A portrait of Ulf Noltensmeier and Per Hansen of S. Bang Pipes by Artur Lopez
Independent, artisan pipemakers tend to work in solitude, whether they want to or not. It isn't because they are misanthropic hermits, though some probably are. And it isn't because they drive others away with their body odor or drooling, or their imperfect attempts at juggling katanas, rabid skunks, and balloons of hydrochloric acid, though some probably do. They work alone because making pipes by hand requires concentration without distraction and long hours of focused exertion over minute details that most of us wouldn't recognize with a guided tour under a magnifier.
After a few years, that isolation can influence even an introvert's sanity. Look at my friend J.T. Cooke, for example, who endures months and months with only sandblasting nozzles and briar to talk with until he inadvertently cuts off part of a finger and, for the companionship, names it Gary.
Not all pipemakers become cackling mad scientists like Jim Cooke, though I suspect they're all closer to that state than they let on, and if there's a pipemaker out there without a compulsive/obsessive disorder, I've not heard of them, and I doubt anyone else has either. It's a prerequisite. If you're not nuts when you start pipemaking, you become nuts as your skills and experience progress, if you're doing it right.
Some have found strategies for reducing the psychological damage. Many have workshops on their home property, so they can emerge when necessary and shake the cobwebs and briar dust from their heads by visiting with their families. Some have found that working in pairs is helpful, like Love Geiger and Sara Mossberg of Geiger pipes; Silver Gray and Brad Pohlmann, who share a workshop; half-brothers Martin Vollmer and Anders Nilsson; and brothers Elio and Guido Rinaldo of Pesaro, Italy, among others. These craftspeople have found it helpful to work in pairs in their shops. Perhaps they're better adjusted because of that.
Per Hansen and Ulf Noltensmeier have worked together for the past 50 years, making the S. Bang pipes that have been regarded worldwide as some of the most beautiful and significant pipes in modern history. The two carvers aren't related, an advantage some other teams have, so they've relied on friendship to avoid attacking each other when a pristine block of briar reveals a flaw, or a fissure opens in the mortise of an otherwise perfect pipe. That they're still here after five decades, still working together, validates their loyalty to the craft and to each other.
Often, an entire day can pass in silence, with just a small radio playing in the background, not because they don't want to speak, but simply because nothing occurs to them. It's that rare sort of friendship that is perfectly comfortable with or without words. Just knowing the other is nearby to offer opinions about a pipe is comforting.
Unfortunately, their work is coming to an end. Ulf and Per are retiring, and S. Bang is closing this month. There will be no more S. Bang pipes, not new ones, anyway. Most of us don't buy a new S. Bang every month, or every year, but if we can manage one a decade, we'll still miss that. Removing S. Bang from the world of pipes is like removing blue from the light spectrum. We may still navigate fine, but without S. Bang illuminating our world, our experience of living will be diminished and less colorful.
S. Bang's 50-year history started less serenely than it is ending. Launched by Svend Bang in 1968, it was at first only a retail shop in Copenhagen, where Bang sold pipes and tobaccos. He had gained experience in the trade working as a clerk in various pipe shops, and his most memorable experience was working for W.Ø. Larsen, famous for its own retail store and pipemaking workshop. For some reason — admiration, possibly — Bang was consumed with the ambition to start a pipe empire that would generate serious competition for Larsen, and this small shop was the beginning. Once established as a retailer, Svend wanted to offer additional services, so he dedicated a back room to pipe repairs and hired a repairman.
Bang liked high-quality pipes, and enjoyed the reputation his pipes were building, but he always wanted them faster, and since that inevitably meant lower quality, Per and Ulf resisted.
When he lost his repairman, Bang decided it was time to advance beyond that stage. He eventually wanted to start his own line of handmade pipes. Bang was no pipemaker, though. He needed a skilled craftsman who could do the repairs he now needed but with the experience to make pipes when it was time. He found a larger workshop and started looking for a pipemaker to work in it.
At that time, Preben Holm, a man in his early 20s who had built a Danish pipe factory around the enormous popularity of Danish Freehands, was enjoying unprecedented success, and had almost 50 pipemakers in his employ, including Per Hansen and Ulf Noltensmeier. Holm had the kind of operation that Bang longed for. When Per showed up to answer the advertisement for a pipe repairman, with experience in the very workshop that Svend so admired, he was immediately hired.
"Preben Holm was quite young when he started," says Ulf, "and the operation was more of a factory. It wasn't as much about the pipes as it was about meeting the demand. It was a job, and a good job, but it wasn't what either of us wanted. Of course, working that way you learn quite a lot. The primary focus was efficiency and speed." But both Per and Ulf wanted to pursue high-quality, creatively carved and finished pipes rather than factory pipes, and they had to move on. Ulf took a job with Anne Julie, and Per with S. Bang.
"We started the first Bang workshop in an old horse stable," says Per. "There was a hayloft and it was very, very cold. I was together with one other carver, but he only stayed for a few weeks, then I was on my own until Ulf joined about a year and a half later."
