The Legendary Tom Eltang

Portrait of Tom Eltang by Artur Lopes

A gangly, six-year-old Tom Eltang, all arms and ears, eyes and skinny stick-legs, stood in the rain on a sidewalk in Copenhagen in 1964, peering into a kiosk at a laminated poster displaying photos of pipes — artisan pipes like none he'd seen in his young life. Even at age six, Tom was familiar with pipes. He had carefully examined his father's pipes and figured out how they worked. He was interested in every pipe smoker he saw, determining whether or not he liked their pipes. Those kiosk photos, though, were special. Those pipes sent his imagination into geosynchronous orbit. "They were very nice pipes," says Tom. "They had beautiful black-and-yellow grain; I wish I could find that photo again. I thought, 'pipe making ... that would really suit me. How cool it would be to make pipes with my own hands.' And I imagined a workshop, a small, cozy workshop, where I could make pipes." From that moment of instinctual attraction, his future was decided: He would be a pipe maker.

"How cool it would be to make pipes with my own hands"

And what a pipe maker he became, world-famous and responsible for some of the most creative shapes seen, from those that appear to be knives or desk lamps, to those that are eminently practical, like his rusticated Pokers and minimalist Arne Jacobsens, to some of the most astonishing artisan pieces imaginable. Dozens of young carvers have visited his shop over the years to experience his skills and to learn some of the most sophisticated techniques ever devised, and subsequently have become globally admired themselves. Tom maintains a cutting-edge approach to equipment and has combined world-class artisanal carving with prolific production, and demand for his work reaches to the furthest reaches of pipedom.

The Youngest Pipe Maker?

All of that astonishing productivity and skill followed a determination that began when he was six, and he pursued his dream throughout his youth. "As I was growing up in Copenhagen," says Tom, "in all the backyards, there were these small workshops. A carpentry or bike repair or heating repair shop, things like that. Small shops were everywhere. They never cleaned the windows and I would peer through them; they'd have a little lamp with a single light bulb and late in the evening tradesmen were standing in there with a cold beer and they looked like they had a good day. They felt that they made something that made a difference. That was the kind of environment I would like to work in. I was already aware of that; it was weird."

Tom's father was a pipe smoker and he shared what made one pipe superior to another. "I think he bought one from Poul Rasmussen, and he had a Suhr pipe and some other nice pipes. Not a lot of them, but he didn't mind spending some of the money he didn't give to my mother." His grandfather, who was a chimney sweep supervisor, smoked pipes as well. "He had two or three sweepers riding around on bicycles with ladders, and as the boss, he had to go around to various factories once a month to check all the fire exits and required equipment." There were two tobacco factories that he checked regularly, and he was given pouches of tobacco at one, and at the other, he accepted bags of floor sweepings. "We had a little closet, a pantry where we kept canned goods, and one entire shelf was just tobacco."

Tom's father was a pipe smoker and he shared what made one pipe superior to another.

With such an interest in pipes, Tom inevitably began smoking and was a seasoned pipe smoker by the time he was 10. "I could just take tobacco from the pantry and my parents were fine with it. Today, if my grandchild was 10 and walking around smoking, I'd react differently, but back then it was more normal, all small scruffy kids in shorts smoked if they could get tobacco; they did it because everybody did it."

Early Pipe Making and Apprenticeships

He gravitated to classically shaped pipes of smaller proportions, and he particularly remembers a four-dollar Meerschaum that he made a leather pouch for and worked hard at coloring. "From the age of six, I had my own taste in pipes, and I was always down in the basement making pipes." The pipe making began after he broke his leg and a relative gave him a pre-drilled pipe kit to help him pass the time. But it was at a local pipe workshop owned by a man named Flemming where he truly started carving. "We called him The Rat, because he was always drawing rats on his shirt sleeves," says Tom. "We never figured it out: Why rats? It's a mystery. He sold most of his pipes in Japan and they were not what you'd call extremely good. My friends and I would spend time there and one day one of the guys working there asked me my plans after I finished school. I said, 'I would like to be a pipe maker.'"

"I was always down in the basement making pipes"

That man called Anne Julie, pipe maker and widow of Poul Rasmussen, and told her about this boy who was always making pipes. Tom had already tried working for W.Ø. Larsen, lasting two weeks before he left. "It was too strict," he says. "They had a stopwatch to time different steps. It wasn't what I was looking for; too much drama, too much arguing, too much tension. It wasn't the idea I had when I was six; it didn't fit."

