J.T. Cooke – In a Class all his own

J.T. Cooke – In a Class all his own

I can’t emphasize enough how lucky we in the pipe community are, to have someone like Jim Cooke with us. This is a pipe maker who easily spends on average up to 40 hours on a single pipe. Yet he still charges only $800 for his work. He is not interested in making the most money possible, although he could easily charge up to twice as much for his pieces. No, this is a man who is mainly interested in the pursuit and exploration of how he can make the ‘Mother Nature’ within the block of briar, shine and show itself as beautifully and magnificently as possible. He has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to finding the best possible route to take that will produce the best possible sandblast. He has experimented countless times with different types of equipment and different types of blasting materials and while he is doing 5 different stages of sandblasting on each pipe he makes today, he still admits that he is not even close to finding the best answer or approach to blasting. This is fantastic news for us pipe smokers, because this man’s drive to show us the briar in what he considers the most beautiful form of expression, Sandblasting, has consumed him utterly & completely. He is not stopping and he continues to push himself and his body to great lengths and at great physical cost. You will learn a lot about the man and most importantly his craft. He rightfully does not go into great detail about the process involved in his work. He still however provides an enormous insight into the detailed and laborious process that he undertakes with each block of briar. Pipe carvers will likely perk up a bit right now as they will soon get access to some of the secrets behind his blasts, however after they read the depths that this man goes to in search of the ‘perfect blast’, rest assured, 99% of them will happily let Jim Cooke search for these answers all on his own. It is simply too much for the average man to pursue such deep answers on one subject.  Jim is positively and absolutely, in a class all his own, when it comes to sandblasting. He is on a mad search and he will never, ever, settle down. He has no equal. He is the one and only Jim Cooke, supreme master of sandblasting.

David M: Where did you grow up?

Jim Cooke: In Vermont. Spent my whole life there. My sister and I live in the house that my Mom & Dad built by themselves in 1954. He worked on it for most of his life. I was a small fry at that time and I wet the bricks for him for the chimney and fireplaces.


DM: How was life growing up for you? Any major events happen that helped define who you are today?

JC: I suppose about the only thing that really stuck is that I was a sick little kid. This was back in the 50’s. I fought strep for quite a few years and this is back before they had really dialed in penicillin as far as using it every day. I spent a lot of with very high fevers. I think that fueled my imagination. Ever since then, I kind of knew from age 6 on, I knew that I was lucky to be alive. I could have just as easily gone the other way. At some point I had a certain appreciation for trying to enjoy every day because I never knew if it was going to be my last. It is kind of weird to be 6 years old and to realize that you could just as easily be dead. I think that gave me a certain amount of license to experiment and live life and pursue what I wanted to pursue because nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.


DM: Your sister Kit, can you tell us about your relationship with her?

JC: She is a retired College History Professor. We always got along and have been a pretty good team. When I got divorced 15 years ago, at that same time, she needed a change where she was living and my Mom had to move out and so Kit and I have been here for 10-12 years now. We are a great brother sister team and we have stuff in common but we stay out of each other’s way.


Jim, together with his sister Kit, holding a small (and functional) Brass Cannon

DM: You used to mark your pipes JT&D. Can you explain that please?

JC: That’s my ex-wife Deb. When I was doing a lot of production work for other American labels, she did a lot of the sanding back then we were a team and so the pipes were marked with both our initials.


DM: Do you guys still keep in touch?

JC: I see her and my daughter every two weeks.


DM: How old is your daughter?

JC: She is 28 now. I don’t know how that happened. Turn around and they are all grown up. I love my kids; we have a lot in common.


DM: What do the kids do?

JC: My son is a master technician at the local Volvo dealership. Volvo has brought him to Sweden twice to visit the factory so I guess he must be pretty darn good at what he does. My daughter is between jobs, not a surprise in this economy.


DM: What do the kids think of your pipe making?

JC: Well, they understand it and appreciate the ins and outs of it. They are not interested in pursuing it themselves. I do think they have enjoyed what success I have had.


DM: How did you discover your talent for making pipes?

JC: It was back in the early 70’s, I was working in Television as an Art Director and I decided that I wanted to stop smoking cigarettes and start smoking a pipe. And my ex bought me one of those carve it yourself kits. After I made the first one I knew that I finally found something that I was totally captivated with, with the block of briar. Worked on my own for a year or two and then got connected with Jorg and Elliott in Stowe Vermont, and you actually might know one of the other guys who worked there, Brad Pohlmann.


