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Elbert Gubbels & Zonen’s Royal Dutch Pipe Factory makes pipes that are fit for royalty.
Stephen A. Ross
Big Ben—the 316-foot-high clock tower that soars above Great Britain’s Houses of Parliament—has become one of London’s most recognizable landmarks. The bell’s deep, sonorous tone, marking the passing of time since construction on the tower was completed in 1859, has been a reassuring presence to Londoners through two world wars and other crises. Hearing the bell, a person squares his shoulders, straightens his back and stiffens his lip, ready to encounter all that the world can throw at him. In short, it has become a perfect symbol of Britain itself—resolute and determined, unafraid to tackle big challenges.
While you can’t tell time with Big Ben pipes, you can very comfortably pass time with them. Named for the quintessential British icon, Big Ben pipes aspire to be the quintessential English pipe. However, Big Ben pipes aren’t made near Trafalgar Square or the River Thames. Instead, they are made in the land of windmills and wooden shoes by Elbert Gubbels & Zonen in Roermond, Netherlands.
Located on Roermond’s outskirts, Elbert Gubbels & Zonen is a company that is proud of its history while ardently striving onward. Established in 1870 as a retail shop specializing in men’s accessories and tobacco products, Elbert Gubbels & Zonen has remained a family-owned business for 135 years. The company has survived by being innovative. In 1924, Elbert Gubbels transformed the business into a wholesaler of pipes and other tobacco products. During World War II, the company ceased operations because it was virtually impossible to obtain pipes. At war’s end, Gubbels sought to end his company’s dependence on foreign suppliers and established a pipe factory in Roermond.
In 1972, a little more than 100 years after Elbert Gubbels & Zonen was established, the company received the right to use the predicate “Royal Dutch Pipe Factory” from Queen Juliana. A great honor, the predicate is bestowed by the Dutch royal family to recognize a company’s position as leader in its field and within its community. There are approximately 100 companies in Holland that may use the predicate in their trademarks.
Today, the Royal Dutch Pipe Factory is housed in a long, single-story brick-and-stone structure with “Gubbels” in giant red letters adorning the front. Elbert Gubbels, representing the fourth generation of the family to be involved in the business, and Marc van Vlodrop, the husband of Gubbels’ niece, run the company’s daily operations.
In his late 30s, Gubbels is a good-natured man who is easily likeable. Along with bearing the family name, Gubbels oversees the company’s distribution in Europe. A little older, van Vlodrop is tall, lanky and urbanely dressed. It is van Vlodrop’s responsibility to oversee exports to markets outside Europe.
Elbert Gubbels & Zonen has been making Big Ben pipes since it purchased the brand in the 1950s and moved production to Holland.
The Royal Dutch Pipe Factory, which also makes other pipes, such as Porsche Design, Hilson and Bugatti, has been designed to facilitate the step-by-step process of pipe manufacturing by arranging the tasks in adjacent rooms. In other words, it’s possible to easily trace the pipemaking process by beginning at the first room, where the briar is stored, and walking from room to room to the final room, where the finished pipes are stored awaiting shipment. Each room is an almost entirely self-contained entity, with employees performing only one step in the pipemaking process. In almost every room, a radio blasting American oldies competes with the sound of the factory’s machinery.
The Royal Dutch Pipe Factory obtains briar from many different countries in the Mediterranean region. The higher-grade Big Ben pipes—such as those in the Viking series or those produced as a Pipe of the Year—as well as the Porsche Design pipes are made using plateau briar. The rest of the pipes are made using extra-grade briar. When a shipment arrives, the briar is taken from the truck and placed in a specially humidified room, which is one of the first steps the factory takes to streamline its manufacturing process.
“We take about 30 steps to make a pipe from the time the briar enters the factory to the time a finished pipe leaves the factory. This is where it begins. I call this room the sauna because we can control both the temperature and the humidity within,” van Vlodrop says. “Before we built this room, it would take two or three years to season the briar. By controlling the temperature and humidity, we have reduced the time for drying the wood to about two months. Thereafter, the wood is sorted by size and stored in iron containers in a dark room without any heating.”
When it’s time to use the briar, it is taken from the dark room and removed from the iron container. Each block is placed on a conveyor. The briar travels down the conveyor and is sorted by size, largest to smallest. When it has been sorted, it’s shunted into a bin. The conveyor sorts a bag of briar in minutes.
“All the briar is sorted using this machine,” van Vlodrop says. “It allows us to select the proper size for our production order of the day by feeding the dimensions we need into a computer, which tells the machine what to select.”
Once the briar has been selected, it is taken to several saws nearby. One at a time, the blocks are taken from a bin, secured onto a platform and then cut by hand to ensure that all the blocks have the same dimensions. Circular saw bits are placed on the wall behind the saws. The bits, containing a number of blades, have been custom-made to fit the shapes that the Royal Dutch Pipe Factory produces.
“All the blocks must be the same dimension when they are placed onto the fraising machine,” van Vlodrop explains. “Otherwise, it would be impossible to ensure that the bowl would be at the center of the block.”
