The cat in the red hat : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

The cat in the red hat

Easily recognizable at pipe shows wearing his pipe club’s signature red hat, Kjeld Sørensen makes the transition from economist to pipemaker

by Stephen A. Ross

kjeldA quiet man, Kjeld Sørensen wears a loud hat. The red felt derby with a black band adorned with a white silhouette of a pipe is a badge of honor worn by members of Sørensen’s pipe club, Sydsjællands Pibelaug (which roughly translates to Pipe Club of Southern Zealand), whenever they compete at slow-smoking competitions in Denmark or abroad. Noticing how easy it was to recognize fellow pipe club members at competitions, the 61-year-old Sørensen reasoned that it would be the perfect accoutrement to wear at pipe shows so that visitors could easily find him. Furthermore, adopting the name Red Hat Pipes for his business was an easy way for pipe smokers to remember him. Sørensen’s marketing idea was simple, effective and inexpensive, which isn’t a surprise considering his previous vocation as an economist.

Attending university at Aarhus, on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, an 18-year-old Sørensen befriended a pipe smoker on campus. Intrigued by the pipe clenched in his friend’s teeth, Sørensen expressed an interest in trying pipe smoking himself. His friend was more than willing to teach Sørensen how kjeld2to smoke a pipe, helping the young Dane avoid the common pitfalls most new pipe smokers experience and encouraging him to try different tobaccos. Sørensen had made a lifelong friend and adopted a lifelong hobby.

After graduation Sørensen entered the corporate world, tallying figures, creating budgets, forecasting profits and trading currencies. He spent 25 years as an economist, using some of his free time to travel with the pipe club to slow-smoking competitions and pipe shows around Europe. Working with spreadsheets and crunching numbers became more tedious the longer he did it. He yearned for an opportunity to express his creativity. Economics paid the bills, put a roof over his family’s heads and allowed him to live comfortably—it was just becoming unsatisfactory. In 2000, the company for which he worked significantly downsized, cutting approximately half of the workforce. Feeling uneasy about his future in the company and doubting that he wanted to continue in economics, Sørensen retired, choosing to spend his newfound free time playing more golf, spending more time tending the garden and trying his hand at pipemaking.

“Economics wasn’t fun anymore,” he simply states. “That was the time that I decided to try making my hobby my profession.”

Sørensen ordered a few predrilled bowls and carved them but was unhappy with the results. Then his younger brother, Sven, told him of an ad seeking a pipe repairman that he had seen in a local paper. His brother wrote down the kjeld3number, gave it to Sørensen and encouraged him to call. Scrounging up some courage, Sørensen dialed the number. Tom Eltang answered. The two arranged a time for Sørensen to travel the short distance from his home in Roskilde to Copenhagen for an interview.

“I had never met him before,” Sørensen recalls. “We talked for seven hours. I showed him a few pipes that I had made already. While I was unhappy with those pipes, Tom saw some things that showed him that I might have some potential as a pipemaker. We also found out we could do something for each other. I could help him with economics and he could help me in pipemaking.”

Imagine being an amateur painter just starting out and being accepted to learn from a master such as Michelangelo, Jackson Pollack, Salvador Dalí or Andy Warhol. That was the type of opportunity Eltang gave Sørensen.

“I was very fortunate,” he explains. “For two years I went there several times a week. Tom taught me the steps and wouldn’t let me proceed to the next step before he was satisfied with my work on the previous steps. One task he had me do was carve 30 pipes with the same shape. He watched what I was doing and told me how I could be better. When you do the same thing time after time, it becomes easier. For him it was a way to teach me how to get the feeling in my hands. And he got some pipes made. Watching him helped me progress as well. I tried to emulate how he moved his hands while he was at the sanding disc. It’s like learning a golf swing—seeing it is one thing, but doing it is something else entirely. Tom taught me the discipline required of pipemaking. He taught me that good enough wasn’t good enough. I still make my mistakes, but Tom is a very good teacher.”

After two years of apprenticeship, Sørensen felt confident enough in his ability to offer his pipes to the public. While he occasionally travels to Copenhagen to use Eltang’s sandblasting equipment, Sørensen has dedicated a small portion of the two-car garage attached to his home as a pipemaking studio.

The workshop is meticulously organized and kept very clean. Blocks of briar are arranged in plastic tubs on shelves in one area of the work space. German Ebonite rods, bits of horn and bamboo are placed together in another section of the shop. Two work benches hold a lathe, belt sander, sanding disc and a kjeld4plethora of hand files and sanding paper. A half-circle window above one of the benches lets in ample light and affords a view of Roskilde Fjord and the nearby Viking Ship Museum, home to five Viking ships that were deliberately sunk in the fjord around 1070 as a defensive measure to protect the Viking capital and were recovered from the fjord’s bottom in 1962 and put on display.

It’s a gray, rainy day in Roskilde, and it’s not hard to imagine a Viking long ship, sails billowing and oars up, beating down the fjord to return to Roskilde, which contains one of the oldest cathedrals in Scandinavia, the final resting place of many Danish monarchs.

The cleanliness and order of Sørensen’s workshop is shadowed by the way the mild-mannered man goes about pipemaking. Used to carefully scanning and double-checking figures in his previous career as an economist, Sørensen takes immense care and spends a lot of time crafting each of his pipes. He’s in no rush because his financial well-being doesn’t depend on the sale of his pipes. He estimates that he spends at least a full day to as much as two days working on each pipe, striving always to produce pipes with smooth finishes.

“I’m very keen at finding the wood that will allow me to make smooth pipes,” Sorensen explains. “I start slowly from the outside and judge the surfaces to predict how it will go to lessen the chance of having a flaw that will cause me to have to sandblast it. I can look at a block and see what parts of the wood are immediately unusable. Then I look at what’s left and consider what shape will fit into that remaining wood, and then I start to work very slowly from the outside in. There are certain rules you think of when it comes to flaws in the briar, but then briar doesn’t play by the rules. It always breaks them. The more beautiful the briar, the more flaws you’ve got to deal with, it seems.”

Read the rest of the story in Pipes and tobaccos magazine or the online digital edition.


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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Spring 2013

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