Gert Holbek is probably the oldest Danish pipe maker - after the death of Sixten Ivarsson, - since Gert Holbek was born in 1928. He is for sure the oldest active pipemaker and he is definitely the one who has been in business for longest time. He started with Poul Rasmussen in 1953. After 1½ year and more than ten thousand pipe repairs (Holbek tells) later, he opened his own work shop and he has carved pipes ever since.
For a number of years he made about two hundred pipes per year, they were all sold through Pibe Dan, until the shop closed in 1991. Pibe Dan’s English catalogs from the 60’s would show his pipes and brought his name to both Europe, Japan and USA. In the latest years the number of pipes has gone considerably down, but he can’t really leave the challenge of a beautiful piece of briar. The few pipes he is making are almost exclusively sold in Japan, where he has had many devoted fans for many years.
Per Billhäll and Gert Holbek; Oktober 2004
In spite of his almost 50 years in pipe business he is not very known among pipe smokers and collectors in Denmark. This is probably because he has never wanted to be a part of the “pipe environment” There has never been any articles about him in the Danish pipe magazines. Only the old regular customers from Pibe Dan will nod the heads with recognition when his name is mentioned. Also he has for long periods worked primarily with industrial design and technical innovations. His sense of form and idiom can be recognized in the set of knife, fork and spoon, called Prism, that he draw together with a friend from childhood in the beginning of the 60’s. The set is still sold in large quantities all over the world. He has also taken a number of patents and he “invented” 2211 – probably the best cleaning fluid for pipes because it both dissolve the residue, it disinfects and it impregnates the smoke passage in the shank and the mouthpiece.
The pipe design of Gert Holbek is distinctly his own and has not changed much over the years. You can see in long distance that this is a Holbek Pipe. Not much tells you that he originally started with Poul Rasmussen perhaps only that many of his pipes have rather tall and slender bowls. On the other hand his very tall pipes, called chimneys, were created in collaboration with Pibe Dan. His pipes are almost ascetic (his own word). You will never find a ring, a ferrule or any decoration on a Holbek pipe. His shaping has soft, but springy lines with soft passage between bowl and shank and the edge of the bowl is mostly concave. The smooth pipes are mostly straight grain in a warm reddish- walnut finish. Perhaps the most characteristic about his pipes is that he grinds the edge of the bite slantingly.
Basics by Jakob Groth, with kind permission
by Jan Andersson 1)
On a beautiful but windy day in spring 2009, Tom Eltang and I visited the oldest now living pipemaker in Denmark, Gert Holbek, in his beautiful house in northern Zealand. Gert was born in 1928 and shortly before our visit he had celebrated his 80s birthday, but it was a very vital and energetic old gentleman, we had the pleasure to meet. He started making pipes in the beginning of the 50s, so he has more than half a century of pipe-making to look back on. However, in 2007 he decided that he had made his last pipe, as he found that his fine motor ability was not as precise as it used to. And as Gert says: “Having tried to make perfect pipes all my life, I don’t want to make something less than that.”
It is fascinating to meet a man who has been in the business of pipe-making since WW II and has experienced all the ups and downs in Danish pipe-making during all that time. I am confident that neither will Tom nor I ever forget the interesting and pleasant day we spent with Gert.
In a Danish newspaper from 1957 it was established that pipes could be works of art – but just a few of them. At that time about one million pipes a year were sold in the Kingdom of Denmark, but just 14 of those were considered good enough to take part in an exhibition arranged by the society Dansk Kunsthantværk (Danish Handicraft). The paper finds it quite odd that 8 of those 14 pipes were stamped G. Holbek, and that the creator, Gert Holbek, was making his debut at this exhibition – and that his workshop was housed in a shed for bicycles.
Growing up in the shadow of a war
Gert Holbek was the oldest of ten brothers and sisters as the son of a Master of Engineering. But his father was not only an engineer, he was also an avid pipe-smoker. In fact he was so fond of pipe-smoking that he only very unwillingly took his pipe out of his mouth - and to change his children’s nappies was not a reason for such a drastic action. “Instead he used to scatter some ashes in the nappies”, Gert says. “An expression around here is that you can get used to something from your mother’s breast milk, but I think I got my interest in pipes from another end”, he adds with a smile.
