Out of Shape

I am not speaking of the majority of the American population, or myself for that matter. Although, in retrospect, I could afford to deflate the spare tire a bit. I’m referring to pipe shapes in general. In my opinion, one of the most challenging parts of being new to carving is grasping the classic shapes. I think most anyone can take a block of briar, make an attempt at carving a pipe, and simply call it a freehand. Although they may often be more appropriately referred to as “mangled hands” freehand is the all encompassing definition for anything that is not inherently classic in shape and style. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with freehand shapes, and there are many amazing examples of them on the marketplace, for example the Atelier Rolando pictured above (Photo courtesy of “Briar Blues“) Although these shapes do not appeal to me personally, they are great examples of artistic originality.

Classic shapes still speckle the pipe world today, and many people would instantly point to this maker or that maker when defining the true classic Billiard, or Dublin or even Bulldog. With as many classics as you can find though, there are just as many variations of them. For example, Castello has their own interpretation of the classic Dublin, that for many is not really classic at all. That is not to say that it is not a beautifully well crafted pipe, but people might argue that it is in fact, not definable as the classic Dublin.

Dunhill BilliardI think of all classic shapes, the Billiard takes the forefront as the most traditional, and likely the most popular shape of pipe smokers. Every company and every carver has crafted this shape. Some with disastrous results in my opinion, but an attempt none the less. It is said that carving freehand, the Billiard is one of the most difficult shapes, both to maintain evenness, and proportion. This is where I have run into a problem. With so many examples of the Billiard, where do I begin when looking for the “proper” model from which to carve the shape. Subtle features like shank to bowl transition can make or break a pipe, but often, no two Billiards will share this feature exactly. I could further delve into this issue on the more technical side, but I will simply settle on voicing my frustration with the process. Part of the problem is that a pencil sketch on the side of a piece of briar just does not tell you how the shape will turn out. The process, the transitions and proportions that develop during the process are the ultimate decider on whether the shape is truly classic or a variation thereof.

I have heard the guys at my local B&M comment on how so many classic shapes have seemingly disappeared, and such makers as Charatan were the masters of these shapes. I have looked at old shape charts and seen the variety that existed, but it seems to me it is not so much that these shapes have disappeared, but the execution of these shapes has changed. The subtle classic lines and transitions have somehow become blurred over time, and what once was the definition of the shape no longer exists. I suppose this is one of the great challenges as a new carver, when venturing out into the great sea of shapes. It seems that for every Billiard I might carve that I think is classic in styling, there will be a handful of people that may disagree. I suppose that it is just one of those subjects that will never have consensus, and we may all just have to agree that the world of pipe shapes is simply “Out of Shape”.



4 thoughts on “Out of Shape

  1. Justin, I’m no expert on the old charatan and dunhill pipes. It seems to me, after looking at pipes at shows, that older pipes seemed to focus on the shape/form and the current production is focused on maximizing the grain (straight or birdseye). I think the forms have shifted to achieve that goal Course, this is just speculation.

  2. Actually, a good point Colonel, and I don’t think you are very far off base in that assessment. The question is, which is the better course, shape/form or maximizing the features of the wood?


  3. what smokes better? as long as you have the size bowl you want, and the holes are drilled in the correct place to optimize a cool even burn, does it matter too much? If you want a classic, then make it classic. If you want to accentuate the grain, then do that!

    Aesthetics are personal and subjunctive, i don’t think there is a write answer, or a better course.
    unless of course the aesthetics cause the pipe to be faulty in some way… I don’t care for a pipe that looks great but doesn’t smoke well.

    if you are selling, than make some of both.

  4. Because pipes are as much an artistic collector’s item as a smoking tool, I would have to agree with rocketrefund. Part of the magic of making a pipe by hand is discovering as you go whether it will be more valuable for the way it looks, the way it smokes, or the ultimate charm: both!

    It’s kind of like having kids, I would guess – you may plan on a dentist or a banker but end up with a roller derby queen, or vice versa. Each piece of wood is a living thing, and it will have its way with you as much as you with it. The dance of carving is a partnership between artist and subject, and so dependent on the quirks of each.

    I have seen beautiful pipes that I’m sure would have smoked horribly because of bore-to-bowl ratio/angle, and I know that some of my father’s favorite smoking pipes looked like “who did what and ran”. And then there were the lovelies who were as easy on the tongue as they were on the eyes.

    As far as the classic shapes, at least as they pertain to a present-day carver, I think I prefer pipes that call back those classic lines but have a bit of their own personality thrown in. Something in my soul fights against art with too many boundaries put on it.

    – GezerFan

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