Some years ago I did an interview with stone-cutter extraordinaire Martin Romijn, who makes pipe-accessories out of stone. Throughout the years we kept in touch and saw each other at meetings. It was at the end of 2016, beginning of 2017 that I learned that he also was making pipes. This piqued my interest because I know that Martin has a feeling and eye for lines and shapes. Something one can not learn. With his first pipes I had to laugh a bit, he treated the wood like stone but his style was undeniably unique. A bit further along the way his talent really began to show and his pipes became more refined. Always trying to show off the beautiful patterns of the briar just like he did with the fossils in the stone. Now I consider him one of the best if not the best pipe-maker in The Netherlands.
So last month I paid him a visit. Martin still lives in the city of Leerdam and behind his house he has a shed where the magic happens. I have been at the work places of several pipe makers and where some are pure unadulterated chaos Martin absolutely has one of the tidiest. Everything is neatly and orderly arranged and the machinery looks reasonably clean. Talking about equipment, Martin has a wood turning lathe in stead of a metal turning one. It was a gift from his parents when they saw his pipe-making talent. Besides that he thinks he has more freedom shaping pipes on it. Also he has a sanding disc and a slack belt sander, which he took over from another pipe-maker (Vandaahl) who had stopped. Further you can find in his workplace a bandsaw, dremel, some hand work tools (files etc.) and a polishing machine. Last but not least on one of the shelves stands a laptop that powers a loudspeaker which blurts out non-stop music of the great Johnny Cash, one of Martin’s heroes.
Egg shaped pipe
When I asked how and where he did learn to carve and shape briar wood he answered that he is mainly a self taught pipe-maker. In previous years he refurbished quite a lot of estate pipes. Also because of his stonecutting day-job (and all the tampers, ash-trays, stands etc. he made) Martin has 25 years experience of shaping and modelling. At one point he started experimenting with some briar blocks and when it turned out he did pretty well it became more serious. Nowadays Martin uses briar from Italy and in the future he wants to try his hand at olive wood. His mouthpieces are made from ebonite and acryl and some have the craziest colours and patterns. But Martin makes sure that visually the stem goes together with the bowl.
Martin has a pretty unique way of making pipes. Other pipe-makers decide what shape they want to make and begin. If a sandpit surfaces, well too bad, next one! But not Martin, this is what he has to say about his method: “I start with watching, studying, “reading” the briar. Every block has its own story. How does the grain go, what can you expect when you cut it in a certain angle etc. It can be that I have had the briar piece in my hands dozens of times before I know which pipe it hides. And even then, sometimes the wood has its own plan. When I come across a sandpit or another irregularity I have to adjust my plan to fit the briar. In such a case I always say that the briar speaks to me and that I should listen. This way you often get the most surprising and beautiful results.” I have to agree with Martin. All his pipes are showcases for the stunning grains they possess. Because of this he does not make shapes on request. It would be a waste of a piece of briar to make a pipe out of it which does not agree with the grain. When asked what is the most favourite pipe he ever made Martin hesitates. “That is a tricky one.. They are all my favourite. The process of making a pipe takes up lots of hours of hard labour. When you work that long on a piece you get attached to it. It is your design, your creation, born from your creative thoughts and moulded by your hands into something tangible. But if I really have to pick one it would be the Twisted Pickaxe. Recently made, beautiful organic shapes, stunning grain, a pickaxe but with a twist. My twist.”
Martin, when did you start smoking pipes? “30 years ago I began smoking pipes. My first one was a Tattoo pipe, made by Dutch pipe maker Gubbels/Big Ben. I saw it at someone and decided to also give it a try. I liked it and soon I bought a regular pipe to go with it, and another one, and another.. Well, you know how it goes.. Of course then also began the search for the finest tobaccos. A journey which never ends but which I enjoy to the max.” Ok, so what is your favourite tobacco? “Ehrrr… Can I name two? Esoterica Stonehaven and GL Pease Embarcadero. Oh! And Samuel Gawith Squadron Leader and hmmm.. Damn, there are so many delicious blends, hard to pick out one.”
What are your favourite pipes and why? “My collection is rather large, about 75 pipes. They all have something special, that can be their smoking qualities but also some have their own story that makes them special. I especially like to smoke Winslow pipes. Good smokers, nicely shaped, good open draw and handmade by a pipe-maker I admire very much. In 2018 I got to meet Poul Winslow himself at his home and saw how he worked in his workplace. Very special and informative! What an experience, I watched with growing admiration how he creates a stunning pipe with breakneck speed. Since then I like these wonderful pipes even more.”
Do you have any famous last words for the readers? “I hope to make pipes for many, many years. I hope my creations will find their way to the people who love them. That they will find owners who will experience delightful moments of relaxation and pleasure thanks to good tobacco and a pipe I worked on with love and dedication.” With that our conversation was over for the time being. Martin began working on one of his new creations while I sat back sipping a good whisky, smoking a pipe, listening to the soul-wrenching voice of Mr. Cash and watching the magic hands do their job on the immortal briar.
One of the highlights of the year for me is always a visit to the Lohmarer Pfeifenmesse (Lohmar pipe-show) the first Saturday in May. So you can imagine the shock when I first heard that this years pipe-show would be the last one. What?? No more Lohmars? Disbelieve.. You know, beyond all the exhibitors with their beautiful wares I mostly enjoyed the atmosphere created by all the pipe-smokers. I met so many lovely people there. Organizer Volker Bier explained it all in a YouTube video. For those of you who don’t speak German, in a nutshell it comes to this: Next year the location where the pipe-show is always held, Villa Friedlinde, is getting a big renovation. So no activities then. Also Volker had enough of organizing the show year in year out. All those years were great, but now it is enough. Luckily two friends of Volker, Kelvin and Toto, stepped in. I was immensely happy to hear that next year a brand new pipe-show is organized by them in Hamm on May 16th.
