Julius Vesz, World Famous Pipesmith
by Dayton H. Matlick and Chuck Stanion
Toronto Pipesmith Julius Vesz makes function his first priority in making pipes. Aesthetics are secondary.
One's workshop is ordinarily a place where the demands of creativity and workmanship override the tedious necessities of housekeeping. Think of your own shop it sits right now. Maybe an open can of wood stain balances a hardening soon-to-be-petrified paintbrush, while sawdust covers floor, table, fixtures, tools, the dog, and possibly next week's clean folded laundry; screws, nails, tools, rags, and pipe cleaners litter the entire environment with a satisfying fallout from hard use.
Now look at the photo of Julius Vesz's shop below. No, really, the photos following. Yes, the ones that look like a compressed art museum That's Vesz's shop. He works there. He makes pipes there. And it's spotless, it's free of dust, and it's packed to the ceiling with intricate objects fascinating to the eye and inspiring to the imagination.
Where your shop may display a rake and a leaf blower and a gas can, Vesz's has paintings, antique pipes, framed documents, books and tapestries; where you have a stained concrete floor, Vesz has exquisite carpeting; where you have a beat-up old bar stool, Vesz has intricately hand-carved and velvet-covered chairs.
It is disconcerting at first to see buffing wheels hanging next to rare artwork while a grinder spills briar dust into a neat pile on an otherwise immaculate carpet. But Vesz thrives in these elaborate surroundings, carving highly regarded pipes.
Originally from Hungary, Vesz's accent is as eclectic as his shopa sort of Sean Connery/Eva Gabor combination. Articulate and disarmingly candid, Vesz speaks easily and rhythmically over the classical music playing on the radio, punctuated every quarter hour by the unchanging sentiment of the carved German cuckoo clock hanging under a pair of antlers high on the wall. He holds his pipe firmly, as if cherishing its texture and gravitational force. Vesz obviously values plenty of sensory stimulation.
Just as diverse as Vesz's surroundings is his clientele. His shop is not only a museum and workshop, but a working smoke shop. Located for the past 16 years in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, the store welcomes people from all over the world who are amazed, delighted, and when they leave take with them pipes, stories, and descriptions of the shop that transport Vesz's reputation internationally.
Vesz first learned about pipe carving from his grandfather. "He carved first of all for his own pleasure," says Vesz, "for himself, rather than for profit. Then people took note of his work and he made many pipes for many different people. He was sort of making money out of it at the end he had to, he was spending more time on pipes than anything else."
Although he was only 9 years old when his grandfather died, Vesz can still picture the old man working on his pipes. "I saw my grandfather working, and young minds absorb a lot we very clearly remember some things when we are 100 years old, but we don't remember what happened yesterday." His grandfather's pipemaking had exerted its influence and made a permanent impression on the young Julius, though 14 years would pass before he realized it.
Vesz finished a three-year term with the Hungarian army in 1957, just as the Hungarian uprising was beginning. Hungary was still reconstructing itself out of the damage from World War II, but now found itself commencing a new revolution that would further weaken its resources.
"That was the Russian jurisdiction there," says Vesz, "and the first sign of the fall of communism. I never believed in the system anyway, so I saw no future there all. I figured it doesn't matter which country I emigrate to, I am going to be better of than in Hungary." Ready for a new start, the 23-year-old Vesz ventured off to Canada.
"I worked as a mechanical draftsman, but as a youngster I always wanted to do something on my own. I just couldn't conceive the idea that I would live my life working for someone else. And I saw a lot of pipe smokers here."
Memories of his grandfather began to surface, memories not only of constructing pipes, but of repairing them. "I figured to try at least fixing pipes, because my grandfather had done that too, but I didn't really know what was involved with repairing pipes at that time."
Vesz made some inquiries, did some exploring, and finally met Charlie Dollack. "He was the first man in Canada who fixed pipes; he had a little place in downtown Toronto. Charlie encouraged Vesz to pursue pipe repair, insisting that an excellent living could be made. He did not, however, offer any help or instruction, and Vesz continued independently.