Old Friends All Smiles Jim Cooke and Brad Pohlmann


DM: Did you have any fears when you first started carving?

JC: Yes, when I went to the briar workshop I took a drastic cut in pay to be able to do that. At that point it was a job, one that I enjoyed, I had no idea that it was going to turn into what it did.


DM: What major influences did you have in pipe making?

JC: Back then in the 70’s, this is pre-internet days by a long shot. So information was really few and far between. Really the only thing I knew about pipe making was what I was learning at the briar workshop. There were virtually no American carvers, Paul Perri and a few guys in New York doing stuff. But there was no great communication, no pictures floating around.


DM: Was there any moment that shook and impacted you in some way?

JC: The briar workshop was planning to move to Florida. There was no way that my wife and I at that time were going to move. So I knew I was going to have to go out on my own. I made a few pipes for some different labels to tide me over but the major thing at that time was actually the pipe mailer done by Barry Levin. He was in large part responsible for getting people connected with other pipe collectors through his mailer. It had all these pages and pages of color photographs of pipes. At that point, he needed someone to do the restoration work on them and they needed someone to work on them. That was a real great education. Up until the time he died, I think I counted up that close to 20,000 pipes came through my shop. That really upped the game. I finally got to some of the great pipes that had been made over the last 100 years. I got to see what worked and what didn’t. That is when I really fell in love with the blasting process. That tickled my fancy.


Brown & Black Shell Canadians with repro Amber Stem


DM: Can you talk about Barry Levin?

JC: He had an absolute love for pipes. He was not a craftsmen but he loved everything about pipes. He also had a unique ability to find collections. He would go to New York to look at a collection and he would come back and say he found 3 collections. He would come to my shop with shopping bags, full of pipes. I really enjoyed Barry. Aside from working on the pipes, I did spend time with him as a friend. He had a great sense of humor, wonderful curiosity and he could be quite stubborn. I am really sorry that he was not around to see what the hobby became. When he passed, it was one of the few times in my life when I can honestly say that I got my heart broken. To this day I still do miss him.


DM: What events lead up to your idea to maximize the sandblast?

JC: I was still working for other labels at the same time that I was working with Barry. And he decided that he would like to put out a reasonably priced American made pipe and he wanted it to be primarily sandblast. He went to Europe to see what he could have made and after we talked about it, he decided to give me a shot. That is where I started. I gotta tell you, my first exposure to sandblasting was not only eye opening but totally humiliating.


DM: How was it those first few times sandblasting?

JC: This was pre-internet, zero information out there, late 80’s. The first experiment I did use sand and I tell ya, no matter what I did, I could not have any more grain showing than what the surface of an orange looks like. It was humiliating but at the same time it really lit a fire in me to find out what the hell was going on. The only people that I really saw doing something with sandblasts was John Taylor of Ashton pipes. Everybody else treated the sandblast as a bastard child. It was a second pipe. Has fills in it, put it in a basket and it’s a second string. For me, that just seemed so off the wall. Particularly looking at some of the Dunhill’s from the 20’s and 30’s, they were just these magnificent sculpted pieces of moonscape. I couldn’t get anything even remotely close to it. So I went the other direction. Sand does not work and I will find something that will cut this darn wood. So I tried something called Aluminum Oxide, which is great for removing rust from car frames. I got that set-up and I started blasting on this piece of briar and it was somewhat a king to holding a blow torch in front of an ice cream cone. It just evaporated in front of me in about 2 minutes. I could see no grain and literally, this block of briar just disappeared in my hands. I would have turned the blaster off sooner if my jaw was not hanging so far down. I was left with a shank and a stem and no pipe. This just sent me into overdrive. And I am still experimenting and still trying to figure it out.


Blackshell, Tanshell Diamond Shank and Brownshell Lovats with repro Amber Stems

DM: Upon the successful moments, whenever they finally came, did you see the open road in front of you?