Back to this year. Normally I would have drove along with good friend Rob, except he could not make it, he had to work. Regarding pipe-meetings it is “the more the merrier” so I asked Mark (the organizer of the annual Dutch pipe smokers forum Zutphen meeting) if he wanted to tag along. He was happy to go together with me. Only, one day before the pipe-show he texted me and I had to silently laugh a bit. The week before Lohmar Mark started in the gym, his first time ever. Being enthusiastic in trying to shed some weight, gain some muscle and improve his condition he tirelessly outdid himself. Only to discover that the next morning he could not get out of bed because of all the muscle pain. “If this continues I won’t be able to go with you tomorrow.. I can’t even get in the car this way!” he said. “Just relax and let me know early in the morning.” I answered. I was happy that apparently the aches lessened because Mark felt good enough to visit Lohmar.
The drive there went smooth despite the whimsical weather. Which was really sad because with almost all the previous Lohmar editions it was good to excellent. We arrived pretty early which had a reason, I wanted to go to the table of HU Tobacco as fast as possible. A couple of days before Lohmar I read on the Facebook page of Hans Wiedemann (owner and master-blender of HU Tobacco) that he was releasing a special pipe-show blend. A mixture of sweet Virginias, Burley and Latakia, advertised as: Is it a Virginia blend with Latakia in the background or is it an English mixture with a pronounced Virginia sweetness? But the thing was, there were only 50 tins! I tried to reserve a tin on Facebook and crossed my fingers. When I had finally reached Hans through the vast crowd at his table I was disappointed. All pipe-show tins were gone.. In fact, lots of Hans’ blends were already sold out! Especially the newer ones that I wanted to try.. So besides some tins that friends had asked me to buy I ended up with Moroccan Bazaar (as a lover of the oriental spice markets I just have to try this blend) and RaiKo InBeTween (formerly known as RaiKo ChocoLat, due to German regulations).
Thomas Nietsche putting some final drops of aroma on my No. 7 blend
Beside the table of Hans there stood a guy with lots of jars filled with all kinds of mixing tobaccos in front of him. It was Thomas Nietsche, the master-blender of Kohlhase & Kopp. I also read on Facebook that he and Hans had put up a contest. You could create your own blend there and let it mix by Thomas. After Lohmar all the entries are smoked and the best will become the 2020 Hamm pipe-show blend plus you get a €50 HU Tobacco coupon. I know I have been not so positive about Kohlhase & Kopp in the past but I have to say this was a brilliant initiative and Thomas is a very nice bloke. While I was waiting for my turn I explained to Mark (in Dutch) the purpose of all of this. “I understood some of that!” Thomas said jokingly while blending some tobaccos. When it was my turn I had a faint idea in my head. I wanted a kind of Balkan blend with a touch of aromatics. Very tricky because Latakia does not do well with added flavours. I instructed Thomas to begin with 30% Cyprian Latakia, then 20% orientals. I asked if he had a good Red Virginia and he did have some aged one, he put in 30%. To round it off I let him add 10% Bright Virginia and 10% unsweetened Black Cavendish. I already saw that he had some small bottles with concentrated flavours so I instructed Thomas to add just a few drops of milk-chocolate and vanilla essence to the mixture. The result was a blend that at least smelled heavenly. Vanilla-like toffee with a smoky background. Thomas saved a sample for the contest (entry no. 7 on the list) and the rest was given free of charge to me.
The Lucifer’s Pipe duke and HU Tobacco’s Moroccan Bazaar
Because of the bad weather it was crazily busy in the tents where a lot of the exhibitors showed their wares. I opted to go to the villa itself, still crowded, but more space to manoeuvre. Almost immediately I bumped into Rudi, Fred and Paul. Especially the last one I had not seen in quite a while. After talking a little bit we discovered we were in the way so I went along. There are many skilled pipe-makers at Lohmar but often the prices they ask.. Woww.. So I was pleasant surprised when I saw a pipe I wanted for a fair sum made by Berlin based Lucifer’s Pipe. It was a nicely shaped duke made of morta. Since I always wanted a pipe made of the dark wood I did not have to think long of buying it. I even got a discount without asking for it! When I turned around a gentleman approached me. “Hello Arno do you remember me?” Although his face was vaguely familiar I could not remember him. “I am Hans-Walter, we met here some years ago, there is a picture of me on your blog. Which I love by the way! The history of for example De Graaff or Capstan blends is what interests me.” Some wheels turned in my head and suddenly I remembered him. If you read this, Hans-Walter, sorry I did not recognize you immediately! I meet so many people… And thanks for your kind words! Hope you will come to Hamm next year.
Me fitting a bracelet, on the left is Adrian
Back in one of the tents I decided to pay a visit to Adrian. Every year he is there with his hand-made leather wares and is he a very nice chap. I always have to think a bit of Blackbeard the pirate when I see him. Well, actually I see him sometimes that way because Adrian loves to celebrate the carnival dressed up as a pirate in his home city of Cologne and puts pictures of it on Facebook. After talking a bit to him I took a look at his leather stuff and spotted a cool bracelet I liked. I fitted it and yes, I wanted to buy it. The price was a tad high but with my inborn Dutch skills I haggled it down. Mark also succeeded in that while buying a pipe at another stand, not my kind of pipe but really something Mark would go for. It is good we don’t all have the same taste.
The Ashton Pebble Grain I bought at Peter Heinrichs
Mark and I almost wanted to go (the weather got worse and worse) when we bumped into some Belgian pipe-smokers forum members: Geoff, Paul and his wife. We told them we were heading to Peter Heinrichs in Bergheim for a smoke in their pipe-museum/smoking lounge and maybe something to buy. The more the merrier so the Belgians agreed to join us. On the way really everything that could fall from the sky (except aeroplanes) hit us. Snow, rain, hail.. Blah.. When we arrived we were greeted by the widow of Peter Heinrichs (who is in charge together with her lovely daughters). I must say the old lady has an iron memory. Once I had mentioned I liked estate pipes, especially vintage Dunhills. So she produced some cases with in them old Dunhills, Charatans, Ashtons and more. I face-palmed myself because I knew this was going to cost me money. Lucky for my wallet there was no Dunhill that really took my fancy. But I did like an Ashton Pebble Grain Zulu like shape, which I bought. I also purchased a tin of Château Henri No. 24; Latakia from Syria (although I beg to differ…) and Cyprus, Virginia, a bit of Burley, orientals and Java-tobacco. In the smoking lounge I could not resist smoking the Lohmar No. 7. It was way to freshly mixed but despite that, not bad, not bad at all!
