I sat down with Dave Neeb, owner of MKELAW Pipes, an online source of fine estate pipes and a pipe carver in his own right. We talked about his pipe business, carving pipes and pipe smoking in general. I thought readers of the Briar Report would love to find out more about MKELAW Pipes and want to get to meet Dave.
Meet Dave Neeb
Dave describes himself as a recovering attorney and a happy pipe maker. After getting to know him, that is a very accurate assessment. A guy with a lot of knowledge in the business of pipes and of pipes in general, who is quick to share and connect with fellow pipe smokers.
What started his interest in pipe smoking was his dad, who was a pipe smoker himself. That was the initial spark. But it wasn’t until he got to college in the 60’s that the real interest began. When I asked him about this experience he told me his first new pipe was a Sunrise, a Comoy if his memory serves him correct. If you can imagine, he paid $3.50 for it. He recalls lusting after a GBD Pre-Historic with a Perspex stem, but he didn’t buy it because it was $18.00!
Was there something about pipes and pipe tobacco that attracted him? He told me ” I loved the taste compared to cigarettes and the variety of shapes and sizes the pipes were available in. At the time pretty much all the pipes that were available were all traditional shapes“.
While he was reminiscing I asked Dave what brings him the most joy in his life? He was quick to respond that it was his wonderful family. Especially a very patient and understanding spouse. When it comes to pipes he said it was buffing on that last coat of Carnauba wax and buffing the stem of a new pipe. One that he made himself, of course.
Love of Tradition
When it comes to pipes for himself and what he personally prefers he says it’s the traditional shapes that attract him. Not just the straight forward interpretations of those shapes but also the variations of them as well. For instance he personally likes the look of bamboo shanks. If you take a look at the pipes he has made you can see this preference come through in his work. Classically designed pipes with that clean look of traditional shapes. Although he says that even though he might like variants like the bamboo shank, they do not sell well.
I wanted to find out about Dave’s personal pipe collection. When I asked him about it he said he really didn’t have a collection in the traditional sense. He does have about 35 pipes that he keeps around. Some that he has owned for 40 years and some that are just his favorites. If it turns out that he’s just not using a pipe very much, then he will just sell it.
A Non-collection Collection
A couple of the things he looks for when deciding to keep a pipe for himself is whether it fits well with his style of pipe smoking. Dave is what you would call a “Clencher”. A diehard one at that. He is the kind of guy who swings a golf club with a pipe in his mouth! Taking that into consideration it’s no surprise that his personal pipes are all mostly straight and all light weight.
One reason he keeps the number of pipes for himself at a moderate level is because he does not dedicate pipes to a certain kind of tobacco blend. He only smokes one tobacco and he has for years. Having found that one blend that works for him, Dave gets most of his enjoyment from pipe smoking in the pipes themselves. He considers himself, and he is, first and foremost “A Pipe Guy”.
The tobacco blend that he smokes is one that he found in Uhle’s Pipe Shop in Milwaukee. A blend that he settled on a long time ago. Described as having a good taste and being mild, his wife only turns her nose up a little bit. He only smokes in his office or shop, and no other place in the house. A point he is quick to make clear.
The love of pipes eventually turned into a business. About 20 years ago he found himself with just too many pipes. Wanting to get rid of them he decided to sell them on eBay. It not only turned out to be a good way to cull his collection, but also a way to make a little money.
Once his own pipes sold he needed to find fresh estate pipes to keep the inventory up so he had something to sell. Being a successful eBay seller lasted a number of years until Dave finally decided to start a stand alone business of selling estate pipes.
The decision to leave eBay and to strike out on his own came when Dave got tired of paying the eBay fees and being on their schedule. He had to time his posts so that the auction would end on a Sunday. If customers didn’t know to look for his auctions at a certain time, they would miss them.
Another thing on his mind was pipe carving. He said that “after I retired about 15 years ago, I decided I’d like to make pipes and ended up spending a good bit of time with Lee Erck to learn how to make a pipe. I also spent shop time with Rad Davis and Brad Pohlmann of Silver Gray.
Birth of MKELAW PIPES
With that paradigm shift came the beginning of MKELAW Pipes as its own business. The name was just a natural transition from his eBay seller name. Not wanting to change it, he jokes that now he’s stuck with it. Living in Milwaukee he took the airport code MKE for the first part of the name. Since he practiced law for 48 years, he stuck the word “Law” to it. Similar to LA Law, which was a popular TV show around the time he began.
Thinking back to his time with eBaby, Dave says that “it can be a good place to buy if you are a fairly sophisticated buyer. One key is to buy from the five or six longtime pipe sellers on the platform who have a reputation to protect. Even then I don’t think that many sellers on eBay make an effort to describe any warts on the pipes they sell“. Dave pointed out that when he sells a pipe on his website, he doesn’t want there to be any surprises to the buyer.
