Blog by Steve Laug
I was gifted a box of pipe bowls that needed varying degrees of work and a few odds and ends of pipe parts that now reside in my cans of parts. The bowls have refilled my refurbishing box. The first of these that I chose to work on is a beautifully grained, flawless piece of briar made into a diamond shank brandy. It is stamped on the left underside of the shank – John Bessai over Special. There is no other stamping on the pipe at all. The rim of the bowl is rounded. The pipe bowl is in excellent condition with no problems with the finish. The bowl needed reaming as it had an uneven cake on one side and on the upper portion. The shank is dirty with tars and oils but otherwise in good shape. The drilling and finish on this pipe is perfect. It is a beauty. From a previous Bessai pipe that I had found nearly three years ago I knew a little bit of history. I had hunted to gather information at that time.
HISTORY & BACKGROUND
I started out with what I had found previously and written about on the blog. I quote the following paragraph from Pipedia http://pipedia.org/index.php?title=Bessai
1. “John Bessai was a long time pipemaker, repairman and tobacco shop owner who operated his pipe shop at the “Old Arcade” in Cleveland, Ohio. The shop was opened in approximately 1898. It was a small 2-room shop where he hand-crafted his own pipes in the back room and could work when customers were not there. Like so many other shop made brand, John Bessai’s limited production was quickly acquired by regular customers and thus his craftsmanship remained little known outside of Ohio and the Midwest. While his name is known by pipe collectors in the Midwest, his work is seldom seen elsewhere! He died before 1969. Nevertheless, John Bessai left behind a small number of classic shaped pipes; all were made on-site. They are praised worthy of collecting and reflecting skills well beyond most American pipe makers. John Bessai’s logo “JB” appeared as one letter as the “back” of the “J” and the “back” of the “B” share a single line. The logo was stamped on the stem and on the left side of the shank. His son Herb Bessai took over the business and also continued making pipes. He closed the shop in about 1978.”
I suspected that there would be more information three years later. I did some further research and came across the information found in the paragraph below on one of the pipe forums.
2. “John Bessai was located in the Colonial Arcade at least into the late 1980s. After his death, his son Herb ran the shop. It was taken over after Herb’s retirement by a male and then name was changed to “Old Erie Pipes”. This was then located in the Erieview Plaza and when that mall closed, taken over by Cousin’s Cigars which has a store on Euclid Avenue near CSU, and a store on Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere Village.”
That small quotation gave me a bit more information of the state of the store after John’s death and Herb’s retirement. But I still wanted more information. I wanted to know about the history of the brand and if there was any information on the various grades in the brand and the stamping on the pipes. I wanted to know a bit of a timeline for the brands. Finally my digging paid off. ON one of the pipe forums I came across a link that led me to a gold mine of information gathered by a man after my own heart, Andrew Hross. He has a blog call Classic Pipe Shop on Blogspot. I have included the link below for those who want more information. Andrew has done an amazing job of gathering information on the Bessai Brand so rather than rewrite the history I am quoting portions of Andrew’s work on The John Bessai Pipe Clinic.
3. The John Bessai Pipe Clinic, 35 Colonial Arcade, Cleveland, OH 44115 – by Andrew Hross
**John Bessai 1920s until his passing in 1969
**Herb Bessai ~1962-1983
**Daniel Gottschall 1984-~1993
**Purchased by Dad’s Smoke Shop / Cousin’s Smoke Shop and rolled into the Old Erie Smoke Shop about 1993.
Cousin’s Cigars purchased the remaining stock of Bessai pipes near after Herb Bessai passed away in 2002.
b. Years of Operation:
1920s (unkown specific date at this time) – 1983. After 1983 the business was sold to Daniel Gottschall who later sold it to Cousin’s Cigar (Euclid Ave) around 1993. The name was changed to “Old Erie Tobacco Company”. They were forced to move to the Galleria when all the tenants of the Old Arcade were cleared out to make room for renovations. Their new address was The Galleria at Erieview, 1301 East 9th Street in Cleveland.