At 4 o’clock Heinrichs closed. I wanted to do some shopping at the German Lidl in Bergheim and afterwards get some dinner. The rest agreed and went with me. I just love to go to the Lidl in Germany. They have many products that we in The Netherlands do not have, they are cheaper and of better quality! Almost every time I am in Bergheim, regardless of whom I am with, I go to Dönerburger for dinner. It is a Turkish style take-away restaurant where you can also just sit and eat. Nothing fancy but the quality of their food is excellent and cheap. I repeat, cheap! That always makes this greedy Dutchman happy. I had a big plate of Döner kebab (lamb meat, I also had the choice to go for chicken) with fries, tzatziki sauce and a cola and I had to pay exactly €10! In The Netherlands you can’t go out and eat like that for that price.
The Belgians at the Rauch Lounge
To round off the day I proposed a visit to the Rauch Lounge in the German town of Wassenberg. I had never been there and since it was more or less situated on the way home (also for the Belgians) we decided to go there. Inside we immediately bumped again into Rudi, Paul and Fred. They had gone there directly from Lohmar. Very nice because now I had the chance to talk to them a bit longer. Rauch Lounge has not been active for long, since November 2015. I must say, kudos to them, starting a tobacco shop in these anti-tobacco times. The store is loaded with all kinds of pipes, tobacco, spirits and cigars. And the best thing, they have a modern smoking lounge which is open late. It was bigger than I had imagined looking at the pictures on their site. Mark and I picked out some cigars in the humidor and together with the Belgians we sat down and smoked. The day had been perfect, a fitting goodbye to the Lohmar pipe-show.
As some of you know annually the Dutch/Belgian Pipe Smokers Forum (PRF) has a forum pipe made by a (well-known) carver. Throughout the years people like Elie, Dirk Claessen, Ian Walker and the Big Ben and BriarWorks International companies delivered us exquisite smoking gear. This year organizing it all was a joint venture of Nick (from Massis Pipes) and Shaun. I’ll give you Nick: After Shaun had managed this project for several years to a successful conclusion on his own and a first ‘cooperation version’ with Dre in 2015, we now opted for a similar direction as last year where Shaun will take care of the financial side of the story and I keep myself busy with contacting the pipe maker and later the distribution of the pipes. After a lot of consultation and contacting several pipe makers and factories, we finally came to a decision. It is with some pride that I can announce that the 2017 PRF Pipe is the first to be made by a woman, to be precise Sabina Santos from Portugal.
Sabina is relatively new in the world of pipe-making (she recently celebrated her 3rd birthday as a pipe maker), but has already managed to develop an unique style. Moreover – fun fact for our forum – her roots lie in the Netherlands. She was actually born in Tiel and spent the first three years of her life there. As a result she is very excited that we have chosen her this year, as evidenced by the total package and the price at which she is willing to do this for us. After extensive consultation we opted for a squat Rhodesian, the signature shape of Sabina. She works exclusively with wood from the world’s best briar supplier Mimmo Romeo. The mouthpiece is made of black acrylic, the accent ring is made of “turtle” acrylic. The top of the pipe will alwaysbe finishedsmooth. At the bottom you have the choice between two options: rusticated or Honeycomb. The rusticated version is €142 and the Honeycomb €157 including shipping costs. As always the forum pipe is supplied with a certificate from the maker. But especially for us Sabina has decided to make separate pipe bags and put our logo and the text “by Sabina” on the cork tags. Normally Sabina engraves her pipes by hand or let them engrave by laser at an additional cost. However, especially for us Sabina has decided to have her logo, the serial number and PRF logo laser-engraved in each pipe without extra cost.
My Sabina-made forum pipe
When I saw the first example pictures I just had to order the pipe with the unique honeycomb finish. I always loved the Rhodesian shape and already had my eye for some time on the pipes Sabina made. Despite she only has been carving for 3 years she makes wonderful and creative pipes with a good eye for lines and shapes. At the day of Christmas Eve my doorbell suddenly rang. “A package sir, merry Christmas!” Quickly I ripped it open and to my utter delight it was the forum pipe! I loved the size and shape of it with the delicately done honeycomb finish. Unfortunately I had caught a cold that lasted for several weeks so only at the beginning of the new year I finally could smoke the pipe. And I was not disappointed, it is a good smoker and will earn a place in the pantheon of my smoking pipes. I mailed Sabina and asked if she was willing to do an interview for this blog, and she was.
When how and where did you learn to carve and shape briar wood to make smoking pipes? During my professional job (I have a Communication Degree but I always worked in a Financial area) I always missed an activity in which I could express myself. When my husband, a long time pipe smoker, began to explore the pipe making as an hobby, I began to find it very interesting too. After all we take a block of wood and carve it into a pipe! Amazing! I’ve been following his development and I began to love the idea of carving a pipe. So I wanted to learn and try it. When I was pregnant, I decided to be a stay at home mother. However I missed an occupation that I could conciliate with the role of a mother and one in which I could give wings to my creativity. So I decided to go ahead with the idea of making a pipe. I carved my first pipe, a Poker, on July 2013 and it was the beginning of my journey as pipe maker. I feel that I learn every time I carve a pipe. Pipe making is really a delight! When I started making pipes, as my son was newborn, I only had time to make the drills in the workshop and finish the pipes in my kitchen while the baby was sleeping. For that reason, each one of my pipes is unique because it tells a story, my story as a pipe maker and a mother. Each person who gets one of my pipes, also receives a part of me. Now, I work in my workshop in part-time. It’s very relaxing being at the workshop carving a pipe. A unique piece, made by me with all my love and care.
What kinds of woods do you use for your pipes? I only use Italian briar and sometimes I use Morta (Bog Oak). I also use some exotic woods for accents. I tried several briar suppliers but now I exclusively work with Mimmo Romeo.
What materials do you use for your stems? During some time I used pre-made acrylic stems which were hand finished by me. Then I started making my own stems and now I prefer to use German ebonite and cumberland.
