Swedish two-step : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Swedish two-step

Half brothers Martin Vollmer and Anders Nilsson share passions for music and pipes

by Stephen A. Ross

In the workshop of the pipemaking team of Martin Vollmer and Anders Nilsson, one is as likely to hear scratchy recordings of 1920s and 1930s American jazz, blues and country artists as they are to hear the scream of a band saw, whirl of a lathe or grinding of a disc sander. The half brothers (the men share the same father) are as passionate about old American music as they are about making pipes. Taking breaks from pipemaking to share some coffee and dammsugare (a type of Swedish cake with the popular name “vacuum cleaner” because it is shaped to resemble a canister vacuum cleaner) with frequent visitors, the two converse intelligently on topics such as the guitar talents of Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong’s influence on American jazz as well as the staining techniques of Tom Eltang, the daring sculptural ability of Hiroyuki Tokutomi or the merits of up-and-coming pipemakers around the world.

The workshop space is divided into two rooms in the basement of a large Georgian-style building that used to house the administrative offices and living quarters of the warden for a penitentiary in Malmö, Sweden, a city of nearly 300,000 residents located across the Øresund, a strait of water that separates the Danish capital Copenhagen from Sweden. It is just a 30-minute train ride from Copenhagen’s international airport to Malmö, and the two cities are connected by the majestic Øresund Bridge, which opened in 2000.

While the building is no longer home to the prison’s warden, it is still on prison grounds. High chain-link fences topped with concertina wire and guard towers are visible behind the building, which is now rented out as living quarters to prison employees and their families.

Vollmer and Nilsson’s father, who passed away four years ago, and their

Left to right: Anders Nilsson and Martin Vollmer

mothers worked in the Swedish prison system. Vollmer’s mother continues to live in one of the apartments.

The walls of part of the workshop, where Vollmer and Nilsson entertain guests and where meetings of the Swedish Pipe Club are held, is decorated with mementos of the half brothers’ interests. Pictures of pipemakers and their works are interspersed among photos of musicians. Several guitars, which Nilsson plays, are displayed in the shop. Sitting atop the table in the center of the room are several books about pipemakers, including Jan Andersson’s excellent book Scandinavian Pipemakers, pouches and tins of various pipe tobaccos and a trophy for the Swedish slow-smoking champion.

“This is the most prestigious slow-smoking prize in Sweden because it is the only one,” jokes Vollmer, the younger of the pipemaking duo. An inquisitive man, the 43-year-old Vollmer spent much of his early adulthood pursuing an academic career in religion before turning to pipemaking. Wearing round-rimmed wire glasses, a leather vest and light brown corduroy pants, Vollmer, who enjoys playing the accordion in a folk group that regularly meets in Malmö, resembles a teacher more than a pipemaker.

“In 2011, we went to Estoril, Portugal, and we came up with the idea of creating a prize because there is no Swedish championship,” Nilsson, a former assistant in a sugar refinery laboratory, says. “In Europe it’s very different. In Chicago the show is the thing and then there is a small smoking competition. Here, the smoking competition is the important attraction and the show is second. The Swedish participant who places best in an international competition gets the trophy. We take it a little more seriously now that there is a trophy involved.”

A large man with a big moustache that curls to a point on each end, Nilsson speaks in a slow, deliberate tone, carefully measuring each word before he utters it. In his late 40s, Nilsson picked up pipe smoking around 1980, when he was still in high school. Nilsson’s preference for pipes influenced his younger half brother, who also started smoking pipes when he was in high school. Soon after, their father switched from smoking cigarillos to pipes.

Vollmer and Nilsson smoked and collected pipes together and became active in the Swedish pipe club by the late 1990s. They both were particularly interested in the classic shapes that most of the pipe shops in Malmö carried. Like many collectors, they spent a lot of time thinking about why they preferred certain pipes over others, which led them to make their first pipe in 2001.

“We both sort of grew up with a do-it-yourself attitude,” Vollmer explains. “You spend a lot of time going over what makes a good pipe when you collect them. Then there is the impulse of trying to make one by yourself. It’s very natural to us, thanks to our father. We could do it and maybe save a little bit of money too.”

