Just a little while back, we had a visitor. You’ve probably heard of him: Canadian pipemaker Michael Parks. He’s made quite a name for himself with his great interpretations (and re-interpretations) of traditional designs, not to mention some really stellar sandblasting. And, of course, we feature his pipes in our regular updates.
He flew down here a few weekends ago to spend several days collaborating with our own resident pipemaker, Adam Davidson, and I was asked to join them in order to observe and report – the latter of which I’m doing right now. John also joined us on my second day there, and between the four of us conversations ranged across such subjects as the evolution of the “behaviorally modern human”, pipes, automobiles, pipes, flowers gardening, pipes, what to do if attacked by a bear in Canada, and of course, pipes. Michael is a proper outdoorsman, Adam was raised in a small town in Indiana, and though I grew up in New Jersey, my parents’ families hail from the outskirts of the Appalachia on one side, and deep in the hills on the other – resulting in quite a bit of common context between three thirty-something fellows who grew up hundreds of miles apart.
And of course, we all enjoyed a good meal. And because Adam is Adam, it was only natural that excellent, home-cooked fare was provided each evening. (He also took Michel out to a Cracker Barrel breakfast on Sunday morning, and, as is only fitting to a true Canadian, Michael made sure to taste and assess the maple syrup before applying it to his pancakes.)
But the real reason we were there was pipes, or more to the point, pipe-making, and regarding that there was plenty to learn of and observe. Between one day and another, John, Kat, or I had cameras at the ready to document Michael and Adam at work, and a picture is, as ever, worth a thousand words. So let’s all have a look at what went down, shall we?
Conceptualizing - Failing to plan is planning to fail, as the saying goes. While there are those out there who can just pick up a piece of briar, or stone, or a blank canvas, and create something technically proficient and aesthetically engaging on the fly, they are very much a minority – akin to those who can produce the answers to complex mathematical problems at a moment’s notice. For the rest of us mere mortals, forethought and preparation are in order. As a special project for this visit, Michael and Adam were handed a big chunk of plateau briar, with the idea of producing a pair of matched-shape pipes. Not identical, mind you; the artisans would each apply their own final tweaks, as well as their own finishing techniques, but both pipes would share in a common concept, as well source material. Even this foundational step in the pipemaking process (developing a shape) absorbed plenty of time and a lot of thought, Adam and Michael sketching, rubbing out, re-sketching, and passing the block back and forth, all while carrying on a running discussion covering flow, aesthetic balance, engineering, and grain.
Shaping – That sleek, modern Dublin seen above is Michael’s. He spoke to us about how when hand-filing he gets into a deep focus that he thoroughly enjoys, and how the time flies as he works to perfect the pipe’s design. And, sure enough, once he started, he was off in a world of his own, patiently puffing on his pipe and making no noise but the measured rasping of wood and steel, and the periodic scratching of a pen as he paused to plan out his next moves. The results speak for themselves, even when looking at an unstained stummel, sans stem, and still sporting some of Michael’s pen-marks– I really liked this pipe. The ability a pipemaker has to develop and intuitively conceive a design in three dimensions, and confidently understand how altering a line or plane in one place will affect other aspects of a shape’s balance, is, by itself, impressive.
Drilling, Engineering, and Stem-work- It’s all well and good to make a pipe look fine, but if the drilling and engineering isn’t solid, looking fine as it sits collecting dust may be all it ends up doing. Both Michael and Adam recognize this, and though they had different methods for ensuring that chamber and draft-hole were cleanly executed and precisely aligned, each clearly put a lot of thought into the process. As artisans, they don’t just want their fellow pipe aficionados to purchase and collect the briars they create, they want them to smoke them, enjoy them, and, hopefully, praise them to others. A lot of work, as well as a whole lot of patience goes into building up a reputation as an artisan whose works can be counted on as an investment – pipes that one can trust to provide enjoyment for years to come. Developing and maintaining habits and methods that produce consistent results were clearly a point of pride for both Michael and Adam. At the same time, both were more than willing to observe and learn from the other.
Adam also demonstrated his stem-making to both Michael and me. As with most things, Adam takes a systematic approach. Even with the aid of a lathe set up specifically for the task, buffing wheels, etcetera, it can take two or more hours to complete a single, custom-shaped stem. Quality of stem work is something many consider to be a major aspect of pipemaking, distinguishing the skilled artisan. Although I wasn’t there to catch Michael working on his stems, I did get to see the materials he’d brought along, including some really gorgeous cumberland. As with the briar from which bowls and shanks are fashioned, for an artisan, after investing countless hours developing your skills, making the best of your efforts begins with acquiring appropriately high-quality materials to work from.