Can you tell something about the equipment you use for the making of the pipes? I was lucky and from the beginning I already had a workshop with some machines and tools my husband bought. After some time I took control of the workshop an now it is my “cave”. The main machines and tools I use are a metal lathe, a powerful Dremel, a sanding disc, a sanding belt and files. My workshop is my space, my world, where I can find myself. There, I can finally give wings to my creativity! Working in a workshop is something much more masculine, I think. It is not every day I meet a woman working in the middle of machinery, wood and dust. But I just love it!! I mean, I’m a woman, a wife and a mother, that loves make up but I also love to work in my workshop! I love work on lathe and my Demmel is my best friend!
When making pipes, do you have a favourite pipe shape and if so, why that one? I love Rhodesians and all the related family. I carved several Rhodesians and in the future I would like to explore the Bulldog and Eskimo shapes for example. I love the hand-feel of the Rhodesian and it is also a great shape to play around with finishes, for example a smooth top and rusticated bottom.
You are very creative with coming up with new finishes, my compliments! Can you tell more about the inspiration for the Soul collection and how you make them? Many thanks! I love rusticated pipes and some of my favourite pipe makers are Masters in rustications. I always loved the work of Konstantin Shekita, he carves some stunning lattice pipes. The inspiration for my Soul pipes came from his work. I love the concept of the lattice and as in Portugal we have a traditional hand craft, “Renda” (hand made lace), I decided to give it try. So I took the concept of the Portuguese “Renda” and applied it to my pipes. My Soul pipes are quite unique because the lattice is all open, just touching the pipe in the top and near the stem. So in the end you get a visual effect of a pipe inside the lattice, despite they are carved from a unique piece of briar. To carve this pipes I use my Dremel and lots of patience and love.
Can you tell more about the inspiration for the Honeycomb pipes and how you make them? I like to play around with rustications and one time when I was exploring the effect of a rustication with “holes”, an image of a Honeycomb came into my mind and I started to recreate it. Nowadays it is a kind of signature rustication from me.
Can you tell more about the inspiration for the Iced Green pipes and how you make them? They look like they have been in the fridge for some time! The inspiration came from one of my husbands hobbies. He likes to paint war miniatures and has great techniques for that. I liked one of these techniques, the “Dry Brush” and decided to give it a try on my pipes! The first attempt was with blue and I also made one in red but the Iced Green one is the most popular for sure.
Can you tell more about the inspiration for the Broken pipes and how you make them? I really like the idea of something broken but beautiful at same time. I like the philosophy of a “Broken Body, Strong Mind”. Other pipe makers already explored the idea of a broken shank; Ser Jacopo, Werner Mummert and Eder Mathias for example. As it is something I love, I decided to give it my own approach and created the Broken Pipes. When we look it seems the shank is broken but in fact we have a regular pipe ended in plateaux skin with a hand made stem with a plateaux skin ring chosen by me especially to match with the stummel.
What makes a Sabina pipe a Sabina pipe? You have certain “golden rules” that you apply with every pipe you make? What makes a Sabina Pipe is my own style I guess. I still have lots to learn in order to improve my skills. But during this 3 year journey I always tried to follow my own style. I like to play around with textures and finish and I don’t have fear of it. Despite there are lots of more conservative pipe smokers, there are also many space for new creations and that is the beauty of the pipe community. I also love a classic pipe, but always with a twist, something that gives it an unique personality.
Do you smoke pipe yourself? If so, what are your favourite pipes? I started carving pipes a long time before I tried to smoke one. First I fell in love with the shape and then I started wanting to try it because I should know my work and how a pipe should be smoked. But I’m not an experienced pipe smoker, I just smoke occasionally.
What (beside your own pipes) are your favourite pipe-brands/makers? That would provide an extended list… For example, I really love the work of the pipe makers João Reis, Konstantin Shekita, Alex Brishuta, Chris Asteriou, Uwe Maier… But there are many others in my top favourite list… Again, I like the work of pipe makers with an unique style.
What is your favourite tobacco-blend (to smoke or to smell)? I like to smoke aromatics, especially with a Cherry taste. I usually love the smell of all pipe tobaccos, but some of them are a bit strong for me to smoke. For example my husband likes Latakia, Perique, Black Cavendish… All strong stuff for me.
Any last words for readers? If there are some readers who have a dream (pipe making for example) I would like to say to always follow your dreams and always give something you really want a try. Learn from the mistakes and get stronger with each fall.
As I write this Sabina is in Denmark to improve on her already considerable pipe making skills by learning from masters like Tom Eltang, João Reis, Tao, Kai Nielsen and Kurt Balleby. Below are pictures of the process of making the forum pipe in general and of course images of my own forum pipe.
On 21 May it was time for the 11th edition of one of the most interesting pipe-events in Germany: the Lohmar Pfeifenmesse. Also this time at Villa Friedlinde organized by pipe-maker Volker Bier in cooperation with the local authorities. A collaboration I really applaud! The economy of Lohmar gets a boost from the hordes of pipe-smoking enthusiasts and they get to use community-centre Villa Friedlinde and the surrounding park. Like every year I could drive along with Rob. Only, this time I was not the only one. Rob’s car is big enough for several folks so Wilfred, Jan and Marielle joined us. The more the merrier! We drank some tea and coffee at Rob’s place before leaving and I had to laugh when I saw the big bag of Marielle. Thanks to Rob she has discovered snuff and brought along all kinds of the stuff in all kinds of little boxes like the ones you keep contact-lenses in. And besides that she is gaining a vast knowledge about the subject. Hail to the snuff-queen!
In the car, never-mind the sour-looking chap on the left
The ride to Lohmar was enjoyable, well, at least for me. Marielle, Wilfred and Jan were packed together like sardines in the back of the car. When we arrived the weather proved to be excellent. Last year we were lucky in that regard but now it was just perfect. The sight of the pipe-show looked and felt like one big garden party. People were walking around the stands, having a drink, sitting on the grass etc. The first familiar face was that of Paul, one of the Belgian members of the forum. He even brought his pipe-smoking girlfriend with him!
