Pipes

Talking Pipe Making with Sean Reum

When a friend from the straight razor community turned Sean Reum onto pipe smoking, it was inevitable that he’d take it beyond simple recreation. There’s a personality type that this pastime seems to attract—those who can’t help but to pull some creative venture from a hobby. Not enough to simply smoke a pipe, we chase down our fascination in pipe making, restoration, blending, podcasting, vlog/blogging—whatever it might be. For Reum, creative whims took him well beyond hobbyist tinkering.

Reum's interest in straight razor restoration translated to estate pipes, which quickly saw him taking up pipe making. Now about a decade on, Reum has garnered a reputation as a superb craftsman. With an unimpeachable attention to both aesthetics and mechanics, he is among the most celebrated American carvers on the scene, offering high-grade tobacco pipes at a reasonable price point. He also serves the hobby with the Beyond the Pipe podcast, which he cohosts with friend Chris Morgan (Morgan Pipes/Chris Morgan Tobacco).

I had the pleasure of talking with Reum about his pipe making journey and much more.

 

 


 

Let’s start with some background, how'd you get into pipes?

Well, about 10 years ago, maybe 10 and a half now, I just—I tried a pipe!

I used to restore straight razors, and there’s actually a big market for that. The wet shaving community—whether it's straight razor or double edge razor—it’s big and there are as many flavors and smells of shave soaps as there are types of tobacco. It’s amazing, everybody makes them handmade and it’s artisan stuff. So, a lot of the collecting habits that I got were from that industry.

 

 

But learning how to restore something and preserve the natural beauty of it rather than make it something else is what I really focused on. So, that translated really well to pipes. You have to make sure you’re not buffing off the stamping and that you’re buffing properly so you’re not rounding the corners off, making it so the stem doesn’t fit flush. Just basic stuff like that is super important.

Keeping the integrity of that original design.

Yeah, exactly. I would not consider myself a pipe restorer, but I did that at first. I started looking online, looking at all these really nice artisan pipes thinking, well, I’m never gonna afford these. These are amazing. Maybe I can try making one, you know?

I think that’s a pretty natural progression for a lot of carvers. To say, I don't want to buy this or I can't buy this so I'm gonna try to make it. And obviously that doesn't always work out that way, but I made my first pipe out of a kit. It was cool, I actually sold it for like 150 bucks.

I absolutely should not have sold it for that but somebody was really enthusiastic about it and the pipe community is very generous with new carvers. So, that just got me hooked. And then I made I think three or four pipes from kits and then after that I jumped into actually making them. The first couple I did I had a drill press, then I got a lathe—just a cheap wood lathe—and started learning to do stems by myself. That was hard, I mean, there’s a major learning curve. Some people can just do it, but pipe making’s a lot harder than it looks, you know?

So a lot of your restoration background was being applied to pipe making?

Well, it's a different world. I mean, there are skills that restorers have that I will never even attempt, and vice versa. You know, they’re going to have different tools and different skill sets that I will never have as a maker—it's a totally different thing. Some of the greatest pipe makers started off as restorers, and I think there's something to be said about that, but that's back in the days of being an apprentice and begging some legend to sweep their floor for two years, so you can get a chance.

Right, you have to wax on and wax off first.

Exactly, and things have changed.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Nowadays there are a lot of resources online. And a community, like you can call on experienced makers that you get to know, and that was more or less your trajectory, right?

Yeah, I was a YouTube carver I would say. I've definitely learned the majority of what I've done from YouTube. And I've talked to a lot of carvers over the phone and in person at shows and stuff like that. The pipe carving community is pretty awesome, like everybody’s pretty tight knit.

It’s a little competitive in certain price ranges, but for the most part everybody’s helpful and pretty generous with their time, because if you think about it, we’re like 1% of 1% of people who are interested in smoking at all. And pipe makers are a tiny percentage of that, so most of us get excited to just nerd out about our craft with another maker. Whether they’re in the same town or across the world, we’re a rare breed.

I can imagine it’s hard to be all cut-throat-competitive when it’s just a small field of people who share this niche interest, you just wanna talk!

Oh I love it, I can talk to somebody for hours just about pipe making and like concepts and ideas and it just gets me going, I love it.

So how long has it been a full time gig?

February is going to be six years full time.

Awesome, so what was it like making that transition?

It was always a dream. I remember sitting in my old garage smoking a pipe and reading a book or something and you know, searching Instagram and YouTube and checking out different pipes and everything and just thinking, man, this would be amazing to do this full time.

I never thought it was attainable for me I guess. Then, gosh, four years into it…I had just been making pipes when I could—in the evenings, weekends, and stuff like that. And I moved from Boise to Montana—back home 'cause Montana is home to me—and I was working as a pharmacy manager at Wal-Mart. I would come in early and I'd be done with everything by like 11. And so then I was just twiddling my thumbs for hours and I told my boss, who was the pharmacist, that I’d eventually like to go full time with pipes and he was supportive of that, but he just kind of shrugged it off.

