Bo Nordh: Swedish Pipe Making Master

Bo Nordh: Swedish Pipe Making Master

In the lengthy canon of contemporary artisan pipe making, Discussion is often centered around the Danish masters and their revolutionary reinterpretation of the centuries-old art. There's no question as to the impact and importance of these individuals, especially with regard to Sixten Ivarsson, whom many credit with kickstarting the artisan pipe-making movement, though those who came after him evidence a refinement of his process and an expansion of the scope that the artisan movement encompasses.

Bo Nordh: Swedish Pipe Making Master

Among the hallmarks of a carver's success and a marker of maturation along the path toward mastery is the development of a signature shape, being a profile unique to that artisan that, ideally, has never been seen before. These shapes can be singular interpretations of chart-standards, understated pieces that focus on clean lines, wildly organic bespoke shapes, or anything in between, so long as the shape is successful, inventive, and can be replicated.

There's perhaps no other artisan within annals of contemporary pipe making whose work embodies these three standards better than Bo Nordh. Born in 1941, Bo Nordh was originally a baker, but a motorcycle accident left him confined to a wheelchair in 1959, ending his baking career when he was only 18. Over the following few years, Bo attempted a few other trades, including radio and television repairman and instrument mechanic, but his physical limitations and personal preferences left him dissatisfied with these careers.

It wasn't until the late '60s or early '70s that Nordh first attempted carving briar, buying a pair of pre-drilled blocks from Pip-Larsson, a tobacconist in the city of Malmö, and setting out to make his first pipe. As he carved, he continued to find flaws within the briar, flaws which he outright refused to tolerate in his work, so he kept carving, leaving him with less and less material until, after finding himself finally free of flaws, he no longer had enough burl left to make a stummel. After the same thing happened with the second block, he realized that, since nearly all blocks would contain flaws, he would need to alter the design to fit the grain, and he returned to Pip-Larsson to buy more.

... he kept carving, leaving him with less and less material until, after finding himself finally free of flaws, he no longer had enough burl left to make a stummel

Noticing the volume of briar Nordh was buying, the owner of the store, Olle Jonsson, inquired as to why, and when Bo said that he was making pipes, Jonsson expressed an interest in seeing them for himself. After looking at the pipes he had made, Jonsson told Nordh to get a stamp, and that he would then display his pipes in the window of the store, recognizing the quality of the workmanship that went into their creation. These pipes sold quickly and, in an effort to foster Nordh's talent, Jonsson, an acquaintance of Sixten Ivarsson, advised Nordh to go and visit with the Danish master. During that visit, Sixten shared with Nordh some of his knowledge of pipe making, including carving tips and sources for high-quality raw materials, all of which Nordh absorbed, returning to his work with inside information from the greatest artisan of his time.

Bo Nordh Smooth Nautilus (2000) Tobacco Pipe

Bo Nordh Smooth Nautilus

In 1972, Bo made his first large sale, emptying his entire stock of 30 finished pipes after a Japanese representative visited him and bought them all, marking the moment that Nordh realized that his pipe making could earn him a living, turning his hobby into a career.

With exceptions for his first few years of production, Nordh's annual output of pipes never exceeded 50 pieces per year, owing to his intense focus on precise craftsmanship and fastidious perfection, with some individual pipes taking years to finish. The resulting work, as such, was nothing short of incredible, and Nordh's acclaim grew as every year passed, his nearly flawless craftsmanship garnering a fervent following which never ceased.

Nordh's annual output of pipes never exceeded 50 pieces per year

Bo's work was held in high regard not only for its construction, but for the quality of the grain he was able to capture in the finished product, the result of years of "reading the briar" and the lengthy process of seasoning that each block went through prior to carving. In 2006, following a prolonged battle with cancer, Bo passed away, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and a body of work that, while limited in number, was enormous in its impact. Over the course of his career, Nordh's focus on shaping to fit the briar resulted in a number of signature shapes, nearly all of which have become canon in the oeuvre of contemporary artisan pipe making, as these shapes have been reproduced consistently by the generations of carvers that followed him.

The Signature Shapes of Bo Nordh

Elephant's Foot

J. Alan: Partially Sandblasted Elephant's Foot with Bamboo (1805) Tobacco Pipe

J. Alan

A shape defined by its pair of ridgelines which wrap around the top, bottom, and flanks of the stummel, creating a panel that opposes a pair of domed panels at the fore and aft. This shape was specifically designed to take full advantage of a briar's birdseye, with both the fore and aft panels crafted to display that grain as exceptionally as possible, especially at the fore. The wrapping midsection, then, is meant to showcase cross grain, with the two orientations of this profile separated sharply via the defined ridges. The Shield is a shape which Nordh crafted later, and that's essentially a take on the Elephant's Foot but with a more rounded fore wall, lending it an outline closer to its namesake armor.


Tom Eltang Smooth Ballerina with Horn (Snail) (2007) Tobacco Pipe

Tom Eltang

One of Nordh's most evocative shapes, the Ballerina is a design resembling the foot of a Ballerina while en pointe, with the heel being the pointed toes, and the bowl the heel. This profile is also crafted to showcase specific grain patterns, with a pair of ridges surrounding the stummel in a similar fashion to the Elephant's Foot, though set further forward and following a far more defined curve, as the bowl curves forward out of the flattened heel. Birdseye is aligned to cover the fore and aft sections, while the panel created by the two ridges contains cross grain that follows the curved outline of the stummel.


