Alfred Dunhill first had the idea of inserting a white spot on pipe stems in 1912 for practical reasons. The hand-made, vulcanite stems were so perfect that clients often had trouble knowing which way to insert them into the shank, so Dunhill solved this problem by placing a mark, a white spot at the end of the stem to show which way was “up”. Although Dunhill was brilliant at marketing his products, he certainly did not think of this as a possible trademark. Indeed, in 1923 he had to go to court to defend his original creation. In Dunhill pipes at that time the white spot was a thin, round ivory circle inserted into the stem, but today this is made of high-grade acrylic
Introducing the white spot was just one way Alfred Dunhill revealed his special knack for inventing things. Going from a harness business to pipe maker in a few years meant that he not only tried to glean all he could in pipe making, but he also tested his ideas. It is not known how many trials were carried out, or whether any were unsuccessful, but the successful results contributed to the birth of the legendary Dunhill pipes
At the turn of the twentieth century most pipes were set aside after a few years because their insides got clogged up. In 1911 Dunhill found the solution to this problem by inventing an aluminium inner tube that could be inserted into the pipe and replaced when necessary. Thus, a pipe could last a lifetime and stay clean. This method was in use up to the 1930s, when pipe cleaners were introduced
In the early years of his business in London Alfred Dunhill produced only vulcanite stems. He bought semi-manufactured bowls from Saint-Claude in France which were then finished by his craftsmen. However, the briarwood had to be “refinished” first. When the piece came from France the briar still contained some sap which would have made the smoke taste of tannin and would have made breaking in difficult. Curing it in oil could solve the problem, as the oil would eliminate the sap, but on the other hand it would clog up the pores and when smoked the oil would seep through the wood, which would produce unpleasant effects. What could be done to remedy this? Dunhill must have already been thinking about this in 1910 if it is true that by 1913 he had already patented (No. 2157) a process to cure and refinish pipes with oil. His machinery reproduced in a certain way the conditions of the “first smoke”, which also removed the oil as it gradually seeped through. A lot has been said on oil curing. In the first place the details of the patented process (and preliminary oil bath) have always been jealously guarded. Moreover, they have evolved over time. Secondly, whereas according to Dunhill this process could only be positive, not everyone fully appreciated (or appreciates) this process. This is especially true in more recent times, with the gradual change in techniques and smoking tastes, and there is a growing number of people who prefer other, more natural ways to expel the sap. However, the fact remains that oil curing is typical of classic British pipes in all their variations (and also by producers in other countries) and there are still a substantial number of faithful clients.
Once the pores in the briarwood were cleared, the pipe’s shape had to be improved, especially concerning the continuity between stem and shank and all the fine details, which would contribute to an overall balance of the components. The final process was to “finish” the surface of the wood, which determined (and still determines) the aspect and character of the pipe as object. In the early years when pipes were still supplied by the French, apart from some Charatan models, Dunhill noticed that the heavily varnished pipes were unaesthetic and not practical. As soon as the firm started to produce its own pipes (1910), different methods were sought.
The first method that was developed produced a light and effective finish called Bruyere, the French name for briar. Instead of varnishing the wood, the wood’s grain was enhanced by applying coats of a deep red stain and light waxing. The second method was introduced later, after many trials. Sandblasting had been used since 1870 to make glass opaque, thoroughly clean iron parts or the facades of buildings. However, no one would have dreamed of adopting this process to finish pipes in such a drastic manner, except Alfred Dunhill, of course. Thus, in 1917 he was ready to launch a new amazing finish: the Shell. By blasting high speed microparticles onto the surface of the briarwood, the relatively softer parts of the wood were removed, leaving the harder parts of the wood and a beautiful, craggy, chiaroscuro pattern, which enhanced the grain much more than mere staining. The name Shell was used to describe the type of relief pattern which is present on shells, but it can also mean “shriveled”. It is suspected that pipes of inferior quality were treated in this way, as the imperfections in the briar wood were removed. But this is certainly not the case as far as Dunhill is concerned. A Shell was designed right from the beginning in the choice of briar, which in this case was Algerian as it was softer and more suitable for obtaining a pitted surface. It was prepared for sandblasting by first being treated with oil which strengthened the wood. The models from the early years had some problems relating to variations in their shapes, although collectors say these are now a distinguishing feature of the pipes.
Right from the beginning Alfred Dunhill’s scientific mind and attention to competitors imposed a system of classification, which evolved over time and was later standardized. On the pipes (on the shanks to be more precise) this was expressed in letters and numbers. A detailed analysis would call for an expert in this subject and new discoveries have further complicated matters. Here is just a brief sketch of the classification. Until 1975, the Bruyere bore the letter “A”. The phrase “Inner tube” was stamped until 1934. H.W. stood for “hand worked”, in other words entirely hand-crafted pipes made up to the 1930s. O.D. stood for “own design”, which means that the pipe was made on the client’s own personal specifications and these can be dated back to the later 1920s and early 1930s
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