Homecoming : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine


Karsten Tarp becomes a full-time pipemaker, thanks to the help of an old friend.

If you’re an American pipe smoker, there’s a good chance you might not have heard Karsten Tarp’s name before. A pipemaker for almost 40 years, Tarp is one of the best-kept secrets of European pipemakers. Part of his relative anonymity stems from Tarp’s own somewhat shy and humble demeanor. The 57-year-old Dane is clearly uncomfortable talking about himself. Yet, the biggest factor in Tarp’s obscurity has been that very few of his pipes have found their way to the United States, with almost all of his pipes being gobbled up by European and Japanese, and now Chinese, smokers and collectors. However, Americans can now become familiar with the quality and fine craftsmanship of Tarp’s work, thanks to one of Tarp’s old friends and colleagues, Kai Nielsen.

Like many young men, Tarp had little idea what career he wanted to pursue when he graduated from school, but he took a job at the Bari factory in Kolding, Denmark. Working alongside Viggo, Kai and Jorgen Nielsen, Tarp studied the craft of pipemaking and, though he didn’t know it at the time, he had found his calling.

“There’s always been a carpenter or woodworker in my family, so it sort of runs in the family,” Tarp explains. “When I started with Bari, pipemaking caught me. I fell in love with the briar and what sort of shapes I could get from it.”

After spending several years learning pipemaking at Bari, Tarp left the company and established his own pipemaking shop. However, he found it hard to be a full-time pipemaker on his own, and he sometimes had to take on other jobs to make ends meet. He tried his hand in several different fields—including as a goldsmith and working the freezer inside a meat-processing plant—but none of these occupations captured his imagination or made him eager to get out of bed every morning and head to work. Still, he was able to make pipes under his own name, and he also crafted pipes for sale in the Dan catalog.

He then took a job working for a Danish furniture company. While he spent most of his time crafting furniture, he was also given the opportunity to make pipes. The job also allowed him to tour Europe, especially Germany, which was the company’s largest market, where he put on exhibitions at shops with other artisans employed by the company. By touring Germany, Tarp established relationships with pipe smokers, which grew the demand for his pipes, and Tarp began considering establishing his own full-time pipe studio once again. Sadly, events in his life delayed his plans.

“My girlfriend was manic-depressive and she drove her car into the harbor, killing herself,” Tarp explains. “I went into a period of crisis.”

Then old friend Kai Nielsen approached Tarp. Nielsen offered Tarp a place to stay, food to eat and a corner of his workshop in which he could move on from his loss and concentrate on becoming a full-time pipemaker once again. Tarp accepted and moved to Faaborg, where Nielsen had moved several years before and established a workshop. Once he had arrived in Faaborg, Tarp established close bonds with Nielsen and other pipemakers in the area.

“I have met a lot of pipe people since moving to Faaborg,” Tarp explains. “I didn’t meet very many pipe people before. I had no contact with other pipemakers for 10 years while touring Germany. It’s a funny thing to be able to talk to other pipemakers. I have gained a lot of contacts too, so it’s been a positive. Now it’s beginning to be a career. It’s not always been that. It’s been hard work.”

One of those contacts that Tarp has made is with Steve Monjure, who distributes Kai Nielsen’s pipes in the U.S. Nielsen told Monjure of his old friend Tarp and described his work. Monjure asked Tarp to send him a few pipes and, once seeing Tarp’s work, quickly agreed to distribute Tarp’s pipes as well.

“When I received the first shipment of Karsten’s pipes I realized that what Kai and Jørgen Nielsen said about his incredible skills as a pipemaker was true,” Monjure explains. “I kept a bulldog for myself. I was so impressed by the design and smoking qualities of his pipes. Karsten is a true artist.”

Often with his black Labrador Dolph observing from nearby, Tarp crafts between 100 and 150 pipes a year now with his production going to the U.S., Germany, Russia and China. Tarp jokes that he would like to demand enough money from his pipes so that he would only have to make 100 pipes a year, but then he comments that 150 is the right number—both financially and creatively.

“Working for myself gives me the chance to work when I feel for it and not when I have to do it,” Tarp explains. “I have complete freedom, which helps my creativity. If I’m forced to do things, then the outcome is not always so pretty. In the past, when I was forced into making a pipe, I fell back into old and boring shapes because the creative ideas weren’t coming. That meant that I made ordinary pipes. I can see it when I look at some of my old pipes. There were periods when I was forced to make pipes because I needed the money, and the pipes I made during those periods weren’t so good. And then I can tell when I made a pipe during a good period. They really make me say ‘Wow, the shape is really coming along.’ And they make me excited to be a pipemaker.”

