Jody Davis is the lead guitarist for The Newsboys, a Christian rock band of enormous popularity. "It's probably the biggest band you've never heard of," he jokes. Jody is a well-grounded individual who has not let his musical fame alter his boyish charm and self-deprecating sense of humor. He says that talent had less to do with his success than chance and good fortune. "You could throw a stone in any direction in Nashville and hit a better guitarist than me, and then injure another on the bounce. I was just in the right place at the right time."
There's some doubt about that. Jody has a charismatic stage presence and is an excellent guitarist and vocalist. He brings a great deal of talent to The Newsboys and has had one solo album as well. He tours a lot in the band's bus (or, more precisely, one of the band's buses; they travel with several), but he doesn't leave his pipe making behind while on tour. He has constructed a portable pipe workshop that he takes with him.
"That's pretty much the life of a musician; it's a lot of hurry up and wait," says Jody. Rush to get to the venue, then wait hours before getting on stage. "You get there, you're waiting to play. You're waiting to do an interview. You're waiting to do a meet and greet. You're waiting and waiting, you're just waiting all the time. So I have downtime."
Jody likes to make pipes with that spare time. While preparations and sound checks and staging are taking place, and fans are breathlessly waiting, Jody makes pipes. He's integrated two disparate careers and is very successful at both.
While preparations and sound checks and staging are taking place, and fans are breathlessly waiting, Jody makes pipes
He makes some of the most beautiful and well-engineered pipes anywhere, easily competing with the best of the best worldwide. He seems particularly well-suited to the arts: everything he does is at an elevated quality. That's obvious in his music and in his pipes, which possess truly advanced design and finishing, and his meticulous engineering produces smoking qualities that are sought after and admired.
He's been with The Newsboys for 30 years now, with a five-year hiatus in the early 2000s to care for his daughter and her health issues as a single parent. During that time he made pipes full-time, but that slowed somewhat after he returned to the band. With his musical obligations taking much of his time, he's now able to make only around 50 pipes a year.
The Newsboys (source: Official Newsboys Facebook page)
The five years he spent making pipes full-time were helpful for his outlook. "It was really nice to step back and get away from it for a minute. That's when I really dug in and became a full-time pipe maker. And it allowed me to kind of see the music business from a different perspective. When I was able to come back, I appreciated it a little more. I think that originally, it was just, oh, it's about your art and your struggle. And you're doing all this stuff and you're trying to make your way. When I stepped away and then came back, I didn't take it all so seriously and just enjoyed it a lot more. I mean, how many people dream about being able to tour around the country and play for thousands of people and play guitar for a living? That's not lost on me; it's a great privilege to be able to do it. And in a lot of ways, it's the same with pipe making. It's a good life and I'm thankful that I have the privilege to be able to do it and support my family with both music and pipe making."
He's not sure how many albums he's contributed to. "One of the tricks in the music business is, when you change record companies, like say you get out of a contract, you move to another company. The other record company that licensed the old songs, they'll put out "Best Of" records to make money off the old songs, usually on top of a new release to capitalize on that. So God knows how many records are actually out there. I don't know. We're getting close to 16, maybe 17 records. Maybe more than that. It's a lot. And we just put a new one out in November."
Musicians don't make their living on albums like they used to. Now it's all downloads. "No one buys albums," says Jody. "They download individual songs. We were always a touring band, which is how we pay the bills."
Touring is not a small venture. Along with the four band members, they travel with a crew and hire locals at each location for additional support. "And then you have your people who know what's going on: you've got a front house sound engineer, you've got a monitor engineer, you've got a stage manager. You've got back-line techs, you've got LED and lighting techs." Jody estimates that they travel with 40 people, usually in four buses, which are also filled with all the equipment necessary for a show.
Jody Davis and Pipe Making
"Pipe making," says Jody, " is just something I started messing with and then it just grew. I can't really connect it to anything else that was going on in my life that I can say, oh, this is definitely the time I started, but I think I started around 1998. I found one of UPtown's Smoke Shop's pipe catalogs from 2000 and it had two of my pipes listed, so I was selling them to UPtown's in 2000 and obviously started before that. How far before that did I start? Surely I was working at least two years before I started doing that. So I'm assuming somewhere around '98."
