Giacomo Penzo, the man behind the G. Penzo Pipes, is known for a hybrid approach to pipemaking — using his background in industrial design to craft a tool designed to work efficiently, but also one which exudes a sense of stylistic character. Be it Danish-inspired takes on the classics, more overtly Italian renditions, or — more recently — a more English bent from his tenure at Peterson, each of his takes is more impressive than the last.
Federica and I recently sat down with Giacomo to chat about his beginnings in the craft, what's new in his life, and how more recent events have changed his approach to pipemaking.
(Please note that this interview was initially conducted in Italian, and was translated by Federica Bruno and edited in English for grammar and clarity by Adam O'Neill.)
You've been making pipes for some time now, especially for a younger guy. Can you tell us about how you got your start in the industry?
I started to take an interest in pipes when I was 17 — between 2008 and 2009 — while attending high school. I tried to smoke cigars with some friends, all of us being fascinated by tobacco and smoking in general, which was kind of a taboo at our age. I found I liked the taste of tobacco, and started to grow an interest in its practical use until I had, quite inevitably, a flash of inspiration about pipes. At the time I attended an arts high school, and was excelling in sculpture. I learned how to model clay and plaster, how to develop and master my technical and manual skills, and how to express my artistic sensitivity. At home I had access to a proper DIY workshop which my dad and grandfather used for maintenance around the house and in the garden. So I had at my disposal a real arsenal of tools that helped and encouraged my desire of fabricating, inventing and experimenting. It didn't take long for me to start making early examples that at least somewhat resembled pipes.
Through experimentation and study, my affection for making pipes grew to such an extent as to make it a full blown hobby and a real passion. I did a lot of research and bought some books like Aldo Pellissone's "Pipa Hobby", a book about pipe making as a hobby which soon became my pipemaking Bible. Eventually I figured out that what I liked so much was that it allowed me to use my natural skills and fully satisfy my infatuation for creating, a drive which has been with me since I was a kid. Driven by a willingness to improve my work but not knowing anyone who smoked or made pipes, I started following online forums of enthusiastic pipe smokers and collectors, and presenting my work. Thanks to the advice I received there, I could see my pipes improving constantly. Once, during a meeting of enthusiasts and collectors in Padua, I met Massimiliano Rimensi of "Il Duca", who after a while would welcome me into his workshop, giving me the chance to improve myself further. Before long I started to make pipes on a commission basis, and soon after they were being noticed by retailers, growing demand again.
It didn't take long for me to start making early examples that at least somewhat resembled pipes.
While studying Industrial Design in college, at the IUAV (Università Iuav di Venezia) in Venice, I extensively studied design, both practical and theoretical, both of which were invaluable to my craft. Carving a pipe entails a lot of planning aspects that go under the Industrial Design field, which is at least in part why a lot of designers end up showing an interest in pipes and themselves becoming talented pipe makers. After the graduation in Industrial Design in 2013, I interned for a while in a Design Office that engineers power tools such as drills, circular saws, etc. Industrial Design at that scale involves mostly sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day, which was neither my cup of tea nor the reason I got into the field to begin with. I was constantly thinking about the pipes I wanted to make and the ones I was making for my customers. So, taking into account the increasing amount of orders from both private customers and retailers, I decided in 2015 to turn my passion into a job. I started my own business, giving birth to G. Penzo Pipes, at first focusing on the domestic Italian market, and then in 2016 attending my first Chicago Pipe Show and the Chengde International Pipe Show in China. The response to my pipes was so overwhelmingly positive that in 2017 I started my collaboration with Smokingpipes.com and the distribution of my pieces in the USA.
Despite my initial hesitation, my family, my girlfriend Marianna, and my friends have always been supportive — they could see how making pipes made me happy and that, in spite of the difficulties and sacrifice, I was excelling in my field.
So you've had some big changes more recently. Can you tell us what you've been up to for the past year or so?
Of course. There's been a lot going on in the past year. Back in December of 2018 Shane Ireland (Pipe Manager and Director at Smokingpipes.com) told me that Peterson were looking for a pipemaker to hire in their Sallynoggin factory as part of their bid to improve the production process, and asked me if I would be interested in the opportunity. My first reaction was of surprise and excitement — working for the oldest pipe factory in the world and lending them my skills and knowledge to improve the production process (and therefore the product itself) would be a great challenge and an opportunity for me to gain new experience and grow professionally. Moreover, I could keep working like an independent pipemaker in my free time, all while taking that new experience into my own work. I took some time to think about it, but I think I knew from the start that I was very much willing to embrace this new adventure.
After a trip to Dublin for the interview and a tour of the factory, I accepted the offer and made the move to Ireland on March 18th with my partner Marianna, starting work in Peterson on the 25th of March 2019.
Peterson has felt like home from the very beginning. Their great kindness and friendliness helped me a lot in my integration, which of course can be disorienting at first, even with that support. Ireland is a fascinating country and its people are friendly and welcoming. Possibly the only drawback has been the strong wind that just won't give me a break. My pipe smoking has probably halved since getting here (I'm an avid fan of latakia). The move itself was also challenging — doing an international move is really quite stressful, but despite the difficulties, in a few months I'd managed to have my papers ready, find a place, and set up my new workshop in a room at the Peterson factory.
So can you tell us what it is you do at Peterson?
