From Pipes, Artisans and Trademarks, by José Manuel Lopes
Michael Victor Kabik or Michael J. Kabik, now retired artisan and pipe repairman, was born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1950. As a student he was fascinated by science, but finally turned to the arts. In the early 1970s he started working as an artisan and designer for Hollyday Pipes Ltd., and when the company closed he set up in his own right.
He created the Sven-Lar brand for Associated Imports -- many of his reputed friends followed the Danish Design then, at the height of its popularity, which accounts for the commercial choice of a Nordic sound brand name. He has also used Wenhall, also produced by Karl Erik, and Tobak Ltd. as brand names.
Then, as he says, a beetle 'burst' into his workshop and changed his life. He fell in love the study of insects, and decided to dedicate himself to environmental protection. Today he runs the firm Insect Empire, which produces artistic works based on such creatures.
Editorial note: The following autobiographic article was e-mailed to one of our contributors in context with purchasing a Sven-Lar pipe by Mike Kabik. If you hold the copyright to this article and feel this is an infringement to have it here, please contact one of the Pipedia sysop. --sethile (talk) 20:16, 19 June 2015 (CDT)
"Before I begin spouting off my history and frustration, I want to thank Jeff Loid for his support and interest these past two years following a difficult time of health problems and personal chaos. In May of 2004, I suffered a heart attack, which certainly has a way of focusing the mind on what is important—family, friends, etc.—and, for myself, setting down my own history in the pipe-making industry as an important record of craft and art in this country.
As anyone involved in the arts will tell you, there is a lot of frustration with the arts, in all categories, because much of what is determined to be relevant is determined by elite groups. My frustrations come not from not feeling that I was the “best,” whatever that means, but that I honestly cannot imagine any American pipe maker having produced and marketed more quality pipes during the “golden age” than myself. Sorry if this sounds over the top, but it is a fact, in my mind, that I cannot escape.
In the 1960's, I was working in a plastics factory in Baltimore and trading or selling sculpture I would do at night in my tiny apartment, which I shared with my future wife, Deanna. In 1971, I was approached about a job by one of my relatives, Jay Rostov. In the 1960s, I had helped Jay build Jay’s Smoke Shop and was his first employee. Since that time, he had set up one of the very first freehand pipe-making operations in the U.S. along with his partner, Chuck Holiday, called CHP-X Pipes. The staff consisted of four full-timers actually making the pipes and perhaps another four in sales and office work. Chuck, who did the actual design and carving, had long since had serious disagreements with Jay and split. Chuck’s replacement from the staff was quitting, and Jay was in a bind. Jay offered me the job, and I gladly accepted. The fellow quitting was supposed to train me for two months but left after two weeks, leaving me with an awesome responsibility. I felt as though the future employment of all these people depended on me as the designer and cutter…and it did. These were very talented people and consisted of one person to do finishing sanding, one for stem design and cutting, and another for staining and buffing. On average, we produced 150 pipes every week. A very creative bunch that was totally devoted to the craft, so much so that occasionally we were asked to forego salary until cash flow was up to snuff. We always agreed, unanimously.
At this point, I’d like to talk about what, by my definition, a freehand pipe is. This technique was pioneered, I believe, by the Danes, and the techniques we used were adapted from them. Freehand means that the block is held freely in the hands and, in our case, pressed up against a spinning wooden disk, about 10” across, with a heavy grit sandpaper, cutting usually along the edge, to achieve the shape desired. The pipe is basically sculpted as opposed to turned on a lathe, using the same principles as pottery making. There is a big difference. Try drawing a perfect circle with your hand as opposed to a compass, and I think you will get the drift. I feel strongly that this distinction is not stressed enough in the collectible trade. Pipes phrased, or machine made like a house key, are machine made. Pipes turned on a lathe should be termed handmade. Pipes cut with a carving knife should be called sculptures. Those held freely in the hand and pressed against a cutting device are freehands. Understand that I have great respect for turned pipes. It requires a different skill set and can be every bit as glorious in its final design, but a distinction should be made. It was my understanding that we acquired very generous tips from the distinguished Danish freehand pipe designer I consider the best there is: Anne Julie. She was kind enough and impressed enough with our work to visit the studio just prior to my arrival. She was generous enough to share her formula for carbon lining bowls, a formula I used throughout my career.
