Pipe Review: A Rocky Start to the Peterson Donegal fishtail (999)

My dad loved the Irish pipes of Kapp & Peterson, and thanks to his passion and generosity I’ve owned eight over the years including a rusticated 999, smooth 306 and 312 system pipes, a dyed meerschaum Zulu, four Irish Whiskeys- two 107s (smooth and sandblasted), a smooth 120, and a rusticated 408. Today, I own three. Well, four, if we count the one I’m about to talk about, which we should.

The numbers refer to Peterson’s standard styles as indicated on their shape chart, which can be found online: The 107, for example, is a straight billiard, while the 408 is a partially-bent apple and the 120 is a straight Dublin. One of Peterson’s most famous shapes, however, is the 999, called the “John Bull” shape. The 999 takes the distinctive, tapered, double-grooved bowl of a bulldog pipe and combines it with the round shank of a Rhodesian. All 999s are bent, curving up towards the stem, as opposed to a straight shank.

Here’s my Peterson Donegal Rocky 999.

Most of my Petersons came from dad’s collection, with the exception of the sandblasted 107 that he bought me new for Christmas in 2010. When he died, my brother got a couple of the larger Peteys that stayed in dad’s rotation, and today he has the rest of dad’s old Petersons aside from the two Irish Whiskey 107s which I saved for myself. One of the pipes I gave him was dad’s old 999, a dark-stained, sandblasted army mount with a sterling-silver band and a vulcanite stem. 

Aside from Dunhill pipes which were -and still are- unobtanium for this guy, Dad always considered Petersons about the best factory pipe his money could buy. Peterson is the oldest pipe maker in the world that’s operated continuously. Its origins began in 1874, when Frederick Kapp opened a pipe shop in Dublin and a Latvian artisan named Charles Peterson got a job there. In 1890, Peterson was awarded a patent for a new system of ensuring a cool, dry smoke that used a repositioned draft hole and a moisture reservoir. Peterson patented a graduated-bore mouthpiece in 1891, and a unique stem design today called the P-Lip was patented around 1898. While Peterson has been subjected to many changes in management in ownership over the course of its history, Laudisi Enterprises -owner of SmokingPipes.com- purchased the firm in 2018. 

The nickel band adds a touch of class that -I hope- won’t tarnish like sterling silver.

Now, please don’t be offended, but I’m not a person who really gives a shit about specific countries and their history. My own last name, Shideler is German, sure, and my mom’s side of the family I think was originally Swiss. But I’m no more German than a hot dog, and hot chocolate powder has got more Swiss in it than I do! All this is meant to be an introduction to the fact that I don’t know much about Ireland or the county there from which this pipe series gets its name, and I don’t really care to learn more. This isn’t a diss on the Emerald Isle, but when it comes to Savinelli or Nording pipes, I equally don’t care about the geopolitical history of Italy or Denmark beyond its impact on the pipes themselves.

I obviously find pipes intriguing, though. And though my undeveloped nineteen-year-old tastebuds considered Petersons fair smokers, I struggled to break in my Irish Whiskey 107. Nevertheless, when I returned to the hobby and habit of pipe-smoking, I knew I needed a new one in my stable.

Here’s the sandblasted 107 my dad got me for Christmas before he died.

Unfortunately, I’m a millennial of many bizarre quirks. For example- I absolutely hate the feel of socks on my feet, I shudder at the thought of using real metal cutlery, my biggest fear is a bird flying into my open window while driving, and my heart rate spikes at the sound of a ringing doorbell so much that a phantom chime sometimes wakes me up when I’m napping. 

Those mockable neuroses being the case, I did a couple of days worth of research on what Peterson had to offer before I actually pulled the trigger on buying one. But just like I panic-order my usual at the Puerto Vallarta in Muncie, I hastily pulled the trigger on a Donegal Rocky 999 with a fishtail bit for $87.40 after a 5% VIP Bronze discount from SmokingPipes was applied.

I’ve heard horror stories about recent quality control issues with recent Peterson pipes, but I bit the bullet at relatively low expense and decided to see for myself.

Peterson’s 999 shape is available in a ton of different formats and lines ranging from about $85 to upwards of $300. I’m a big fan of history, and the Donegal Rocky appealed to me due to its low cost and its tradition: the series, which was inspired by the mountains of Ireland’s County Donegal, dates to 1945.

I had to google the area’s topography to write that.

As the name implies, the pipe is heavily carved with precipitous rustication, but the dual grooves and overall shape are readily apparent. What wasn’t so apparent was the pipe’s red-and-black contrast stain, similar to Nørding’s Erik The Red series, but darker. I like a pipe that’s got some visual heft to it, though, especially when it takes a famous shape and applies a different aesthetic. From looks and feel, my Donegal Rocky 999 was good to go.

