165. Getting Bent: The Baskerville at 30

No, not “get bent” in any of the scurrilous definitions you may be thinking of from a post-New Year’s residual haze, but as in “smoking a bent pipe.” As in—and here’s a question for your New Year—are you a clencher or a cradler? That is, do you primarily clench your pipe between your teeth or hold it in your hand? Most of us do both of course, but do you find yourself more in one camp or the other? My hunch is this:

  • if you’re primarily a Peterson smoker, then you clench more than if you’re, say, mostly an artisan or high-grade pipe smoker;
  • if you smoke mainly bent pipes, then you clench more than if you smoke straight pipes;
  • if you’re older, then you clench more than your younger brothers (and sisters) in the briar.

Do chime in in the comments section on any or all of these points, because I’m curious. I will say that I believe Peterson historically has been more focused on bent pipes and clenching than on straight pipes and cradling.

Recently I had an opportunity to add one of Peterson’s rare Sherlock Holmes Naturals to the rotation in one of my all-time favorite shapes, the Baskerville (hallmarked 2019), and thought it would be interesting to celebrate with a side-by-side comparison with a 1989 first-issue Pebble Grain Rustic.

Regis McCafferty, whom many of you know, is the author of some of the world’s finest mystery-with-pipes fiction—including the Joshua Pittt Victorian outings and the hard-boiled Max Grant Nude series. He once told me that while he only has a rotation of about 25 pipes, two of them are Baskervilles, because they’re so comfortable to clench while writing.1

The Baskerville (XL12), a full-bent oom paul – rhodesian hybrid, can be dated to January 1989, thanks to the original pipe box card seen above, and was the second release in the Original Sherlock Holmes set of seven. It was an original Paddy Larrigan shape and was likely derived from this original Larrigan carving, hallmarked C for 1988, which resides in the Peterson museum:

My original Baskerville was a memento from a trip to London in 2005, stopping at the old Jayems brick and mortar, which used to lie on Victoria Street between Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral in London. It was established in the mid-1980s and closed around 2007, I think, but as you can see by their sign, the proprietors were quite fond of Peterson. I came away on that trip with an original issue, D-hallmarked, 1989 Pebble Grain rustic which has been part of my rotation ever since.

When I saw the new Natural SH Baskerville, it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to rally my resources and get it taken care of before it slipped away. I wasn’t thrilled by the bend, but everything else about it was singing to me in those siren tones known only to those who suffer from PAD or are recovering PADsters.2

Of course I was curious to see how the two pipes compared, one being made in 1989, the other in 2019. As you and I have learned as this blog has progressed, the same shape can change over the years, especially with shapes from the world’s oldest continuously-operating briar pipe company.

This photo shows pipes from the horizontal of the rims, to give you a side-by-side comparison as well as notice the stem bend difference between the two:

 

The first and most important thing to my mind is whether or not the bowl itself had changed in its cheeking (curves from top to bottom), height or adornments (the double bead). The rusticated bowl from ’89 is naturally going to be just a bit smaller in its outer diameter. But that being the case, the bowl shaping and chambers are identical as far as I can tell with the caliper. My favorite Petes—which include some of the SH shapes—have a similar classic Peterson chamber geometry of 18.5mm by 45mm, a perfect “short stack” to my mind for virginia and virginia-perique lovers.

The bands of the two are different as well. The 1989 is 12.5mm next to the 2019’s 11mm. But where the 1989 really scores is in how both ends of the sterling have been turned down. This takes additional time (which means cost in labor), but for me the effect is well worth it, creating more visual interest and elegance than the flat-edged sterling bands Peterson has reverted to in recent years. If I sat on the design board, I’d recommend a return to the earlier practice, at least on SH and other high-end pipes.

As the years clock by, some of these SH shapes (and some of the classic ones, as well) have slightly altered in other ways as well. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal, sometimes it is. The new Baker Streets, for example, lack the fantastic horizontal breaks in the bead work characterizing the early years of that shape, and on bent pipes, original bends sometimes changed early on. But sometimes the change is for the better, as with the Classic Range 120 dublins: those made from the 1960s on are bolder and chunkier than those from the 1940s and, to my mind, better exemplars of Peterson’s design language.

