An Amazing Stanwell

10th November, 2002


Today, I want to the Northern California pipe show, held in the training room of a Sacramento based company. It's amazing the lengths to which we have to go to find a venue for a show in this state, but pipe lovers are a creative and persistent bunch, and if we want to have a show, you can bet someone will find a way to have one. (Hats off to Gary Malmberg for spearheading this event, and giving us a local event to attend!) Despite the threat of nasty weather, which fortunately never materialized, though showers kept the air moist throughout the day, the show was well attended, and everyone seemed to have a great time, with lots of wonderful wood being scrutinized, bought, sold and traded. There was even some good tobacco to be found...

But, this isn't about the show. It's about a pipe that followed me home.

This pipe called my name loudly, practically from across the room. It didn't take more than a second to recognize the design as that of the late Sixten Ivarsson, one of the grandfather's of the Danish pipe movement, and one of many famous makers who designed pipes for Stanwell. This is a variation of Sixten's well-known "peewit" shape. A Peewit is a black headed Lapwing, a wading shorebird known for their striking plumage, dramatic acrobatics, and their somewhat fierce territorial nature. The pipe looks nothing like the bird, but is likely fashioned after its egg. I can envision a young Ivarsson strolling along the beautiful shores of Denmark, and coming across a nesting Peewit, and being inspired to create this wonderful shape.

I have an original Ivarsson peewit in my collection, and this version by Stanwell is reasonably true to it. More than the shape sang a siren's song as I wandered by that particular table today. Look at that grain! When I look at Stanwells, I'm often struck by wood that is just too good for a mass-produced factory pipe. Of course, not all examples are so striking, but they do seem to get a lot of damn good briar, and while this pipe represents one of the best, it is certainly not a lonely fellow looking for the company of its kind. They produce a lot of pipes, and while many of those are rather pedestrian, an unusually high percentage is really nice.

When I was in Denmark in July, I visited Stanwell. To say that I was impressed by what I saw there would be a dramatic understatement. The rooms full of briar would make any budding pipe maker green. Sacks and sacks of briar sit in one room, aging, while another room is filled to the ceiling with bins of sorted blocks, ready to be transformed into pipes. The factory turns out about 300 pipes per day, which is quite an accomplishment with a staff of only about 30 people.

In brief, the blocks are drilled and bored in one machine that does its work with precision. Indeed, most Stanwells I've seen are drilled very true, a testament to this machines accuracy. Then, off they go to the frazer, which turns 4 bowls at a time according to a single metal model. When the stummel is removed from the frazer, very little is left to do apart from final sanding, stem fitting and finishing. Bands and stem adornments are applied, the pipes are stained, waxed and polished to a high lustre.

The current pipes are fitted with stems that are molded to exacting specifications. On the higher grades, the stems are engraved to accept the brass or silver "crowned S", while the lower grades are stamped with a white version of the same logo. While there, I "spot checked" quite a few pipes, in order to get an idea of the overall level of quality, and it was quite high.

My readers will know that I'm an ardent fan of hand-made pipes. Not just for the quality of these pieces, but for their uniqueness, and the knowledge that a single artisan fashioned a block of briar into a beautiful work of smokeable art with skill and imagination, and a passion for the craft. I won't claim that these qualities make a pipe objectively "better" than a "machine made" pipe, but there's something about the soul of these pipes that somehow transcends my objective expectations for a decent smoke. (See "The Soul of the Briar" and "Objectivity in Pipe Smoking?" for more thoughts on this subject.) When push comes to shove, though, it's the beauty of a pipe and its ability to provide a good smoke that really matter, right?

So, this lovely pipe caught my eye in a big way. I kept going back and looking at it, comparing it to a couple others of equal beauty, but always returning to this one. (Another, one of Anne Julie's artful designs, was a close runner up, but in the end, this one just wouldn't let me leave it behind. I should probably have bought both.) The tobacco chamber is of my favored size, about 19mm x 33mm, the length of the pipe perfect for my tastes, and while the depth of the bend is greater than my usual preference, it's balance is enhanced by it. The draught is open and free from whistles. The stem is fitted to the bamboo with a stainless steel tenon, quite popular for this style of pipe. Generally, I'm not in favor of metal bits interjecting themselves into the smoke stream, but as I've smoked more than one bamboo shanked pipe similarly fitted, with no deleterious effect, I wasn't about to let this small artifact prejudice my potential enjoyment of the pipe.

