Silver Gray: American Hybrid

Next time you find yourself talking with an accountant, think about all the pent up, unresolved creativity they're carrying around with them. They could at any moment break free and find a craft to bring equilibrium to their years of adding numbers, filling columns, and reconciling balances.

Pipemaker Silver Gray has been carving pipes professionally since 2013 but for the previous 30 years she was an accountant, eventually opening her own accounting agency. "There's nothing artistic about doing books," she says. "It's the same thing every day, every month, every year. It's extremely repetitive. I did some quilt making and sewed some clothing for a creative escape, but nothing really resonated."

Then she met Brad Pohlmann, one of the most experienced, respected and innovative pipemakers anywhere.

"I was out with a girlfriend and her husband," says Silver, "and Brad was on the dance floor dancing with another woman when our eyes met. He immediately stopped, left the girl on the dance floor, and came over to me. I gave him my number and he went back to dancing. It was okay; they were just friends."

They met for coffee and had an instant connection. Silver was intrigued to learn that Brad made pipes for a living. "I'd never considered pipemaking as being an actual occupation, a job that people did." The first time she joined him in his workshop, she felt like she was home, that this was her true place and that she'd been in the wrong place for too long.

There's nothing artistic about doing books. It's the same thing every day, every month, every year. It's extremely repetitive. I did some quilt making and sewed some clothing for a creative escape, but nothing really resonated.

"I'm very mechanically oriented, so when I was exposed to all those new tools whose purposes were unfamiliar, and the lathe, it was all super interesting." She wanted to get her hands on them.

She'd owned a meerschaum pipe in her youth in Alaska, where her father, an Air Force senior master sergeant, was stationed. "The availability of tobacco back then, especially up there, was terrible, so I'd crumble up cigarette tobacco and smoke it in the meerschaum. I don't know whatever happened to that pipe. But I loved the aroma, the ritual, the ambiance of pipes, and so when I met Brad, I started smoking a pipe again. I particularly like that you don't inhale."

Evenings, as Brad worked on pipes, Silver would keep him company in the shop, and was soon anxious to try making something herself. The wood and the tools were calling to her. "I started messing around with briar, just for something to do while he was making pipes. I made some briar hearts. They were popular at pipe shows, but I don't make them anymore; they're too time consuming. Brad was so welcoming in his shop, he never said don't do this or don't touch that. He let me do whatever."

As may be easily inferred, she soon wanted to try making a pipe. "Brad kind of chuckled and gave me a block of briar," she says, "and he said, okay, go for it. Yeah, well, that didn't turn out so well. I'd watched him and he made it look easy, but mine wasn't even drillable."

Like most occupations, pipemaking looks easy when performed by seasoned professionals, but it's much harder than immediately evident. "I took a step back and started messing with some of Brad's rejected stummels, making a few pipes out of those. They turned out pretty well. I continued making my hearts and slowly started making my own pipes. It took a long time. I smoked them; they certainly weren't anything close to sellable."

Working nights in Brad's shop, Silver says it took about a year before she felt she could make a decent pipe. "The learning curve was steep, but I take a lot of notes. The one time Brad said 'no' to me was when I first started. I wanted to use Brad's shapes. He emphatically told me 'No!' What? 'No?' He said if I were to become a pipemaker, I needed to do so on the strength of my own ideas. I'm so glad he did that. Now. But it was rough at first. That motivated me to investigate and create my own identity. What a blessing that advice has been!

I continued making my hearts and slowly started making my own pipes. It took a long time. I smoked them; they certainly weren't anything close to sellable.

"And it was fun, working together, bouncing ideas off each other, experimenting with different combinations. I'd say, Hey Brad, what do you think of this color combination, and he'd say, I don't know, do it and see what you come up with. He was never discouraging about anything, always encouraging. He's a great teacher, letting me learn from my mistakes as well as my successes."

Silver's aesthetic is both organic and geometric, an interesting combination. Her Bulldogs, for example, display remarkable geometry, with crisp, precise edging and lines, integrated with a voluptuous curve of stem. However, she seems to gravitate toward more organic, curved forms, as her recent infatuation with the Hawkbill shape demonstrates, with taller, often more elongated vertical presence in their bowls, which are more Egg-shaped than Castello renditions, for example. "You may notice that a lot of my bowls are Egg shaped, with organic, natural, smooth curves," she says. "I like spherical shapes. And I like Panels, strangely enough, though Panels don't seem to be particularly popular right now. But I think the most difficult shape I make is the Bulldog because it involves more lathe work than I usually like. I usually use the lathe just for drilling the stummels and stems. The Bulldog takes a lot more lathe work, and I prefer shaping a piece on the grinding wheel."

Inspired by Sixten, Lars and Nanna Ivarsson, Silver is most influenced by the Danish school of pipemaking, emphasizing smooth curves and organic forms. "The Ivarssons are my core Danish influence, because they were never afraid to try something new or to make something no one has seen before. I studied them the most when I was learning pipe shapes. They're fantastic innovators.

"A term was used for Brad's style and I'd like to adopt it for myself as well: American Hybrid. I take different influences and, being American, I may have a Danish bowl but I've added a different shank. I love traditionals but they've been done over and over, and everyone tries to put their own spin on them. I try to spin them a little further. The masters of old really developed some beautiful shapes. Look at a Savinelli shape chart, so many beautiful shapes. Castello and Peterson, Dunhill, they all have wonderful shapes."