 

 

Then I just start telling him, I’ve got everything done, this is wasting money on your payroll right now. How about you save some money and let me go home early? And he was cool with that so I was working half days, then I could come home and make pipes. Eventually that moved to less days of the week and I just slowly phased myself out of it.

And then they sort of pushed me out because I worked for the pharmacist, not Walmart, so the Walmart managers weren’t on the same page with the pharmacist. Right about the time that I’m talking to my boss about going full-time, the Walmart managers called me in and said, hey, corporate called, they said that you have no-call-no-shows every Friday for the last six months. I’m like, excuse me, I'm not on the schedule that day! So I just said, okay, well I'm done. I mean, I was ready to go full-time, but I didn't plan on it being like that.

It gave you that last push?

Yeah, that was the push I needed! And I’m very grateful for it.

So, I want to get into your style as a pipe maker. First of all I was enamored with one you posted recently, what you’re calling the Carved Blast series.

Yeah, I haven't fully decided if that's what I'm calling it or not, the Carved Blast series, but I carved it and then I blasted it. So, that's what fits for right now.

Makes sense!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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I'll probably do a few of those a year. That's not gonna be a regular thing I don't think. Unless people love it, which I guess then I'll do more. But I'm just kind of testing the waters with that. For the most part, I would like to consider my style very Danish, very lightweight, very elegant if I can call it that.

I like everything to have a nice flow. I think a bent pipe should have a nice S-curve going from one end to the other and just flowing. And that can be hard to achieve with certain shapes but you have to consider everything from the stem, to the accent, to the texture, to the color—and it all has to work together. I would like to think that I do a pretty good job of that. At least I'm happy with it so far.

And I try to keep pipes very light. Personally, I would much rather clench a pipe that’s an ounce or less. And so the majority of my pipes are close to an ounce to 1.2 ounces, unless people request something bigger. Although, I don't get many very specific commissions anymore.

Would you say that’s maybe an indicator of your progress? ‘Cause it sounds like people are coming to you not just to create their design, their vision—but because they want a Reum pipe. That seems like a milestone as a pipe maker.

Yeah, I would say that is a progression and I think a lot of carvers go through those different steps. When it first starts out, you're listening to your customers, which obviously you should, but you’re letting the customer dictate a lot of the pipe and that can be great. But what I’ve found is that most times, customers have an idea but they don’t know how to put it into words until they see it. And so shopping for a style from a maker is probably better than shopping for something very specific that you piece together from a few different makers to try to put into one pipe.

 

 

Pipes can get busy very fast. You’re not just looking at this as, okay, well I really like this green stem, but I also want a neon blue accent, and then I want a natural part of the briar here, and I also want it partially smooth. It's just so busy that you don't really know what the purpose of that pipe is. And I think for the most part, when you see really really nice, expensive pipes, they're pretty simple.

I mean, it's mostly grain that’s dictating whether that's an incredible pipe or not. You’ll see black stems for the most part on some of the most expensive pipes in the world, and there’s a reason for that. I personally think simple is better, and that’s very subjective obviously.

Yeah I think a lot of the style and beauty can come off of the little things and from looking at it as a whole, even if it’s not flashy or ornate.

Yeah, I found that flashy seems to be hiding something, whether it's intentional or not.

Right and it seems to me that with that simple elegance, you appreciate it more as you look at it. ‘Cause like you said, you think about the pipe in its entirety when designing it—you consider that flow through the whole thing.

Yeah, when you're looking at a pipe from the side, you should have a nice flow from the button to the bowl and there shouldn’t be anything in the middle that just kinks it, you know? Nothing that makes you stop and say, oh hey, look at this. It’s more of the overall, and then you start looking at the intricacies of it that really bring out the detail. But overall it should be cohesive.

You posted one recently that really illustrates that to me, a bulldog with this tall, rounded bowl. The diamond shank has hard edges. How that sturdiness transitions into the soft shape of the bowl—it’s something you think could clash, but those ridges naturally pull up into the heel. It’s interesting without being complicated.

It was fun. That one is nice, but I was pretty lucky on the grain. I remember I thought it had a fairly simple stem didn’t it? There’s been a few pipes since then.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Though that was posted not long ago, you’re really pulling ‘em out, huh?

I make a lot of pipes! I used to do things in big batches and I'm slowly working out of that just to save my hands. I've been really focusing on making sure that I'm stretching and resting. I used to try to bust out doing the slots on 10 stems at a time 'cause it really doesn't take that much time, but it's a lot of tension on my hands for an extended period.

Tell me a bit about working stems.

