Blog by Steve Laug
Another pipe I picked up along with the two pairs I have written about lately is a nice little Mastercraft Pot. I am generally not taken by the pot shaped bowl but this one has a nice bevel to the rim that shows off the grain on the rim. It has some nice grain on the sides, back and front. It is stamped on the left side of the shank Mastercraft in a shield. Underneath it is stamped Executive Choice. On the right side it is stamped Imported Briar over Italy. The stem bears the MC silver oval inserted in the side of the stem on the left side.The bowl was heavily caked and the beveled rim was covered with tars and buildup. The finish was in good shape. There were no deep scratches or dents. There were several fills but they were dark and did not stand out. The bowl was shiny but worn in some places. The stem was not too badly oxidized but it was dirty and seemed to have has a rubber bit guard on it at sometime in its life as it had left a line behind on the stem. There were no tooth marks or chatter on the stem.I have cleaned up quite a few Mastercraft pipes over the years but did not really know anything about their history. I assumed that they were American made. I had heard somewhere that Bing Crosby owned stock in the company and smoked their pipes but I was not even sure of that. So I went to work digging into the background on the internet. The first thing I found was this old advertisement for the pipes with the old crooner himself.
I continued through the Google list for Mastercraft and one of the next listing was in Pipedia. http://pipedia.org/wiki/Mastercraft
In the article the author wrote the following: “Bing Crosby smoked Mastercraft pipes and can be seen in their magazine ads from the fifties. That isn’t a lot of info so I went looking and found a thread with posting by “Ted” — the former Exec VP of Grabow/Mastercraft http://drgrabows.myfreeforum.org/viewtopic.php?t=155&start=0
It doesn’t appear it was ever a manufacturer and bought pipes from multiple factories — mostly French and English. It survived briefly the post war recovery and then was acquired by Grabow.
The following is quoted from the thread: First a confession. From 1974 till 1984 I had several positions with Mastercraft including Executive Vice President. I also worked for Grabow from 66 till 74 and from 84 till I retired in 91. In 91, with retirement, I was President and COO for the corporation that was called “Sparta Industries”. I have seen both sides of the “fence”, and even though I never left the “employ” of Grabow, my loyalties for 10 years were with M/C.
United States Tobacco(UST)(Skoal and Copenhagen) bought Grabow in 69′ from the Lavietes family. In 74′ they bought M/C from Bernard Hochstein and moved it into the EXACT facility Grabow occupied. I was named “operations manager” and we were in the basement of a 4 story building in Sparta, NC.
M/C was STRICTLY an importer of pipes and pipe related merchandise. In 74′ when M/C moved from NYC to NC the inventory of finished goods was stored in a facility in Winston Salem, NC. Lentz Moving and Storage. Stacked 10 feet high the inventory covered 180,000 square feet….FINISHED. In my time at Grabow I had never seen that much finished stock, and the shapes, manufacturers, finishes. Heaven for a pipe smoker…..Damn right. You would have had to slap me really hard to get the grin off my face.
I’ll just list a few Manufacturers/names of the inventory. England ….Parker/Hardcastle(Dunhill) …Orlick…France…Jeantet…Jima…Cherrywoods…Italy…GIGI pipe…Radica…Rossi…Federico Rovera…Emilio Rovera…Santambrogio.Brebbia..Meerschaums from Austria…. Strambach… Lighters from Japan…Pouches and accessories from Hong Kong…and the Israeli pipes from Mr. Hochstein’s sons. Trust me…this is only a small sample of the things M/C had, and bought into inventory.
Now the connection. Since M/C and Grabow shared a building, and I was an employee of Grabow we compared notes. Grabow copied a BUNCH of M/C items fully with my help and some skills I had developed.
First was Omega…A copy of a well pipe made by Federico Rovera (FERO.com)….Freehand by the Alpha/Shalom factory…Meerschaum Lined from M. Gasparini, and later GIGI PIPE. These were originally imported by M/C for Grabow and stamped Grabow, but also stamped ITALY. Later models…better finish were made in the USA. Bucko…copied from M. Gasparini… (Gasparini, to my knowledge is the only maker of leather covered pipes in the world). If you buy a leather covered pipe it was, most assuredly covered by M/G. And you thought the wood in the Grabow COLOR was bad…..oughta unwrap one of these scrappers. There is a lot more. Questions will be answered following the presentation.
