It’s an irony of auto racing that going fast on the race track requires a slow, detailed and meticulous approach in the race shop. The difference between being the fastest qualifier and missing the race can often be counted in tenths or even hundredths of a second, and months of pre-race preparation differentiates the winners from the “also-rans.” Nobody knows this better than the men and women who work on race cars, who spend countless hours away from their families trying to make their cars the best they can be. The careful and painstaking nature of race car preparation requires huge amounts of discipline so that each crew member maintains his or her full attention on their jobs. A shortcut or careless maintenance could mean disaster on the racetrack. For Nate King, time spent as a racing transmission specialist, and later as an aircraft mechanic, served as the perfect preparation for a career as a pipemaker.
King, who will turn 40 this year, has been involved in racing for most of his life, getting his start when he was eight years old and helping older family members work on cars. He later spent more than 12 years traveling the Champ Car, IndyCar and NASCAR circuits. He has logged countless hours working in the race shop, preparing transmissions for races, responsible for maximizing how the race car’s engine, drive train and transmission power the car on the track. He has also served as a pit crew member, experiencing the adrenaline rush of jumping over the pit wall to change tires and fuel the car as quickly as possible, all the while facing the danger of being hit by other cars or igniting fuel and sparking a fire. Transmissions that King took part in building have twice won the Indianapolis 500—in 1998 with Eddie Cheever and again in 2004 with Buddy Rice—but the busy racing schedule and an uncertain future in racing led King to leave the sport in 2007 to become an aircraft mechanic.
“Working on racing transmissions requires a lot of focus and a detail-oriented way to get the job done,” King says. “I also got to do a lot of fabricating as a transmission specialist. I spent a lot of hours shaving a thousandth of an inch off of a gear’s metal surface to lighten it and make the car go faster. Being an aircraft mechanic required just as much attention to detail. It all served me well when I began making pipes.”
Birth of a Pipemaker
King became interested in pipes a couple of years before he got into aviation. He and some friends went to a local smoke shop to buy cigars for an upcoming bachelor party. While most of the others picked up cigars, King and a couple of friends bought pipes. Having worked in racing and now toiling on airplanes, King worked in high-pressure environments, and he found that enjoying a pipe brought contentment and relaxation.
Using eBay, King built his collection by buying estate pipes. He’d often find a pipe he wanted for sale among a lot of several other pipes. King would buy all the pipes in the lot, keep the one he wanted and restore the others to sell again on eBay. King estimates that approximately 1,200 pipes came through his hands in four years, giving him the opportunity to study them and see what characteristics different pipes offered smokers. Naturally, King soon attempted to make his own first pipe. While he describes that first pipe as “atrocious” and one that will never see the light of day again, King caught the pipemaking bug. He contacted other pipemakers, including Wayne Tiepen from nearby Cloverdale, Indiana, for pipemaking tips, especially those concerning a pipe’s internal engineering. When he was laid off from his aviation maintenance job in 2012, King decided to pursue pipemaking full time.
Back to the Future
King makes approximately 100 pipes annually, and the retail prices begin at approximately $400 for a sandblasted straight pipe with a black finish and can extend to as much as $3,000 for his highest-grade pipes, Crown and Sceptre. Crown pipes are smooth pipes, while Sceptre pipes are sandblasted. Pipes in both series display exceptional grain. The highest price that King received for one of his pipes was for a commission for a pipe inspired by an old-style microphone. King earned $4,000 for that one. While the special and unique pipe series attract a lot of attention, King mostly makes classically inspired pipes. For these, he again turns to nature for inspiration, and he also studies architecture, sculpting and painting for ideas.