After meeting him and seeing some of the pipes he had made, Anne Julie agreed to bring Tom into her workshop. He finished school first, and he delayed his start at the workshop until after the end of his summer vacation. "I wanted to have my normal school holiday for that last year before I started working full-time at 16. I wanted my seven-week vacation." He was to start on August 12, 1974, and on that day he arrived at the workshop with a lunch box and wearing new work clothes. "She wasn't there. I just got a broom and I started sweeping the walkway. Then she came around the corner and looked at me and said, 'Who are you?'" She had forgotten all about him.

After reintroducing himself, Tom was assigned some pipe repairs and Anne Julie left. "She was always running around town trying to collect bills; it was always a struggle to be paid and keep things running. I did mouthpiece repairs the first two days, and I screwed up so many mouthpieces. I didn't throw them in the wastebasket because I didn't want her to see how many I'd broken. So I put them in my pocket and dropped them in the wastebaskets at the train station on the way home. Then after two days, I kind of got the feel for things."

"I did mouthpiece repairs the first two days, and I screwed up so many mouthpieces."

He was mainly self-taught. "Anne Julie at that time had only made pipes for five or six years and not full-time. So she wasn't yet a very good pipe maker, and I had nobody to ask. She supplied the tools and taught me how to disc-sand. That is also the most important thing; the only artistic stuff we did was on the disc sander; that was the whole creative process." And it was impressive to see. "When Anne Julie was at the disc sander doing a freehand pipe, I stopped what I was doing and I watched. It was amazing, just the lines and the shapes and everything she would come up with." From there, Tom would do the drilling and finishing, and Anne Julie would finally stamp it.

"She did the shaping and I did the rest. I was much better at the construction of pipes at that time than she was. But sometimes we could sit the whole day talking about the next pipe we were going to make." Tom found that he was on his own, taking care of the shop, working with customers, and making pipes. "She was there maybe half the time. She was always on the road somewhere, always in Japan or someplace. But it was a fun time and I built a lot of my values and views on life from that period."

Tom had an unusual philosophy regarding being employed by others: three years was his limit. "I felt that if someone worked longer than three years, they were likely to stay. So exactly on the day after my three-year anniversary with Anne Julie, I stopped, I quit. I did the same thing with Pipe Dan, where I worked after Anne Julie." Pipe Dan's repair person had passed away and Tom was given the opportunity to do those repairs, as well as make some of his own pipes. However, "exactly three years after I started, I went to Mrs. Dan and said, 'You have to fire me because I only work for people for three years.' I didn't have another job or anything. I just had a three-year limit."

"You have to fire me because I only work for people for three years"

Pipe repair work is a terrific teaching experience. "Doing repairs," says Tom, "Doesn't tell you a lot about pipe making, but it teaches how pipes work and especially what doesn't work." Fixing pipes that have problems demonstrates what can go wrong and how to avoid those issues when making pipes. He had learned much in his six years with Pipe Dan and Anne Julie, but now, in his early 20s, he was out of work again and unsure what to do, thanks to his self-imposed expiration date.

A Change in Direction

Then an old friend resurfaced, the friend who frequented the Meerschaum shop with Tom when they were boys. He had taken up sailing when he was 16, the same time when Tom started pipe making and repairing professionally. "He got an education at sea, and then he bought a little coaster, a 100-foot coaster, and he needed a crewmember. I pulled out my unemployment money and I became the crew on his coaster." There they were, two young men thinking, "Holy crap, what do we do now?" Their shipping broker called to tell them they had freight to take care of, and they learned as they went. "We had to make room in the cargo hold. It had wooden shutters that you had to hand-lift all the way off. We had to stand down in the hold, shoving out all the crap we were sailing with so we could fill up the boat with cargo. We were paid by the ton. We sailed around Denmark with gravel for roads, food for pig farms, corn for a bread factory, things like that."

He spent four months doing that. "I became a man. It's very defined that in these four months, I learned important things about life and being self-sufficient. There was no mother to wash the clothes, make the food. Suddenly, there was only responsibility. In a pipe shop, you can break a pipe, you can make mistakes, but not here. We didn't even have radar. We had a map. If something breaks at sea, you're on your own."

On shore again, he wasn't quite sure what to do next when he happened across pipe maker Kurt Hansen. "Kurt is the guy who developed the Popeye shape," says Tom. Kurt had sold some of his pipes at Anne Julie's when Tom was there. "He started traveling to Greenland on expedition ships, making maps and taking samples of the earth for mining companies, so he was making pipes only in the winter and then he was sailing to Greenland in the summer." But when Tom and he met at random on a street one day, Kurt was living on a boat in Copenhagen Harbor and doing carpentry work.

