Two weeks ago SPC (Smokingpipes.com) released the first batch of what I’ve been thinking of as “the Dark System,” but which is actually called the Standard System Dark. It’s not a replacement for the lighter-stained Standard System Smooth, but an additional finish to the System line, one that will be welcomed by many System fans across the globe.
“Affectionately referred to as the ‘Heritage’ finish at the Peterson factory,” the SPC email reads, “the System Standard Dark Smooth displays a deep, walnut-and-burgundy stain that hearkens back to the color palette seen dressing System pipes 80 years ago. Peterson’s craftsmen precisely apply each Dark Smooth stain by hand before polishing the stummel to a glossy sheen, offering a tasteful balance between grain definition and the finish’s rustic hue.”
I have seen many dark-stained Petes over the years, some dating all the way back to the Patent era, so I think it might be illuminating to first take a look at the new line and then look at the new line’s antecedents found in descriptions and illustrations from the K&P ephemera and a few physical specimens.
This all becomes especially fascinating to me considering the contemporary pipe community’s strong and diverging opinions on the subject of dark stains. It may be that one’s like or dislike has to do with where one lives as well as one’s economic and cultural matrix. I say this because, like many U.S. pipemen, John Schantz commented on the “Keep it Dark” post: “Dark is bad…it hides things. Like makeup on clowns, mimes and painted ladies [who] all have something to hide …. [it] creeps me out.” Yet simultaneously, just across the pond in the UK, Andrew Jones can say: “Dark is the traditional finish in the UK. It should not surprise us if an Irish pipe maker, so geographically close to the UK and attentive to UK market preferences should re-establish deep stains on a regular basis. Here’s hoping Pete’s next dark stain isn’t one of their rather-less-than-great varnishes.”
Joshua Burgess, managing director at Peterson, addresses Andrew’s question: “The finish isn’t a spray like you sometimes see on darker pipes. It’s a traditional brush-on finish. With that in mind, the bowl doesn’t have to be perfectly clean in the way that an ebony pipe requires cleanness. The darker stain is also a little more forgiving in terms of grain. But looking at the six samples on my desk, I’d buy any of them for myself without reservations.”
For those who don’t know Josh from his earlier work with Smokingpipes.com, his aesthetic for a pipe seems to be in the “form-follows-function” camp, which is to say that he can be as happy smoking a $60 Ropp as a $600 artisan pipe, and perhaps more so. In my opinion, this has made him a great leader for Peterson, a company which has always been there for those entering the hobby and those who don’t have deep pockets as well as those who’ve grown up with the brand and seek out the best it has to offer.
The New Line
Before looking at the history of stain color in System pipes, let’s look at the new Standard System Dark. First, in the pipes I’ve seen and the one I’m breaking in, I wouldn’t call the finish a “glossy shine,” but satin. In any event, this time around I felt like I really lucked out in finding the XL315 of my dreams. I say this because I’ve tried in vain for years to find an acceptable iteration of this iconic shape (first introduced c. 1984) but found myself trading off one after another of them.
My success this time is in part due to my tobacco choices.* In the past year or so I’ve kind of settled into a routine alternating my beloved va and vapers with MacBaren’s Mixture Flake and BLB and Germain’s RDF at about a ratio of 2 : 1 bowls, the latter allowing me to enjoy wider chambers, and this XL315 had the advantage of a slightly narrower chamber than most XL315s, at just 20 mm, which means that I can press it into service as a va / vaper pipe if I want, although I’ve been breaking it in with Mixture Flake and BLB.
It also has a second ingredient crucial to me in the execution of a well-made shape 05: a bell that visibly flares all the way around the crown of the bowl. If you look at a number of these calabash 05s, you’ll find that sometimes they are sanded in such a way that they lose some of this great flare. I’ve heard some Pete Geeks says the calabash shape isn’t comfortable in their hands, but this size bowl, with the flare, suits me, and certainly for Peterson it’s become one of their great iconic since its introduction 35 years ago.
Third, notice the stem bend:
I’ve looked at the recent examples at SPC and I don’t think it’s my imagination: the bends seem to have been improved—at least on several of the shapes. The 307 and B42 are still going to be gawd-awful to clench. But many of shapes now gracefully drop that 15 degrees that has always been a hall mark of the System aesthetic as well as making it a comfortable clenching experience. The “moment arm” is lighter (the pipe’s gravitational length is shorter), the clench shelf is flatter (it doesn’t angle upwards between the teeth) and it’s easier to see the surface of the tobacco when you’re lighting and tamping. Overall all, the new line presents a classic System bend.
Next, Peterson has been at work improving the reservoirs, which have needed some re-engineering for the past several years. The mortise in my XL315 measures 21.4 mm down to the air hole into the chamber and 30.9 mm to the bottom of the reservoir, which means the reservoir is 9.5mm deep, which is absolutely fantastic, giving the System the room it needs to perform at maximum capacity with any sugar-rich tobaccos you may smoke in it.