Now the other way. Grabow to Mastercraft. M/C never really had a source of continuing supply. The foreign manufacturers would make a line for a while and then quit. Never do it again, no matter how well it sold, no matter the demands we put on em’. Grabow gave M/C a source of stability and a nice profit for both companies. A lot of these you will not have heard of, but maybe….Seville, for M/C all smooth, for Grabow all rustic Hillcrest…. Freehand, For M/C Andersen and (a few Mastersen), for Grabow, Freehand with a DRB tampon. New finishes… New shapes, New bits…..Mastercraft showed Grabow how to use LUCITE for stems… Royalton…Again, these are just examples.
Ted also said: Several years before UST bought Mastercraft, M/C had acquired Marxman Pipes. A wonderful kind man, Bob Marx was still working as a salesman in NYC, and I was fortunate to make a few sales calls with him. You all remember Charles Atlas? Bob Marx was about 76 and had just been awarded the (I think) Atlas Award for being the finest specimen of manhood over 70 years old in NYC, or maybe the state.
M/C had some inventory of Marxman stuff, but not a lot. I know very little about Marxman. Did they make, import, or both?
M/C was included in all the major Christmas catalogues…Sears… Spiegel… Penney… Ward… Aldens. This was from about 70′ till 80′. We usually would have a 2 pc. Massa (pressed) Meerschaum sets from Robert Strambach, A water pipe from Brebbia, a huge Well pipe (saw one on e-bay a few days ago), and various odds and ends to fill about 6 – 8 spaces.
Let me also say one more thing about the 180,000 sq. ft. That wasn’t all pipes. It included display cases for our sets, which were made in England, and took up lots of space. Regular boxes, bags, and display material were a part, and pouches and accessories took up quite a bit.
In about 78′ UST put together a “premium products” sales force. They sold, mostly to pipe shops, products that UST owned. Tobacco from a plant in Richmond, Don Tomas cigars from Honduras, House of Windsor cigars from Red Lion PA., and M/C pipes. I think the force was 11 or 12 men and this was the heyday for M/C. What we had what EVERYONE in the pipe business wanted.
After the sales force was disbanded, M/C struggled some. This is about the time that Grabow and M/C realized what an asset we were to each other. Sales stayed pretty good for a while because of the relationships Judy Weinberger (NYC sales office and VP Mastercraft) and I had developed with the pipe shop owners.
Most of the Mastercraft pipes I have seen/bought at the bid place have an Algerian Briar stamping which makes them an attractive buy in this era. They are very reasonable and everyone has been well made with a nice draw and fine centering.”
I continued to look through various links on the web and followed this link to Pipesmokers Forum. http://pipesmokersforum.com/community/threads/mastercraft-pipes.3773/
This post from the same Ted as above appeared there. In it he confirmed some of the same information as he did in the extended post on Pipedia. He wrote: “To most pipe smokers Mastercraft Pipes are small cheap pipes, signified by the oval aluminum “MC” on the shank. Absolutely nothing special.
But Mastercraft was much more. As an importer of finished pipes M/C worked with many of the world’s foremost pipe makers and had in inventory finished product from the likes of… England, Hardcastle and Orlik. France, Ropp, Jeantet, Jean LaCroix. Italy, Lorenzo, Gasparini, Federico Rovera, Emilio Rovera, GIGI Pipe, Brebbia, Santambrogio, Fratelli Rossi. Israel, Shalom and Alpha. Plus all the tools, pouches and lighters from Hong Kong and Japan. The list of suppliers is enormous, but these are the ones I can remember after 30 years, and very few of these great pipes were ever stamped Mastercraft (some from Rossi).