JC: No, it never was an ‘a-ha’ moment. It was incremental progress and to this day, that is still what it is. I am doing a lot of trial and error. Trying to take from one pipe to the next pipe and applying it. Literally, the stuff I was doing 4-5 years ago, about the only piece of equipment I still have is the compressor. Everything else has changed. Updating equipment, re-designing equipment, re-manufacturing stuff, it is a constantly changing environment for me because I am always learning and always, absolutely always, picking up new ideas and taking them along for the ride. I have changed what I put through the pressure tanks, the nozzles, all of it is in a continuous state of flux. I learned a long time ago that everything I assume to know is wrong and be willing to learn and be open to the idea that I sure don’t know everything. The only thing I know is that I don’t know much.


DM: Is there any new innovation you are currently working on?

JC: The blind obvious is a good phrase. One thing I started working on last year and am still trying to develop is about the interior of the nozzle that I used to blast. I wont go into much detail about it but I learned that the interior shape of the nozzles really does have a huge impact, at least from my point of view under the magnifying glass, it has a huge impact on how the blasting media comes out and impacts the wood. I am spending a lot of time, trying to develop that.

DM: Your clearly a tinkerer with the medium you are using, have you thought of any other applications to the various equipment modifications you have made and continue to make?

JC: When I am finally too down worn out to work anymore, like the day before I croak, I will work on some other projects. Aside from the pipe stuff, I have 4 or 5 other projects that I would eventually like to pursue as hopefully patentable ideas. There are only so many hours in day though and I am having too much fun with briar right now. I need to get hooked up with an accomplished electrical engineer that night be willing to work on a project or two on some kind of shared profit basis. There are some markets out there that I do wonder, why is there no particular product out there like this?


1/8 Bents with repro Amber Stem


DM: What does the average Jim Cooke pipe go through before it gets into a customers hands?

JC: It depends on what I am trying to do with the piece. I haven’t made a smooth in maybe 2 years. It really does depend on what I am trying to do. If I am making a smaller group 4 piece, there is a whole different wood selection process that I go through. That scales everything down. Generally on a smaller piece I am trying to get tighter rings which means A) the pipe doesn’t get blasted into oblivion and B) you can actually see that the pipe has a good number of rings on it. Bigger pieces I am a little freer to choose what I am doing and as far as what country of origin, male or female block etc… right now they are taking about 20 hours to make on the smallest pipe. This past April, I worked on a Magnum, and in total I spent 5 long days on the pipe.


DM: Do you still do 3 stages with your sandblasting?

JC: Right now, as of this week, it is up to 5. That can be depending on the block of wood and what I am trying to do with it. The block dictates everything. I am along for the ride and pedaling for all I am worth not to screw the thing up. I am up to a 5-stage process and although I would like to get it to 4, but that is impossible with what I am trying to do. All of this goes back to the work I am doing with the interior of the nozzles. So right now its 5 stages. I got to be nuts. I have resigned myself to the fact that at least I am lucky enough to have one thing in life that I am good at. To balance that out though, there are a whole lot of things in life that I am clueless about.


Today’s Cooke pipe goes through 5 different stages of Sandblasting

DM: When I asked the late Rainer Barbi if the block of briar’s age or origin is important, he generally said no. What are your thoughts on this discussion?

JC: You have to understand that since I am doing blasting, for me it does make a difference. I can tell you right off the bat that with the orange peel experiment, I was attempting to blast Grecian briar and I am sorry folks, that stuff, it makes beautiful smooth pipes, but if you want to go blast a piece of wood, go some place else. Because it has no real variation between the hard and soft areas. I stay as far from Grecian wood as I can. As far as the aging, I use Moroccan wood, and now I have started using some Italian wood. They are different and the Italian wood has to be treated a little differently. I like to get wood that is dry or semi-dry. I have my own curing process.


DM: Can you talk about that a bit?

JC: I will make an analogy. I know guys like to age their briar. Some say for 2 or 3 years. I learned in my experiments with Barry that there is a lot of stuff in briar, even the best briar, there is still some junk in there. Supposed you got a brand new pair of socks and you go run the Boston Marathon. And they are smelly and stinky and soaking wet. They are still stinky gooky socks. So what I learned is that after I turn the pipes on the lathe, I put a dummy stem on them and I run them through a curing process, remove what residual tar and oils and sap is still in the wood, I leach that stuff out and then I dry the wood. Most cutters do an admirable job, because it’s a competitive industry like anything else, they do a great job of cleaning the wood as best they can. But they are cleaning 50 or 100 blocks at a time. And there is no way they can get all the stuff out. Plus, they are trying to get some stuff out of a big hunk of wood. I am trying to get the sap out of the turned pipe so it is a smaller process. The difference in a pre-cured block of wood and a post-cured block of wood is that I can drop the weight between the two between 6 and 9%. When I started actually weighing and charting the whole thing, I knew I was getting stuff out but it blew my mind that there was so much stuff in even the best block of wood. And it’s important because you want the block to be able to breathe. If you have a dry block that still has sap in it and over the years, the sap polymerizes. Once that happens, there is no way to get rid of it and it sets up like epoxy in the pores. The pipe will be heavy, not particularly absorbent.


