Pipe Review: Erik The Red will make your friends green with envy

There are a ton of things to consider when buying your first new pipe. If you’re like me and suffer from bouts of analysis paralysis, you’ve got a hard time of making up your mind ahead of you. That makes the process even more daunting- a pipe isn’t like a pack of cigarettes. Ideally, it’ll be a lifelong companion!

Well shoot. Lots of responsibility there.

Thankfully my dad supplied me with all the pipes I needed when I started smoking back in 2009, so aside from agonizing over a pipe to buy him for his birthday I’d never purchased a new-to-me pipe until I bought this Nørding Erik The Red partially-rusticated billiard last year. 

In this review, I’ll walk you through my line of thinking before I made the purchase and I’ll review the pipe itself. It’s an eye-catching little workhorse for not a lot of money. As long as you get some pipe cleaners, tobacco, and a tamper, you’ll be all set to stumble down the rabbit hole. In a good way.

Getting dad’s old pipes was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I was given a lot of pipes that I couldn’t afford under any circumstance as a college freshman helping manage a Subway restaurant in the strip club district of Fort Wayne, Indiana. On the other, most of my education was limited towards researching the pipes I’d been given, which biased heavily towards Irish Petersons, Italian Savinellis, and Danish Stanwells and Ben Wades. None were bad pipes, but none happened to be Nørdings, and as a consequence I’d never heard of the brand, neophyte that I was.

I love history, but I knew that wanted to start fresh, for better or worse, and not begin my new collection with another estate pipe since they made up my entire collection. So I invested hours into educating myself about different brands, offerings, and histories. It was Nørding that stuck out to me: The son of a factory owner, Erik Nørding originally trained as a blacksmith before graduating from engineering school in the 1950s. A pipe-smoker from the age of 15, Nørding teamed up with a craftsman named Skovbo to create a line of pipes called SON, which was an acronym for their names. 

After Skovbo left the partnership in the mid 1960s, Nørding renamed the company after himself. His freehand pipes -a hand-carved style that defies any typical characterization aside from Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” whiff- became hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s. Around the new millennium, Nørding and a team of six made about 15,000 pipes per year in a workshop in the lower level of his home. Today, most of the brand’s production is outsourced, apparently largely to factories in Poland. I guess Erik himself makes some of the brand’s high-grade handmade pipes, which are all entirely out of my budget.

Despite its status as a cash-conscious machine-made pipe, I loved the look of the Erik The Red as well as the legacy it was tied to, so I picked it up for $60.88 from SmokingPipes as the first pipe I’ve purchased in more than a decade. It seems like other pipes from this line are trending about six dollars more these days, but they’re still an excellent value. Mine is a billiard shape, where the bowl and shank are both cylindrical and the shank’s about as long as the bowl is tall. A billiard is my favorite style of pipe; they’re classic, if not really designed for clenching tightly in your jaw. As a side note, I also decided on a Savinelli Oscar Tiger as my second pipe in the same order, along with a tin of Presbyterian Mixture tobacco, a packet of Brigham pipe cleaners, and a Czech pipe tool.

Like many of the Erik The Red series, this pipe is partially-rusticated, meaning that it’s got some craggy texture ground or chiseled into the bowl and shank. Rustication’s normally used to save an ugly chunk of briar by obliterating its flaws, and smooth-finished pipes that showcase a nice piece’s straight grain often cost more than the same pipe with rustication. Though some smooth Erik The Red pipes were available in a couple of styles at a nominal price increase, I chose this specific pipe because I liked the visual and tactile intrigue that a mix of smooth and rusticated finishes provides. That’s just my preference.

Although the expansion rings of the pipe’s fancy acrylic stem are reminiscent of those used on many of Nørding’s abstract freehands, it’s the channel-like rustication along the shank and the top of the bowl that provide the most obvious connection to the majority of his portfolio. But while most of the company’s rusticated pipes remind me of a topographic view of rivers flowing down and around a mountaintop, the lines on this Erik The Red combine with the negative space of the pipe’s smooth, stained briar to give the overall impression of lava dripping down the sides of the rim and up the shank. When combined with its traditional billiard form, the stain and rustication make this extremely compelling from a visual standpoint.

The grain of the briar seems to go all over the place, which I’m sure is equal parts why so much rustication was used on the pipe and why cost so little. The contrast stain of the stummel -the briar part- does a lot to highlight this, but with so much going on it is a gorgeous pipe in its own way. It’s an eye-catching pipe that has drawn comments from passerby.

As far as measurements go, this isn’t a huge pipe, which is good because I don’t have the time or patience to smoke one! It measures 5.43 inches long, the bowl is 1.86 inches tall, and at .79” wide, the chamber is 1.36 inches deep. The mortise -the hole where the tenon of the stem connects to the briar- was drilled pretty close to center, with a variance of sixteen-thousandths of an inch from top to bottom and three-thousandths of an inch from left to right when measured with digital calipers. All told, the pipe weighs 1.26 ounces and while I’m told the stem is vulcanite it sure feels like acrylic to me. Time will tell; we’ll see if it discolors as it oxidizes. 

This Erik The Red is the first pipe I’ve smoked in two years. I loaded it up with Carter Hall, a mild, easy-to-find drugstore blend of ribbon-cut Virginia and Burley tobacco that I’ve long appreciated for its cost, cool smoke, and ability to easily break in a new pipe. The draw was fine and the charring light was successful, but my tamping game was poor: I had to relight the thing five or six times, through no fault of the pipe itself. The pipe smoked cool and dry down to the bottom of the bowl with no gurgle or excessive heat. My second smoke was a bowlful of Edward G. Robinson’s Pipe Blend, a dryer tobacco mixture that stayed lit throughout the smoke. 

My dad had three criteria for enjoying a pipe: It should stay cool for the duration of the smoke, it should break in fast, and it should draw smooth even if packed too tight. This Erik The Red Dublin passes my dad’s test, and its striking contrast stain and partial rustication pass my supplementary clauses that necessitate a pipe just right for my personal aesthetic tastes, though its finish might not be for everyone. 

At eighty-two, Erik Nørding is fond of saying his least-expensive pipes all smoke as well as his prized, handmade heirlooms. Of course, the man is in the Guinness Book of World Records for making the largest smokable “pipe of pipes” and even sells a bobblehead pipe stand of his own likeness, but after fifty-five years of pipe-making, I’m inclined to believe him. Hovering right around $67 now, the Erik The Red series of pipes are eye-catching and tactilely intriguing, they smoke cool and dry with straightforward tobaccos, and they share enough visual cues with their more expensive brethren to be identifiable as a Nørding pipe. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Erik The Red series as a great place for a new pipe-smoker to start. Not only do you get a pipe that’s a cut above the typical nameless smoke shop briar, but you get one that’s super cheap, visually intriguing, and patches you into a fantastic lineage via Nørding’s heritage. Unless you’re racing for a lengthy smoke right out of the box or prefer a more sedate-looking pipe, you will not be disappointed with the Erik The Red line.

Along with this guy, I have two Nørding Extra bent Dublins in grades 1 and 3, along with a handmade grade 11 sandblasted bent brandy. Those pipes edge towards the highe side of the focus of this blog, but we’ll talk about them another time.

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