Custom-Bilt

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Courtesy Doug Valitchka

A REVIEW BY RICHARD ESSERMAN

William E. Unger, Jr., Ph.D. ("Bill") called me some time back and asked if I would be one of two people to review his book on Custombilt pipes. I said sure and waited and waited.

Finally I received the book right before the 2001 Chicagoland show. WOW! I spent a day or so reading and realized that no way I could finish. So on I went and after many days I have "finished." But no way can I say I have "really" finished this book because of the complexity and level of detail.

Why read this book? The Custombilt is a defunct pipe company. And while I have seen many Custombilts at shows, I have never collected this pipe. So the question is, why would I be interested in reading about this brand?

I knew about Bill’s passion for Custombilts and I knew the time and effort he was putting into the book. It sounded like a major historical work in progress, and it got me curious.

More importantly, the Custombilt is part of the history of pipemaking in the US. As a lover of pipes, I have a great desire to know and find out about a pipe company of any importance. For instance, the Custombilt used carving on the pipe’s surface, as did Sasieni, Comoy and long before Castello. In addition, I wanted to find out what kind of briar the company was using, pricing and so on. I also felt I could gain additional perspective about what was happening on a particular part of the pipe scene over a long period of time. The book delivered on all counts.

But actually, my real reason is simply this-I just simply love reading about pipes! It gets my blood flowing.

The Book

Courtesy Doug Valitchka

I was surprised at the length of the book-over 250 pages. This book is not your typical pipe book-it is not an "easy" read but more of a scholarly work. The focus is on substance not style; completeness is the focus. Even after all the research, many questions remain.

Being the erudite, educated person that I am, the first thing I did was look at the illustrations/pictures. I did this to get a feel for what the pipe was all about. There are tons of illustrations, including actual pipes, catalogues and schematics. By looking at the pictures, I was able to discover (much to my surprise) that a much wider variety of shapes, styles and finishes existed than I previously thought. (Interestingly, although not mentioned in the book, the Custom-Bilt Company reminds me to some degree of the Marxman Pipe Company.)

The Chapters are set up as follows:

The Pipe Companies (Various Iterations) The People (Owners, workers, etc.) The Pipes (Various Models) Appendix (with illustrations)

Custom-Bilt History

Courtesy Doug Valitchka
Courtesy Doug Valitchka
Courtesy Doug Valitchka

The book opens up with an intriguing statement that unfortunately is never fully followed up:

Before beginning this history, I need to emphasize an important fact and to ask the reader to keep it firmly. Spelling-Custom-Bilt, Custombilt, and other variations-is extremely important to the various aspects of the following discussions. It was not, however, important to many people in the company’s early days. [Emphasis mine] {Page 9}.

Perhaps the reason for this is that briar pipes were simply viewed solely as smoking instruments-even as a "longer term" disposable item (perhaps like a good pair of shoes). I would suggest that Tracy Mincer would be shocked that these pipes are being collected today.

Tracy Mincer started the original Custom-Bilt pipes it appears in 1934. Bill meticulously details the start of the Company, how it was financed, the changes in the original ownership, how the company distributed its product, the manufacturing process, certain patented items, and other interesting stuff.

Mentioned briefly in this chapter was the fact that Custom-Bilt was producing big, carved pipes using Algerian briar for production up to WW II. One important employee, Hetzer Hartsock, stated:

I can tell you something about that rough texture that Custom-Bilt had. One reason rough textured was used was not only for looks but it could hide flaws in the briar. [The process gave] A very uncontrolled cut. Then he [Tracy] would buff it out. [page 25]

Custom-Bilt pipes retailed between $5.00 and $15.00 in the 1940s. According to an ad, standard Dunhill pipes were selling for $12.00 and $13.50, Parker pipes $7.50, GBD for $6.00 and Comoy’s $7.50. Not mentioned was that special Dunhills could retail up to $100 and certain Comoy’s up to $25.

In 1946, the name was changed to Custombilt after Mincer began an association with Eugene J. Rich, Inc. There were some big changes in advertising and distribution. The slogan "AS INDIVIDUAL AS A THUMBPRINT" began at this time as well.

In the early 1950’s, Tracy Mincer developed severe financial problems that caused him to stop making the Custombilt, and he lost the name. In 1953, Leonard Rodgers bought the company and emphasized tobacco pouches and butane lighters. (However, it appears Mincer was working on his new pipe, the Doodler.) In 1968, Rodgers sold the Company to Consolidated Cigars. In the early 1970s, Wally Frank Co. bought the Custombilt trademark and began to produce their version of the pipe in 1974 or 1975. Hollco Rohr owned the Weber pipe factory, located in New Jersey, and produced the Custombilt pipes there. In 1987, the pipes were made out of the Butz-Choquin factory (France) and then Mexico until the late 1990s. Currently, the Custombilt name is owned by Tobacalera of Spain.

