“Quality is the most important thing of all. No one will ever get a pipe from us that is poorly made.” Those are the words from the new president of the Stanwell factory, Søren Aagaard, and during our conversation he often mentions that special word – Quality.
Søren Lundh Aagaard became president for the Stanwell factory in December 2007. He has an education as a cabinet-maker, and was so successful in his profession that he got a reward from the Danish queen. For some reason, he can not explain why, he was recruited by an international company to work with PR and marketing. For two years he was marketing different kinds of “life style articles” on the international market. Evidently he was very successful here as well, for a headhunter advised him to apply for the job as president for the Stanwell factory, which was soon to be vacant. It is not hard to imagine why Søren, with an experience of both handicraft and marketing, was considered to be the right man for that job. But it must also have been tempting for Søren to get a job, in which he could combine his two specialties. For even if Stanwell is producing factory made pipes, there is a lot of handicraft involved.
Briar of the highest quality
I visited the factory in the beginning of October. I was first shown around the factory and that tour started in the storage for briar. There are two store-rooms, one that is not heated and one with ordinary room temperature. The briar is stored in the cold room for about one month and then the blocks are moved into the tempered room. That is because the briar needs to dry slowly, not to crack. With an instrument the moistness in the blocks is controlled and when it is 8 – 10 % the blocks are ready to be used. That will take about 6 months. Stanwell continuously store 60 to 80 thousand blocks and they are all plateau, blocks of the highest quality with the knotty side left.
A lot of handicraft
In the automated society we live in today, we are more or less used to that the material is put into one end of a machine and the finished product comes out in the other. That is not at all true when it comes to pipes. I wish that every pipe-smoker once had the opportunity to visit a pipe factory to see, how much handiwork that is involved even in a factory-made pipe.
When the blocks are taken from the storage they are first sorted, so that the size will suit the shape that is to be made. Then they are sawed to get exactly the right size. The tobacco-hole is drilled and the top of the head is formed in two different machines. Then it is time for the copying machine to start working.
Stanwell has two copying machines, one that is old and can make four pipes at a time, and another modern machine with the double capacity. The old machine is mechanically guided, which means that you have to make a model of the shape in stainless steel, while the modern one is controlled by a computer. That machine measures the pipe from an ordinary wooden model, so that you can avoid the expensive and time-consuming work to make a model.
But the pipe is not ready when the copying machine has made its work. The surface is quite rough and has to be sanded, and the smoke channel and the hole for the tenon have to be drilled. That is made on a lathe in about the same way as an individual pipemaker makes it. The only difference is – as many pipes in the same shape are made – that equipment for that specific shape is made, so that the pipes can be drilled quite quickly.
An important part – the stem
All Stanwell pipes are nowadays made with acrylic stems. But also a stem requires quite a lot of handicraft. At my visit a lady was sanding and polishing the end of the stems, so that they became perfect and shining before the tenons were fit.
Stanwell has an ‘S’ and a ‘Crown’ in brass or silver in the stems and no trouble is spared to fit them perfectly. First the logo is engraved on the stem, then an “S” and a crown is taken with a pair of tweezers and fit into the engraving. A tap with a hammer finishes the process. That is a finicky job that has to be done with the utmost precision. If the S or the Crown are not perfectly right placed in the engraving, or the tap with the hammer is a little aslant, the stem is ruined. But before the logo is put on the stem, a very important process takes place – the classification.
Classification and polishing
A single lady is responsible for the classification of the pipes, a task that requires experience, knowledge and a critical eye. The only thing to her help is a glass of water, used to moisten the pipes so that she can see the graining better. Søren tells me that the lady, who for a long time has had this important job, will retire in about half a year, but the training of a successor has started.
The pipes are sorted into five groups and the very best are marked FF, fault free. Today the groups are marked by colors but soon that will be changed into 1 – 5 stars, which will also be stamped on the pipes.
Then there is time for staining and polishing. The first stain is brownish and it is polished away – the purpose is to make the grain more outstanding. After that a pipe is normally stained three times.
Polishing is a job completely made by hand. To polish a pipe correctly and fast requires ability and a lot of practice. It is not easy to find capable men or women to do the job, and it takes quite a long time to train a good polisher.
