13. The Aran Line: In Praise of Meat & Potatoes
If you’ve had a chance to flip through the new fall issue of Pipes & Tobaccos, you’ve doubtless found William C. Nelson’s great write-up of young English pipe-maker Chris Askwith. Askwith’s prices are really reasonable (extraordinary may be a better word) for artisan pipes, and from all accounts, his engineering and finish work are spot-on.
While reading about one collector’s marvelous experiences with Askwith pipes, I noticed myself smoking my usual—a Peterson—in fact, a recent-production Aran 120. Now the thing about it is, my Aran 120 Dublin is a stellar smoker. It’s got a P-Lip as you can see, and its chamber is a marvel—loaded with a good Virginia flake its 20 x 41mm can take me through a very long evening, well over two hours, with just the right amount of moisture (never any need for a pipe cleaner with a straight P-Lip). In short, with everything my pipe-smoker’s heart could desire. And yet . . .
As I was enjoying the photos of Askwith’s pipes and thinking about my own Aran, it came to me that I must be a “meat & potatoes” man, one of those plain fellows who’d as soon have a good burger and fries as anything. Take me across the pond and it would be fish & chips, I’ve no doubt.
Askwith only makes about 150 pipes a year—fifty less than the smallest Limited Edition run of any Peterson pipe in the past few decades (that being the 200 pipe edition of the Racing Green and Claret collections back in 1996). Like most pipe-makers, by his own admission Askwith isn’t getting rich, but is certainly enjoying his work, which is as it should be.
You won’t read any write-ups in praise of Peterson’s Aran line in Pipes & Tobaccos or anyplace else (but here) I’d imagine, but one lesson I’ve been working on for the past few years is this: learn what you like. I’ve heard it from Rick Newcombe and I’ve read it in the writings of Fred Hanna, two collectors whose opinions I greatly value. Rick of course is known for his passion for Danish pipes, and Fred for straight grains. I understand why each man likes what he likes, and it’s thanks in part to them that I think I’m beginning to understand why I like what I like.
I like the Aran 120’s tubular shank, for one thing. The shank is so massive that for awhile in the 1970s it was produced as a straight System. As you can see in the cutaway demonstrator of the 120, this reduced the depth chamber considerably—from 40mm to 29. But the point is that like most pipes coming out of Sallynoggin, the 120’s DNA is replete with the Peterson design architecture. Whether or not a Peterson pipe is drilled with a reservoir, most of them could be.
I also like the fact that in our era of constant shape design spin, the 120 has been in production since 1905. You simply can’t get a shape that’s more “Dublin” than one that’s been continuously made in Dublin for 110 years.
120 Shapes from the 1905 Catalog
Having spent an incredible, glorious day on the Aran Islands a few years back, I also like the name—which like all Peterson line names, will take you back to Ireland itself.
I admit I also admire my 120’s grain pattern and the matt polished finish on it. It’s not straight and it’s not flame and it’s not perfect birdseye, but to me it’s very pleasing. With hat off to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” I like the two little fills on the obverse—heretical talk, I know. Yet something about the pipe’s little imperfections reminds me of my own, and knowing that someone daubed that bit of putty in there and does that for her own meat & potatoes day in and day out gives the pipe something that it wouldn’t otherwise possess.
I also like its ebonite stem, which is always soft and comfortable between the teeth. I was intrigued, I admit, to hear Askwith talking about using polyester for his pipe stems, which it seems is much closer in its comfort level and softness to ebonite than to acrylic. (Maybe Peterson should look into that.)
Part of reason I like the Aran’s ebonite is that, even though I routinely rub it down and give it a bit of Obsidian stem oil every now and again, I know that in eight or ten years—maybe sooner—it’s going to oxidize and the stem will need to be refinished. It will show its age and use in a way that lucite (apart from dental marks) never will.
Ebonite stems seem to be losing ground a bit in the marketplace these days. I suspect this has to do with the fact that pipe smokers don’t smoke all day like they did in previous eras. Or maybe they don’t need a hands-free way of smoking their pipes the way men who smoked on the job once did. It could also just be that, the pipe having gone from a knockabout tool for nicotine and tobacco delivery to a collector’s prop, the collector wants to keep it in as pristine condition as possible. But I like comfort and versatility, old clothes, quiet evenings with a book or Bach and tools I can count on.
The current Aran line, incidentally, is the third to bear the Aran name in Peterson’s Classic Lines. It first appeared in a matt coal-black rustic finish in the 1965 green & black catalog, where it was available with either a P-Lip or F/T stem in the standard catalog shapes.
Shape 88 in the 2nd Aran Line, 1975 Catalog
In the 1975 orange catalog, the Aran name was used to release a new line, this time in six XL shapes with some of the finest rustication Peterson has ever done. In 1997, the Aran name was used for the third time, reverting to standard shapes in the catalog, with F/T and no band and a hot-foil gold P stamped on the stem. Being the sensible pipe-makers they are, Peterson soon put a nickel band on the new Arans, making them just a little more rugged and less prone to breakage. They also added the option of a P-Lip.
And finally, I admit to liking the price on the Aran. It’s a whole lot easier for me to add a new pipe to my companions (I didn’t say collection) when it costs a hundred dollars than when it costs four or five hundred. Somehow I don’t worry about my Aran the way I do my artisan pipes. If the chemistry between it and myself hadn’t worked out, I knew I wouldn’t feel quite so badly. But since it has clicked between us, the pipe seems something of a marvel. All that for $106? Yup. The trick, of course, is finding and obtaining a pipe that you really like.
Incidentally, Askwith’s pipes are well worth taking a look at—you can see them at www.askwithpipes.com.
Length: 6.06 in / 153.92 mm
Weight: 1.50 oz / 42.52 gr
Bowl Height: 1.92 in. / 48.77 mm
Chamber Depth: 1.62 in / 41.15 mm
Chamber Diameter: 0.81 in /20.57 mm
Outside Diameter: 1.36 in./34.54 mm
Mouthpiece: Ebonite P-Lip