The CHP-X studio, though struggling, made a large enough impact on the industry to attract the attention of Savinelli Pipes, which precipitated a visit from Marco Savinelli, son of Achilles (to spy?), while I was there.
As far as the style of my designs, I think that, if you look at them, they have a distinctive profile. While I was influenced by Anne, Preben Holm, Savinelli and others, it was important for the product and me that the look was my own.
Sadly, CHP-X closed its doors two years after my arrival, due primarily to distribution, sales force problems, and other issues to which I was not privy.
In love with a medium that satisfied my creative impulses while, pretty much, paying the bills, I bought up the essential equipment and produced pipes on my own. I did this from a farm house my wife and I rented in Phoenix, Maryland. I produced pipes under the name KANE, Gran Hill and others I can’t remember as well as a private label line for a store in, I believe, South Dakota.
In 1973, I was approached by Mel Baker, the owner of a chain in Virginia Beach called Tobak Ltd. Mel was interested in producing a freehand pipe line and was alerted to my product by Al Saxon, one of his managers and a former CHP-X employee. Mel wanted to relocate me to Virginia Beach, give me carte blanche, and recreate the CHP-X studio with, of course, a new name for the product. I’m sure my answer came very quickly.
We decided on the name Sven-Lar. Why ? Well, when I bought out CHP-X, I also got a small drawer full of metal stamps that were created for private-label work. The Sven-Lar name was conceived but never realized. Aside from having the stamp already made, there were other reasons we chose Sven-Lar. First, we were making a line of pipes in the Danish freehand tradition and also, sadly, we knew the difficulty American pipe makers had breaking the foreign market mystique barrier. The latter certainly played a big part in the demise of CHP-X.
The first year I had assembled a crew of three full-timers working out of fairly cramped quarters. By the second year, Mel had built a large warehouse with a lot of extra space for our studio. I had found pipe heaven.
Things picked-up considerably with the acquisition of one of the biggest distributors in the United States, Associated Imports, and the distributor for GBD pipes. Associated was owned and beautifully managed by the late, great Hy Rosenstein, someone to whom I’m eternally grateful for his support over the years.
During this time, I had developed new techniques for staining that greatly improved the finish from the CHP-X days, but, more importantly, I had created the pipe set. Originally conceived at CHP-X, the set was never fully realized or perfected. Understand that, because each freehand is different, the hole that held the pipe had to be cut for each individual pipe by hand! Each pipe base came with a freehand tamper, a padded bottom and a cushioned, or flocked, hole. Double sets were set in large Greek briar plateau blocks but sometimes we joined two smaller blocks with epoxy and a piece of black styrene plastic as an insert.
I’m sure that many people would like to know about grading. Let me say first that we never filled the pipes. The CHP-X motto was, “The only fill in a CHP-X is fine tobacco,” and I never wavered from this position. Several criteria were used when grading, with the most important being grain. Grain should be tight, uniform, well defined, and vertical to the bowl. Next, flaws, their number, size and type being what you look for, with none being the goal. Finally, design and the execution as relates to the design and the overall look of the pipe. Form always follows function in this craft. Pipes were graded with a lettering system, with “A” being the least expensive and, I think, starting at $35 with Sven-Lar. Pipe sets would be stamped, for example, 2BS, with the 2 denoting the number of pipes in the set, the “B” the grade of the pipes (in this case, I believe, $45each) and the “S” for set.
Demand grew so much that, for the first time, I had to consider hiring another “cutter” or designer to handle the demand. I was very fortunate to obtain a young man named Glen Hedelson on a Navy work program for those about to finish their stint. Glen and I became fast friends, and he learned quickly. He brought fresh ideas to the design work and devoted himself to learning the craft. Some of my best memories are of bass fishing with Glen in the Dismal Swamp of South Carolina on weekends and occasionally camping out. Glen very quickly became one of the freshest and best pipe cutter / designers in the world. So tight was our relationship that I insisted that the pipes Glen cut have his name stamped on them.