His interest began when he started smoking pipes, which was a spontaneous event. "I don't know, just one day I said, 'Hey. You know, I think I want to get a pipe.' I ended up at Uptown's and bought a Peterson Donegal Rocky Canadian." UpTown's in Nashville would become an important influence. At that time, it was the premier source for high-level, expensive artisan pipes, especially from Denmark.
"I ended up at Uptown's and bought a Peterson Donegal Rocky Canadian."
Before he started making pipes, Jody was a collector and smoker, and he was infatuated with estate pipes. "I used to go to antique stores, wherever we were traveling, and buy up all the pipes. I started really digging the pipes themselves and wanted to figure out how they worked. I was kind of enamored by the shapes and thought it'd be fun to make one. And it was all over after that."
He bought that first Peterson estate pipe from Keith Moore, who was the pipe manager at UPtown's. "So then I would go back in there, and that's kind of how I got rolling in the pipe thing, especially when I started finding estate pipes. At that time, the internet wasn't really a big thing as far as the pipe world goes. I was buying Dunhills and Barling's in the antique stores for $3, $5 each."
The band was playing around 200 shows a year, and in every town, Jody would scour the antique stores. "I had, I don't know, probably 300 pipes at one point." He would bring his estate finds to Greg Peavy of the Arcade Smoke Shop in Nashville for refurbishing. "I'd bring him a big bag of pipes and he'd say, 'Oh my gosh.' We did a lot of bantering back and forth because he loves all that stuff and had a pretty good knowledge of estate pipes. He'd know the name of the carver at GBD who made this, for example. He had an amazing quantity of information and knowledge. It was always interesting to sit and talk with him."
But it was UPtown's that provided much of his early pipe education, mostly because it was a shop where the best pipes in the world could be examined in person. "They had become the premier high-end pipe seller in the U.S. They had exclusive deals with Jess Chonowitsch, Lars Ivarsson, S. Bang, and even had some pipes from Poul Ilsted, Teddy Knudsen, and Bo Nordh. It was great for me, especially at that time, when there wasn't a lot of stuff on the internet that you could just look at. I don't know who in the U.S., especially as an aspiring pipe carver, would've been exposed to more of those pipes of that quality than I was."
Anytime new pipes arrived at UPtown's, Keith would call Jody to let him know. "I would go over there and just look at all this amazing work. And at that time, who else would've seen pipes like that? Except maybe at the Chicago Pipe Show, it just didn't happen."
It was when he first saw a Bo Nordh pipe that Jody knew he would be a pipe maker. He examined it and said, "Now that's what I want to do. I didn't know anything about what I was doing, and there was no information anywhere. I literally would buy any pipe book and magazine and just scour every page. They'd show a pipe maker sitting in his workshop, and I would just be looking at the bench figuring out what was in his shop. What is he doing? What is he using? I would do all this research, just trying to get a hint of how to do something from these pictures and trying to imagine, what would you use that for? How does that work?"
Perhaps his biggest break came when UPtown's orchestrated the Nashville Pipe Show in the early 2000s. Jody had a table with his pipes at the show, and he was placed next to pipe maker J.T Cooke. "We hit it off. He was a musician, so we talked about all kinds of stuff. He started looking at my pipes and asking me questions about how I was doing stuff. And I'm like, "Well...," and he'd just laugh. He said, 'You need to come up to my shop and learn the right tool for the job.'"
'I literally would buy any pipe book and magazine and just scour every page"
Jody flew to Vermont only a couple of months later and spent a week with Cooke. He made one pipe while there. "More than anything, it was how to make tools and how to use them. I recorded it all on an old VHS. Now, everybody does everything on their phone, but back then you had to have the camera."
When he returned to Nashville, he went over the tapes and made drastic changes to his processes. "I retooled my whole shop, bought lathes, bought all this stuff, and just jumped in, not really knowing where it would lead. Just watching video tapes and hoping I didn't hurt myself. But it changed everything immediately. Like, oh gosh, this is a whole other world, and the improvement in my pipes was noticeable." It was more than noticeable. After Cooke's help, J. Davis pipes reached a new level of sophistication. Jody had always had impressive artistic vision for his pipes, but he was now learning how to make his vision reality.
