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.
I 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”.