A portrait of Hans "Former" Nielsen by Artur Lopes
Fifteen-year-old Hans "Former" Nielsen had scoured the classified ads looking for a job, and he found the perfect opportunity: a local shipyard was looking for a toolmaker to train. He had been given the nickname "Former" by his friends, who thought he looked like comic actor George Formby and started calling him that, and it evolved into Former. It was 1956, and tools and machinery were a particular interest for him, but when he arrived to apply, 50 other young men were already ahead of him in line, all more experienced than he. The position was filled long before his turn came. Dejected, he walked on and checked his newspaper for other options.
Nearby was a pipe repair shop looking for help, and as he stood outside of Poul Rasmussen's workshop he noticed that there were no other applicants. Poul sized him up and said, "You can start tomorrow."
"I was the only one who wanted the job," says Former. His family wasn't pleased that he accepted because the pay was so low, but Former intended to make that up in education. He would be working with machinery, which is what he wanted.
Broken tenons were a common repair in the shop, and Former began his pipe making career by making replacement tenons. "I did a lot of those small tenons. That was the first thing. And that was for me no problem, and I learned to use that little lathe." He turned 100 tenons on his first day.
Former also learned to polish and restore mouthpieces and pipes. He did no pipe making in his two years with Rasmussen, but he learned his fundamentals. He learned the characteristics of many different brands of pipes while recognizing exactly how they worked and what made them work well.
If a customer burned out a pipe but the stem was still good, Former could turn a new stummel and finish it to fit the stem if wanted. He repaired cracked shanks, burned-out bowls, and did mouthpiece repair. Sven Knudsen, Teddy's older brother, was also working in Rasmussen's shop at that time, making pipes and doing repairs.
He repaired cracked shanks, burned-out bowls, and did mouthpiece repair
"We had a regular customer who had a sharp tooth that damaged his stems. Every stem had a hole in it in the same place." Former designed a stem for him with a reinforced indent accommodating that dental feature. They weren't easy to make. "The problem then was, he wanted those stems for 50 more pipes."
Rasmussen's repair shop serviced pipes for all of the pipe shops in the area, and Former got to know them. "I had a small motorbike, and twice a week I went to all the shops in Copenhagen to deliver pipes that were repaired and pick up new repairs. So at that time I knew Copenhagen very well. And I also learned to know the people with W.Ø. Larsen, where I later worked, and also Emil Chonowitsch's tobacco and pipe shop in Copenhagen."
When Sven Knudsen wanted to set up his own shop for making his own pipes, Former helped him evenings and weekends, and in the process learned more about pipe making. Sven taught him, for example, to use a belt sander for pipes. Former has used those belt-sanding techniques ever since. He says that a belt sander provides more accuracy, especially around the transition of bowl and shank, where many pipes can display inaccurate shaping.
Hans "Former" Nielsen, Courtesy of Former Pipes
After two years of pipe repair, Former quit, mainly because his mother was unrelenting in her criticism of the job. "My mother was saying, 'Oh, you cannot live from that. You must learn something.' And then, okay, I stopped working for Rasmussen. I found a machine workshop, and I got a job there, but I was there less than a year." The machine shop could not offer him a contract for an apprenticeship, but he had to leave anyway, for his 16 months of mandatory military service.
The W.Ø. Larsen Years
When he returned, he visited Rasmussen, who said, "It's good that you came here. W.Ø. Larsen needs a pipe maker." Rasmussen called Svend Bang, who was overseeing Larsen's small workshop, and told him to stop looking. "I have found your pipe maker."
Former said, "You know, you've never let me make a pipe. I've done only repairs."
"You already know," said Rasmussen, who instructed Former to make a pipe for him from one of the blocks there in the shop. In 90 minutes, Former had finished and Rasmussen approved.
But Svend Bang needed additional convincing and told Former to make seven pipes in W.Ø. Larsen standard shapes. It was an audition for the job, and Former was nervous. He called Sven Knudsen, who was the first carver for W.Ø. Larsen and knew the shapes. Knudsen invited Former to his shop to make pipes on the weekend, checking in occasionally on his progress.
Knudsen invited Former to his shop to make pipes on the weekend
The seven pipes were acceptable to Bang, and Former worked at W.Ø Larsen for the next 10 years, from 1962-'72. He had learned a lot about machining, sharpening drills and various tooling blades, and lathe work while at the machine shop, and that education was beneficial to his pipe making.
He was immediately made pipe foreman, but Former says that the promotion was based on availability rather than merit. He had replaced the shop's one pipe maker. "I was the only pipe maker there. There was also a lady who did repairs, but we were the whole staff."