"I retooled my whole shop, bought lathes, bought all this stuff, and just jumped in, not really knowing where it would lead"
"From that point, there were two major elements that were instrumental in me having success as a pipe maker. One was Keith Moore, who was already selling the best pipes that could be acquired in the world, and the second was his belief in me. He passed that on to his customers, customers who bought high-end pipes. He'd say, 'Look, this guy, he's up and coming. He's going to be the next dude or whatever." Keith would promote Jody's pipes because they were of a quality that he knew his high-end customers would appreciate.
It was a time when few American carvers were emulating Danish style. There were certainly high-quality American pipes available from such carvers as Mike Butera, J.T Cooke, Paul Bonacquisti, and many more, but Danish style had not yet become part of the American repertoire. Americans at the time were more influenced by Italian pipe making. Jody was among the first to bring Danish style into the American carving vocabulary.
Jody was among the first to bring Danish style into the American carving vocabulary
"I started with what I would call the English/French way of making pipes, where you're turning and drilling on a lathe. But then I had the opportunity to learn the more Danish way of doing it, where you're drilling by hand, you are rough shaping the pipe before you ever do any drilling. So you're much more able to adjust your shape into the block of wood, to follow where the grain goes. Once you drill, you're locked in, you can't change that. If you can shape and then drill, you're going to have a lot more success in producing these beautifully grained pipes. Instead of imposing your shape on this block of wood, you are coming in with an idea and then you're letting the wood take you where it wants to go. I don't think there was anybody in the U.S. who worked like that in that Danish style. I think Todd Johnson and I were some of the first guys to really learn that in the U.S."
Todd Johnson had visited Tom Eltang in Denmark and brought those carving strategies back with him. He had some drill bits made for the purpose and he called Jody, saying, "Hey, I've got these bits and I'm going on vacation. You want to mess with them while I'm gone?'" Todd briefly outlined their use.
Jody spent two weeks working out how to use them, but his real advancements in Danish-style carving came with his opportunity to spend time in the shops of Lars Ivarsson and of Jess Chonowitsch in Denmark. "What I took away was mind-blowing as far as all the different techniques, and even things that I just observed, things that they didn't even know they taught me." Seeing these gifted craftsmen at work and noting some of their unexpected techniques added another layer to Jody's understanding of pipes. "It really helped me establish some ingenuity, to take those ideas and stretch them in different ways."
Jody's pipes became something new in American pipe making, and they became enormously popular. They've maintained that popularity through the years since, and when any become available, they are quickly acquired by smokers who know and appreciate the craftsmanship involved.
Jody Davis' Traveling Pipe Workshop
Constant travel isn't the best situation for a pipe maker, but Jody was determined to maintain both careers. That meant finding a way to make pipes while on the road.
"It's funny how it came about. I had started trying to figure out how to build guitars. I was studying and learning, reading some books." He started making guitars and figuring out what he could take with him to complete while touring with the band. He would look at what needed to be done over the next few days, and would gather those tools and elements necessary to take with him. "And I would work on guitars all day, out on the road."
It was relatively slow, but he worked it all out a step at a time until he had a finished guitar. Then came an epiphany: "If I can do this with a guitar, there's got to be a way I can do this with pipes." That would be even better than making guitars on the road. "I could keep my business going and keep my customers happy."
He started thinking about the required tooling and how to make it portable, starting with the lathe. "How can I strip this down to the most minimal number of things that can be put in a case and taken out on the road? I sat down with some graph paper and drew out some things, a bunch of measurements. In the touring world, you design your cases to pack in the semi trailer. When they're loading a truck, it's like a big game of Tetris, so you want a uniform sort of size for most of your cases, so that you can pack everything in properly. My rig is designed for a truck pack. It has a very specific width and depth. It just happened that it worked out to fit a lathe."
The portable shop is carefully designed to fit into two cases with everything he needs. "The bottom case has drawers on one side and the front comes off. There's a dust collector on the other, and a slide-out work bench that comes out like on drawer slides, but they're real heavy-duty, locking drawer slides. So when you pull the workbench out, it locks and it doesn't move." All of his supplies are housed in the drawers to the right of the bench. He uses the lathe as the motor for his shaping and buffing wheels as well.
"Then I have all the other tooling that I need: Dremels and files and all the little specialty tools in little cases in the drawers, and I just pull out what I need. I can pretty much do anything but sandblast, which is no big deal. I can do that at home." He sets up his workshop wherever some space can be found. "The road manager finds me a room somewhere in the building. I can set it up in about five minutes, and I'm ready to go."