DM: How does that impact the taste?

JC: It will make the pipe smoke wetter. Also the pipe will be heavier, which means a less comfortable smoke. One of the benefits of going through the curing process, I flatten the taste of the wood. When you smoke, you don’t want to taste the briar but rather the tobacco. So the curing process I do, is a great leveler of the playing field as far as I am concerned. It gives every pipe that comes out of my shop a chance to be an even smoke once we say go!.


Five Stage Cooke Billiard

DM: Are there any other woods that you have experimented with?

JC: [Laughs] Yes. My father was a biology teacher and he gave me a lot of botanical information on briar. So I filtered down through that and being up here in Vermont, since at that point Deb and I were living in the woods and I asked him if there is anything out here that kind of does the same thing. He pointed me in a certain direction and I did find something and I proceeded to get my pick, shovel and ax and started chopping and cutting away. Eventually I did find something. Its not as tight but it grows in the same way. I have made some pipes out of it. I have even brought some of those pipes to shows and smoked it and nobody has caught on that it was not a piece of briar.


DM: Other than the grain, for all intensive purposes it passes muster?

JC: It does pass muster. It is a little more fragile. You have to build up cake in it more quickly or else you will burn it out but I kind of knew that going in and I knew it wasn’t as dense. Structurally though, it does the same thing as briar.


DM: We now have Morta being actively used and now Paolo Becker is making inroads using Strawberry wood. Thoughts?

JC: I haven’t turned any yet. But looking at it yes, it is a no brainer, it will work fine. You have to be careful that you don’t burn the stuff out but structurally, it is the same deal. Nature has a wonderful way of giving alternatives. I wouldn’t be surprised if there may be something else growing that would work, that is in the same family. There is a lot of room for experimentation out there and we should be doing that as much as we can.


Five Stage Smokey Cooke Cavalier

DM: Experimentation in a craft as old as ours, it is almost a requirement. How do we encourage more of it?

JC: Good question. I think in this craft, especially Americans, where we don’t have as much of a pipe making tradition over here, not as much of an apprenticeship system as other places, guys here feel a little less restrained in what they are doing. Experimentation can be both good and bad. I have seen some wonderful stuff and also some stuff that only a mother could love.


DM: Are there any carvers out there that you are really good friends with?

JC: I don’t really talk to anybody except myself and that fool in the mirror. I like Paul Bonacquisti. He’s a good guy, he makes some nice stuff. I wish he had more time to spend on his own stuff. Michael Parks is doing some real interesting stuff. I think he and others in that vain are the future of the hobby. I am very impressed with what he is doing. As far as experimentation, he can do the classic shapes and do some of the wild stuff on the other extreme. Really anybody that is able to find a way making a living doing this and doing it full time and making it their lifes work. I don’t however really spend much time talking to other pipe makers.


DM: Have you seen any Russian carvers work?

JC: Yes I have. They are a society coming into its own. They are definitely going to have some exciting stuff coming out of there. I hope that at some point the influences change a little bit and some of the traditional shapes come to the forefront. I have to laugh at myself, since I shouldn’t really be talking about traditional stuff. I am spending my time just trying to get the angles right on making the perfect damn billiard. Or still trying to make a decent Canadian. The Canadians just drive me nuts some times. I still really hope that we get back to more traditional shapes. It’s a lot easier to make an elephants nose than it is to make a good billiard. If your carving something and it doesn’t work, you can lop the bad part off and now it’s a hippo’s tail. I don’t mean to denigrate that type of sculpting but there is a lot of wiggle room there where guys are less interested in making a really fine smoking pipe than they are in making a really nice sculpture.


DM: Any advice for new carvers?

