I started smoking a pipe while living in Montreal and attending Concordia University as a Philosophy major. Yes, quite appropriate. I was fairly enamoured of one of my professors, a crotchety old beggar who taught Spinoza and Foucault with a palpable passion, smelling of juniper, and who was rarely seen on the commons without his Peterson bent apple smoldering away with wonderful, wonderful tobacco.
This was the inception of my interest in pipe-smoking. I was soon to embark on quite another journey. After university, my brand new wife and I followed opportunity to Toronto where I came to discover the esoteric world of pipe and tobacciana collecting, particularly the enclave of young North American artisans making one of a kind handmade briars for a discerning and world-wide clientele. Looking for something to occupy my time (and fill my bank account) during my search for gainful employment, I thought maybe I should become a pipemaker, after all a pipe is made of wood and I’m I woodworker. Snap! Right?
Well, maybe not quite snap. I found there was a chap, indeed a pipemaker, a short drive from Toronto selling the requisites of the craft. This was my first contact with the exceptionally gifted pipemaker, Michael Parks of Parks Pipes. I gave the man a call and set up a time for me to visit his little streetfront shop in Bowmanville, ON and select the briar for this, my first stab at a new career.
I designed, drilled and carved a suite of pipes, and although I did manage to sell a few of my briars, I realized in short order that this was a craft that was not exactly woodworking. I had no idea when I first met him, but it turns out that Mike is in fact a world-renowned pipemaker, and I learned so much about making pipes from Mike. Pipemaking is far more akin to jewelry-making or engineering than to woodworking, demanding accuracies of +/- 1/1000 of an inch. Though a stickler for accuracy in my woodworking, I was out of my depths. In spending time with Mike, I absorbed more than simply the fundamentals of the craft, but the essence of the art of the craft. I decided it might be best to just hang with him and other pipemakers who had already embarked on their quixotic journey of craftsmanship. I started attending pipe shows with Parks where I met some of the best and most progressive makers from North America and Europe. Talking pipes with makers at the top of their game, dudes like Bill Shallosky and the maestro Brad Pohlmann, has been such a gift. As a craftsperson, it was easy to meet on the same wavelength.
Locally, I co-founded the Downtown Toronto Pipe Club to gather and smoke with like-minded fans of the briar. I scoured flea markets and antique sales to find vintage pipes and new pipes from established pipe companies and artisans just starting out. I began to amass a collection, and was struck pretty early on with the desire to give them a pride of place, something more fitting than in a jumble on the mantle. Naturally, I wanted a rack that was represented my idea of the pipe–not simply an article of antiquity, but a contemporary design object, exceptionally personal, an object of both beauty and utility–esoteric, but relevant.
I didn’t really expect to find what I hoped for on the open market, and I had a good idea of what I was after, so I rummaged through the scrap bin and whacked together a rack from mahogany with cocobolo ‘nails’. I’ve subsequently made more of these racks in a range of materials for both myself and for pipe smoking clients. Eventually running short on mantle space, I built a wall-mounted cabinet for fifteen of my finest handmade pipes. I like the cabinet a lot. It has a nice mid-century restraint that allows the wood to tell the story. The central panel is full of interest and the design is just so crisp and clean. I also like that there remains room for a few more pipes before the cabinet is full.
A lot of pipe folk hold their pipes in especially high esteem, so a pipemaker is in semi-regular need of a woodworker to make things like stands, racks, boxes or even cabinets for a particular commission. Thus spawned a trade-based relationship with Mike Parks and other pipe makers for custom boxes, humidors, and cabinets.
Although the intensity of my collecting days has mellowed, I am still engaged in the hobby. I still acquire a couple pipes a year, mostly Parks Pipes and vintage pipes picked up from antique shops and fairs around southern Ontario. And quite happily I am still contacted to design and build unique pieces for discerning pipe collectors around North America. It’s been a real pleasure to have found a way to contribute to such a rich hobby and to bring to it my own ideas about design.