding.
One final note. As I approach the end of the second bowl, I already notice a deepening of the color, an increase in the contrast of the grain. This is something I really love about this sort of finish. Over the course of many smokes, it will develop a deep, rich patina that helps to make an old, well loved pipe ever more beautiful.
Design/Artistry A+ - An excellent interpretation of a classic shape.
Fit/Finish A - Everything is right. The only thing keeping this pipe from an A+ here is the slight gap between the mortise floor and the tenon. But, the gap is very slight. I'm picking nits.
Engineering A - There's good attention to detail here, and the pipe smokes accordingly. No whistles, no gurgles (none!), no undue need for intrasmoke pipe cleaners. I would like to see slightly more flare internally at the button end, which I think helps to distribute the smoke a little more.
Smoking Qualities A+ - I'm going out on a limb, here. But, if the first couple bowls are this good, how can it do anything but become great over time?
Value A - At close to $200 landed, the pipe is not *exactly* a bargain. But, it's a very fair, perhaps even a low price for a pipe of this quality. It's only my second Bonaquisti. It will not be my last.
ADDENDUM: I paid a little more attention when I filled the bowl for the second smoke, and I actually managed to get to the bottom with ease. Maybe this dog can learn a new trick or two after all. Could it be time, finally, to abandon my "devil may care" packing technique? I'll smoke on it.
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