Silverwork - Annealing is an important step, preventing the sterling silver (hardened by its extrusion into tubes) from folding or cracking during shaping into a mount. Adam was kind enough to display for Michael and me just how important this step is, by first attempting to shape a mount from silver he hadn’t annealed. Granted, this wasn’t intentional – it was a piece that he had thought he’d annealed previously - but it was instructive. As Adam good-naturedly put it, “There goes about five dollars. As you can see, making mistakes with silver can get expensive.”
R & R - Both days that I was present my arrival didn’t come until afternoon. For Michael and Adam work began around 9:00AM. This meant that by the time I’d been poking around for several hours, everyone was hungry, and both artisans could use a bit of a wind-down to refresh their grey matter and give their hands a break. (And just let me say, I’ve yet to meet a pipemaker with anything like a weak handshake.) Grilled meat, a bit of drink, and plenty of coffee and tea were provided by our host in short order – all of it excellent. Along with this came of course a bit of simply lounging around, passing about our various personal supplies of tobacco, and enjoying our pipes while the birds chirped, cats wandered through the yard, and the lathes, sanding disk, and what have you cooled off in silence.
Final Notes– Like I said, I really liked this pipe. (Also, while I’m not a terribly photogenic fellow, I do think I looked damn good in this picture, rather stately - so onto the internet with it.) Michael and I had discussed various marques the first day I was over, and one that had come up was the old Kriswells, which had given Stanwell a lot of competition back in the 1960s, offering as they did a lot of lean, trim, streamlined designs. Though Michael’s design featured a touch more substantial bowl than most of the old Kriswells I’ve seen, (which often looked like sharpened-up variations of the Sixten Ivarasson look) I saw in it the same kind of confident dynamism in line, form, and posture that I think of when I picture one of the really good, vintage Kriswell shapes. This struck me as something of a happy coincidence, given both that I’d not even seen this pipe yet when we’d had our discussion, and Michael mentioned that this design was something of a departure from the variations on classical shapes that he usually concentrates on. I think both the classic shapes and this more dynamic, direct, and active style strike as a natural fit for a man who is both an artisan and an outdoorsman, and hope to see plenty more from Michael in the future.
After some discussion, it was decided that we wanted to make, or have made, another limited edition run of pipes exclusive to Smokingpipes.com, the only contingency being that we wanted to see produced a significantly larger quantity of pipes than we have in the past.
This year we were decided on designing something for Luciano to make, so I set out to blueprint a pipe that would fit their visual style and manufacturing capabilities. We wanted to see something that wasn't a Billiard, Bulldog, Apple, or Pot - forms Luciano does quite well, mind you. Further, the pipe had to be able to be reproduced primarily by a copying machine, which roughs out the bowl, and it also had to look equally nice in smooth, sandblasted, and rusticated textures. After sketching out some ideas and sharing them with Sykes, Ted, and Eric, we gravitated toward this inverted Bell shape.
The tobacco chamber on this piece is quite generous, yet the overall design is more of a compact, chubby, and delightful shape. The beading on the top of the bowl divides the shape between an interior beveled rim that tops the piece with interesting facets while fluidly pinching the body of the bowl. A short shank echoes this rim slightly by softly repeating the bell flare. The face of the shank is slightly countersunk, which hides the junction of the acrylic and briar. This detail looks especially nice from the smoker’s perspective.
After talking with Sykes and Luca about the design, it was agreed that a physical model would be more beneficial to the manufacturing process than a simple drawing. So I made one. My model was not carved from briar, but from a very dense, pink foam called RenShape. This material is used in many industrial design applications by model makers because it’s as hard as wood yet has no grain pattern or hidden flaws. Since many designers use this for physical prototypes, I knew it would be the perfect material for such a project. When completed, we shipped off the model to Italy where Luca arranged for the machining and production of the design.
The pictures below show some progress in manufacturing. We were all very happy to see how a machine turned out the design, and were interested in all of the extra lathe and hand work that went into final stages. When they arrived, we were floored! Our hats go off to Luca and crew for their efforts.
Each pipe is stamped "Luciano Hand Finished in Italy, [number]/50" and bears the Smokingpipes.com logo.
These pipes will be available starting today, February 6th, in the afternoon in the Luciano section.
It's now day two of the get together at Jeff Gracik's workshop in San Diego. I'm still writing live from the scene. In fact, Eric just turned on the disc sander, making the surface upon which I'm typing vibrate rather disconcertingly. It does leave this author feeling particularly connected to his subject matter, though. The same cast of characters are continuing their work from yesterday. Adam Davidson shaped up a a beautiful larger version of his fig shape. Eric Heberling has been working on a very respectable billiard. Jeff's been sanding the little blowfish that he shaped last night. Work is winding down though, in advance of tonight's barbecue. Joining the five pipe makers, Ted Swearingen and me, a number of members of the San Diego, Orange County and LA pipe clubs are collecting here for the festivities.
