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Bob Swanson – Perry White Pipes Interview

The 2nd Annual West Coast Pipe Show was held during the first weekend in November in Las Vegas, Nevada, and PipesMagazine.com was there covering this unique event for pipe enthusiasts on the west coast. Bob Swanson, the pipe maker behind Perry White Pipes presented the first seminar of the show, which was informative, entertaining, and even slightly provocative depending on your opinions of what the "rules" are for pipe smoking. PipesMagazine.com’s Cynthia Sargent spoke to Bob for a few minutes on camera, so please enjoy our brief video interview with pipe maker and collector, Bob Swanson.

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See Bob Swanson’s pipes at PerryWhitePipes.com

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Bob’s seminar covered some interesting areas for all pipe smokers, experienced and new alike. It’s always a fun conversation when you are discussing the "rules" of pipe smoking. At PipesMagazine.com, we’ve always said, "if you are enjoying it, you’re doing it right".

However, Bob is an experienced pipe maker, pipe smoker, and pipe collector – for 43 years.
He’s learned a lot of things that years of experience can bring. Whether we do things the way Bob does or not, it is interesting to consider trying some new methods, learning new things, or just confirming what you already knew.

Here are some of the highlights from Bob Swanson’s presentation on Dispelling Rumors and Myths from the Supposed Pipe Gurus.

Bob emphasized that these are his opinions …

– Fills on pipes – Of all the pipe makers Bob knows (in the Americas and Europe), including himself, that make high quality hand made pipes – no one uses fills. If he finds a flaw in the briar, he will smoke the pipe himself instead of hiding the flaw with a fill and putting it up for sale. Real pipe makers don’t use fills. However, Bob concedes that almost every piece of briar will have some type of flaw like a tiny pin hole sized sandpit. Many times a skillful pipe maker can carve or sand it out, or sandblast the pipe. However, if a blemish cannot be removed, then the pipe is removed from saleable inventory.

– Cake in your pipe – Yes or No? – The answer is yes. If you are wiping your pipes out with a paper towel after smoking you are not going to build up a proper cake and you are not realizing the best experience possible from your pipes. Bob referenced the book by Alfred Dunhill which went out of print in 1935, "The Gentle Art of Pipe Smoking", where Dunhill himself described the method of creating a cake where you don’t fill it all the way at first. You fill the pipe 1/4 and smoke all the tobacco. Next time, fill it a little more, and so on until you are finally filling it all the way. This allows the cake to build up evenly from top to bottom. Of course, you can also over-do the cake.

– Pre-coated bowls are better – the pipe will smoke better when it is new and the pre-coating will help build up a natural cake. However, Craig from the Seattle Pipe Club (in the audience) expressed that some pre-coating are "noxious" to him. "Waterglass" is a chemical coating. Food-grade coatings are preferred, with the main ingredient being activated charcoal. To make your own coating, get deactivated charcoal in a drug store and mix it with a small amount of honey.

– Whiskey or Brandy is better than Everclear – for cleaning a pipe, and for dissolving pre-coatings that you may not like. Whiskey or Brandy leaves a nice taste even if you are not a drinker.

– Packing Your Pipe Properly – As Nike would say – Just Do It! Don’t worry about all these fancy ways to pack your pipe. Some of the special methods for packing your pipe are actually counter-productive to building a good cake. You must smoke to the bottom of the bowl. It might be unpleasant in the beginning with a new pipe, but it will be the best part in time. Packing methods that have you leaving a space at the bottom of the bowl are not good for the pipe. You should pack lighter at the bottom and harder as you go up.

– Don’t fill your pipe to the top – the tobacco rises and burns the rim of the bowl. Fill it 3/4 of the way.

Here’s the author doing it wrong

– Do Pipes Breathe? – Yes, they do … or they should. Stay clear of super shiny pipes that have been shellacked or varnished. They will not breathe. The pipe won’t smoke as well. Cross-cut grain breathes better than straight grain, making for a cooler smoking pipe.

– Bowl wall thickness – a thicker bowl smokes cooler. 1/4 inch is the minimum recommended thickness.

– Hand cut bits vs. pre-cut bits – can you tell the difference? Most people can’t, and a pre-cut bit is not necessarily inferior. The main difference is that a hand cut bit will add $100 to a pipe’s price because of the extra work involved. Pre-cut bits still have work put into them with chisels and sanding so each one can be made unique, so there still is hand work done on them.