After an ebauchon has been pared down, it is placed onto a lathe, where the tobacco chamber and airhole are drilled. Once the holes have been made, the block is ready for the fraising machine.
The Royal Dutch Pipe Factory has two fraising machines, each of which can cut eight pipes at the same time, following a model. All Big Ben pipes are shaped on these machines. The drilled tobacco chamber of each block is slid onto a stud, which is connected to machinery that turns the stud while eight circular saws rise to cut the shape that’s required. The process takes about five minutes.
“The only things you have to do are place the model onto the center stud, which reads the shape you’re looking for, place the blocks onto the other studs, push the button and wait,” van Vlodrop says.
Having such a mechanized process benefits both the Royal Dutch Pipe Factory and its customers, according to van Vlodrop. “Many of these processes used to be done by hand, but then we experienced problems finding enough skilled people to keep up with demand. In the old days, we needed six different stages just to turn the blocks. These innovations allow us to cut our production costs and pass along better value for the money for a Big Ben pipe. In the last couple of years, we’ve begun manufacturing Porsche Design pipes, but we typically describe our pipes as being Volkswagen and Audi pipes. You can say that we are in the middle price range.”
After the shapes have been cut, the bowls are taken into the adjacent room, where the sanding process begins. Sanding remains one of the few tasks entirely performed by humans at the Royal Dutch Pipe Factory. About a dozen employees work to smooth the wood’s rough surface before the first stain is applied.
The pipes undergo several stages of sanding and staining, and flaws in the wood are covered using a proprietary putty. Midway through the process, a mouthpiece is fitted to the pipe.
The Royal Dutch Pipe Factory purchases all of its mouthpieces. The factory drills the airholes and shapes the mortise and tenon connections. Most pipes produced by the Royal Dutch Pipe Factory are designed to accommodate 9 mm charcoal filters. However, some unfiltered Big Ben pipes, such as those in the President and Classic lines, are now being made especially for the American market.
Nearly all of the Big Ben pipes exported to the United States are available in both nonfiltered and filtered forms. The Pipo and Ranger pipes feature removable metal filters. Pipes in the Albertson line have a removable aluminum filter system. Pipes in the Stone, Barbados and Club lines are available fitted for 9 mm filters.
Van Vlodrop says that 80 percent of Big Ben pipes have acrylic mouthpieces. “Acrylic is a little more expensive, but we think it has so many more benefits for the customer. Acrylic mouthpieces don’t change color, and they always stay fresh and have a neutral taste. We use vulcanite mouthpieces for our less expensive brands.”
Acrylic mouthpieces also present more opportunities to produce more varieties of pipes, because acrylic can be produced in different colors.
“You can have transparent mouthpieces. Even brown and gray ones are possible. They can make a pipe completely different, which is important, because the pipe is an extension of someone’s personality. Even if a person isn’t a pipe smoker, there will always be a pipe that will fit his personality. By the same token, you can recognize a person’s personality to a certain extent by the pipe he smokes. We have pipes that change color, we have different shapes, and we can adorn the pipes with silver bands, different types of wood or with bamboo. We use different colors [for] stains. Having so much variety is really the biggest part of the beauty of pipes. We are a very innovative company, and we always strive to produce new shapes to accompany our classic models. Our air regulation system and the color pipes are proof of our creativity.”
The pipes are also graded before the finishing process has been completed. Big Ben pipes are graded by the quality of the grain and the number of flaws in the wood.
“We cannot set the grade in advance. The grain and flaws in the bowl decide what sort of quality it will be. You must have a very precise eye for this—you must decide in 10 seconds. The difference is only on the outside of the wood, though. The same engineering goes into all of our pipes. We don’t do sandblast pipes very much because we don’t think of them as being lower in quality than smooth pipes. They have a different quality and they are beautiful for a different reason. No one would say that a Dunhill Shell is a low-quality pipe. We would rather stain pipes with a lot of flaws or with poor grain a different color, such as black, red or green or what is seen in our Stone series. We have some very nice sandblasts. If the wood allows it, we always want to have a plain surface on top, because we think that it’s more sophisticated and luxurious. We rarely do rustication, but it’s not as popular as our sandblasted and smooth pipes.”
The Royal Dutch Pipe Factory does not include grade stamps on its pipes. The factory grades its pipes for the series that it produces. A few series, such as Viking and Pipe of the Year, are made using plateau briar. The rest are made with extra-grade briar, the best examples of which are placed in the Classic and Presidential lines. Briar that has many flaws or poor grain quality is placed in the Pipo, Ranger, Stone, Barbados and Club lines.
The final steps include application of a carbon coating on the walls of the tobacco chamber and placement of stamps on the pipes. Every Big Ben pipe, with the exception of those in the Albertson line, features a stylized cursive B stamped onto the mouthpiece. It’s a classic-looking symbol for a line that aspires to produce classic pipes as well as modern pipes. The quintessential British landmark Big Ben would do well to pass the time enjoying one of the pipes that bears its name.