In addition to his talents as a pipe maker, Jeff seems pretty adept with his smoker, from which he extracted a 16lb hunk of pork a little while ago. At least it looked promising. I'm not sure if this particular boy from Tennessee can quite bring himself to believe that it's possible to smoke pork properly in California. I'll reserve judgement until I get to taste it later. We shall see…
Smokingpipes.com has been represented at all three of the annual West Coast Pipe Shows held thus far. Last year, my wife (then fiancee) and I represented us at the show and came out to San Diego to spend a couple of days with Jeff and his wife Melissa before heading back home. This year, Ted and I are in the middle of the same pilgrimage.
The West Coast show itself seems to be growing and attracting more exhibitors and attendees each year. The number of hobbyist pipe makers and aspiring pipe makers at the show this year was quite extraordinary. If the number of people interested in making a career of making pipes is any indication, the pipe world is indeed healthy. Neill Archer Roan, known for his impressive A Passion for Pipes blog, delivered a passionate speech on the pipe community, discussing the centrality of that community to pipe smoking. The pace of the show was a little slower than Chicago or Richmond, giving me the opportunity to enjoy the sort of long, in-depth discussions that are just not possible for me at those venues. I enjoyed long discussions with Neill about his speech and with my friend Rick Newcombe, author of In Search of Pipe Dreams, about pipe makers, pipes, his collection and a variety of other topics.
Monday morning, Ted and I got up at 3am to make it to the airport to head to San Diego. When I get home to South Carolina, I'll have to find out what Ted and I did to make Susan angry enough to book a slew of 6am flights for us. A word of advice for business travelers everywhere: do whatever you can to keep the person in your company booking the travel happy. Anyway, after grabbing some breakfast and a nap, we headed up to Jeff's workshop to find the five pipe makers hard at work.
Since I began writing this little missive, the sun has gone down and everyone but Adam and Ernie have moved from pipe making mode to celebration mode. Lots more folks have arrived to join our little party, driving in from all over Southern California to join us for the evening. And now I think that should go for me too, so I'll leave the narrative there, grab my pipe and join the festivities.
Writing this, standing up, at the entrance to Jeff Gracik's workshop, as machines whirr and briar dust flies, conversations on the finer points of tool use are audible over the general din. Jeff asked us out here after the West Coast Pipe Show in Las Vegas, so we find ourselves in a surprisingly cool San Diego in the company of five American pipe makers: Jeff, Brad Pohlmann, Adam Davidson, Ernie Markle and Eric Heberling. Ted Swearingen, Smokingpipes.com's indefatigable Sales Manager, roams the shop, entranced by the myriad simultaneous processes, snapping photos of Ernie and Eric at the lathe and Adam at the shaping wheel. I've been in pipe workshops in eight countries on three continents, but this is a special visit for me, spending time with some really talented artisans and some of my closest friends in the pipe world.
Adam and Brad are holding forth on the finer points of shaping while Jeff explains rather complicated details on the chemistry of certain staining methods. Jeff has become something of a nexus for pipe makers in the United States. It's a role that reminds me a little of the way Tom Eltang serves as such an important resource for younger pipe makers across the globe. What's so interesting is that Jeff is just 32. A combination of a passion for learning, passionate hard work and a formidable intellect has raised him to the upper echelon of global pipe makers in less than a decade. But what makes this such a special event is that it's not all about Jeff. We're similarly joined by Brad Pohlmann, who has been making pipes for over thirty years, and Adam Davidson, whose brilliant, incisive shaping has garnered him legions of followers.
Ernie and Eric have only been at it for a short time. I first met them both a year ago in Las Vegas at the 2010 West Coast Pipe Show. I've been earnestly following the progression of their work since and we've been working with Ernie since earlier this year. These are guys still relatively new to the craft, having been at it just a couple of years each, but they exhibit the same passion that their more experienced pipe making brethren do.
As the sun begins to set over this San Diego neighborhood, the scene in the shop is much as it was when I arrived. The pipe makers have changed places, with Adam at the lathe and Eric at the shaping wheel, but the same sort of conversations go on, and the work continues unabated.
I've been pestering Adam to give me a shot at pipe making for weeks. Sure, I got to see it first hand back in September, but I wanted to
get my hands dirty this time. So we got a pipe kit not too long ago and started planning out the details for such an adventure. This Saturday
we sent our wives out Christmas shopping and spent a few hours in his shop. Of course, we spent the first and last thirty minutes of our time
together completely idle, sitting around smoking.
Adam quipped a few times that the whole process of making pipes is harder than it looks. Now, while I certainly never claimed that pipe
making was easy, it proved to be as difficult as he had suggested. While shaping and sanding and chiseling I felt awkward and out of my
element, like a dancer with atrophied muscles and amnesia. Of course, Adam helped me quite a bit (when the pipe is finished I will hardly be
able to call it ‘my own’), and as I watched him I realized how efficiently he moved, how he seemed to streamline his every wrist motion and
how every movement appeared articulately rehearsed.
