All Pipes Considered: J. Alan Jess Tribute Pipes

Welcome back to another episode of All Pipes Considered. Today, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jeff Gracik of J. Alan pipes to talk about a series of pipes he just completed for us. Inspired by a shape Jess Chonowitsch designed in the 80s as a special commission for a pipe shop in Europe, these three pipes are tributes to one of the greatest names in pipe making history, but they also represent the importance of influence in design evolution. Tune in as Jeff and I discuss how he approached these special tribute pipes, including how he balances form and function and how he incorporates influence into his own designs. Check out the video above for the full interview!

Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.

[Shane Ireland]: So Jeff, you and I are here today to talk about a project that just kind of happened. It wasn't really anything that we necessarily planned, but it ended up in a place that we're both really happy with. A while back, we were chatting with a couple of friends and I was smoking this Jess Chonowitsch pipe from my personal collection. Jess explained to me that it was originally a shape that he made specifically for a custom order of pipes to celebrate the Jubilee of a shop in Europe. He, of course, made a few of them after that commission, but it's just a really novel little shape — a great size and one of my favorite pipes. And after I showed you this pipe, Jeff, we kinda just agreed to get the pipe in your hands. At the time, I was selfishly hoping that you would design a pipe for me personally in that same style but with your twist on it. And then this project kind of snowballed from there, right?

[Jeff Gracik]: Yeah. I mean, I don't think it was a sinister move on your part. If you put something like that in my hands, of course I'm going to be inspired by it. Come on.

[SI]: Sure. Even though this isn't the kind of shape you necessarily see from Jess often, he has made a handful over the years, and there are elements of this design that are unmistakably in his design wheelhouse. The slightly meatier transition, the gesture of the stem, the handling of the accents, and the overall proportions all make it a quintessentially Chonowitsch pipe. So I just figured, Jess has been very influential to you, as he has for myriad other carvers over the last three or four decades. So speaking of that inspiration, run us through what went through your mind when you actually got the pipe in your hands?

[JG]: When we were on a zoom call together and I first saw the pipe, I immediately thought it's one of those shapes that someone, even outside of the specialty pipe industry, would see and go, "Oh, that's a nice pipe." Even if you can't recognize the origin or maker, you can certainly observe the gracefulness of the shape. The execution is just spot on; it's so incredibly well proportioned and balanced. So yeah I remember opening up the box you sent me, and I'd actually forgotten you were sending the pipe. So when I saw this box from Smokingpipes, I was like "what is this?" But then I opened it up and, oh man, I fell in love. I couldn't help but be inspired by it. In fact, I think I was working on a couple other projects at the time, but I decided to give them a day off so I could begin the shaping of this.

[SI]: Right. And not long after you had received it, you were already sending me some progress photos of a few things that you were playing around with. It was really quick. I remember receiving the notification that your package had landed, then not long after that I was looking at one or two roughed out shapes and a couple of ideas. And I was like, wow, that must have resonated, you know?

[JG]: Oh yeah, yeah. It's like a salt lick for a deer.

[SI]: So you made several variations of the shape, and we're here today to talk about the handful that Smokingpipes has. We actually have three of these tribute pipes in stock, which we'll update soon with a little bit more about the origin pipe and all that kind of stuff. But aside from the slight variations between them, what I find so interesting about this project is how it seems to have inspired you. I mean, Jeff, you're a seasoned pipe maker. You've made a lot of pipes and your work is constantly evolving. Your work embodies this element of progress that I think many of us are chasing all the time. You've traveled and have met with a lot of these guys in their workshop, including Jess. So it was so cool to be able to throw something your way that was inspiring and fresh, or whatever you want to call it.

[JG]: Yeah, I mean it's always exciting to get a quiet challenge, to have something like this come in. As I mentioned earlier, for the average person, they might look at this shape and see a pipe or even a nice pipe. But for me, although it is a simple shape, there is so much complexity in the details. Through the years, I've developed an approach when I'm studying a shape like this. At first you try to get really close to the shape and observe all the details, then you try to replicate them. Once you feel like you've captured those details, then you have more freedom to explore different ideas with it. And again, we're talking really minute changes, but those tweaks can affect the overall feel and visual balance. It makes it so that you look at two variations of the same shape and appreciate that they're considerably different, from an enthusiast's perspective.

