Pipe Review: I knew it! Dr. Grabow’s Grand Duke really sucks

A blindfolded reach into my cornucopia of personal failings reveals that I’m a hypocrite. I realize this pretty often, and it burbled up into mind yesterday when I was going through some of my posts here. It’s unfair for me to sit here behind a keyboard and dunk on a shitty pipe like a Dr. Grabow that I’ve never smoked before, I figured. I sat there ponderously for a few seconds before I realized that I’d better get one. So I did.

Purchasing

Here’s the pipe I bought, or at least, I thought I did.

Although I could have gone down to Fat Jake’s Tobacco Barn and picked one up in person, it made sense to put my Amazon membership to good use instead. The Grabow got here today, a Grand Duke, and boy was I excited! I was more enthralled with the prospect of the Johs sandblasted bent brandy I also ordered from SmokingPipes, but that’ll be another post. 

The pipe I ordered is a Dr. Grabow “Grand Duke Smooth” in the straight billiard shape. I chose it because it was $40 and seemed to represent a higher-quality piece than the normal “Duke Smooth,” and that it was the closest a quick search revealed to the price point of lesser-expensive, name-brand, grown-up pipes. I hit the Buy Now button and it showed up two days later.

Unboxing

Online, the pipe’s features were called out in the listing as follows:

  • Brand new
  • Made of briar
  • Made in United Kingdom
  • Comes in blister pack
  • Great gift
Here’s what I got two days after purchase.

I wasn’t sure about that third point since I’m pretty sure that these are all made at International Pipes & Accessories, LLC’s Sparta, North Carolina factory. But the unboxing, or I guess, the unenveloping, revealed that point four was, well, on point: I was greeted with a lightweight blister pack. For means of comparison, my $47 Nording Compass came in a thin, cardstock box that contained a sock with the actual pipe inside. Other sub-$50 a pipes like a $43 Brigham System, the $45 Ropp Etudiante, or a $48 Ropp Vittoria come with similar treatment.

The pipe sock that came with my Compass.

A straight bulldog rattled around inside the blister pack- apparently Dr. Grabow sells their pipes in lots through some sort of grab-bag fashion, where one SKU contains a variety of shapes and flavors. I got the bulldog, or at least I thought I did, since the pipe was missing the form’s trademark grooves around the point where the two truncated cones that form the bowl connect. I phoned Dr. Grabow and asked if I could get the pipe’s shape number to match it to a fifty-year-old chart I’d found. The woman on the other end of the phone wasn’t sure she could be of much help but that she knew the company did, in fact, make a straight bulldog.

The blisterpack that came with my Grabow.

Question answered.

Bulldogs without concentric grooves are rare but not completely unheard of. And -real quick- an opportunity to educate: Those nerdier than me will quibble about the height of the bowl having some importance, but the only real difference between the bulldog shape and a pipe style called a Rhodesian -which Dr. Grabow doesn’t appear to make- is that bulldogs have diamond shanks and Rhodesians have round ones. Otherwise, the styles are the same.

Aesthetics

The divot in the carving is just left of center in the frame.

At any rate, I jammed my thumb through the back of the blister pack like I used to do with bulk Pokemon cards and examined the pipe. I immediately noticed a couple of issues with the bowl- there were some tiny putty fills and pits reminiscent of my Compass, but none were that big of a deal for a $40 pipe- I didn’t even take pictures of them.

What was a bigger deal to me was this jacked-up divot in the Bulldog’s rim where the shape transitions from truncated cone to cone. I’ve owned eight or nine Bulldogs over the years and I’ve never seen a cut this bad! For “fifty dedicated employees, many with more than 40 years in pipe-making, bring[ing] a total of some 1200 years of skill to reading the best value for quality pipes available in the USA today” per Grabow’s website, someone screwed the pooch on this guy.

This photo of the bowl, mid-smoke, shows the uneven application of the bowl coating.

A closer look at the pipe revealed that the inner coating of the bowl was unevenly applied and, near the rim, just about as wavy as at least a snack-sized bag of Ruffles. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but again, a problem that none my other pipes have, whether they cost $50 or $250 new.

My inspection of the bowl led me to the rest of the stummel, which led me to the mouthpiece, where I found the pipe’s biggest problem: Nothing about the bit and shank of the Dr. Grabow line up. Twisting the stem to line one corner up with any one of the edges of the stummel led the other three towards a pretty gaudy and obvious misalignment.

The bottom (left, if you’re smoking it) edge of the stem is aligned to the stummel here.

I removed the bit to monkey around with it and found that the mortise (the hole drilled into the stummel) clearly biases left. I get that it only cost $40, but this is another reason why I don’t recommend the new pipe-smoker to start with such a crappy piece. I’ve truly never seen this lack of fit and finish on any other machine-made pipe I’ve ever smoked.

Now, I know what you’re saying- I’m an appalling asshole and a shameful simpleton for holding this random Dr. Grabow pipe up to any sort of higher production standard. But let me tell you one thing before you proceed with the name-calling: I make my living as a quality analyst. I know what I’m doing here! 

The top edge of the stem is aligned to the stummel here.

I get that the Dr. Grabow factory isn’t churning out $400 Dunhills, but I’m sure this pipe would still leave a bad taste in the consumer’s mouth. Foreshadowing!

