Yesterday, I bought a Luigi Viprati pipe. This is a relatively inexpensive brand made by a small one or two-man factory in Brescia. It is not superbly made, but I really liked the shape and the sandblasted ring grain. It also had a horn stem. Someone once told me that, as in another field, the English developed and perfected the classic pipe forms and then the Italians adopted them, copying but adding an exuberance to make it their own. While the analogy falls down if you push it too hard, the pipe I bought is a good example. It is roughly in the form of a Prince or Apple, but the shank tapers down from the width of the bowl to the stem and is faceted, with the facets continuing into the straight horn stem. All in all, I thought it beautiful. The internal work is excellent, though the external finishing is less than perfect and the maker's markings are too much on the flamboyant side. I have only smoked it once, but I can suggest this as a brand to look at if you want something relatively inexpensive with a little flair (if you want to keep to the forced analogy, Viprati is local, village-Neopolitan bespoke to Rubinacci's more refined international style).
Today, I thought it might be interesting to try and take some photos of the pipe I bought and explain what I liked about it.
Two things drew me to the pipe - the shape and the grain. The shape, as I said before, is a variation of the Prince, which is one of my favorite shapes. The key to the Prince, is the shape of the bowl, which is a squashed or truncated Apple, a short slim round shank and, usually, a 1/8th bent stem (a slight bend). This pipe foregoes the slim shank, replacing it with a wider shank, that is both tapered to the stem and faceted. Notice also the slight downward angle of the top of the bowl.
These photo gives you an idea of the overall shape.
I like Princes and this variation seemed not only unique, but also elegant and well balanced. Its style had great appeal to me.
I also like sandblasted pipes. That is the process where the softer wood is removed by scouring with an abrasive under air pressure. This is in contrast to rustication, which is basically carving, and smooth, which is simply fine sanding and polishing. Generally speaking, smooth pipes are the most expensive and rusticated are the cheapest, with sandblasting in the middle. While this may seem inverse to the degree of labor involved, it reflects the relative scarcity of "perfect" unblemished wood needed to leave a pipe suitable for a smooth finish. Surface pits revealed when the pipe is carved can be blasted or carved away but will mar a smooth finish, making a clean piece of briar suitable for a smooth finish that much rarer (lower grade pipes get around this by simply having the pits filled with putty and then sanded for a smooth finish). Among smooth pipes, premiums are placed on the graining, with the most expensive pipes being ones with fine "straight grain" running vertically up and down the side of the bowl in tight parallel lines. Some people like cross grain (horizontal) or flame grain or birdseye patterns. Personally, I like smooth pipes well enough but am unmoved by grain and care only that it is relatively even and not blotchy. When I buy a smooth pipe, it is usually for a reason other than the grain. On the other hand, I really like sandblasting and the grain patterns it reveals. While I am happy with any intricate blasted pattern, I especially like it when the grain shows neat parallel rings, stacked around the bowl. Incidentally, that layout generally results from a pipe that would show very good straight grain if smooth. This pipe has beautiful ring grain, and while I have seen tighter rings, I have seen very few pipes that show the ring grain as nicely as this one does. You can see the side view above. Here is the front of the bowl, where the rings are nicely stacked.
One thing to keep in mind is that the carver had to orient and shape the pipe in a way that aligns the bowl and shank with the flow of the woodgrain. Notice how carefully the grain is placed at the bottom of the bowl, from which it radiates like ripples in a pond:
There are, of course a few things I don't love about this pipe. On the execution/quality side, I have two complaints. First, there is a tiny thumbnail indent type gap in one spot where the stem and shank join. I have not bothered to photograph it, and it may be even to small to try. Nonetheless, it bothers me on principal and almost kept me from buying the pipe. With luck, I will forget about it once the pipe become well used. The other flaw is a design element. The rim of the pipe bowl is much thinner t the front than the rest of the way around. While I think it may be intentional, I would have preferred the rim to be of even width. Or maybe not. I tried to photograph it, and perhaps you can see what I mean.
Stemwork and engineering is another important thing to consider in a pipe. You will have to take my word that the pipe is well designed internally with pretty good finishing. The stem is horn and the button and slotting are a bit cruder than I expected, but that may be because it is horn, which is more delicate and harder to work - I will note that the other horn stems by this maker were made the same way, while the regular stems were finished quite nicely. I am also impressed with the faceting on the stem, which continues the shape of the shank. That is very nicely done. By the way, the horn is mottled, like a dark horn coat button, but I cannot photograph that very well.
The one thing that does annoy me about this pipe, which I think I will not get over, is the ridiculous signature. While it is typical for pipemakers to mask a bit of the pipe stem from the blasting medium to make a smooth spot for stamping the name, grade and other markings, it is done to an absurd extreme here, with a huge L. Viprati signature and "Hand Made in Italy" engraving. Here is how it looks - it would be better at half or a third the size.
All that aside, I thought it was a beautiful pipe and, because of the grain pattern and shape, I was glad to buy it.
As I am sure is clear by know, much of what I have discussed is simply a matter of personal taste and aesthetics. Certainly, my tastes have evolved over time as I learned what I liked and didn't like and I would not be surprised if others came to very different conclusions. But once you get past the engineering and briar quality, personal taste and aesthetics are what matter.Edited by dopey - 3/21/12 at 5:42pm