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Interview with Baldo Baldi ©

Baldo & Tarek

Background Materials Pipe Making Production Hobbies Italian Market

On February 11, 2000, I had the pleasure of interviewing Baldo Baldi, who is a good friend and a wonderful man. The purpose of the interview was to answer the many unanswered questions about Baldo, the man and the pipe maker. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed bringing it to you.

General Background:

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How old are you?

Tell me about your education.
I have a university degree in architecture. When I finished the "Liceo Artistico" [Artistic High School], I decided I didn't want to stop there. I had the urge and the need to go on and find out more about art. Architecture seemed the right path then, and I'm glad I took that path. I got my degree in 1973.

Do you have three children, right?
Yes, three children... but, huh, I'm "single"!

Now, moving on to pipes. When, why, and how did you start making pipes?
You can read something about that in the magazine Smoking. It all started as a hobby and a passion. At that time, I couldn't afford good pipes, so I took part in a pipe carving contest and I won second place. It was Pellissone who won first prize, but he's dead now. Since then I started making pipe for myself. I knew one who was working at the Castello factory, and he gave me a few pieces of briar to work with. I started in 1977-78. One day, I went to the dentist, having one of my pipes with me. As I didn't have money to pay the bill, he was happy to take the pipe instead.
I then started making pipes regularly, and I even put a few advertisements in the newsletter of the Pipe Club of Italy. I remember that some of very first pipes were so badly made, and I still have a few of them. I started going around selling pipes and spending the money on my studies. One day my father took some of my pipes and went to show them to a famous tobacconist in Rome. The guy was impressed by the pipes and placed an order right away. I went on supplying pipes to that shop till they went bankrupt a few years ago. In fact, it was that tobacconist that talked me into letting him send some of my pipes to the USA. He did that between 1985-89. Then in 1990 the shop closed down and my relationship with the US market was interrupted.

So that tobacconist was selling your pipes in the US market, right?
No. He stocked my pipes and was mainly selling them in his shop, but every now and then he would send a few special pieces to be sold in the USA. He used to buy almost all of annual production, about 120-150. My pipes were an immediate hit in America, and a lot of American collectors came here and bought pipes from me over the years.

So, who taught you how to make pipes?
Nobody. I was already learning how to work with different material, including wood, at university. However, I learned how to make pipes the hard way, also because at that time people in the field were so secretive and they wouldn't tell you anything. I just started with sandpaper and files, which is still the way I make my pipes today. Actually when I graduated from university, I got a part-time job as an interior decorator. Later in 1975 I had the chance to go and work in Canada as an architect, but then my destiny led me to get married. When my son was born in 1977, I started making pipes full time.
You know, Tarek, to me making pipes is creating culture. If you look at some of pipes, you see how impossible it is to make those shapes by machine. It's a sort of a slow process whereby a creation comes to existence. There is absolutely nothing that can compare to the sensitivity of the human hand.

Is there a particular pipe maker or a pipe brand that you find inspiring?
Well, to me Scotti of Castello was the maximum, and he produced great pipes. I don't know about the brand today; maybe it's been a bit over-commercialized. Scotti was really an artist. I'm on my own and I work by myself. I'm afraid I will die with it all. The way I work now is the way I have always worked. Nothing whatsoever has changed. There is always the urge and the need to improve the quality of my pipes, without ever abandoning the approach that made my pipes what they are today. What makes a pipe great is the little details, for example, I'm in love with the joint between the shank and the bowl, a detail I pay a lot of attention to.

You're known as a very mysterious pipe maker? Is that intentional? If yes, why?
It's a matter of personality. I love life so much, and now I'm paying the price! I have always looked around for beauty, but beauty is relative, in all fields. You can't invent culture. I believe to be an artist and not an artisan. When I was young, I wanted to become a sculptor, and I did a lot of research on that.
So does this mean that you have never intentionally wanted to remain out of the spot lights?
No, absolutely not. I have just always derived great pleasure in what I do. I have always made my pipes for myself; of course, the pleasure is enhanced when you see others who appreciate your creations.