Bill also spends a little time debunking Rick Hacker’s version of the Custombilt line. According to Steve Frank, it appears that Carl Weber, the original owner of the Weber factory, never owned the Custombilt name as suggested by Hacker.

The Alternative History

In 1952, Mincer began a new pipe, the Doodler, that due to the holes in the bowl had to made primarily in a billiard type shape in three sizes. In the early 1950s, National Briar was turning the bowls for Mincer. Based upon the documentation, it appears that Mincer made the pipe until the mid 1960s, when National Briar Pipe Co., Inc. began making and selling the Doodler.

Mincer died in 1964. Based upon the information provided, Mincer seemed to always have money, production, distribution and other problems. Mincer was probably a terrific craftsman but a very poor businessman and administrator. To me, Mincer sounds like your typical small business entrepreneur who always knew what was right and if you disagreed¼problems. Mincer always seemed to be on the brink of going out of business, not meeting payroll and so on.

Claude Stuart purchased the Tracy Mincer Pipe Company and began making pipes using the Tracy Mincer stamp. Stuart finished nearly all the pipes produced, mostly carved and textured bowls and the occasional straight grain. Claude made the Tracy Mincer Pipe Company a moderate success. Stuart became ill and in 1990 The Tracey Mincer Pipe Company went out of business. Currently, Jim Tedesco owns the Tracy Mincer name.

The Pipes

Courtesy Doug Valitchka
Filter Box, courtesy Doug Valitchka

Most Custom-Bilt pipes that you see at a pipe show have somewhat big, chunky bowls with rough carving or gouges. It is very rare to see a completely smooth piece. In today’s market, the pipes are still considered to be on the large side but are not true giants. It should be noted that in the early days when the Custom-Bilt pipes were first being produced, these bowl sizes were considered very large and massive. The size of the average pipe was a group 3 or 4 sized Dunhill.

The first thing that Bill addresses in his chapter on pipes is the quality of the bowls in the early years. Rick Hacker, in his Rare Pipes book, suggests that Mincer bought blemished bowls from other companies and used the wood-working router to get rid of the blemishes. According to an important employee, Hetzer Hartsock, "Tracy used a very choice Algerian briar, and they were bigger blocks than what the other companies were using."

I should note that prior to WW II and then again up to the early 1960s, Algerian briar was readily available to the pipe-making houses. The Barclay Rex store, located in Manhattan, imported many bags of very large blocks of Algerian for use in the making of their in-store house brand.

As mentioned in the beginning of the book, there were many variations on the stampings of Custombilt. The book reflects various examples of the stamps and tries to relate the stamps to the production years.

Based upon the catalogue examples, the shapes offered were big chunky stubby pipes primarily in the Bulldog and/or Rhodesian, Billiard and Pot shapes. There were also slight variations on these shapes. In the ads one notes many smooth pieces as well as carved pipes. During WW II, it appears that Mincer stopped making smooth pieces and went strictly with carved pipes.

Mincer also made the occasional cased set as well and also patented a filter pipe. Filter pipes were very popular at the time and were offered by many pipe companies.

A most interesting discussion in this chapter is the discussion of Hetzer Hartsock’s carved pipes, which included a special ‘Stalin/Roosevelt’ pipe. Hartsock also did carved heads and other figures. Carved head and other such pipes were very popular at the time. One 5 pipe set of Hartsock special carvings was "valued" at $5,000. Also during the Rich era, Custombilt had a carved animal line which were relatively inexpensive at $7.50 as compared to the regular line. There were also special orders available that cost up to $500.00. One wonders what difference could have caused such a radical change in price.


American companies such as Marxman were doing similar things. One Marxman carved head actually was valued at $7,500! It seems to me that Mincer was trying to show that the Custom-Bilt company was a complete outfit capable of making the same things as some of the "big boys" of the day.

There were other variations, such as the Covertible (removable bowl), the Saddle, Military Bit stems, and others.

Convertable Flyer, courtesy Doug Valitchka

I think that many people know the Custombilt pipe made by Wally Frank at the Weber factory. These pipes were based upon the original Custom-Bilt finishes using Greek briar.

As mentioned, Tracy Mincer went his own separate way and "unveiled" the Doodler pipe in April, 1953. The Doodler is a ventilated pipe with holes and rings throughout the bowl that are used for cooling. Some pipes featured silver bands. Claude Stuart produced many different styles of Tracy Miner pipes, including freeform pipes.

Bill ends the book by writing, "It would be interesting to know how much the various pipe carvers at the various American pipe companies were aware of each other or communicated with each other (in the 1940s and 1950s) when pipe making was a booming industry in the United States." I suspect there was a lot of communication and a lot of sharing (buying) of bowls among the factories. If you look closely at certain stamps on some of the major brands of that day, they are identical.