So, my stems get funneled all the way down, and so there’s no pinch point. I use a tapered bit from the tenon side into the stem and then about an inch from the end it’ll taper down. A lot of times you’ll see pipes that have this beautiful funnel but then it goes to that pinch point and it doesn’t actually funnel all the way down like it should. It can create turbulence that leads to moisture and gunk buildup and so it’s really worth it taking that extra time to make sure it’s funneling all the way. That’s a lot of the difference between a really good smoking pipe and a mediocre smoking pipe.

The physics are really important.

Yeah, the internals are extremely important. You know, a lot of people say, well, what shape smokes the best. I don’t really believe in that. It all comes down to the internals in my opinion.

 

 

So as for influence, I understand there’s a lot of influence from the big Danish carvers, yeah?

Yeah, absolutely. I've always loved the work of Tom Eltang and Hans Former Nielsen. I mean, they're just absolute legends in their own right. I love their work, it's just incredible what they've been able to do. But then, you know, Sixten and Lars Ivarsson, they're incredible too. Then in America, we've got some guys like Jeff Gracik and Tyler Beard, and Micah Cryder of Yeti pipes. I mean, I've admired all of their stuff for so long. I just pull inspiration from everywhere, really. I wouldn't say that I try to copy the style of any one maker. I would like to think that it's a melting pot of everything.

Of course. And so thinking of more recently, which could be the last few years even, do you see a lot of change in your style or approach?

Yeah, I think pipes have gotten lighter, lighter in weight. So, that's forced me to look at how much more I can shave off of an area, but then also have that balance somewhere else, because balance is so important in the pipe. So I’ve really focused on that.

And I’ve really been focusing on my blasting. I'm really happy with my sandblast lately. A lot of that is luck. Good briar is hard to come by these days and briar that blasts well is very hard to come by. It’s always been luck for the most part, but there’s a lot of technique and there’s a lot of equipment that goes into it, and I’ve really been pleased with the ring grain blast that I’ve been getting lately.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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There's a certain Lovat that I did that had the most beautiful ring grain all the way around and that pipe’s going to be the death of me because every single person is like I need that! That’s not gonna happen—that’s not typical.

You can’t just snap your fingers and replicate that.

No, I’m not J. T. Cooke!

What I’ve mainly been focusing on in the last few years is grain orientation. And there's a lot of people that will have a perfectly smooth pipe, but then the grain is completely bald on one side, or there's birds eye where it shouldn't be, or there's maybe some straight grain here, but then the opposite side’s just boring. I wouldn’t make that a smooth, and because it wouldn't be a smooth, it wouldn't be a good blast.

I see, 'cause you're depending on that grain to bring out something beautiful that goes with the shape.

Yeah, and so ring grain—for a good blast that follows the shape—is exposed perpendicular to your straight grain. So, if you make your straight grain flow with the pipe and it doesn't work out as a smooth, then you're going to have ring grain that goes around that pipe. So, if neither of those work out, or there are too many pits that don’t blast out, then that would be a rustication.

About nine years ago I came up with what I call the Chip Blast, but it’s not a blast, it’s a hand rustication. People liked it because it was kind of similar to the Castello Sea Rock. Nothing can really match that, it’s pretty incredible, but my Chip Blast made pipes lighter ‘cause it took off a lot of material. I was able to get cool contrast with it, but ultimately, it's really hard on my hands and on my elbows and just body. I mean, it’s rusticating a pipe. If you've ever tried, it is not really an easy process.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Especially a really craggy rustication like that I imagine.

Yeah, and so I don't do that very much anymore. Maybe I’ll bring them back if people really want them, but for the most part, I've just been focusing on sandblasts and smooths when they become available.

Right, you gotta save the strength for the slots.

Yeah, exactly!

So, is there anything in particular that you're looking to conquer going forward, be it a certain skill, use of a material, shape—anything like that?

A few things. I got a block of morta—I'm gonna try making a morta pipe for the first time.

Some guys have great success with that, some don't. I've heard it's just terribly hard on tools, so we'll see how that goes. I might just get really frustrated and never want to do it again, we'll see.

I'd like to start doing more silver work and learning the art of silver spinning. But the resources online are very, very limited. It's such a lost art. There's a couple carvers—Chris Asterios comes to mind who just does incredible silverwork. And he does it all by hand, it’s very impressive. I would like to get into that eventually. I know Jeremiah Sandahl does some silverwork by hand that's also really impressive. I just haven't jumped into it yet.

I may start casting my own rod stock at some point and making my own stem material just 'cause there's so much flexibility in that, and cool things I could do with accents. But for the most part, I mean, pipes are always evolving. Style is always evolving. You can always ask, how can I make this thing look just a little bit better? So, I don't think that there's really any one thing that I'm set on conquering.

On the subject of stem material, so you mostly use ebonite—never acrylic?

