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279. Understanding Peterson “NATURAL” and Natural-Finish Pipes

 

PSAs (Peterson Service Announcement)

Are you interested in a CPG System? Are you interested in a Peterson Pipe Notes commemorative CPG System? As you probably know, K&P makes yearly and sometimes twice-yearly pipes for the PSOI group, and as several CPGs have asked about the feasibility of such a pipe for our group, we need to take a headcount, as numbers are crucial for a special order like this. I don’t details yet, just a few preferences from my end. The CPG will be a System P-Lip, sandblast (not black), stamped “CPG” and be of a medium chamber size to maximize everyone’s interest.  The quality should be in the mid to upper-range, with a sterling band and aluminum tenon extension. The price I hoping for would be between $150 to $200 US and ship from SPC or SPEu, depending on your location.  More information will be forthcoming if there is sufficient response to justify asking K&P to work up a quote. I think the minimum number of pipes they will consider is around 50, but I’m actually not sure. Send an email to petegeek1896@gmail.com before May 1st if this is something you’d like to add to your rotation.

PETERSON “NATURAL” AND NATURAL-FINISH PIPES:
A SCHEMA WITH EXAMPLES

Pete Geek James Robert contacted me not long ago with photos of an IFS 150 bulldog with a PETERSON’S over NATURAL stamp, a stamp which I’d never seen and thought hadn’t even been documented. A natural that early in the company’s history—1922-1937? Just three years after Charles Peterson’s death? I told James I’d update the current draft of The Peterson Pipe’s Identification Guide (in the orange-banded pages at the back) and then opened my revision and read this entry:

Natural (c. 1922–37; 1953–57)  Rare stamp observed on pipes with com of IRISH over FREE STATE.  1953–57 seen on Rogers Imports pipes marked Killarney over NATURAL (a higher grade) with MADE IN IRELAND (forming a circle).

Right. Well, my co-author Gary Malmberg, who has been tracking Peterson pipes for a few decades now, already knew this. He’s the one who documented the Irish Free State occurrence of the NATURAL stamp in the entry while I documented the KILLARNEY over NATURAL.  Be that as it may, I’ve never seen a photograph of an IFS NATURAL and knew everyone would like to see it, which got me to thinking that I’d like to put together what we can find about the NATURAL stamp and natural finishes on K&P pipes into a useful schema. As I said to the knowledgeable Fred Heim in a recent blog comment, do suggest corrections and emendations when you see or suspect mistakes have been made.

SCHEMA

  •  the occurrence of the NATURAL stamp without a line name, which occurs underneath “Peterson’s”;
  • a line issued with a NATURAL stamp under the line name (e.g., Killarney over NATURAL), which seems to be the normal way the stamp has been used;
  • a natural finish which may occur in a line that has other finishes;
  • vergins, e., sandblasted bowls with either no finish at all (i.e., the Rogha) or minimal finish (i.e., the Burren and recent Barley Spigot), are not naturals. To call this kind of pipe a natural vergin is a redundancy (think “hot water heater”) in the sense that the Italian vergin style is a wholly unfinished sandblast;
  • the “tanshell” is not a natural (the name is from Dunhill’s fourth line / finish debuting in1952—a sandblast stained a light tan or tannish-orange (may be the inspiration for the rusticated House Pipe Spigots not long ago at K&P);
  • natural finishes are often about the grain and how to show it off, whether birdseye or straight;
  • natural finishes will slowly darken with use, making them the “meerschaum” of briars.

 

HISTORY AND EXAMPLES

IFS Peterson’s over NATURAL (James Robert collection)

Thanks to James and Gary, we know that the NATURAL stamp appeared in the Irish Free State era (1922-37), where it appears underneath “Peterson’s.” Near the beginning of the Éire era (1938-48) we see the same kind of stamping illustrated for a Sterling Silver tapered bulldog in the 1939 Rogers Imports Ltd catalog:

This catalog also features two lines from the London factory, the Croyden Square and the Captain Pete as being available in a natural finish, but without the NATURAL stamp:

The practice of using or not using the NATURAL stamp was thus established fairly early in K&P’s practice, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were bowls with what we’d call a natural finish even in the Patent years. What’s important here is simply that, just as Dunhill developed its finishes and lines, so too did Kapp & Peterson.

A second important fact is that, in the Peterson universe, just because a pipe has a natural stain doesn’t mean it is free from all fills, pits and flaws. The Croyden Square’s natural vs. plum stain is a great case in point and would be repeated in other lines, including the beautiful Shamrock blondes:

A first-decade Early Republic Rogers Import Shamrock 9BC

I think folks can get too uptight about fills. They come with the price you pay for the pipe. You can see the little fill in the 9BC above, from the first decade of the Early Republic era (1949-59). This was a gateway or standard line in its day, and if I’d been fortunate to see it at the pipe shop, I would’ve jumped on it. Neither the standard-grade Shamrocks nor the Croydons will be without fills, although with the blonde or natural stain these will are smaller and maybe nearly invisible, like on this Killarney John Bull 999, also from the first decade of the Early Republic era:

Killarney John Bull 999, c. 1955

The MADE IN IRELAND in a circle is not only a tag for Rogers Imports but is saying this is an upper-grade Pete. The Killarney without the NATURAL, in other words, would have had the MITROI in three lines stamp. The point here is, when you look at this John Bull, it’s is basically a Peterson Supreme as well as a straight grain pipe denied that grade because of its smaller-than-rice grain sized fills, which are seen only on the obverse of the bowl (as seen above).

