This year marks Kurt Balleby's 40th pipe-making anniversary, and it's a milestone worth celebrating. I haven't even been breathing for four decades, and that's perhaps the easiest, most passive action available; it's hard to imagine intentionally dedicating sweat and effort to one specific pursuit for such a span of time.
A lot has changed since Kurt first started making pipes in 1983: Films and TV shows have transitioned from VHS to DVD to all-access streaming services; CDs were the hottest innovation, first released in 1982, and today, they're all but antiquated; the United States has elected seven different men to the Presidency; the United Kingdom ratified the European Committee's transition to the European Union in 1993 and then voted to leave 23 years later; China has grown from a closed, controlled market to joining the World Trade Organization and becoming one of the largest economies in the world; and Blockbuster was founded, enjoyed meteoric popularity, and filed bankruptcy – all in the past four decades. Amidst all this change, however, Kurt Balleby pipes have remained among the constants of the past 40 years.
Origins and Workshop
For the majority of his career, Kurt has crafted pipes in Kolding, Denmark, a southern city on the Jutland peninsula's eastern coast — just across the ocean from the island of Fyn — and he still makes pipes in the basement workshop of his home. It's a cozy, homely space, comprising two low-ceiling rooms: one with a table saw, lathe, and sanding and buffing wheels, and the other with a work bench, table, and belt sander.
Kolding was also home to the original Bari pipe factory, founded by Viggo Nielsen in 1948. Kurt studied under Nielsen's son Kai when Kurt first started making pipes in 1983, also learning from Preben Holm in those early years before Holm's passing in 1989.
Kurt Balleby Pipes
In the forty years since, Kurt has distinguished himself as one of the world's most respected artisan pipe makers, honing his expert craftsmanship and developing a distinctive design style that ranges from classic shapes to avant-garde Freehands. His traditional designs are often bent, and his personal aesthetic often features well-defined transitions that emphasize plump, curvaceous bowls. He's especially regarded for his bent Bulldog and Rhodesian renditions, differentiating them not by diamond or round shanks but, instead, by the positioning of their beadlines: For his Bulldogs, the beadlines sit low around the bowl, just above the transition, to accentuate the bowl's upward, Brandy-like taper; whereas Kurt's Rhodesians feature more traditionally set beadlines, higher up the bowl for a more reserved taper toward the rim.
For his Freehands, Balleby draws ample inspiration from Bo Nordh's illustrious portfolio, hand carving stunning Ramses, Nautilus, and Elephant's Foot renditions most often.
Kurt's pipe-making process is one of intense precision and the utmost adherence to quality in form, finish, and engineering. His pipes undergo a rigorous staining process, involving between 14 and 16 coats, and each piece is fitted to a hand-cut stem of black vulcanite. Moreover, he regularly embellishes pipes with accents of horn, mammoth, or boxwood, and occasionally with silver or antler. Lastly, every Balleby pipe is distinguished by his recognizable stem logo: a diamond-shaped inset in the stem fashioned from 14K gold. Smoking a Kurt Balleby pipe is the enjoyment of 40 years of fine-tuned mastery and artistry.
40th Anniversary Celebration
It's been 40 years since Kurt first began crafting fine smoking instruments from briar, and on Saturday, August 12th, he hosted a party at his home in Kolding to celebrate the milestone. Shane Ireland and I attended, and we were joined by a host of others, from Kurt's close friends and neighbors to other notable Danish pipe makers. Tom Eltang, Manduela, Tao, Kent Rasmussen, Nanna Ivarsson, Kai Nielsen, Benni Jørgensen, Anne Julie, Peder Jeppesen of Neerup, and Lars Jonssen of Lomma joined the celebration, as did fellow retailers Nikolaj Nielsen of the Danish Pipe Shop and Per Billhäll of Scandpipes.
The festivities primarily involved congratulating Kurt and appreciating his most recently completed pipes, namely a selection of bent Apples crafted in honor of his 40th anniversary, as well as an immaculate seven-day set. The set comprises a superlative collection of smooth shapes — an Elephant's Foot, an Acorn, a bent Brandy, Kurt's bent Bulldog and Rhodesian renditions, a Blowfish, and a Ramses — accented with a variety of beautiful materials, from horn and mammoth to solid gold, all contained within a custom-made cocobolo box.
Music punctuated the event, joined by a cornucopia of Danish-style hors d'œuvres and a food truck serving Danish hotdogs (which give Chicago dogs a run for their money). We enjoyed catching up with pipe makers we see only sparingly throughout the year, and it was a joy to celebrate Kurt in person.
40th Anniversary Pipes
To commemorate his 40th pipe-making anniversary, Kurt crafted a limited-edition array of bent Apples. All the same shape, they feature trim, oval shanks leading to curvaceous bowls that gradually taper from Kurt's signature shaping of the transition.
Available in either a smooth, auburn finish or a rich, dark sandblast, each Kurt Balleby 40th Anniversary pipe reveals remarkable grain, beautifully following the gesture of the shape, and the smooth versions bear mammoth accents, while the sandblasted examples are contrasted by handsome boxwood fitments. They're completed by custom leather bags made specifically for this 40th Anniversary, which are emblazoned with the dates of Kurt's four-decade career.
Join with us in appreciating Kurt's long-standing artistry and devotion to the craft of pipe making and in celebrating 40 years of Kurt Balleby pipes!