Brad Pohlmann's Long and Winding Road

A portrait of Brad Pohlmann by Artur Lopes

B rad Pohlmann fell in love with pipes the first time he walked into a tobacco shop in the early '70s. It was Max's Smoke Shop in Alhambra, California, and Brad accompanied his father there to purchase a pipe for his older brother as a Christmas gift. His parents had earlier given his brother a pipe to help him resist the temptation of cigarettes, and Brad, in high school at the time, thought it was cool. But experiencing a tobacco shop was more than cool: it was exhilarating.

"Max smoked aromatics," says Brad, "and I remember walking into that atmosphere, into that sweet-smelling smoke. There were wood cabinets and pipe displays everywhere." From that moment, he was a pipe man.

His brother's pipes were irresistible, and he sampled them and the tobaccos when he could get away with it. By the time he reached his high school senior year, he had several pipes of his own, and he started frequenting local tobacco shops. He discovered English blends and was smitten. After the Tobacco Barrel in Monterey Park opened in the early '70s, Brad was a regular. He favored traditional, English pipes, especially those made by Dunhill because he felt the mouthpiece work was superior. "As far as I knew," says Brad, "Dunhill was the only manufacturer that hand-cut stems, and I thought those hand-cut stems were amazing." As he was finishing high school and thinking about his future, he considered that a pipe shop might be the right career goal. A nice tobacco shop, maybe in San Diego, could be a good way to spend one's work life.

Brad Pohlmann

Brad Pohlmann in his workshop

Then he met a girl and things changed, as they often do. She was from Scotland, and Brad found himself in a long-distance relationship. She was living in England in 1972, and Brad decided to visit, motivated as well by the opportunity to see all the classic pipe shops he'd read about.

When he got off the plane in London, Customs officials asked what he planned to do in England. Brad said he was going to hitchhike around for six months or so, picking up odd jobs and seeing the country.

They immediately put him on a flight back to the U.S.

"I was naïve," says Brad. He tried again in 1975, this time with a different strategy. His girlfriend was by this time living in New York City, but Brad was disappointed that he'd missed all those English pipe shops, so he decided to visit her by way of London first. This time, when Customs asked what he planned in England, he displayed a fistful of cash and a couple of credit cards and told them he was there to shop and spend money. They liked that better and let him stay.

Brad calls that trip his "pipe pilgrimage." He visited all the famous pipe shops in London, and made a trip to Scotland as well, to visit Rattray's. Then he went to New York City and saw the shops there. That's when he met Finn Meyan Anderson, who had worked for the W.Ø. Larsen factory in Denmark and was carving pipes in a store window as promotion. "I don't even remember what shop it was now," says Brad. "It may have been Peterson's." At that time, Anderson was mainly carving the Fancy Danish Freehands that were so popular at that time, and while Brad wasn't interested in carving in that style, he did appreciate the skill necessary for making those pipes, and he spent some time talking with Finn. "I was impressed by his pipes," says Brad, "and I was especially impressed that he was making and selling them in a working pipe shop." The two talked for some time, Brad making mental notes about how this strategy worked and thinking about how to employ it in his own pipe store, once he had one. And he knew he wanted to make his own pipes for that future shop; it was an essential element.

He started traveling. He wasn't just ping-ponging across the country, though it felt that way sometimes. Brad didn't have a car, by the way. This traveling lifestyle was all done by way of hitchhiking.

He went back to California and began researching pipe makers, ready to pursue an education unavailable at any university by traveling everywhere there was a pipe maker to be found. Before embarking, he had subscribed to The Pipe Smoker's Ephemeris, a revered pipe publication put out by Tom Dunn, and Brad pored through its pages to find the locations of pipe makers.

He started traveling. He wasn't just ping-ponging across the country, though it felt that way sometimes. Brad didn't have a car, by the way. This traveling lifestyle was all done by way of hitchhiking. Though the schedule was casual, and he'd stay in a place for however long he felt it was useful, he was not without a plan.

