What (and Why) is a ‘Freehand’ Pipe? Part One

In this article, James takes a deep dive into the concept of the ‘freehand pipe.’ This is the first of a multi-part series exploring concepts like ‘freehand’ in and outside of pipe culture and history. Where possible, illustrations are included, but the reader is encouraged, if they are not already familiar with the pipes and shapes mentioned, to use a search engine to seek out relevant images of them. For ease, these opportunities for reader research are marked by bold type.

Pipe Culture and Pipe Concepts

‘Freehand’ is a ubiquitous term in the language of modern pipe smoking. It communicates something that belongs to the shared understanding of pipe smokers, and as such, when a pipe is spoken of as being a ‘freehand,’ it is expected that all but novices will know what this means. If someone asked us to list the exact properties that make something a ‘freehand’ pipe, this would be far more difficult. But the same applies to most concepts – as community we have a common sense about the things in which we are mutually interested and in which, together, we take part. We have no reason to reflect on the ‘meaning’ of a concept so long as it does what we need it to.

Sometimes, however, concepts don’t do what we need them to. Sometimes they cause confusion or miscommunication, and sometimes they lead to contention among their users. And sometimes, when we do take the time to reflect upon them, we find that they are a lot stranger than we ever imagined. As we shall soon see, ‘freehand,’ despite being so ubiquitous, is just such a concept.

A Comoy straight bulldog…

In the pipe world, perennial examples of a kind of conceptual breakdown can be found in the ‘bulldog’ and ‘Rhodesian’ pipe shapes, or the ‘Balkan’ and ‘Scottish’ blend types. Pipe smokers will get into disagreements over whether a ‘bulldog’ must have a diamond shank to be a ‘bulldog,’ or which tobacco varietals have to be included in a ‘Scottish’ blend in order to be a true ‘Scottish’ blend. Generally, these disagreements are deemed to be of little importance in the long run. Resolving the dispute in the here and now will not have an impact on whether other pipe smokers will call their pipes ‘bulldogs’ or ‘Rhodesians’ and their blends ‘Balkans’ or ‘Scottish’, nor on whether future pipe smokers will argue about which is which (they will). But this doesn’t mean that these arguments are entirely pointless. Commissioning a ‘bulldog’ from an artisan may leave one disappointed if you believe that a bulldog must have a diamond shank and the artisan believes otherwise; and buying a new ‘Balkan’ blend may similarly disappoint if you believe that ‘Balkans’ are not simply ‘Englishes’ by another name.

and a Peterson bent Rhodesian?

That pipe smokers argue about these concepts in the first place is not simply for the sake of argument. There are reasons why these concepts continue to exist. There is a reason why the conceptual vocabulary of pipe smoking has evolved to include so many ways of differentiating Latakia mixtures – the most obvious being that differing proportions of not only Latakia tobaccos, but also Oriental varietals, perique, cavendish, and burley yield significantly distinct smoking experiences. Precisely what these proportions should be for a blend to be ‘Balkan’ or ‘American’ is not something universally agreed upon, yet the existence of such distinctions is itself more firmly grounded. Furthermore, despite our disagreements – and despite whether we think the concept of a ‘Balkan’ is useful in the first place – we can still rationalise why this concept might come to exist. And with this in mind, we can also rationalise why two people might have different conceptions of what a ‘Balkan’ is.

As may be gathered from this description, the concepts which belong to pipe smokers’ common understanding are not absolute or self-evident, and they do not appear from nowhere. Rather, they are more like unspoken ‘agreements’ within the pipe community. These agreements are not entirely democratic, but they are not totalitarian either. They’re not set in stone, but neither are they arbitrary or without any basis in the world. This means that the concepts that belong to pipe smoking possess a significant degree of malleability. This doesn’t mean that a concept can be whatever one person wants it to, but it does mean that change is possible under certain conditions. For example, the understanding of what is a ‘billiard’ today encompasses far more than would have been acceptable in the pipe factories and tobacconists of the 1940s, where the classical English and French shape charts reigned supreme. Nowadays, if one searches the Internet for ‘billiard pipes,’ one will be greeted with results that include mid-century Dunhills and Comoys positioned comfortably alongside the works of someone like Karl Erik or Adam Davidson. Certain older pipe smokers and traditionalists may disagree with this categorising practice, but that won’t stop most others from calling one of Davidson’s ‘Lorraine’ variations a ‘billiard’ (as mentioned, here I would recommend looking up the Lorraine, as I sadly do not own one and cannot supply a picture).   