JC: I realize there is a huge influence the other way right now. Some of the Danes have a huge tradition all their own. They can make these beautiful, well designed just kick butt pieces. It’s very popular. And it becomes a hot button or flavor of the month. When I talk to young guys that ask my opinion. If you get a chance to find somebody who has a really good collections of Dunhill’s and Barling’s. Before you go off the deep end of the earth. Go and study the damn things and find out why these brands were successful. What’s the ratio between tobacco chamber size and wall thickness. How do they figure out the balance on these things? So that is what I encourage young guys to do. Understand the foundation first, before you go and try to build a palace. If you can go off and make a killer blowfish, by all means, go and do it. But understand the foundations first.


Squat Bulldog with repro Amber Stem & Blackshell Squat Bulldog

DM: Can you talk about your stems?

JC: When I first got into the business, we found some gorgeous cased meerschaums and obviously only a part of the stems were left or none at all. It was a crying shame. I remember as a little boy that my dad took a rattlesnake skull and he cast it in some Lucite. And he had all these problems with bubbles and what not but I still thought it was a unique material. So I started working with that stuff and boy did I ever piss away a lot of money to try and come up with a material in a way to salvage these old meerschaums. That’s kind of where that developed. Once I figured out what the formula was, first it was obviously the re-production amber but after that I quickly started tooling with different colors and different weights of colors and how I could get the colors to bounce off each other and work. And even now, I am still experimenting with stuff, there are two or three things that I am working on. It’s a never-ending process for me to learn more and improve my craft.


DM: Within your stems, there is a strong psychedelic quality, can you talk about that?

JC: [Laughs] Caught Me! I was a child of the 60’s and between ’68 and ’72 I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design and it was hippie dippy time. So yah, you bet, we tried everything back then. And even now, n


DM: In the first year of making pipes, how much did you sell your first pipes for?

JC: The first pipes were portrait pipes. It was Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson set, Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein sets. Back then I was getting about $400 for them. Beyond those portrait pipes though, which took about 100 hours to make, if I was making a normal piece, I would get $75.


DM: Today, your blasts sell for $800. What did you think about when you heard that one of your pipes sold for over $4,000 on eBay?

JC: I wasn’t aware of it. But a friend of mine started tracking this stuff. That pipe, I sold off my table to we all know who, for $800. And we watched that thing go through the roof. The long and short of it is that this friend of mine who was tracking it, is making a website for me. It will now give me an outlet for special order pieces that get returned. If someone can get $4,000 for my work. I wish I got a slice of the action. But hey, he bought it and he can do with it what he wants. Hey some people use a blowtorch on my pipes and proceed to fry the thing so you know, I can’t control what happens to my pipes afterwards. It did wake me up to the fact that there was a huge secondary market for my work.

Five Stage Natural Cooke Bent Bulldog

DM: Regarding your prices, are you trying to hold firm at $800?

JC: Yes I am. I realize that it’s a lot of money. I really can’t afford my own stuff. Economically I can’t do it. I consider myself average income. So I am trying to keep it at $800. Sometimes it works out for me, sometimes it doesn’t. Because the amount of time and the amount of energy and the physical wear and tear to produce one of these things, by the time I finish the pipe and they spend $800, I hope they know that they are getting their moneys worth. This thing did not just fly off the workbench. I think I will be able to do it. If Mother Nature comes around and says hey, 5 blasting steps ain’t gonna cut it anymore, I will say oh man, you gotta be kidding me. And if she says I have to do 6 or 7 and spend a whole extra day working on this critter, if that happens I will have to make some adjustments. But I am trying to hold firm because that is a pile of money to spend on a pipe.


DM: What is the most dramatic change in the pipe community for you since you started?

JC: The internet, without a doubt. Both as a positive and a negative. Like anything else. Its great for information but it also has produced some instant experts and guys that can talk a pretty good pipe but really what comes out of their work bench, really isn’t the same as what comes out of their mouth. Its made information and the sale of stuff different. It’s made the hobby global. That’s why I am getting a website. I will never work on my own website. I am dyslexic and the keyboard is not my thing.


DM: What retailers do you work with?

JC: With Neatpipes I have a separate deal. Since he is on the ground in Italy, he is essentially hand collecting briar for me. I give him certain specifications and he goes and hunts them down. Saves me from traveling. He gets some pipes and I get some wood. Other than that, nobody else. Hopefully once we get the website up and running, it will cure a lot of the secondary market.