As far as eBay goes we wrote an article on just that subject last year. If you’re interested to learn more you can read it here.
Dave has learned a lot selling pipes. Not just interacting with people but what pipe smokers are looking for. It turns out that the fairly traditional styles and shapes are also the best sellers. It’s really no surprise since pipes like that don’t remain popular generation after generation for no reason.
When looking for estate pipes to sell on his website, Dave is mostly looking for well known, quality brands that are in good condition. Since he restores all estate pipes that he sells he says “it stings when he has to spend a couple of hours removing tooth marks or refinishing/re-staining banged-up rims”.
The work does pay off in the end since all of the pipes on the MKELAW Pipes website are in excellent condition. Dave has a reputation of his own to uphold and a pipe doesn’t make it to the site until it meets his standards. The quality of the pipes he sells is a direct reflection of his business and the standards he sets for the business is a direct reflection of him.
So the retail business came first but learning to carve pipes was going on at the same time.
To be heavily involved in both estate pipe selling and pipe carving is somewhat rare. Dave says that what really appeals to him about pipe carving is the process of turning a vision into reality. “The sudden realization that what I’ve sketched on a block of wood and cut, which began as one thing is not going to work for some technical reason, the re-imagining the shape that I can get out of what I started“. He also loves “the finishing process where bare wood shows what’s really underneath. It always surprises me“.
When talking about what motivates him in his role of pipe carver, Dave says “I never make a pipe just to have something to sell. I think about shapes and wait for something to strike me as interesting and appealing, at least to myself. So many of today’s pipe makers seem to always be seeking to make something entirely different. Something that they feel is eye-catching. They may not even consider whether or not it will become a practical pipe to use”.
Dave likes to stick to the tried and true designs, it’s what people want and they have been time tested. But even though he keeps that traditional style in his designs he rarely makes the exact same shape twice.
His pipes are not only classic but beautiful. The pipes practically speak for themselves.
Words of Wisdom
Trying to learn as much as I could and get some advice our readers would appreciate I asked Dave a series of questions.
I started by asking him what he would recommend to somebody just starting out pipe smoking. He said to start out with a decent estate pipe. A brand like Savinelli or something comparable. Get an $80-$90 pipe that has been restored.
Aside form the aesthetics, what do you think people should be looking for when buying a pipe? Dave recommends “going with a recognized brand. When you are looking for a specific pipe, think about if that shape is appealing to you. What is the overall condition the pipe is in and what is the overall size and weight of the pipe. Don’t forget to consider some of the characteristics less thought about like the tobacco capacity“.
Which Pipes Smoke the Best?
One of the most surprising answers I got from Dave is when I asked him what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned concerning pipe smoking? He said “that a Savinelli or comparable brand, smokes just as well as a Dunhill or other high end brand.” I had to sit back and think about his answer. Dave didn’t say all pipes smoke the same. He was saying that once you reach a certain level in quality, things like the look, material and labor costs may be different but the way the pipes smoke are similar.
When it comes to pipe carving he told me the biggest lesson he learned was that if you screw something up, or something has come up where your original design just isn’t going to work, you can always change the shape. I’m sure that’s something all pipe carvers know about, but being a consumer, it’s not something I’ve thought about much. You think the carver has something in his mind and that’s what it’s going to look like in the end.
Finally, what is the most important lesson in running a business? Easy he says; “the customer is always right“. Then added the caveat, “almost always“.
The Future of Pipe Smoking
Simple but wise advice from a guy with decades of experience. When you talk to Dave you get the feeling that his thoughts and advice are coming from a place where all that experience means something. He carves pipes, restores them and has bought and sold more pipes than you can shake a stick at. He comes at it from a perspective that few others can.
I asked him where he thought the pipe business would be ten years from now. Again I was startled by he’s answer. Dave said “my impression is that pipe smoking is making a comeback“.
The reason the optimistic answer made me pause is because of what I’ve seen in the past several years. The direction the FDA has gone. A society where people don’t seem to mind the progression towards more restrictions and mandates. Less value on individual freedoms and the hostility people and the government have regarding tobacco. It is not only alarming but sad to those of us who enjoy it and use it responsibly.
Dave points out that a revival will not come overnight. Since he knows much more on the subject, I will have to agree with him. Why let the negative news get me down? As usual there is a lot of wisdom that Dave has to offer.
Sit back and enjoy a pipe, it’s much better for your constitution. Others might even pick up on it and want to experience the same thing for themselves. You never know, they might even pick up a pipe and understand what pipe smoking is all about.