The Dutch/Belgian Pipe Smokers Forum (in short: PRF) has had quite a lot of merchandise through the years. Shirts, caps, business cards, mouse-pads, ashtrays, poker-fiches, dice, stone tampers, tobaccos and.. Pipes! Belgian member Shaun took it on to himself to organize the creation of a yearly forum pipe. For 2012 and 2013 we had beautiful pieces from renowned Belgian pipe-makers Elie and Dirk Claessen. My favourite shape is the prince and after years of trying to bribe Shaun with beer, tobacco and beautiful women I finally got what I wanted: a prince shaped forum pipe! And not just that, it was made in Britain by respected pipe-carver Ian Walker.
This is how the process went, written by Shaun himself: Every year, right after Christmas, I start making a list of possible candidates for the forum year pipe. In this period I do a lot of research, mainly checking websites from pipe-carvers and feedback from their customers. After my initial research I start asking for feedback on the forum, this would be around March. Every forum member can send me suggestions of pipe-carvers they would love to make our year-pipe. This year we had a lot of discussions about the budget, because we wanted to create an opportunity for every single member of the forum to own a year-pipe. I knew it was going to be difficult as the goal was set around €90. This would be a nearly impossible task, because not many craftsmen are eager to make a pipe with this low budget while the expectation is that they still do the best they can. Despite everything I felt the need to try it and satisfy the forum members.
The first one I contacted was David Enrique from France. He wasn’t very happy with my proposal, but promised me that he would do the best he could. So he started searching for old briar blocks in closed Saint-Claude factories. But the following of this lead would soon turn out to be a failure. David contacted me back, said this would be impossible thanked me for the honour and pulled back out of the project.. After this call I felt he wasn’t very happy about me wasting his time on this budget matter. And I couldn’t blame the poor guy! I mean, in his place I wouldn’t settle for less than a good quality pipe. A forum is a great thing, but can also become a marketing nightmare for a pipe maker when the order turns out to be not that great.. Bad comments fly around the internet even faster than… You know what I mean.
The second lead brought me to Turkey. After a long search I finally found a guy in a remote village who had a phone.. With a shaky connection.. I tried in my best English, French and German to explain him that I wanted to place a large order. But due to communication problems and a very high telephone bill, this trail also was a dead-end.
Suddenly I had a plan, maybe I could contact Big Ben, the old Dutch pipe factory. A factory would certainly give me a good price. From the beginning I knew the chances were slim because a factory always sells to stores and never to individuals. And if stores found out they sold straight to customers, WWIII certainly would be on our hands. Still I gave it a shot but they never answered my mail. I was very disappointed in them because I always had a good contact with the director, Mr. Gubbels. After them I tried Peterson, Stanwell etc… When I saw it already was July I panicked and started screaming like a little girl..
Then it suddenly hit me. On our forum I saw some work of British pipe-carver Ian Walker. Forum-member Dewitte (Sven) once bought a pipe from him. Actually a prince model shaped pipe, with a very nice cumberland mouthpiece. EUREKA! I soon contacted him, negotiated a price (€125), got things going and low and behold, at the beginning of this month the 56(!) pipes were delivered at the forum-members homes! Thank you Ian Walker!
Talking about Ian Walker, here is some more info about him: The grandfather of Ian Walker, George Walker, started working for Duncan Briars in England in 1922. After 36 years in 1958 he left Duncan having been head-foreman in charge of production and started Northern Briar Pipe Repair Service, together with his son Peter. Father and son built their business repairing pipes for most of the quality pipe shops in the United Kingdom. When he finished school in 1972, Ian Walker joined the family business. Like everybody else at the factory Ian started as an apprentice, sweeping the floors and making tea (they’re British, duh!). Later he was allowed to polish some pipes and in the evenings he learned how to make silver bands from sheet silver at his Grandfather’s workshop.
In 1983 the parents of Ian bought a local tobacconist shop in Heaton Moor, Stockport. By this time Ian was doing all the repairs and had become one of the foremost pipe-repairmen in the United Kingdom. Wanting to further develop his skills, Ian started making pipes himself in the shop. These pipes sold well and he decided to expand this side of the business and was soon making pipes for other local shops. Further encouraged by several top British pipe makers (like Bill “Ashton” Taylor) to develop his talents, Ian has expanded his business and shortened the name of the company to Northern Briars. Today his pipes are sought after in Europe, North America and the Far East.
Ian Walker sources his briar from Italy where, according to many pipe-makers, the best stock can be found. Every pipe is totally hand-crafted by Ian himself and all pipes have hand cut stems using the best grade German vulcanite. The rustication of Ian’s Roc Cut pipes is a time consuming process which is done entirely by hand. This unique finish has proved to be extremely popular as well as finishes of Ian’s own imagination like the Sea Urchin and the new Sea Shell. Ian’s skill in silver mounting also enhances many traditional styles of pipes.