The Supreme  in a detail from the 1953 Rogers Imports catalog (it cost almost FOUR TIMES as much as an entry-grade
Shamrock)

At the other end of this complicated consideration, K&P’s Supreme smooth line has always been, well, supreme—the best bowls they have. This doesn’t mean that every release of Supremes is equal to every other, as some they mount with gold and some with sterling. Again it’s going to depend on Mother Nature and what the briar harvesters dug up and how the pipe turns out at the end of finishing.

999 Vintage Amber Spigot, HM 2017

If you remember the brouhaha over the vintage amber spigots released back in 2017 over root marks (tiny black spots) in some of the pipes released (which were all in a natural finish), then you see how difficult an issue this can be among collectors who have no historical information on the company’s history and methods. There was (and still is) an unexamined rule of thumb that says the darker the stain, the more the fills, and conversely, light stain should never show root marks or fills. Of course that’s not the whole truth, although it contains some of it, as we’ve seen. But markets and commecial enterprises are not subject to the dogmatics of theology or the rigors of logic and there are always exceptions.

Back in 1988, just a few years before Tom Palmer bought the company, Hollco-Rohr offered some Irish Seconds in unfinished natural:

But even thought Tom took Irish Seconds off the US market and professed a distaste for them, from 2008 to 2011 he found he needed to rid the company of boxes of the shape 4 dutch billiard, which wasn’t selling:

Shamrock XL339s seen at the SPC site 2008 (right) and 2011 (left)

In both smooth and rustic, the Shamrock line from 2008-11 were almost seconds in everything but name, and perhaps. they should have been stamped as such. While the smooth is obviously a natural, I wonder if the rustics were stained light orange. I actually owned one for a while, but can’t remember.

 

The Tiered Grading System and the Natural Finish

Kapp & Peterson, as all Certified Pete Geeks know, works from a tiered grading system which is tied to the quality of bowls available to them. They do not relegate bowls to sub-brands. My rule of thumb (speaking only as a CPG) is that they incorporate their bowls into a grading tier running from seconds (very few) to gateway (the majority) to mid-grade, upper grade and pinnacle grade, in a kind of pyramid once past the seconds. From mid-grade onward, precious-metal mountings are often used, although that has only been the case since the Dublin era. Within this tiered structure, historically a natural finish might be found in several of those tiers, if the grain is strong enough and flaws minimal enough to make an attractive pipe.

The natural = supreme grade myth came about slowly, I think, as the internet began to replace brick & mortar pipe shops and natural pipes began to be seen much more frequently by hobbyists, myself included. I first came under the spell of Pete naturals with a batch of SH naturals that Eric Josten had in stock at Cupojoes back in 2011. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous they were, as you can see in this Lestrade photo Eric sent me:

One of my favorite looks on a smooth pipe is the blonde grain under a darker orange, like this Lestrade. Grain is a big deal for natural pipes. When I asked Martin O’Brien, now retired but long-time stainer at Peterson, how this was done, he replied that it’s about the simplest stain of all: “Nothing goes under,” he said, “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.”

In the history of K&P’s natural finishes there are two natural-finish stains: a light brown and an orange. Both can be documented back into at least the Early Republic era, although the most recent light brown I’ve seen (below) is 1999. After that, all the naturals seem to be from an orange stain.

As we got into the book, of course I began to notice natural finishes on high-grade Petes everywhere and in several eras of production, some with lighter stains than others, some tending toward orange, others tan. The 1976 Silver Cap & Chain was made in a tan natural, for example, while the 1978 Dublin & London from the Late Republic era (1969-1990) was decidedly orange:

Dublin & London, 1978 Peterson-Glass Catalog

Because the color is so very light, folks who don’t know about root marks understandably get bent when they see one. It may also be that root marks weren’t allowed into the natural finish lines, as the dozen or so naturals I have from before the Dublin era don’t have any root marks.

2010 Dublin era Rosslare Royal Irish Natural XL02

This Rosslare Irish XL02 was marketed as a natural, but I really don’t know whether it is or not. It’s darker than most naturals, for one thing (I owned this pipe for a while). It also didn’t darken like all the other naturals I’ve companioned. I suspect (but do not know) that it had two coats of stain, one which makes the grain quite dark and then a top coat. There’s no “blonde” peeking out from the grain or the bare wood.  I also have a B10 (seen in the banner here) that’s stained the same way and was also made in 2010. My B10 has never darkened beyond normal use and grime. I would suggest that, as beautiful as these are, they’re not true naturals as they fail the “darkening test.”