Where to See J. Davis Pipes
A two-pipe set of Halo-graded Amore shapes
Jody's website has lots of photos of pipes and an explanation of the various grades, which are themed, like his music, in a faith-based style. His highest grade is the Saint, and when an especially transcendent example comes along, it gets an additional "Halo" stamp. From there, grades include Cardinal, Bishop, Abbott, and Friar.
While he has an email list that may be subscribed to for notification when new pipes are available, the only retailer he works with is Smokingpipes. Because much of his production is in special orders, few pipes are actually available, but they are always impressive when they appear.
"I like working with Smokingpipes because I think they appreciate the heritage and the lineage of pipe making, and they're just stellar promoters of the craft. But that's pretty much it. I don't really even get to the pipe shows because we're always playing. And then when we weren't playing because of COVID, there weren't any pipe shows."
His highest grade is the Saint, and when an especially transcendent example comes along, it gets an additional "Halo" stamp
Jody's pipe making is not static; it changes and improves over time. For example, for the first few years, he employed a draft hole through the shank that was less in diameter than the standard 4mm found in most artisan pipes. Because of the meticulous engineering, in which the diameter maintains smooth and even airflow, they smoked with superior characteristics. However, he did change that to 4mm sometime around 2010. His style is continuously evolving and his finishing improves with every pipe he makes.
"I'm always trying to work out a better way and to get a better result. I've never really felt like I've been able to just settle into one thing. I feel like I'm always trying to make it better somehow. And if I can't make it better, I make it a little bit more efficient, trying to improve the process and the techniques. It's interesting."
He still gets excited about his pipes. It's a craft that has become a part of him, and when he is able to produce pipes that are particularly noteworthy, his excitement is the same as when he started out years ago. For example, Jody recently crafted a pair of his Amore shapes from a single block of briar, and both pipes attained his exemplary Halo stamp, which is an unheard-of impossibility. "It was such a specific block of wood. I thought, hey, I can literally get two Amores out of this. They were incredibly grained and perfectly clean, both of them.
"My initial thought was, all right, I've got this two-pipe set of Halos, which has never happened and may never happen again." He decided that such a spectacular set needed a spectacular display stand, and he started planning the design for that, but a collector bought the pipes before he started the display and wasn't interested in a stand, so that project didn't get far.
When that collector asked Jody about buying the set, Jody said, "I'll send them to you and make sure you want them, because you're getting into a pretty high price tag. But as soon as he opened the box, he said, 'I'm sending you the money right now.' And they're really cool. It's a fun set, definitely a highlight in my career."
Briar of that quality doesn't come along very often for pipe makers. Jody seems to dream of quality briar. "If I could just get more briar like that, I could make more Saints. But those blocks are incredibly special and a rare commodity. That is one thing that I don't know how to describe, but I literally feel a responsibility for every block of wood, every block of briar that I get." Each block must be done justice, and Jody knows that it's his job to get it right.
I literally feel a responsibility for every block of wood, every block of briar that I get
"There's a saying or a quote, maybe it was Saint Ignatius, that talks about how a plain and shapeless stump would never submit itself to the chisel of the artist who will carve it into a thing of beauty. Of course, obviously, he's referring to a spiritual life and God helping us to try to be better people and be better each day, and be carved into what He could help us develop into.
"It actually sparked in me almost this kind of a reverse of the idea that in the burl of this tree, this root buried underground, no one, unless you were God, no one would understand the beauty that was in there. First, you're already talking about the real miracle that this thing grew from a seed into a tree over however many years. Then it drops seeds, and it's an incredible miracle of nature. I feel like what my responsibility is as a pipe maker is to dumb it down to something that we can comprehend as a thing of beauty."
Jody Davis' respect for the inherent natural beauty of briar has contributed to his art, and admiring enthusiasts have responded to the way that his respect has grown into a pipe making style that elevates the craft and produces some of the most spectacular pipes ever made. He approaches his music, his faith, and his craftsmanship with the same respect, and those of us who admire his work can only appreciate the results that provide us with insight into the potential within everything and everyone.
Tagged in: Famous Pipe Smokers Jody Davis Pipe Culture Pipe Makers Tom Eltang