If the Grabow facility is anything like the light manufacturing plants managing to stay afloat across the rust belt, I’d imagine the fit-and-finish problems are due to supply chain issues, a new and inexperienced workforce that lacks strong training, aging machinery, and ownership blithely willing to capitalize on its brand equity without investing any CapEx into the production facilities. But that’s just me speculating.

Smoking It

My work schedule made it a long two days before I could light this fucker up. I packed it with some Half & Half -a common, old-school drug-store/Fat Jake’s style blend of Virginia and Burley tobaccos that fits the provenance of this pipe, and I let ‘er rip with a charring light, a tamp, a real light, a tamp. Then I went to town. 

Or, I tried to. I wouldn’t say the smoke was excruciating, but it wasn’t great. The first tell was that the draw was atypically wide although my packing and tamping game was close to perfect. It like I was sucking in a lot of air, and after a while it occurred to me to examine the bit. After I did, I realized that the air hole was huge -both wide and tall- as compared to any other pipe I own, so much so that it felt like I was blowing bubbles out the end of it. Afterwards, I realized I’d never been more thankful for ebonite/vulcanite or acrylic when I switched back to my next-cheapest pipe, a $60-ish Erik The Red straight billiard.

Here’s Dr. Grabow’s tenon filter. I’ve read stories about the metal tenon filing away at the mortise before both are hopelessly damaged.

The smoke itself was pretty unenjoyable. It was acrid and bitter, and the bowl of the pipe was excessively hot on my hand. Now, I know what you’re saying- I’m a nattering nabob or whatever other Agnew-era insult you can hurl at me for holding this Dr. Grabow pipe up to any sort of higher use-case standard since it’s the pipe’s first smoke and there’s a breaking-in period of successive terrible smokes until the chamber’s cured and expelled all of its sap and shit. Fair point, honestly.

But after having broken in thirty pipes or so, I think the horror stories of the breaking-in process are exaggerations in most cases, provided that you’re breaking in a good quality pipe made from briar that’s already been aged! When I smoked Half & Half to break in several other pipes, its “flavorful notes of cardamom, coriander and maze” (per the manufacturer) all came out in great force, particularly for a blend mostly favored by codgers. Not in the Grabow, though! It was downright unpleasant.

Mid-smoke, the poor fit of the stem to the stummel really stuck out to me.

Honestly, that’s part of how Dr. Grabow reaches its low price point: The inexpensive briar the brand uses isn’t aged as long as that from other manufacturers, which means it’s less dense with more crud in it. 

Halfway through the smoke I thought to pull the pipe apart and remove the filter in an attempt to let more smoke and less air in my mouth. Normally, this would risk a crack in the briar, but I didn’t expect to keep this pipe for long, and the tenon (the smaller-diameter part of the stem that fits into the mortise) popped right out before I tossed the filter in the trash. Unfortunately, its removal had little, if any, effect on the quality of the smoke. 

I finished the bowl and was done. Now, the pipe is sitting in my car as I figure out what to do with it. 

The bottom line

A hypocrite though I may still be, I’m pleased that my inclinations were right on point: I still wouldn’t recommend this pipe to anyone as a first briar or otherwise. Its fit and finish is abominable, even for a starter. Pits and fills are things I expected, but the bad cut of the bowl transition, the off-center mortise, the wavy application of the bowl’s coating, and -above all- the repellant fit of the shank to the stem took me by surprise, though I’ll give it some credit and say that the stain wasn’t as big of a deal as what I thought it’d be. This pipe will lead the potential smoker to a life-long habit of saying “meh” when they shouldn’t be.

A Grabow bulldog on a brass bulldog.

In a way, that’s great! Less cancer for everyone- forget sequencing genomes and CRISPR- just smoke a Grabow! But perhaps a truly great tobacco shines in something like this and if so, then bully to the connoisseur who eats Waygu out in the shithouse. As for me, I’m clearly one who values the aesthetics of a pipe. At a distance, the pipe looks okay I guess, but smoking it with a forgiving drugstore blend was actually repulsive. It made me feel like I was taking big hits off of a burning vacuum cleaner belt.

Despite the problems I found, it did still smoke through a bowl of tobacco, and I’m confident that it’d do that better than a couple things here on my desk like a bottle of hand sanitizer, a four-track audio mixer, a bottle of A.1. sauce, and some dental floss picks. Or my own hands, for that matter.

What sucks is that I like to think that I’m a person who really values the prospect of American manufacturing. Whatever secret sauce International Pipes & Accessories is cooking up in Sparta, though, just isn’t enough in this case. I’d still recommend a Missouri Meerschaum for a cheap domestic pipe, or a Brigham from Canada, an Italian Rossi, or a Danish Compass over this clusterfuck in a heartbeat. If you’re dead-set on American Made, check out BriarWorks out of Tennessee, though they’ll cost a little more than double the price of a Grabow.

I’ve owned Missouri Meerschaum cobs, but don’t have one handy. I do have a Rossi, which will be my next review. We’ll put them head to head in a post where I revisit -gulp- the Grabow.

4 thoughts on “Pipe Review: I knew it! Dr. Grabow’s Grand Duke really sucks

  1. Zoiks! Sounds like the Dr. needs a Dr.

    Is this the only old mass market/drugstore brand left? I remember another called Medico but never bought one.

    Like

    1. Medico is still a thing, made by SM Frank, which also makes Kaywoodie. I’ve had a few vintage Kaywoodies that I liked, but I’ve yet to encounter a Medico in the wild. I just found a source online, though, so a review of the Medico Conqueror will be forthcoming!

      Liked by 1 person

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