NeatPipes.com, the only retailer that officially carries Jim Cooke pipes

DM: What’s your backlog for orders at right now?

JC: 3-4 years.


DM: Any other reasons for launching your own website?

JC: Yes, since I started tracking this, I found out that 29% of the pieces I make for people are returned to me. It’s either not the right group size, or the color is off or not quite what they wanted, a bigger tobacco chamber needed, my wife wanted to know what the package was, you name it whatever the reason could be, I have heard it. So that meant that I had to sit on a 1/3rd of my income until I made it to a show. Now with the website, I will sell those pipes directly to other collectors.


DM: How do you feel about the market demands compared to what your artistic desires want to do?

JC: Let’s put it this way, within the framework of classic shapes, there is a whole lot of exploration out there. I really enjoy working within those confines because it forces me to really focus and look at exactly what I am doing and how can this be refined and how can I take something that was made in a factory in England 75 years ago. What was the original design, what were the original specs that they tried to do yet couldn’t, perhaps because of equipment limitations. So there are other things out there that I’m picking away at. So on the website I will be able to work on some of these, I would say, more unique aspects within the classic field. You know there are a lot of panels out there, shank work and various things that can get a new twist on an old theme. I have notebooks full of drawings, just not enough hours in the day.


DM: What inspires you when you are blasting? Who or what idea are you looking up to?

JC: Mother Nature, I am following the dotted line and trying my best not to screw it up. I don’t have any preconceived notion of what the blast is supposed to look like. I am doing my best to expose what Mother Nature has gloriously laid out. The better I do my job, the better the pipe looks. I don’t have to look for inspiration. The work is already done. Believe me, when you spend 10 hours a day looking at briar through a magnifying glass, it is obvious that I am never going to capture all the beauty that Mother Nature has put into the wood. I don’t care how hard I work.


DM: Any thoughts on the pioneers, from 80+ years ago in the Dunhill factory in England?

JC: Looking at those pieces from that time under a magnifying glass, it is obvious to me that they really enjoyed it. I hope I am not assuming too much. They knew precisely what they were doing and they were working their butts off. For however long they had a piece in the booth, whatever the time constraints were, they were doing their best. And I would give my eye to hop in a time machine and go back 100 years and get just an hour and talk with them and look at what they were doing and thank them. Thank you very much, you changed my life, how about that. I don’t know who had the bright idea, they go unaccredited, I suppose they would give that to Alfred Dunhill but somebody had the idea. They stuck with it and god bless them for it. If their first experiments were anything like mine, my god, it must have been difficult. I am forever thankful that they stuck with it though. Barry Levin came through with one bag of about 50 shells and my face got permanently contorted with what I was seeing. And I didn’t understand why nobody was doing this these days. I could not believe that this beautiful tradition was being ignored, other than John Ashton. The shell was still the bastard child.


Jim Cooke, Five Stage Blasted Pipes

DM: We are so thankful that you are reinventing the way we look at sandblasts.

JC: I am glad to have played at least a part in it because it is obvious, in my point of view, because that is really where the beauty of a pipe is. I look at a smooth pipe as a beautiful women with her clothes on and a shell is a beautiful women with her clothes off. Thus to pine the term ‘woody’!
DM: Switching gears for a second Jim, how is the health of your hands and arms doing?

JC: I am holding my own. I have adapted, let’s put it that way. I am on daily medication for it and it is something that I have just resigned to. Get up, do the meds and go to work. You know I am not in a wheel chair. I can still do this.


DM: The love for pipe making is stronger than the pain you feel?

JC: Yah, you get used to it. It’s like anything else, it’s been going on a long time now. I am very glad that the pipe community got me the operations. Certainly if that had not happened, I would not be working now. I keep it at bay. It’s a mental game. It’s a good exercise in detachment. Knowing that it hurts like a bitch but I am just turning on the off switch.


DM: Can you recount your worst injury in the pipe studio?

