"The best decision I ever made was to become a pipe maker," says Tom Eltang as he sands a billiard that will soon make its way to South Carolina to Smokingpipes.com. I'm sitting in Tom Eltang's workshop as I write and we've discussed everything from the political situation in Botswana to manufacturing in China, but the conversation, as it always does when I'm with Tom, returned to pipes. Tom Eltang is now one of the most successful pipe makers in the world today. But it has been a long road.
A Tom Eltang pipe also stamped 'Pipe Dan'
Tom first went to work with Anne Julie in 1974. She had taken over the operation when her husband, Poul Rasmussen, died in 1968, and continued to run it as a small operation for the following few years. Tom, who had wanted to make pipes since he was a little boy, had a three year agreement for an apprenticeship with Anne, but at the very end, a position opened at the famous Pipe Dan shop as a pipe repairer. At the time, Pipe Dan had a full time craftsman repairing fifty or more pipes a day. When the repairman died suddenly, they were scrambling to replace him. P. E. Hermann, a briar and pipe making supplies importer, connected Tom with the Pipe Dan folks and Tom became the new repairman for Pipe Dan. The repair work proved to be not quite a full time job for the young Tom Eltang and he also made pipes at pipe Dan, making perhaps two hundred during his three year tenure there.
In 1980, Tom set out on his own, moving into a new workshop he shared with cabinetmakers, and continued to make pipes for Pipe Dan. Many of those pipes, like most Pipe Dan pipes, bore both Tom's name and the shop name. During this period, Tom also made pipes for a German importer under his own name.
Stanwell, the largest and most famous of the pipe factories in Denmark, had long maintained a pipe maker on the road visiting shops in Germany and Switzerland to demonstrate pipe making. In 1982, the craftsman who made these trips for Stanwell died and again P. E. Hermann, having heard this, mentioned the opening to Tom. Tom jumped at the opportunity and found himself on the road in his little VW Polo with pipe making equipment, visiting shops at least six weeks a year in three trips. Tom and a representative from Stanwell would visit the shops for three days at a time, finishing half-made pipes in front of throngs of pipe enthusiasts. The pace was grueling, with extremely long days and constant travel. This continued for four years, until the birth of his second daughter, Sara, while he was on the road in Germany. At that point, he decided he was done with the German pipe tours.
Tom's relationship with Stanwell continued, with Tom finishing the Stanwell Golden Contrast series until 1995. Indeed, Tom continues to design shapes for Stanwell to this day. During this whole period, Tom of course continued to make pipes under his own name that were sold to various shops in Denmark and Germany. The Stanwell Golden Contrast series pipes were made from bowls that Tom specifically selected at the factory and then finished the same way he finished his own pipes.
Tom suggests that his iconic Golden Contrast stain was actually first developed by Bjorn Bengtsson, but he's not certain. The stain itself (actually a two part stain that oxidizes on contact) had been used for black dress pipes previously. The insight was to sand the black stain off, creating the contrast between the harder wood that didn't take as much of the black stain and the softer wood that did, thereby highlighting the grain. Regardless of who first came up with the idea of the stain, it has been in Tom's hands that it has become famous.
During the late 1980s and parts of the early 1990s, a difficult period for many pipe makers, Tom had to find work in addition to pipe making. He always continued to make pipes, but other work here and there was necessary to support his young family. Tom says he was always a full time pipe maker and worked a full schedule pipe making, but at the time, this just wasn't enough. As the 1990s progressed and the pipe market improved, Tom Eltang began to receive the recognition that he deserved. He made his first journey to the Chicago Show in 2001 and moved into his present, now rather famous, workshop in 2004.
Tom has made pipes for almost forty years now. It's easy to forget that the extraordinary popularity and success that his pipes now enjoy is relatively recent, really just the past decade. Yet Tom has always felt it was special to be a pipe maker. It's good now with the global reputation he has and far more demand for his pipes than he could ever satisfy, but for Tom it was always good because it was always about the pipes. As Tom says, "It's good to be a pipe maker!"
I find myself yet again chronologically-challenged in this reverse-chronology world of blogging. I've been meaning to pull together the balance of the trip overview, the first part of which was posted on July 18th, from Denmark. The second half of the trip found us leaving Copenhagen in search of pipe makers and tobacco manufacturers away from the Danish capital, visiting towns like Svendborg, Odense, Assens, Aalborg, and Frederikshavn. So, here's an overview of Monday and Tuesday of the trip:
On Monday, July 19th, we spent the day with Tom Eltang. We'd already had a quick visit with Tom the previous Saturday night, but this was the scheduled all-day-with-Tom day. Usually when I travel to Denmark, I tend to fill up my non-scheduled time either by just hanging out with Tom Eltang. Tom's workshop has, over the years, become something of a home away from home for me.