"What are you doing these days?" asked Kurt. "I'm doing nothing," said Tom, "but I'm planning to start as a pipe maker." Kurt said, "I have a complete workshop at my father's place. One of your schoolmates and I have just rented a workshop here in Holbæk. We are planning to open up a carpentry business. We can clean a corner of the shop and set it up for pipe making and you can work there." Tom would pay half the rent, so it was mutually beneficial, though the workshop turned out to be less than opulent. "We picked up the pipe workshop tools and took them to the new shop. It was just a wooden shed next to the forest. I started making pipes."

At that time, many Danish pipe makers sold their more expensive pipes in Germany, which was an excellent market. A German company, Oldenkott, which would develop Porsche Design pipes, was looking for pipe makers to expand their offerings. They asked Peter Hedegaard if he knew anyone, and Peter recommended Tom. "So I had a German importer but after just two or three shipments, it didn't work; they were looking for less quality, lower prices, and they wanted filter pipes, which I do not make. They're clunky, I don't like designing them. They didn't have any clue about what I was making."

"They didn't have any clue about what I was making"

Traveling for Stanwell

Tom and his friend found a new workshop, something bigger than the forest shed they'd been using, a big machine shop, and they moved into the more spacious quarters. "We only had that workshop for half a year when one day there was a knock on the door. It was a contingent of people from Stanwell."

Poul Stanwell of Stanwell pipes had decided to pay Tom a surprise visit so he could see what sort of pipe maker he was. "We had a nice day and discussed if I could do Stanwell tours in Germany." The program needed a pipe maker to travel from pipe shop to pipe shop with a small workshop to demonstrate pipe making and promote Stanwell pipes, finishing pipes in real time to the specifications of the buyer. "I said yes. He brought a pipe with some very nice grain and we looked at it. When he left I ran after him. I said, 'Give me the pipe and I'll put some finish on it and show you how nice a pipe can look.'" Tom applied his golden contrast finish to the pipe; it was a new idea and the beginning of the famous technique, which required a two-part chemical stain, each component nearly clear, one slightly yellow and the other slightly green. "When they come together, they are nearly black."

The use of these compounds required a special chemicals license, which Tom had recently acquired. After application, the pipe is basically black. "Then I polish it very hard," says Tom, "I had discovered that by using the buffing wheel like that I could cut down the time spent sanding for that finish, and the color goes into the softer parts of the wood more deeply, staying there as the harder parts lighten. It's an art form; it takes very careful balancing." The contrast finish that remains, however, is stunning and highlights the grain for a remarkable presentation.

Tom found himself promoting Stanwell pipes throughout Germany, three weeks at a time, two shops a week. He didn't speak German but he knew pipes. He would pick up unfinished pipes at Stanwell and take them with him, careening around Germany in a big Volvo with a pipe making workshop in the back. "I had a little machine with a vacuum cleaner inside and a polisher and disc sander on the other side. Then I had a box with my stain and all my paraphernalia, and a lot of Stanwell pipes that were finished but not stained at all." Customers would look through the pipes and choose one, decide what finish they wanted — light, dark, contrast — and Tom would finish the pipes as they watched, applying the stamps and bending the mouthpieces.

He was often asked about his own pipes, and he always had a few, but they were not popular because Tom would not make pipes to accommodate filters, and the German market was primarily interested in filter pipes. "If I had adapted to nine-millimeter filters, I could've sold tons of pipes in Germany and made myself a big name. But I just never believed in them and the pipes become ugly and not well proportioned. They probably thought I was arrogant. Well, maybe I was, but I would not compromise." Because of that, his pipes were not popular in Germany, and his principles cost him many sales.

... they were not popular because Tom would not make pipes to accommodate filters

As was his custom, he did those tours for Stanwell for three years before quitting. Travel like that did not appeal to Tom and he was often homesick, the stress finally taking a physical toll. He and his wife Pia, who is an integral part of the business, did not like being apart. "I ended up in the hospital. My heart just went completely crazy." His irregular heartbeat was worrisome and he called home to discover that his second daughter had just been born. "I did only three more trips after that and quit; Poul Winslow took over from there."

Transitions

He became a fur sorter. Mink fur is a large industry in Denmark, and Tom now earned a living by sorting the furs into different grades, a seasonal job meant to earn enough money so he could make pipes in the off season. It didn't last. He decided at last to be a full-time pipe maker, but it was at a time when pipe sales were declining, and he then became a carpenter. Sadly, he found himself traveling again, this time all around the world to do installations while making pipes part time at home.

You might think that someone as talented as Tom Eltang would have found it easy to commit himself to pipe making full time, but it took a while. He was making about 100 pipes a year and designing pipes for Stanwell now and then. It was when collectors in North America discovered him that he was finally able to dedicate his time to his craft. Marty Pulvers owned Sherlock's Haven in San Francisco, one of the most famous pipe shops ever to exist, and he visited Tom and offered to sell his pipes. Per Billhäll of Scandpipes inquired about carrying Eltang pipes, and then Iwan Ries in Chicago, and UpTown's Smoke Shop of Nashville, specializing in ultra-high-grade pipes, also started carrying his pipes. He no longer needed odd jobs to keep his family economically comfortable. He needn't do carpentry or sort fur or transport cargo. He was now the pipe maker he had always known he would be.