Hans and myself
The first stop was the stand of Hans Wiedemann, good friend, master-blender and owner of HU Tobacco. For some time Hans was not doing well physically. He suffered a heart-infarct and had to change his whole lifestyle. Even the existence of HU Tobacco was hanging in the balance for a wile. But go figure, during day time Hans had his regular job and in the evening and at night he was managing HU Tobacco, packing and sending away orders etc.. So now Tabakwaren Bosch, a tobacconist from the South of Germany, has taken over German orders for HU Tobacco. Foreign orders are still being handled by Hans himself. It was busy at the stand, a good sign. A slimmed down Hans and I greeted each other as old friends. He had some new offerings. First the 5 year HU Tobacco Anniversary Blend. I smelled it but no, I am sorry, not really my cup of tea. However, what was my thing was Asmara, an oriental forward blend. I already received a sample before from other German friend Rainer and it reveals all kinds of flavours when smoked slowly. The greatest surprise was a strange blend called ChocoLat. Notice the capital “L”. It was created by Rainer in cooperation with Hans. Almost 50% of latakia is combined with Virginias, Burley, unflavoured black cavendish and a light cocoa topping. It reminded me of Sillem’s Black but different, better. A very interesting smoke!
Eddy and Hans-Walter, a friend of him
When walking around a bit I spotted another German friend: Eddy, who I met last year at Lohmar. Eddy is somewhat a collector of patent-era Dunhills and other English brands. We sat down on the grass in the park and I had to gasp for air when he opened up his pipe-bag. First he pulled out a gorgeous Comoy army-mount prince. Precisely the sort of pipe I like. To be honest I felt a bit like Gollum when looking at that pipe. My precioussss…. Then came a series of old Dunhills. The oldest was a smooth bulldog from somewhere between 1918 and 1923. Vintage Dunhills very often have beautiful sandblasts which I saw at the next two pipes. A Tanshell “O” shape squat bulldog from 1953 and a Shell billiard from 1925. Especially the squat bulldog had a jaw-dropping sandblast. While wiping away some drool I congratulated Eddie with his pipes. He is a very lucky (and now poor) man to own these!
Maike and Rob
Meanwhile Rob had bumped into female pipe-maker extraordinaire Maike from Maike Pipes. Last year Rob turned 50 and he wanted a special pipe for the occasion. But who was going to make it.. At earlier Lohmar editions I already saw what Maike could do so I hinted to him that perhaps the female pipe-maker from Berlin was a good choice. So Rob mailed her and Maike got busy. Literally the day before his 50th birthday he received the pipe, a wonderful churchwarden Maike-style. What I love about her is her eye for design, the insight in the flowing lines that make a good pipe shape. Just take a look at her website. I saw lots of pipes at Lohmar which looked not right. Incorrect proportions, strange lines, sloppy finishes.. The German habit of smoking and building filter pipes, which can look rather plump, also does not help. And the prices some pipe-makers dare to ask for their (in their eyes amazing) pipes.. Auwtsch.. At least with Maike you get a good looking, good smoking pipe for not too much money.
In the mean time fellow forum member d’Artagnan had joined us and we all were relaxing in the grass soaking in the rays of the bright and warm sun. Some beers were fetched at the voluptuous lady who managed the stand of the local Lohmar brewery. Like every year she always tries to hide when I grab my camera and like every year she fails. The rest of the afternoon was spend talking and chatting away to each other until our bellies started to grumble. Time to go to the place we went last year: Café Restaurant Meigermühle, located in an historical timber framed building at the edge of a forest. Rob was being very stern, in order to not break with tradition we were only allowed to order a Schnitzel, which we all did. While the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon we sat on the outside terrace smoking our pipes while contemplating what a great day it had been.
All pictures were made by myself, Marielle, Rob, Jan and Paul.
As a lover of history I browse through e-bay searching for antique pipes once in a while. I very much like the thrill of owning and smoking a 100+ year old pipe, I see it as some sort of time machine. While enjoying such a smoke my mind drifts off and I think about how the world looked like when the pipe was made, who the previous owners were and what stories it could tell if it could speak. So on one of my searches I stumbled upon a gorgeous antique bulldog shaped pipe with a beautifully decorated silver rim and ring in almost pristine condition. Unfortunately the mouthpiece was missing. Probably it was made from amber and had broken a long time ago. Despite that I decided to bid on the pipe and to my delight I won! I asked Frisian pipe-maker Meindert if he could clean up the antique bulldog and make a new mouthpiece for it. He rose up to the challenge.
In the meanwhile I looked up the silver-marks because I wanted to be sure of the production year and the company who made it. Dating the pipe proved to be simple, Birmingham marks from the year 1890! Holy crap, 125 years old! 1890.. The Sleeping Beauty ballet with music by Tchaikovsky was premièred, the second Sherlock Holmes novel (The Sign of the Four) was published, famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh died, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was published, American writer H.P. Lovecraft was born and the folding carton box we all know today was invented by Robert Gair. However, the maker of the antique bulldog was a bit more difficult to discover. Luckily the triangle logo on the shank with the letters “S Mc L” inside set me on the correct path and soon I found its creator: the Samuel McLardy company from Manchester.
The McLardy company thanks its existence to the entrepreneurial spirit of 1 person: Samuel McLardy, born in Glasgow in 1842. He was the son of a tobacconist who also produced his own clay pipes. In the paternal shop he must have learned the profession of pipe-maker. Shortly after his 20th birthday he decided to move to Manchester to start his own company. There is remarkably little known about the history of the factory. On an old advertisement it says “established 1865” so since then there must have been a steady growth. Within a couple of decades there was a massive production of clay pipes. Around 1895 the factory owned over 500 moulds which meant yearly production was around 5 million pipes! Similar to that of Dutch factory P. Goedewaagen & Zoon in that period.
McLardy catalogue cover
Over time we find Samuel McLardy at different locations. Before 1880 that was Miller Street number 16 in Manchester and it is there where the shop grew to the size of a factory. In 1890 the company moved to Shudehill number 67 where it remainedactiveuntilafter 1910. At the new address they occupied an imposing factory building that you can see on the cover of an old catalogue beside this text. Such factory-illustrations have to be taken with a grain of salt, because often they are grossly exaggerated. The building had ahigh façade that could accommodateshow rooms andan office and there were 4floorsforproduction and storage. After WWI we find McLardy headquarters in Swan Buildings at number 20 of the Swan Street but they also had several workshops at other addresses and that was certainly true for the pipe-making shops. It should be noted that these changes of address meant no large migration because they were close to each other.