Bob also revealed what is now known as "Sand Carving" a pipe as opposed to "Sand Blasting". 

Jim Cooke is a well-known, award winning pipe maker that uses "sand carving". Bob considers Jim to be the "Picasso of Pipe Makers". Many of his pipes have very intricate, deep carvings. He had been doing this for years before it was revealed how he did it. No one could figure it out. Part of the secret is that he uses a special type of sandblaster that has a much smaller hole for the particles to exit. Think of sandblasting as a course process, and sand carving as a very fine intricate process. There was a lot of speculation of how Jim achieved the look of his pipes until he actually went to Chicago and showed a bunch of other pipe makers how he did it. This special process was not given a name until recently. It is now referred to as Sand Carving.


Jim Cooke Pipe

Bob Swanson and Andrew Marks will be having a regular column in the NASPC (North American Society of Pipe Collectors) Newsletter, "The Pipe Collector". You can read more of Bob’s and Andrew’s thoughts and ideas on how to best enjoy your pipes there. The name of their column is "The Pipe Maker’s Opinion".

See Bob Swanson’s pipes at PerryWhitePipes.com

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      bowhatchie
    • November 19, 2010
    Super article....especially liked the cake building 101..I like cake in my pipes and other than a Meer never wipe them out with a paper towel... I know some do..and of course that is A_okay... after all pipe smoking is about making YOU happy!
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      cortezattic
    • November 19, 2010
    Well, I agree and disagree, LOL. That's what makes the pastime, and sharing opinions about it so much fun. The interest in such issues never ceases; usually it just changes its focus.
    I noticed a sand carved pipe or two a while back, and was both amazed and stymied by what processing might have been applied. Thanks to PM.com, now I know!
    ps. I think Mrs. Bubba might have another career. It must take a lot of courage to get in front of a camera with microphone.
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      Kevin
    • November 19, 2010
    Cynthia was awesome. This was her first one. We did it with no rehearsal in one take, on the very first take.
    I know there were some imperfections that could've been fixed with multiple takes, but we were already holding up the next seminar and had to keep moving.
    There will be more videos going up very soon, and each one just gets better.
    I am looking forward to working with Cynthia again.
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      Kevin
    • November 19, 2010
    What part do you disagree with Cortez? All of it? LOL.
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      daveinlax
    • November 19, 2010
    Sand blasting vs. sand carving has been a subject in the pipe world for a long time. I would be very interested in JT's reaction to being call a sand carver. I was under the impression that he was a natural sand blaster as opposed to a sand carver who might help mother nature along with "grain" patterns not natural to the wood.
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      Bob
    • November 19, 2010
    Great article and interview Kevin!
    Lots of good info and things to think about and discuss in regards to the pipes myths that he talked about.
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      cortezattic
    • November 21, 2010
    Kevin asks, "What part do you disagree with Cortez? All of it? LOL"
    No, not all of it. Just the part advising not to wipe the bowl with a paper towel. On the break-in, I always wipe the bowl aggressively with a paper towel for the first 25 smokes or so. I follow the old Dunhill incremental fill principle, with anal-retentive persistence; usually 100 partial bowls building up to a full load. (When you're retired it's easy to do. LOL)
    I get an amazing cake build-up: it resembles a "carbon cup" sitting at the bottom of the bowl, and tapers off in thickness as it goes up the sides. And it's a hard, fine grained cake too! No lumps or chunks breaking off -- well, hardly ever (P.A. creates a softer, sootier cake than my Va's and Vapers.)
    I'm not a big fan of whiskey or brandy as a cleaning agent, but I use extra dry gin or Everclear.
    On always smoking to the bottom of the bowl, well, I try to as a matter of personal practice. But in reality, I believe in Russ Ouellette's theory, or point of view. He observes that you don't need a good cake at the heel of your pipe if you never smoke the tobacco completely to ash.
    After I break in a pipe, I rarely concern myself with burning up every last bit of dottle; mostly because when I try to, I suck more ash than smoke! LOL! Like Russ, I don't think it's an issue that a newbie should lose sleep over. If there's a little lump of unsmoked tobacco, dump it and hope for better next time. It's not worth the matches and futzing around needed to completely consume it.
    On coating a new bowl, I don't let the pre-coat or its absence influence my purchase decision. Actually I prefer an uncoated bowl because I like to see the cake develop; but there's no practical difference in my opinion.
    ROTF LOL ... but I agree with everything else Swanson said!
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