We arrived in the late morning, finally having taken a morning to just get some much needed rest, and Kevin and I found Tom, much as I had expected, working away. He was hand sanding stain off of bowls on one of the four smooth pipes (hopefully Snail graded!) that he's sending our way that he was still working on while we were there. We found ourselves some coffee and bounced some ideas we had off of Tom, for video interviews and whatnot. A couple of those videos are up on this blog now, and Kevin will edit some more and they'll be posted both on PipesMagazine.com and Smokingpipes.com, so I won't spoil the fun that we had. As always, Tom's working on new stuff, the big thing being his new laser engraver, which he discusses in a video on July 25th. We also got to see one of the new Eltang Tubos pipes being made, which we'll have video of at some point in the near future. Tom is always full of energy and this visit was no exception; it's exciting for me to see a pipe maker that is constantly evolving, striving to be better and better. We finished up the day having dinner at Tom and his wife Pia's home, in their garden, with their grandson Oscar. Pia, true to form, put together a fantastic meal, including fantastic pizzas she cooked on the grill. Sometimes I worry that Tom thinks I only spend time with him in the hope that Pia will feed me; sometimes I worry that he's right... Seriously, it was a wonderful visit with old friends, talking pipes, new ideas, and eating great food.
The following morning, Tuesday July 19th, we got up early and headed to Svendborg, about ninety minutes from Copenhagen, to visit Per Jensen at the Mac Baren factory. I've visited the factory four or five times at this point and it is always fantastic. Seeing all of the work, machinery and expertise that goes into bringing us the blends that we love is as special as watching great pipe makers work, except that the machines are massively bigger, which, if, like me, you've never grown out of thinking backhoes are really cool, just makes the whole experience that much more fun. As with everything else on this trip, this was Kevin's first visit to Mac Baren, which gave me an excuse to ask Per to, yet again, show me around the factory. When I visited last year with Tony Saintiague (our now departed, but still involved, VP for Sales, who still pops up for pipe shows and occasional meetings), lots of changes had been made to accommodate great growth in production. This trip, the changes were more subtle-- new, safer, automated cutting machines, new flake tobacco packing machines-- the general little improvements that are the hallmark of any well run company. Per Jensen himself is always a pleasure; he knows so much about tobacco and speaks so lovingly of the Mac Baren factory that it's impossible to not be swept up in his enthusiasm. And, as both a tobacco and Mac Baren enthusiast myself, it doesn't take much to sweep me up in that enthusiasm. Following the factory tour, we had lunch with Per and Simon Nielsen, Marketing Director for Mac Baren, but someone I've known for awhile because he had been the export manager for the United States before he was promoted to his current position. While lacking the extraordinary depth of tobacco knowledge that Per brings to the table, Simon is similarly enthusiastic about Mac Baren and its product and it's always a pleasure to talk about the business end of the business with him. I think that's part of what makes the whole Mac Baren experience so special. These folks really love and care for Mac Baren. They believe in what they do. I love companies, or any organization for that matter, that's like this. It's just always a pleasure to see these guys. Oh, and see giant machines making tobacco...
That afternoon, we traveled on to visit Peter Heeschen, but that's the subject of the next post in this occasional series...check back for Danish Chronology, Part III.
A year ago, when I last visited Tom in his workshop, he was pondering getting a laser engraver, rather than continue to use his existing engraver, which is both finicky and quite limiting, since plastic templates are necessary for any engraving. At the time, he was very much on the fence. He and I talked about it again last week, and in the next few days, Tom's picking up the laser engraver in Germany, and in this video he talks about the process of getting it all up and working, plus the general challenges of using this sort of set up on pipes.
Today Kevin and I spent the entire day with Tom Eltang, arriving at his shop around noon and leaving around 9:30pm. We shot a ton of great video while we were there, much of which will have to wait until we can work on it, making it look more, uh, professional. In the meantime, I wanted to get some little bits and pieces up that were either situations where the camera happened to be rolling, or little snippets where I asked a question, but then had Tom restart because I thought it'd be fun on video. Tom's capacity for conversation is nearly inexhaustible and I'd really hoped that I'd get some of the sorts of conversations that he and I have had for years on video this time to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy it!
Chronology, the cornerstone of the blogging world with its reverse chronological organizational structure, can be terribly challenging while traveling. I haven't had nearly as much time to write about the visits as I'd hoped and I'll be putting up bits and pieces over the next few days as I can get videos and pictures edited and some thoughts on paper. This is my eighth visit to Denmark during the past six years; it is always a particular treat to be here. So, as I'm working on that, here's a quick overview of each visit.