My Own Sense of the Custom-Bilt Pipe

Geaorge Yale Letter and Custombilt Add in catolog, courtesy Doug Valitchka
Courtesy Doug Valitchka

I do not think that with the release of this book the Custom-Bilt will become a super collectible pipe. (And I do not think that this was in anyway the point of the book.) The various production values of this pipe are different than those collectable pipes made today. With the Custom-Bilt, it seems to me you are looking for the rare pieces (carvings or smooths) or early pipes that have an older stamp. Here you can get a good-smoking, high-quality piece of Algerian briar for a reasonable price. You can use this book to identify those earlier or rare pieces.

Unfortunately, for me, I know I can stop looking for a Magnum-sized early Custom-Bilt. All the pipes were made from the same sized blocks, which were not of Magnum size.

Other Comments

The sense of adventure definitely comes through as you read this book. You can see the various discoveries that Bill made over time, the twisted paths, the limitations and so on. I call it modern day archeology-pipe history-and it is very important.

Overall, this book contains a tremendous amount of information. I recognize the vast amounts of information that Bill had to go through to get the true Custom-Bilt history. But occasionally the book is disjointed and related information is in different parts of the book. I do understand the difficulty, as certain events were happening at the same time and the date of all the catalogue information and illustrations cannot be precise. In addition, none of the companies date stamped their pipes, so there is some guesswork.

My one recommendation would be to develop a genealogy chart that visually details the various iterations of the company that would include the different models made by each company. This would help one to better assimilate and organize the information.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Bill did a great job and I highly recommend it. It is a must for the serious pipe collector.

Custom-Bilt ORIGINAL

Custombilt ORIGINAL Ad

Ad copy from the Custombilt period of pipes marked ORIGINAL: "The year 1940 gave birth to a new and unique idea in pipemaking and pipe designing... The Custom-Bilt pipes. Rare large briar blocks were carefully selected for lightness and turned into big, bold shapes of exceptional balance.

Skilled hand craftsmen then carved the unique Custombilt design on those bowls deemed fully grained and distinctive. The steps of sanding and polishing followed to create a finish unmatcdhed for its feel, appearance, or luster.

HOLLCO proudly re-introduces the Custombilt Original with justifiable pride. The Custombilt Original of today is turned from rare blocks of Grecian briar and each exacting detail of yesteryear has been duplicated by our master pipe makers. No two Custombilt Original pipes are carved alike, they are "as individual as a thumbprint." All Custombilt shapes are oversized."

The following are reviews written of THE CUSTOM-BILT PIPE STORY: The reviews provide an excellent history of Custom-Bilt, but we highly recommend Bill Unger's excellent book' (see the end of the page)

These reviews originally appeared in The Pipe Collector, the official newsletter of the American Pipe Collectors Society (NASPC) and used by permission. It's a great organization--consider joining.

A REVIEW BY TONY SODERMAN

THE CUSTOM-BILT STORY: A Review By Tony Soderman

Several months ago, before I had finished my book on Custom-Bilt pips and Tracy Mincer, I asked Rich Esserman and Tony Soderman-both knowledgeable and highly respected members of the pipe community-if they would review it when it was finished. Rich’s review appeared in the last issue of the newsletter. Here is Tony’s review.-Bill Unger

When Bill first approached me about reviewing his book, I readily agreed because I was eager to learn as much as possible about Custombilt pipes. Since I have a dozen very long-shank Custombilts in my collection of American Canadians, the history of this brand was of particular interest to me. And, as a history major in college, it seemed like the natural thing to do. However, the book exceeded my highest expectations.

My interest in Custombilts began 35 years ago when, as a college student, I was a frequent visitor in the Cellini Pipe Shop (conveniently located next door to Zimmerman's Liquor Store in downtown Chicago). The proprietor, Mr. Silber, spoke of Tracy Mincer, whose unique carving process was copied by the Victory Pipe craftsman who produced Cellini Originals. Numerous Custombilts and some 30 years later, I read with interest the correspondence which appeared in The Ephemeris written by various "experts" who disagreed about the origins and demise of Tracy Mincer and his famous pipes. I did not believe that the controversy could ever be resolved, but this is one time I am happy I was wrong!

I have often pondered what it will be like for collectors in future generations when they try to date pipes which will no doubt survive our generation. A hundred years from now, after we are all long gone, our pipes will be scattered among new collectors who follow us. We have enough trouble today dating Dunhills, about which there is some agreement, but what about the other major brands? Bill Unger has provided a scholarly compilation of Custombilt literature (gleaned from corporate records, business correspondence, advertisements and interviews with various survivors), and his effort will serve as a yardstick by which similar books will be measured in the future.

Unlike some popular books which seem to reduce myths and legends to writing, thereby establishing a certain amount of credibility for the misinformation contained in those volumes, Bill Unger has provided the source and background for all of his conclusions. In many cases, complete copies of letters, legal documents and series of photographs are presented in their entirety so readers can draw their own conclusions or use the information as reference materials in the future.