As you can see from the photo, there is tear away at the airhole and where the reservoir is drilled, but both are easily cleaned away with a shank brush or the vigorous application of a bristle cleaner.
I asked Josh Burgess about the deeper reservoirs and he said, “This problem was especially pronounced on shapes like the 301, 307, and B42. On a quarter bend like these, it’s sometimes difficult to sink a reservoir beneath the airway with any real depth. So we did some experimenting with an old drill bit that Joe Kenny found. I was quite pleased with the results.”
Finally, news about the bowl coating. I have been praising the new charcoal and gum arabic coating since it came out, and I noticed my XL315’s seemed a bit grittier than I’d previously seen. Josh replied that “It has actually been that way here in the factory for a while now. We switched to an organic charcoal powder—mostly because it was available in bulk. It’s a little coarser that what we were using before, but I quite like the results. But the basic recipe remains the same: gum arabic, charcoal powder, and water. I smoked a pipe with the new charcoal powder for the first time last week, and I didn’t notice any differences.” And neither did I in my XL315. Aside from smoking a pipe with no bowl coating, it’s the best I’ve ever encountered. So what about the history of System stains?
A Thumbnail History of System Stains
It would be impossible to chronicle anything remotely definitive without a museum of System pipes made in the past 13 decades of its history. However, without too much trouble it’s possible to look at the stain colors listed in the catalogs documenting those years.
The first mention of stain color doesn’t actually come until some 45 years into Peterson’s history, in the 1937 catalog, and even then it’s primarily for the Classic Range:
As you can see, the chart upends the logic by which most of us currently understand stain colors: natural and light orange indicating the highest grades with nothing to hide on down to deeper and deeper shades to hide fills and lack of grain. Do remember, because I know you’ve read the book by now, that Peterson (and other factory lines like Dunhill) use extremely high quality if grainless briar when making their ebony pipes. This is because fills won’t take the repeated applications of paint necessary to create an ebony finish (I think it’s seven coats? Someone should look in the book, because I can’t remember).
What about the 1937 System stains? No color specification is given for De Luxe, which was presumably the same “rich dark color” as the Classic Range De Luxe. There were five grades of System in ’37, and not the three to which we have become accustomed. The First Quality was stained “in the popular light Walnut colour showing richness of grain,” which sounds like our own Premier Systems. The “2nd Grade” stain is not listed and the “3rd Grade” is listed as “medium Walnut.” The “0 [zero] Grade” was “slightly lower” than the First Quality, and while it’s listed as “light Walnut colour and best Hall marked Silver [space-fitting] Mounts, the “0 Grade” pipes I’ve seen documented have all actually been nickel mounts with what I guess I’d describe as burgundy-over-walnut or maybe dark plum, like this Made in England 1309 from the Éire era (1939-48):
Backing up to the only earlier period System I have in my rotation at the moment, an IFS 01, if you discount the high shine an Italian restorationist put on it, has a bit more brown in it than the 1309, but not much. The nickel mount indicates that, despite what appears to be some amazingly straight grain, this was not of sufficient quality to be sterling clad:
Elsewhere in the K&P ephemera, stain color documentation for the System line is much less in evidence than for the Classic Range lines. The Rogers Imports 1939 catalog describes Standard Systems as having “a rich dark finish” which could be anybody’s guess, but certainly could be similar to the new Heritage. Their 1953 catalog describes the Standard stain as “rich chestnut.” The 1955 color tri-fold describes “0 quality” (i.e., Standard Systems) as “rich, dark Reddish-Brown”—not quite synonymous with the Heritage’s “walnut and burgundy” but close.
The next mention I find isn’t until Peterson’s 1965 catalog, where the De Luxe System is described as having a “brown matt” finish, the Premier a “light brown” and the Standard a “matt brown.” By the Peterson-Glass 1978-79 catalog, the light orange-red finish is at least a possibility for the De Luxe, as seen in this illustration of the short-lived 05 dublin:
But the tiers still pretty much follow earlier decades and continue to do so, as seen in these two illustrations from 1983, the final year of Peterson’s expansion, with the Standard seen in the top photo and the Premier and De Luxe in the bottom:
All of which leads to the following conclusions:
- Dark stains have definitely been absent from the System lineup for many, many decades, and it looks as if 1940 to 1955—80 to 65 years ago—was in fact about the time such dark stains were discontinued in the System Standard line.
- Dark stains do hide lack of grain, but as those privileged to companion a Dunhill Bruyere know (and this line retails new at somewhere between $500 – $800 depending on the size), so what?
- Dark stains have historically and are currently often employed on sandblasts and rusticated pipes, often in contrast, whether made in the factory or by an artisan;
- Dark stain is, in the end, a choice the pipe smoker makes.
The price for the new Heritage-finish System is about $5 less than the Standard Smooth System, both coming in at most online sources around $100 or a little less.
Thanks to Josh Burgess
Photographs courtesy Smokingpipes.com
and Chas. Mundungus
*Nicholai de Tabbakuk in his laws of pipe companioning would say, “For every pipe there is a tobacco” (qtd. in The X-Pipe, forthcoming).