Kevin Godbee, of PipesMagazine.com, and I arrived on different flights from the US, but within a few minutes of each other. After taking care of airport necessaries and a quick stop at the hotel to clean up, we set out for Peter Heding, who lives and works in a small town near Roskilde. Peter holds a PhD in biology and until a few years ago worked in diabetes research. Deciding that wasn't the life for him, he became a full time pipe maker in 2006. Today, he's making some amazing pipes and we got to see a couple of stunning diamond graded pipes that he had just completed, plus got to spend some time watching him work and generally chatting about goings-on.
That afternoon, we swung south on Sjaelland to Praesto, where we met Lasse Skovgaard Jorgensen at his new workshop. Lasse grew up in this beautiful part of Denmark, so this is actually near where I visited him when we first started working with Lasse's pipes in 2005. Lasse has been playing musical workshops lately, in large part because he rented space from Stanwell a couple of years ago, and then Stanwell shuttered that factory this spring. For now, he's using some space near his grandmother's home, not far from where he grew up. Officially, he's on vacation right now, something that Lasse takes particularly seriously, so he met us at the workshop and he hadn't been there in a couple of days. With a spread of perhaps a dozen beautiful pipes (most of which will arrive at Smokingpipes.com sometime soon) on the table, we set about playing around in the workshop and he shaped a pipe while we took a little video and shot some pictures. We went out to dinner, but I was so tired and jetlagged by then that I was a bit hazy, I think we had a really nice time.
The following morning (yesterday), we got up and drove up to north-eastern Sjaelland to visit Lars Ivarsson. I've already mentioned this some in my one previous trip post, so I won't delve into again here, except to again say that Annette's (Lars' wife) lunch was amazing. Given that Lars smoked the fish (that sounds like something pipe related, but he smoked a literal salmon, which we literally ate!) and shot the deer, perhaps he should get a nod for his culinary contributions too. We also spent a bunch of time talking about Sixten's early career, as well as Lars'. I'd heard all of this before, but in bits and pieces but never felt like I had the story coherently. I recorded the conversation and I'll turn it into something readable sometime soon. Five hours visiting Lars and Annette sped by in what felt like about an hour. I could (and have on a number of occasions) simply listen to Lars talk about pipes and pipe making in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s for hours.
That evening, almost on a lark, I called Tom Eltang while we were driving back towards Copenhagen from Lars'. Tomorrow, we'll spend the whole day with Tom in the workshop, so last night's visit was very much on a whim. Tom gave Kevin the grand Eltang workshop tour, which never ceases to be fun for me too, though I've probably seen him give it a half-dozen times. Then I showed Tom my wounded soldier, one of the new Tubos pipes that I'd been smoking since Chicago that I had unceremoniously bitten through the stem of during a particularly intense meeting one afternoon (for the record, smoking a pipe in a meeting makes you seem smarter; biting through the stem and spitting out bits of vulcanite does not). In classic Tom fashion, he whipped out a new stem for me and I was smoking it again an hour after I showed him the problem. We'll see Tom again tomorrow.
This morning we set out at a little after 9am to visit Peder Jeppesen of Neerup Pipes. Peder makes about 2,500 pipes a year, so the whole structure of his workshop and his methods are rather different from those we're seeing elsewhere on this trip. Given that he makes about ten pipes a day on average, he must work with speed and efficiency, making excellent pipes available at reasonable prices. With the closure of Stanwell and the distribution of its production to various countries, Peder is the last factory-shape pipe making in Denmark, and he is indeed something of a one-man factory. I got some great video of his various processes, so I'll get that up in the next few days also.
Jess Chonowitsch has not made pipes since mid-2006, when his wife Bonnie fell ill; he has spent his time in the past four years caring for her rather than making pipes. I last saw him in 2007, and while I've called periodically and suggested we have coffee now and then when I've been in Denmark, it's been so difficult for him to get away that we'd not been able to make anything happen. This trip, I was delighted to be able to finally see Jess again. I've always enjoyed my time with both Jess and Bonnie. Jess has a quiet gentility that is so evident in his pipes. And he has such a rich history in the pipe world that simply being able to sit with him and pick his brain about pipes or pipe making is a very special experience. So, we sat in the garden for an hour and a half and just chatted. Jess is starting to get to where he can make pipes again, having spent time cleaning and organizing his workshop properly for the first time in a long time. I am very excited to see what he does over the next year or so. There's been much speculation as to whether he would start making pipes again; I'm quite confident that he will.
So, tomorrow, on to Tom Eltang's shop for the day. That should be a lot of fun. On Tuesday, we're headed to Mac Baren in Svendborg in the morning and to see Peter Heeschen in the afternoon. Wednesday we go to Orlik in Assens, then to Kent Rasmussen in Aarhus. On the last day, we'll head up to the tip of Jylland to visit Mogens Johansen (Johs) in Frederikshavn, then on back to Copenhagen. To misquote Tom Eltang, "It's good to be a pipe seller!".
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