With Glen’s help, we improved pipe production to 200 pipes per week along with perhaps 20 sets, nearly double the CHP-X pipe production. When I look back, the aspect of my career I take the most pride in is that I was able to make substantial improvements in output while improving the quality of the finished product. I never wanted to make a pipe that didn’t look or smoke great at a price only folks in six figures could afford.
After a few years, Tobak’s vision, in my opinion, got too broad, and Mel brought in a father and son from New York to set up a machine-made line of pipes. I was very upset with the move and saw trouble down the line. After a lot of soul searching, I decided to leave, and I’m very happy to say that my new partner, Glen, came with me. We moved back to Maryland to a farm house in Glen Rock and converted an old chicken slaughtering shed into our studio. Fond memories.
Tobak contracted us to continue making Sven-Lar freehands. This lasted about a year and a half before, as I had sadly foreseen, Tobak closed up the pipe-making facility. Shortly thereafter, Wenhall Pipes out of New York approached us to create a line of freehands called Wenhall. Glen and I got a bank loan and set up a studio of 2000 square feet in a fairly new industrial park in Bel Air, Maryland. Wenhall initially wanted 500 pipes a week! Glen and I had doubts that they could move that much product and told them we would produce 250 pipes per week. Happily, some of the old crew from Sven-Lar joined us at Vajra Briar Works (don’t ask me to explain the name), and we rather quickly met production demands. During this time, Wenhall requested that we create a line of pipes consisting of, I think, 12 different shapes. The line was called the Presidential, and, while we repeated the same 12 shapes for this series, each one was freehand cut. Although we came up with interesting designs, I was never really happy with the line or the concept, but, by this time, we had nine people on full-time payroll. We were a very happy family, and I wanted to keep it together.
Our stint with Wenhall lasted a couple years, at which time they asked us to join them in a move to Miami, Florida. Glen and I by this time felt very uncomfortable with the owners of Wenhall and decided that we would rather close shop than make the move. Time proved our decision very wise, as Wenhall folded shortly after the move. Sadly, Glen and I had to close Vajra, but we scaled down to the two of us and moved the operation to another farm house Glen was currently living in. By this time, tobacco pipes had suffered greatly due to the anti-smoking campaigns and the huge rise in popularity of cigar smoking. Glen went back to school and became a damned fine high school science teacher in Bel Air. As for me, I managed to keep earning a living making pipes, in large part due to the return of Associated Imports as a distributor. I also re-acquired the Sven-Lar name from Mel Baker at Tobak Ltd.
Associated stuck with me as long as they could, but the market by this time had all but evaporated. Pipe repair and selling pipes, mostly to local shops in Baltimore, kept me alive for many years. I stopped making pipes around 1989-90.
I’m very proud of the contributions I and all the people that worked in my studios made over the years. I must add that I’m more than a little disappointed at the mentions, or lack of mentions, I and Glen have received in publications in this field. There are, in my opinion, a select group of people who have taken over the histories and have estimated historic values to pipe makers based largely on their own self-interests and acquaintances. I think I can say, at the risk of sounding full of myself, that no other pipe maker in the U.S. produced or sold as many quality freehand pipes as I have during my career. If you can name one, please do.
During my run, I made over 50,000 pipes as well as a few for folks like Governor Marvin Mandel of Maryland, President Gerald Ford (a two-pipe set), and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, as well as for movie celebrities and other persons of note. But the folks who really mattered were the pipe lovers at large who appreciated and enjoyed my creations over the years. So, thank you, from the very bottom of my heart, for your support . I also have to thank my ex-wife of 24 years, Deanna, for her support and for sticking through all the ups and downs and craziness that comes from being married to an artist. Also, loving thanks to my two great kids (23 and 33 years old!), Gabe and Sidra, who are by far my best creations.
- You may also enjoy listening to Brian Levine's interview with Michael on the Pipes Magazine Radio Show