It was not an easy time when Gert grew up, and his time in school was marked by the war and that his country was occupied. When he at the age of 18 finished school, the war had come to an end, but the economy was weak and the level of unemployment extremely high. So if you wanted a job, you had to take what there was. Gert worked with a lot of things like farming, gardening and fruit-growing, he was an apprentice to a carpenter – and for a short period he was a monk! It was a great interest in literature, philosophy and religion that made him and three friends to form a monk order. However, the life as a monk came to a quick end, when the daughter of the owner of the house they rented fell in love with the abbot of their order. So Gert once more had to find a job, and for a while he was working as a handyman in the only abbey for nuns in Denmark.
From repair-man to a pipemaker of his own
Gert married, became a father and was searching for a job, preferably in a profession where he quite soon could be on his own. One day, after a long search, he noticed an advertisement for a repair-man to a workshop for pipes. The name of that workshop was “Suhrs Pibereparation” and it was run by Poul Rasmussen. Gert got the job, and even if the salary was low, it was better than nothing.
It was in 1953 Gert started to work for Poul Rasmussen, and he was to stay there for almost three years. During that time, twice a week he was cycling around to tobacconists’ in the city to collect pipes that needed to be repaired. Estimation is that during the three years with Poul Rasmussen, Gert made 3 – 5000 repairs a year. Having repaired that many pipes you really know how a good pipe should be made and treated, and you also know that a lot of pipes were neither constructed nor treated the right way. “Were you allowed to make any pipes yourself, during that time?” I asked. “Just one”, Gert says with a smile, “but I was watching how Poul did it.”
In May 1956 there were too few repairs in the workshop, and as the last hired Gert was given notice of dismissal. He borrowed some money, bought a lathe and transformed it into a ‘multi-machine’, which was to last for more than 50 years. His first workshop was in a shed for bicycles – no luxury but it worked. In the beginning it was not easy to sell the pipes and get a fair price for them, so it is not only metaphorically when Gert says that the family sometimes had to live on bread and water. A customer asked him to make a series of ‘shape-reformed-pipes’, a series created by the famous pipe-shop “Pibe-Dan” in Copenhagen. That proved to be a fortunate move, even if it did not start like that. The owner of said shop, Pibe-Dan himself, was furious when he heard about it and went to Gert’s workshop to scold at him for making cribs. But that came to nothing, when he saw Gert’s pipes. Instead he said: “I buy everything you make.” From now on Gert had a safe sale for his pipes, and not only that – as Pipe-Dan had an export catalogue his pipes became known abroad, especially in the U.S.
A man with many talents
Despite the fact that Gert Holbek has been working as a pipemaker almost since the end of WW II, he is not very well known in his own country, the exception is the faithful customers of Pibe-Dan’s. But in many other countries his name is well-known and respected and in Japan, where a lot of his pipes were sold, he is almost a legend.
The reasons that Gert is not so well known in Denmark are several. Most of the time he has stuck to himself and has not taken part in pipe club activities, exhibitions and things like that. Neither has he made many interviews, so there is very little written about him in pipe magazines and newspapers. A third reason is that he has devoted himself to a lot of other activities. He has worked as an industrial designer, and the most famous product he accomplished there was a set of fork, knife and spoon in stainless steel called “Prisme”, which he and a friend of his designed in the 60s. That set was a great success all over the world. Now it has not been produced for some time, but the production will start again in 2009. Gert has also been a teacher at schools for young designers, made several inventions and a lot more.
Not many machines
As mentioned in the introduction, Gert decided to stop making pipes in 2007. However, at our visit the workshop was still intact. I was surprised to find only one single machine there, the lathe rebuilt into a ‘multi-machine’, which Gert constructed when he started on his own in 1956. That machine has been with him during all these years and is still working perfectly. And actually that is the only machine needed, even to make pipes which are world-beaters. All pipes Gert has made are carefully documented – there are exactly 6662 pieces.
Gert has a great interest in literature and having finished with pipe-making, he can find more time for this and other interests. He is now busy writing down his memories and he is working on a book with short stories, which will soon be ready.
Today Gert is a moderate smoker, he saves his smoking for the really good moments in life. When we are sitting in the family’s summer house, situated on the highest point of the estate with a magnificent view, we feel flattered that Gert chooses to light his pipe together with us. That means that he feels like we do - this is one of the good moments in life.
From "Rökringar" No. 74; Sept. 2009, with kind permission. All rights
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