180. Martin O’Brien: Interview with A Peterson Master Craftsmen

180. Martin O’Brien: Interview with A Peterson Master Craftsmen

Master craftsman Martin O’Brien entered service with Peterson on Thursday the 6th of April 1972, not many months after the move to the then-suburban area of Sallynoggin in Dun Laoghaire (pronounced dun larry). As he approaches his 50th year with Kapps—a badge of honor he will share with many Peterson craftsmen and women—I thought we might honor him with a look at what he does for Peterson fans everywhere.

Where did you begin service?

I began in the papering area, but after five or six years I began having trouble with my eyes, getting double vision. The optician said it had to do with the nature of the job and I’d need to give it up. So that left me with two options: move to staining or say goodbye to the factory, so I moved to staining and I’ve been doing that for about forty years now and enjoyed every day of it.

What is your earliest memory of the factory?

When I first started, we still had bowl turning in house—it was done by Hollebrand.* The bowls would come from their area rough and we’d have to first sand them with rough paper, then smooth paper, before they were ready for staining. [When the bowls come to Peterson now, only finish papering is necessary.]

What percentage of the bowls did Hollebrand turn here in Sallynoggin?

I’d say about 90%. And when I started in staining around 1978, we used to stain 50 gross of Standard Systems a week [that’s 7,200 a week, 360,000 in a 50-week or one year period]. Then of course we lost the bowl-turning in the early ’80s and saw a lot of redundancies in the late ’80s. I could have taken redundancy then, but it was the only job I’d ever known, and I liked it—and I still like it to this day!

How does the hand staining process work?

The pipe gets two coats of stain. The first coat stains the grain, and it’s papered off.  The black stain—the first coat—is for the background or grain definition. But you’ve got to have a bowl with good grain to begin with.

Martin using Paddy Larrigan’s “flapper” machine

Then the black is taken off, using a machine called “the flapper” that Paddy Larrigan invented—it takes off the stain with nylon brushes without removing wood from the bowl, which a papering machine would do. After the first coat of black then the second coat is applied and burned in, the color depending on what line the pipe will be in. Following that, the second coat is removed on the papering machine.

Removing the second coat on the papering machine

 

The black-under-brown contrast stain on a classic Irish Sterling Army 68,
which hasn’t changed a bit since its debut in the late 1970s.

How do you do a Natural stain?

Nothing goes under, it’s not a contrast process. Just a very light stain, one coat. That’s it. The grain will take more of the stain and stand out.

Notice Martin is applying the orange stain to the bare bowl:
there is no undercoat.

 

A NOS hand-made Natural from the 1950s:
the process hasn’t changed, although the color seems to have moved
very slightly from honey to a more orange tint.

We mix about 50% of the stains ourselves from powders and methylated spirits. Sometimes it’s just one powder, sometimes we mix two or three powders to get the color we want. The spirits pull the stain into the bowl, and then I burn it in over the flame.

What’s one of your favorite memories?

We used to have a sandblasting machine and sandblasted our own pipes when I entered service and on through to the early 1980s when we lost bowl turning. Paddy Larrigan was managing the shop at the time, bringing visitors around. And he brought them into the blasting area to show them how the sandblasting worked. Do you know how sandblasting works? It’s like putting your finger [the bowl] under the tap, and the pressure of the water [the blast medium] takes off the briar. Well, somebody had left the tap on and when they came out, you would have thought they’d all been walking through a snow drift—they were absolutely covered with briar dust! It was so funny.

Paddy Larrigan with Martin, Summer 2013

It’s so exciting that Peterson is doing their own sandblasting and rustication again. I’m a big fan of the old Pebble Grain rustics, with the deep burgundy in the crevices and dark brown on the top surfaces. How was that done?

Sealer. You put the red on first, then the sealer. If you don’t, then when you put the top coat of black on, it will just kill the red and go right over it. After the sealer dries, then you put the black on but it won’t stick to the red and is just mopped right off.

A Connemara System 309 hallmarked for 1987

You’re getting close to your 50th anniversary with Peterson. Are you still coming in every day?