So how do the buttons and “moment arms” (felt weight of the pipe) compare?As you can see in the photo above, taken from the horizontal of the buttons, the 1989 pipe will hang closer to the chin and hence feel lighter because of its stem bend. It’s also far more comfortable than its 2019 counterpart, for two reasons: the bend, which creates a horizontal shelf for the P-Lip to tuck between the molars; and the thinness, which makes clenching easier. The 2019 is 5.7mm thick and the 1989 is 5.1. That .6mm makes a noticeable difference, especially for clenching, which is what a full-bent pipe is designed to do.

Remember I began this post by asking you whether you find yourself doing more cradling or clenching when you smoke? There’s a whole host of artisan and high-grade smokers who opt for really small pipes—group 2 or 3—and for their flyweights, even if they do clench, stem thickness isn’t nearly as much of a concern. But when you’re putting on your Big Boy Peterson Shorts with a pipe that weighs in at 65 grams or more, that clenching shelf is important.

So as frightening as it sounds (and was, at least after the fact), I determined to see if I could bring that button on the Natural down to approximate the original issue. I did it in full cognizance of Joe Kenny’s (one of Peterson’s master craftsmen) words echoing in my head: “The Baskerville is the hardest stem we bend, because it’s the thickest. I can’t begin to tell you how many of those we’ve broken or destroyed.” Yikes. I can only plea insanity from an overdose of Christmas cookies.

Bending a Standard or Premier System stem is a snap. This one was something else again. What you need should you be so foolish as to attempt this feat is visible in the photo above:

  • Some kind of visual reference for how you want to stem to bend—an original issue pipe or, failing that, a catalog reproduction;
  • heat gun;
  • medium-heavy rubber gloves to protect your fingers;
  • bowl of cold water (I usually add ice);
  • masking tape and cloth to mask over imbedded P in stem;
  • towel for drying;
  • [not shown] long-sleeve shirt,  to prevent burning your forearm.

I should note that the stems on the two pipes are not from the same production blanks, which is not surprising given Peterson’s move away from vulcanite mouthpieces as well as a thirty-year hiatus. In addition to the taper difference, the 2019 stem is only 85mm long, while the 1989 is 90mm. What this means is that, if I get the correct bend, the pipe will nestle closer to my chin but also have a slightly less felt weight.

I covered the imbedded P with a piece of cloth wrapped in masking tape, hoping to avoid the seemingly inevitable tiny heat wrinkle that occurs around the aluminum P when the mouthpiece is rebent. It may have helped some, but it didn’t prevent the wrinkle—a hazard to consider should you decide to do something so foolhardy yourself.

I also put out my stop-watch to remind me that it takes a while to heat the vulcanite. Not as long as it may seem (it will seem like an hour), but enough that your mind might begin to wander from the task in hand (a few minutes), which could eventuate in either burning the vulcanite or burning your forearm. I’ve done both in the past, thank you very much.

This is one thick “sumbitch,” as Texans say, and it took me several attempts to get it right, pushing as hard as I could down where I wanted it to bend.

The basic technique, if you’ve never done it, is to slowly rotate the end of the stem over the heat gun (I use the low setting) until you begin to see the it straighten, which heat will allow it to do quite naturally.

Then you place your gloved thumb to its first joint under the stem and your gloved forefinger over the hot vulcanite and bend, trying to bend it only from the vertical axis, and not the horizontal to that the button tips to the left or right just a little (a common mistake new apprentices have to learn at the factory).

I eventually got it to my satisfaction—which doesn’t always happen with my stem-bending. Considering the sum invested, I was relieved but also had a bit of slight after-trauma—“I can’t believe I just did that with a Baskerville NATURAL!But it’s been a few weeks now, and I’m happy to report pipe and smoker are both doing fine.

The SH Naturals, by the way and at least to my knowledge, didn’t begin appearing until the early years of the 21st century. I don’t ever remember seeing a natural finish in the original issues. If you have an original issue (1989-1991) in natural, or have seen one, do comment. The beauty of Peterson’s Natural orange stain—seen on Supremes, DeLuxe Systems, some of the HAND-MADE House Pipes and a few of the SH shapes—is that it visually darkens with smoking. They’re truly in that 2 ½ per cent at the top of Peterson production.

 

1 Visit McCafferty’s Amazon page here. Regis is also important as one of the great pillars of the NASPC (North American Society of Pipe Collectors) and frequent contributor to their The Pipe Collector.

2 I know you know PAD stands for pipe acquisition disorder, but wanted you to look down to the bottom of the screen to see all the neat little pipes flying by in the gallery.

3 This is a fascinating topic and one most pipe smokers seem to know little about. I’ll give you my take on it in a week or two.

 

 

 

 

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