Pipe Making Seminar by the Sea

Pipe Making Seminar at Smokingpipes.com

The day after last year's event, Jeff, Adam, and I sat at Jeff's kitchen table and decided it was something that needed to happen again. Furthermore we wanted it to again be free for the attendees. We wanted it to be more like a prestigious academic conference to which one is invited, rather than a training workshop for which one pays. For purely logistical reasons, Jeff wanted it to be a somewhat smaller group — cramming a dozen people into Jeff's workshop proved problematic last year — and we all wanted it more focused and serious. Not less fun, of course, as you don't attract potential attendees with an outline that lists "less fun than last year!" as a bullet point, but we all wanted 2015's event to be a real opportunity for pipe makers to get together and focus on learning and growing as pipe makers (and maybe still eat some great food and drink a little beer while getting together).

Pipe Making Seminar at Smokingpipes.comFast forward to this past weekend, and I'm the only person who attended that isn't a professional pipe maker. Adam Davidson, pipe maker and Estate Manager for Smokingpipes.com joined me for the trip from South Carolina, to serve as co-instructor with Jeff Gracik, maker of J. Alan pipes. Also attending were John and Jared of J&J pipes, Ping Zhan from China, Italian pipe maker Davide Iafisco, who makes most of the Luciano pipes, Ernie Markle, and Steve Liskey. Aside from Jeff and Adam, who have each been making pipes for more than a decade, it's something of a who's-who of younger, up-and-coming, extremely talented professional pipe makers.

Jeff did not conceive of the seminar as being tutelage for novice pipe makers. Nor did he conceive of it as a commercial endeavor. Quite the contrary: all of these guys know what they're doing. By inviting only established, and (mostly) full-time pipe makers, Adam and Jeff were able to focus on technical details, shape design and tooling specifics, and the up-to-speed participants were able to share ideas and insights with each other too. This wasn't about teaching people how to make pipes. It was a way for all of these pipe makers to refine their craft. And it wasn't a lecture: it was designed to be participatory, structured as dialogue, not monologue.

Pipe Making Seminar at Smokingpipes.comMies van der Rohe famously declared, "God is in the details." That sentiment was alive and well this past weekend. I watched as Adam coached one participant on the advantages of holding the briar one direction or another, depending on the direction of visual flow being shaped. Similarly, at one point, Jeff demonstrated filing stems, but talked not about the tools or materials — these guys already know that stuff — but rather how he achieves certain subtleties in the saddle by holding the file different ways, while Adam showed Jared, Ping, and Steve how he polishes the inside of a tenon. Making great pipes, rather than merely good pipes, involves mastering thousands of details — details that individually aren't necessarily even discernible in a finished pipe, but that do add up, leading to a more consistently high quality body of work.

My role in all of this is less obvious. I'm not a pipe maker. I don't have anything to teach anyone about making pipes. But I have spent my entire adult life writing and thinking about pipes. I've been involved in more abstract discussions: How many different materials on a pipe constitute too many? When does juxtaposing colors work and when does it fail? Why do top pipe makers tend to use so few shank adornments? Why does the line of this pipe work, but that one next to it does not? These are all qualitative questions that don't have definite answers. They're also the sorts of questions that dominated our dinner conversations, recurring throughout the weekend. There might not be absolute, definitive answers to these sorts of intellectual inquiries, but they are the sorts of things that pipe makers need to be asking of themselves and their pipes.

Pipe Making Seminar at Smokingpipes.com

On Sunday, during the afternoon of our last day at the event, Adam and I offered critical (in the art criticism sense) responses to the participants' work in private sessions. Like last year, I think this was a really wonderful experience. We praised, but we also nit-picked, cajoled and made suggestions. Adam, drawing on his industrial design training in addition to his experience doing pipe quality control at Smokingpipes.com for a decade, is sort of amazing to watch. I mean, I'm pretty good at this, but Adam is as insightful and constructive a pipe critic as you're ever going to meet.

Jeff will continue to host Ping Zhan, Davide Iafisco, and John and Jared from J&J through the rest of the week and work with them in a less structured setting, but Adam and I needed to take our leave. Adam had to head home, and I'm on my way to Tokyo. Jeff Gracik has contributed something special to the pipe making community by hosting these events the past couple of years. We talked a little after the event about where it might go next. We didn't figure it all out, but we do know it will be happening again.


    • Carl Staudenmyer on February 10, 2015
    • Sikes what an exceptional piece, what a wonderful idea to develop and build on existing skills amoung such an great group of pipe makers. Happy to hear it will continue on into the future...

    • Norah Nelson from Downers Grove, Illinois on February 14, 2015
    • I don't have any knowledge of pipes, but I do like the fact that you have spent your life writing and thinking about pipes. With the vast knowledge you have, can you guide me? Dad passed 6 months ago and I have his 130 pipes and 10 pipe stands that hold anywhere from 6 to 24 pipes (some Duk-Its). I'm getting mixed messages - do I or don't I change the mouthpieces out when trying to sell them? And can I show up at a pipe show to see if anyone has an interest in them?

    • Joshua Burgess on February 16, 2015
    • Hi Norah, As Sykes mentions in the blog, he's actually traveling right now. I'd be happy to chat with you about your dad's pipes and what your options are as far as selling them. Feel free to send me an e-mail directly at [email protected] or give me a call at 888-366-0345, ex 126.

    • Matthew Lunsford on March 5, 2015
    • Film this one time to mix down and sell as a documentary. Those of us who do not make pipes, but are interested in pipes, would find the discussion of the finer points and details fascinating. I know I would. It would also introduce us to pipemakers with which we were unfamiliar.

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