His first assignment was to make 80 pipes to fulfill an order for the United States. "Oh boy," says Former. "I thought that was a lot." As he sat in the small window of that workshop and laid out his finished pipes, passersby could look in, and every day Sixten Ivarsson would pass on his way to his own shop. "Whenever I had new models, Sixten would stop and knock on the window with his key. He would point and say, 'Oh, look at that one. Super!'"
Sixten told Former that if he ever needed pointers, he was welcome at his shop. It was Sixten who taught him how to craft bamboo shanks with stainless steel tubing and how to be sure the bonding to the stummel would withstand the rigors of daily smoking.
Former continued his training with Sven Knudsen on weekends and became a better and better pipe maker. Sven was doing the sandblasting for the Larsen shop, he knew the shapes intimately, and was willing to share his knowledge. After the Larsen shop moved to much larger quarters in an old cigar factory, Former was supervising 17 pipe makers, among them such names as Tonni Nielsen, Peter Hedegaard, Teddy Knudsen, Poul Ilsted, and Jess Chonowitsch.
Hans "Former" Nielsen's Workshop, Courtesy of Former Pipes
Former was responsible for training new carvers, making pipes and grading them, and he examined each pipe for quality control. Pipe makers have said that Former was a tough-but-fair boss. Pipes needed completion on a schedule that he was responsible for. "The biggest problem," says Former, "was that these guys could not get out of bed in the morning. So every morning I had to call them and say, 'You have one-and-a-half hours, then I will see you here in the workshop, otherwise you can pick up your salary next week.'" At one point he fired a now-famous pipe maker, but he rehired him when two weeks later he asked to come back with the promise to be at work on time.
Pipe making at W.Ø. Larsen was a hard job. No pipe maker with visions of their own creations likes making 100 stems in a day, or only polishing pipes for days on end, but strict schedules were required to fulfill the huge orders that were coming in from the U.S., from shops such as Iwan Ries in Chicago and the Tinder Box chain of tobacco shops. Ole Larsen, the owner of W.Ø. Larsen, was competing with the likes of Preben Holm, whose workshop was making thousands of pipes at very reasonable prices. Production needed to be increased and more pipes needed to be made more economically to stay competitive.
Former told Ole that they could not reduce the time necessary for each pipe and maintain the quality required, and suggested that they start a line of classically shaped pipes rather than make more of the Fancy Freehands that were so popular. "Classic shapes will always sell," says Former. "We couldn't make them faster, but we could make them better. And once we started making them, the German market opened up for us." Pipe smokers in Germany loved the classic styles of the Danish workshop, and demand continued to increase.
Former was responsible for training new carvers
Deciding to work weekends to experiment with new shapes for Larsen, Former built a workshop in his home. About that time, Jess and his father Emil Chonowitsch were under a great deal of pressure to make more pipes for their Japanese market, and they asked if Former could make some pipes to help fulfill demand, starting with 15 pipes a month.
Pipe Making Independence
Pipe smokers in Japan were happy to buy all the pipes that Former could send them, and Germany had noticed him as well. In 1972 as demand grew larger, he decided to start making only his own pipes, making them the way he wanted to make them. Like so many other pipe makers who learned from him at the Larsen workshop, he left to become his own boss.
Pivotal to his career was the Bentley pipes brand. He was approached in 1986 by a Swiss investor to modernize an old pipe factory and develop a new line of high-quality pipes. Bentley pipes launched their first sales the next year, each pipe designed by Former, who also oversaw their production and quality control.
Bentleys that were made to accommodate filters were especially popular in Germany, and demand grew to the level that four years later it was required that the factory be moved from Switzerland to Hamburg, Germany.
Former lived in Switzerland for 10 years, and met his wife Daniela there at the Bentley factory, and she has been a part of his pipe making since. They purchased the Bentley machinery in 1997 and moved to Denmark to continue making around 1,400 Bentleys a year, along with up to 400 Former pipes.
Pivotal to his career was the Bentley pipes brand
They no longer make Bentley pipes, but Daniela still helps with some of the finishing work on Former pipes. He prefers making each pipe by hand. "They have more personality that way," he says. "Each block of briar can become what it should, instead of forcing it into a shape chart."
Currently, Former pipes are among the best in the world. And more will be coming; he has no interest in retirement. He's been working with pipes for 65 years and has personally experienced the evolution of Danish pipe making. He learned his craft from legends, and he himself trained those who would later become legends. Former continues to hone his craft, perfect his procedures, explore creative new shaping cues, and delight pipe smokers around the world with some of the most artful and efficient smoking instruments imaginable.