Pipe Smoke Wafts North

by Leslie Smith
The Financial Post - April 18, 1998

Toronto is home to one of the world’s premier pipe smiths. At age 65, master pipe craftsman Julius Vesz shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, he can’t keep up with the demand that comes from all over the world but has of late increased radically from the U.S.

So well do Vesz pipes sell, that stores lucky enough to get in a small shipment are routinely out of stock again within days. Retail waiting lists can grow months long because, unlike factory-made goods, the speed of Vesz’s pipe production cannot simply be stepped up. He is his one and only employee, and every pipe he makes is put together by hand in a process that involves more than a hundred steps.

As a child, Hungarian-born Vesz watched his grandfather craft pipes in the same labor-intensive way. He moved to Canada in 1957 and shortly after began to make and repair pipes, first as a sideline and then as a full-time profession. In the late 1960s, noticing that the world’s supply of dead root briar, the building block of premium pipes was rapidly becoming obsolete, he stockpiled as much as he could acquire. His last shipment arrived 18 years ago, but Vesz still claims to have a lifetime supply.

This close-grained wood is actually the burl joint or bulbous growth found between the stem and roots of the Mediterranean white heath tree. Virtually all briar pipes sold today are made from green, or fresh-cut, briar artificially aged for dryness. True dead-root briar, long since harvested into extinction, does not require any such special processes. As Vesz says, dead-root briar has been “cured by nature for hundreds of years,” and the effect is a dry, dense wood that imparts a sweet taste to the tobacco smoked in it.

In addition to his old briar “building blocks,” Vesz brings an artistry to his work that has led some of his pipes to sell in the $10,000 range, although most are more reasonably priced, starting at the $200 mark. Shaped for ideal weight and balance, the wooden bowl and shank stained and finished like fine furniture, the jet-black vulcanite or orange-yellow amber stem polished to perfection, a Vesz pipe fits naturally in the hand and sits easily in the mouth.

Many famous men have dropped by Julius Vesz’s shop at the royal York Hotel to buy a pipe or two and chat with the craftsman in his eccentrically furnished back workroom. Among them Bing Crosby, Pablo Casals, Anwar Sadat, Gerald Ford, Jack Lemmon, Danny Kaye, Sir Ralph Richardson, Zero Mostel, John Huston and Luciano Pavarotti.

But the beginner pipe smoker is welcomed there too, and Vesz himself will offer a few pointers on how to select the right pipe, how to pack and smoke it, and how to clean it on a regular basis. The customer is likely to leave satisfied, completely unaware he has just been granted an interview with one of the pipes world’s leading lights.