Please don’t discount the importance of Mastercraft in this wonderful hobby we enjoy. Mastercraft, like Grabow, made many of our fathers pipe smokers. We all carry on the tradition…Thanks…Ted”
I also found some older RTDA Almanac pages on Chris’ Pipe Pages site. http://pipepages.com/index.html The first of these shows the address of the Mastercraft Pipe Company in New York before the move and purchase that Ted mentions above. It is a listing of different brands sold by the pipe company. I clipped this image from the 1949 RTDA Almanac. It is an early catalogue listing since the brand was created in 1941.
The next two photos were clipped from the 1969 RTDA Almanac. I included these as they show a list of various MC pipe lines. Note the inclusion in this list of the Executive line. It is the fifth pipe in the list below and sold for $4.95. I am assuming that the Executive Choice could be a subset of this line. The one I have is Italian made and imported to the US. The time frame fits the pipe that I refurbished so it may well be a 1969 pipe. The Italian pipes were made for Mastercraft by such Italian pipe makers as: Lorenzo, Gasparini, Federico Rovera, Emilio Rovera, GIGI Pipe, Brebbia, Santambrogio, Fratelli Rossi.
Now that I had found out some of the history of the Mastercraft brand I was intrigued. I went to work on the pipe with a new interest. I find that often a bit of history of the brand fuels my clean up and restoration work. The photo below shows the cake and the tars buildup on the rim. The rim itself was beveled inward and appeared to be unharmed under the tars. The grain was quite nice on the bevel.
I reamed the bowl with a PipNet reamer. For this bowl I used three of the reaming heads to take the cake back to bare briar so that I can build up a hard and even cake.
I scrubbed the tar on the rim with Murphy’s Oil Soap to soften and remove it. It took a lot of scrubbing to break through the tar and hard carbon buildup. I put the oil soap on cotton pads and worked them against the bevel of the rim. After much scrubbing the rim was finally clean. The photo below shows the finished rim. I scrubbed down the rest of the bowl to remove the grime on the surface.
I cleaned out the shank and the bowl with pipe cleaners, cotton swabs and isopropyl alcohol. I scrubbed out the stem at the same time. Once the pipe was clean inside and out I found that the finish was covered with a thick varnish coat in a rather surprising way.
I decided to do a bit of touching up the rim edges and bevel with a dark brown aniline stain. It went on spotty and when I flamed and hand buffed it things did not feel or look right with the rim. I wasn’t sure what the issue was, the bowl had been quite shiny when I started but with the oil soap it had dulled slightly.
I found that the finish was covered with a thick varnish coat. I did not figure that out until I did a touch up stain on the rim and took it to the buffer to polish the rim. I gave the entire bowl a buff with red Tripoli. As I buffed it the finish began to bubble and peel. I have to tell you this was very frustrating and irritating at the same time. The photo below shows the bubbling of the finish on the back side of the bowl. It appears almost white in the photo.
I took the pipe back to the work table to remove the varnish coat. I wiped the bowl down with acetone on cotton pads to remove the finish. Thankfully it was a varnish and not a urethane based finish. It came off quite easily with a little scrubbing of the bowl, rim and shank. The next series of four photos show the bowl after the finish was removed. I decided I liked the colour of the bowl at this point so I did not restain it once it was clean. The rim and the bowl matched so it became unnecessary.
I sanded the stem with 220 grit sandpaper, medium and fine grit sanding sponges to remove the buildup on the stem. I then went on to sand it with micromesh sanding pads. I wet sanded it with the 1500-2400 grit pads and dry sanded with the 3200-12,000 grit pads.
I rubbed the stem down with Obsidian Oil and when it had dried I took it to the buffer and buffed the bowl and stem with White Diamond. I was careful in the buffing on the shank as I did not want to damage the stamping. When the bowl and stem shone I gave them multiple coats of carnauba wax. I gave it a final buff with a soft flannel buffing pad. The finished pipe is shown in the photos below. The first photo is a close of the beveled rim. I find that feature of this pipe to be one of its most beautiful features. The final series of four photos show various views of the finished pipe. It turned out to be a beautiful pipe with interesting grain and once the varnish was removed a more natural finish. The pipe is now ready to enter the next phase of its journey in time and be smoked by me until I pass it on to whoever comes next in its life.