Lars Ivarsson, pipe maker, Gelstrup

By Richard S. Newcombe, 1996

Pipe smokers share a secret that eludes the rest of the world. We know how much fun, how much pleasure, how much unadulterated satisfaction comes from the enjoyment of relaxing with a good pipe.

It always amazes me how few people share this secret. I remember reading in an old issue of Pipe Lover's magazine that one out of five American men smoked a pipe in the late 1940s. I would be surprised if that number were any higher than one out of a hundred in the 1990s.

But the pipe smokers today include very few "drug store amateurs." The majority are connoisseurs. They have a collection of high grade pipes, and they always enjoy spending time at their local tobacconist. A growing number has discovered Nikos Levin and his incredible mailers each month. According to the Palm Beach Post, Levin sells more high grade estate pipes than anyone else in the country. And according to Nikos, sales have never been better. He says his list of clients keeps expanding each month, and he has had to hire outside help because of the growing demand for high grade pipes. I recently asked Nikos which pipes are in greatest demand at the highest price levels.

"If you're talking about over $1,000 for a single smoking pipe -- as opposed to a cased set or pipes with a lot of gold or special commemorative value -- then you're talking about an extremely rare Dunhill, a super high grade Charatan, or a pipe made by one of the master Danish or Swedish pipe makers. Those include Jess Chonowitsch, Ivarsson, Bo Nordh and S. Bang. I can sell any of those pipes immediately, at prices you wouldn't believe. My problem is finding them. There just aren't that many, and those pipe makers make very few each year. They all have big waiting lists for their pipes in Germany, Switzerland, Japan and dozens of other countries."

Nikos tells the story about the time his father, the late (and great) Barry Levin, got hold of several dozen Ivarsson pipes in an estate sale. He made one phone call to Japan and sold the entire lot for $50,000. Nikos also tells the story about how he acquired 30 Jess pipes during the past year and sold every one of them at an average price in excess of $1,000 per pipe.

Ivarsson pipes were available in the United States in the 1960s and 70s through Iwan Reiss and Co. in Chicago. Once or twice each year Stan Levy, the store's owner, visited Sixten and Lars Ivarsson in Copenhagen and bought a handful of pipes that he sold in America. It was not unusual for these pipes to be priced in the $2,500 range. By today's dollars, that would be between $5,000 and $7,500 per pipe!

I met the 90-year-old Stan at the Chicago Pipe Club show last spring, and I asked him why his store no longer sold Ivarsson pipes. He said the Japanese started offering even higher prices and he just couldn't compete.

"They would pay Sixten and Lars Ivarsson the same amount that I would charge my customers," he said.

Since then, Ivarsson pipes have simply not been available to American collectors. Of course, there is always the occasional Ivarsson pipe that might pop up at a pipe show or a garage sale, but finding them has been like looking for a needle in a haystack. Two American collectors have owned several dozen over the years: Rob Cooper, who lives in the Philadelphia area, and Ron Colter, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. There may be others as well, but they are all the exception.

Ivarsson pipes have been largely unknown to American collectors. For example, there is hardly a mention of Ivarsson in Richard Carleton Hacker's otherwise excellent work, The Ultimate Pipe Book. There is not a single mention of Ivarsson in The Pipe Smokers Ephemeris: Book I, which covers the subject of pipes from the years 1964 - 79. Also -- neither book gives credit to Jess Chonowitsch, considered by Nikos Levin and many other collectors to be the greatest pipe maker in the world today.

But in Europe, the story is totally different. The Illustrated History of the Pipe, which was written by Alexis Liebaert and Alain Maya of France, gives the Ivarssons the credit they deserve. Sixten is called the greatest pipe maker of the 20th century. And as good as Sixten was, many collectors believe that the only pipe makers to equal or even surpass his skill are Jess Chonowitsch, Bo Nordh and Sixten's son, Lars. Other collectors believe the S. Bang pipes are the best in the world. My own opinion is that all four are fantastic, and calling one better than another is highly subjective. Who was the best composer -- Mozart, Beethoven or Bach? Of course, the answer is intensely personal. But what is not open to debate is that these three composers -- just like Ivarsson, Jess, Bo Nordh and S. Bang -- were among the greatest of all time in their respective fields.

