By Bob Tate
Joe Nelson is the owner of Old Nellie Pipes and Nelson Guitars. He is an artisan pipe maker as well as a luthier and resides in Fond Du Lac County, WI. For those of you who might not know, a luthier is a stringed instrument builder/repairman. He has been making guitars for 14 years and pipes for 5 years.
While we were at the 2010 Richmond Pipe Show, we had the opportunity to talk with Joe and he took the time out of his busy day to have an interview us. Joe has just recently started using a new method in his pipe making. He is now oil curing his pipes. He explained the advantage of oil curing during our interview.
PipesMagazine.com: Joe, please tell us a little bit about what you do.
Joe: I’m a one man shop and I make high grade smoking pipes and primarily steel string acoustic guitars and I also create electric guitars. I’ve been making the guitars for about 14 years and the pipes for about 5 years. I’ve been doing both of them together for about 2 years now. I’ve been an artisan basically my whole life and I just decided to do this full time and really do what my heart has led me to do.
PM: You are a pipe smoker and a guitar player?
Joe: I am. I’m much better at building and repairing guitars than I am at playing them, but I have fun doing it.
PM: What do you like to play on the guitar?
Joe: Pretty much old rock and roll.
PM: Do you smoke your pipe while playing the guitar?
Joe: Sometimes, but I’m better at playing if I’m not smoking [laughs].
PM: As far as the pipes go; they’re all hand made pipes?
Joe: They are all hand made, definitely. Plateau briar, primarily from Mimmo Romeo briar from Italy, and hand cut stems of course. For the stem, I use Ebonite. I use some materials almost exclusively, but not totally exclusively. Everything is done by hand and it takes me anywhere from 16 to 20 hours per pipe.
My newest thing is oil cured pipes and this is the first show that I am offering them. Prior to this, I had a different proprietary type of curing system that I used, but I’ve now switched it to the oil curing. I have here today both of the types as I’m going through a transition. The oil cured pipes are off the hook incredible.
PM: The concept of oil curing is?
Joe: It draws out the tannins primarily. It just makes the pipe smoke more pure so when you’re smoking a certain blend of tobacco, you’re getting the flavor of the tobacco and not any off taste from the briar. This is very apparent on the break in period of the pipe. What I’ve noticed is; a transparency is very noticeable by the second or third bowlful as opposed to, anywhere between, 3 to 25 bowlfuls of a pipe that is not oil cured. It would normally take about half a dozen bowls before you actually really started getting just the flavor of the tobacco. That’s been my goal all along is to have a very transparent smoking pipe that smokes great right through to the bottom of the bowl. That’s what I’ve been working to achieve.
PM: How many pipes do you make a year?
Joe: Only about 50 because I also try to make around 4 to 6 guitars a year and that takes a fair amount of time. I also do guitar repairs as well.
PM: Do you make commissioned pipes or do you just come up with your own designs and put them on the market?
Joe: I’ve done both. I have people come to me with, no so much their idea, but they see one of my pipes that I’ve made in the past and they would like one that is like it but they would like it with a different color stem or something like that. That’s about as custom as I get. I won’t take somebody else’s blueprint of a pipe. There’s too much engineering that goes into the ones that I make and I like to do all of that on my own.
PM: What is the price range on your pipes?
Joe: I would say my low end pipes right now are about $140.00 and they go up to about $500.00. I don’t have any of the high priced ones here. I think that today my highest priced pipe is about $320.00.
PM: Do you sell direct, through retailers, or both?
Joe: I sell direct and I’ve also been marketing a little bit through Keith Moore down in Nashville, Tennessee at Uptown’s Smoke Shop , but mostly just on my own; on my own website and the pipe shows.
PM: How about the guitars?
Joe: It’s kind of strange with the guitars. I started out doing it as a hobby like I did with the pipes, about 14 years ago, and it’s just been word of mouth in my local area. I built for quite a few artisans in the area. Probably as far south as Chicago and it’s just kind of snowballed. Now I’m currently working on a new website for that which should be up and running shortly after the first of the year .
PM: Are they all just hollow body acoustic guitars?
Joe: I do solid body electrics also, but primarily hollow body steeled six string acoustics.
PM: What are the guitars made of?
Joe: Just about anything that you can imagine, but the majority of them are East Indian rosewood. I’ve done zebra wood, Honduran mahogany, ebony, cocobolo rosewood. At one point or another, I do incorporate just about every type of exotic wood that’s out there with some of the ornamentation depending on what the customer would like to have.
There’s a myriad of woods, but the primary types that I use for construction would be maple, cherry, and walnut as far as American species and East Indian rosewood, zebra wood, and so forth from import species.
PM: What is the price range for your guitars?
Joe: They start at $3500.00 and go up from there.
We hope that you enjoyed our interview with Joe Nelson and be sure to go to oldnelliepipes.com to see more of his gorgeous pipes and possibly pick one up for yourself.