McLardy clay pipe
The successfulgrowth ledthe companyto expansion, initially for the sale ofproducts of their own. But shortly after 1900 a rapid decrease of the interest in the clay pipe as a smoking device in Western Europe brought many traditional pipe factories in financial problems. The widening to trading house was an option to overcome this problem and the Samuel McLardy company successfully implemented this. These trading activities were supported by the then new communication means such as telephone and telegram, both stated on the cover of the catalogue. There you can also see: “Importer of Tobacconists Fancy Goods”. So initially they became importer of all kinds of items sold in the tobacco industry.
McLardy briar pipe
With those items, for example beautiful briar pipes with silver mounting and buffalo horn mouthpieces, access was gained tothe bestspecialist stores. Withthis activitiesthe companyincreased itsmarket share. A process that also was not strange for other firms. The production of such wooden pipes took place both in England and in the French Saint-Claude, once the global centre of the pipe production. By the way, the English briar industry and that of Saint-Claude was closely intertwined because the same families acted as an investor. About the export of the company not much data is known. Although finds of McLardy pipes in Canada, Australia and most of the West African coast proved that there was a substantial trade overseas.
McLardy briar pipe
During and afterWWIthetradefunctionatMcLardywas widened further.The latest catalogue from the 1920’smentionedthis expansion.The activities of thecompanyhad beenchanged beyond recognition: theyhandled leather goodsandfancy articlessuch asbags, handbags andpursesincrocodile leatherandcalfskin. This assortmentwas soonexpandedwith collar–boxes,writing–boxes,schoolbags and baskets.Butalso with photo-frames, fire–screens, postcards albums and cigarettesalbums.Otherarticles wereclocks,framedpaintingsorengravings, lithographs, all kinds of mirrors andtoys (includingdollsandmechanical toysliketrains).In short, thewholesale businessofall conceivableindustrial productswithout anylimitation. Initially thatseemedsuccessfuluntil the curtain quite suddenly fell for the McLardy company in 1929.The precise reason isnot known,thoughthe year points towards the Great Depression.
Back to Meindert. When he received the pipe he marvelled at its beauty and went to work. Before I knew it he had carefully removed the thin silverwork from the bowl and shank and slightly polished the ancient briar. I also asked if he could drill the smoking channel a little wider for a better draft. With steps of 0.1 mm he slowly broadened the channel until it had a diameter of 3.8 mm. Trusting his eye and experience he stopped there, fearing he would take to much “flesh” of the pipe. But the most intricate part of the restoration was drilling out the screw-thread from the mortise. Back in the days one screwed the mouthpiece onto the pipe. This may sound as blasphemy to some but I wanted a “modern” push/pull stem.
Pipe with aluminium tube inside
One evening I got a phone call, it was Meindert. I heard his slightly timid voice and knew something had gone wrong.. Earlier he was drilling away the screw-thread from the mortise and despite him being very careful his worst nightmare came true. The shank cracked. Luckily he was able to fix it with 2-component glue but he did not trust it completely. So he glued an aluminium tube inside the mortise to extra strengthen the fragile briar walls. The good news was that the crack would not be visible because the silver ring would cover it.
Making the stem
Another tricky job was the creation of the stem. The bulldog shape is pretty because of its flawless lines that go from the shank through the stem onto the end of the mouthpiece. Meindert had to re-create that but lacked the necessary tools that pipe-factories and professional pipe-workshops have to make the sharp angles, which made him somewhat nervous. “Round I can do, but those sharp angles.. Difficult..” I told him I trusted him and that he would surely pull it off. I send several pictures how the stem should look like so he had some reference examples and crossed my fingers. Some time later my patience was rewarded. Meindert succeeded in making the angles by placing the stem in the bank-screw and meticulously filing away the acrylic material. Yes, acrylic, not ebonite. It is Meindert’s favourite stem-material to work with and his acrylic (that he gets from Janzen Pfeifen) is of the highest quality.
I already knew I wanted to write a blogpost about the McLardy bulldog so while Meindert was slaving away I was doing some research about the brand on internet. There I came across a English antique-site which had a very interesting item: an old tobacco cutter for plugs, cakes and ropes made by… Samuel McLardy! The price was ok so I immediately bought it. When I was with Fred on the Inter Tabac fair in Dortmund this year they had such a cutter at the stand of DTM. It was used for the slicing of samples for their Salty Dogs plug. We both admired the tool and I silently vowed to buy one if I ever got the chance and the price was right.
When the restoration of the McLardy bulldog neared its completion I mailed Meindert that I would pick up the pipe at his place together with my good friend Ed. Ed loves handworks and all the machinery and tools that comes with it. So I asked if Meindert was willing to show some of his skills when Ed and I were there and being a proud Frisian he said “sure”! In the car on the way there I was pretty nervous because I did not saw the finished result. Luckily I was not disappointed when we arrived. Meindert succeeded in placing back the beautifully decorated silverwork and given it an extra polish to make it shiny like a new pipe. Also the stem turned out to be very well made and I breathed a sigh of relief. Meindert had measured up the bowl and found a similar pipe on the internet so he had a clue of the dimensions of the stem. Briefly worded: I was a happy man!
The rest of the pleasant afternoon we spent talking and Meindert showed Ed how he did things. As a former metal worker he even was able to simply sharpen the edge of the tobacco cutter I had brought with me. Back home I tried it out on some Fayyum Kake and it worked like a charm. Meindert had put some of his biological smoking-paste on the inside of the bulldog bowl and I don’t know it was because of that, but I had a very satisfying smoke. I am just glad the pipe is “alive” again and hope it survives for another 125 years.