Lars makes about 70 pipes per year, and he sells them for between $1,000 and $2,000 each -- some for a little less and a few for a lot more. He brought four pipes to Los Angeles in July for the West Coast Pipe and Cigar Expo. It was Lars' first visit to the United States, and he was pleased with the results. All four pipes were sold within two hours from the time the doors were open to the public. Nikos Levin and Marty Pulvers told Lars that they can sell his pipes any time he wants to make some for them. Lars explained that he is already trying to fulfill the back orders from Japan and Europe but that he is excited to see interest in his pipes in America.

Lars is 51 (in 1996 - red.), and he started making pipes 40 years ago. As a child, he liked to hang around his father's workshop. "Once I turned 12, my allowance was cut off," he said. "I had to earn the money I got by helping with the pipes."

Lars remembers when Bo Nordh, an engineering student from Sweden, first visited Sixten and Lars in Copenhagen to study their pipe making techniques. They are still good friends today. He also remembers when Jess Chonowitsch worked in the Ivarsson workshop. The pipes are stamped with a circle that reads, "An Ivarsson Product." Many also include the year and the number made that year. For instance, 24/1970 stands for the 24th pipe made in 1970. Lars' pipes have an "L" stamped on them, while Sixten's have a sunshine.

Lars said that besides Sixten, he and Jess were the only pipe makers allowed to make pipes that were stamped "An Ivarsson Product." He remembers being in his 20s when the three pipe makers -- Sixten, Lars and Jess -- would work all day making pipes at the workshop in downtown Copenhagen. They had a storefront window, and many of the locals would wave or stop by for a chat.

The Japanese were extremely interested in the Dane's high grade pipes. They wanted to buy as many as they could, and they wanted to learn how to make them. Lars has visited Japan many times, and he and Jess have spent months at a time working with the very best Japanese pipe makers, teaching them their techniques. One Japanese pipe maker spent two weeks living at Jess' house to study how Jess made his pipes. Lars says that Tsuge's high grade pipes are among the best in the world. "They not only mastered the techniques, but they captured the spirit as well," he said.

I first met Lars in Copenhagen in August 1995. He told me that he had never been to the United States, even though he had traveled all over the world many times. His English was easy to understand. "I had to learn English early in order to negotiate on behalf of my father," he said.

So I invited Lars to stay at my house in Los Angeles if he ever decided to visit America. You can imagine my excitement, then, 11 months later when I met Lars at L.A.'s airport. He had traveled nearly 24 hours and was eager for a pipe, but otherwise in good shape.

During the next five days, we had plenty of time to talk pipes, and I learned enough to fill an encyclopedia. I met Lars at the airport on Tuesday evening, and on Friday night of the same week, we met Bonnie and Jess Chonowitsch. On Wednesday and Thursday, Lars was extremely helpful in setting up my buffing wheel, showing me how to stain pipes, and showing me how to open mouthpieces that are clogged -- which are most of them! This includes straightening out bent mouthpieces, opening them up, and bending them back into shape. On Thursday Lars, Dayton Matlock, editor and publisher of Pipes and Tobacco, and I visited Jim Benjamin in San Diego. Jim is an expert at restoring old pipes, and he thoroughly cleaned the inside of one of Lars' pipes. I noticed that Lars traveled with only three pipes. He made all three solely for his own smoking. I asked him if I could buy one of the three and he said yes, provided I could wait until just before he left for Copenhagen on the following Monday. The pipe is stamped, "An Ivarsson Product," and it also includes the word "own," signifying that it is (or was) his own pipe.

When we were in Jim Benjamin's workshop I asked Lars if he would mind smoothing out the plateau top of a large free hand pipe that had been made by another pipe maker. It was amazing to watch him work, first with a sanding wheel and then with one of his handmade knives. Jim Benjamin said he'd be afraid to work with a knife. He was speaking for Dayton and me as well. But Lars took the knife to his beard, cupped his hand under his beard, and shaved off a handful of whiskers. "As long as the knife is sharp," he said, "there will be no problem."

I asked him about the age of briar, and Lars said there is a lot of misinformation on the subject. He said that most of the time he can tell the age of the briar by looking at a pipe. The range seems to be anywhere from five years to -- at the outside -- 50 years. He said the myth of hundred-year-old briar is just that -- a myth. He said that some of the wood he works with has been stored since the 1950s, but he said that's the exception. Most of the briarwood that he uses has been stored for between one and five years. As long as it is good briar, and thoroughly dry, it does not have to be so old to have good smoking qualities. In fact, Lars said, if the briarwood is too old it becomes difficult to work with. "Picture how a totally dried out cork crumbles easily in your hand," he said.