The well-intentioned effort of one popular author to create comprehensive reference guides for all pipes has drawn universal criticism, suggesting that broad, all-inclusive "histories" fall short of their mark. Yet, to unknowing future generations, the material contained in such books may be relied upon because the sharp criticisms readily available today on the Internet, in

various publications, or by word-of-mouth will not be there decades from now, when unsuspecting readers look for reference materials recorded by our generation. Bill Unger has successfully avoided contributing to this wealth of misinformation.

Written in well-reasoned conversational text, the author presents a history of Custom-Bilt/Custombilt pipes approached from three different perspectives: "The Pipe Companies" (i.e., Custom-Bilt, Custombilt and Tracy Mincer); "The People" (members of the Mincer family and subsequent owners); and "The Pipes" (comparing the carving differences, stamping differences and other subtle variations). It is truly a fascinating approach, which affords the reader a variety of options. While I can read the book as an historical textbook, someone else can read it for insights into the operation of a pipe making company struggling to survive against long odds, and yet another reader can rely on it as a dating guide. (A couple of our more "famous" pipe experts should read the book as an instructional guide demonstrating the importance of factual record-keeping instead of pretty, dust-jacketed, hard-covered books valuable only for collecting the author's personalized signature on the inside cover.)

Bill Unger has the ability to mix anecdotal stories and raw facts in such a comfortable fashion that I did not readily distinguish the two. For example, on the same page that he writes about famous personalities enjoying Custombilt pipes (Paul Whiteman, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby), he also writes that the company produced 40,000 pipes in 1943 with an expectation of 80,000 pipes in 1944 (and keep in mind that those were the World War II Years ,when briar was impossible to get)!

Thanks to his close attention to detail, the author presents us with a dating guide for pipes I was certain were not datable. In four quick pages (pp. 91-94), Custom-Bilt and Custombilt pipes can be dated based on the style of the nomenclature stamping and carving subtleties.

Also covered in some detail are pipes of historical importance to the American pipe-making scene. Custombilt "look-alikes" are commonly seen by American pipe collectors. I always suspected that "Rogers Rarity" and "Moore Mark" pipes were related to Custombilts, and now my suspicions have been confirmed. On the other hand, "Shelldrake" and "Emperor" pipes are not related, despite their similarities. Then there are the famous pipes that followed Custombilts, which most American collectors do not know are direct successors, including "The Doodler" and "Tracy Mincer" pipes.

The book is rich in photographs, including workers in the factory, advertisements and many pipes. All collectors would benefit by looking at the pictures if only to see the large number of variations of collectible pipes created by Tracy Mincer and his successors. Of particular interest are the sculptured bowls created briefly, particularly those featuring animals and carved heads. Classic old Meerschaums have nothing on Custombilts. Included is a photograph of a carved Custombilt pipe depicting Joseph Stalin (smoking a pipe of course) sitting at a desk playing chess against Franklin Roosevelt, with each chess piece carved around the rim of the bowl! (Find that pipe, and a new record might be set on eBay!)

All things considered, it is a masterful book, well-conceived, well-researched and skillfully written. It is of value not only for collectors of Custombilt pipes but for all pipe smokers who would gain an insight into the efforts that go into the creation of any brand of pipes! Bill Unger is to be congratulated for a job well done.

Hopefully, pipe smokers everywhere will become acquainted with the book, and some may be stimulated to produce similar works on other major pipe brands in America and Europe. There is something of interest for every pipe smoker! Personally, I discovered that a couple of my vintage old Custombilts were not so old after all and were of relatively recent production. I also discovered that Bill Unger does not like duck hunting. (When he heard about my fishing pipe--a Custombilt sculptured bowl with a Bass on the front--he had to have it. I discovered that it looks a lot like the Tracy Mincer pipe "The Fisherman," which carried a hefty $500.00 price when new! He will never get inside my duck-hunting shack, where I keep my Custombilt with three ducks carved, one on each side!)

Enjoy the book everyone. I certainly did.

Ordering the Book

THE CUSTOM-BILT PIPE STORY, by William E. Unger, Jr., Ph.D Available from the author (order from). 263 pages, plastic spiral bound, 87 illustrations: pipe photographs and reproductions of rare ads and catalogs. Chapter One: The Companies; Chapter Two: The People; Chapter Three: The Pipes; A carefully researched history of these increasingly collectible pipes, from their beginning, with Tracy Mincer in 1929, to their last manufacture in 1998. A guide to the names and distinguishing features of the many different variations. Reviews by Richard Esserman, and Tony Soderman.

Gallery of pipes

The following examples and details will eventually be sorted into early and later version of Custom-Bilt pipes as this articles is refined.