So it is a long process to make a pipe. It is worth to notice that this process is the same, if it is a cheap pipe or one that costs considerably more. The only difference may be at the end, when perhaps a little more care is taken to polish one of the very best pipes.
Half of the pipes are sandblasted
A proof that Stanwell makes heavy demands on quality is that half of the pipes are sandblasted. And that despite the fact that they are only using briar of the very best quality. That is the highest figure I have heard from any factory.
As an enthusiast for sandblasted pipes, I have to state with emphasis: A sandblasted pipe is not an inferior pipe! A pipe that is sandblasted has small faults in the surface (sandspots), but those spots have no importance on the quality of the pipe. On the contrary, a pipe that is sandblasted has to have a tight grain. If it has not, it will not be able to sandblast that pipe. So you may say that when you buy a sandblasted pipe, you have a guarantee that the briar is of a high quality.
Recently Stanwell has changed the material for sandblasting, using glass instead of sand. The advantage is that the small details in the grain become more visible, like the small dots on a pipe with ‘bird’s eyes’.
Adornments in metal
Sometimes Stanwell puts adornment in brass or silver (sometimes even in gold) on their pipes. One example is the series Gilt-Edged. These adornments are fit with great care. I thought they were just glued on the pipe, but they are also attached with small nails in the same material. When the ring has been polished, these small nails are almost impossible to see, but they are a guarantee that the ring will not eventually fall off.
Stanwell’s pipes are found in a lot of grades. Just 1 % of the pipes made are good enough to be in one of the highest grades, which are:
Unique A and B: ‘A’ is the very highest grade and is very light in color; ‘B’ has a reddish-brown color.
Masterpiece is entirely black. A block completely free from faults is necessary to make a pipe like this. Any little sandspot or irregularity will be clearly exposed when the pipe is polished. Those pipes are stained 10 times to get the very deep black nuance. All pipes in this series are numbered.
Bambu 1 and 2: As the name says it is a pipe with a shank from bamboo.
Sterling 1 and 2: A pipe with a one millimeter thick ring from silver inset in the shank.
Then there are a lot of less expensive grades.
A considerable export
Stanwell is making about 70000 pipes a year and they are exported to 48 countries. The most important markets are Denmark, Germany, the USA and Switzerland, but countries like Russia and China are gaining ground. Stanwell also owns the trademarks Georg Jensen and W. Ø. Larsen. However, the Larsen pipes are not made in the factory but by individual pipemakers, but the material comes from Stanwell. Stanwell is also responsible for the marketing and distribution.
As mentioned before there are as many steps in the manufacturing process of a cheap pipe as in one of the highest grades. To keep the costs down on the cheap pipes, Stanwell is projecting a factory in Poland, where they intend to make those pipes. That factory is not meant only to make Stanwell’s pipes, but also pipes from several other factories, which have exactly the same problem. It is estimated to be ready in about two years. Søren Aagaard has in his earlier profession as a cabinet-maker been working a lot with Poles, and he has a great confidence in their ability as craftsmen.
A thrilling future
There will be a lot of news from Stanwell in the near future. The annual pipe for 2009 will soon be on the market and so will the X-mas pipe. A Blowfish, designed by Tom Eltang, will also soon be out.
In the 1950s Stanwell started cooperation with the most famous pipemaker of that time, Sixten Ivarsson, who designed a lot of shapes for Stanwell. In my opinion it was very far-seeing to look upon the Danish individual pipemakers as a resource, not as competitors. Stanwell has stuck to that philosophy and many of the very best Danish pipemakers have designed pipes for Stanwell. Now they are establishing cooperation with the new generation of young Danish pipemakers, and it all starts with Nanna Ivarsson. It is really nice that the granddaughter of Sixten Ivarsson, who started it all, is the very first. Nanna has made two new shapes for Stanwell, which will be released next year.
I felt in high spirits when leaving the factory. I had met enthusiasm as well as pride over what they are producing and there was a significant optimism for the future. Stanwell is not walking in old traces but are open to changes, but they are also keeping the old good traditions. And quality is the golden rule.