The Return of Larry Roush

12th November, 2001


Larry Roush is back, and he's better than ever. That's a tall claim, but I intend to back it up.

I could cut to the chase, say I'm crazy about this pipe, and leave it at that. It would be the truth. These few words would express succinctly my feelings about this stellar example of Roush's craft. They would be almost enough. I could add that it's beautiful to look at, feels wonderful in the hand, and is already, after only a few bowls, one of the best smoking pipes I own. I could go on to say that its construction is perfection, the silver band is a work of art, and that the rustication is the most attractive to the eye and the most pleasing to the hand I've ever experienced.

But, there is so much more to say. Yes, I love this pipe.

To those who have followed the American pipe scene for a decade or so, Larry Roush is probably not an unfamiliar name. His pipes first appeared in late 1989, and it was clear that this talented newcomer was a guy to keep an eye on. He quickly developed a following of loyal fans. In 1996, he stopped making pipes, devoting his time, instead, to making fine jewelry, another skill that Roush possesses in spades, as evidenced by the extraordinary silver work on many of his pipes.

Roush pipes rarely show up on the estate market, and are snapped up as quickly as they materialize. I was fortunate enough to get my first (and, up until this one, my only) Roush from Marty Pulvers of Sherlock's Haven in San Francisco. Somehow, it sat on his estate pipe shelf, and escaped detection for a few weeks. I'd always been a little jealous of those who were fortunate enough to find these treasures, but here was my chance to have my own Roush at a bargain price. It's a sandblast, one of only 5 or 6 that Larry made, and it is a fantastic pipe. Certainly, it made a believer out of me, though, I found myself repeatedly discussing with Marty, "What's it going to take to get this guy making pipes again?" This was in 1998.

Finally, in the first year of the new millennium, Roush has come out of his "retirement" to again produce his superb pipes. When I saw this beautiful group 6 bent Apple on the web, it was love at first sight. I had to have it. I wrote to Larry. Was it still available? I was in luck! Within three days, I was smoking my new, my second Roush.

While it is quite a bit larger* than the pipes that normally find their way into my collection, which most will know consists largely of more diminutive pieces, something about the balance and shape of this pipe make it fit right in. The pipe has an impeccable fluidity to it. Its massiveness is graceful. While some large pipes seem to me to be almost like sensible shoes, clunky, but practical, this one is more like a Reubens painting, sensuous, voluptuous, and eminently comfortable.

Roush obviously thinks about line, about curve, about what I call the "flow" of a pipe. He talks about it. He understands it. He describes the way a pipe feels while he's making it, about the importance of it feeling good in his hand while it's being roughed out. He also clearly understands the union between shank and bowl, that critical transitional area that makes the difference between a cohesive unity, and something that looks like parts stuck together. In my opinion, this may be the most difficult part for a pipe maker to get right. Larry gets it right.

Enough poetic waxing. Let's take it apart for a closer examination.

One of the first things I'll do after looking at the purely aesthetic beauty of a pipe is remove the stem. In doing so, I discovered the tenon of this pipe to be a bit tighter than I would normally prefer. It's not squeaky tight, not tight enough to worry me about taking the stem off, but tight enough to make me think about it.

Apart from this tiny nit to pick, and I always strive to find at least one, the fit and finish are second to none. The drilling is absolute perfection. The tenon is deftly countersunk, and fits all the way to the floor of the mortise with no gap. A pipe cleaner effortlessly travels from stem to stern without the arcane machinations often required with bent pipes. The airway is open and perfectly aligned with the stem. At the bit end, the stem button is comfortable and beautiful, and the smoke exits through a perfectly tapered and smoothly recessed opening. The silver ring, that graces the shank is exquisite, truly a piece of jewelry for the pipe, adding a sophisticated charm to the rusticated finish. Outstanding!

I called Larry to ask about the tight tenon. "I noticed that, too, on that pipe. It's just a little tight. Nothing to worry about. But, why do you want to take it apart?"

He makes a good point. I took it apart, naturally, to measure the tenon length and mortise depth, and to inspect the airway. But, I certainly don't have to remove the stem to clean the shank. As I said, the fit and alignment are perfect. I haven't taken it apart since the inspection - except to show a friend of mine how perfect he fit was

How does it smoke? I'm smoking my sixth bowl in the pipe as I write this. Normally, I'd smoke a few more bowls before really getting into a serious review, but there's little need for that here. The first bowl was excellent, exhibiting absolutely no "off" flavors, and only the tiniest whisper of "woodiness" that is always present in a new pipe, at least those with un-coated bowls.

But, wait! This bowl IS coated! After all my ranting and raving about how much I hate bowl coatings, about how the best of them are acceptable at best, I was quite surprised by the transparency of Roush's. What distinguishes this coating from the others is its complete absence of coloration to the taste of the tobacco. I asked Larry about it, about what it was, about why he uses it, explaining to him my usual prejudice against the stuff.

He doesn't use it to disguise flaws in the bowl, as some makers seem to, nor does he use it to "protect" the bowl from abusive smokers. It's raison d'être is simple. Because of his curing process, Roush's bowls are extremely porous. When he stains them, the stain sometimes soaks through the wood, into the bowl, leaving a mottled appearance. "It just doesn't look right," Larry told me, "so I developed the coating. It is 100% edible, and really only serves to improve the aesthetic appearance of the inside of the bowl."

I'd have to agree. It certainly does nothing to detract from the excellent smoking qualities of the pipe. And, obviously that porous nature of his wood plays a very definite role in the excellent smoking characteristics of the pipe. The wood coupled with excellent engineering, a wonderful, open draw, and perfect construction delivers to the smoker an extraordinary experience. From the first bowl, the tobacco has smoldered cleanly, effortlessly, right to the bottom, leaving only a dry ash, and the desire to smoke the pipe again right away. In fact, I did just that. Three times the first day. Each bowl was even better than the last. Break-in? What's break-in?

A I finish up bowl number 6, this pipe is already smoking like an old favorite. I don't need to wait to make my assessment. It's a fantastic pipe in every way. From a guy with Roush's reputation and fanatical attention to detail, I expected nothing less.

I began this review by saying that Roush is better than ever, and claimed that I'd back it up, so, here goes. I now have 5 of his pipes in my collection. The oldest, a lovely little smooth bent Apple, dates from 1990, the first year of production. The newest is the PokerHawk, Larry's realization of one of my own designs. Each is wonderful, superbly crafted, and beautiful, but if you look very closely, you can see the incremental improvements. This constant striving for excellence is what separates the best from rest. As good as his pipes are today, I can only wonder what they'll be like in the years to come.

Report Card:

Design/Artistry: A+ The pipe is gorgeous. What else is there to say?

Fit/Finish: A+ With the very minor exception of a very slightly tight tenon, everything is perfect. Even the rustication is remarkable - the best there is, to my eye.

Engineering: A+ There's a lot of attention to detail here, and the pipe smokes accordingly.

Smoking Qualities: A+ The flavor of the tobacco is delivered clearly and articulately, with an effortless draw.

Value: A Larry's pipes are not exactly inexpensive. They are, however, beautiful, hand made examples of the pipe maker's craft at its best, and are significantly less expensive than some well known mass-produced pipes. Perhaps in that light, his pipes are a true bargain.

* Overall dimensions: Height 60mm, Ø 50mm, length 136mm. Tobacco chamber, Ø 23mm, depth 47mm. Okay, so it's not a magnum, but it's huge in comparison to the majority of my collection!