We had some good times hanging out making a pipe. Adam took a few pictures to document the occasion. Soon we’ll work out the stem;
something I’m to understand is very tricky. When all is said and done, this will likely be my favorite pipe!
Having the office in Little River, South Carolina makes the trip to the Richmond Pipe Show easy. Normally, we have to pack all necessities and ship them days in advance. Then we hop on a plane and head to the show.
Richmond, on the other hand, is close enough that we can drive. Since I own the largest land assault vehicle in the company, I have had the pleasure of gathering part of the entourage and driving to Virginia for the last two years. The drive up has been the same. Everyone excited about the show, the people we will see and the work we have to do. The drive home however was a little different this year.
I started the drive home with Brian Levine as my co-pilot. (Despite what you may think, he did do a great job.) Adam Davidson, Ted Swearingen and Jeff Gracik filled up the second row. Supplies for the show occupied the space behind them. We met up with Sykes and his passengers in Rocky Mount, North Carolina for a nice dinner before finishing the trip home. This is when the ride deviated from last year.
After being on the road for a while, statements like “Use the shovel on him” and “Pick up the axe” along with beeps and bleeps started coming from the back seat. The “boys” were playing adventure games on someone’s smart phone. For a second I thought my seven and nine year olds where in the truck. Miles upon miles passed before the back seat became utterly quiet. Brian turned around to see what happened. The picture says it all…
Putting together this video was incredibly satisfying. When we were shooting all this footage, now two Mondays past, Tokutomi took a moment to talk freely on his experience in the workshop with Adam and Jeff. Because he is more comfortable speaking Japanese than English he opted to share his thoughts with us in his native language. Eager to understand his sentiments we employed a translator and were pleasantly surprised to learn just how touching his words had been that day.
And now for the second installation of "In The Workshop" with Adam Davidson, Jeff Gracik, and Hiroyuki Tokutomi.
As you likely know, on Monday, Jeff Gracik (of J. Alan Pipes) and Hiroyuki Tokutomi met with Adam Davidson at his workshop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina again this year after the annual CORPS show in Richmond, Virginia, so that they might collaborate on a set of three pipes. Fortunately, Sykes was mindful enough to have brought along a camera and a video recorder. The collaboration was an all day affair and from it we've put together the video before you. Enjoy!
(Sorry about our false start with the video. Apparently, we goofed when we rendered it the first time. Audio and video tracks, rather conveniently, now match...again, we're sorry).
I’d never had the opportunity to see a pipe made. I’m familiar enough with some of the tools that get used in such a process, like lathes and drill bits and jigsaws and what all, but the step-by-step process of manufacturing a pipe by hand had remained to me elusive. One of the first questions I asked Adam Davidson after starting work here at Smokingpipes.com a month ago was if he might eventually show me around his workshop. This Monday I was blessed at long-last with the chance not only to see Adam but also Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes and Hiroyuki Tokutomi rough out a few pipes. The experience was as incredibly fascinating as it was inspiring. I’d so many questions to ask (many of which I did), but I felt a little guilty about bothering an artist while he works with his fingers less than a quarter inch from punishing sanding disks that can spin at 4,000 RPM. Mostly, I just quietly watched.
This isn’t the first time that Jeff, Tokutomi, and Adam have come together to collaborate in pipe making. Last year at this time, just after the Richmond show, the threesome met in Adam’s shop and jointly produced a beautiful two-pipe set and matching case. In that spirit they’ve huddled again and brainstormed new ideas on a fresh endeavor. This time it was agreed that they'd make a three-piece pipe set with bamboo shank as the cohesive component.
Jeff worked out the first sketch and with a thumbs-up from Adam and a nod from Tokutomi they set to work. With three pipe makers and only so many machines available to use their production processes required some thoughtful stage staggering. And as Adam pointed out, for Jeff and Toku to get around in his foreign work space is akin to preparing a Thanksgiving dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. If you’re talented enough the outcome will be expectedly outstanding, but not without having to go through the headaches of first hunting around for every single tool and utensil. Keep in mind the added challenge for Toku who is left-handed and had to work with a couple of lathes setup for Adam, a right-handed craftsman.
After a full day’s work, the three had fleshed out enough of their project that they could afford to take back to their respective studios the unfinished pieces for the last stages of production. It was pretty awesome to behold. A month ago I’d never held an Adam Davidson or J. Alan pipe; I’d never been privileged to touch one of Tokutomi’s masterpieces. Now I’ve done just that, I’ve also got to know them some, and I’ve been awarded the rare fortune to see them work.
So I’ve seen some pipes get made. Sweet. I can check that off my to-do list. Next up? Start pestering Adam to let me try my hand at making a pipe. Hopefully I can keep all of my fingers in the process.
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