The Neatpipes Cavicchi Interview

by “Chas” Mundungus, w/ Luca di Piazza & Sensei Rainer Kockegey-Lorenz


Case N° 121205

by “Chas” Mundungus
w/ Luca di Piazza & Sensei Rainer Kockegey-Lorenz 



 Editor’s Note: Many thanks to the readers who sent cards and letters over the past few months while I was in the sanitarium. You can continue to support my recovery from P.A.D. and T.A.D. with discrete donations of vintage tobaccos, high-grade pipes and gift cards toward purchase of the latter, c/o Neatpipes.



     Two of my favorite pipe-subjects are aesthetics and spirituality. On the latter, more later. But on the former—“the question of style,” as Sensei Fred Hanna and Richard Esserman write so convincingly about in The Perfect Smoke (169ff.)where does the work of Claudio Cavicchi, one of my favorite Italian pipe-makers, fall? Using the Hanna/Esserman criteria, should Cavicchi be considered an “artisan,” an “artist” or a “master pipe maker”?* 

     To be classified as “artisan,” Hanna & Esserman write, “one must be highly skilled and accomplished, with a high degree of technical competence. A pipe is a functional instrument, not simply a decorative object.” I’d say 25-40% of the American-made pipes carved by individual makers I saw at last May’s Chicagoland show fail to meet this standard, even though some of their pipes were going for $500 or more. My German friends seem to have a keener eye and sensitivity for this than my American ones, and I’m not trying to be unpatriotic here, but when someone as untrained as I am can spot that the chamber is drilled off-center or the draft hole is two stories above ground floor, I’m thinking that pipe is all glam, high heels and lipstick, an expensive one-night stand. 

     So how does Cavicchi rate as “artisan”? Ask anyone, including Claudio himself, and they’ll tell you his calling-card is engraved “Cavicchi C. / Pipa Ingegnere” (“C. Cavicchi / Pipe Engineer”). Pipes just don’t get made any better than this. I can’t do better than repeat one of Sykes Wilford’s comments from 2010 in this regard:


Alyson took over as brand manager (which just means that she's primary contact for business pieces associated with the brand) for Cavicchi a few months ago. One of her first questions, which is something we always ask, is how we should handle any returns for problems with the pipes. Claudio, rather matter-of-factly, replied that it wasn't an issue; they never have problems. At first, we thought this rather presumptuous, until we gave it a little thought and realized that we'd had, oh, about 450 so far without rejecting a single one. This wasn't cavalier haughtiness; Claudio's was a statement of fact. He doesn't make mistakes.


I’m used to making accommodations for my pipes—a little pipe mud here or there to level up a bowl with a draft hole, a re-drilling for an easier draw, and so on. This is the normal world of pipe-smoking as far as I’m concerned, kind of like owning a British sports-car of old: you knew you were going to have problems with it, but that was part of its charm, right? Well, prepare to be bored with Cavicchi, because the draft hole, the chamber and the stem work are alwaysgoing to be spot on. 

     On to Hanna & Esserman’s second criterion of style: “the domain of the artist” (Perfect Smoke 170). If a pipe maker’s work reveals more concern for form than function, then whatever else he may be, he is not a pipe artist. Function comes first, artistry second. And despite the current vogue for non-classical shapes, there really aren’t many pipe artists around, at least according to Hanna & Esserman: “copying a pipe design made famous by another pipe maker is not being an artist in the sense of being creative or original or unique. It is merely copying. Thus we believe that an artist in the pipe world is one who does his or her own designs and fashions his or her own unique creations” (171).

     Here I believe Cavicchi scores again. If you put a tray or even a handful of his pipes next to the work of any other pipe-maker in the world, you willimmediately recognize Cavicchi’s—they are that distinctive. He makes no secret of how other pipe-makers have inspired or influenced him, yet he remains his own person. There are at least two fundamental aesthetic choices that set his work apart. The first is his insistence that the shape of the pipe follow the grain of the block of briar from which it is made. There is no pipe maker in the world whose pipes so consistently reveal such spectacular straight grain. This is a design choice. If you ever see a Cavicchi with birdseye (like the 5C “poker/ball” featured on the inside back cover of Pipes & Tobaccos a few years back) you’re seeing a rarity. But notice the birdseye is just as spot-on as the straight grain Claudio normally works with. 

