J. Alan pipes are in high-demand, and as such, we are delighted to offer up a number of these meticulously designed and engineered briars whenever possible. Jeff Gracik has worked closely with many (some legendary) Master pipe makers over the last decade, and has continued to focus on mentoring and sharing his knowledge with quite a few of the emerging American artisans, including several well-known carvers such as Ernie Markle, Nathan Armentrout, and Jared Coles, and John Klose of J&J Artisan pipes. The number of American pipe makers is on the rise and we here at Smokingpipes.com are delighted to witness the continued development of the "American aesthetic". The J. Alan brand represents the culmination of years of designing and crafting hand-made pipes, as well as a wealth of shared knowledge and passion within a growing movement of not only pipe makers, but many different craftsmen and artisans from beer brewers, to coffee roasters, to those who make musical instruments and furniture. Beautifully shot and edited by Jared and John of J&J Artisan pipes, we hope you will enjoy this short video that sheds light on practically every aspect of Jeff's process, while providing insight on the growing number of American craftsmen.
Jared Coles (J&J Pipes) and Adam Davidson discuss the best way to clean the knuckles of bamboo, while Steve Liskey talks about different ways to drill and fit bamboo with Nathan Armentrout. Meanwhile Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes), who is hosting this get-together at his home and workshop in San Diego, bounces about, playing the consummate host, making sure everyone has what they need, whether it's a certain drill bit or some of Jeff's famous (at least in the pipe world) coffee.
Jeff Gracik sketches on a rough shaped stummel as Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey look on.
Adam Davidson and I are attending the first of what will perhaps become an annual event for pipe makers that Jeff Gracik, of J. Alan pipe fame, painstakingly organized over the past few months: the West Coast Pipe Maker's Pow Wow. The feel was sort of like a very small, very relaxed pipe maker version of a professional conference. The two day event has been broken into a series of technical demonstrations, short seminars and roundtable discussions. It's a small, select group of fourteen, of which eleven are pipe makers. It is very possibly the first of its kind, anywhere in the world. Sure, American pipe makers have a history of getting together to share ideas and processes, but never with this much structure, nor on this scale.
As, I write, sitting in a folding camping chair on Jeff's driveway, Jeff stands at a lathe demonstrating how to properly execute a military style mount for a stem as ten other pipe makers look on. The other pipe makers are a pretty select group. These are mostly guys that have been making pipes for at least a few years, here to learn new techniques. Jeff is one of the top pipe makers in the country--perhaps the top pipe maker in the country--and while these guys are already professional pipe makers, there's still much that they can learn from Jeff. But it isn't limited to Jeff. All of these guys have areas of expertise that they can share with the group.
Jared Coles drills on Jeff's lathe.
Earlier, Steve Liskey led a seminar on bamboo, detailing methods ranging from digging it out of the ground to using it as a shank on a pipe. Yesterday, I led a discussion on some of the business aspects of the pipe world. Later today, pipe maker and longtime Smokingpipes.com Estate Manager and Pipe Specialist Adam Davidson will discuss quality control and the pitfalls pipe makers can avoid if they want to make the best pipes possible.
What's truly remarkable, to the point that it would utterly baffle an outside observer from most any other industry, is that this actually happens in the pipe world. Jeff is completely open with how he does things, unconcerned that he's teaching his competition. Perhaps it’s the security he feels regarding his place in the pipe world that makes this so natural for him. Or perhaps it's simply the master's desire to share his knowledge. There have been a handful of pipe makers over the decades who have been happy to disseminate the skills that they've mastered. It's part of the craft and part of being a great pipe maker.
Sixten Ivarsson, to take the most famous example, was great because he thought about pipes in a new way, and because he taught others how he thought about pipes. If he'd done the former without the latter, Sixten's historical role as the progenitor of the modern artisanal pipe would simply not be. He would have been a brilliant, but relatively insignificant, dead end in the history of pipe making. At the end of the day, Sixten is important because he passed on what he'd learned and what he'd developed.
That willingness to share, exemplified by others--Tom Eltang also comes to mind as a particularly open and willing teacher--is important not only for those who take the opportunity to learn. Indeed, nothing further refines skills as well as teaching them. It forces the teacher to refine amorphous thoughts into coherent structures, furthering his mastery of the material. Jeff Gracik, along with Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey, are confident teachers this weekend.
