Cavicchi: A Different Harvest©
|When you ask pipemakers why they made their first pipes, the reasons range from “I wanted to see if I could do it” and “I was curious about the whole process” to “I wasn’t happy with what was available.” When you ask Claudio Cavicchi that same question, the answer is completely different and quite surprising.
“I decided to make my first pipe simply because I was too impatient,” says Cavicchi, a 55-year-old Italian gentleman whose graying beard, spectacles and quiet manner makes him look more like a professor than a farmer turned pipemaker. “I ordered a Caminetto Oom Paul at my local tobacco store, and after waiting almost a year for delivery, I took matters into my own hands and made the pipe myself.”
Obtaining a piece of briar and using his knowledge of machines, Cavicchi made his Caminetto Oom Paul, except that it did not have the name “Caminetto” stamped on it. In spite of the fact that Cavicchi had no experience, theoretical or practical, in pipemaking, and though he had nothing but one piece of wood and one transparent Plexiglas mouthpiece, the end product reflected the same high quality that he wanted when he ordered the Caminetto Oom Paul. He has been a pipemaker ever since. After working as a farmer for almost 30 years, Cavicchi sold his land and retired in 2005, returning to the town where he was born, Baricella, Italy, to pursue pipemaking full time with his wife, Daniela, who rusticates, stains and polishes Cavicchi’s pipes. They purchased a house large enough to comfortably contain a pipemaking studio and an area for briar storage.
Claudio & his imagination
On a good day, when he uninterruptedly works for 12 hours, Cavicchi manages to make at most four pipes—but that doesn’t mean that he can make 1,440 pipes a year.
“Oh, I wish,” Cavicchi says with a sigh. “You see, working that way for that many hours per day for every day of the year is obviously impossible. I can make up to four pipes on a ‘good’ day. Sometimes I work a full day and end up with only two finished pipes.”
When Cavicchi first became a pipemaker, he never sought or obtained help from anyone with experience in the craft, but since he was an established pipe smoker—one who has won several slow-smoking pipe contests—he knew his personal preferences and followed his uncompromising quality standards. In addition to this, he continued to visit local tobacco stores and examined the available pipes. One of those brands was Charatan, which played an important part in Cavicchi’s early styling and design.
“The funny thing is that I have never owned a Charatan pipe,” Cavicchi says. “But I have always recognized and appreciated their quality and aesthetics.”
He loved Charatan shapes and their excellent grain; above all, he loved how the two were beautifully and gracefully integrated. Whoever knows Cavicchi pipes may have noticed a Charatan influence since his pipes are known to be larger than most other pipes and are recognized for exhibiting the best grain possible. For the first 20 years of making pipes, Cavicchi even stained his pipes with a distinct red color, similar to the one applied by Charatan.
One of the hardest and most time-consuming aspects of the way Cavicchi makes his pipes is ensuring that a particular shape brings out the best of the grain; sometimes that aspect is reversed where the grain dictates the most suitable shape and size. Another phase that is always very labor intensive for Cavicchi is hand sanding. When the shape has been finalized and the finishing stage starts, he does not spare any effort in making sure that the surface of the pipe is as perfect as a human hand can produce.
Throughout his pipemaking career, Cavicchi has offered many new and exciting shapes, as well as new interpretations of classic and standard shapes. As a pipe smoker, he has always preferred bent pipes, but as a pipemaker, he regards the Lovat and its derivatives as one of his favorite shapes to make. It is ultimately the complexity of the Lovat that attracts his relentless need for a challenge. Cavicchi believes that every aspect of the Lovat, starting with the choice of the briar to the shape and comfort level of the mouthpiece, requires lots of knowledge and attention to detail.
“The piece of wood has to be large enough; this means that the wood usually comes from an old tree. It is only an old tree that has had enough time to grow and can consequently provide the briar cutter with a burl large enough to produce an ebauchon suitable to be turned into a Lovat. In fact, the idea of the Lovat, the Canadian and the Liverpool, especially ones that are as large as the ones I regularly produce, starts at the briar mill, something that is rarely the case with other shapes.”
With a Lovat, the long shank and the short mouthpiece must fit together harmoniously and gracefully to offer maximum balance and comfort. The pipemaker’s freedom to deviate is limited because a Lovat is a very classic and well-defined shape, making it a pipe that requires lots of skill and experience. It is the challenge of the Lovat that Cavicchi finds irresistible and particularly gratifying.
Other difficult shapes, according to Cavicchi, are the billiard and the bulldog. These are two very challenging shapes to make if you are after both balance and best possible grain while closely following the shape’s inherent specifications and requirements. For Cavicchi, it is a bigger challenge to make a billiard with straight grain or 360 degrees of bird’s-eye grain than to produce an extra large pipe in his highest grade, the Diamante. According to Cavicchi, a pipemaker often has to choose between producing the perfectly shaped billiard or a pipe with perfect straight grain. The combination of the two is one of the biggest challenges that pipemaking poses.