JC: Good thing you were not around this winter. I wont go into it but I still got the scars. The other one you are talking about well, if you have seen a block turning in a lathe and if you’ve seen a hunk of briar after it’s been worked over there, you know its got some raggedy edges on it. I had a block come out of the lathe and it was entirely my fault. It came out and it got me in the jaw and split me from chin to lip. Just left a little bit of the lip in tact. Didn’t take out any teeth. I went to the hospital and it wasn’t the first nor last time they’ve seen me. They stitched me back up and I came home, had a cup of coffee and coffee came out of the front of my face, yes my mouth was closed. I had holes in my face. I put a picture of myself and put it up on the lathe, just to remind me. That lesson has absolutely in fact saved my life. Just after I moved here I got a much bigger lathe. You could turn truck axles on this thing. And it had a new type of attachment system that I had never used before. I thought I had that thing locked down and that chuck came off the lathe, weighing at least 20 lbs and it took off and bounced off the steel panel on the back of the lathe and pretty much cleared a path with whatever was in its way. Had I been standing there, I would have looked like Will E Coyote. I have cut myself up just about every way that a guy can and unfortunately I still do find either new ways to cut myself or I repeat mistakes. I really do try and avoid it but accidents do happen.


Blackshell LB Billiard, Xtra Large Natural Bent Billiard with repro Amber Stem and Brownshell Calabash with repro Amber Stem

DM: What do OGF and OKF stand for?

JC: OGF was the original and it stands for Old Gnarly Fuckers. I had a conservative old school pipe maker ask me and he was shocked to find out what I put on my pipes. It was Bob Noble, Brad McCluskey and I think it was after one of the Columbus shows and we were talking about the old Dunhill Shell’s and we got to chuckling about and we said they were old gnarly fuckers. The heritage that I am inheriting is important but it is also important to have fun. So the OKF is a less commonly known spelling and that essentially identifies the block of wood as coming from Morocco. OGF identifies the wood as coming from Italy.


DM: So you only work with either Italian or Moroccan briar?

JC: Yes. Right now, I do have some other stuff running around but I mostly use that stuff.

DM: Who is Bob Noble to you?

JC: He is a friend. He has a rich history in the hobby and he has been at it for a real long time. We both have a strong connection to the classic shapes. We can talk about a billiard for hours. He is a very fine wood craftsmen and he does some extraordinary stuff. We can talk about wood, stains and he is a cantankerous old devil.


DM: It seems like he doesn’t take any shit from people.

JC: Yah and I know that can rub people the wrong way and I know I can rub people the wrong way. That’s fine. You cant please everyone all of the time. I enjoy him because he doesn’t take shit. Quite frankly, the make population of America is taking an enormous amount of shit and they cold take some lessons from that gnarly old fucker.


DM: Have you seen Bruce Weaver’s sandblasts?

JC: Yes I have. It’s nice when someone sees the magic in the three-dimensional quality in a piece of briar. The fact that he does something different, with his own distinctive style, it will be easy for others to identify it. His approach is different, particularly, whatever he is doing for his final stage. He is asking himself probably a lot of the same questions that I am asking myself. He understands what he is attempting to do and he knows the limitations but you can see his enjoyment in the work?


DM: Are you still making smooth pipes Jim?

JC: I do have customers who once in a while ask me to make a smooth. I will do it. I haven’t forgotten how to make a smooth pipe. It just seems that there is a proliferation of smooth pipes out there. Frankly though, the briar that I want to use and the wood I have been collection and it is not the same stuff that I would be seeking if I were to make a smooth pipe. Those aren’t the kind of blocks I am looking for. I do run across some amazing blocks of straight grain and I tell you, I would much rather turn it into a beautiful blast than a smooth pipe. Any day of the week. No problem blasting a killer straight grain block, no problem at all.


DM: Do you feel like you have reached the pinnacle of your goals?

JC: Not even close. Mother Nature is way ahead of me. I have a lot to learn. I feel like I have scratched the surface. I feel like I have a decent foundation but I have so much more to learn. I have yet to make the perfect pipe. The list of things I would like to do is quite a bit longer than what I will be able to do in this lifetime.

Jim Cooke with Pipes

DM: Your really pushing yourself hard Jim.

JC: Well, what’s the sense of waking up in the morning if you don’t? Then pipe making would become a job and I don’t want a job. You know, it never has been a job. It’s a passion. I could have stayed as an Art Director and moved up the line in TV and probably made 10x what I am making now and looking at retirement, sitting on a beach making a sweater out of belly button lint. But I don’t want to do that. There is no challenge in that. It’s not about money and it’s not about having an easy life. It’s about having something that is continually fun, always challenging and something that I just barely got a hold of with my fingertips. It feels like I have a tiger by the tail and doing my best not to screw it up.