The goal for the weekend was to help good pipe makers get better. Some of the subjects covered were fairly straightforward: drilling techniques, for example. Others were more sophisticated, such as working with oddly shaped pieces of bamboo. Some of the focus had little to do with how to make a better pipe, but rather addressed individual development as a pipe maker. Adam didn't hold forth before the group about how to make pipes (though he did give a lot of one-on-one advice throughout the weekend), instead he talked about common quality control pitfalls, the small (but crucial) things that pipe makers can watch out for, in order to help them catch errors before they leave the workshop. As long time quality control guy at Smokingpipes.com, Adam's in a unique position to talk about common pipe maker errors. My presentation was about how to navigate the business end of being a pipe maker, how to manage brands, how to avoid potentially bad, short-term focused decisions in favor of better, longer-term decisions, and the like. Indeed, of all of them, my talk was the only that didn't really have much to do with the pipes they make, but hopefully it gave them some insight into how to think about managing the business and marketing side of what they do.
Adam Davidson sketches a mortise, while Nathan Armentrout holds the board for him.
Adam and Ernie discuss a rough shaped pipe made by Ernie (E. Markle Pipes) on Jeff's driveway.
While the centerpieces of the weekend were the formal demonstrations by Jeff and the seminars led by Steve Liskey, Adam and me, much of what made the event exceptionally special was the ad hoc discussion about pipe making that took place during the weekend. At one point I was looking at some pipes Ernie Markle was working on (seriously nice stuff, I might add), when Adam wandered over and started offering his thoughts. One of the pipes Ernie had at hand was a partially finished long-shanked acorn. The shape, while impressive, wasn't quite what he was looking for. He and Adam ended up sitting on Jeff's driveway with a sketchpad, working out the problems of the shape. I'm not sure what will come of the particular stummel that Ernie had been working on, but it was clear that this was a valuable, collaborative learning experience for both Ernie and Adam.
It was an enlightening experience for me as well. Obviously, I'm not a carver. The finer points of how to make an army mount were interesting, but didn't mean much to me. What I did take away from it, however, was how hard it is to be a top-tier pipe maker. Of course, at some level, I knew this; I've probably been in more different pipe maker workshops than anyone else in the world. I know how hard these men (and women) work. But usually I'm in the workshops of established pipe makers. Seeing Jeff instruct less experienced pipe makers helped to crystalize, on a personal level, how hard it is to transition from being a good pipe maker (of which there are many out there right now) to a great pipe maker (of which there are few). The difference is mostly in the mastery of thousands of little technical details. This past weekend Jeff demonstrated a bunch of those details, but pipe making can't be learned in a weekend. It can take a lifetime of continuous effort. Even in cases of exceptional natural talent (like Jeff Gracik, who now has over a decade's worth of experience, and whose work enjoys immense demand), you'll still find artisans very eager to listen, and eager to reciprocate by teaching and passing on what they've learned. It's this that makes "greats" from the "good".
Attendees use the sanding disks while Adam Davidson watches.
Most images kindly provided by John Klose of J&J Artisan Pipes.
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.
Not too long ago, pipe makers Brad Pohlmann and Jeff Gracik put their heads together and puzzled out this year’s Smokingpipes.com Christmas
pipe. Since then they’ve produced a total of seven, gorgeous sandblasted pear shaped briars all of which have been banded in sterling silver. Luckily, Sykes and Alyson were ‘video recorder ready’ when present at the conceptualization of this series.
By the way, these pipes will be made available to you very, very soon…
Below are a smattering of photos from our visit to Jeff Gracik's workshop in San Diego, California last week. Brad Pohlmann was also in town, so they were working together, which was a particular treat to witness. Alyson took most of the photos, she being the designated photographer for such outings (and for good reason; I have an extraordinary ability to make even the simplest photos come out blurry).
Jeff and Brad were working on the six Smokingpipes.com Christmas pipes which will be available in the next few weeks. After much discussion, we opted for a pear shape (largely because Brad broke into the chorus of Twelve Days of Christmas). We tried to get them to make a giant pipe holder shaped like a tree and a partridge shaped tamper, but I think that was a bit much to ask. The pipes will come with a nice leather presentation bag, plus a beautiful, if somewhat more conservative, tamper. During the day of working together, they (mostly) completed one pipe, and rough shaped one more. You can see the completed pipe in the last photo.
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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