But why is this the case? Why do most of us perceive the Lorraine as essentially the same as billiard, while also recognising an essential difference between the billiard and the Lovat? Because the differences between Dunhill’s 3103 (saddle) or 3203 (tapered) ‘billiard’shapes and the Lorraine matter less than the differences between the latter and Dunhill’s 3111Lovat.’ Because, according to the concept, ‘billiard,’ it is more acceptable for a pipe to have a flared stem and an uncommonly short and wide bowl than it is for a pipe to have a stummel and stem that are not approximately equal in length. Why is one set of differences more accepted than the other? That’s the right kind of question to ask, but it’s also a much harder one to answer.

It’s also worth considering just how long it took for the Lorraine to become a ‘billiard.’ The pipe community might have instantly recognised the Lorraine as a type of billiard when Davidson debuted it in 2014 – and indeed, ‘billiard’ is exactly what Smokingpipes.com called it and categorised it as when they sold iterations of the shape that same year – but this doesn’t mean that the causal process that allowed for this recognition began at that very moment. In the decades prior to the birth of the Lorraine, other pipe-makers, especially those in Denmark, had experimented both with highly unique pipe designs, and with subtle variations on classical shapes, including the billiard. If we look at the pipes of celebrated pipe-makers such as Former, Jess Chonowitsch, and the aforementioned Karl Erik, we can find plenty of examples of pipes that play with shaping conventions typically attributed to the humble billiard. Over time, and somewhat gradually, the concept of the ‘billiard’ has expanded, but without becoming vague to the point of meaninglessness.

A Karl Erik ‘billiard’ from the late 20th century (and a softy bit. Sorry!).

For now, though, let’s get back to ‘freehand,’ which is a far stranger concept than ‘Balkan’ or ‘billiard.’ Like ‘Balkan’ it is a concept that often cause confusion and debate, and like ‘billiard’ it is a concept that has changed over the years. But unlike the former, it’s a lot harder to rationalise this concept and its discontents. After all, why would people argue over the meaning of something that, by definition of the word, isn’t a fixed category? And unlike the latter, the change in meaning that ‘freehand’ has undergone has not been one of a comparatively simple expansion of meaning as new pipes recognised as ‘freehands’ have emerged.

The purpose of this article is not to say, definitively, what a ‘freehand’ pipe should be. Rather, it is an attempt to understand, using different ways of thinking about ‘freehands,’ why it is that we conceive of them in the various ways that we do, and why it is that conceiving of them in these ways often leads us into uncertainty or contradiction.

The Common Sense of ‘Freehand’

Everyone knows what a ‘freehand’ is. It is common sense, so we can use our intuition to get a preliminary idea of what it might mean. Even if we knew nothing about pipes or pipe-making, the English word, ‘freehand’ is not solely used within these contexts, so we should already have an approximation. ‘Freehand’ was a term used in the 19th century to denote drawing practices performed without the use of manual aids, and its application was soon widely expanded, especially within fine art. It is the latter that is most likely paradigmatic for our ordinary understanding. While architects and engineers also use freehand techniques for their jobs, it is the liberated imagination of the artist that we most readily associate with the labours of the ‘free’ hand. It is in the domain of art that manual aids in composition become synonymous with constraint, and their absence with broader ideas of freedom and authenticity – of being able to do something that one otherwise could not do, due to outside influences on our own singular vision.     

The early 20th century Surrealist movement experimented with the very limits of ‘freehand’ sketching, such as in this 1924 work, Automatic Drawing by Masson. Automatism was intended to produce art whose only guide was the unconscious mind. But are unconscious drives not also an ‘aid’ of sorts in a composition?

But this already sets us up with a difficulty, one regarding what exactly this freedom means when it comes to the making of pipes. Part of this is because the definition of ‘free’ in other types of freehand composition is still rooted in a specific context: ‘freehand’ drawing for the architect or the engineer is ‘free’ because it’s done without the use the precision instruments that are otherwise used in those professions. While the meaning of ‘freehand’ for the artist is much less restrictive, it is still inseparable from the activity of putting pen or pencil to page, and it is ‘free’ only from those things that would constrain this specific activity.