He traveled everywhere, working temporarily as he went, sometimes for a few months, sometimes much less, sometimes construction, or busing tables, or as a cook, but mainly whatever he could find that would let him stay on the road to find pipe makers. He visited Travers LaRue in Washington state, and would like to have stayed there to apprentice, but LaRue had a new son-in-law who was now apprenticing and there was no room for Brad. He then hitched across Canada to Toronto and met with the Brigham pipe company, hoping to find a job there to learn pipe making. But while Brigham was willing, the necessary paperwork for legally working in Canada was too onerous for both parties, so he moved on. "Brigham wasn't the style I was hoping to emulate anyway," says Brad, "so it wasn't a devastating blow. But it was a blow."

Brad Pohlmann in his workshop

He went back to New York, deciding he needed to reconnect with Finn, but Finn was gone. Those who worked in the shop didn't know or wouldn't say where he went, and they weren't forthcoming with information, so he started asking around at other pipe shops in New York, finally hearing a rumor that Finn had moved to Vermont to work at the Briar Workshop. He started hitchhiking.

In Vermont, he stopped in to see pipe maker Andrew Marks in Middlebury, then went on to Stowe and the Briar Workshop.

"By the time I got there, Finn had left," says Brad. That's where Finn leaves the story and Brad was never able to find him again. Pipe makers should be more careful. Look at what Finn did just by making pipes in a store window: He sent Brad Pohlmann on a geographical whirlwind of pipe pilgrimages and made him a pipe maker before he even learned to carve a pipe.

Jorg Jemelka and Elliott Nachwalter ran the Briar Workshop, and Brad introduced himself. Elliott gave him a tour of the place and sat down to talk with him. Brad told him that he really wanted to work at the Briar Workshop and offered to work for free. He had experience as a clerk in a tobacco shop from the Tobacco Barrel. "I hitchhiked all the way from California to work here," he said.

Brad calls that trip his "pipe pilgrimage." He visited all the famous pipe shops in London, and made a trip to Scotland as well, to visit Rattray's.

He was awarded a job, and even started receiving pay for his work after a couple of weeks. It was fall foliage season in Vermont, and Brad also took a part-time job busing tables at a nearby hotel, so he was able to learn pipe making without starving.

It was the autumn of 1976, and Brad started, finally, to learn pipe making. He excelled, of course, and eventually was the only staff member permitted to perform every stage of the craft. He developed new stains and expanded the shop's options, in particular concentrating on final finishing.

The Briar Workshop's pipes were becoming popular, and a distribution company wanted to distribute the pipes nationwide but needed the workshop to move to Florida. Brad didn't want to go to Florida, so he started looking for another position, considering Ehrlich's in Boston a possibility, but Jorg and Elliott wanted Brad to stay and offered him equity in the company. So he moved to Coral Springs, Florida.

But the company wasn't the same after that and disbanded after a year. Brad went back to California but took with him an important lesson: He needed to better understand and maintain machinery if he was to be a successful pipe maker. To that end, he found an apprenticeship in tool and die work.

Now he lives in Oregon, married to pipe maker Silver Gray, who started her own pipe-making journey in 2013. The two share a shop in their home in the woods, gated from the outside world, with only trees visible. It's the perfect environment for two such creative individuals.

And that was the end of his pipe making for almost two decades. From tool and die, he moved into the computer industry and spent another 16 years working for the growing corporate behemoth that was Tandem Computers, merging later with Compaq and DEC. When Hewitt Packard moved to purchase Compaq, the corporate culture became cut-throat, and Brad was laid off.

"I thought, 'Now what?'" says Brad. He was over 50 years old, that magic stage of life when no one wants to hire you for anything because, well, reasons. He wasn't hitchhiking independently around the country any longer; he now had a family to provide for. He needed a new career.

"It struck me that I could be the pipe maker I'd always wanted to be," says Brad. "I called J.T. Cooke, whom I'd worked with at the Briar Workshop, and he had a connection to a good briar supply that had been aging for 15 years." Brad purchased that entire batch of briar, a lathe and some other essential machinery, and started making pipes again.