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Materials Used:

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What kind of briar do you use?
I use briar from Liguria [Italy] and Provence [France]. I use briar that is between 15-20 years. I buy it fresh sometimes, and then I put it away for all those years. I can now go on making pipes for years without ever having to buy briar. I have some ebouchons that are now unheard of, as far as size and quality are concerned; every now and then I would take one out and turn it into a pipe I envision. I always seek the straight grain.

And how do you season your briar?
I do it in the most natural way: Letting the natural air do the job. No hurry. It's clear that people with a big production and maybe workers and employees have a lot of expenses, and therefore, they would need to resort to faster ways to dry the wood. I work alone, and I don't have to rush things. I keep my briar in sacks and let the air work for years and years.

Have you ever worked with other kinds of briar? If yes, what?
No, I have always worked with these two kinds. However, once I tried Corsican briar, and it wasn't bad.

What is the story behind your logo?
Initially, it was a sort of a knife cut, filled with Plexiglas. I always thought my logo is simple and yet so harmonious; to me it seems like a nice, elegant crescent. Currently, I make it using a material called "Syntonite", which is a combination of two acrylic materials.

When do you fit a pipe with an amber mouthpiece?
Well, I usually decide that before making the pipe by looking at the grain of the pipe; in some cases, an amber mouthpiece would enhance the beauty of the pipe. Anyway, I make very few pipes with an amber mouthpiece. I very much love the "cloudy" amber; also the transparent one is beautiful, but when smoked, the airhole in the mouthpiece starts getting black and dirty, and of course it shows.

Are your pipes fitted only with acrylic mouthpieces or you use vulcanite as well?
I use acrylic, cumberland and sometimes amber. I have never worked with vulcanite. I know that vulcanite is nice and comfortable, but it gets discolored fast.

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Pipe Making:

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How do you make your pipes, in steps (if possible)?
Very often, an idea for a pipe hits me during the night. I get up right away and design it on paper. The next day, I go and choose the right piece of briar for that shape. Sometimes I have some pieces that I work on simultaneously. I take one step as a time, from drilling up to the long process of sanding and then the finishing.

What is the most important element in deciding on a pipe shape?
It's definitely the grain. I try to follow the grain as much as possible.

Who helps you to make your pipes?
No one.

How long does it take you to make a pipe from A-Z?
Anything from 5 to 8 hours. Often I work the whole day without a break, and then as the end a big sandpit comes up, and that is the end of the pipe and many hours of hard work. Sometimes, I challenge the pipe and myself, and at the end I get what I want from the wood, but that is so difficult. Sometimes, I start to make a pipe with a very precise idea of what I want, but then at the end you find that you have something totally different.

How come you don't grade your pipes?
Simple: Go and ask a painter why he/she doesn't grade a painting. It's all too relative and subjective. It's great when you think it's great, and it's lousy when you see as lousy.

Do you have any favorite shapes?
I like making classic shapes, with my own interpretation. Often I make "sculptures" as well. I constantly have this urge to create pieces that are more sculptures than anything else.

Are there any particular classic shapes that you prefer?
Maybe it's the Canadian and the Lovat, but my own interpretation of those shapes, and not according to the book. For example, the mouthpiece plays an important role in the overall look and definition of a pipe shape. When I started making my mouthpieces in the early days, the ones I use today, people in the field thought I was nuts. They couldn't accept the diversity.

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Production & Distribution:

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When did you start exporting to the USA?
From 1984-85 till 1989-90.

Who are the US importers you have worked with?
Michael Butera, when he was working as an insurance agent, used to come here and buy briar from me; that was in the 1980s. He would also buy pipes from me, but only to smoke them, and he would ask me endless questions about pipe making. He then started making pipes of his own. Then, Bob Hamlin and Barry Levin came over and got some of my pipes, and then I started giving them my pipes. That didn't last long. Around 1994-95 the same two gentlemen and I met in Rome and I signed a contract with them. That day they bought 18 pipes from me. Sadly, and a short while later, Barry passed away, and the whole deal ended. Since then I have not sold my pipes in the USA.

Why is your production always limited?
It's always been limited. When I really worked hard, I would make up to 200 pipes a year, but that was in the past. Now, my annual production is a lot smaller. After all, it's the quality that counts and not the quantity.

