Dan Chlebove keeps on truckin’ : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Dan Chlebove keeps on truckin’

The man making Gabrieli pipes says tenacity is a very sharp tool indeed

by William C. Nelson

What on earth ever gave Dan Chlebove the notion that he could earn a living as an artist? The carver making all those gorgeous Gabrieli pipes that have devotees beating a path to his door is in fact a blue-collar, working-class, unpretentious laborer who can charm you (or alarm you) with stories of setbacks and hard luck to inspire the most harrowing country song. Chlebove makes no bones about it: Finding his way into the echelons of celebrated pipemakers was a bloody, stinking fight.

Dan Chlebove

Dan Chlebove

But he’s not bitter. There’s a twinkle in Chlebove’s eye these days, and it’s easy to see why. He is finding that life is not quite so much an infliction anymore. Even interesting times are a jolly adventure for the artisan who can seize a generous measure of success. It helps a lot that Chlebove is still celebrating a fairly new job as pipe merchant with a sterling hometown employer, Pipes and Cigars (P&C) of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (He started work there on Jan. 7, 2015.) But making a name for himself independently in the rarefied stratum of artisan pipemakers was a triumph that might never have come, for a thousand different reasons, if Chlebove hadn’t proved himself the very stuff of perseverance. Today the pipe smoking world is populated with Gabrieli pipes numbering more than 500—they keep on coming, and selling—and his new day job is a great blessing to him. But Chlebove’s journey from union factory worker to pipe professional took a great many turns and arduous jogs. Even he finds the whole story improbable.

Born in 1953 and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Dan Chlebove joined the labor force immediately after graduating from Salisbury High School, landing a union job at GAF making vinyl flooring. But his first love was cooking—a conspicuous sign that he harbored a creative streak. Chlebove always applied himself to learning the arts of haute cuisine. So after a decade on the GAF shop floor, when his union job went away he made the jump to the kitchen. “I was a professional chef for nearly 30 years,” he says. In fact, Chlebove met his current wife, Terry, a pastry chef, while working in food preparation. “Soups and sauces were my creative forte, but businesswise, for 18 years I ran catering operations and white tablecloth-type restaurants.” His last cooking job saw him rise to executive chef at a college in New Jersey, which involved a lot of brutal commutes. Around the year 2000 he had finally had enough. “I was driving a lot, I had an infant son, and my wife had come with three kids as well. I knew my time was better spent at home than traveling.” Chlebove says after quitting as a chef he spent almost a year battling depression, not knowing where next to turn, before he found work as a manager at a Bethlehem Wal-Mart. “But the whole time,” he says, “through it all, I was making pipes on the side. I was always trying to make that work for me somehow.”

Chlebove’s life as a chef had been frenetic—crowded with colorful characters but unrelentingly stressful. His “other” life, as a pipemaker, which developed slowly in parallel in whatever spare time he could claim at home, was downright lonesome. His earliest efforts to “make dust with briar” predated the internet, and back then information and mentoring dan2were hard to come by, as any pipe craftsman of a certain age can attest. Chlebove sponged up knowledge wherever and however he could. “I read the PIMO book. I still have that book around here somewhere,” he says, glancing around a living room cluttered with books and pipes and mementos of a family life lived fully. (The 62-year-old, with seven children, already finds himself a great-grandfather.) “I used to get Barry Levin’s mailers. And there was a cat from Texas, and I got his mailers.” Chlebove says he started to acquire a certain sense of style from the pipe names of greatest interest to him back in the beginning—“mostly Castello and Radice in those days,” he offers. “I smoked larger pipes, and I liked that style of pipe. So that’s where I was taking my direction.” He also became familiar with Mark Tinsky’s work. “Back when Mark was just planning his move to Colorado, I had wanted to go up and spend some time in the Poconos with him, but that never did happen,” he says, establishing a theme of barely missed connections that would go on haunting his story. So Chlebove’s pipe art ambled along as he experimented with various techniques by trial and error, selling a few pieces here and there, all the while toiling to keep regular paychecks coming into the household however best a working man could.

“I am a lifelong pipe smoker, and I’d long been a collector, but I can remember the year my pipemaking really got going,” says Chlebove. “It was 1998. I remember it because my wife was pregnant with our son Gabriel.” (He is the Gabrieli pipe brand’s namesake.) “It was a difficult pregnancy for Terry, and I needed something to distract me, something to occupy my time. I needed a hobby to help me dissipate stress.” This was also around the time Pipes and tobaccos sponsored an amateur pipe carvers contest. Chlebove says he had been “messing around” with pipemaking for a while, “so I said, let me give this a shot. I entered, I think, two pieces, and I did all right,” he remembers. “They thanked me and my pictures got in the magazine, and I was entertained with that. But the thing is, that experience really gave me the bug. I just never stopped making pipes after that.”

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Category: Feature Article, Summer 2016

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