DM: How do you relax these days?

JC: I collapse into a lumpy heap after working in the shop. I am exhausted. The only thing I really do is ride the bike. When there is no ice on the road I ride the Buell. I still laugh to myself inside the crash helmet whenever I get out.

Jim Cooke on his bike, the Buell

DM: How does somebody order a pipe from you?

JC: Basically, they should write me a postcard and I put it on my list. The card stays in a file and I go through one postcard at a time. Then I send them a letter, we get together on the phone and we try and hash out what we want to do.

DM: Can they ask for special modifications like a thinner stem?

JC: Yes, within reason, I still will make damn sure that whatever they order is engineering wise smart. I will not make something that is off the wall. I have learned that one of the problems with doing special orders, some guy may want something that is different and when they get it, it’s not what they wanted. Then I have 40 hours of work into an unsaleable piece that nobody else wants. So it’s gotta be a well-balanced and well-engineered piece that will smoke fine. I am not interested in doing style exercises. Guys make hot rods all the time, I am not interested in making a trailer queen. I want to make something that the guy wants to reach for when he is looking at his rack.

DM: Do you make very light pipes, under 2oz or 50 grams?

JC: Yes, what I have to be careful of though, is that when you start blasting away on those, you can end up with a very fragile piece, depending n what the block of wood does. At that point, wood selection becomes absolutely crucial. It will certainly at that point be a female block, which tends to have much tighter ring. It will probably be a Moroccan piece because that stuff is a little bit harder and tighter than an Italian piece of wood. I work with quite a number of guys who have dental work and weight requirements are important. With my own false teeth now I am a better judge. I try to work with my customers within reasonable constraints.

DM: You smoke cigarettes right? Still smoke a pipe?

JC: I roll my own and then at the end of the day, I smoke a pipe. Either one of my Dunhills or my Barlings.


DM: How old are you Jim?

JC: 62.


DM: It doesn’t seem like you will ever stop making pipes.

JC: I don’t think so. Not unless they will be made illegal. Well, no, then I would have to go underground. I certainly hope that someday my sister looks around says, you know, I haven’t seem Jim in a couple of days. Then she goes downstairs and sees me keeled over on the workbench. That would be just fine.

–    –    –    –    –    –    –    –

If you would like to order a pipe from Jim Cooke, send him a post-card with information on what you would like him to make.

Send the post-card to:

J.T. Cooke

514 Appletree Point Road, Burlington Vermont, 05408

You can also visit his new website and buy a Jim Cooke pipe today.


Copyright © 2011. TobaccoDays.com. All rights reserved.

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  1. Nick Miller - August 11, 2011

    Awesome interview, David. I feel like a know Jimmy that much more now… Great pics!

  2. Warren Wigutow - August 22, 2011

    David & Jim – This is a wonderful exchange of ideas and information. I have always believed that the best and most profound artists are also the most humble. What we have here is a whole pile of evidence for that notion. Oh, did I mention “heart”? I find myself wondering if I flood Jim with hundreds of postcards like it’s some sort of blasted raffle – will that increase my chances of getting a pipe?

  3. Scotty Bendett - September 2, 2011

    What a wonderful piece of journalism and an excellent ambassador of the industry.

    Thank you.

  4. Mike Rothenberg - August 3, 2013

    Jim Cook is the real thing. When he talks everything is honest. He doesn’t try to impress anyone. I am happy that he is enjoying such success because he deserves it. Pipe makers can be petty about their place in the ranks and lore of the craft. Some want to think of themselves as great artists and many of them are, but the ones who think of themselves with more modesty are usually the ones who are the true artists. I was just thinking of the relationship between pipe maker and what Mother Nature has to say about what can be realized from any given piece of briar and then to read Cook say the very same concerns convinced me of the man’s integrity.

  5. TobaccoDays :: ‘See Pipes Different’ Series: Project A – J.T. Cooke Sandblast | TobaccoDays - November 1, 2013

    […] If you would like to read the interview with Jim we did together over 2 years ago, please click here Jim Cooke Interview on TobaccoDays, August, 2011 […]

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