Furthermore, these contexts not only determine what is an illegitimate aid for true freehand sketching, but also those aids that are legitimate in the sketching process. An architect out in the field may produce freehand drawings of local buildings to plan a new development in their vicinity. Similarly, an artist may produce a freehand portrait of a model in their studio. These objects serve as visual aids to a process that would be much harder if done from memory or from photographs, but their use does not stop the artwork itself from being a ‘freehand.’ For the artist, using a model is not typically thought to make their art less ‘free,’ as freehand drawing allows them to use this model without reproducing it exactly. Even if a model isn’t present, a memory or an idea can be said to be a structuring device for the work the artist creates. But, again, this does not preclude work itself from being a ‘freehand’ drawing.

We could say, “sure, but it’s not what the drawing is of that makes it a freehand, but how advanced or specialised the technologies used to do the drawing are.” But this isn’t quite right either, because not only is the meaning of ‘freehand’ dependent on the context of a particular activity – but also on the context of a particular moment in time. Architectural and artistic ‘freehands’ can now be drawn with a stylus on an electronic tablet, for example. Using any kind of computer in freehand composition might have been considered impossible or at least disqualifying half a century ago. Today, however, artists and other professionals frequently use such technologies to compose what are accepted to be genuine ‘freehand’ drawings.   

And then there’s the other difficulty: even if we ignore the complexities of legitimate and illegitimate aids in pipe making, ‘freedom’ – at least as we in the West understand it – is by nature a negative concept, or a concept that only has negative content. Not in the sense that we think freedom is bad, but in the sense that our understanding of freedom is always freedom from something, or that to be free is to be without something, rather than meaning one way or another of doing or being something. If the freedom associated with freehands is anything of the sort, then we would not expect the latter to conform to a fixed category. In other words, we would not expect the concept of ‘freehand’ to have much in the way of positive content. A freehand drawing can be of anything, depending on the artist’s whim – this is not something we can predict in advance. The only thing we could say for certain about the freehand is that it is not not-free­, which leads us back to the definition of constraint, and therefore to the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate aids.

We can try to reason by analogy as to what a ‘freehand’ pipe should be by using the knowledge we already have about other ways that this term is used, but this will only get us so far. We can infer that a freehand pipe is different from a non-freehand because, unlike the latter, its design or production method does not rely on some form of constraint that the latter does. But we can’t say what this constraint is, because we don’t know what counts as a legitimate or an illegitimate aid in the composition of a ‘freehand’ pipe. Furthermore, we cannot use our intuition to say anything about what a ‘freehand’ might look like – or if it looks like anything particular at all. All of this is to say that the meaning of ‘freehand’ in pipes, just as in architecture, engineering, or fine art, is something that can only be understood within a context and in relation to other concepts within that context. Rather than trying to derive what a ‘freehand’ might be in principle, we will have to look at the ‘freehand’ in fact. In other words, we have to examine existing freehand pipes and try to work out what it is that makes them ‘freehands.’

An Empirical Glance at the ‘Freehand’: the Case of Nørding

But the immediate problem here is that if we choose a freehand pipe to analyse, we would simply be confirming our own preconceived notions of what a freehand pipe is. In other words, we cannot simply take a pipe – perhaps one of our own – that we consider to be a freehand and use it to draw conclusions as to what a freehand is. Without knowing, we would fall straight back onto our common sense. In order to take a properly empirical approach, we have to examine the concept ‘in the wild’; we have to look at how the concept of ‘freehand’ is used, by the people who use it. One way to do this would be to take as an example the biggest producer of self-described ‘freehand’ pipes, which presently is the Nørding company.

Nørding is a company that has been making pipes since the mid-1960s, and its founder, Erik Nørding, has been making pipes since even before then, having started with Jan Skovbo in the SON (Skovbo og Nørding) partnership. Nørding is one of the few remaining institutions that was a central part of a major event in the modern history of tobacco pipes – that being the emergence of the immensely influential ‘Danish’ style of pipe making in the second half of the 20th century. Nørding also, as stated on their website, rose to prominence as a pipe company by riding the ‘freehand wave’ of the 1960s and ‘70s. For many younger or newer pipe smokers, Nørding pipes will be their first and formative experience of freehand pipes. Even for veteran smokers, Nørding’s vast cultural and economic presence is going to exert significant influence on their conception of ‘freehand’ pipes.