I've been making pipes as an artisan carver for a while now, so I'm familiar on a macro level with each step of the pipe making process and its execution. At Peterson my duties essentially involve using that experience to help improve production techniques and tools, and suggesting new constructive methodologies to enhance the product. I started working in what we call the "BTA" area, where bowls are drilled and fitted with a mouthpiece. This gave me the chance to quickly learn the Peterson shape chart, as well as the stems used for each of the Peterson lines and the shapes within them. Peterson recently acquired an efficient and contemporary sandblasting machine that allows us to sandblast a bowl within 3-4 minutes, each with amazing results, so part of my duties for the last little while have involved applying industrial design to ensure that we get a consistent result. Once these standards have been set, the task switches to training the relevant staff to implement them.
...part of my duties for the last little while have involved applying industrial design to ensure that we get a consistent result. Once these standards have been set, the task switches to training the relevant staff to implement them.
The whole team here has had a hand in showing me the full range of techniques used at Peterson, though most recently Joe Kenny has been teaching me how to assemble silver on acrylic, vulcanite, and amber stems. This is employed to construct the Spigot line — one of the most iconic and charming Peterson series — so it's an important part of the process (to say the least).
As a whole watching the passion, the inclination to research, and the constant striving towards improvement and growth that Laudisi is bringing to Peterson has been fascinating. There are big projects and ideas for the future and I'm really excited to be a part of it.
So I've been in your new workshop for a quick tour a couple of times now. How did you get along setting that up in the new location?
Setting up the new workshop, which I've been fortunate enough to be able to do in a separate room inside the factory, has been longer than I expected. Before moving I sent over most of my equipment, but despite having almost everything I needed, it took me a few months to dial in an efficient set up. I'm now fully operational and I've started working on my own pipes with some frequency. Now that I'm working full time at the factory I make less pieces than I used to, but I've found myself focusing more on the details — testing new construction techniques and new finishing methods, and generally improving my craft while making the process more efficient.
Working in the factory setting, what (if anything) has changed about your approach to pipe making? What shapes are captivating you now that weren't before, and what shape would you find most challenging to make a handmade version of?
I had already visited some of the more important Italian pipe factories, but since I started working for Peterson I've realised more and more that most of the operations involved in factory production are the same as the artisanal ones, with the main difference being the numbers — both of pipes and artisans involved. Indeed, Peterson's artisans, about twenty in all, each have specific duties and responsibilities, and all of them work on hundreds of pipes every day instead of the handful that an individual artisan might be working on at any given time. Probably the biggest challenge is making sure that each artisan and their station work harmoniously with the others, something that is intrinsic to the solo artisan, but needs to be actively worked on in a factory environment. Thankfully we have a great team at Peterson, from factory floor to administration, and their unified front keeps that harmony in balance.
Like most pipemakers I've always loved classic and seemingly simple pipe shapes, and believe they are generally more efficient than those of greater complexity and inventiveness. Peterson makes a lot of simply irresistible classical shapes, pipes that are both unique and efficient in their design and construction. I've always been fascinated by the now retired "309" that I saw smoking for the first time by Lee Van Cleef in "For a Few Dollars More", and made a personal interpretation of it not long ago. I really like the "304" shape too, designed by the legendary Paddy Larrigan, probably the most talented and skilled artisan after Charles Peterson. The first pipe I made here in Ireland could only have been a Dublin, with flame grain and in a warm tanshell stain to recall the warm Irish welcome, and decorated with boxwood, material used by our silversmiths here in the factory to shape the silver bands.
Giacomo's "309" interpretation pictured at top (image courtesy of Smokingpipes.com).
Apart from aesthetic schools, what do you think the biggest difference is from pipe making in Europe versus anywhere else in the world?
I think the difference can be summarised simply by the fact that the modern pipe and its history was born largely here in Europe. In Europe's Mediterranean region grows the briar — our own raw material — here were born the first sawmills, the first machines, and the first tools. In Europe we created the most delicious tobacco blends in the world, and gave rise to the most important pipe factories. Here the greatest artisans like Sixten Ivarsson gave birth to the artisanal high grade pipe. Europe is still the hotbed of the most talented pipemakers in the world and a source of inspiration for every aesthetic school.
If there was any pipe maker living or dead, whose workshop you could spend a week in, who would it be?
This might look like I'm taking sides but at this point in my life I'd have to say Charles Peterson. Thanks to my new job I've become more familiar with his story, and have found it simply incredible. Mr Peterson was a skilled designer, and a talented and brilliant entrepreneur ahead of his time. He was an incredibly interesting and passionate individual. I'd really enjoy spending time with him smoking pipes and discussing his work that, 160 years after the fact, are still emblematic of the company and a point of reference for many pipe smokers and collectors. Charles Peterson grew up professionally in a time when the pipe and tobacco industry was at its high. To a certain extent, it must have been quite the feat to stand out in such a crowded field, creating — alongside the Kapp brothers— a brand still known to this day.
Charles Peterson grew up professionally in a time when the pipe and tobacco industry was at its high. To a certain extent, it must have been quite the feat to stand out in such a crowded field...
What's your dream pipe? Absolutely anything, price is no object.
My dream pipe is the pipe I haven't made or haven't seen yet, and the pipe I keep looking for in shapes, materials, and technical methods I'm constantly studying and testing. I think, like any pipemaker, that is the pipe I one day hope to make, while simultaneously living in fear of finding, as once I have the challenge is over and I'll have to find another job/hobby to keep my interest. I honestly hope I never do find it, I love what I do too much.