Updated: Jan 29
As I stood at my bench sanding this week’s pipe, I heard a voice out of the past:
“Ehhhhhhhh, I dunno, it’s kinda Daney.”
The voice belonged to Hank, one of Pittsburgh’s great pipe men. I was glad to hear it, because up to that moment I had no idea what to write about.
Hank was a fixture at the Saturday morning pipe hang at Allegheny Smokeworks, and a very knowledgeable and dedicated Dunhill collector. While he probably owned other brands of pipes, in my memory he’s smoking a Dunhill LB or Dublin or Apple and I can’t remember ever seeing him with a bent pipe. It wasn’t that he was closed-minded in general, he just knew what he liked, especially when it came to pipes. He was already a pipe smoker when Danish freehands became all the rage and, like bell bottoms, they hadn’t fit him.
The last thing I want to do is try to sound knowledgeable about the Danish school of pipe making, but it would be absurd to pretend I haven‘t studied it, and aspired to it. If it weren’t for the Danes, the artisan pipe market likely wouldn’t exist. We might argue that Charatan started the freehand movement, and when we think of factory pipes there’s always Stanwell, but if we’re using broad strokes the English/French pipe was factory-produced in large numbers and the high grades were a result of selection, while the Danish pipe was handmade by one (or two) carvers who produced nothing but high grades.
Others have written excellent histories of Sixten Ivarsson and the propagation of his influence through generations of Danish carvers and throughout the world. The timing of Danish influence in pipes coincided with burgeoning Danish design in furniture and goods — think Bang & Olufsen — which is not to draw a connection between pipes and Danish functionalism. Much could be written about exactly what characterizes Danish pipe design, but to me it is an organic quality. While British shapes recall the Victorian industrial revolution (which certainly produced its share of beautiful shapes), the Danish pipe looks as though it could not possibly have been made by a machine. The underslung outside line and forward cant of the Danish bent pipe is unmistakable. I can’t say I have it down, but it’s not for lack of trying.
When I started carving, there was every incentive to make pipes that looked Danish; Danish pipes dominated the pinnacle of pipe making and collecting. Bo Nordh, Jess Chonowitsch, Tom Eltang, et al, and the top North American carvers did their best to tuck in behind them. It's true, you could spend a lot of money on collectible Dunhills or Charatans, but the Danish masters were in an artistic and economic class by themselves. I was (and remain) as fascinated as anyone. I mentioned in an earlier post (Details) my encounter with a Lars Ivarsson Blowfish at the Chicago show. These were pipes that invited contemplation on many levels.
Some pipe smokers, though, were immune. Hank had firmly imprinted on British pipes during his youth when the adults he wanted to be smoked pipes and Dunhills were the best. He hadn’t been able to afford Dunhills during his first pipe smoking career, which was perhaps just as well. Some years before I met him, his soon-to-be-ex-wife broke all of his pipes while he was at work. He quit smoking for a time, but when his psyche and finances recovered he took it up again and started buying the pipes he had always wanted.
Hank never wore jeans. Slacks and button-down shirts were his informal Saturday ensemble; at work he wore a suit. Along with that went the stolid, masculine accessory of a pipe that was well cut but made no pretense toward art. Hank was a square, in the unapologetic, serious, productive sense of the word. He would have made an excellent cinematic John H. Watson, MD. It was from that perspective that he looked askance at the voluptuous, sensuous, possibly feminine lines of Danish pipes.
Hank was interesting, a yinzer through and through, one of those guys who somehow manages to be simultaneously gruff and genial. From what I could tell he was some sort of businessman working for one of the big window manufacturers, and, other than pipes and tobacco, his great passion was for the cinema. He was an avid collector of films in whatever format they came. He discussed them as art, and introduced me to the chamber music of Bernard Hermann. If you wanted to talk about the scores to The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad Hank was your guy. I wish I could tell you more, but all my information came from those Saturday mornings. He was a prime example of the kind of person you'd never get to know if it weren't for some common interest, especially a common interest where sitting around talking about stuff is actually kind of the point.
Remember when we used to do that?
About half of the usual suspects in the lounge at Allegheny Smokeworks — Hank is on the right, khaki slacks and blue shirt — ca. March, 2006.
A week or two after the picture above was taken, Hank drove himself to the hospital, where he suffered the kind of conclusive heart attack that doesn't really care where you are. He had never mentioned feeling bad and had never seemed in poor spirits. Presumably the event surprised him as much as it did us, but you never know, do you? Afterward, when his name came up somebody would say, "If the guy would have just gone to a doctor, like, EVER, we'd probably be talking to him right now." To which somebody else would say, "Yeah, but if ya gotta go . . . it coulda been worse" and the rest of us would know exactly what he meant and nod in agreement. We all might wish for better but yes, it certainly could have been worse. Hank's devotion to Dunhills and his sniffing appraisal of Danish pipes became a byword in the North Allegheny circle, so that whenever a stunning new kilobuck-plus Bang or Barbi or Eltang was unveiled, there would come the inevitable growling Hank impression:
“Ehhhhhh, I dunno, it’s kinda Daney.”