A contemporary Nørding ‘Freehand.’

Today, the company produces a large range of pipes in a similarly large range of styles, with the most popular of these being the Nørding Freehand’ lines. These pipes are rugged, rustic, and – as the name suggests – eminently ‘free’ when it comes to form. We will not find these designs on any traditional shape chart. As the Nørding website states, the philosophy being the Freehand is one of ‘uniqueness’ and ‘originality.’ But at the same time, this originality and uniqueness is, paradoxically, quite uniform. In one way, it has to be, because in this instance, ‘Freehand’ is not just a pipe, but several lines of pipes, with various sizes, finishes, and gradings, situated across a range of price points. If a set of pipes is to be categorised and sub-categorised, there must be something that connects them, otherwise these categories could not function. There are completely smooth Freehands and there are Freehands that are rusticated to varying extents (there are no sandblasted pipes in Nørding’s Freehand lines). These pipes are divided into various lines; the former into stained, painted, and naked briar, and the latter into lines based on the different types of rustication used. But they are nonetheless all ‘Freehands,’ and all of Nørding’s Freehands have something in common – something more tangible and specific than uniqueness or originality. That is to say, there is a distinct style to Nørding Freehands, though it is not immediately apparent precisely what this style is, let alone why.

The shape of any Nørding Freehand, for example, appears far closer to something one would find in nature than it is to classical pipe shapes, or indeed most things made by human hands. When humans make things – especially functional objects – we tend to prefer symmetry, simplicity, and regularity in the forms these things take. Part of this is due to how practical these forms are, and part of it is due to aesthetic reasons. But what we call ‘nature,’ while being the source of certain fantastically intricate, geometrical forms (such as snowflakes or flowering plants) also produces many asymmetrical and irregular objects – at least, from our human perspective. Nørding’s Freehands look like pieces of wood. Of course, they are pieces of wood, but they look more like wood in its ‘natural’ state than the wood of a human-made chair or table. In other words, they look like something that has ‘grown’ or been worn by time, as opposed to having been ‘made’ for human needs. For some of the rusticated Freehand lines, it seems as though their designs are consciously imitating nature, such as with the Point Clear and Spruce, which strongly resemble the cones of a conifer tree. But more generally, Freehand pipes evoke nature because their appearance is one of chance rather than necessity. But at this stage we cannot say whether this appearance is a cause or an effect of the Freehand’s design and manufacture.

This appearance is worth further examination, as there do appear to be rules to its seeming-randomness. Nørding explicitly states, for example, that their Freehands are exclusively cut from plateau blocks of briar – in layman’s terms, the gnarled, outer portion of the tree heather root from which ‘briar’ pipes are made. And they are all briar – specifically tree heather briar – pipes. No strawberry wood, olivewood, and certainly no meerschaum Freehands – not from Nørding, anyway. This might seem like a bizarre thing to make note of, but it is more interesting than we might think. After all, block meerschaum pipes are quite famously hand-carved using simple tools, due to the brittle nature of the material. Yet rarely do we call them ‘freehand’ pipes. We’ll come back to this point at another time, though.

Patches of briar plateau on the rim of a Nørding Freehand.

At this point I would recommend opening a second browser window and finding images of Nørding’s contemporary Freehand lines, as there are also observable implicit ‘rules’ in these pipes that only become evident when we examine several of them together. One rule being, for example, that when briar plateau is incorporated into the design of a pipe, it is always used for the rim and never for the base. Nørding Freehands are always either smooth or partially rusticated – never sandblasted – and they are all are what could reasonably be called ‘bent’ pipes, with an ‘S’-shape roughly traceable from the top of each bowl to the tip of each mouthpiece. These are, admittedly, very basic rules, but they are nonetheless rules. Others include that the chamber diameter is always approximately 20mm and the bowl walls maintain 7-15mm thickness relative to the exterior; the bowl height stays between approximately 50 to 70mm and the diameter between 40 to 50mm; and that the shank is always flattened at its end and is similarly uniform in thickness. Therefore, the bowl is always taller than it is at any point wide. Freehand stems, while being far from ‘simple’ in the manner that a classical tapered or saddle stem is, are even more consistent. They are either flared, double-flared, or beaded just above the base or, in the case of the ‘Spigot’ variation, are both singly flared and beaded. All stems are either jet black or, for black-stained stummels, black and white. We can also observe that, while some Freehands are sitters – i.e., having a flat underside so that they may be set down without falling over – and some are not, if the pipe is a sitter, its bottom surface is angled away from that of the chamber, in the same manner as a classical ‘cherrywood’ shape.

