In last month’s review we looked at the first of two pieces that Rhode Island craftsman Kurt Huhn made and submitted to be scrutinized under my malevolent elucidation (insert your best evil laugh here). But seriously, looking closely at the Chubby Billiard he sent (see previous review), and seeing the fine craftsmanship applied in what is essentially a theme on a classic pipe, I was not sure what to expect from the other sample, a squat Brandy.
Well, Brandy, she’s a fine Girl. What a good wife she would be… I digress, and must apologize for the uncalled for Looking Glass song reference. That being said, it does remind me a bit of the past. My past.
As a freelance journalist and photographer for the local newspapers in my late teens, I remember the first photo I ever had published. That picture of the flaming Chrysler K-Car paid me $30.00 and made the front page of the local paper, with no by-line. As a reward, my photography mentor, the husband of my again Journalism instructor in High School, invited me to his home and presented me with a fine glass of peach brandy - in the proper glass of course. It just so happened that he was a pipe smoker as well from the hills of West ‘Verginny’ (as he pronounced it in long, drawn-out form) and knew full well how to relax and celebrate. As we sat and sipped, he smoked his pipe. This was not my first exposure to pipe smoking, and sad to say, not my first exposure to brandy either, but it was my first exposure to a proper brandy glass and a brandy shaped pipe.
The Brandy pipe is one that comes with an inherently defined character of sophistication. Just to make sure we are all on the same sheet of music with regards to the term sophistication, I want to add that the Webster’s definition not only includes the understanding of worldly wisdom combined with self-confidence and refinement, but also advanced technical development and complexity. This Squat Brandy from Mr. Huhn encompasses all of those characterizations and more.
The pipe of course is delivered in an excellent quality sock. The black sock has the feel of velvety leather and has the same texture both inside and out. I get frustrated some times when a pipe is delivered with a sock that it just barely fits in. We’ve all had them, where you have to hold the pipe at just the right angle to get it to fit in, and then quickly pull the drawstring before it pokes out again. Not so with this sock. It is different dimensionally than the sock used to deliver the Chubby Billiard we looked at last month, a testament that it is surely hand sewn for this particular pipe size. It is ample for the job, and with the slightness of the Brandy, it fits easily and comfortably giving the pipe a hug of comforting safety due to one of such class.
Once removed from the sock, the shape of the Brandy immediately becomes apparent. But even more so, the German ebonite stem is what really grabs your attention. Flashy contours, high luster, and the olive wood shank cap really set this pipe off as a well mastered package, both from an engineering and esthetic standpoint.
Let’s talk about engineering. There is engineering that plays into visual value of course. Shapes are engineered on paper, on the side of a briar block, and in the heads of the craftsman. There is an idea in the creative gray-cells of the artisan as the block is cut and begins to be sanded and formed. This is of course the first thing that the potential buyer, or collector/critic has as far as feedback from which to judge the work. If all a person is going to do is buy a pipe and set it on the shelf, or add it to a collection, this may be all that need be considered. However, if the pipe being purchased is to be used as the smoking implement for which it was intended, the engineering inside is of far greater importance.
The shank to stem fit is absolutely perfect. In all of the reviews I have written thus far, I have never used the word perfect to describe anything engineered, but only regarding the abstract or subjective. When dealing with an absolute, like the fit of a mortise, I have been reluctant to do so. Once the word ‘perfect’ is used, the cat, as they say, is out of the bag. All others must be judged against this as the new standard - and nothing can be better. What’s better than perfect after all?
I remember well as a bight-eyed 11 year old sitting in front of our small color TV in 1976, watching the Montreal Olympic games. With a sister that participated in the sport we all loved watching gymnastics. That year, Nadia Comaneci earned the first perfect "10" score in modern Olympic history. We were astonished. No one had ever seen that before, and the equipment was not even set up to allow a "10" to be displayed; instead it simply flashed a ‘1.0′ on the board. She went on to earn six more in those games and the world was stunned.
Here’s the rub. Perfect doesn’t just mean ‘only’ or hold any exclusivity. Since the Montreal Olympics there have been over 50 more perfect scores awarded showing that perfection cannot be bettered, but that it can be equaled. This stem fit is perfect. Utterly perfect.
Slipping through the first half of the mortise which is olive wood probably helps it settle in as nicely as it does when it bottoms out on the briar shank. The tenon is secured gently and yet tightly, and the stem turns and removes with ease. I’ve had the pipe for nearly 5 months now, so any imperfection in the stem or shank, or changes in the briar itself would have certainly showed itself. It hasn’t. I’m fairly certain that Kurt Huhn would not like me comparing him to a fourteen year old Romanian gymnast, but I hope he will appreciate the sentiment of the perfect score.
The stem itself is highly polished and shaped with the required elegance befitting a Brandy pipe. The 5/32" inch draft hole is drilled dead-center which mates with precision to the draft hole in the shank. The tenon is backed by a shoulder profile that mates to a recessed area on the olive wood extension, which in turn flares into the beautiful ring that follows. Artfully accomplished, this shoulder and recess are to me anchor points to the precision with which the finished engineering on this Brandy was accomplished. By adding that shoulder, the crafter is simply adding another dimension that must be cut perfectly in order for both parts to mate properly. Aesthetics and function blend flawlessly here, as the airflow is consistent and unencumbered by poorly fitted joints.
