There was one pipe that I desperately wanted to see with my own eyes for quite some time. My first encounter with that pipe was a photograph of it carried in a Japanese book about pipes and pipe smoking, which I bought when I started pipe smoking. It was almost literally a case of love at first sight. The pipe had an almost definitive air of sharpness to it, honed to near extreme but not quite, yet was successful in preserving its unique warmness somehow. It even had its own shape name, "Polonius" (yes, from Shakespeare) and was a creation by the well-known Danish pipe craftsman Gert Holbek.
Design freedom that bent pipes have
When I started smoking a pipe, for some reason I preferred bent pipes to straight ones. "Bent" pipes in contrast to "Straights" have its shank (the wooden tubular part protruding from the bowl) and stem (the mouthpiece, in most cases made of plastic rubber (Vulcanite) or synthesised plastic material (Lucite, etc)) forming an angle other than 90 degrees to the bowl. Novice pipe smokers are often advised to choose a straight pipe for their starting pipe, as it is believed that straight pipes are easier to smoke, and so was I. Upon advice given to me at a pipe shop, I bought a straight Billiard (name of a classical pipe shape), scorched my tongue and palate quite a few times until I learned the knack to keep the tobacco in the bowl burning while at the same time not to make it overheated through incessant puffing. Most probably if you are familiar with any kind of tools, you know the feeling; once you master the basic skills and methods of using it properly, you begin to realise shortcomings peculiar to that tool, and also the beauty it has. With my fist pipe in Billiard shape, I found many of the former (it was inexpensive, to boot, which is not in itself bad, but in many cases implies sloppy craftsmanship) and very few of the latter. Since then about 95% of the pipes I purchased are "bents".
It appears that there exist very few straight pipes which do not fall into one of the classical pipe shapes; perhaps it is more difficult to create a truly original pipe shape for straight pipes. In contrast, by simply giving a certain angle to the bowl/shank connection, it seems pipe craftsmen get a lot of designing freedom. And in fact you can see literally hundreds of different, unique bent pipes being made and sold when you have a look at the showcase in a pipe shop or on the Internet pipe related websites. But having seen so many, and in some cases owned and smoked some, of bent pipes, Holbek's "Polonius" still seems to me to be the ideal bent pipe shape.
No real "Polonius" handy around me
Anyway, when I first learned about "Polonius" there was none available on sale in any of the then extant three or four pipe shops in Tokyo. It was nearly a couple of decades ago and there were no auction sites or the Internet itself. As I gather, there was a pipe smoking boom over here in Japan in 1970s, but it had already gone by the time I started and even any pipe related publications (books, leaflets, catalogues, etc) were scarcely available. I had to consider myself rather lucky to be able to buy a copy of the book in which I came across the photo of Holbek's "Polonius".
More bad news: in this pipe book, it was mentioned that Holbek had been meaning to do industrial designing work (which apparently he did as his main career) and his pipe production was virtually stopped. So there remained very little chance for me to see his pipes with my own eyes, let alone purchase one even if I could afford it.
Well, tough luck; but what would you do if you wanted something so badly, something such as a smoking pipe which is some kind of device or tool, functionality of which is well defined and not that difficult to meet (yes, I know this is an oversimplification; it is extremely hard to craft a genuinely good smoking pipe)? — "Make your own!" was my answer.
Carving to copy...
Amateurs are, by definition, audacious. But as foolhardy as I was, pipe crafting/carving kits ("pre-bored" one, with the smoke hole and bowl already drilled and mortise/tenon fits ready, as well as mouthpiece mostly formed) are not that cheap. Besides, carving three-dimensional objects by myself was new to me, except for the arts classes back in the junior high school days some ten to fifteen years prior to this pipe carving project. So I proceeded with caution, getting myself ready by buying a pound or so of clay for modeling the basic shape to be realised.
Even at this stage of clay modeling, however, it became clear to me that it is almost impossible to imitate (and needless to say, re-create) this characteristic sharpness of the Holbek shape. Copying to achieve a certain degree of resemblance to the original was not that difficult; I got the bowl/shank angle mostly correct, the general shape of the bowl more or less all right. But it is from there that you definitely need a talent. The clay models I made, however hard I tried, always ended up as something that could only be called obese Polonius.
In crafting a smoking pipe, you simply need to maintain a minimum thickness of the bowl and shank walls to prevent the pipe from scorching inside and out (after all, the bowl of pipe is a small furnace where you burn the tobacco and keep it lit). If you make it too thin, it can get burned easily, or the shank can be prone to breaking or cracking even at a slight shock given to it by accident.
By the time I got bored at making clay models and decided to go on and tackle the real briar root for carving, I was pushed to realise that I was lacking in that special talent, and also that there indeed exists a reason for master craftsmen to be called "masters". Doubtless, Gert Holbek was a master extraordinaire, capable of carving out a beauty with such sharpness without sacrificing the functionality and durability of a smoking pipe. My admiration for him grew after a series of my attempt to copy his piece of art.
And... you ask me about the outcome of my trials at pipe carving? No, please don't. I apologise, but I shall not be showing any of my hand-carved pipes until I get a decent one complete.
[Translation completed and posted on the 1st of August, 2004. The original article in Japanese with the same title was posted on the 6th of February, 2004, under the category: nicotiana.
Note that this particular article is a more or less a free translation of the original article, with some paragraphs and passages relevant only to visitors reading Japanese and living in Japan edited out.]
[English Articles Index of this site is here.]
The photograph of Holbek's "Polonius" at the top of this article was scanned from a book written by Mr Souzi MATUYAMA, a well known senior Holbek expert and fan in Japan. Mr Matuyama's book is titled Denmark no Paipu ("Danish Pipes" or "Pipes from Denmark"), published 1983 (out of print, all in Japanese). It contains 8(!) pages of superb full-colour photographs of Holbek pipes (all named after characters in Shakespeare's plays) as well as many essays discussing Danish pipes which Mr Matuyama had contributed to the then active Japan Pipe Smokers Club organ. My thanks are to Mr Matuyama with whom I cannot make an official contact yet to ask for permission to carry this scanned image.
The caption in the photograph (which is now illegible due to resizing of the scanned original) reads: "POLONIUS/by G. Holbek 1975 normal".
Please refer to the official website of alt.smoking.pipes netnews newsgroup for general information about pipes. In particular, its Pipe Parts pages explain with nice illustrations the basic structure and parts names of smoking pipes.
The most comprehensive portal website for pipe and pipe smoking resources on the net is Pipes Web Pages. This site was started by Steve Beaty who was a contributing subscriber to the Pipes Digest mailing list moderated by Steve Masticola, to store Pipes Digest back numbers and also other pipe related texts and info.
Now we have a detailed story about the master pipe craftsman Gert Holbek himself on the net. www.danishpipesmokers.com has a very nice essay, written by Jacob Groth, with photos of Holbek pipes and the man himself, on the life and work of Holbek at Gert Holbek.
Most of Holbek's pipes were sold via the world famous pipe shop in Copenhagen, Denmark, named "Pipe Dan". You can see the scanned images of Pipe Dan product catalogue (in English) in the website of FinePipes.com at Pipe Dan Pipes.