In my Hospitable Heukelum 2014 blogpost I revealed that the 2015 PRF forum year-pipe was going to be made by Dutch pipe-brand Big Ben. Like I told before, normally Shaun arranges the whole project but sadly he had been very ill this year.. Despite his sickness he managed to reach out for help and Dre answered his call. Dre (Andre) has very good connections with the Gubbels family from the Big Ben and Hilson pipe factory and regularly visits the place. So he asked if they could mean anything for the PRF pipe project. Unfortunately Big Ben only fire up their machines for a minimum of 500 pipes and the forum can never reach that number. BUT they had an alternative solution.
2015 PRF forum year-pipes
Throughout the years Gubbels kept pipe-bowls from their Barbados range behind with an exceptional grain and we could have those! Plus they added a metal ring on top of the bowl which made the pipe look even better. Then there was another problem, one can’t buy directly from the Gubbels factory. Luckily Primera Wouters in Weert were prepared to distribute the pipes. When Shaun and Dre told this and showed the pipe they got a very well deserved applause. Just over 60 pipes were available and when forum-members could order them they all were gone in no time! To be perfectly honest, I did not apply for one. I simply did not like the shape, but came to regret it later.
My first proper pipe: a Hilson Event
When I wanted to begin with pipe-smoking I knew nothing except that a Big Ben was a good pipe to start with. However, I preferred a model that was made by Hilson, a Hilson Event. The store owner explained to me that Hilson was made in the same factory as Big Ben. “Ok, I’ll take it!”, I said and bought my first pipe. Later I bought a Big Ben which roughly had the same model as the Hilson Event because I simply liked that shape back then. Both pipes I do not have any more, I gave them away when my tastes began to develop and change.
Johannes Henricus Gubbels & Anna Maria Gubbels
The histories from Big Ben and Hilson have a lot of similarities and from a point in time even intertwine. It all started for the Gubbels family in 1873 with the shop of Johannes Henricus Gubbels in the Dutch city of Roermond. There he sold things like newspapers, walking sticks, umbrellas, toys and last but not least, smoking accessories. One of the suppliers of those was a German man called Jean Knödgen who had started to make clay pipes in 1846 in the Belgian city of Bree. For a long time Johannes ran his business together with his wife, Dijmphna Hubertina. After her death in 1896 he got married again to Anna Maria in 1899. She bore him two children and when Johannes died in 1911 she continued the business. In 1924 her 2 children, Antonia and Elbert Gubbels, established the “A & H Gubbels” company which specialized in the wholesale trading of smoking accessories.
Meanwhile in Belgium the Bree pipe factory had a new owner. Jean Hillen, the son-in-law of Knödgen, had bought the company at the end of the 19th century. He had also made contact with French pipe-makers in the area of Saint-Claude who supplied him with briar wood and Jean would finish them off. Thus, alongside the traditional clay pipes, he was able to offer more modern pipes. Around 1924 Hillen was perfectly capable of creating briar pipes on his own.
Elbert Gubbels sr.
Up to WWII Elbert Gubbels extended his business, mainly getting his supplies from France and England. Unfortunately The Netherlands were invaded by German troops in 1940 so the family fled north where they tried to make a living by buying and selling what little there was available. In 1945 at the end of the war they returned home to continue the business. A difficult task as material was lacking and importing stuff was almost impossible. In that period Elbert Gubbels, now the sole owner of the business, decided to follow in Jean Hillen’s foot steps. He became totally independent and produced everything himself. The factory began with 2 machines and 3 French artisans in a small workshop. In Bree a factory already existed and the sons of Hillen also worked there. Jos was in charge of sales and Albert production. The brand name of the pipes that were sold abroad was simple: Hilson, to be precize, Hillen and Sons.
Gubbels had no brand name yet, he just had the name “EGRO” which stood for “Elbert Gubbels Roermond”. The number of machines, personnel, working space and quality of product were increased which resulted in a higher output. That made it necessary to expand the market experience and the wholesale network were no longer sufficient. A brand name was needed in order to increase sales, especially abroad. At that time another Dutch company, “De Rijk & Zonen” from Amsterdam, was doing badly. It was not a large company and to be honest, not so interesting. But it did sell British-made pipes with a sought-after, glamorous brand name well-known in many countries: Big Ben. So in 1956 Gubbels bought the whole De Rijk company. As a result exports soared in Europe, the USA, Canada and many other countries.
Big Ben Pipo
Meanwhile the business Hilson was flourishing, producing a wide range of well-crafted and creative pipes. These were selling well in Europe and elsewhere thanks to their excellent reputation and good value for money. On the other hand the production of Gubbels was more traditional in style: natural or black briar models, straight or bent, just classic pipe design. Well, one exception.. In that period the Pipo pipe appeared, a very small “nose-burner” designed by Alfons Gubbels, the son of Elbert, who had by that time joined the business together with his brother Jos. Alfons was in charge of production and Jos sales. The unorthodox Pipo pipe was highly successful, selling world-wide, including the USA. At the end of 1972 the company moved into a bigger factory. Also the much coveted title “Royal”, in the name of Queen Juliana, was granted. Thus the company name became “Elbert Gubbels en Zonen – Koninklijke Fabriek van Tabakspijpen” (“Elbert Gubbels and Sons – Royal Dutch Pipe Factory”).
At the end of the 1970’s there were only two pipe factories left in the Benelux countries, those of Gubbels and Hillen. Two different but also complementary enterprises. Gubbels sold well in America with their Big Ben pipes while Hilson was a popular pipe-brand on the German market. However, both companies produced high-quality workmanship. So in 1980 Gubbels bought Hillen, who sadly was experiencing serious financial difficulties. It was decided that all machines, material and experts were to be moved to the Gubbels factory.
Alfons sr. and Elbert jr.
At first the two brands had some difficulty in co-existing. For example, some Big Ben pipes of that period could be confused with Hilsons and vice-versa. All by all that period of adjustment was positive, characterized by a high output. However, something was changing in the world of pipes and the market crisis meant that quite a few things had to be re-considered. It was not enough to increase quality in order to compensate for the drop in quantity. Greater investments had to match high-performance products. In 1989 Alfons (Fons) junior (technical production and design) and Elbert junior (sales) took over from their father Alfons senior and uncle Jos and the family tradition was carried on.