"As soon as I joined Per in the new S. Bang workshop," says Ulf, "we started making pipes straight away." Only a couple of other carvers contributed, and not for very long. Jan Windelov was one who worked on early S. Bang pipes, but he developed health issues and retired shortly after joining. Another was Ph. Vigen [Jes Phillip Vigen Gersten], but he worked there only for about a year and a half before moving on to Pipe Dan, later making high grade pipes for Bjarne Nielsen. He had his own stamp and did not work on the S. Bang-branded pipes. Except for a few very early pieces by Windelov, S. Bang pipes have been entirely made only by Per and Ulf.
After a solid time with Anne Julie, mainly doing repairs, Ulf moved over to S. Bang and began working again with Per. Constant, low-level tension immediately asserted itself, though, because Bang's vision was not perfectly aligned with that of his carvers. "Svend always dreamed of opening another workshop with more pipemakers and a bigger production. He really wanted to compete with W. Ø. Larsen." Bang liked high-quality pipes, and enjoyed the reputation his pipes were building, but he always wanted them faster, and since that inevitably meant lower quality, Per and Ulf resisted.
"He understood what we wanted to do, but he still pushed at that time for higher production numbers. He had a lot of business with tobacco importation at that time, being the importer for Astley's and Fox among others, but the pipes were the main part of the business."
Per and Ulf did not know how popular their pipes were until 1984, when Bang retired and they took over the workshop. They were entirely insulated, and their insistence that quality should always be pursued above quantity was still theory as far as they knew. They were surprised when they discovered what a reputation their pipes had built.
"We think that, although he was proud of the pipes we produced, he didn't want us to decide to leave and establish our own shops," says Ulf. "He would show the pipes at the trade shows, and other pipemakers would come and fawn over the work, but we didn't know about that."
Stamp collecting was Svend Bang's true passion, and he wanted to immerse himself in that hobby with his retirement. Per and Ulf had to make a decision. "We had already invested so much time and energy into elevating the brand and the quality, and the tooling and the workshop was already familiar and in working order. We also knew from speaking with our customers that they would support us in continuing the brand. We immediately changed the stamp to signal to the customers that the quality was going to be the same, if not higher, but that it was a new era."
Per and Ulf have always made their own pipes from start to finish, relying on their partner only for advice in unusual situations, or for opinions on particular dilemmas or new shapes or techniques.
"The market at that time was also slower," says Per. "We both had doubts at that time that we would be able to continue the pipemaking tradition. The German market was always strong for us, but at that time it was absolutely vital to survive. There was a demand for high-end filter pipes and after hearing from customers and seeing examples of our pipes that people were having modified to accept a filter, we decided to also begin making filter pipes, and that was essential to the business at that time."
It was unusual for two carvers to work together on one brand, especially when keeping their work almost entirely separate from the other. Per and Ulf have always made their own pipes from start to finish, relying on their partner only for advice in unusual situations, or for opinions on particular dilemmas or new shapes or techniques. "We have always worked closely," says Ulf, "but the collaboration is limited to simply sharing ideas and helping each other with technical challenges. Each pipe we make is made wholly by us as individuals."
Still, S. Bang pipes are recognizable as S. Bang pipes regardless of who made it. "Our process and techniques are the same," says Per. "The real difference is the shaping, design and style."
The S. Bang finish accounts for almost half the time invested in making a pipe, and S. Bang is world renowned for the quality of that finish. It isn't easy. "When we started, says Per, "most people didn't care much about the quality of the finish."
"That was one of our main focuses when we took over; improving the finishes and getting consistent results. It was probably only in the last ten years that we really felt like we got them to the point that we're very happy, but we still always see room for improvement. The process that we're using isn't unique, but it takes a lot of experience to know how not to spoil the finish. You can sand too much off, you can use a top color that doesn't produce good results. It's trial and error, and a lot of feel and muscle memory. It's almost impossible to explain to someone else when to stop sanding, for example, because it's different from block to block, and even different depending on the weather and the humidity. It just takes experience."
Removing S. Bang from the world of pipes is like removing blue from the light spectrum. We may still navigate fine, but without S. Bang illuminating our world, our experience of living will be diminished and less colorful.
Fifty years is a lot of experience to give up, but everyone needs to slow down eventually, and retirement was inevitable. They have no immediate plans to make additional pipes. "I will keep some of the polishing machines," says Ulf, "so that I can keep my pipes clean, and Per's, but Per isn't far from Tom Eltang and Tom has welcomed us to spend as much time in his workshop as we would like."
Ulf plans to do a lot of gardening, Per has no particular intentions. "I just moved into a new flat in the center of the city, and there are always things happening there. A lot of events and concerts to attend."
While admirers around the world will be distressed to learn that S. Bang is dissolving, Per and Ulf will always feel a connection with them. "We would like to thank all of our customers," says Ulf, "for the support and all the good years we've had. We haven't traveled much in the last years, but we've still met and heard from a lot of lovely people. Our customers should know that we never made pipes in order to travel the world. It was always all about making good pipes."