Pipe dreams & plane parts

A tobacconist at a Fishermen's Terminal, F.K. Kirsten Ltd. is a bit of an anachronism in this day and age, when smoking is so unpopular in most places. But more than just cigarettes, 13 blends of pipe tobacco and cigars that can cost up to $31.50 apiece are sold at the 67-year-old business.

So are Kirsten pipes, a world-renowned smoking implement that combines age-old tradition with relatively modern science to provide a much smoother smoke, explained Ric Gahan, manager of the store.

The inventor, Fredrick K. Kirsten, didn't start out trying to come up with a better pipe, said his granddaughter, Lynne Kirsten, who is now president of the company.

"My grandfather was an aeronautical engineer," she said. "He was the head of the first school of aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington."

A professor on the UW faculty from 1915 to 1951, Kirsten was a prolific inventor who was also responsible for building the first wind tunnel at the university back during the Depression, Lynne said. "It's still making money for the university today," she added.

So how did an engineer come to invent a new kind of pipe? Kirsten's doctor told him to stop smoking cigarettes in the 1930s. "And he tried smoking briar pipes," Lynne said, "and he didn't like them, and he was the kind of guy that if he didn't like something, he'd invent something better."

The problem, she explained, was that pipes were around three feet long when they were first invented in Europe, which allowed the smoke t o cool before it reached the pipe bit. When pipes were shortened so they would be easier to carry around, there was no compensation for the lost cooling power, Lynne said.

What Kirsten did in 1936 was use precision-tooled, aeronautical-quality aluminum to invent what he called a "Radiator Stem." It was a significant development.

Between 30 to 50 percent of tobacco is moisture, which is converted into steam when the tobacco is burned, and the steam is not only hot, it contains acids.

"So, in a regular pipe that steam, that moisture doesn't have anyplace to go," Lynne said. "But in our pipes, it hits the metal and it reverts back to a liquid."

Kirsten pipes also include a valve at the end of the pipe near the bowl which can be removed to drain the condensed liquid, said Gahan, who has worked for the company since 1970.

Kirsten Pipe bowls are made in various shapes and finishes from imported Mediterranean briar wood or Turkish meerschaum. The Radiator Stems also come in different shapes and three colors. The pipes retail for $52.50 to $154, Gahan said.

"They're all interchangeable," he said of the different stems and bowls, which screw on and off the pipes. "That's what's really neat about the pipes, Gahan added. "We get pipes that were World War II pipes. They come in for repair, and everything has been kept to such close tolerances, we can fix the pipes and make them just like new."

The pipes are sold all over the world, Lynne said, adding that the pipes are growing in popularity only recently in Japan and China. "I don't think there's a country we haven't sent a Kirsten pipe to," added Gahan.

F.K. Kirsten Ltd. has been located at Fishermen's Terminal since 1989. Before that it was located on Ballard Avenue Northwest for many years, but the company's first retail store opened in Pioneer Square in the mid-1970s.

"People are still coming to us that started as customers in Pioneer Square," Gahan said. Prior to Pioneer Square, the pipes were sold out of the company's Ballard factory.

Lynne estimates that her company makes around 5,000 pipes a year. "But we sell component parts, too, so it's hard to tell," she added.

The company employs seven people in its Ballard factory, but only one of them works on the pipes. The sales of pipes and tobacco make up just 5 to 10 percent of Kirsten's business, Lynne said.

The bulk of the company's business involves making machine parts for the aerospace industry. Customers include Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi, the Boeing Co. and various suppliers of parts to Boeing, Lynne said .

She added that the company also makes medical instruments for the University of Washington.

The aerospace part of the business has taken a major hit as the industry in general and Boeing in particular continue to struggle with a flagging economy. "We're really hurting," Lynne said. Sales of pipes and tobacco products are also down from what they used to be, she added.

"In the '70s, we were worried about selling everything we had in the store," Gahan recalled.

"Now we worry about buying too much," he added.

One thing that would help the tobacco end of the business is if Washington state reduced it current 129-percent tax on cigars, Lynne said, adding that Kirsten's has a lobbyist fighting for that in Olympia.

"And if they reduce the (cigar) tax, that would be a real shot in the arm," Gahan said.

"But you can't ever count on that happening," he added.

Kirsten's also sells lighters, liquor flasks and fine knives to bring in extra cash, but the pipes Lynne's grandfather invented almost seven decades ago continue to be an important part of the family business.

"We're lucky we have the Kirsten pipes to carry us," is how Gahan puts it.

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