You can’t ramble when smoking a pipe. You have to be attentive. You only say the words that need saying. You’re forced to listen, and enjoy doing so. And you consider the pauses that plague normal conversation a gift.
“It’s so good for your soul to sit down, with a pipe, in the quiet,” said Chris Hildebrand, coffee roaster for Winkler’s Other Brother Coffee Roasters and a tobacco pipe maker.
Picture tweed, professorial facial hair, a Mont Blanc pen, a tobacco pipe, and a leather-bound copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Now erase that picture, but keep the pipe, lengthen the beard, add a plaid shirt and jeans, then throw an axe into the tableaux in lieu of Pure Reason. You’re now seeing the smiling, modest man who is about to pour me some coffee he roasted and talk about how he started his tobacco-pipe business Prairie Piper.
Chris, 27, roasts beans and makes pipes in his spare time, and he does both of these things exceptionally well. So, when he said he’d have coffee ready for the 9 a.m. interview we planned for Thanksgiving Monday, I took this to mean, “If I find out you’ve sullied your taste buds with that President’s Choice Dark Roast you always buy, I will heap paralyzing amounts of shame upon you.” I wasn’t about to let that happen, and Chris didn’t say that. He’s way too nice of a guy to shame anyone.
I arrived at his Morden, Manitoba home, my brain and body functioning without coffee at simple, base levels. Why was he taking me to his small garden shed? This was unclear. He was carrying a carafe full of coffee, but we hadn’t tapped it yet and everything was difficult to process. How much time does it take caffeine to wake up a brain? I didn’t know. If longer than immediately this interview would be doomed.
That six by 10-foot (I’m guessing) building we were now sitting in was not a shed. It was his studio, each tool, machine, block of wood arranged in a way that couldn’t have been more efficient.
This tiny space was charming, and called to mind those insufferable, memeish stories of millionaire architects who convert small things into homes by using every square inch to its full potential. Only this space was better than all that noise: It was cozy, built out of need, functional, and it churns out beautiful, individually-made tobacco pipes.
It was chilly outside. He turned on the space heater and poured us each a cup of coffee. Immediately, it turns out. Caffeine wakes up the brain immediately.
“You know when you’re outside, you take a deep breath, and think, ‘tonight would be a great night for a smoke,’ he said. “That’s why I bought my first pipe; to capture some of that romanticism.”
Chris bought that pipe when he was 18, burnt his tongue on it a few times, and maintained an on-again off-again relationship with pipe smoking for the next eight years. That is, until about 13 or so months ago.
“Last year, I discovered a group of pipe makers on Instagram,” he said. “It all started as a curiosity. ’I can do that,’ I thought. I tried. I made my first pipe. It was the ugliest thing, but I was proud of it. It works. You can smoke out of it.”
Chris has made between 40 and 50 tobacco pipes from scratch since he began last September, devoting between six and eight hours to each creation. And they look incredible, each one unique and masterful.
“I’m a tinkerer,” he said. This was obvious. I was sitting on a gorgeous bench, which, it turned out, he had made. I eventually quit asking if he’d made the things I could see, knowing full well he had. “It comes naturally to me.”
Chris holds up a block of briar root. It’s roughly the size of softball. There is a bunch of these blocks sitting on his workbench. He orders them from Italy. “I usually buy from Romeo Briar. It’s how he processes it. It’s quality. No surprises.”
Briar is an unusually hard and heat-tolerant wood traditionally used to make tobacco pipes. “ You could use pine,” said Chris. “But it would taste like garbage and would burn through quickly.”
He motions for me to crouch and get close to the wood. “You have to learn how to read the grain,” he said, running his finger along the various lines and explaining the differences between fire, straight and bird’s eye grains. “You’ll want it to do different things, depending on the pipe.”
A pipe is made up of numerous parts, the most general of which are the bowl, shank, and stem. The bowl and shank are carved out of the briar block. And the stem is made separately out of vulcanite, lucite, Bakelite, or soft plastic.
The details of a stem – the lip, curve, tenon, inlays, and custom requests – have to be whittled from the large chunks such materials come in. It’s slow, mindful work. And Chris respects that it requires this of him.
“The first time I made a stem entirely by hand, I wrecked it twice. You have to slow down. It takes time,” he said. “The stem is where the craftsmanship comes in.”
It’s easy to believe him. But at this point, deep into the making of a pipe, craftsmanship is not just reserved to the stem: each step seems as demanding as the last. “Collectors will scrutinize the details and balk at imperfections.”
Once the stem is machined, filed, and done to Chris’s liking, he grabs the briar block, draws the requested or desired design on its face and starts forming it using a homemade shaping wheel mounted below his workbench at waist height.
The shank to bowl transition is very important, he maintains. “There’s a Danish style; more rounded. This is not my favourite,” said Chris, pointing to a Danish-style pipe siting near a cabinet full of tiny drawers. “I prefer the 90-degree transitions, and they are the hardest to do.”
Once it’s shaped, and the stem and shank fit together seamlessly, Chris sands, dyes, and buffs the wood until “it looks like glass. Prairie Piper began with a $60 drill press that he purchased at an auction, and a bench grinder. And his shed, then uninsulated, was heated by a pot-belly stove.
His tool collection has grown since. Though the process is still far from automated. His hands are still required. But he’s happy to have access to more finishing tools and other specialized supplies.
Chris’s portfolio is diverse. The Killerbee is an exceptional pipe, and one that stands out as such to him, as well. It incorporates the bark from the briar block he carved the bowl and shank from. It’s yellow with wild, exposed grains. And this one, like all of his pipes, sells for between $120 and $160. Chris, if anything, is about community. It was his stumble into the international pipe-making community that spurred Prairie Piper.
“In the pipe world, there’s so much focus on community. We’re always sharing stuff with each other. It’s a huge blessing,” said Chris, mentioning one of his favourite pipe makers, Chris Morgan, of Morgan Pipes in California.
It’s the raw moments, with friends, smoking pipes that keep Chris pushing forward. And the sense of community he’s felt from the international pipe-making scene he wants to build here in southern Manitoba. There’s no doubt that he will make this happen.
“I have met insurmountable challenges along the way: insufficient tools and a lack of knowledge. But I’m stubborn. I work hard at it, and now I make good pipes. I’m proud of my work.”
To purchase one of Chris Hildebrand’s pipes, visit his Prairie Piper website. It may say he’s not taking any more requests, but if you’re okay with waiting a bit, send him an email.
Toban Dyck is a writer and a farmer. Follow him @tobandyck for some occasional wit and lots of Prairie sunset shots.