Just off U.S. Highway 41 outside of Marquette, there’s an old man who lives alone in a small, one-bedroom house. Most days he's upstairs sitting at his desk or downstairs in his workshop. There he makes some of the best tobacco pipes in the world.
Not just blowing smoke
“My name is Lee Erck. I am a tobacco-smoking pipe maker. I live here in Negaunee Township,” he says on a cloudy Friday afternoon.
Lee is 78 years old. He’s sitting in his living room, smoking a pipe. A lamp fills the small space with a warm, incandescent glow. Pipes are all over the place — on every surface. Lee says there’s at least 100.
“I didn’t start to be here,” he says. “All of a sudden, here I am.”
Where Lee happens to be, is among the best pipe makers of all time.
“I definitely put Lee in the master of pipe category,” says Allan Boyd, president of the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club. Every year, Boyd’s club hosts the largest pipe show in the world.
“In my opinion, Lee’s probably in the top 15 or 20 pipe makers — period,” Boyd says. “Alive or not.”
How he got here
In the late 1950s, Lee Erck was stationed in France as a clerk for the U.S. Army. They rationed cigarettes monthly, so smoking a pipe was the next best and cheapest option. Lee took to it.
Back stateside, he began a career as a professional dog handler. Lee crisscrossed the country going to prestigious dog shows. After 25 years, his body just couldn’t take all the wear and tear. Then he heard about a guy in Minnesota selling a pipe repair business. Lee bought everything from him for about $1500.
“He moved all the equipment to Marquette and spent 10 days with me,” Lee explains. “He had a big box of cheap pipes and we’d do something to ‘em – break ‘em somehow – and he’d show me how to fix ‘em and whatnot.”
Lee did this for a number of years; but pipe repairing is repetitive work. Eventually, he started to get bored with it. So, he decided to make his own.
“Where the magic happens”
Lee’s workshop is downstairs. It’s dusty and has tools scattered about the room.
“Now this looks likes organized chaos, doesn’t it?” he asks. “But I know where everything is. I can find stuff in here … I can reach into these bins without even looking.”
One of the pipe designs Lee is famous for has a tall, tapered bowl. The pipe has precise ridges shaped in it – almost like the curves of a Ruffles potato chip. It makes the whole pipe design look spiraled even though it’s not.
“He’s very meticulous,” says Allan Boyd. “Just a stinker for detail.”
He says Lee’s craftsmanship is what sets him apart from every other pipe maker.
“That’s just Lee,” he says. “And he won’t let a thing out of his shop unless it meets his standards. And his standards are higher than everybody else’s.”
“When somebody walks in a room smoking my pipe, you can tell across the room,” he says matter of factly. “There’s no question.”
A pipe maker
Lee is careful to say he is not a pipe carver but a pipe maker. He doesn’t use a knife, but makes his pipes using a saw, drill press and a lathe. His pipes are made out of blocks of briarwood he buys from Italy – some of them are $60 a piece.
“Once I get a piece, I start drafting on it to see if it’s going to fit,” he explains. “Here’s an interesting piece. I’ve been looking at this piece of wood since 2012.”
Another pipe Lee is known for is called a C pipe. If you look at it from the side, the bowl looks like the letter "C." It's almost like the shape of an apple if you were to take a bite out of it.
Lee Erck says his pipes start selling for $750 and go up from there.
“Way up from there,” he says between puffs on his pipe. “A long way.”
Then he points to an amber brown pipe on his desk.
"That’s $2,500,” he says.
Lee makes around 50 pipes a year. He says it doesn’t feel like work, but he usually tries to put in an eight hour day.
“When three things go wrong in a row … off go the lights and I get out of here,” he explains with a laugh. “The briar gremlins are here. You gotta get away.”
Lee Erck sells his pipes all over the globe; places like China, Russia, Romania, Germany, Italy and Sweden among others. He recently got back from a trip to Japan, where he sold all 12 of the pipes he brought with him.
“I don’t have any children, but I do have pieces of me all over the world,” he says.
Sometimes when he works especially long and hard on a pipe, he can’t bear to send it off into the world. So he keeps it.