Pipe Maker Q+A with Russ Cook of Russ Cook Pipes

How well do you know Russ? What follows is an funny, honest, and insightful interview.

I hope you enjoy it.

DN: Before we get started, tell us a little about yourself. 
RC: I'm from the Central Michigan area, and have been making pipes since 1998 on a small scale until 2002. After that, I started attending pipe shows  and realized that using better aged briar and hand cut stems would make a much nicer pipe than what I had been making before. You could say that I've been doing it in a small but big way since 2002. Today, I'm very proud of the work that I do and feel that my pipes are very well engineered and comfortable. 

DN: What got you into hand made pipes?
RC: I started smoking pipes in 1997 to avoid smoking cigarettes, and it worked! I've always enjoyed woodworking, and felt that I could make pipes for my own enjoyment. As soon as friends expressed they might want one too, it snowballed from there.

DN: What is your greatest achievement as a pipe maker?
RC: Being known as a pipe maker and enjoying my friendships throughout the pipe world. It's always great for me to see old friends at pipe shows, and meeting new ones. Looking back at what I was making in 1998 to today, the progress I have made is probably my greatest achievement-- though I honestly get more from the bonds I've made.

DN: What has been your biggest struggle/ challenge?
RC: Thinking outside of the box of traditional shapes. I personally really like traditional shapes, but bringing cool ideas into reality is a struggle for me.

DN: Do you have any pipe makers you draw inspiration from or admire?
RC: Nobody in particular, but I do really enjoy looking at different interpretations of shapes and styles, and trying to make it my own. 

DN: When you're not in the shop, what hobbies do you have to fill the time?
RC: I work full time, but I enjoy camping and hunting (mostly whitetail bucks), and take a lot of pride in maintaining a fairly large yard. I'm also a NASCAR nut and a shameless Jimmy Johnson fan.

DN: How many pipes do you make a year?
RC: It depends on the amount of time I have. As a hobbyist it can sometimes be difficult to get in the shop as much as I would like, but typically I end up with around 20-30 pipes a year. With the time that I do get, I'd rather commit that time to quality over quantity.

DN: What is your ideal smoking setting?
RC: I don't smoke in the house, so most of my smoking is done in my workshop. I enjoy drinking a cold beer alongside some of my favorite virginia blends. Most of my smoking is done alone, but occasionally I get visitors up and I get a lot of pleasure out of that. Sometimes they are longtime clients, so it's fun for me to talk them through a commission and help them help me choose the right materials.

DN: What is your favorite pipe show, and why?
RC: Columbus for sure. It was the first show that I truly got noticed. It generates a lot of sales for me, and it's a small but tight knit group that I look forward to seeing every year. The curators and club always do a great job putting it on and I've never had a problem.

DN: Do you take commissions? If so, what is that process like?
RC:  Absolutely, most of the pipes I make every year are commissions. I have a lot of fun with the process, and all it takes is a conversation to get the ball rolling.

DN: What kind of pipe is your favorite to make? 
RC: The wax drip is one of the toughest pipes to make convincingly. Some love them, some hate them. Over the years I've become known as one of the four pipe makers in the US who do them well. I love the look of them, personally, and despite the long process of making one I do enjoy the challenge. Finding variety in the the shape is fun, too. Usually I use the Acorn shape, but in the past few years I've been exploring using the wax drip on Pokers, Volcanoes, and others.

DN: If you could pick one pipe maker to hang out with for a day and learn from, who would it be and why?
RC: Two names come to my mind: Abe Herbaugh and Bill Shalosky. They both have great personalities and are very creative. I would love to see some of their tricks and techniques in their own workspaces. Right now, I own two Herbaugh pipes (and want more), but I'm looking to buy one of Bill's pipes in the future. I really admire them for their aesthetic and think it would be fun to pick their brains on a few things.

DN: What is the coolest pipe in your collection? How did you come by it?
RC: Easy. It's my small Heeschen volcano. I borrowed it from a friend years ago and enjoyed it for a time and returned it. To my surprise, it showed up in my mailbox 10 years later and I've been enjoying it ever since. It turns out he was depleting his collection and sent it to me because he knew how much I liked it. 

DN: Tell me one thing that most people wouldn't know about you.
RC: I would love to avoid this question if I could, but it would surprise people to know that I'm not a terribly patient person. And maybe that's just a lack of patience for incompetent and lazy people, but it's always hard to admit your own faults. I know it sounds contradictory, but I'm a social butterfly as well.

DN: What is the coolest material you have used in making pipes?
RC: I use a lot of Corian on my pipes for shank extensions and accents on a stem. It's actually a kitchen countertop material, but when you work it on the lathe it turns out to look really cool as an adornment on a pipe. It's a very cool material, it sort of reminds me of granite. Each piece is completely different and unique.

DN: Where do you find value in pipe making?
RC: The enjoyment of making a high quality pipe at a fair price, and watching my clients get excited about my work. Very often my customers come back to buy another pipe after their first, and that gives me a pretty big sense of accomplishment and pride.

DN: Just as every burger joint has a 'secret sauce' to make their burgers stand out, what do you think sets you apart from the crowd with your work?
RC: I feel my pipes are engineered very well, and spend a lot of time with the fit and finish of my pipes. I also think that my stemwork is extremely comfortable. But again, this is just feedback I've gotten from my customers over the years. 

DN: What is the best way to get in touch with you? 
CL: I prefer email to start out with, but after that things usually progress to a phone call. My email is RussCookPipes@hotmail.com. You're always welcome to have a chat with me at a pipe show as well. I typically go to the Columbus and Chicago Pipe Shows every year.

DN: And finally-- a curveball: Ask me anything!
RC: For a guy like you who collects and smokes American made pipes, what makes a pipe appealing for you to smoke?
DN: There are a few criteria I put pipes through before I buy them: To start I need to like the shape and finish; if we're being honest that is what most folks look at when thinking about buying a new pipe. After that I look at the engineering and ensure the pipe will pass the 'pipe cleaner test', as well as looking at the stem to make sure it will be comfortable in the mouth, and the slot is deep and polished. The last test I put a pipe through is making sure that it's within my budget (at least reasonably), and talking with the pipe maker to see if they are worth doing business with. Most often, I've found I enjoy being a repeat customer to those makers who design a pipe well, that smokes well, is comfortable, priced accordingly, and have a demeanor that is positive.