They bought pre-drilled blocks from Pimo and carved pipes in their free time. They studied the pipes in their collections, looking at the fine details that made each one unique, and sought the characteristics that made some pipes smoke better than others. They ventured online to look at shapes they wanted to try to emulate.

“The classical influence is strong on us,” Nilsson states. “More so than with other pipemakers, I think. In the beginning that’s what we started to make. They’re the sort of pipes that we smoke ourselves, and we really enjoy smoking them. We spent hours poring over shape charts and websites about vintage English shapes, looking at them and trying to find out what made a shape particularly nice or why one doesn’t look quite the way it should.”

“I had a couple of pipes made by Swedish pipemakers,” Vollmer adds. “We studied them and looked at all the details, especially concerning the engineering. There was also a constant battle between making the classic shapes that we both love so much and the freehand shapes that others prefer. We think we’re rather good at making handmade classic shapes, and it’s something to see someone who is really into classic shapes and appreciates that they’re bloody hard to make.”

With each completed pipe both men discovered they enjoyed the work, but becoming full-time pipemakers was an elusive dream until 2004, when they simultaneously reached a crossroads in each of their lives and they received some constructive criticism from some friends.

“After we had made a couple of dozen pipes, we got in touch with Jan Andersson of the Swedish pipe club,” Vollmer says. “He and [pipemaker] Bengt Carlsson came and looked at our pipes and critiqued them. That was really inspirational and made us really start to take it seriously.”

Vollmer had been in school up to that point and had far surpassed the requirements necessary for teaching religion at the high school level. He was overqualified and if he wanted to teach, he would have to start studying another subject, which discouraged him.

The company for which Nilsson worked was downsizing and offering early retirement packages to volunteers. Like his half brother, Nilsson was ready to pursue a new career.

“Pipemaking was something that we really had to try,” Nilsson explains. “The timing was perfect, and if we didn’t make a go of it we knew that we would regret it for the rest of our lives. We have been very lucky from the first by meeting the right people to guide us, and members of the Swedish pipe club were instrumental in our progress.”

Andersson put Vollmer and Nilsson in touch with Per Billhall, proprietor of Scandpipes.com, who not only helped them determine prices for their pipes but also bought a few of their pipes to display at the 2004 Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers show in Richmond, Va.—the first time their pipes were presented to the public. Later in the same year, Vollmer and Nilsson attended the European Slow-Smoking Championships in Copenhagen, marking the first time they attended a pipe show as exhibitors. There they met Frank Burla, the longtime organizer of the Chicagoland International Pipe & Tobacciana Show, who convinced them to attend the 2005 show. It was Vollmer’s first time in the U.S.; Nilsson had been once before on a plant trip to Louisiana. However, attending the Chicago pipe show opened both men’s eyes.

“The Chicago show is so big and I couldn’t believe there were so many pipes in the whole world,” Vollmer speaks with an astonished expression crossing his face. “The first year we were sort of alone. We knew Per but he was incredibly busy. Our first real contact was our neighbor at the table next to us, Rick Newcombe, who was selling his book [In Search of Pipe Dreams]. By mid-day Saturday he had sold all of his books, and he went around the floor telling people to come and meet us. We had 25 or maybe 30 pipes with us that year and we sold about a dozen and were quite happy with that. It wasn’t until the third or fourth year that we sold out, and we’ve done so ever since.”

The pair has been to every Chicago pipe show since 2005. Every year they gain more friends and customers, earn more recognition and marvel at the work of their peers.

“Going to Chicago is like a family reunion because you know more people every year,” Nilsson says. “It’s wonderful camaraderie. It’s always great to meet people and we make lifelong friends. The Danish pipemakers that live an hour away from here, we see more often in Chicago. There’s a feeling of fellowship and goodwill. What really interested us were the American carvers. Every year we see a carver like Rad Davis and the journey that he has made. I think he is absolutely world-class. He is extremely good, especially with the sandblasts, and he makes pipes that are a tremendous value for the money. Is there another pipemaker in the whole world who can rival him with value for the money? I can’t think of anyone, except us, of course.”

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Winter 2013

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