"I set up a little makeshift bench at home with some primitive tools and equipment and tried to fix pipe stems." Soon he had accounts with several department stores, was making pipes, and was doing a few repairs for United Cigar Stores.
"Even part-time, I was shortly making more money than as a draftsman. Then there was a breakthrough. The man doing the pipe repairs for United Cigar Stores in Montreal died suddenly, and they were really stuck and looking for someone else. At that time they had a few hundred stores in Canada, so that was a big break for me. "
Vesz's education necessarily accelerated. "They were sending pipes for refinishing and all kinds of stuff. I didn't even know what to do with them, because I'd never done anything like that."
But Vesz had a natural talent that facilitated a growing expertise. "I was self-taught and I was getting better and better. You need two or three years to judge if you're good at something or not. If I had felt I'd only be a mediocre pipemaker, I would have given it up. But I kept improving. Even today, with 37 years experience, I still make small improvements in certain operations not that the typical pipe smoker would notice, but for myself." Like his grandfather, Vesz finds he is motivated not by profit, but by self-satisfaction and the need to approach perfection.
Any improvement in Vesz's pipes, however, must be practical. "To me the first priority in pipemaking is function. The pipe has to function. Aesthetics are secondary. Traditional British designs, like the bulldogs and zulus and apples, are most practical. These designs will live forever, like the music of Mozart. You can't design a better, more functional pipe."
It is when pipe designs leave the traditional that function suffers. Vesz finds the popularity of asymmetrically-bowled freehand pipes disturbing. "Most are different, unbelievably ugly and unfunctional pipes. Pipemakers started freehands as a way to get rid of flaws in the wood without sacrificing the block. By nature briar is full of imperfections: blemishes and flaws and cracks and holes.
"And as you work on the wood, these flaws are constantly showing up. But to get rid of the flaw, they might end up with one side of the bowl a half inch thick and the other a sixteenth of an inch thick. So the flaw would be gone, but the function of the pipe would be gone too, because the heat of the pipe always dispenses on the weak side of the bowl. So that pipe will eventually burn out on that side; it will crack. Not in every case, but I've seen hundreds and hundreds of them."
Vesz makes freehands himself, but only with consistent wood thickness around the bowl. "Unless I get a special order," he adds. "But even then I try to talk the customer out of ordering a pipe with uneven bowl thickness. And almost always, when someone insists and I make a pipe like that, I find out the customer after a while becomes unhappy with it."
The function of a pipe is simple, but requires certain minimal constraints in its use. "A pipe is a furnace," says Vesz, "yet it has to smoke cool and it has to last. Pipes are built for a lifetimeif properly smoked, under normal conditions. I mean not in a sailboat or on a golf course or even walking your dog when it's 10 below outside. The briar wouldn't stand that beating; eventually it would crack or burn up. The objective is to experience the flavor of your tobacco, like with cigars or cognac or food. So it has to be smoked in normal conditions, not where the heat builds up and ruins the flavor."
Vesz blames the crushing advance of more and more smoking regulations for making it difficult for pipe smokers to enjoy optimum smoking conditions. Smoking in the workplace is now almost universally prohibited, forcing smokers into the cold outdoors, dramatically curtailing their smoking.
Vesz grows animated, and his accent becomes brittle and clipped as he enters this subject. He worries that pipe smokers will give up.
"They are prevented from smoking in the workplace, or even any public place; we are coming to that. They will have to smoke only at home, if the concept doesn't die and to me it's in great danger. Not of total extinction, but a tremendous decline. I've seen, in the last eight or nine years, at least a 70 percent decline in pipe smoking. Young people are not picking it up. Maybe there's some spin-off from cigar smoking, but even that is now under attack. Last Friday Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs aired a story on "20-20," with doctors agreeing that cigar smoking is more dangerous than cigarette smoking because of increased smoke and carbon monoxide. And the government is falling over itself to limit smoking because of stories like that.