     Cavicchi’s second aesthetic choice has to do with what I can only describe as his visual design vocabulary, an accumulation of design choices that are more readily communicated visually than verbally. I would call it “geometric purity.” Some Europeans have said it shows “too much of the lathe,” but I think they misunderstand Cavicchi’s a prioris. The type of artisan-style that requires a great deal of hand-sanding is simply not part of Cavicchi’s vocabulary. It never has been. Here’s how Sensei Sykes Wilford expresses it:


His shaping voice is clear and well articulated. There's a lot of variance to his shapes, but there's a consistent voice from shape to shape; there's a cleanness to the lines that they all share. Though not necessarily aesthetically, Claudio's shaping philosophy is more akin to the Danes than it is to most Italians (Wilford, “Italy 2012”)


And that being the case, it comes as no surprise—as you will discover in the following interview—that there is one Dane whom Cavicchi admires above all others. But again, Cavicchi’s aesthetic is really not Danish either. It’s “Cavicchian” if it’s anything. To be sure, you can see the Italian sensibility in his Hungarians and the Italian “Largeness Legacy” of size which began back in the 1970s. But it goes beyond that.


Now we come to Hanna & Esserman’s third and highest level of style—“the master” (Perfect Smoke 171ff): 

What does the master have that the artisan does not? A critical element, a necessary component, perhaps the single most-important defining characteristic of the master is that he/she has a unique, easily identifiable style, a style that can be recognized and spotted across the room. Most artisans do not have their own unique style (172).


Now I am perfectly willing to argue all day that Cavicchi is not only an artist but a master as well. And this even if you factor in Hanna & Esserman’s qualifier “most master pipe makers have created unique shapes that no one else has previously done, while the artisans and lesser pipe makers seek to simulate or duplicate the creations of the masters” (174).

     I don’t see any single Cavicchi shape having achieved the much-copied status of a Bo Nordh Ramses, Lars Ivarsson Blowfish, or Will Purdy Tadpole. But then you have to ask yourself whether a “unique shape” means a shape that has been copied by a host of epigones, or might be applied to the shaping sensibility evident in an entire group of shapes? For now, I’m going to argue that Cavicchi’s status as pipe artist is self-evident in the engineering, artistry and unique body of shapes he has produced.



Q: Who were your inspirations when you first began carving? 

This is a funny story. I can't say that I was “inspired” by any specific brand. I was a pipe smoker and I was in love with the old Caminetto pipes. Those pipes were incredible smokers! Anyway, I was looking for a Caminetto Hungarian. It was one of their most famous shapes and I was really curious to try it. I looked for it for months without success. Then I decided to do a Hungarian myself—that was my first pipe. 


Q: Who are your favorite pipe-makers today? 

I am in love with Bo Nordh pipes. I once had the chance to look at some of his pipes and I immediately thought those shapes were amazing. I consider Bo the Number 1 Pipemaker ever, and was very sad when he passed away.


Q: Some people believe there is a pipe-smoking renaissance underway, while others think it will die out altogether with the present generation. What do you think? 

I’m well known for my pessimistic attitude. I think pipe-smoking will continue its slow decline for many reasons, primarily the no-smoking laws, but also the lack of briar, which will become harder and harder find. But it will be a slow decline: countries like China will help us for a while. 


Q: Speaking of China--? 

Yes, I was anticipating your question! I believe the pipe in China is at present a status symbol, like it was in Italy during 60's and 70's. 


Q: Let’s talk about your production. The last I read, you were making about 700 pipes a year. Does that still hold? And of those, has your breakdown changed to any extent—that is, what percentage are rusticated black, rusticated natural, sandblasted black, sandblasted natural, and smooth. And of the smooth, percentage are made at the different C-grades, and how many Perlas and Diamantes? 

I still make approximately 700 pipes a year. I can’t give you percentages for this year, but I can say what I made last year: 


16% of Black Rusticated, 
4% of Tan Rusticated, 
10% of Black Sandblasted, 
6% of Tan Sandblasted, 
30% of Brown Smooth, 
15% of 3C, 
15% of 4C, 
3% of 5C and 
1% of Perla. 