He says those first pipes were awfully derivative of those he made at the Briar Workshop, something he was unaware of until attending the Chicago pipe show in 2004 and meeting Todd Johnson and Jody Davis, who were making pipes much different from his own concepts. Todd invited Brad to his shop, and Brad went, learning the "shape first, drill later" method of carving, and it was illuminating, encouraging remarkable possibilities that he'd not previously considered. "By shaping the pipe before drilling, I was able to develop much more creative shapes with better grain orientation. It was life altering."

His pipes changed, and collectors and smokers took notice. Commissions began accruing and his pipes sold as soon as he could make them. "It's so much more satisfying than computer work," he says. "I should never have left the craft."

Brad Pohlmann and Silver Gray at the 2019 West Coast Show

Now he lives in Oregon, married to pipe maker Silver Gray, who started her own pipe-making journey in 2013. The two share a shop in their home in the woods, gated from the outside world, with only trees visible. It's the perfect environment for two such creative individuals.

While his pipe making has slowed somewhat, Brad still attends pipe shows with Silver, shows that are a highlight in both their lives because they provide personal contact with customers and with other pipe makers. Brad has utilized his skills in tool and die to help Silver develop the manufacturing process for a Peterson clamshell mouthpiece not manufactured since the 1930s, and both carvers are particularly excited about that project.

It's been a strange and winding road so far, but Brad Pohlmann has found his way to the lifestyle he always wanted, secluded in the spectacular natural setting of the Pacific northwest, following a craft he loves with a partner he loves. And we pipe smokers benefit from his contentment, because his skills and vision have helped change the world of pipes for the better.

Comments

    • Phil Goodman on January 19, 2020
    • Great article. Thank you.

    • Joel Arker on January 19, 2020
    • I love the drawing of Brad!

    • Rick Green on January 19, 2020
    • Thanks for this delightful, informative article; a perfect Sunday afternoon read.

    • Andy Camire on January 19, 2020
    • The pipe community is certainly much richer for the works of Brad and Silver. A very interesting road that Brad has led to the final stages of being a full time pipemaker of renown. Well deserved, well earned. Thanks for the fine biography Chuck.

    • Matt Guss on January 19, 2020
    • One of my favorite people and pipe makers. And he laughs at my jokes which is a qualification for any good friend. Thanks for his story!

    • Todd on January 19, 2020
    • Brad crafted a beautiful bent apple with contrast stain for me a year or so ago (on commission), with an antler accent crafted from some antlers his dog dragged to his new house! It’s a dedicated Virginia smoker and one of my favorites!

    • Mark on January 20, 2020
    • Wonderful article,FLAKE thank you. But I had to laugh, with sympathy, reading the fate of his first trip to the UK. The same thing happened to a friend of mine in 1967. He had a burning desire to go to England. It was the time of Swinging London after all. He pulled together what he figured would be enough money. He was young and rather bohemian, he knew he’d get by okay one way or another. He got his passport, a plane ticket, and he was on his way. He arrived in London, but never even saw it. The English customs and immigrations folks took a dim view of how much money he had, refused him entry, and put him on the next flight back to Minneapolis. He could hardly believe what had happened to him.

    • Mark on January 20, 2020
    • Please ignore the word “FLAKE” in my above comment. I was merely entering “the circled word” in order to submit the comment, and somehow it also ended up in the comment itself!

    • Gayl Liebman on January 20, 2020
    • I own several of Brad's pipes and they are wonderful. It was through my acquaintance with him that I ultimately Steve Books, the master blender, who was able to reproduce my favorite blend. We struck up a friendship which lasted until his untimely death 2 years ago. So I owe Brad a lot.

    • Smokey on January 20, 2020
    • The preamble to a more in depth biography. I dot know of any biographies on pipe makers. It’s fertile ground. As it stands, a well written piece about the life adventures of a craftsman highly skilled in a rare discipline...deserving elaboration. Marks pipes are indeed things of beauty.

    • Charles P. Scavitto on January 20, 2020
    • Great article and great adventures! He followed his dreams and made it work out for him. Brad's parents had given his brother a pipe to help him resist the temptation of cigarettes, and Brad, who was still in high school, thought it was cool. Am curious though as to if pipe smoking was just a passing thing for Brad's brother or did he continue smoking a pipe throughout his life as did Brad and their father.

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