We’ll talk about cleaning up a dirty old pipe another time, but here’s my dad’s old 999 -now my brother’s- before I cleaned it up and restored it for him.

Though by no means a nose-warmer, this pipe appears to be on the smaller side of the sizing spectrum- it struggles to sit in my bizarrely-designed, cheap, pipe rack from Amazon. It’s 5.78 inches long and the bowl is 1.6 inches deep with a chamber depth of 1.26 inches and an interior diameter of .81 inches. Despite its lower profile, the chamber has only a fiftieth of a cubic inch less capacity than my Nørding Erik The Red straight billiard -good for a quick smoke- and it’s actually a third of an inch longer from bit to bowl. Since straight billiards are my go-to shape, this bent John Bull is a nice change of pace. 

Now, one thing: This pipe has what’s called a P-Lip bit. Designed by Charles Peterson, it’s a special mouthpiece with a hole in the top of a raised, fishtail segment that intends to direct the smoke towards the top of your mouth in order to eliminate tongue bite. I like them, but pipe-smokers seem divided: my brother hates them! More importantly to me, most Peterson pipes feature vulcanite bits, which are made out of a kind of hard rubber. These oxidate quickly and periodically need attention to keep them looking spic and span. The process of restoring them is time-and-tool consuming but it’s worth it. 

At any rate, I packed in a bowl full of the 40s gangster movie actor Edward G. Robinson’s pipe blend, made by the Sutliff Tobacco Company of ribbon-cut Burley, Black Cavendish, and a little Latakia. It’s got a light fruity smell that -at the risk of sounding like an asshole- mingles with molasses and earthy components. Compared to what I normally smoke, Edward G. Robinson’s blend is pretty aromatic, and I didn’t want to stain the pipe with its flavor. Nonetheless, the charring light lit and went out, and after the second light I was off to the races. 

The red stain is apparent here; I’ve heard that cheaper Petersons are dip-stained, which can leave an off-taste that I didn’t notice. The bottom says “Peterson OF DUBLIN | DONEGAL ROCKY | 999 | MADE IN IRELAND

I’ve improved my packing technique in recent days but found the pipe to smoke hot and wet- a distinctive gurgle was present and the pipe was more warm in my hand at earlier stages in the smoke than I was accustomed to. This was likely due to the Black Cavendish used in the tobacco, as aromatics tend to burn hotter and with more moisture than unflavored blends. Despite the gurgle and hot smoke, the draw was fine.

I won’t hold the gurgle against the Petey, but as I cleaned it once it cooled I noticed that the mortise was drilled way off-center: The bottom of the mortise was forty-eight-thousandths of an inch off center, and it was oriented nearly thirty-two thousands of an inch to the left when measured with digital calipers. Those figures surely sound nitpicky, but it’s super visible in person, and I’m a quality analyst by trade. Intrigued, I decided to use my calipers to measure my two Irish Whiskeys, which were made from 1997-2005 or thereabouts. The rusticated version had a maximum variance of four-thousandths of an inch from left to right, while the smooth pipe had a variance of five-thousandths. Neither mortise was visually off-center; that’s what calipers are for. 

I decided to explore this further with my brother’s old 999. I can’t easily remove the sterling silver band like I could the brass rings the Irish Whiskeys have, but my calipers extend far enough into the stummel, I think, to get a good reading. Top to bottom measurements varied by nine-thousands of an inch, while left and right varied by eight thousandths. 

Here’s one last look at the Petey for now.

Are these differences in measurements indicative of a recent quality slide? It’s too small of a sample size to tell, but I’d imagine that the more expensive Petersons don’t have this problem. I’m not convinced that an off-center mortise has a significant impact on the smoke, though it does point towards the pace of which these pipes are churned out. For what it’s worth, John smoked his old 999 from Dad’s collection after I’d reamed it and given it a deep-clean and it went just fine. 

Will my Peterson Donegal Rocky 999 be a regular smoker? Who knows! As of now, I can say that owning a Peterson of any vintage will plug you in to years of pipe-smoking heritage, and that’s well worth picking one up for. Peterson’s Aran range and that many of their less-expensive pipes are good values. A rusticated Aran fishtail 999 costs about $85 and that’s a low point of entry towards a storied brand. 

Despite the sloppy mortise I’d say go with it and get yourself a Peterson of some sort. The 999 is a good place for a traditionalist to start, but look into other shapes as well. Eventually, figure out if you’d like one of Peterson’s system pipes. 

One thought on “Pipe Review: A Rocky Start to the Peterson Donegal fishtail (999)

  1. I always had a thing for a pipe with a curved/drooping stem – I never knew if that style has a name.
    This is all interesting stuff.

    Like

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