But I asked about the books and anecdotes that speak of briar that is century old or even 200 or 300 years old?

"That's silly," he said. "It's not real. Even if you find a pipe made a hundred years ago, even though the briarwood is a century old, it won't smoke any better or worse than briarwood that is 25 years old. If you have high quality briarwood that is thoroughly dry, then it doesn't even matter if it's only 10 years old. Finding the quality wood is another story. That's the expensive part. It doesn't matter if it comes from Algeria or Corsica or Italy or Greece or wherever -- as long as it's good. It's the old story of the horse. It doesn't matter what color the horse is, as long as it rides well.

"I have been buying briar from Corsica from the same man who supplies Jess, Bo Nordh and S. Bang. Unfortunately, he recently passed away so we are in the process of finding another distributor. But we don't anticipate a problem. As long as there are people supplying the highest grade briar, and a few of us pipe makers willing to buy it, then there will be a solution.

"We also use the highest quality vulcanite, which we buy from Germany. All of our mouthpieces are hand-cut. As important as the materials are, however, the way the pipe is made is most important. A good pipe is 90 percent physics, 5 percent materials and 5 percent magic."

The "magic" that Lars referred to is a reflection of the pipe maker's passion, artistry and intuitive feel for how a particular pipe should be made. A great pipe is one that draws smoothly and stays lit easily and does not require a lot of tinkering, poking, tamping, relighting and all those other things that seem par for the course for run-of-the-mill pipes.

I want to add that I think Lars' percentages might be slightly lopsided. I say this because he invests so much money in the raw materials. He has never considered using any type of plastic, lucite or acrylic mouthpiece. He insists that the vulcanite be pure rubber, without any additives or metals whatsoever. He pays $50 for each block of Corsican briar that he uses, and he always rejects the blocks that have even the slightest defects. After factoring in the rejected wood, Lars pays more than $80 for each block that he uses.

Lars offered insights into how briar colors after repeated smoking. I told him my favorite was briar that turned a dark reddish-brown over time. He said that wood only turns red because of an initial stain of red by the pipe maker. The wood itself darkens into brown or a grayish brown color, but if the pipe were given an early stain that included some red in it, the pipe will look plum-colored over time. Without that red stain, however, it won't.

As for sandblasts, Lars brought a spectacular ring-grain to the Los Angeles show. He had just made the pipe. He does all his own sandblasting at home in a furnace he bought just for that purpose.

Lars has always preferred to live and work in the country. In fact, he and his wife recently purchased a new home on the sea that is 100 kilometers from downtown Copenhagen. He says the house needs a lot of work, which he will do himself. He plans to set up his pipe making workshop adjacent to the house. "I'm just a country boy," he likes to say.

During the West Coast Pipe and Cigar Expo, Lars and Jess answered questions at the banquet. Several times they were asked about oil-curing techniques for preparing briar. Lars said he uses a little oil on the bowl after the pipe is made, but that's it. As for drying briarwood, Lars said his secret technique is nothing more sophisticated than the calendar.

Back at my house I showed Lars and Jess several of the pipes in my collection that looked beautiful but did not smoke well. In each case, they examined the pipe in the same way that you might expect Sherlock Holmes to examine an important piece of evidence. First they turned it this way, then that way -- with the mouthpiece and then without the mouthpiece. They never hesitated to blow through the pipe to listen to how the air flow sounded. "We need to avoid having the mouthpiece sound like a clarinet," Lars said at one point. In each case, they showed me the flaw. The mistakes included air holes that went below or above the bottom of the bowl; insufficient wood left at the bottom of the bowl; off-center drilling of the air hole; an oval mortise on the shank with a round tennon on the mouthpiece; excessive vulcanite on the mouthpiece; excessive vulcanite that needed to be cleaned out of the inside of the mouthpiece; pin-sized tennons; pin-sized air holes; plastic mouthpieces that were made for gorillas, not humans; and clunky designs that were not hand-sanded and lacked aesthetic appeal. In case you're interested, these pipes included a Charatan Supreme, a Ser Jacapo Gem line, an Ingo Garbe free hand and several high-grade Dunhills!