I did not get any Diamante in 2011—so 0%!


Q: Who does the sandblasting, you or your wife Daniela? 

I do. I have my own sandblasting machine and I really like to use it. For many years I was skeptical about making sandblasted pipes. Now, I’m very happy about the decision to make them. 


Q: On behalf of North American pipe-smokers, let me ask, why acrylic stems and not cumberland or ebonite, which many Italian artisans are now using alongside the acrylic?

I am aware of developments in the new, higher quality ebonite and Cumberland rod, but I still prefer acrylic: it never gets dull or oxidized, it always looks new, and its much more difficult to scratch. I prefer a harder but more beautiful mouthpiece over a softer one that’s going to look dirty in a very short time. 


Q: Do you make pipes for 9mm filters? 

I used to make them when I had stores requesting them in Germany. Actually I am not making any 9mm pipes at the present. I have no problem making a 9mm, but if it’s up to me, I prefer not to. 


Q: What is your preferred briar source? 

Well, I’ll tell you where I buy it: Tuscany. And I know the briar is from Tuscany and Liguria. 


Q: What was your inspiration for the Cavicchi logo? 

Another nice short story. When I started making pipes I used to make two concentric circles. One day when I was drilling the mouthpiece to make the logo and I made a 

mistake, drilling an additional hole to one side. I finished it and I really liked the way it turned out. That day I changed my logo to the one that you see today. 


Q: Here is a long question about your chamber sizes. All the Cavicchi pipes I have owned have a chamber width of 21mm, apart from one with a 19mm. I love VaPers and Virginias, and have read that you have a special fondness for Escudo. Knowing that all smoker’s experiences are unique, I confess all my Cavicchis seem to prefer English and Oriental blends, as my own preferred Va and VaPer chambers are all about 18-18.5mm x 38-41mm—“short stacks,” I guess you would say. Very few of your pipes seem to have small tobacco chambers—that is, with 19.5mm or less chamber diameters. Is there a reason for this?

My answer is very short: I size the chamber diameter in proportion to the overall size of the pipe, and I almost exclusively make medium-to-large and larger sized pipes. And then there is an important personal reason: I prefer my own pipes to have a 22mm chambers—which is reflected in the pipes I make. 


Q: Would you be willing to make a pipe with a chamber of, say, 18mm x 39-42mm for a poor school teacher who is VERY HUGE FAN of yours?? Perhaps in a Hungarian similar to the one you first made? 

An 18.55 by 35mm chamber, as you say, is really a “short stack.” I wouldn’t even be able to pack it! But if that’s what you like, of course, no problem. 


Q: Well, since you brought up your own preferences and habits as a pipe smoker, could you talk a little more about how these are filtered into your work? For example, I know there is lots of discussion about the best draft hole diameter for an easy draw. What is your preferred diameter? 

I drill my pipes at 4.5mm. In the past I used to drill them at 3mm, but after a few years I began making them larger. I think that 4 to 4.5mm is the right diameter to yield a good draw without giving speed to the smoke. 


Q: Okay. Here’s a more sensitive question. Some people have asked about the finishing of your smooth pipes, whether or not you have ever thought about applying any kind of top-coat or finish to your “C” pipes? 

Nice point. I have always loved clear pipes and I prefer the clearest one among a group. I've always thought that the clearer the finish is, the cleaner the briar is. I have always held the impression darker colors are hiding something. I might be wrong, of course, but for me a light color is synonymous with quality. I always use a very light color on my pipes, but they are not uncoated!


Q: Another more personal question: how many years have you competed in slow-smoking contests, and do you still compete? And in either case, can you give any advice to those who wish to train at home? (I logged a pitiful 31 minutes and 11 seconds at my first contest at the Chicagoland show last May. It was a lot of fun, and I thought of you while I was competing.) 

I competed in slow smoking contests for 20 years, but actually I’ve stopped. Advice? Well, I think each competitor has his own technique and strategies; mine was very simple: the charcoal must remain visible on top of the chamber. In order to do this, you should take the ash away, but avoid turning the bowl upside down. A second tip is to use a rough base tamper. 