It's very rare that I do acrylic. I have a lot of acrylics that I use for accents. There's a couple acrylics that I use, like a tortoiseshell one that I use occasionally, but acrylic is so hard to work with. I see a lot of new carvers that just jump for acrylic every time because it's cheap, but usually it's bright colors that don't really work on a pipe. But also, man, you are spending twice as much time making that stem than with ebonite.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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A lot of people like the ease of keeping it clean and looking nice, but for the most part, if your maker is using quality, modern ebonite, you don't really have the oxidation issues anymore. A lot of factories use pre-made stems, so there's still going to be an injection molded type of vulcanite that is very high in sulfur content, and that’s what oxidizes stems, especially if they've had exposure to sun, and then they turn brown. But modern ebonite for the most part doesn’t do that.

I’ve got stems that are on pipes that I made 6 or 7 years ago that still look new. So, I don't really like acrylic because it's not worth it to me. Sometimes people really, really want it, and sometimes I'll do it, but it's not a regular thing.

And there’s another material you’ve mentioned you use—

Alumilite.

Alumilite—tell me what that’s about.

Alumilite cuts like butter. It's great. It's light, and it’s got a similar mouthfeel to cumberland and ebonite.

So you’re making a pipe and have to choose between ebonite and alumalite—what influences that decision? When do you decide to bring out the alumalite?

A lot of that is how I want the overall pipe to look. So, if I've got something that's very bright colored, I'll do it. But then you're also gonna have a fairly simple looking pipe, like if I've got a really bright colored stem, you're probably gonna have a black sandblast or a natural sandblast 'cause I want one of them to be the star while still looking good overall. Like, you'd never see something that has a brightly colored stem, and a silver band, and then a really intense ring grain, and an intense contrast blast. It’s gonna look too busy.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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You want a focal point and for other things to enhance it but not get in the way of it, yeah?

Yes, I try to make sure that that's part of my design process. That goes back to trusting your maker. You know, you're wanting a pipe from them because of the style that they put forward. Not throwing the kitchen sink at them to make everything you want in one pipe. It doesn't always look good.

Absolutely. So, you also co-host the Beyond the Pipe podcast. What’s the story with that?

So my buddy, Chris Morgan of Morgan pipes—most people know him as the bones guy [referencing Morgan’s popular Morgan Bones line]. He's also a high-grade, handmade maker and him and I have been friends for a lot of years now.

We wanted to have a podcast that was very relaxed, you know. I wanted it to sound like a couple friends just sitting and talking about everything—not necessarily just pipes, because at the end of the day, we're all people that have many, many interests and pipes are the thing that brings us all together. But there's so much more to celebrate about all of our customers and friends in the community and peers, and we all have really cool stuff to bring to the table that’s not just pipes. So, we wanted to make sure we were focusing on that too.

We'll have guests from all different backgrounds. I actually try to make it a point that when we have a guest on who is a pipe maker or an influential pipe person, we don't even talk about pipes. Everybody knows about them for the most part, I want to know about the other stuff. It’s been a lot of fun.

I like that! If someone wanted to check it out, is there an episode that sticks out you’d suggest starting with?

I would start with the first one or two or three episodes and just go from there. That'll give you a good idea of what it’s gonna be like and see if it hooks you in. It's on Spotify and Apple and Google Podcasts and Stitcher—pretty much all the major ones.

We're recording our third season now and we're trying to do it as consistently as possible, but we both run multiple businesses and we have little kids so having a weekly recording doesn't always happen.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Since it’s Tobacco Reviews, I like to finish off asking about the tobacco side. What’s your taste like?

I typically will lean towards Virginias and VaPers. I can't get enough of Perique. I'm one of the weirdos—I'll smoke something that's got 25 or 30% Perique in it. As long as it’s good quality and it’s got some age, I can't get enough of that, it's like candy to me.

Currently I'm smoking some [Comoy’s] Cask #7 from 2012. It’s my favorite tobacco, so sad that it’s no longer around. Close second would probably be Escudo, which is a very similar tobacco, and then [G. L. Pease] Sixpence and [Drucquer & Sons] Loch Ness actually, even though it's got a little bit of Latakia, that's a really good one that I tried recently. I'll occasionally jump into English blends, but they've gotta be really light on the Latakia, you know, more like a Balkan. Very, very Virginia or Oriental forward with a little Latakia—that works for me. Squadron Leader with Perique is fantastic, but you can't get that either. I don’t know if they’re ever gonna do another batch!

 

 


 

Reum takes commissions through email or Instagram direct message. He will also regularly update his Instagram with available pipes. (But you have to jump quickly! Only two pipes in the last six years have lasted more than 9 hours). 

Batches of Reum pipes are also available on TobaccoPipes.com and CupoJoes.com from time to time.


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