I met Ian at this year’s Inter Tabac Fair in Dortmund. A very jovial, enthusiastic man who immediately noticed the Dunhill I had dangling from my mouth, “Ah! British made! Just like my pipes!” As much as he talks in real life, as little does he write in e-mails unfortunately. I asked him some questions by mail and got decent answers. Only, not long answers.. But Ian had a good excuse, he was very, very busy finishing our forum pipes. Here is the interview:
From who did you learn your craft? I heard somewhere that Bill “Ashton” Taylor was one of your teachers, is this true? I was taught to make pipes from my Grandfather and Father. Whilst the late Bill Taylor was a good friend, I already was a pipe-maker when I met him. The only thing Bill advised me to do in 2005 was to visit the international shows.
You source your briar from Italy because you believe the best briar comes from this country. What makes Italian briar superior? The Italian briar I use continues to give good results, so why change? My supplier supplies many artisan pipe makers.
What kind of curing has your briar and why? I do not cure the pipes as such. Good dry seasoned briar is the secret. However, I do something to the pipes which my Grand father taught me. Alas, this is a secret, I am sorry.
You solely use vulcanite for your stems, why is this and why not acryl? I use vulcanite as this is a English tradition. Dunhill, Les Wood/Ferndown etc. The Cumberland mouthpieces are the best quality German vulcanite available. I make acrylic on order.
Can you tell us something more about your regular pipe-series? I mean the Bruyere Premier, Bruyere Regal, Rox Cut Premier and Rox Cut Regal? The Bruyere Premier’s are made from straight grain plateaux. The Bruyere Regals are made from cross grain blocks. The Rox Cut can be made from plateaux or cross grain.
From your Specials-serie I very much like the sea-urchin, helix and oriental. What was the inspiration for these models? I watch for shapes on the internet and shows and also the odd pipe that comes in for repair. This year I have made a pipe, the Sea Shell, just by looking at a sea shell on the window sill.
Can you tell us a bit more about your beautiful signature Roc Cut rustification? This has changed over the years as I tried different techniques of rustication. Last spring I went to a wood festival in Wales and there was a stall selling old tools. I bought a few old gauge switches which proved to be successful. As I work on the boat there is unfortunately is no room for a sandblast machine.
When you have a piece of briar, do you already see a shape in it? Let you dictate the briar which shape is going to come out? When making stock pipes for shows, a block can change shape two or three times for the original idea I started with.
Please describe the whole process from start to finish from having an idea for a pipe (or an order) to the final end-product. 1 briar block. Turn the bowl and drill the tobacco chamber. Turn the shank, bore the shank. Then grind the bottom to marry up with the turned bits. Fit the rod and shape into the stem. Then sand the complete pipe with finer sandpaper wheels and pumice then polishing mops. Stain, stamp and final polish.
When did you began smoking pipe? I started pipe smoking in mid 1970’s.
What are your favourite pipe shapes and why? All pipe shapes are interesting to a pipe maker. Whilst I like Uncle Paul and Hungarian shapes they are the most difficult to make.
What are your favourite pipe brands (besides your own brand of course) and why? Any artisan pipe makers pipes. There are so many good young American pipe makers around. I also like Alberto Bonfigliolo and Les Wood/Ferndown. I am always interested when their pipes come in for repair.
What are your favourite tobaccos, what do you like to smoke yourself? It seems that when I find a good tobacco they take it off the market.. I did like Balkan Sobranie flake in a green tin. Then Dunhill Light flake but they changed it and it is not the same.. I smoke Samuel Gawith Full Virginia flake.
On which pipes that you made are you most proud? All the pipes I make. But to make a new shape that I have not made before is always one to be proud of.
Which of your pipes would you recommend for beginning pipe smokers? Any Group 3 size or Group 4 size pipe. Not to big, not to small and straight or with only a slight bend in any finish that suits you best.
Any last words to readers? It has been a pleasure making these pipes for the Dutch/Belgian forum. It would be good whilst on holiday somewhere to see someone smoking one of the forum pipes. All pipe makers know their own work.
For about a week and a half I have the 2014 forum-pipe in my possession. Ian did a great job considering he had to make 56 pipes! According to him he never got such a big order from a forum! For a prince the pipe is quite a robust one, I am used to more slender shapes. Also it is “only” a group size 3 which is a bit surprising for such a large pipe. But then again it really is a unique piece in my prince collection. Technically the pipe is flawless. Thick walls and a pipe-cleaner passes easily through the stem and bowl. I like the used briar, it reminds me very much of the old Dunhill Root Briar. Although that was made from Corsican briar and Ian uses Italian.. I must say he took a real risk with the finish, it is smooth without any rustification or sand-blasting. Very hard to find 56 pieces of briar who are all flawless enough to make smooth finishes. So some pipes have fills I heard (and saw) from other forum-member. Not mine, it just has some kind of small flaw on the bowl which does not bother me at all. The most important is that it smokes good, and that the pipe does. I had a “magical fit between a tobacco and a pipe” with it. The tobacco in question was Penzance, absolutely very yummie!
So, if you’re a pipe-maker and you are interested in making an edition of the annual PRF-pipe, please contact Shaun: firstname.lastname@example.org