Fred Hanna

Now and then, someone will point to a particular country, such as Denmark or Italy, and remark upon the quality of their pipe makers as a group.  This may be in terms of design, finish, mouthpieces, engineering, or what have you.  Let's add another such assessment.

I have been watching the quality of sandblasting by Americans for the last couple of years, and I don't think there can be any doubt about it.  The best sandblasted pipes OVERALL are now coming out of the USA.  I don't say this with any sort of nationalistic pride, only as an observation.  On the whole, American pipe makers are making some simply astonishing, amazing, and sometimes staggering sandblasts.  Compare them, OVERALL, to the brands well known for their blasts, such as Dunhill, Castello, Ashton, or any other brands from any country, and, in my opinion, one sees that there has been little real improvement in blasting quality in those countries in recent years.  All one has to do to be convinced of certain American pipe makers' strides and advancements in this aspect of pipe making is to check out recent efforts by the following list of pipe makers, in no particular order.  These guys make deep sandblasts and somehow achieve fine detail within the graining that enhances the perception of depth.  Their individual styles are distinctive, as sandblasts go.  When looking at the pipes of these makers, one immediately recognizes that a sandblast to these guys is not just a tragic solution for a pipe with a flaw.  That flaw is viewed as an opportunity to produce a unique and fantastic finish.  These American pipe makers deserve to be acknowledged for their great work: Jim Cooke (Best in the World); Paul Bonaquisti; Lee Van Erck; Larry Roush; Trever Talbert; John Eells; Brian Ruthenberg.

Like I said, this list is in no particular order.  Please forgive me for those pipe makers whom I have forgotten to name in the list above, and I am sure there are several.  Allow me to add an additional point.  A well-known collector has stated in print in the last year that Jim Cooke's sandblasted pipes are actually "sand carved."  Some have interpreted this as implying that Jim's method has deteriorated the sandblasting art into a form of rustication.  I trust that this was not the collector's actual intention, but it might have been the result of his comment nevertheless.  This is misleading and possibly denigrates and negates Jim's excellent work, which I believe is simply the best there is.

Actually, the remark is quite puzzling in many ways.  When one thinks about it, all sandblasted pipes are "sand carved" to some degree.  That is why the blasting is done!  In making a single pipe, Jim spends from 12 to 15 hours on sandblasting alone, quite in addition to all the other steps that go into that pipe.  Does this make his sandblasts somehow different than most others?  Of course it does!  He seems to consistently bring out more detail, depth, and definition, in my opinion, than anyone.  That is why his pipes are so damned much in demand.  Jim Cooke is the "Bo Nordh of the Blast."  Jim does not create false graining patterns with his technique.  In fact, he told me that his first pass is done specifically to expose the grain patterns, which he further exposes and details in his following steps.  Jim does not do any sort of rustication using the blasting process, other than the blasting itself, which could be seen as the most true and pure form of rustication there is.

To hell with all those dremels and weird rustication tools.  Rusticated pipes, while attractive, cannot begin to compare with the awe-inspiring, stark, austere, naked beauty of the great blast.  What the American blasters are doing is not just providing a finish.  They are bringing the true and often hidden graining patterns of our beloved briar into the boldest relief, pleasing to the eye and palpable to the touch.  The highly-treasured, steeply-priced, smooth straight grains are incapable of providing such an experience.

Please understand that I am aware that there are always individual exceptions to this view of sandblasting expressed here, such as the occasional Dunhill or Ashton.  But OVERALL, I believe that American pipe makers have become the best in the world in this category, by far.

By the way, I have been trying to get Jim Cooke to make me a smooth, perfect straight grain for several years now.  He just snickers and says, "Those are my seconds.".