Counting his blessings : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Counting his blessings

By Stephen A. Ross

For some folks, finding a calling in life is an easy matter. From a young age, they know exactly what they want to be when they become adults. Others figure out what they want to do with their lives after trying a succession of jobs, like sampling clothes in the fitting room of a department store, changing careers until they find the one that fits. Still others just stumble onto something they love. Perhaps they don’t have any other choice at the time, but they’re lucky enough to show some initial aptitude and then find they like it so much that they want to become better at it. Pretty soon, they’ve got a career and wake up in the morning looking forward to going to work.

Danish pipemaker Kurt Balleby certainly doesn’t fit into the first two categories. He came to pipemaking thanks to longtime family friend Kai Nielsen. Nielsen needed some help in his pipe business, and Balleby desperately needed a job after completing a prison sentence, the culmination of a troubled youth in which Balleby abused drugs, left his university education and ran afoul of the Danish legal system.

Balleby 1 web versionBalleby and Nielsen had been friends from the time they were three or four years old. Their mothers worked together at a sanitarium on the shore of nearby Kolding Fjord. Their fathers became friends courting their mothers and the friendship continued after they were married. When Balleby left prison at the age of 33 in 1983, Nielsen had just opened a pipemaking studio in Kolding and needed help around the shop. He offered Balleby a job cleaning up in the studio and drilling holes in premade mouthpieces. Balleby accepted.

“I had nothing else to do, so I said yes. It turned out to be a lifesaver,” Balleby explains 31 years later. And who would argue with him? The evidence of that significant change in his life surrounds Balleby today—a reminder of how accepting that one little job from his friend has positively affected the rest of his life.

Today, he sits comfortably in an office chair in his workshop, which he has recently updated with some brand-new equipment sitting next to the reliable old tools he’s used for more than two decades. He’s most proud of the new vacuum system—the biggest expense of the workshop remodeling that has cost him between $35,000 and $40,000 to complete. There’s not a speck of dust in the place, which in addition to the typical pipemaking equipment, such as lathes, saws, files, Dremel and sanders, also contains a laptop, a high-definition television and a stereo system, which plays Balleby favorites such as Dire Straits, Santana, Peter Frampton, Tom Petty, the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd.balleby 2 web version

The workshop is at the basement level of the beautiful two-story home that Balleby shares with his wife, Else. The home is perched on a hill overlooking a valley Kolding locals humorously refer to as Alpedalen, which translates to “The Alp Valley.” Denmark is very flat, and the highest natural point in the country, Møllehøj, is a little more than 550 feet above sea level. So, with an elevation difference of approximately 200 feet from the hill overlooking Balleby’s home to the valley below, the Danes like to say it’s their version of the Alps.

Thanks to its location on the hill, the house’s basement level is above ground on the front and two sides, and small windows provide a scenic view out onto the valley below. Balleby’s cat, Plet, basks in the uncharacteristically warm early April sun on the sill outside one of the windows. Balleby’s constant companion is his black Labrador, Niko, who lies on the floor close by. To take a break each day, Balleby and Niko take an hour-long walk from their home down into the valley where nature trails traverse the grasslands and the river that runs through it. Balleby also likes to ride his bike in the valley, averaging 12 to 15 miles per ride. A fit man with closely cropped gray hair, a beard and mustache, Balleby looks and feels much younger than his 64 years, and he jokes a little about the old Beatles song “When I’m 64.”

“I’m a very happy man now,” he explains after sharing the basics of his early life. “[The drug use] is a chapter that I’m not proud of, but I’m not afraid of talking about it because it was such a long time ago. I now have a beautiful life with my wife and our two daughters, Tina and Anna. I’m very lucky to have had a friend like Kai.”

And Nielsen was lucky to find such a hard worker in his friend Balleby. Hired to mainly clean up the messes of
pipemaking—dust, wood chips, Ebonite filings and other waste materials—Balleby also worked with drilling and shaping mouthpieces after doing his cleaning tasks.

“Kai made a lot of pipes back then, and he was using pressed mouthpieces at that time,” Balleby recalls. “I still remember the model number for the one that he used the most: 7932, a saddle mouthpiece that you could bend. I just drilled the holes through the mouthpieces, swept the shop, and in my spare time I began working on my own pipes.”

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Category: Fall 2014, Feature Article

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