[SI]: Yeah, absolutely. And just like any craft or art form, this is how influence works. That's how we all move forward. And I think it's also important for the collectors out there to be able to understand how these influences have evolved over time and across regions. Pipe making and pipe craft, especially in the last 20 years, has become so global. In the past, you had these pockets of pipe makers who were, in some cases, isolated to local or regional markets. Even if they had distributors in other countries, there weren't guys traveling to other countries all that much to learn from each other and pass around ideas. So it's just really nice to watch some of this stuff happen in real time. And I think for the collectors, it's really important to be able to recognize where some of those ideas came from, even if they're several layers detached or several steps detached from the original idea. And I think that's what's interesting about American pipe making; in the same way that America itself is a melting pot, the American aesthetic is heavily influenced by several different schools.

[JG]: No doubt. And, all this makes me reflect on my earlier pipe making career. At the time, I was intentionally studying other pipes, but there was always a little bit of shame associated with selling someone else's shape, right? But like you were saying, encouraging younger pipe makers to do that study, to do it shamelessly, to steal as much as they can, is really important, because that's how you learn and that's how you get better. I believe it was Bo Nordh, though I'm sure a lot of other artists have said this, who said that he steals with his hands and his feet or something like that. Even someone like Bo would steal other people's ideas if they were good ones.

And if you look back at Danish pipes from the sixties and seventies — especially the bigger, more influential brands like the Ivarssons, Nordh, Chonowitsch, the Larsen house, Former, etc — you see a lot of modern influences through that time period. You can look at the Discus shape or what we would consider the Fugu Blowfish or the Cross-cut Blowfish, and track its evolution as it made its way through different design houses and brands. The traditional Blowfish, the Bent Brandy with the teardrop tail, bounced around to a bunch of different pipe makers as well. And it influenced pipe makers around the world like through Toku in Japan.

And speaking of pipe makers, these days artisans are able to make the journey to work with other pipe makers, and I'm grateful to live in a time and to be able to go and work with so many of my heroes and people whose work I really admire. But Toku, back in the seventies or early eighties, hopped on a train in Eastern Russia and took a train across Siberia to work with Sixten for months. That's what travel for pipe making was like back then. So it's pretty amazing to live in a time when I can either get on the phone with someone who I admire or have the chance to fly over and spend a few days or a week with someone. And that kind of influence, that kind of direct opportunity to work with people and to be influenced by their techniques and their presence, is priceless. And the direct, first-hand feedback is just critical for any pipe maker's development.

[SI]: Exactly. And I know you were talking about some of the more complex shapes — the different Fish and Blowfish, but you can see that evolution even in classic shapes. Look at someone like Chonowitsch or Former, who are very well known for their classic shapes. Today, with the benefit of 40 to 60 years of them honing these skills, we can very much identify each carver's work from across the room. They may both be Billiards, but we can identify one as a Chonowitsch and one as a Former.

But those pipe makers were very much influenced by the brands that had been making classic shapes in England and France for decades before they got their start. So that's the thing: no one has come up with something completely brand new independent of any other influence or any other context. No one works in isolation. This is the foundation you build upon when you're paying homage or when you're just studying or looking to someone else's work to improve your own.

[JG]: Right, and that's why I find it so humorous that there's a stigma around borrowing ideas or shapes from other makers, when someone like Bo Nordh did so openly. That's kind of Bo's attitude to it. And for me, that's why I try to take a more intentional approach when I'm studying the shape and be mindful of what I'm trying to do with it.

[SI]: So, in that respect, Jeff, what does go into studying a shape like this? Obviously, when you look at it, you see its more technical elements, right? Are you measuring and taking stock of every little millimeter here and there? Or is it more abstract, like I can see where this came from because I'm familiar with the many other shapes that I've already attempted or already mastered? How does that work?

[JG]: Yeah. I think you just hit the two major areas of analysis that inform a lot of my approach. A lot of it is simply influenced by the experience that I have prior to approaching a particular piece. But do I actually take lots of measurements and things like that? No, not usually. I'll typically measure the overall length and usually the proportions of the stummel with the shank and the mouthpiece. But that's usually the extent of it. I take a more hands-on approach. So I'll take some basic measurements and then I'll sketch out the shape on a block and cut it out and and start cutting. And I'll do a comparison. I'll have a side-by-side and keep the form pipe in front of me.

