Copyright © Reborn Pipes and the Author except as cited
He could have been an ambassador for his country, but instead he became an ambassador for Danish pipes.
— Jan Anderson, author of Scandinavian Pipemakers (2012)
Jan Anderson was speaking of Bjarne Nielsen, the great Danish pipe maker, who finished his studies at the University of Copenhagen with an MBA in the early 1960s and went to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the export division. Nielsen made his first pipes when he was 16 and gave them to friends then and later at the university, and of course he continued making pipes as a hobby. Whether he knew it or not, he was bitten by the bug. Call it Pipe Makers Disorder (PMD), if you like. Bjarne was considered a likely candidate for appointment as ambassador to a foreign country, but he gave it all up to pursue his real ambition, which will come as no surprise to anyone with creative leanings was to form his own business.
Bjarne may never even have imagined turning his pastime into a career, but fate, if there is such a thing, is powerful. The freehand pipe movement was first building speed when Bjarne was at the Ministry, and he was often asked to help find foreign buyers for the style of pipe that was more popular abroad than in Denmark, where it started. Many older smokers, deeply rooted in the English tradition of the classic Dunhill style, considered the new direction outlandish, crazy and worst of all, ugly. And every source Bjarne knew had orders for such pipes up the wazoo. I’m sure he used more diplomatic words.
Then, out of the blue, again if there is such a phenomenon, Bjarne had the idea to send photos of some of his pipes to a few of those same foreign distributors. I’m sure he put it out of his mind and wasn’t watching the pot until it started to boil over with so many positive responses he had to decide whether to stay with the Ministry or pursue his innate talent. Not being the average man, fearful of taking such a huge risk – or, rather, being the typical young man he was, still full of dreams – Bjarne embarked on the journey that would make him a legend, meaning most of the world has never heard of him.
The hand-made Danish freehand in this blog has three lines of clear block nomenclature on the bottom of the shank, below the stem: BJARNE/HANDMADE/ IN DENMARK. The stem also bears a mark – a lower-case b sitting in the curl of a lower-case j.
This means Bjarne did not make the pipe himself, but instead delegated the job to one of three master carvers who were and are in business for themselves and did special work for him. They are Mogens “Johs” Johansen, Jes Phillip Vigen Jertsen (Ph. Vigen) and Tonni Nielsen. These pipes were sold by Bjarne as lower-grade pieces than those he carved and on which he ascribed his full name, in cursive script, above HANDMADE/IN DENMARK. The pipes Bjarne carved himself also bore a grade of AX or A-J. The man’s self-appraising standards were refined to the extreme. They bear no mark on the stems.
RESTORATION Three long years ago, before I learned lessons beyond count and, more than anything else, that the process never ends, I wrote a blog here called “Ben Wade and the Chamber of Horrors,” in which I recounted the restoration of a huge BW poker with cake so gnarly it took me hours to repair. As I can think of no better words to describe the terrors of uncovering layer after layer of hardened old carbon, only to reach a patch of almost perfect smoothness and then reaching spiraling new veins and lumps, I’ll give a brief quote from the BW blog.
“The ongoing task of removing all of the cake, every time I thought I achieved smoothness all around, only uncovered still more hidden holes, like microcosmic pits and craters on the moon, only black…the evil chamber walls in spots felt like the bowels of a volcano.”
But this pipe was so much worse, it took me days of concerted effort to get to the bottom of the years of iron-like cake. I am certain that had this pipe come my way three years ago, I would have been forced to set it aside in the to-do pile.
I started with my Junior Reamer, which, due perhaps to the curve of the freehand chamber, made almost not even a dent. The coarsest sandpaper I had was a small old finger-length strip of 180-grit that has stood by me for years and is most often the roughest I need to get with a chamber’s walls. A half-hour or so of that left my hand aching, my fingers burning and one of them torn open, as was the case to a much more serious degree with the BW chamber of horrors. I put the chamber ordeal on pause and decided to see how awful the shank’s airway might be. I admit my attitude sucked by then, but also that I was pleased with the relative ease of clearing the shank of grime with alcohol-dipped regular pipe cleaners. The first one took some finagling to break on through to the other side, but only four cleaners were needed for the preliminary cleaning. I girded for another go at the chamber with the following armaments.I hoped I would not have to resort to either (and certainly not both) blades, but I was going to be prepared for anything. As it turned out, the Dremel I used in the BW chamber of horrors case would have come in handy, but I had to borrow it and didn’t want to take the time. The task was longer and more arduous than I can detail in photos, but here are some time lapses – during the first day. I hope they show the bulges and veins that appeared hither and thither with each new attack. Indeed, both the pen and utility knives were needed throughout the three-day process of perfecting the chamber. Another problem I’m sure has not gone unnoticed was the rim burn that was fairly bad, but on the plateau area of a freehand presented greater than average problems. I did not want to use sand paper or even spot-soak the rim in alcohol, if black stain was under the char. After debating the options available to me with my resources at hand, I opted for an approach that may seem unusual but I knew from experience would leave any black paint intact. I submerged the entire stummel in alcohol for several minutes at most, and when I removed it I thought I had the desired result of eliminating the old stain and excess char. Scrutiny of the outer wood showed a perfect piece of briar, free of any blemishes or even a single scratch. The only other such experience I recall after alcohol-stripping a stummel was with my previous blog about a Capitello Jonico Dublin. I tried to tell myself the remaining blackness on the rim was natural or maybe left-over stain.
Other than the final sanding, which tore through the final layer of uneven cake, the time for micro-meshing had arrived. Giving the stummel a final inspection, I overrode my misgivings about the dull murkiness that pervaded most of the rim, with random rays of nice red wood making it through the gloom. I remembered a Ben Wade by Preben Holm I restored and had to re-stain the rim black, and I’ve never quite been happy with it. The whole approach to this project was to restore the freehand to a better look than it may ever have had, if I may be excused the apparent impertinence. Still, I proceeded with the micro-mesh, which only confirmed my gut instinct. Before I return to the rim, there are a few minor wrap-ups to make. First, look at the discoloration of the wood at the top of the front view above. I figured Super Fine 0000 steel wool should do the trick, and it did.Then there were the stains on the tip of the Lucite tenon and inside the button of the stem. I scraped out the difficult to reach crud from the button with a mashed end of a pipe cleaner dipped in alcohol and sanded clean the open end of the tenon with my trusty 180-grit fragment of paper.The retort went well, requiring only three Pyrex test tubes of alcohol – the first that was sucked up into the cotton stuffed in the chamber, the second coming out moderately dirty, and the third, after boiling through the pipe four times, was clear.The last step I imagined before the final wheel buffing – there would be no stain – was to fill in the congruent bj etching on the stem that had not been worn away.Unfortunately, the curl of the b is completely faded away.
I just could not see proceeding with either of the courses that presented themselves, leaving the dull, scorched earth look of the rim as it was and trying to make it shine or buying more black stain and hiding the beautiful wood I was sure was hidden. And so, I gave the rim a spot-soak in alcohol to see what lay beneath.The result was a very pale rim, but I knew that would change with another, focused full course of the micro-mesh pads. The semi-final result as I headed for the buffers was just what I wanted. I buffed the stummel with brown Tripoli and a heavy coat of Carnauba, and the stem with Carnauba.
This restore was one of the biggest surprises I’ve had in the few years I’ve been learning a few of the myriad techniques and resources available. Thinking at first it would be done overnight, three days later I knew never to underestimate the opponent each new pipe presents as. I struggled with the question of to sell or not to sell, and gave in to my P.A.D. All I have to say is, I’m glad I did, because, as the title says, this is one extraordinary freehand.