The Man Who Makes Pipe Dreams

Joe Fiorito, the National Post

Julius Vesz carves pipes.European Freehand pipe

Sure, and Glen Gould played piano, Greg Clark wrote for the papers, Tom Thomson pained nice little pictures, and the view in the Rockies is not too bad.

Vesz is simply the best pipe carver in the world, but you need not take my word for it; he was honoured as such at an invitational pipe show in the US recently.

Need more proof?

He’s made hand-carved pipes for the world’s most notable smokers; Harold Wilson, Bing Crosby, Anwar Sadat, Pablo Casals, Gerald Ford, Sir Ralph Richardson, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Jack Lemmon, Tommy Hunter, Luciano Pavarotti, Zero Mostel.

Oh, and John Sewell.

Vesz works in Toronto, in the back room of a small shop on the main floor of the Royal York Hotel, just to the left of reception.

At the moment, he’s making a seven-day set; a Canadian, a pot, a calabash, a prince, a round bent, a bent billiard, and a raindrop; a seven-day set, so the buyer can change his pipes throughout the week.

The raw materials at hand are gold and silver, the saps and resins of prehistoric trees, fossilized bone and weathered dead root briar. It’s all rare and precious stuff, in short supply; in the case of the dead root briar, there is simply no more to be had. Oh, he has a small reserve, a few jute bags of gnarled blocks, enough to last him until he retires. He is, however, in the his sixties and he’s been making pipes for roughly 40 years; which is why dealers, aficionados and collectors from all over the world seek him out.

If he wanted to, he could crank up his production and make a ton of money. He won’t be rushed.

He works slowly, carefully, almost tenderly. Why make a thing of beauty in haste, when it is meant to be enjoyed at leisure?

The shop is an old-fashioned, manly retreat, furnished with brass lamps and heavy chairs; there are antlers on the wall, and rich old carpets on the floor.

As you would expect, smoking paraphernalia abounds – antique lights, ivory cigar holders, oil paintings of men with meerschaums, a hundreds of pipes whole bowls are enhanced with ornate carvings: a bulldog, a Moor’s head, an angel. The oldest and most beautiful of the pipes were made in Hungary by his grandfather, from who he draws his inspiration.

A man with a pipe is reflective, thoughtful, and almost always a reader. The master carver's library? Tobacco in Song and Story; The Pipe Smoker; The Christmas Pipe; The Story of Tobacco in America; and Alfred Dunhill’s The Gentle Art of Smoking.

As Vesz butts the seven-day set, he keeps a raindrop clenched in his teeth. It is his signature piece, a pipe of his own design, with a sharply-curved stem set up in the bowl, which allows the smoker to do close work – write a score, read a script, consider a joke or ponder the problems of the megacity – without the pipe getting in the way.

He won’t tell me who the seven-day set is for, but I know a bit about the buyer without having to be told. He’s rich – a hand-carved Vesz, fitted with a gold or silver band, and with or without a resin stem – can cost several thousands of dollars.

Not all of the master’s pieces are as expensive. Julius is a democrat; he insists on making pipes for working stiffs as well as swells. As a result, the anonymous rich smoker and I now have something in common. We both own raindrops.