I'll do some shaping work on the wheel, then compare the two pieces and try to analyze like what's off? Why did I think what I had done so far was already close? And if they're not correct, why are they not correct? Where are they wrong? And that's something that a lot of pipe makers struggle with. It's easy to notice that something's wrong, but it's much more challenging to identify where it's wrong and how to correct it. And sometimes those corrections could be pretty easy, but it's harder than you think, because sometimes where you need to remove material or where you need to leave it can be counterintuitive.

One of the things I enjoy about these kinds of studies is seeing how different pipe makers approach the internals of a pipe and perhaps questioning why they made those decisions and then comparing it to what I do. And for this piece, there were some differences from what I would typically do. But because I had an idea of why he might have made some of these decisions, I decided to follow Jess's lead just to see what would happen. And it made a whole lot of sense in this case. The tenon, for example, was a little larger and shallower than I would have made for my own work, and the reason Jess designed it this way is that allows you to make sure that your draft hole is centered on the bottom of the mortise, which is ideal. I mean, it's an elegant solution to a problem.

[SI]: For me, when it comes to pipes, functionality is paramount and design is a very close second, and I think that you've captured both really well in these three tributes. And they all have slight differences. So we have this sort of darker reddish sandblast with horn. The bend is a little bit different, and to my eye, I think the Tanblast with Ivorite is probably the closest to a true clone. And the other two probably have a little more of your personal touches added in.

The taper is a little pronounced. I think a lot of people would probably call this shape a Bent Brandy or something, but the bowl is very Egg-like and the defining characteristics are really in the lines in the taper. The other, darker sandblast and the smooth that you made seem a little fuller throughout the whole the whole height of the pipe and not just towards the waistline.

[JG]: Yeah. The smooth especially has more muscular proportions. And my typical shaping for a shape like this would be to have a fatter bottom on the bowl and then to narrow it as you approached the rim to lend it a more pinched and elegant look in my mind. But for those ones, I was a little more generous throughout the sides, which makes it a little more voluptuous of a shape.

[SI]: So one of the other elements of this design, one that I think contributes to its high level of charm and practicality, is what some would consider to be a pretty short mouthpiece. Now, I think it works really well visually here and it definitely emphasizes the weight in the transition and in the bowl. Jess, who originally designed the shape, could have put a longer mouthpiece on here and it may have looked a little more classic, like just a classic Bent Brandy with some softer Danish style lines, but abbreviating the mouthpiece is kind of what pulls the whole shape together, in my mind.

[JG]: Yeah. I completely agree. That shorter mouthpiece is something that I'm not only attracted to, but it's something that I have intentionally studied and tried to emulate in my own work. So these abbreviated mouthpieces have been really influential in my own work. You rarely see a longer mouthpiece on my work. Now, if you look at someone like Teddy or the Larson workshop, Former, or Tom Eltang, they have these long, elegant mouthpieces. And I think that's beautiful; it's just different from my own personal approach in my workshop.

[SI]: Sure, so what are some of the challenges associated with trying to strike a balance both functionally and aesthetically when you're working with proportions like this?

[JG]: Well, when you're working with proportions like this on a pipe as small as this, it can often be a challenge as simple as finding a file that's small enough to make the mouthpiece. But when you're making a pipe with proportions like this, the difference that a couple of millimeters will make in an element's overall length can dramatically affect the sense of balance that you have in the pipe. And if your mouthpiece is two millimeters longer than it ought to be then the saddle proportion, relative to the rest of the mouthpiece, needs to be larger or smaller. And it's something that's really hard to capture. Some people in the pipe world have tried to do an artistic, mathematical analysis of these things over the years, but I can't really attribute my approach to anything other than a feel: it either looks right or it looks wrong. And right or wrong is largely informed by my influences, the aesthetic that I appreciate and has embedded itself in my approach to pipe making.

[SI]: Yeah. And, just to tie it back to what we mentioned earlier, these guys — Jess, Former, Lars, Ulf and Per of S.Bang fame, etc — so many of them started at a similar time, and they were all geographically so close, but it wasn't until a little bit later in their career that they started sharing these ideas. And when I say later in their career, I'm talking like the eighties and nineties and then in the nineties and two thousands when the pipe show circuit in America started to be a real big deal. And everybody started going to those and that changed things as well. But until that point, they were all aware of each other and had a deep respect for each other, but they weren't necessarily sharing either trade secrets or ideas. But by the time that Jess was working on the original design for this pipe, pipe makers had begun welcoming each other and becoming more of a community, sharing trade secrets and just seeing more of each other's work as well. Subconsciously or otherwise, that does influence everybody else. This was a period in which we saw design innovation both independently and probably in conjunction with others as well.