... he was finally able to dedicate his time to his craft

Giving Back

He has spent decades honing his craft, and has collaborated with such luminaries as Gotoh, Mänz, and Grechukhin. Aside from Tom's innovative development of contrast staining, glass-like finishing techniques, machine-like accuracy, remarkable productivity, and inventive shaping styles, he is well known for nurturing new generations of pipe makers. Many of the most respected carvers in modern history, like Jeff Gracik, Todd Johnson, and Mike Sebastian Bay have spent time in Tom's shop. Indeed, Tom Eltang's workshop has become an epicenter for refining the skills of fine carvers worldwide. Bay has even received permission to replicate Tom's distinctive rustication technique and now uses it for his own pipes.

Among those carvers is Johannes Rasmussen of Suhr pipes, the grandson of Poul Rasmussen and Anne Julie, who has worked with Tom since 2016, expanding his skill set, developing his virtuosity with traditional shapes, exploring advanced techniques, and becoming a pipe maker to impress even his famous grandparents. It's especially appropriate that Tom, who learned so much from Anne Julie, should be so involved in advancing the skills of her grandson.

Johannes was instrumental in the development of Tom's Sara Eltang line of pipes. "Johannes is the closest I could get to a clone," says Tom. "In the last five years he's been in the workshop, we haven't even been a little bit angry with each other. Johannes and I, we think alike, it's fantastic. And now, he's started another apprenticeship as a carpenter because he wants to know more about wood."

Tom is especially pleased, ironically enough, when Johannes makes mistakes. "I tell him, you still have to screw up. I sometimes had to screw up for 10 years before I found the solution. He can resolve problems much faster. When he has to find a solution, I can help guide him. So the idea is that I could get him to my level much faster than I was able to achieve myself. I promised him that when I leave the planet, he's the best pipe maker left. He has a good chance. He also has a very good personality for it, and he doesn't take it for granted. He has an eye for it, he has the skills, and he has the history. He's the grandson of Poul Rasmussen, the guy who started it, the guy who taught Sixten Ivarsson to make pipes. It's a pretty good background."

The community of people who benefit from Tom Eltang's unique craftsmanship and personality is large, contrasting with the single child of six years standing in the rain in Copenhagen gazing in wonder at the beauty possible in pipes. That was 57 years ago, and he's even more enthusiastic now, with no end in sight. "I will never retire," he says. "I'm having too much fun." His influence has touched artisan pipe makers and enthusiasts across the globe, his designs have enraptured, his finishing techniques have astounded, and his design skills have enthralled multiple generations, while the quality and profound smokability of his pipes continue to delight pipe smokers everywhere and enhance the advanced enjoyment possible with some decent tobacco, a chunk of briar, and the dedication of a born craftsman.

Comments

    • Joseph Kirkland on August 1, 2021
    • Chuck, another marvelous and informative article. KUDOS!Thank you.

    • SO on August 1, 2021
    • Thank you for another wonderful article Chuck. It is fascinating how artisans evolve in their craft, and then influence other artisans. And, I also liked the video with Mr. Eltang showing his cut-outs that he uses when he needs inspiration. A very talented man.

    • Rick Newcombe on August 1, 2021
    • Tom Eltang is a brilliant pipe maker and a very nice person. His family is wonderful too. Loved this profile because of all the details of Tom’s life and historical anecdotes about Danish pipe making.

    • bsilverman on August 1, 2021
    • Enjoyed the article, Chuck. As much as I'm a fan of Eltang pipes for many years, I'm a bigger fan of Eltang the man. Always friendly and engaging- one of our hobby's real gentlemen.

    • Pipe Dreams on August 1, 2021
    • Greetings Chuck, what an endearing article, full of, if I may, affection for a very talented pipe maker and a human being. Tom Eltang shines in this article . Thank you for a wonderful, informative read. Take care, Pierre

    • LC Kid on August 1, 2021
    • Thnxs much for such a truly superb article Chuck. Again.I've always said Tom is simply the best Pipe Maker in the world, at least for the last 20 years and counting. His designs are recognizable anywhere by anyone, and very few artisans can claim something like that. And his working pace is just unstoppable, pulling something new almost anytime he delivers a new batch.But the man himself is waaay better than that. By far, the nicest and friendlier person you'll ever meet.

    • Dan on August 1, 2021
    • Awesome article! Thank you

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