Jody Davis: Smooth Nautilus with Silver (Cardinal) (A21) (04) Tobacco Pipe

Jody Davis

Another one of Nordh's more sculptural shapes, the Nautilus takes the form of its namesake sea creature as the bowl gradually unfurls from a shank which seems to originate out of the transition. Meant to emulate the swirling shell of the eponymous mollusk, the bowl here must be infused with an extremely well-developed sense of curvature as each facet of this piece is rounded, and the firm lines that define the rim sweep into a more organic shape. Cross grain is meant to flow through the shanks of the stummel and birdseye is meant to dominate the fore and aft, all connected to the smoker via a curling stem that pushes into the stummel at an angle, rather than using a mortise and tenon.


Kurt Balleby Smooth Ramses (1011)Tobacco Pipe

Kurt Balleby

The Ramses is a shape that's both incredibly difficult to craft correctly and that requires a particularly excellent block of briar to take full advantage of the profile's form. Named after the grand statue of Ramses II in Abu Simbel, this shape poises an Egg-like bowl at the fore of a vast, curving, wall-like shank which is built with paneled flanks and a smooth, domed aft. The stem is oriented at the topmost part of the shank, often with a base that's shaped to follow the lines of the stummel, tapering into a saddle bit that is deeply bent and well-suited for jaw-hanging.

Bo's Pot

Yuwei: Sandblasted Bo's Pot Tobacco Pipe


Rather than being a strictly Nordh creation, Bo's Pot is a signature take on the Pot shape, inspired by an old Sixten Ivarsson shape and tweaking the outline of the classic profile so that the bowl's low-set waist pinches toward the middle before flaring out to a domed rim. Not only does this offer a modern dose of styling to an age-old Anglo-French standard, but its ergonomic wasp waist lends the piece a comfortable feel in hand. Unlike the rest of these shapes, there's evidence that only one of these Pots exists, and it was a personal pipe of Bo's that he would smoke often, rather than a shape that was produced regularly.


Todd Johnson Smooth Sphinx with Mammoth (Phalanx) (Q) (2010)

Todd Johnson

The Sphinx shares some similarities with the Elephant's foot thanks to its domed, rounded fore wall, with this wall's delineation from the aft marked, too, by a ridgeline. Rather than curving rearward and creating a panel with a separate ridge, the firm line here curves forward, coming to a sharp point at the heel and lending the bowl a regal, collared look reminiscent of its namesake statue. The shank and stem are curved out of the transition, and the grain orientation here prioritizes a sunburst pattern through the fore and flanks, with birdseye at the front of the bowl that radiates streaks of flame grain.


Abe Herbaugh: Smooth Horn Tobacco Pipe

Abe Herbaugh

This is a rather contentious addition to the list, as the groundwork for the Oliphant shape was laid out by Sixten Ivarsson, but it was Bo Nordh's reinterpretation and refinement of the profile that has since become canon in the pipe world. Essentially a modified Horn, there is debate as to what classifies a pipe as an Oliphant, but the general consensus, in line with the vast majority of Horns that Nordh made in his life, is that an Oliphant is defined through its paneled flanks and consistent curvature, being made to resemble an Elephant's tusk and carved in a rounded arc from bowl to button.

From Claudio Cavicchi and Max Rimensi to Alex Florov and Todd Johnson, the novel silhouettes of Bo's work live on as modern classics, his name synonymous with impeccable work and the relentless pursuit of perfection. One of the most fascinating and inspiring aspects of Nordh's journey as a pipe maker is the fact that he remained an autodidact throughout his entire career, never apprenticing under any other pipe maker, keeping his work entirely his own outside of the knowledge he gained while talking to Sixten Ivarsson.

Nordh overcame not only his physical limitation, but the limits which many would say that inexperience imposed, leveraging his determination and exacting eye for detail to cultivate one of the most impressive portfolios of any pipe maker in the craft. His genuine personality, good nature, and friendliness saw him build relationships with many others inside the sphere of pipe making and pipe collecting, transcending national boundaries not only through his work but his heart, living on in the consciousness of his contemporaries and the hands of his enthusiasts.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Bo Nordh Pipe Makers Sixten Ivarsson


    • Tom Pfaeffle on February 26, 2023
    • Excellent article. Another noteworthy Swedish pipe maker, a contemporary of Bo, is Bjorn Bengtsen.

    • Joseph Kirkland on February 26, 2023
    • Excellent article.I am curious where the name Oliphant came from, as there is an Oliphant tartan in Scotland. The Oliphants were near the Sutherlands.

    • Astrocomical on February 27, 2023
    • How could he become a bake at 9 years old? The article don't read right.

    • Truett on February 27, 2023
    • @Astrocomical, Bo was born in 1941 not '51. Just a typo that's now been fixed. Thanks for noticing, and hopefully the article reads right to you now.

    • Marcel G on March 23, 2023
    • @Joseph Kirkland: Oliphant or olifant is the name for Medieval hunting horns carved from ivory (most famously borne by the titular hero of the Song of Roland), it's also an older (essentially Medieval) spelling for the word elephant. So I'd say it's a more fancy name for the Elephant's tusk the shape is meant to resemble.

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