[JG]: Sure. And there's dispute among them, too, about who the first person was to make this shape. And every pipe maker you talk to will say, "I did." And I mean, I think that's natural in the in artistic communities in general. So without intentionally studying, it's hard to know where your influences come from. You see something and then you make something. It's as if an idea finds its way in; it's not like it's been really carefully constructed or designed in a particular way. Through the passage of time, there may have been a direct influence that has been forgotten for years, because you've done it for 10 years, or 15 or 20 years or whatever. So it's so much more natural to say, it's what I do. That's my shape. It's kind of hard to trace the lineage.

[SI]: Exactly. And I mean, obviously there's elements of this shape that were influenced by classic shape chart stuff. And the only reason I know a little bit of the history of this shape in particular is because Jess happens to have the original sketch and some notes on notebook about the design. He still has the order that he took for the anniversary pipe that this was originally designed for. So when I brought this pipe to his workshop and said hey, look at what I found, he wasn't 100% percent sure of the time period in which this piece was made. But by determining a range, he was able to pull out this notebook and say "hey, look, here's the original sketch I made." But if it wasn't for that, we might not know as much about this shape.

And Jess has more meticulous records than I think a lot of guys do. It's just who he is. It's just in his personality. So I felt really fortunate to be able to learn more about this shape from the horse's mouth. And you know, as much as briar and the material itself can steer you in a direction creatively and really influence your work — basically by imposing limitations on you, sometimes that innovation comes simply from commissions: A customer asked for this approximate thing and the pipe maker went away and tried some stuff and came up with something.

[JG]: Yeah, it's amazing that Jess does have those records, because as you said, most pipe makers do not. And it's wonderful to be able to trace the lineage of a particular piece. That's a rarity in this industry, which has largely informal documentation.

[SI]: So first of all, Jeff I wanted to thank you again for joining us today. Also thank you for indulging me in basically what was a curiosity at first and later turned into a really deliberate tribute to one of the greatest living legends in pipe making and pipe design. And of course thank you to Jess for all of his hard work over the years, but I really hope that the customers who end up with these pieces not only appreciate them for their face value or face charm, but also appreciate the evolution of ideas and confluence of influences that they represent.

[JG]: Absolutely. From the collector's perspective, to be able to be part of that the communication of ideas between pipe makers is something special. And for pipe makers themselves, we should take pride in the fact that we are engaging in studies and that we are pursuing our craft with intentionality. That's an important thing. Because when we're honest with that, then we can really be careful about which influences we are drawing from. And we can conduct these studies more carefully and integrate them into our own work. And that integration will, in some cases, happen very intentionally. And in other cases, it will slowly find its way in as you just become a fan of something, as you study it.

[SI]: Exactly. While you've been fortunate enough to work with Jess on more than one occasion, Jeff, we do learn from observation. There are no college courses anywhere on how to be a pipe maker, and all the hands-on training since the sixties, especially in Denmark, has been an informal apprenticeship and mentorship kind of a thing. And by learning those secrets and learning how to do the craft, while also borrowing from some of those design elements that people have forged years past, you're carrying the torch, right? You're carrying the torch forward for a craft in a hobby that has become more and more esoteric over the years. A hobby that has been significant to our culture as a people for a very long time, whether everybody out there right now recognizes that or not. So there's a responsibility as a craftsperson to not only pay homage and help trace some of that lineage, but to move the best ideas and the best techniques forward and keep passing them on.

[JG]: Yeah, that's right. I think it's about proudly wearing your influences. As we said, it's important not only for carrying the history of the industry forward, but it's also important for the future of the industry. As we develop, we need to adapt and change and also pass along that knowledge. And that's part of the life cycle of the pipemaker.

[SI]: Absolutely. Well, Jeff, thanks again so much. This has been a lot of fun and I can't wait for all of our customers to see these tribute pipes. Thanks for joining us and chatting about them today, and thanks to everybody out there for watching.


    • D on November 19, 2020
    • Imagine a flock of starving pigeons and you toss out 3 bread crumbs....just sayin'. Beautiful work Mr.Gracik! I think Picasso coined the phrase,"Good artist borrow, and great artist steal." It would be nice to see this design mass produced through the Alan Brothers line at a price the average Joe could afford. You just push that guilt aside Jeff, I think you have great talent.

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