One of the examples included a full bent pipe that was constructed so that no matter how open the mouthpiece and shank were, the pipe smoker would have to fight and tug to get any smoke. This was because the mouthpiece went straight down at the tennon while the air hole was nearly horizontal. "The structure of this pipe, which is common, is guaranteed to frustrate the smoker," Jess said. Lars added: "You would never see this on a well made pipe. Never. I'll bet you could look at a thousand S. Bang pipes and you'd never see this mistake. Not once. This is the type of basic technique, what you might call the fundamentals, that I keep stressing with Nanna."

Nanna is Lars' youngest of two daughters and the one person he regards as his logical successor in the future. She is 22 and already an experienced pipe maker. Nanna was recently accepted at a design school that rejected 488 of the 500 students who applied. She will continue making pipes under her father's guidance while studying design. She told me that she wants to use her study of design to create new shapes for pipes.

Lars has a terrific sense of humor, and each time we would find an error in the pipe he would say "Oops!" When I laughed, he explained, "this is when the pipe maker has done everything right and is feeling too relaxed and suddenly he says, 'Oops!'"

It is remarkable how many designs are considered commonplace today but were revolutionary at the time that Sixten or Lars or Jess introduced them. For instance, I mentioned to Lars that the egg is one of my favorite shapes. I asked if the Ivarssons had anything to do with it. "Yes," he replied. "My father created it."

During the 40 years in which he has made pipes, Lars has stamped a fish on 35 of them, and Jess has stamped a bird on approximately the same number. The fish and the bird are reserved for those pipes that are absolutely perfect in every respect. One of the pipes Lars sold in Los Angeles was a fish pipe. It was a free hand with a long shank. The bird's eye on both sides, and the horizontal straight grain on the front and back sides, was not to be believed, especially since the tight -- incredibly tight -- bird's eye extended the entire length of the shank.

I know some collectors will be turned off by the notion of spending $1,000 for a single pipe. But I would recommend that, if you can find one, then beg, borrow or steal (from yourself) in order to acquire one. The experience is like no other, and the pipes only get better with repeated smoking. The same goes for pipes made by Jess Chonowitsch, Bo Nordh or S. Bang. Let's say that you have 50 pipes that cost an average of $100 each, for a total investment of $5,000. I think you'd be better off selling 10 of those pipes and buying one Ivarsson, Jess, Bo Nordh or high-grade S. Bang pipe. You'd still have 41 pipes, and without a doubt the high-grade Danish would be the one most often smoked. In fact, you'd probably sell off another 10 and you'd have 30 plus one Jess and one Ivarsson pipe, or something similar.

This is the nature of the super high grade Danish pipes. Ed Lehman, an experienced Dunhill collector who is active in the Chicago Pipe Club, tried a Jess Chonowitsch pipe. He fell in love with it and bought a second Jess pipe. I asked him if they were among his favorites. "No, they are not among my favorite pipes -- they are my favorites!" he said. Another collector from Chicago tried one Jess pipe and liked it so much that she is selling dozens of her pipes to buy more.

When we were at the outdoor banquet dinner of the West Coast Pipe and Cigar Expo, I was smoking a Sixten Ivarsson pipe made in 1970. Shortly before dinner was served, I put the pipe down on the table and excused myself. I walked 50 or so yards to get to the lobby, asked directions to the men's room, went to the bathroom and washed my hands, then found the telephones and made two quick phone calls. I walked the 50 yards back to the table and sat down at my place. I was gone at least five minutes and perhaps as many as 10. I picked up the Ivarsson pipe I had been smoking, put it in my mouth and puffed. Unbelievably, it was still lit! I showed this to Lars and Jess, and Lars made a joke that it was a good way to waste tobacco. In truth, hardly any tobacco had burned -- just enough to allow the pipe to smolder. I told him this was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. Still not wanting to take any credit, they both said the outdoor breeze contributed to the pipe staying lit. No doubt, I said, but not for five to 10 minutes. Determined, I asked once more, "How can you explain this?"

Lars looked serious at first and then smiled as he answered, "I guess it stayed lit because of that final 5 percent -- what Sixten calls magic. It's the magic of knowing how to make the perfect pipe."

Copyright: Richard S. Newcombe 2002