XL339 Spigot, HM 1999, before and after light smoking

If you’ve never owned and frequently smoked a natural Pete, you may be missing out on some fun—at least, my idea of fun. The pipe gradually darkens as you smoke it. Not anything as dramatic as a vergin briar or a meerschaum, but the color will indeed begin to darken and shift toward a light brown. Darker areas will appear where your fingers cradle the bowl as well as where it takes the most heat.

The XL339 Spigot shown above had about 20 bowls smoked in it when it was photographed. It utilized the tan or light brown stain and did get perceptibly darker as it was smoked. My SH naturals (all orange stained) have all darkened quite a bit over the years since I began smoking them.

05 Spigot, HM 1979

This 05 Spigot, from the first year of release in 1979, also a brown stain, shows quite a bit more smoking but is still far lighter than a typical old-style Standard System and of course nothing like the almost-black Heritage stain currently used. The darkening test goes back to the early days K&P’s natural-finish briar pipes, as you can read in the copy for the 1939 Sterling Silver bulldog above—“they’ll enjoy watching its ‘natural’ finish slowly turn a deep rich brown.” I admit that like so many things in the hobby,is  a bit of an acquired taste. Not everyone likes to see the color darken. Vergin briars, for example, are not (I think) popular among most smokers because the color is just perceived to be dirty. One of the reasons I never took to meerschaum, in fact, was because no matter how many times I smoked mine, they never seemed to get any darker, and when they did, I didn’t like how they did it. Not so with my natural Petes. They darken just fast enough that I can enjoy watching them do so, and never to the detriment of grain enjoyment.

 

One-off STRAIGHT GRAIN, either Early Republic or Eire era

The earliest example I can show you of an orange stain comes from a SPECIAL one-off bent billiard, a true Sub-System P-Lip with reservoir, that probably dates to the end of the Éire or beginning of the Early Republic era.

 

A B10 Deluxe Classic from April 2022

One thing I really appreciate about the Laudisi era is K&P’s greater sensibility of what a natural finish pipe should be in stain quality, application and color, whether in the Deluxe System, Deluxe Classic, Sherlock Holmes or POY pipes. The one thing lacking (perhaps) is the NATURAL stamp. I suppose it’s redundant since we can obviously see this is a natural finish, but given its use in decades past as well as the current rarity, scarcity and cost of the naturals (over $300), I think it would be great to see its return and integration into the K&P production mindset.

 

Many thanks to James Robert, Sébastien Canévet and SPC

 

 

In the Rearview Mirror

James Walsh has sent photos of two more pipes from the mysterious 700 shape group. Check them out!

Sébastien Canévet forwards photos of the shape 5 calabash from his collection proving that there were not two, but originally three different sizes. Take a look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jorgen Jensen
Jorgen Jensen
1 month ago

Good Sunday morning. All is very fine so I shall smoke a 120 Deluxe naturel today. A Tom Palmer pipe, a poor smoker from the start but have managed to turn it into a good one by
a lot of smoking.
Also thanks to Sebastien.

SteveNH
SteveNH
1 month ago

Couldn’t help but respond immediately to the idea of a CPG pipe. I love the blog, the book and now the booty! Sign me up and spread the word.

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
1 month ago
Reply to  SteveNH

Count me in as well.

Chris Streeper
Chris Streeper
1 month ago

Another wonderful and informative article Mark. Thank you! My favorite finish on a pipe, or lack there of I suppose, is the virgin sandblast. I love everything about it; the texture, the color, watching it age from use, etc. I have quite a few Pete’s in my collection that reflect my love; a couple Burrens, a Barley Spigot, and a Nassau St. special edition. As you might imagine, I was very intrigued by this article in particular. Furthermore, you launched it off with an example of my favorite shape from the Peterson catalogue, the 150 straight bulldog! Excellent! I am… Read more »

Joe Marti
Joe Marti
1 month ago

At the risk of angering my wife further, I would absolutely be interested in a CPG pipe.

Also, several months ago I bought my first “natural” pipe, a barley spigot. It is so attractive and it’s fun to watch it color with repeated use.

Scott Forrest
Scott Forrest
1 month ago

Interesting blog Mark – thanks for explaining some of this. I have two of the Irish Free States with the ‘Natural’ stamp, and both have a dark finish like the one you show from James’ collection. Morel like a ‘Walnut’ finish. One of mine is a 605 and the other looks to be a 65.

Al Jones
Al Jones
1 month ago
John Schantz
John Schantz
1 month ago

I might be interested in a CPG pipe. I am very finicky however, so throwing my name in the hat sight unseen is pretty tough.

Man, I really like that XL02 Rosslare? Royal Irish.
Mark, is it a Rosslare? I thought the Rosslare line had the yellow swirl stems?

Martin
Martin
1 month ago

That XL02 is amazing, also this beefy looking john bull.