Made in North CarolinaA weekly series

Made in NC: Sparta still packs a pipe

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2013 

— The inside of the Dr. Grabow plant looks like a high-school shop class from 1965, a warehouse-sized room filled with whining, whirring machinery that turns chunks of briar wood into smoking pipes and spits sawdust on the concrete floor.

The pipe-makers here have shaped, sanded, lacquered and buffed this wood for an average of 33 years each, some of them logging more than half a century on the job – a rare collection of lifetime employees still working in an industry that tends to remind people of their grandfathers.

Dr. Grabow persists in the Blue Ridge Mountains, its name still painted on Sparta’s water tower. Even as the country’s largest manufacturer of pipes, an annual output of 140,000 doesn’t justify reconstructing a plant and its 40-odd custom-made, jury-rigged machines overseas. But mostly, this is an archaic trade not easily taught to a fresh crew. Gary Dixon, for example, drills the bore for Dr. Grabow pipe stems using a wooden accelerator pedal, judging the depth of the hole using only the feeling he’s gained from 40 years on the job.

“I’m always proud to say I’ve got employees who’ve been here longer than I’ve been alive,” said Rick Wooten, vice president and general manager, whose grandfather worked at Dr. Grabow. “And I’m pretty bald-headed.”

The Centers for Disease Control reported last year that tobacco smoking overall had declined 27.5 percent between 2000 and 2011, though use of non-cigarette products shot up by 123 percent. Sadly, for Dr. Grabow, that increase is mostly due to cigars.

Though pipes have gained some favor among young smokers, Dr. Grabow and its $25 to $30 pipes sold in drug stores – 98 percent of them domestically rather than in Denmark or France don’t capture much of the college student market. “Unfortunately, so many of them have to wear Abercrombie. They have to wear Oakley sunglasses,” Wooten said. “So if they smoke a pipe, it’s got to be a $200 Stanwell. ... We are Budweiser.”

Pipes by George, a mainstay on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, doesn’t stock Dr. Grabows, favoring higher-quality handmade models, said owner George Hoffman. He doesn’t stock the $700 European pipes, either, unlike many online merchants, but Grabows fall a notch too low.

A migration for wood

They originated in Chicago early in the 20th century, named for a dentist there who had no connection to the company other than a willingness to lend his name and give the pipes a respectable sound. The only reason the company wound up in North Carolina is the European briar wood was hard to get during World War II, and the mountain laurel of the Blue Ridge was substituted. The modern factory on U.S. 21 opened in 1978.

“It was a decent sort of pipe in the early days,” Hoffman said. “Now it’s sort of mass-produced.”

Grabows aren’t handmade, but mass-produced feels like a stretch these days. The company used to sell 1.5 million a year in the 1960s; now,it takes just 26 people four days a week to turn out the company’s annual production of 140,000.

Wooten graduated from N.C. State in 1988 and joined Grabow a year later. He has worked through several owners, most recently a man in New Zealand: Jim Burns. He says Grabow pipes is doing “OK” overall and that accessories such a filters help keep it running. “As the government continues making it hard for people to smoke,” he said, “people find that they have to drop habits. It’s not that they don’t enjoy it. It’s just so inconvenient. You need time.”

The machines that make Grabows have no name outside the factory, and no use outside pipe manufacturing. The factory has its own lingo heard nowhere else: machines called frazers, procedures known as tripoling.

A detailed process

Every pipe goes through at least 40 operations: top trim, shank trim, bottom trim, rough sand, bit polish, final buff. As he buffs out excess stain on a spinning wheel, Mike Davis might drop a pipe or two and send it flying into his chest. “I got hit about three times this morning,” Davis said. “It hurts.”

Pipes with more or larger defects get a rough finish. Pipes with fewer defects get a smooth finish. Out of all of the finished pipes, 15 percent get tossed out. Pipes get boxed with a blister-packing machine – top of the line in 1982. Beyond that, thin spools of paper get wound into Grabow filters via a Rube Goldberg-looking combination of wheels and conveyors manned by a single worker, 50-year-veteran George Miles.

‘A pile of something else’

At the end of a shift, all the workers at Grabow can pick up and hold the physical evidence of a day’s labor – a trophy that few can boast in the virtual workplace of 2013.

“Lots of people sell it, lots of people market it,” Wooten said, “but there’s not a lot of people who walked in this morning with a pile of something and made it into a pile of something else.”

People like old things and old ways, Wooten said. Companies you could stay with. Habits you could linger over. That’s why Grabow survives.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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