Working at Bari pipes and with the furniture company that allowed him to make pipes, Tarp typically made classic shapes with very little room to express his creative urges. However, occasionally he could work on his own and let the briar speak to him. At first, he settled for just adding creative flairs to the old classics—paneled pipes became a Tarp trademark, and he has garnered acclaim for his interpretation of bulldog pipes—and yet through the years he has developed his own unique shapes, such as the Elephant Trunk, Crown, Beret and Heart.

“The Crown was the first shape I developed on my own,” Tarp says. “I did that 30 years ago. I had a very small briar and I was thinking on how to make it look bigger because I was making very small pipes. Suddenly the idea to use the corners of the bowl to make it look bigger came to me. Then the Elephant Trunk came to me on an evening when I was sitting and drawing a little bit. I developed the Beret because the grain on a block of briar was slanted a little on one side but on the other side the grain was beautiful. To make the best use of the grain I carved the pipe so that it eventually looked like a beret. I developed the Heart as a sort of Valentine’s Day gift pipe. It’s got a heart pendant that comes with the pipe, so maybe a person might be more willing to buy it if he or she knows that his or her spouse will get something from the set as well.”

While he gets briar from several different sources, Tarp prefers Corsican because he believes it has tighter grain and he likes its tendency to have a bigger contrast between the darker and lighter patterns in the grain. However, it’s expensive, so he uses Corsican briar sparingly.

Tarp uses Ebonite, Cumberland, synthetic amber and horn for his mouthpieces, which he hand cuts.
“I don’t like acrylic because it’s too plastic,” he says. “Ebonite doesn’t look good until it’s been polished. Acrylic always shines and I don’t like that. I know that’s the opposite of what most other people say, but I like the work of shining an ebonite mouthpiece. I used a lot of Cumberland before but I prefer black mouthpieces. They’re more beautiful, I think. Black gives a nice contrast to the color of the briar.”

The color that Tarp stains the briar depends on whether the pipe has been sandblasted or retains a smooth surface. Most of Tarp’s pipes are sandblasted by his pipemaking friends Joao Reis or Svend Hangaard, who live nearby, as Tarp is still learning sandblasting. Sandblasts are almost always stained black or brown. Smooth pipes feature red, orange or brown stains.

“Finishing was the most difficult thing for me to master,” Tarp sheepishly says. “Figuring out the colors always causes me problems. I know that some of them are pretty boring, so I have room for improvement in that department. I’d also like to improve my shaping talent. I want to make new shapes and perfect my skill in proportion. I have a tendency to make longer pipes than normal. I’m thinking about it now and I’m improving in proportioning the pipes I make.”

Perhaps Tarp’s modesty leads him to be a bit too harsh on himself when judging where he has room for improvement. After all, his special model pipes, such as the Crown and the Elephant Trunk, fetch as much as nearly $1,500 for smooth finishes to approximately $750 for a sandblast. In addition to the special model pipes, Tarp grades his other pipes in a tribute to Denmark’s Viking heritage—naming each grade after a type of Viking ship.

“Drakkar is the top-of-the-line grade,” he states. “It has a good tight grain and the wood is beautiful. It doesn’t depend on the shape; it’s all about the wood. They come in periods of when I’m feeling very creative. It’s a very funny thing the way that happens.”

The next highest grade is Skudder, which Tarp says doesn’t have quite as nice a grain as Drakkar and that the shape of the pipe can bring it up to a Skudder grade.

“If it took a lot of time to shape it sometimes I will grade it up,” Tarp explains. “Not everyone can see the time it takes to make a pipe.”

The Drakkar and Skudder grades are all smooth pipes. Tarp reserves his Snigge and Batr grades for rusticated or sandblasted pipes. Exhibiting very weak grain but with a very nicely executed shape, Snigge pipes are available in smooth, rusticated and sandblasted finishes. Batr pipes are exclusively sandblasted.

Working with Kai Nielsen and with Joao Reis and Svend Hangaard, Tarp is once more among fellow pipemakers, among whom casual conversations nearly always drift toward something regarding pipes or pipemaking. Having secured an American distributor for his pipes, in addition to his already strong European and Asian presence, Tarp’s future as a full-time pipemaker may finally also be secured—which is all Tarp really wanted in the first place.
“I just want to be able to earn a living as a pipemaker,” he says and smiles. “Beyond that, I have no big plans at all.”

Karsten Tarp pipes are available wherever fine pipes are sold. Locate your nearest Tarp dealer by contacting Monjure International at 3814 Wesseck Drive, High Point, NC 27265; phone: 336-889-2390; fax: 336-889-9437; e-mail: pipadolce@aol.com; website: www.monjureinternational.com.

— Story by Stephen A. Ross

Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Summer 2011

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