Since then the company has striven for excellence in every aspect of their production and above all in their mission: offering an increasingly discerning clientèle unique pipes. So since 2008 Rainer Barbi, the late famous German pipe maker, has been contributing to production and had the task of remodelling the Hilson brand until his unfortunate death. Also another great pipe maker, Former, has recently decided to offer Gubbels his creative sensitivity, art and some of his time. Besides manufacturing Big Ben, Hilson and other more minor brands Gubbels has also worked in partnership with other companies to create or refine unique models, such as Porsche Design (from 2005 to 2013) and currently Bentley. Unfortunately the financial crisis hit Gubbels in 2012 and the banks no longer wanted to finance the company. Who smokes these days?? So bankruptcy was a logical consequence, an unpleasant period. But the Gubbels family pulled through with capital of their own and had a new start. There was a change of direction with 20 in stead of 28 employees and despite the difficult market the export is growing. The Gubbels company is on the rise once again.
Back to the forum-pipe, I really wanted to see the process in the factory so with thanks to Dre and Fred I could phone Elbert jr. for an appointment. He already knew my name, I could pay a visit, see the process, take pictures, ask questions, no problem at all. I knew a bit what to expect because I had been before at the new factory with a group of the PRF-forum just before the financial crisis hit Gubbels back in 2011. So on a morning I drove to Herten (municipality of Roermond) dressed to impress because eeyz, you can’t arrive in jeans and a sweater at the only pipe-factory left in The Netherlands right? Because of the crisis the Gubbels offices had moved in the big building used by several companies so I happily announced myself at the wrong desk. Luckily the friendly secretary of the neighbouring enterprise pointed me in the correct direction. After a good ring at the doorbell of Gubbels one of the employees let me in, guided me to the visitor room and went to get Elbert jr. Before he walked in I was able to quickly snap some pictures of the displayed pipes.
Just like on the phone Elbert jr. is a very nice man to talk to, clearly someone with a passion for his company and the products made there. We chatted away for a while until he got a call from his brother that he was ready for me. Elbert jr. guided me to the big assembly hall where all pipes are made and Fons jr. was waiting for my arrival. For the outside world Elbert jr. is the face of Gubbels but inside the factory Fons jr. reigns supreme. At this moment he is the only one there who knows and is able to perform all the necessary steps in the creation of a pipe. The other employees just know a few steps of the process. Which worries him sometimes, I mean, what if he becomes ill? But they are working on that.
Fons jr. and a colleague had prepared (as far as they could) the steps in the finishing of the forum-pipe so I could take pictures of it. Remember, all the bowls and mouthpieces were already roughly made. Below you can see all 10 steps of the process: 1. Mounting the mouthpiece. 2. Sanding the pipe from coarse to fine with different sizes of sanding discs. 3. Staining the pipe (3 layers of stain are applied in total) where the first layer of stain is set aflame to fixate it. 4. Removing excess stain. 5. Sanding off more of the stain to make the grain better visible. 6. Milling out space for the metal top-ring. 7. Spraying a lacquer finish on the pipe. 8. Buffing the pipe to make it extra shiny. 9. Putting on the metal top-ring. 10. Tadaaa!! The finished product.
Fons jr. adjusting the Lamberthod machine
After explaining all the steps of the process Fons jr. guided me further around the factory. In the back there was a smaller hall with a big basket stacked full with briar and equipment to shape the bowls including a big modernized version of the Lamberthod machine. Of course the precise operation of everything was demonstrated. Seeing the immense Lamberthod device in action was very impressive, especially because Fons jr. had left the hood open so I could make some pictures. Afterwards he had to laugh when he looked at me, because my classy black suit was totally covered in the sawdust that came out of the machine.. “You will still find it in your clothes when you go to sleep tonight” he said with a big grin.
I also was led through the immense warehouse where you can find lots of pipes, pipes and ehrr.. Pipes! Uncountable boxes, drawers and crates stacked on to each other filled with unfinished pipe bowls, stems in all shapes and colours, (metal) rings etc. An impressive sight! There was only a small pallet with ebonite mouthpieces, Gubbels does not really use them because acryl is more durable.. Last but not least we went to a part of the warehouse where a couple of friendly ladies were packing orders.
When the tour was finished Fons jr. and I sat together so he could explain the forum-pipe process to me once more and I could write down the steps. We talked a bit more and then it was time for me to leave and for him to go back to the assembly hall. I must say, my respect for Gubbels and especially for Fons jr. had really grown. If you just look at the new Bentley pipes and know how much difficult handwork is needed for the creation of those..
Anyway, I wish all people who have ordered the 2015 PRF forum year-pipe lots of smoking pleasure with it! It is an extraordinary pipe with stunning grain for a very, very good price and I really regret I did not order one now.. Thanks go out to Dre, Shaun, Fred, Elbert jr., Fons jr., Fons sr. and the employees at Gubbels for making the forumpipe and this blogpost possible!
The Dutch/Belgian Pipe Smokers Forum visits Gubbels in 2011 (in Dutch):
Gubbels brandstory video:
Very old video of how pipes were made at Gubbels:
UPDATE 11-07-2019: Sadly E. Gubbels in Herten, the Royal Factory of tobaccopipes (i.e. Big Ben), is bankrupt. The artisanal production branch of the family company is no more after 149 years. The trading house, Gubbels Trade and BV Gubbels Pipecleaners, on the other hand, continue to exist.
With the production of fully handmade briar wooden tobacco pipes finally stopped, Elbert and Alfons Gubbels say goodbye to a piece of company DNA and cultural heritage. But also from six involved employees.
“I had hoped to be able to maintain production,” says Elbert Gubbels in an explanation. “But the anti-smoking lobby and the government’s policy of discouragement are terrible. Fewer smokers, fewer stores. While pipe smoking is a certain lifestyle that requires good communication.”
Gubbels wants to keep a part of its history visible, but is removing the expensive machine for the Big Ben pipes from the company. “We have a solid stock and cannot keep on stacking. We will first sell it and then have the new pipes made in Italy. Where the briar also comes from. Then we give it a final touch in Herten. This is how we maintain our global market. On a small scale, with around ten, eleven employees, we hope to be able to continue for a very long time.