BOSWELL PIPES IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
BY CATHY MENTZER
Gazette Staff Writter February 25, 1999
J.M. Boswell’s career may have started as a pipe dream but today, the celebrated craftsman is known for his dream pipes.
Pipemaker J.M. Boswell uses a band saw to make the first cut to a block of Grecian briar.
Boswell’s hand crafted pipes are revered, and sought after, by aficionados from all over the United States. Some people, according to his wife, even plan their vacations around visits to her husband at the family business, J.M. Boswell’s Handmade Pipes in Chambersburg.
“I sell more Boswell’s than I do any other brand of pipe,” says Charlie Affeld, owner of two Tinder Box shops in South Bend, Ind. “At a reasonable price, it’s a great product. His pipes just smoke great. They break in easily, and people love ’em.” John Boyd, general manager of seven Tobacco Barns of Virginia, describes Boswell pipes as “very easy to sell.”
“You’re getting a helluva pipe for the price,” says Boyd, who guesses there are only a handful of professional pipe makers in Boswell’s league in the entire U.S. “We probably go through between four and six dozen of his standard, classic pipes a month. He can’t keep up with the demand.”
“I sell more Boswell’s then I do any other brand of pipe. People love ’em.”
—-Charlie Affeld, owner of two Tinder Box tobacco shops in South Bend, Ind.
J.M. Boswell with his first hand-carved pipe he ever made. The pipe bowl depicts a Mack Trucks bulldog.
A genuine “character” perhaps as much for his personality as his pipes, Boswell and his briar smoking instruments have been the topics of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as web pages on the internet.
“We carry weight in the pipe business, I tell you,” Boswell says in typical down-home fashion.
After reading about boswell in a magazine called “Pipes and Tobacco,” Fred Lorenzo two weeks ago drove from Gettysburg to Boswell’s 586 Lincoln Way East shop, which carries pipes, cigars, specialty cigarettes and custom blended tobaccos.
Lorenzo promptly bought two pipes, and last week he was back enjoying a smoke in the Boswell shop’s comfortably furnished smoking room.
“I don’t think he makes two pipes the same,” Lorenzo says. “Each is a little different, and that’s nice.”
Fred Lorenzo of Gettysburg, left, and Bernard Beckman of Fairfield enjoy a smoke in the seating area of J.M. Boswell’s Handmade Pipes at 586 Lincoln Way East.
To an unpretentious Boswell, there is no science to making a pipe. It comes naturally. For his “freehand” pipes, he uses no patterns or preplanned designs—just his imagination.
“Whatever I decide it’s gonna be is what it turns out to be,” he says with a smile.
There are many other variables too — the way the grain of the wood looks, different colors that can be applied, a variety of stems and all kinds of styles — that even to Boswell, each pipe is something of a surprise.
“A pipe is not just a pipe,” he says. “And when you buy a pipe from us, it’s one of a kind. Nobody else has it.”
Clearly proud of his reputation as king of the Pennsylvania pipe-making scene, Boswell is confident that the quality of his pipes is second to none.
“Our pipes smoke as well as anything on the market today, and we prove that time and time again,” he says flatly.
Since he got into pipe-making by accident at the age of 17, the 41-year-old Boswell has perfected the art. Now, he’s passing it along to his 19-year-old son, Danny, who helps him in his shop, along with Gail and the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Rachel.
Boswell, a native Alabaman whose family moved to Pennsylvania when he was 10, “fell into” pipe-making when Carlisle pipe maker Richard Johnson offered him a job unexpectedly and he became anapprentice.
Five years later, Boswell moved to Chambersburg to open his own shop. His business, which was located on South Main Street for 17 years, will celebrate its 20th anniversary next February.
Using machinery he has customized or built himself, Boswell turns out 6,000 to 7,000 pipes a year. Some are sold in his shop, but most are sold wholesale to tobacconists around the country. His active client list numbers 150 to 200 stores. Another 300 stores are on a waiting list, according to Danny Boswell.
Boswell also repairs pipes, replacing broken stems, banding, reaming and cleaning them. He accepts some custom orders and hand-carves the occasional pipe, but his stock-in-trade consists of two kinds of pipes:
All of Boswell’s pipes are made from white heath, a Mediterranean bush-like tree commonly called briarwood, which he imports in large quantities from Greece. Many other U.S. pipemakers buy their briar from Boswell, he says.
“I buy as big as anybody with this briarwood,” says Boswell. “You’ve got to buy large. We have a 5- to 6- year supply of briarwood at all times.”
His shop uses 20 bags of briarwood a year, each bag weighing 270 to 300 pounds.
The mouthpieces for Boswell pipes come from Italy and are made of either acrylic for colored stems or vulcanite — a very hard rubber — for the black stems. All of the mouthpieces are cut and shaped in Boswell’s shop.
Buying briar direct from cutters rather than through a middleman is one of the keys to Boswell’s ability to keep the cost of his pipes down — that, and his faithful determination to keep suppliers from gouging prices.
Boswell places stickers with prices on all the pipes he ships to other pipe and tobacco shops, and if he hears they’ve jacked up the price they are likely to get a call from Boswell himself.
“I strictly control the prices,” says Boswell. “I just believe that everybody should be able to afford a nice pipe. I don’t want the consumer to get ripped off.”
That kind of honesty plus a home-spun charm has won Boswell the loyalty of many a customer, as well as business associates. His measured drawl and occasional grammatical faux pas belie a shrewd business mind that has mastered the craft of turning a profit making superior-quality smoking instruments.
“He’s a very sincere person,” says Tobacco Barns of Virginia’s Boyd. “What you see is what you get. There’s no BS about the man.”
Over the years, Boswell has purchased the equipment from three pipemaking operations, including one in State College he says was making a different kind of pipe altogether when it switched to tobacco pipes but failed to make it.
Boswell has altered some of the equipment to specifically fit his needs. Some of his designs have been purchased by other pipemakers around the nation, he says.
Boswell graciously demonstrates his pipemaking technique to curious writers and reporters. His own pipe planted firmly between his teeth, (“You’ve got to know what you’re selling,” he says) he begins by drawling the general outline of a pipe on a piece of briarwood, then cutting out the shape with a band saw. He uses a drill press to hollow out the tobacco bowl.
On a sanding machine, Boswell refines the shape of the pipe and smoths it. He uses special machinery to bore the tenon that will connect to the mouthpiece.
When the pipe is assembled, his son applies and alcohol-based dye to highlight and bring out the wood grain. Then the pipe is hand-buffed with wax on a series of buffing wheels.
The final touch is Boswell’s signature and —on the freehand pipes the date — which he engraves on the stems.
To the casual observer, it seems as if Boswell could almost make pipes in his sleep. But he says his work is never dull because every pipe is unique.
“It’s great,” Boswell says of his life’s work. “I make a good living. I’ve got my family working with me. I’m making something people like. It don’t get any better than that.”
He also credits his customers with helping keep things interesting.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Boswell. ‘ The people are what make it worth it. Their enthusiasm rubs off.”