After this move the location wasn’t as busy as they had hoped and Cousin’s moved all the Old Erie Tobacco assets to their Euclid Avenue Store. The store has since moved to a St. Clair location after Cleveland State forced them out due to anti-smoking regulations on campus. Their St. Clair location offers many of John Bessai Pipe Clinic’s old tobacco blends.
Their new store opened in the Merriman Valley area in Akron, Ohio where the store manager John Coleman oversees the day to day operations. John was instrumental in helping me piece together a lot of loose ends during Bessai Pipe Clinic’s transition years.
My father visited their shop several times in the early 60s as he attended Fenn College (now Cleveland State University) as an undergrad before moving on to Ohio State University for his Masters. He’s way smarter than I am so I just go with the flow…
He mentioned meeting John at that time who quickly gave my father some pointers on smoking a pipe and how to take samples from the shop’s expansive sample jar collection. His pipes were on display in the shop although I don’t believe he had a lot of pipes on display at any given time due to production in-shop.
John’s son Herb took over the shop in the early 60s after he graduated from Cleveland State University / Fenn College (unclear) as he is listed as having played Basketball for CSU. Herb was also a helpful, informative and friendly individual. Articles exist from the Herald in 1962 where they interviewed Herb (with photograph) about the state of smoking in the new age of the early 60s. I visited the shop in the late 70s / early 80s with my father during a trip to Cleveland and couldn’t tell you much about the shop other than the guy working was very friendly. Back then it wasn’t unusual to be a kid and walk into a smoke shop with your father. Clearly I didn’t purchase anything but my father probably picked up some tobacco but I remember him looking at pipes displayed on a back wall. The shop was small but impressive.
If anyone has any pictures of the shop or old catalogs, I would love any additional information as it’s tough to come by 30+ years later!
c. Pipes offered by John Bessai Pipe Clinic:
Most of the pipes that were offered by the John Bessai Pipe Clinic were fairly standard in shape… I would say most of the pipes Bessai offered were smooth pipes. My assessment would be 90% smooth and 10% rusticated / sandblasted…
…The story is that John crafted pipes in the back room or off site and finished them in house while the store wasn’t busy. Very little information is available on the accuracy of this statement. Some of his pipes from the late 1960s through the 1970s (John passed away in 1969) I feel were left over stock from previous turnings and sometimes showed fills or sand pits. Some of these pipes even carry Herb’s markings (see below). These pipes still smoke very well but are not as eye-appealing as other earlier pipes from the store’s career.
d. Stampings and rough dating of John Bessai Pipe Clinic Pipes:
Which pipes did John make and which ones did Herb make/finish? All Bessai pipes carry his standard large JB stamp either on the stem or shank or both. Typically the JB on the stem is within a circle.
All pipes created by John Bessai’s hands reportedly contain the miniscule ‘jb’ stamp on the shank or body of the pipe. I have older pipes in my possession that do not contain this stamp (condenser, old stamps, etc) that were clearly shop made pipes. I feel he started using the tiny ‘jb’ stamp in the 50s to early 60s.
An interesting note about John Bessai’s stems – they always clean very nicely and aren’t prone to as much oxidation (that brownish / green color) as most dunhill and Charatan pipes tend to oxidize. His cuts to his stems were very impressive and often transitioned from diamond-shaped shanks almost architecturally. Very comfortable to smoke.
John Bessai Special Pipes:
… I have a couple Bessai Special pipes. These stand out either by large size, graining or possibly shape. Most Specials are unique pipes and are rare to find in comparison to his regular issue pipes.