Cavicchi disagrees that straight-grain pipes smoke better than others. “I strongly believe that there is no correlation whatsoever between the grain of the pipe and how well it smokes. Based on my experience as a pipe smoker, I know for a fact that when it comes to smoking quality, a pipe with straight grain can disappoint, just as much as a pipe with ordinary or ever poor grain can satisfy.”
Over the years, Cavicchi has managed to develop some extraordinarily attractive and innovative shapes. He admits that it is very difficult to talk about those shapes with any degree of accuracy, since most of them do not have names. However, he fondly talks about the variety of designs he has been producing based on the volcano shape; one such pipe is made very distinctive due to a diamond-shaped shank, a large olivewood insert and an elaborate saddle mouthpiece. Another shape that is always in demand is the “flying saucer,” which is most definitely among the smallest Cavicchi pipes when it comes to tobacco chamber capacity: a “flying saucer” in a smooth finish always exhibits a fascinating blend of straight grain and bird’s eye.
“The extra-large oliphant and the seaslug are two more shapes that are undoubtedly among the most impressive shapes I have produced over the years,” Cavicchi states. “While the oliphant offers the best value for money regardless of the grade it is presented in, the seaslug is extremely difficult to produce since it requires a particular piece of briar, with a massive plateau top.”
Cavicchi pipes come in three different finishes: rusticated (black or tan), smooth brown and smooth natural. The grading system, which is based on a combination of finish and number of ©’s, offers seven mainstream grades, plus the diamante, which is Cavicchi’s highest grade (straight grain). Out of the current production, about 15 percent of the pipes are rusticated black, 5 percent rusticated tan, 45 percent smooth brown (© and ©©), and 35 percent smooth natural (©©©, ©©©© and ©©©©©).
While the demand for the highest Cavicchi smooth natural pipes in the 5© grade is on the rise, Cavicchi produces fewer of them because of his increasingly strict standards and his “ghost” theory. When Cavicchi is not sure whether a pipe should be in the 4© or 5© grade, for example, he always goes with the lower grade so that in the end he is not risking the prestige and the grain quality of the higher grade, not to mention failing to meet the customer’s expectations.
When it comes to rarity, few pipes can beat the Cavicchi diamante. In his 33 years of pipemaking, Cavicchi believes that he has produced about 70 pipes in the diamante grade. However, considering how strict he has become over the years, he admits that maybe only half that number would meet the grade today.
“A pipe becomes a diamante based 98 percent on grain and 2 percent on the presence of sandpits,” says Cavicchi. “When it comes to grain, I look for the tightness and even distribution of straight grain all over the pipe. Another vital parameter is how well a particular shape manages to bring out the best of the grain.”
In spite of the rarity of the diamante, Cavicchi has been very fortunate over the past two years. No fewer than five pipes have met the stringent standards and requirements of the diamante grade. Of course, not all diamante pipes are born equal, and of those five pipes, one stands so far above the others in perfection of beauty that Cavicchi doubts that he will make one so beautiful again.
People who have smoked one of his pipes know that Cavicchi is one of the most talented and skilled pipemakers not only in Italy but in the world. What most people do not know, however, is that Cavicchi is known in Italy to be one of the top experts on briar. Cavicchi makes a trip to his briar supplier once every two months. He spends an entire day selecting his wood, piece by piece, taking into consideration the shapes he intends to make, as well as the best grain possible for those shapes. Most of the wood that his supplier provides comes from Tuscany, but Cavicchi acknowledges that often briar from different regions is sold together. That is almost irrelevant to him since he relies on his knowledge of the material and evaluates each piece on its own merits. When making his selection, Cavicchi considers different aspects of each ebauchon.
“I first examine the grain; it has to be as tight, straight and uniform as possible, on all sides of the bowl. Already at this early stage, I have to imagine the shape that I could eventually make out of a particular piece of briar. While the weight of the wood is usually a reliable indication of how well cured it is, it doesn’t worry me too much. You see, I prefer to get the wood right after it has been boiled, which means the pieces usually weigh a lot, due to the high level of moisture. The drying, seasoning and curing phases start once I’ve brought back the wood and placed it in a special room in the house. The wood stays there for two years, under my close supervision, before it can be considered ready to be turned into pipes. This means that the wood that I buy this month will literally not see the light until two years have passed.”
It is the accumulated experience of many years that has led Cavicchi to follow this system of purchasing briar once every two months. First of all, this helps him spread the cost of briar by paying six smaller sums of money, rather than two large ones, over a year. At the same time, he improves his chances of selecting the best briar, while minimizing the risk of getting wood that is less than perfect for the quality he wishes to produce. For Cavicchi this is an almost natural risk-management technique. Another important factor is the time he needs to select his briar carefully; if he needs a full day to select 200 pieces of briar, imagine how long he would need to spend with his supplier if he needed to choose 1,000 pieces.
A good indication of Cavicchi’s knowledge of briar, his experience with the raw material, his pipemaking skills, and to some extent, his luck, is the fact that out of 10 pieces of wood, he usually obtains eight or nine finished pipes, each of which is representative of the high quality for which Cavicchi pipes are known. Cavicchi knows that getting eight or nine pipes out of 10 pieces of wood is a well-deserved reward for the time and effort he invests in selecting his wood and the care he takes in drying and seasoning the briar for two years.