Furrows on a floral-type Freehand widen as they run up the sides of the bowl, creating a shape whose closest classical likeness is the old French ‘fleur,’ seen in the pipes of Chacom and the Morel family.

Then there are the more subtle patterns in the design of Nørding’s Freehands. These take the form of mutually exclusive design elements that, while giving the appearance of a singular vision, instead quietly divide Freehands into common groupings. The furrow, for example, is a design element that is used frequently used on models with a smooth finish. It is one way that Freehands are differentiated from one another visually, but at the same time there are observable patterns in how the furrow is used. There are those Freehands which feature two close vertical furrows channelled into left and right sides of the briar and which continue down to meet each other on the pipe’s underside. There are others whose furrows are evenly distributed around the bowl but do not extend underneath it, instead gradually narrowing and smoothing out at the bottom. In this latter example, the furrows widen and arch at the top of the bowl, giving it a floral appearance. Then, there are those pipes whose furrows follow a steady curve, moving diagonally around the bowl to segment its outer wall. Crucially, however, there are no Freehands with furrows running horizontally around the bowl. There are Freehands that instead feature a horizonal ‘ledge’ of sorts on the bottom half of the bowl, which protrudes outwards and down, often giving the pipe a vase-like shape. But these ledges are never applied in tandem with furrows.

A single-flared Freehand stem.

We could also consider the design patterns of the various rusticated lines. Some of these lines are more internally consistent than others, but none is without consistency. The Spruce and the Point Clear, mentioned previously, are the most uniform, both in shaping and in the application of the rustication style respective to each. Both, for example, always feature an un-rusticated ‘cap’ at the top of the bowl. This cap resembles that of a calabash, but could also be said to resemble a more natural form, such as the cap of a mushroom. The cap incorporates patches of plateau, but is otherwise left smooth; it is the rest of the bowl beneath it that is rusticated. The bowl exterior of the Point Clear is carved and stained in a manner that calls to mind the scales of a conifer cone, such as those of the pine tree. The Spruce features a more traditional, horizonal line-rustication, such as one also finds, most famously, on Peterson’s Donegal Rocky line. Other rusticated Freehands are of the same basic composition as the smooth lines, but are subsequently rusticated, unlike the Spruce and Point Clear whose shaping is dictated by the rustication style used. The Seagull is a smooth Freehand that has been carved with rows of downward arcs that could be said to resemble a bird in flight; the Moss and Fantasy Freehands are spot-carved in swirling, aleatory patterns, though upon comparison one gets the impression that there is an idea of ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ rustication at work in their production, as well as a sense of how one should represent ‘randomness’ in a manner that is not so chaotic that it becomes ugly.   

Even if we knew nothing about pipes, we would likely still be able to look at a sample of Nørding’s Freehands and recognise significant similarities between them. We might think that they are representative of all freehand pipes – that this is what a freehand pipe essentially looks like. Undoubtedly – and as advertised – all Nørding Freehands are different, but there are still limits to the kinds and degrees of accepted difference between them, much like we noted earlier with the billiard, the Lorraine, and the Lovat. This might strike us as somewhat odd, however, because it would mean that the concept of ‘freehand’ not only has negative content (i.e., what it is not, or what it is without), but also has positive content in the form of a consistent style.

If we deduced that this was the case, we would still not be able to say anything about why it is that this is what, in the pipe world, ‘freehand’ has come to mean. We could guess that the rules or techniques that appear to guide the consistency of their designs are not considered illegitimate aids, meaning they are not considered constraints upon the freedom that defines a Freehand pipe as a true freehand; but we would not be able to say why it is that Nørding Freehands look the way that they do. Of course, we are also likely to wonder if certain aspects of the Freehand lines are distinctive to what Nørding’s own vision is of what a ‘freehand’ pipe is and should be. But we aren’t yet in a position to justifiably separate the Nørding Freehand from the ‘freehand’ more generally either. Answering these questions will require that we switch approaches again, something we will do in part two.

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