Peter Heeschen is grateful for all that pipemaking has given to him
Danish pipemaker Peter Heeschen is a popular presence at pipe shows. He is easily approachable and enjoys talking to anyone who is near. Favorite topics of conversation for the soft-spoken Heeschen include fishing, travel and, of course, pipemaking, often over a glass of wine or a bottle of beer while enjoying a pipe. He’s easily recognizable, with his long brown and gray mustache that extends approximately an inch beyond the corners of his mouth and is sometimes twisted at the end in an almost handlebar fashion, and a loaded pipe or two stuffed into his shirt pocket to replace the pipe that is almost always clenched between his teeth.
Just as recognizable at the shows are Heeschen’s pipes. His signature “P” shape—a pipe that features a very slight bend, has a rounded bowl that is canted forward and a uniquely shaped stepped stem—can be identified across the room. Then there are the squat bulldogs, Dublins, eggs and cherry wood pipe shapes that Heeschen has also transformed into styles easily recognizable as his own.
With so many familiar shapes connected to the Heeschen name, the humble Dane’s reputation is on par with many of the world’s greatest pipemakers, whose pipes fetch thousands of dollars, yet Heeschen’s pipes rarely retail for more than $1,300. While he makes world-class pipes recognized for both their beauty and smoking qualities, Heeschen has streamlined his pipemaking techniques and mastered the art of repetition on those signature shapes so he can offer them at prices that allow more people the opportunity to enjoy his work.
“I want to keep my pipes at a certain point so that they are more accessible to as many smokers as possible,” he says inside the comfortable workshop at his farm in Holmstrup, Denmark, a few miles from the city of Odense. “I’d rather see somebody enjoy my pipes than see them sitting on a shelf. So long as I can earn a living, that’s OK.”
Heeschen doesn’t want it known just how fast he can churn out a pipe, but rest assured, if pipemaking were a speed competition, Heeschen would be a multiple world champion. Like any champion, however, Heeschen’s fast pipemaking skills come from years of practice—
mastering the skills and perfecting the shapes—and from hours of preparation, evidenced by the dozens of mouthpieces in his shop he has already cut and shaped to fit onto a block once he begins making a pipe. In fact, Heeschen’s workshop is a model of efficiency and cleanliness. It’s a workshop a person might actually consider eating in without fear of mixing his food with ample bites of sawdust or picking Ebonite from his teeth.
The workshop is located across a small cobblestone courtyard behind his farmhouse, which was built in approximately 1900. A two-tier door opens into the large and comfortable L-shaped workspace, which Heeschen has divided into two areas. To the left of the entrance is a big desk on which papers, pencils and briar blocks are strewn. Heeschen jokingly calls this section his department of design. Underneath the table is a pile of briar blocks, each block ready to have a shape sketched onto it to begin the Heeschen pipemaking process. On the walls are shelves containing dozens of tobacco tins—many of them at least eight years old. On one wall in this area is a cabinet containing pipes Heeschen has acquired throughout the years. And then there are the various souvenirs of his travels, including a prized photo of Heeschen on a boat in Hawaii proudly showing off the more than 130-pound marlin he caught on his second around-the-world journey—opportunities that have come only since Heeschen has taken up pipemaking.
“I love the freedom of being a pipemaker,” Heeschen explains. “I love the opportunity to travel too. For the Richmond show in 2009, I came to the U.S. a week before and went down to Key West, where I visited Joe’s Bar and [Ernest] Hemingway’s house. It was very interesting. I was a fan of Hemingway a long time ago. It was very interesting to hear the stories about him and see his fishing trophies. I have decided that every time I go to a show, I will have some fun in connection with that show.”
And then there was the trip that allowed Heeschen to feel a little bit like his one-time literary hero Hemingway. “There are a lot of nice people in the pipe world, and that’s what I enjoy about it,” Heeschen relates. “One year Tonni Nielsen and I were in Japan, and we laughed that we were just two small Danish rednecks who were cutting wood in a tobacco shop in Japan. Then I had to go to the Richmond show. My travel agent suggested that I could travel all around the world if I added one more destination, so I went to Hawaii. While I was there, I met a friend who is a captain of a charter fishing boat. Catching that marlin was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, and it happened to me because I am a pipemaker. The pipe world has changed quite a lot in the last 20 years. There used to be so many big pipe factories and the individual pipemakers weren’t known. Now, thanks to the Internet, the pipemakers who gained their knowledge in those factories are now able to make a living independently.”
Heeschen came to pipemaking after watching his father make a pipe in their basement workshop when he was 17 years old. He was an apprentice tool and die maker and was good with his hands, and like most teenage sons, the younger Heeschen thought he could do better than his father. He visited the W.Ø. Larsen factory and talked for a while with Hans “Former” Nielsen and then made a pipe. The result was better than what his father had accomplished, and Heeschen became a hobbyist pipemaker.
Heeschen bought a tool and die business and worked on his farm until 1980, when he decided to make pipes more professionally. He sold these pipes mainly in the German market, but marital problems and his youngest son’s heart condition prevented him from putting a full effort into pipemaking. Heeschen learned all he could about his son’s medical problems and stayed home to take care of him. Though the condition was a fatal one, the child appeared to be doing well, and a friend approached Heeschen about joining a project to help troubled youth find employment after serving prison terms. Heeschen accepted.
“That’s how I became a social worker,” Heeschen explains. “I helped former criminals rehabilitate and return to society with jobs. I tried to do it anyway. I did that about 20 years. In the beginning I enjoyed the work, but it eventually wore on me. I started idealistic to help people and then I realized that not everyone wanted the help. In that project I ended up as a leader with about 15 employees. For some reason I did not get what I wanted so I quit. A day later I had another job in social work, this time working with the biggest criminals. I stayed there eight years. At that time I was 53 and I didn’t want to be a social worker anymore, so I thought pipemaking would be interesting again.”
With his experience as a tool and die maker, he had most of the tools that he needed. The difficult part was to make the contacts necessary to sell his pipes. He traveled to all the shops in Denmark and Germany and sold a few pipes here and there. While he enjoyed visiting the shops, it meant he was spending too much time away from home. By 2000, he noticed that almost all the pipe shops he visited had websites and were selling their pipes online. He decided to get his own website.
“I was amazed at how quickly my pipes sold on my own website,” Heeschen explains. “I sold four times as many pipes. I remember the very first time I had pipes on my website. I put 14 pipes on the website and they were gone within 24 hours.”
The demand for Heeschen’s pipes grew throughout the years, and pipemaking took up more of his time. There was travel to various shows around the world and then there was the failing health of his second wife. Heeschen made the decision to spend less time making pipes. He now makes approximately 300 pipes a year, almost all of which are sold to retail shops in the United States, China, Japan and Italy.
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