What is the largest number of pipes you have produced per year so far? When?
Can't say per year, but during my first years as a full time pipe maker, I once worked so hard for one whole month, for so many hours a day everyday, and I produced about 60 pipes. At the end I wasn't happy with the quality of some of the pipes, and so I have never worked at that pace again. I now manage to make about 20 pipes a month when I work hard. During the summer months I can never make as many pipes as that.

Who stocks your pipes in Italy?
Well, three tobacco shops in different Italian cities have a few of my pipes, but that is a limited distribution, if I can call it so.

Are your pipes being sold anywhere in the world apart from Italy?
No. Now only you!

Why are your pipes so expensive?
It's all in the way I make my pipes. I believe to be the only one, at least in Italy, who works that way. I work with nothing but files and sandpaper, and as I said a pipe could take me two full days of hard work. When I work, I locked myself in my workshop, and I stay there the whole day without thinking of food or drink; I just make sure I have my pipes and enough tobacco.

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Pipe Smoking & Hobbies:

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What is your favorite pipe brand: as a smoker and as a maker?
My pipes in the first place, but I also have other brands such as a few Castello's and a Brebbia that Buzzi gave me.

How many pipes do you have in your private collection?
About 150.

On what bases do you decide to keep one of your finished pipes?
Well, I prefer that other people have my best pipes and see that they appreciate and cherish them. Sometimes, I get a strong desire to have a particular pipe, and then I make it for myself. I put away a pipe I made many years ago, and one special day I intend to smoke it. I made it for myself, and it is for no one but me.

When do you decide to pick up a new pipe and smoke it for the first time?
When I want to give myself a present.
How often does that happen?
4-5 times a year.

Do you have a favorite pipe? What and why?
YES. I have about 40 pipes that I smoke regularly. You know, Tarek, it's always a matter of emotion. It depends on what memories are related to a particular pipe. The same thing with tobaccos. When I started smoking a pipe, I smoked Prince Albert exclusively. It was then sold in a gorgeous tin, and I loved it. About 6 years ago, and after many years without smoking it, I decided to relive those magic moments, so I went and bought a pouch of Prince Albert. What a disappointment. It basically ruined a lot of good memories. Well, maybe it was my fault; maybe I had changed.

What are your favorite tobaccos?
I have always smoked a mixture of St. Bruno and Park Lane No. 7. I also like Escudo, and now thanks to you, Gawith Full Virginia and Flakes No. 7.

How many pipefuls do you smoke per day?
About 50g of tobacco lasts me about a day and a half. I easily smoke 250g per week.

Which is your favorite pipeful of the day?
Perhaps it's the last one right before going to bed. But, again, as soon as I get up, the first thing I look for is my pipe and a cup of coffee. I do that even before going to the bathroom!

How long have you been a pipe smoker?
About 35 years. I was 17 years old when I started.

What do you do in your free time?
I play tennis. I go to art galleries. I'm always in search for strong emotions. Sometimes it's enough for me to go a particular public square, especially one that has a unique monument or a sculpture. I think we Italians are blessed. Take for example Venice and Florence, and all the culture there is.
I also collect shoes. I have more than 140 pairs of shoes; I have several closets full of nothing but shoes upon shoes. I also love music. Good voices give me incredibly strong emotions. I listen to a wide variety of music, from the classical to jazz and blues.

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Pipe Market today:

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What in your opinion distinguishes the Italian pipe?
The Mediterrean passion. We put emotion in what we do. We also have the urge to search for new designs, relying on certain art trends. I have made pipes inspired by the work of famous artists such as Picasso and Dalì. I believe Italian pipes have always been popular in different degrees, and not only now.

Are you teaching any one the secrets of pipe making?
No, I'm not teaching anyone. I have tried, but for now I'm happy working alone. I prefer to work alone, with no one around me. I stay in my little workshop all alone the whole day. That requires a certain mentality and personality. I'm fine like that. On the other hand, I treat myself pretty well. I have some of the finest wines and champagnes in the world. I love cooking, and I have made dinner for tens of people at a time. I find myself in this way of life.

Do you intend to continue making pipes in the future? Why?
Absolutely, I live to make pipes, and that is what I intend to continue doing. Making pipes has become a part of me, and I have no intention of giving that up, I tell you.

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