I owe Dr. Grabow an apology

I’m not particularly jingoistic, but my last pipe-smoking adventure with a Dr. Grabow Grand Duke left me sputtering that an American manufacturing concern could make such a dreadful pipe. I complained a lot about its fit and finish, not to mention how rough it smoked. A couple days ago, I realized I messed up a little. Sorry, Dr. Grabow! I owe you an apology! Sort of.

My Dr. Grabow Grand Duke.

Let me set the stage: I started smoking a pipe in college when I was nineteen. All of mine -classic Petersons, Stanwells, Savinellis, and Lorenzos- came from my dad, who gave me the ones he no longer regularly smoked. I quit smoking for a decade after Dad died unexpectedly, but resumed the habit and hobby a few years ago. Although I still had most of Dad’s old pipes, I decided to start fresh with ones I bought myself. I did a lot of research before I whipped out the credit card. I found that most people on the pipe-smoking forums I looked at focused on the overwhelming variety of tobaccos instead of the pipes themselves. 

A Dr. Grabow ad from the 1920s or 1930s. I would not use the Dr. Grabow pipe-smoking machine myself.

I am not that person. I’d smoke dried-up pine needles and charcoal briquettes if they gave me a nicotine buzz! To me, the allure of smoking is illogical and romantic: by selecting a pipe, breaking it in, and taking care of it, I was adopting some combination of a lifelong friend, pet, and confidant! As I browsed the internet, I found that my opinion seemed to be in the minority. Most smokers who posted online were happy to puff away sixty dollars of specialty tobacco from a pipe that cost far less and came in a blister pack like a set of Pokemon cards.

Something like the bare-bones Nørding Compass is a fine alternative to Dr. Grabow.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but I came from a different angle since the pipes Dad gave me were of such high quality, though certainly heavily used. At the time, I worked as a quality analyst on a factory floor. I was sure that cheap pipes from reputable marquees like the Rossi PiccoloRopp Etudiante Nørding Compass, and Scott’s Burner Series represented better value for my dollar and more prestige than what International Pipes & Accessories offered under their Dr. Grabow line. Nevertheless, I thought due diligence was important so I bought one for about $50 with low expectations. 

This giant nick in the bulldog’s upper cone was apparent right out of the box, as were some putty fills such as the one just southeast of the letter E in GRAND DUKE.

The pipe met those expectations. Carving issues obscured the defining lines of the pipe’s bulldog shape. Tons of pits in the briar had been filled with putty. The inner bowl coating was rough, and the mortise -the hole where the stem meets the stummel- was drilled far off-center. My job familiarized me with the difficulties aging machinery, a transient workforce, and the lack of capital investment can impose on a niche industry, but there’s no way I’d ever release a pipe with that many flaws to the public if I caught it unless it was standard procedure to do so!

The stem and shank of the Grand Duke didn’t line up. Not remotely.

I knew I was being critical of a cheap pipe, but none of the other cheapies I’d smoked from other brands had anywhere near that many problems, which combined to provide me with a particularly acrid smoke. The worst issue was strictly visual: the bit and stummel of the Dr. Grabow didn’t line up. At all. I twisted the stem to line up with one corner of the diamond-shaped shank, which only led the other three towards a gaudy misalignment. No matter how I monkeyed with it, the stem simply wouldn’t mesh with the briar.

That’s where I messed up. I was so critical of the pipe and predisposed to focus on its failings that I missed something stupidly obvious, which is why I owe Dr. Grabow an apology.

The Dr. Grabow Grand Duke, with its stem attached properly.

I don’t smoke indoors, so the pipe sat in the console of my car for about a year after I put it through its paces. I contemplated giving it the biggest glam-up of the tobacco world by converting it to an E-Pipe. Then my brother and I went out to lunch on Super Bowl Sunday. On the way to the steakhouse, he pulled the Grabow from under the dash and took the pipe apart to examine it. The stem and shank were perfectly aligned when he put it back together! “H-h-how?” I stammered.

“You had the stem on upside down,” he replied. Ope!

A closer inspection revealed that I had, indeed, put the mouthpiece back on the pipe the wrong way after I’d looked at the mortise. I couldn’t believe I’d made such a fundamental mistake, albeit one that had no impact on how the pipe smoked. I was certain that the Dr. Grabow must have come to me in the wrong configuration until I looked at a photo I took when it was still in its blister pack. Sure enough, the little spade icon printed on the top of the stem was right where John set it, and no alignment issues were visible.

The white spade printed on the mouthpiece, sort of visible here as a splotch just above where the briar shank ends, confirms that I effed up.

Here’s my apology, Dr. Grabow. Please take note of it, International Pipes & Accessories of Sparta, North Carolina: dings, carving mistakes, pits in the briar, and badly-applied bowl coatings are all flaws present in your pipes. Smoking them is not a great experience, and I still think a discriminating smoker should look at the Rossi Piccolos, the Ropp Etudiantes, and the Nørding Compasses of the world, which all offer a better smoking experience and fewer flaws.

That being said, the stem and stummel of my Dr.Grabow Grand Duke do actually line up together. It just takes an intelligent person like my brother to put assemble them properly. My bad!

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