Cavicchi has noticed that pipemakers are often quoted as saying that they prefer one type of briar over another. While admitting the logical fact that a piece of Calabrian briar is different from a Greek one, mainly due to differences in soil and climate, Cavicchi states that it is also a fact that quality is not limited to one type over the others, and it is the quality, or lack thereof, that should at the end lead to a superior or inferior product.
“A piece of Calabrian briar,” argues Cavicchi, “can be excellent, ordinary or inferior, and so can a piece of Greek briar. It all comes down to how well the wood has been cured, cut and seasoned, and under what conditions. If you buy pipes from a maker who claims to be using solely Calabrian briar, and you find that the pipes smoke very well, and at the same time you have had some bad experiences with pipes made by another maker who claims to be using Greek briar exclusively, can you, in this case, jump to the conclusion that Calabrian briar is better than Greek briar? The answer may be yes, but you also need to consider the possibility that maybe the Calabrian briar that the first maker uses is of good quality, while the Greek briar that the other maker uses is not.”
Cavicchi smiles at claims by some pipe smokers that they can determine where the briar comes from simply by looking at the ebauchon or the finished pipe. In spite of all his knowledge of briar and all the experience he has gained, he cannot ever claim to possess this ability, and he completely and utterly dismisses it. However, he does admit that a particular type of briar may be discernible to a person who has had years of experience dealing with that type and that type alone, without contamination from other types.
“I happen to know Corsican briar as well as anyone, and for this reason, I believe I have the ability to recognize such a piece before it is made into a pipe. Having said that, I could not do so with any degree of confidence. Actually, I challenge anyone to walk into a room full of different types of briar and be able to sort them out according to where they come from just by looking at them.”
In other words, the only way for Cavicchi to take back his statement is when he meets a person who can demonstrate that this ability is actually possible. When it comes to recognizing the type of wood by looking at the finished pipe, he doesn’t even need a demonstration. He simply dismisses the claim in its entirety.
Likewise, Cavicchi holds a strong opinion in the debate over the merits of vulcanite and acrylic mouthpieces. Cavicchi uses acrylic exclusively.
“I vehemently disagree with the view that vulcanite is superior to acrylic,” says Cavicchi with a slight frown of disapproval and disappointment. “I agree that vulcanite has a softer feel, but it also has numerous drawbacks, and these drawbacks outweigh its advantages by far. As a pipe smoker, I would choose acrylic every time. The main reason for this is also vulcanite’s biggest disadvantage, discoloration. It is very unfair to use the maker’s ‘learned’ decision to use acrylic over vulcanite to deem their pipes unworthy of the high grade title. When you add to this the fact that most pipe smokers prefer acrylic, the unfairness becomes even more shocking and disappointing.”
Cavicchi pipes are sold primarily in the United States. In spite of the high quality and reasonable prices of the pipes, there has been reluctance in some quarters to categorize them as “high-grade” pipes, placing them in the so-called “mid-range” category.
“To tell you the truth, I’m deeply offended and disappointed. When I think of the dedication and experience I put into my pipes and consider the high quality of my pipes, I just can’t see how such an unfair categorization is possible.”
Cavicchi states that he could not make a pipe of better quality simply because he believes that better quality is not possible. He makes this statement based on knowledge and close examination of not only his pipes but also pipes from other makers, regardless of the country of origin. The only possible reason people should not view his pipes as the best possible anywhere is the price.
“Is it my fault that I do my best to offer such a quality product for such a reasonable price? Some people will continue to ignore the evident quality they see with their own eyes and use the price as the reason to describe my pipes as ‘mid-range.’ I don’t intend to let those statements distract me from my work or take away the pleasure I find in pipemaking.”
Cavicchi does not view himself as an artist, but rather as an artisan, a craftsman, a technician, and it is for this reason that he cannot accept people judging the quality of his pipes based on his styling alone. He hopes that one day someone with this view would offer him logical and unbiased reasons why his pipes are not perceived as being as good as those under any other brand name, regardless of who makes them, where, how and more important, their price. In the meantime, Cavicchi will continue to believe that his pipes are, from a technical point of view, the best that anyone can produce.
Although he bristles at the perceived reputation of his pipes, Cavicchi unhesitatingly says that he has no regrets about becoming a pipemaker. The only disappointing aspect of his pipemaking career is that it took him almost 15 years of activity before his pipes found their way into the mainstream market. For all those earlier years, he had been making the best possible pipes and selling them to friends and local tobacco stores. He knew that his pipes were good enough to be sold on a much larger scale; he just did not know how he could make that happen. He therefore continued to concentrate on creating new shapes, perfecting his pipemaking approach, creating new pipemaking tools and personalizing already existing ones.
For Cavicchi, the perfect end to a fruitful day of pipemaking is sitting down in his living room in front of a fire with Daniela, and enjoying a bowlful of Three Nuns. While this is the end of a long day, Cavicchi is already thinking about tomorrow.
“It is at this time that I plan the day ahead, thinking of the pipes I want to make the next day and which will hopefully and eventually put a smile on a fellow pipe smoker’s face somewhere in the world.”