Q: Another person question: is Escudo still your favorite tobacco? And do you have others? 

Escudo? I’ve almost forgot how it tastes. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to find, and these days I smoke Three Nuns, even if its quality and taste is becoming less and less satisfactory. 


Q: And now I have some questions for Daniela. Daniela, when do you begin rusticating pipes for Claudio? 

Let me think. . . Claudio started making pipes in 1974, so I probably started rusticating pipes for him in 1982. Since . . . forever (laughing)! 


Q: Claudio told me a moment ago that 20% of his last year’s pipes were rusticated, and 16% blasted. Has the number of rusticated pipes diminished since he began sandblasting? 

Before Claudio began making the sandblasted finish I used to work much more, probably making 50% more rusticated pipes than I do now.


Q: This question on behalf of new and relatively new pipe-smokers. Even though they cost less, it actually takes more time to rusticate a pipe than leave it smooth, correct? 

Of course. To make a nice rusticated pipe you need to use a lot of hand power. And yet, having said that, you need even more attention than power. 


Q: Do Cavicchi’s rusticated and sandblasted pipes have any fills? If not, how do you decide which pipes to rusticate or blast, and which ones not to? 

I am surprised you ask!! Claudio's pipes have NO fills. To become a Cavicchi smooth the briar must be perfect and black spots almost invisible. I rusticate those pipes whose briar has larger spots or imperfections. Most of the pipes that I rusticate (as well as those Claudio blasts) could be finished as smooth. But Claudio is so meticulous! He won’t allow any imperfection on his pipes. 


Q: Do you do the blasting as well as the rustication? And are there other pipe artisans whose blasting and rustication you admire? 

No, all the sandblasting is done by Claudio, and he is very proud of it. When I started rusticating pipes in 1982, my inspiration was Ascorti’s rusticated pipes, which were made by Roberto’s brother. 

By the way—I do all my rustication by hand, without any electric tools. I am always afraid if I did I might destroy Claudio's work! 


Q: I’m sure you know there are many pipe collectors who sing the praises of the Castello Sea Rock. Rusticated pipes are a very important part of my rotation. I find that, especially when I’m tired, the tactile sensation created by the craggy surfaces are very soothing to my fingers, almost like a mini-massage—I love rolling the tips of my thumb and fingers over the surface.Do you have different grades or levels of rustication and blasting, or do all Cavicchi pipes receive the same treatment? 

My rustication is actually quite similar to the one you see on Castello pipes. What I do is exactly the same on all the pipes, no exceptions. I don't like thin and light rustication; I prefer something deep and craggy—as you can see in my rustication. 


Q: Is there a difference in your work when rusticating a pipe that will be a tan finish from what you do for a black finish? 

While the final decision is in Claudio’s hands, I do make a suggestion that a particular pipe be finished with a light or dark color. It has to do almost entirely with the number of black spots or imperfections. But the rustication is the same. 


     * And before you read any further, you may need to hop over to read Sykes Wilford’s three excellent, even required pieces for anyone with an interest in Cavicchi, which I’m going to assume you’ve read, whether you have or not! See “Pipes Perfectly Executed, Part I: Visiting Claudio Cavicchi,” posted 11 July 2010; “Pipes Perfectly Executed, Part II: Visit to Claudio and Daniela Cavicchi,” posted 15 July 2010; and “Italy 2012: Claudio Cavicchi’s Shapes, An Aesthetic Dialog,” posted 27 May 2012, all by Wilford at the blog. 



53 pipes in current rotation 
11 unsmoked pipes 
01 Cavicchi special order Hungarian awaiting completion and delivery 
01 Chubby Billiard on Reserve from You Know Who 
01 “Best Offer” made on Ebay for estate Peterson 9BC 
03 pipes off for new fancy-pants stems
Average time spent daily looking at pipes: 09 minutes 
Average time spent daily thinking about pipes: more than I’ll admit 
Average time spent daily smoking pipes: 2hr 14 minutes 

*As you can see, in comparison with my June 2012 Pipe Stations, the months in the sanitarium have brought significant reductions to all areas of my pipe-smoking life. 


Cavicchi |