One of my favorite parts of the Peterson book are the many interviews with present and retired craftsmen, because when you smoke a Peterson pipe, you’re smoking a pipe crafted by a team of artisans whose training goes unbroken back to Charles Peterson himself.
Jason Hinch (above left) and David Blake (above right) are the present and most recent (now retired) lead silversmiths at Peterson, and it was my great fortune last summer to be given time from Jason’s busy schedule not only for an interview, but a demonstration of the most demanding work he and Simon Ellard, Peterson’s second silversmith, do—silver caps.
What were you doing before you came to Peterson?
Before I worked here I was at a training center down in Dun Laoghaire, which takes young guys that are out of of school and puts them in a workshop making things with wood and metal, learning a bit of carpentry and a bit of welding. Peterson gets a lot of trainees from that center.
What were you first days like at Peterson?
The first thing I remember was the realization that I didn’t know so many people still smoked pipes. Second, I didn’t grow up in Sallynoggin but not far from here, and I never knew this place was here. So I was amazed—that so many people smoke pipes and the fact that this factory was here so near to where I grew up.
I enjoyed it when I first started—the learning part of it, because I was constantly learning something new every day, and I was part of it. There was the great satisfaction of seeing something well done.
I spent the first day in papering [sanding] area until David Blake was ready for me in the mounting area, and I’ve been there ever since. I’ve done a few bits and bobs in other areas of the factory if I’m not busy in mounting. Everyone here is trained to do one or two other things beside their main job.
Are you the only one who does silverwork?
No, Simon Ellard does silverwork, too. He’s as good as I am. I don’t think we’d be able to cope if we just had one silversmith; there’s just too much work going through. There’s always been two craftsmen working in mounting. Before it was me and Simon, it was Dave [Blake] and I, and before I started Dave had a guy named Gavin who was an apprentice. When he left they took me on. There’s always a main guy and a second. If we’re not too busy, Simon ventures out a bit as he’s good with his hands. But his main job’s silver mounting.
Would you describe the types of metal mounting Peterson silversmiths do?
For the nickel mounts, we buy in and don’t have to do much to those. We just polish them up and put a close on the end if there’s a gap in one. Whereas with the silver, we do it ourselves. We spin it ourselves for the caps, stem spigots and ferrules.
We get the silver in two forms, a long sheet and a tube. We use the tube for the spigots [at the end of the stem] and the sterling army-mount ferrule. At the mortise, we’ll shape the wood the same shape as the bowl, then spin the tube around to fit the bowl, pretty similar to what we do for the caps on the bowls, but it’s a bit more straight-forward, not as tricky.
Sometimes we we break a silver mount and it’s fixable, so we’ll solder it back together rather than scrap it, because you never get the same value back for scrap, but other than that, we don’t solder much.
We solder on the little decorative pieces—do you remember the Thinking Man on the Anniversary Pipe [Founder’s Edition 2015] a few years ago? We put him on the 2013 Pipe of the Year as well. Or the crown on the Castles Collection? We also did a “P” on the 2012 Pipe of the Year.
We’ve only done it a handful of times, but there is a machine that rolls the stamp onto the silver. But the last few times we’ve done something like that we’ve engraved it, because when you’re rolling it in, you’re stretching the silver. You simply choose the size of stamp you want for the silver and roll it on. But because it stretchs the silver, it makes it weaker, more likely to break, because it puts pressure on it. So it isn’t very practical, and now we laser engrave. We’ve had people say the laser-engraving doesn’t look as good and they prefer it the rolled on way, although the rolling process also meant a lot more time involved. But Peterson is a hand-made product, and the laser takes that much away from it, doesn’t it? So there’s two sides to it.
How long did it take until you felt like you had the skill-set you needed?
I always felt confident in the work I was doing, but when David Blake was coming up to retirement, I became a bit anxious about it, because I knew all the pressure would be on me from then on. But I feel like I took to it pretty well. I think two years before he left I felt like I knew what I needed to know, but there were still a few things, like caps on the gold-mounts, that I wasn’t as confident as everything else, but I got there in the end.
What do you wish pipe smokers knew about your work and about what goes on in the Peterson shop?
I don’t think people realize we do all the silver by hand. They think it’s just bought-in and stuck onto the pipe. They don’t realize that, especially when it comes to the caps, how much skill is involved in it. Until you’ve actually seen it done, you don’t realize how much work is put into it.
Jason is holding the strip silver for turning silver caps.
To his left is Liam Larrigan, Peterson’s lead silversmith from the 1960s – 1980s,
who trained David Blake, who trained Jason.
The lining out of the strip silver, finding where the hallmark stamp should be across from the Peterson stamp and aligning it where you want it is very time-consuming. We get a lot of tours through the workshop, and we can see the reaction on their faces that they didn’t realize how much work goes into it, and not just mounting, but in every area. People are just mesmerized when they watch us in every area of production.
Yes, I think it’s unfortunate that the word “factory” still comes up when thinking about how a Peterson pipe is made. It was the right word for the end of the 19th century. But here in the second decade of the 21st, seeing the small group of people at work here [less than twenty], it’s really more accurate to think of it as a group of artisans in a craft shop with specialized and often overlapping skill sets.
Yes, there’s a lot of team work involved. For example, if I get a pipe, and it’s not exactly like I need it to be positioned or shaped, I’ll send it back to someone who can fix it—we’re a team out there, not a group of individuals. Each of us has to get our work right to make sure the pipe is ready for the next person’s work.
Where do you see yourself in ten or twenty years?
I can see myself being here. It’s not really work when you enjoy it, you know? And I enjoy it, and as long as I enjoy it, I’ll be here. I was 18 when I started here and I’m 29 now, and it’s gone by really fast. And there are a lot of guys out there that I consider my close friends. When we break up for the holidays, we’ll all go for a drink and enjoy ourselves. If you leave Peterson, it’s like you’re not just leaving your job, you’re leaving friends as well.
A tray of rare naturals with F-mounts, spigots and sterling caps.
I had two or three people come up to me in the workshop and say, “Look at the work Jason’s doing on the silver caps—isn’t it incredible?” So I thought I’d let it speak for itself in these images of Jason creating a silver cap for a 999:
Many thanks to Jason Hinch
and to Peterson.
Pipe of the Year photos courtesy Smokingpipes.com.
All other photos Chas. Mundungus.