The bowl, with the home-recipe interior coating is about a tenth shy of ¾ inch and very nearly 1.5 inches deep. The draft hole appears as a blend right onto the tapered bottom of the bowl and is seen from the top down simply as a small crescent. Barely noticeable to the eye without close inspection, this will allow the smoker to draw from the very bottom of the bowl and enjoy every last bit of their favorite blend.
Five and one quarter inches long in its over-all length, the stummel measures a somewhat stubby 3.25". The bowl height is just under the 2" mark and in doing so creates a proportionate blend to the Brandy shape. The finish is dark and professionally done. It holds a higher level of gloss than what we saw in the Chubby Billiard we reviewed last month, but this to be expected in a pipe that it to hold such sophistication.
A Brandy pipe to a smoking man is akin to a Gucci handbag to a society lady. It is an accessory that comes with an inherent style and elegance. In and of itself, it speaks to those who see it a theme, and represents a prestige that should in turn be exhibited by its owner, and in the proper circumstances and environment. This pipe, as an accessory, fits the bill required by its namesake. It is elegant in shape.
In the modern vernacular, it adds ‘bling’ to the smoker. The pipe’s curves flow easily, and without interruption. I read famous pipecrafter Bruce Weaver’s criteria for determining whether or not a pipe is uniformly constructed in its outward appearance. He said,
"Let your eye flow all along the pipe…if your eye stops, the flow has been interrupted."
This pipe, handily passes the flow test in my opinion, and the opinion of Mr. Weaver (’cause I asked him!).
The rustication is a blast that is in large part where my ‘East Coast bias’ comes from. I freely admit that my biases are just that, bias, and solely formed of my own opinion. As I stated in Part one of this two part review, the west coast has its earned reputation for being liberal, open to aversions to the socially accepted ‘norms’ and etc. Whereas the east coast (often referred to as the ‘right’ coast) has a reputation for conservatism, history, and a lifestyle lived a little more slowly with quite a bit more attention and respect given to, in the words of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, "TRADITION!"
That explained, I feel as though all the works of Kurt Huhn that I have seen, used and own, pay great respect to the traditions of pipe making. Kurt takes old-school styling and applies his own personality in a way that while not overtly distinctive or individualistic, is yet reflective of the time, care and little bit of self that goes into each one. It is clear collecting and smoking his pipes, especially this Brandy, that he loves what he does, and is not a pipe carver to get rich and famous, but to pass on a little bit of pleasure, satisfaction and grace into each pipe he sells.
I filled the bowl with great anticipation for the inaugural smoke with a G.L. Pease blend called Jack Knife. This ready-rubbed blend was a very pleasant smoke, and the Huhn Brandy was a pleasure to hold. The natural shape of the Brandy bodes well to the relaxed smoker. It sits comfortably in the hand, and allows the naturally relaxed mitt to have a firm purchase on the pipe. This Huhn Brandy is a fair sitter as well, with a slight list to the starboard and sinking a bit to the stern.
With the second bowl later on that day, the Brandy really came alive. Filled with Sutliff Private Stock Navigator blend provided for this review by The Tinder Box Tacoma’s owner and fellow pipe connoisseur Jeff Packer, Kurt’s craftsmanship became reality. The stem is soft, gentle and smooth to the smoker mouth (an under emphasized quality I believe), shines like a midnight sun, and the gently rounded button is enough to let you know that you have it in your mouth, without it felling like a horses bit. This provides some muscle memory to the lips, but no aggravation.
A smooth, cool draw was enjoyed and this three-pack bowl burned consistently for nearly 20 minutes and never had to be relit. I understand this is in part due to the tobacco blend of choice, but it is certainly a testament to the engineering of the pipe itself as well.
This is (I have to admit) the forth pipe that I now own from Kurt Huhn. I have come to know and respect him as a person, a father, a family man, a business man, and as a pipe crafter - in each case a man of honor, integrity and deserved pride. I know nothing that Kurt takes more pride in than his wife, children and family as a whole. I write this review as a review of a hand carved briar Brandy pipe skillfully crafted by one whom I’d consider a rather unknown commodity in the domestic pipe crafting business. I cannot however do that without reflecting on the ‘man’ Kurt Huhn as well. I own four of his pieces not because there are none better made in the world, because both he and I know that to pretend this to be true would be a disservice to so many who have come to be known as the premier crafters in the world, past and present. Rather, I own four pipes made by Kurt Huhn because I know the man, and I know what went into each and every one of them; a little bit of himself.
What I recall most about that celebratory smoke and first ever glass of brandy with my photography mentor so many years ago was not my new-found success, but simply how happy we both were at that moment. He was happy to see a student of his find his first level of success in the field that he had trained me in. I was happy because I was with him, gleaning and growing - and he looked so satisfied with life. My mentor has since passed, but that memory lives on.
Joy comes in so many shapes and sizes. For some the joy in that moment would have been in the brandy. For others in the pipe or the tobacco. For me it is a little J.R.R. Tolkien-like; my joy was in the fellowship. Joy is a package that comes from a collected satisfaction of body, mind, and most importantly spirit. That day I had it all, and that little brandy pipe played a role. If only it had been as nice as the one Kurt Huhn made for this review…
Tom Spithaler is an Award Winning PSEA writer and member of the American Press Association who has cut his professional teeth in the outdoor and firearms media. Tom currently operates Born Again Briar, a small pipe sale and restoration business, blogs at www.briarmeditations.blogspot.com, and operates Spithaler Media Services, a dba of Paraklete Consulting Services, LLC. A husband of 20 years and father of three, Tom currently resides in Bonney Lake, WA. Contact: email@example.com.