Those classic shapes are popular, though. "Making a Billiard looks like it would be easy, but in my opinion it's among the hardest shapes to get right. Making a Billiard with a different slant, that's what I do, though I've made traditional Billiards, and other traditional shapes. I made an Oom Paul and sent it to a customer, even though he was a straight pipe guy and it was completely outside of his comfort zone. But he smoked it and loved it. All he smoked was straight pipes. He ended up selling all his straight pipes and now has all three-quarter-to-full bent pipes. I converted him. He said he was tired of banging his pipe into the car window when he turned his head. I'd made a Billiard for him and ended up sending it to Smokingpipes because now all he smokes are bents. I'm such a bad influence."

A term was used for Brad's style and I'd like to adopt it for myself as well: American Hybrid. [...] I love traditionals but they've been done over and over, and everyone tries to put their own spin on them. I try to spin them a little further.

Silver made 80 pipes in 2017, and 50 in 2018. "So far this year, I've made 23. I'm slowing down because I'm paying more attention to detail and putting more time into each pipe than I have previously." Experience tends to lead to more intense inspection of individual elements, as she has discovered. The more you know, the more you see, and the more you want to improve. Still, she tries not to spend excessive time. "I want people to smoke my pipes, so I try to keep prices as reasonable as possible." To that end, she's developed some work techniques to keep things moving. "I like to work in batches. If I'm drilling on the lathe, I want to be drilling more than one pipe. I think that's from my accounting background and interest in work efficiency. When I'm making stems, I want to make five or six stems; I don't want to make one and then have to retool everything."

Stem work for smoking instruments of this caliber must be exemplary, and Silver has built a reputation for the comfort of her mouthpieces. "I hand cut all my stems, except for one Churchwarden I did using a preformed stem. I have a current commission for a churchwarden and that stem will be hand-cut. I'm on the hunt for the right drill bit for that." Her Hawkbill series utilizes an interesting mouthpiece detail. "The stems are so short that I don't bend them. I found I was trying to bend an inch and a half, and I didn't want to compromise my Delrin tenons. The Hawkbill series has mouthpieces that are straight but carved to look bent."

Silver is working on replicating the mouthpiece for Peterson's rare and discontinued "Nap" pipe (pictured above).

Her stem work has even caught the attention of Gary Malmberg and Mark Irwin, authors of the new book, The Peterson Pipe, which is so well researched that it should win awards. Silver is currently working on stems for a particularly rare Peterson shape with a distinctive, patented mouthpiece designed to disperse smoke more evenly through the mouth. "I have the original 1930s pipe here, so I'll be able to copy the stem from the original, and Brad will be working with me on it. There's a screw-in tenon, and I've not done threading, but Brad has extensive tool & die experience, so he'll be helping with that. It's a pipe from Gary's collection, with a kind of clamshell lip button. I'll make about 10 of these stems; I have six stummels coming. It's going to be nerve wracking, because they have to be exactly right."

Silver Gray and Brad Pohlmann attend two shows a year, Chicago in May and Las Vegas in November. "It's such an advantage to talk with customers; that's the best part. It makes it all worthwhile. It's rewarding to actually speak with my clients and learn what they like and don't like and learn about their experiences. The whole community in general is fascinating."

I like to work in batches. If I'm drilling on the lathe, I want to be drilling more than one pipe. I think that's from my accounting background and interest in work efficiency. When I'm making stems, I want to make five or six stems; I don't want to make one and then have to retool everything.

Most of Silver's recent work has been by commission, keeping her busy making pipes to the specifications of others, and she tries to execute those pipes with the personality of the client always in mind. "I made one for a former schoolteacher, and she wanted a Bulldog, so I made the profile look like a checkmark, pulled that stem out and made the heel of the bowl a little more pointed. Another wanted a Bulldog in purple, and it looks like a spaceship. I seem to be doing a lot of commissions lately, with 14 in the queue at the moment. The drawback of doing a commission is that I can't just do what I want, I can't break out and make something bizarre or non-traditional, I can't let my own style take over."

Silver Gray pipes come in two textures, smooth and sandblasted. "I don't do a super deep sandblast, because I like a hand feel that's soft rather than jagged. I don't leave extra material on a pipe for sandblasting, so a moderate blast is best for maintaining the shape." All of her smooth pipes are contrast stained. "They take an enormous amount of time. I do a sandblast contrast too. For a pipe that doesn't have great grain, where a contrast stain won't do much for it, I developed a different method to give it a light undertone and darker overtones, providing more dimension. You can do only a small area at a time or it penetrates too deeply and ruins the color."

Silver's lifestyle has changed much in the past few years, the result of changing from a full-time accountant to a full-time pipemaker, and her quality of life has expanded and improved. "I absolutely love making pipes. I've found myself. I've never been happier. I work at my own pace, with my own hours. And it's invigorating to win the approval of so many experienced pipe smokers." An example of that approval came in 2018 when she won Best Pipe of Show at the Las Vegas pipe show. "That was such an honor. Brad won in 2015, and then I won in 2018. We're the only husband/wife team to ever win like that.

I absolutely love making pipes. I've found myself. I've never been happier. I work at my own pace, with my own hours. And it's invigorating to win the approval of so many experienced pipe smokers.

"Brad gifted me with a lifestyle of pipemaking, and he gifted me with an entry into the pipe community, which I can't say enough good things about. The kindest, most wonderful group of people, the most accepting people I've ever had the privilege of knowing. There's no badmouthing, no discrimination, nothing, it's a real pleasure to be part of. We don't want to ever miss one of our pipe shows. It would be like missing a family reunion."

Comments

    • Dan H. on July 8, 2019
    • Really enjoyed learning more about Ms. Gray. I noticed when her latest batch of pipes hit the store, they were gone within a day. She must be popular. I really like those Hawk Egg shapes.

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