John Bessai Special X pipes:
I only have one of these and it’s a beauty. This one is a larger bowl (around a group 4 dunhill) with deep colored grain and a hefty substantial shank. Special X pipes are probably the rarest of John Bessai pipes and should be sought out if possible. I’ve smoke mine roughly 4 or 5 times and it performs with the best of my pipes…
Herb Bessai Pipes:
Unfortunately none of these pipes that I’ve seen have astounded me with grain or general appearance. Having said this, these pipes smoke nicely and are a great value if you can find them. I have one that my father found at an Antique Show in the South. There’s another author shape on reborn pipe’s blog that someone refinished because of the amount of fills in the pipe. He also states it’s a wonderful smoker (Editor’s note: This is my pipe and the write up I did on the blog). These pipes are likely from the late 60s through the early 70s. I believe many pipes after this period were created en masse at a factory in the US. It is unclear what stamp was used on these later pipes…
e. Dating / Circa era Bessai Pipes:
If the pipe carries a stamp stating Cleveland, O U.S.A. it’s considered an older production pipe (pre1960s). I’ve not seen any newer pipes with that stamp.
Bullseye stamping usually indicates an earlier pipe as that stamp seems to have been abandoned pre1960 as well.
Most of the earlier Bessai pipes have an unusual ‘stinger’ or condenser at the end of the tenon which is unique to Bessai pipes. They are either a hard plastic or created out of wood. They are typically easy to remove and could have been easily lost if misplaced. These pipes I would consider pre-1960 and possibly 1940s-early 1950s production based on their stamps and patina of the pipes.
1970s 1980s and beyond: My feeling on these pipes after John’s passing is that they purchased finished pipes from a large manufacturer and stamped them with the John Bessai or Bessai stamp (on shank and/or stem). Most of these shapes are standard among many stores from that period and offer less than spectacular grain (and sometimes fills). Stamps on these pipes are probably fairly plain and don’t have the tiny ‘jb’ stamp on the shank indicating it was produced by John Bessai.
I went through my can of stems and found an older diamond-shaped saddle stem that fit quite well in the shank of the Bessai. The tenon was a little big so I sanded it with the Dremel and sanding drum until it fit snugly in the shank. The stem was an estate stem so it was dirty and had tooth chatter and some small indentations from teeth on the top and bottom of the stem near the button. It was slightly larger than the shank so that it would need to be sanded until it fit the line and shape of the shank.
I sanded the stem and shank with 150 and 220 grit sandpaper to bring all sides and angles to match the shank angles and sides. I sanded the stem to remove the tooth marks and the tooth chatter in the process.
I reamed the bowl with a PipNet reamer to remove the uneven build up of cake in the bowl.
I wiped down the surface of the briar with acetone on cotton pads to remove the finish on the bowl and make restaining it simpler.
I cleaned out the bowl and the shank with isopropyl alcohol (99%) on cotton swabs and pipe cleaners until the bowl and shank were clean. I cleaned out the stem with pipe cleaners and alcohol as well. I also beveled the airway on the end of the tenon to make the flow more open.
I set up a heat gun and heated the stem to bend it to fit the shape of the pipe. I inserted a pipe cleaner in the stem and then bent it over a rolling pin and set the bend with cool tap water.
I stained the bowl with a medium brown aniline stain and flamed it, I gave it more stain and flamed it again. I then sanded the stem with medium and fine grit sanding sponges and then with my usual array of micromesh sanding pads. I wet sanded the stem with 1500-2400 grit pads and dry sanded with 3200-12,000 grit pads. Between each set of three pads I rubbed the stem down with Obsidian Oil.
When I finished sanding with the final grits of micromesh I gave it another coat of Obsidian Oil and then buffed the stem and bowl with White Diamond. I gave the bowl and the stem multiple coats of carnauba wax and used a soft flannel buffing pad between coats to polish it. The finished pipe is shown below. The new coat of stain and the shine on the stem give the pipe a new and clean look. It is ready for its inaugural smoke. The background history sets the stage for a deeper appreciation of the pipe once I fire it up. It should smoke very well.