I really dig my local antique store. Not long ago, I snagged a Pre-1956 Medico Zulu “F” Stamping there for $10. The pipe was in dire straights; dry and crumbling away on the shelf. Honestly, it probably wasn’t worth $10, but the desire to restore my first briar pipe was strong, and it was the only pipe there suitable for the task. After a substantial restoration, the old Medico is now back in this pipe smoker’s rotation.
The Dr. Grabow pictured here was also $10 and it had arrived at the antique store sometime after I adopted the Medico. The following week I saw it on the shelf, picked it up, held it. The tree-bark rustication and the considerable gunk caked into its valleys made it difficult to determine if a re-finish was prescribed. The stem was certainly well oxidized, and the bowl well-smoked (though not abused).
As it turned out, this was no candidate for a serious restoration.
Back home, I was eager to document my restoration. That is until I found out what that gunk in the rustication was: old wax. It was like someone had rubbed it down heavily, or dipped it, with some sort of beeswax. Out of curiosity, I put the stummel in a low oven and then cotton-swabbed it clean. It presented shiny and sinuous after a (light) coating of an olive oil/beeswax polish. So much for my restoration post.
I can still document the stem refresh though, right?
No one wants to see two pictures of a stem soaking in oxyclean.
Ok, maybe it wasn’t that easy. I also gave it a standard alcohol and salt job and soaked the little removable moisture “stinger” within. Long story short, I didn’t think it was worth documenting such a standard procedure.
Now that we’ve sorted out our new pipe’s appearance, it’s time to delve into its story.
So who was this Dr. Grabow Fella?
Well it appears he was a doctor of medicine, a general physician in chicago to be exact. That actually makes me feel slightly better about smoking tobacco in general. The man is a doctor, after all. Would anyone go so far as to claim pipe smoking is doctor recommended? I digress.
According to Pipedia, the good pipe-smoking doctor was, in the 1930s, real chummy with a local pipe-smoking industrialist named Mr. Linkman. Linkman was proud of his pipes but wanted the doctor’s name attached for marketing purposes. Dr. Grabow approved.
Huh, maybe this pipe is doctor recommended. You see, the marketing works.
Anyway, the story goes that Dr. Grabow did not receive any royalties from this agreement, nor was the agreement ever formalized. In lieu of cash, Linkman provided free pipes to Dr. Grabow for life. Which beats spending your own money on pipes, I guess.
Around 1937 the company began advertising their pipes as “pre-smoked”. This process apparently involved a large machine, orbicular or tubular in shape, and worked thus:
“It consists of long rows of tubes which are fitted with the pipe bowls. Then, by means of a system of alternate vacuum and forced air, the slow, deliberate “puffing” action of the smoker is duplicated.
A good grade of smoking tobacco is used in the process. The bowls are filled, lighted, and slowly smoked to the bottom, cleaned out, filled and relighted again. This continues for several pipefuls, until the pipes are thoroughly and completely broken in.” [excerpt from 1946 issue of Pipe Lovers magazine]
What a process. And to think the pipes were most likely loaded and packed by hand in those days. It’s unclear, through my research, whether or when this process was discontinued. The company was later purchased by RJR tobacco subsidiary Lane Limited, which is now owned by the Scandinavian Tobacco Group.
The Westbrook line is the only Dr. Grabow to sport an orange spade insignia on the stem (for more information on Dr. Grabow spade colors, click here). These pipes were, along with the Berwyk, Scupltura, and Emperor, sold through special catalog offers where buyers could redeem RJR coupons, plus cash, for pipes in the mail. The Westbrook was offered in this manner from 1955 until 1985, making it one of the earliest of the “coupon pipes”.  The Westbrook also features a threaded “adjustomatic” style mortise and tenon that allows one to always keep the orange spade facing upwards.
As you can see, all manner of shapes and finishes were available for these pipes. I’ve since learned that mine is a number 36 straight billiard shape thanks to a tape measure and the kind gentlemen on the Dr. Grabow collectors forum. Like the Starfire model, the Westbrook used “E” selections of briar, which were described as
“Has a few small imperfections, easily filled…Full Grain”
So, how does it smoke?
It’s actually fantastic. I wasn’t expecting much here, considering the price and the low-end reputation ascribed to Dr. Grabows by many online. I also wasn’t planning on using the small, metal, filter-esque stinger that came with the pipe.
But i’m glad I did.
Aside from being “just one more thing to clean” the stinger really cuts out some of the bite that haunts too-wet blends of all kinds. This is also useful for blends like Samuel Gawith’s transcendent Full Virginia Flake, that have good wet and dry characters to showcase.
The stummel stays cool and a slow-puff rhythm burns the tobacco evenly all the way down. I’m thinking this will make a fantastic straight Virginia and Va/Per dedication piece. Those blends have a tendency to gnash if i’m not behaving myself.
For $10, for a fine briar like this, one does not complain.
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