The stem is thin (4mm), of a fairly flat profile, and comfortable, and all joints fit flush to their mating pieces. A couple of sandpits are noticable under careful scrutiny, but there's nary a trace of putty. The draught hole is centered, and meets the bottom of the bowl precisely. This is one of Stanwell's higher grades, with a US retail approaching $200, but they can generally be found for much less. (And, truth be told, I paid quite a bit less for this one.) On to the smoking!

I had earlier opened a tin of Garfinkel's Orient Express #11 (I mention this, my Holy Grail of tobaccos, so frequently that I should adopt an acronym for it), so what better blend to inaugurate my new peewit? My intention was to smoke it on the way home, a drive of about an hour. I lit up immediately, and my plans for this bowl to accompany me home were instantly foiled. (A few of us were lingering after the show; I shared my tin of gold with my compatriots, and the lingering continued amidst clouds of fragrant smoke, right to the end of the bowl.) The first light speaks little of a pipe, and everything of the tobacco in it. These first words were pure poetry, and, so went the bowl. Almost to the last puff, it was wonderfully engaging. No harshness, no bitterness, no woody tastes. That first bowl was delight from beginning to it's too-soon penultimate puffs. At the very end, though, there was a little off-taste that I generally attribute to stain in the bowl. Indeed, a pipe cleaner revealed the slightest traces of residual moisture, and the tell-tale signs of stain in the shank. This didn't come as a great surprise; the pipes are dip stained, but the holes are plugged beforehand; a little must have leaked into the pipe during the process. Generally, this would have colored the flavor of the pipe throughout the smoke, but here, it was only toward the end. Interesting. A second pipe cleaner came out nearly white and dry. All that was left was to refill, strike up a good ember, and bid my adieu for the journey ahead.

The second fill lasted nearly the entire trip home, this time providing a slightly richer flavor, a little more intensity of taste. Again, it was excellent, right to the last, with just a slight hint of the stain taste at the very last. Would the pipe hold up to a third bowl so soon, with almost no rest? In the name of science, I filled it with some old Three Nuns, and set to work writing. Now, as I near the end of that bowl, the only thing further I can report is that the pipe does as well with Virginias as it did with the first two bowls of Balkan, perhaps even better, and the off-flavor of the stain is completely absent. Sweet, rich, delicately spicy - all the best qualities of that great tobacco were delivered with aplomb. After three bowls, the high gloss waxed finish is starting to transorm into the lovely patina that I love so much, and the bamboo is already showing signs that it will develop a nice color as the pipe ages. Beautiful! This really is a great pipe.

Yes, I really should have bought the other one, too. Should is a terrible word. Come Monday, I'll have to track down the seller...

I have always felt that Stanwells were a great factory pipe for a reasonable price, making them an excellent value. They will never take the place of my beloved hand-mades, but I will certainly keep my eyes open for more beauties like this to add to my already too large collection. I never could resist a bargain.

Report Card:

Design/Artistry A+: Sixten's designs were often innovative and inviting, and this is no exception, and Stanwell are doing a find job of preserving the integrity of the shape.

Fit/Finish A: Everything is right. The drilling is perfect, the stems is nicely crafted, and the finish is superb, especially for a factory pipe. A very slight out-of roundness on the top keeps this from being an A+.

Engineering A+: There are no whistles, no gurgles, and no problems with pipe cleaners. The stainless steel tenon gave me some concern, but it has proven to work well, and provides no problems whatsoever in the smoking.

Smoking Qualities A+: From the first bowl, an amazingly good smoke. This really is a remarkable example of what a factory pipe can be.

Value A+: I think Stanwells are the best factory pipes being made, especially for the price. If you want to fill out your rotation, it would be hard to go wrong with these pipes.