"In Hungary I lived under the Nazis, and then the Communists, and I was put in jail for saying communism wouldn't work. Then I came here, I built my business with good intentions, and suddenly the government declares I am in a dangerous business and they come up with regulations and bylaws, and the most devastating thing of all is the taxation on tobacco." His voice is growing louder, his words coming faster.
"A pound of tobacco is now $148! My customers can drive to Buffalo, an hour from here, and buy it for 18 bucks. Eighteen bucks, how can I stay in business like this?
Mr. Bouchard, who was Minister of Health, said "I will tax them out of smoking". This is what really frightens me; their behavior reminds me of Hungary during World War II, except here it is quietly and gentlemanly legislated into law. It is called civilized here, but the result is the same."
Vesz takes a deep breath. He leans back, shakes his head and sighs. "This is an international hotel," he says. "People come here from all over the world, and they are amazed that they can't smoke here. You can't smoke anywhere in this hotel."
"So the way I see it, I am experiencing this oppression for the third time in my life. First under the Nazis, then under the communists, and now, unbelievably, under a democracy. I could never believe it would happen again in my lifetime to experience this in a free democratic Canada is incredible."
"There are problems with this democracy. Democracy is still the best form of government in the world, but there are loopholes and obstacles that can make it infuriating. It's crazy."
Vesz even had a lawyer draft a letter for him. He enumerated his concerns over the unfair taxation of tobacco, and sent it to the Minister of Finance in Ottawa. "I reminded him that I was a Conservative party supporter, and a financial contributor. I told him that taxation was destroying my business."
An expression of disgust washes over his face. "They wrote back, told me I was a victim of circumstance. Every time governments make regulations, they said, people suffer. That's it, that's all they offered me. In other words, they told me to take a hike. They just didn't care. I'm telling you, things are just going to get worse and worse."
Although his tobacco sales have been hurt, Vesz has made up for it in an unusual sideline: miniature soldiers. Beautifully detailed miniature armies are displayed throughout the shop.
"It was just a lucky accident," Vesz says. "I ran into a fellow who wanted to try selling them through here, and I had the room. Now I'm one of the biggest distributors of military miniatures. If not for them, and if my pipes weren't doing so well, I'd be out of business."
But Vesz pipes are selling very well. They are irresistible smoking instruments because, says Vesz, "they function. They work. Function is all-important." And secondly, they sell "because the materials are the very best. Deadroot briar is the best."
Vesz has a terrific supply of excellent deadroot briar, which has been unavailable to manufacturers in quantity, he says, for about 17 years. His briar supply is part of what makes Vesz pipes so popular.
"Deadroot briar has been dead in the ground for years, where it is cured by nature, where it is hidden from insects and fire. But it just isn't obtainable anymore. The whole industry is now using green wood wood that is taken out of the ground alive. So if you've started smoking a pipe within the last 10 or 15 years, you haven't experienced deadroot briar, unless you have some old estate pipes. People are amazed when they try my deadroot pipes; they say, 'This is great. What is this?"'
Still, Vesz's supply of deadroot is not inexhaustible. Indeed, it is astonishing; that he is still working with a 17-year-old supply of briar. That reserve was an investment he made knowing that the supply would terminate.
"Every time I could put together a few thousand dollars, I would get more deadroot and warehouse it. It seemed at the time to be a better investment than anything else, and I was right." With most of his supply already fraised, however with the bowls already shaped he is now limited to about 25 styles, with some leeway for freehands. Still, he sees no real supply problem for the foreseeable future. "Supply is no problem," he repeats, "government interference is the problem."
Vesz is undeniably bitter on the subject of government regulation of tobacco. He returns to it again and again in conversation, and his voice takes on an edge of resentment and hostility each time. Frustration, unreasonable legislation, and the deleterious media publicity suffered by the tobacco industry have caused Vesz to consider giving up the business on occasion but he always remembers his love of pipemaking, and determines to stay with it until it's time to retire. And he figures he has just enough deadroot briar stockpiled. What he has is "enough to last my lifetime."
Special thanks to Chuck Stanion of Pipes & Tobacco magazine for permission to reproduce this article from the Spring 1997 issue.