If "Craft is the handprint of all culture", then what better characterizes the culture of Ireland than a handmade pipe from Peterson? In an era dominated by mass production the hand-crafted object and the increasingly rare skill required to make that object, is something to be cherished. To watch a craftsman shape, turn, sand, lacquer and polish a pipe from the 150 year old root briar of the Erica Arboria is to witness something quite unique.
From the very outset it is a process requiring skill and experience in equal measure. The root briars themselves are inspected for flaws and their grain examined for quality. It is only a highly trained eye that can detect what design would best exploit the intrinsic merits of the wood and a stubby pencil is used to sketch the design directly unto the block. The briar is fitted in the “chuck” and the process of “turning” the wood to shape the bowl begins. This step is fraught with difficulty. The inner make-up of the briar is an unknown quantity – it may contain a stone or an unworkable flaw and often 5-12 briars are commenced before the perfect one is found.
A steady hand and unerring judgement are required when drilling the hole for the bowl as the depth and width dictate how the pipe will eventually smoke – too deep and the smoke can be too cool, too shallow and it is too hot.
To witness the slim, fragile stem emerge from the dense briar shows all the expertise of the craftsman with decades of experience at his finger tips. The importance of the sense of touch is evident especially in the subtlety of the sanding operation – even a small excess can completely alter the shape. More delicate still is the drilling hole. From the selecting of the correct tool to the free hand drilling of this tapered hole it is only a job for the sure of hand.
The mouthpiece is shaped from a length of vulcanite rod and once the design has been decided upon, the vulcanite is formed freehand. A sandpaper wheel is used to shape the width to the precise measurement – too wide and it can feel uncomfortable, too narrow and it can be hard to hold in the mouth with ease.
The lacquering process highlights the grain and polished gives the rich sheen to the wood enhancing the shape and the tactile quality of a truly beautiful pipe.
The skilled silversmith describes the intricate process of shaping the silver to suit the enormous variety of pipe shapes. “We work the silver by hand fitting and spinning the silver on a replica of the pipe made in box wood. When it is perfect we take it off, polish it and fit to the actual pipe, soldering it, acid cleaning it and polishing it for a final time”. He acknowledges it is a job where judgement is crucial, where the precision of the eye and the slight of hand is only acquired with years of training.
The silver on all Peterson pipes must be assayed (tested) by the Company of Goldsmiths at the Assay Office in Dublin Castle. The sheets or tubes of silver are stamped with the maker’s mark and then sent to be assayed. When they return, hallmarked, the silversmiths are then able to work with them. The distinctive Peterson logo sits beside the words “sterling silver” and all Peterson Silver Cap and Silver Mounted Pipes carry three distinguishing marks – the symbol of Hibernia (the Latin name for Ireland); the Harped Crown to denote the high quality of the silver used and a Date Letter Code denoting the year in which the silver was hallmarked.
This clearly is a business where the product is as good as the people that are employed. “We have plenty of young people in the business and all apprentices are trained in-house in the traditional way – by watching and learning every step of the process. It is then 3-4 years before that apprentice is ready to make a pipe on his own.
It seems that in the world of specialist pipe making, the techniques of today differ only slightly from the techniques of the last century.
Our craftsmen and women continue to create something unique – not for them the boredom of mass production. Certainly they use powered equipment such as lathes, drills etc. but this only removes the drudgery and not the craft. Most of the processes mentioned above remain the same today – the bowls are bored, the mouthpieces are turned and assembled and silver bands are hand-fitted. In fact, there are more skills needed than ever before as a larger selection of pipes are now available. New products being added annually - new colours, rings and silver band motifs, new skills are evident everywhere. Excellence is not some theoretical target, it is an everyday reality. Each person is conscious of the fact that he or she is part of a process and that the ultimate quality depends on everyone doing their part to the best of their ability.
This is not an ethos which can be imposed, but comes from a loyalty to the company and one’s fellow-workers, a pride and confidence in one’s own work and reflects a partnership between company and employees which is fast vanishing elsewhere in today’s mass-production society.