No, I’ve only been working three days a week for a while now, but I wouldn’t miss a day of it. I depend on public transport—I’ve never drove a day in my life. It’s not quite two hours from my place, each way. I get the bus about a quarter past seven and I’m here by nine. I usually sleep a bit on the way in, but on the way home, as soon as the bus begins to move—I’m gone. I just sleep all the way home!

Many thanks to Martin O’Brien
Josh Burgess and everyone at Peterson
Photos by Mel-Bud and Chas. Mundungus

 

* Some of the Hollebrand story is told in The Peterson Pipe. In brief, Peterson had an arrangement with G. J. Hollebrand, who (if the memories of Paddy Larrigan and Martin O’Brien are correct) first turned bowls for Peterson in London, then moved the works to Dalkey. Hollebrand was then bought by Peterson, the Dalkey facility closed, and their works moved into the factory at Sallynoggin.

 

Takeaways:
That nylon-brush stain-removing machine is called “a flapper” by everyone in the factory,
and was made by Paddy Larrigan;

sandblasted pipes made until c. 1983 were  blasted in-house;
Martin believes up to 90% of pipes until c. 1983 were turned in-house.

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
12 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Douglas Owen
Douglas Owen
5 months ago

Mark, you come up with some absolute gems!! Seeing how a dedicated guy like Martin goes about his artful trade is priceless. As you know I have been selling and smoking these Petersons for decades but have never had the opportunity to visit the factory and see how these dedicated guys and gals practice their timeless art. These notes of yours are absolutely unique gemstones of the pipe making art. Thanks sooooo much. Doug Owen.

Richard Roberts
Richard Roberts
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Irwin

Good Morning one and all from a somewhat beleaguered UK and hoping that you are all safe and well. I was pleased to read (see Doug Owen’s comment below) that pipe smoking is undergoing an increase of interest worldwide. I can see for myself that it is popular in the USA but in Britain it is rare now to find an old fashioned tobacconist with staff who are knowledgeable about tobaccos and pipes. All tobacco products are placed out of sight of the public and must be asked for although I think that pipes themselves can be displayed.. However, a… Read more »

Jorgen Jensen
Jorgen Jensen
5 months ago

Good morning. It seems that some of these Peterson people are without phantasy. Like my madam, same work for more than 40 years, same man for 50. My luck.

Martin
Martin
5 months ago

Yes I love it,starting my day with coffee pack my pipe and just read this good stuff.
Thanks a lot Mark.

Steven Hersey
Steven Hersey
5 months ago

An early morning read for me, too, and so pleasant.
To do a job that you love is wonderful and I think I would happily have stayed the course as well. That Peterson family atmosphere again…
I was staggered by the number of pipes produced in the late 70s, over 7000 a week! Good also to read the staining techniques involved. I personally think that the honey tone should come back as I feel it is so attractive.
Thanks again, great article.

DOUG OWEN
DOUG OWEN
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Hersey

Hi Steven: your surprise at the over 7000 pipes a week is understandable. Our small pipe shop in Portland, Oregon was selling about 15 -20 Petersons a week. Multiply that by the hundreds of shops that were selling Peterson pipes worldwide and you can see that Martin was not exaggerating. The interest in pipe smoking in those days was truly massive. It is making a bit of a comeback lately but the 70’s were truly the heyday of pipe smoking interest, a very exciting time to be involved in the game and Peterson was right in the middle of that… Read more »

Linwood
Linwood
5 months ago

As the former commenters, I am just bowled over with the enthusiasm and joy that the craftspeople at Peterson have! What a great story! Thank you Mark for bringing this to us! And our thanks Martin for your works! Each time I start to load my pipe, I now ponder the entire pipe, somewhat looking at each part and appreciate each separate hand craft that my pipe has (wonderfully) been thru! What joy that these people have created for just me!

Marlowe
Marlowe
5 months ago

Wow! 50 years with the same company. That is a rarity now days. These notes just make me appreciate my Petersons more and more and encourages me to find out the history behind each pipe. I knowing a pipe is, in part how they become “companions”.

Thanks Mark for yet another wonderful and intimate piece about the folks at Peterson.

I hope everyone is doing well still through this pandemic. Stay safe!

Joseph
Joseph
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Irwin

This is a wonderful story !