Jeff Gracik has realized his goal of becoming a ‘top of his class’ pipe maker. The target of his one track mind has always been to perfect each and every shape in the chart and making sure he executes them as faithfully and flawlessly as possible. There are few out there who can disagree that Jeff has attained this goal. A fact of high importance is that Jeff Gracik has a strong sense of what a pipe should look like and thankfully he realized this important element early on. He fully understands the classical shapes and this is reflected in all of his work. It’s easy to forget that he has only been making pipes for 8 years. The speed with which he has mastered the craft highlights everything you need to know about his personality. His drive to discover & determine all of the secrets related to his vocation has brought him so quickly to where he stands today.
Jeff will talk about many subjects including the strange turns his life took, from theology school to textile sales manager to world class pipe maker. You’ll also read about his recent trip to Europe and find out what’s next for this talented sculptor of briar. I hope this read will enhance your understanding in Jeff Gracik of J. Alan pipes.
David M. (DM): Did you ever expect to become a pipe-maker? What led up to the decision to do this full-time?
Jeff Gracik (JG): Ha ha! No, I don’t know of many people who as children fantasize of being a pipemaker. In fact, like so many others, I did not know this little corner of a niche existed until my mid-twenties. I started out as an occasional cigar smoker. When my wife, Melissa, and I enrolled in our graduate program she reminded me that our new budget did not include the luxury of fine cigars and encouraged me to try out a pipe. I did. And I fell in love. I fell head over heels in love!
DM: What are your deeper thoughts regarding what happened with you? How does a sales man at a textile company (your job prior to pipe making) fall in love with pipes or even consider the idea of pipe making? Did you ever work with your hands before? How does one go from where you were in your life to ‘hey, I got an idea, I will try to make pipes for a living!’?
JG: I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands. Maybe it was the reward of walking away from a work session with physical evidence of my effort. I liked having some thing to turn over in my hands and show to friends. It was so different than researching or writing. Those are rewarding too, but in a less tangible way. Ultimately the beauty of pipes drew me away from my passion for studying as a vocation. To be clear, I never once thought about making pipes for a living. I just liked making them. Suddenly people started asking me if they could buy my work. And then their friends, and friends of friends, and so on. I launched a website and started going to shows. By the time I finished my master’s work it was obvious that I had sufficient demand to sustain some kind of life. We moved to California in 2006 and I began life as a full time pipemaker. It was just organic. It was a natural move to do this.
DM: Life does funny things to us and send us on interesting paths. What do you tell people who ask you for advice on becoming a pipe maker?
JG: So much of what happens to us in life is a strange confluence of decisions and flukes. Things present themselves to you and you can make a choice to pursue that or not. Sometimes the stars align and everything is right and you are allowed to enter into that opportunity that has presented itself and that is why often when I have been contacted by people who tell me: “I really want to become a pipe maker, can you tell me what equipment I should buy and I am really considering quitting my job, and I have talked it over with my spouse and I am ready to dive in” My immediate response is: “WHhoaahh!! Hold on there” I tell them to maybe make some pipes first and see if they even like it or not and I tell them to do that first. Then see if you are any good at it. Starting from that point, rather than with just an idea, is a much better way to go. I think there are a lot of people who like to put the cart before the horse. It’s good to dream but they have to let things develop as organically as possible. That’s my whole approach as well. I never planned to be a pipe maker. I certainly did not go to the seminary to become a pipe maker. It all just kind of happened. Thank god it did because I love what I do. People just have to realize that for most of us to make it in this business, you have to get the education and work your tail off and then maybe things will work out for you. That is the more clear perspective.
DM: What did your Mom and Dad say when you told them you wanted to ignore your higher education and become a pipe-maker? What about your wife’s family? What did they do when they heard their daughter’s husband wants to carve wood for a living?
JG: Both my wife and I come from fairly conservative and religious back-grounds where there was no drinking and no smoking so when the parents found out that I was already smoking tobacco, that was probably the bigger problem for them, then me going out to make pipes. By the time I made that pipemaking decision, they had given up all hope.
JG: Kidding aside, my parents have always been very supportive of me. They encouraged me to pursue my passion and to illustarte, there was a time when I was studying architecture and my mom went to the library and brought me all these books. She was getting excited about it with me. So I have always had supportive parents who have helped me my entire life. They bought me pipe making tools, they’ve been emotionally supportive and have listened to me and given me advice when I asked for it, they have been wonderful.
So while there may have been an initial question or response from the parents like “You want to do what with your life?” and that type of thinking, all in all, it is like I said, none of this was ever an abrupt change of direction in my life because things were always building toward this.
DM: You seem to be one of those people who found little to no resistance in your path to establish yourself as a pipe-maker. You chose each step, chose wisely, worked hard, grew and learned as much as you can, you continue to learn and now here you are 8 (relatively short) years later and you’re one of the most popular US based pipe maker working today. In Neill Archer Roan’s piece on you, “The Compleat Artisan” which can be read here, you mentioned dumb luck as being a companion of yours over the years. I understand the ‘everything fell into place’ concept but clearly, your innate talent to shape wood and your obvious comfort factor being so high right now that it allows you to tackle some very hard shapes and happily seeing the incredible results. If we don’t attribute this to dumb luck, what personal factors would you say contributed to where you are at now?
Persistence? Following a certain path and if so, what path?
So many pipe makers can carve their whole lives and only get 1/20th of the success that you have achieved. Is there any type of benchmark you can elucidate to other pipe makers to strive for? Perhaps some of them are spinning their wheels or not being honest with themselves and all they need is a good nudge in the right direction.
JG: I just did what I liked to do. Following one’s passion may be the secret to this game. If I didn’t enjoy myself, I certainly would not have left another enjoyable vocation track in higher education. But I loved making pipes. I loved creating something new and seeing how happy people were to own and use them.
JG: I love doing what I do and helping to add some joy to people’s lives. That feels good. If people are attracted to my work, and many people seem to be, more than I can possibly hope to offer my work to, I am grateful. What more could I ask for?
I don’t know if there is a benchmark. ‘Make nice pipes’, maybe. Not everyone wants to do the same thing. Some folks just want to make pipes and if people want to buy them, all the better. Others want or need to make a living from it. If you make a pipe of sufficient quality to sell and form some strong networks with shops and collectors, you’ll do well.
DM: What advice would you give to those carvers who want to be where you are?
JG: I would say to make more pipes. You have to look at the really nice pipes and try to make your pipes look like that. As Rad Davis would say: “Its not Rocket Surgery. You either can do it or you can’t.” We have all had people who have helped us and we try to help other people out. You only have so much time though so we really have to choose who we help. I can’t help everybody who asks for help, I try to, but I also have an income to earn. For example, Ernie Markle. Here is a guy who listens very well to instruction and he is really very talented. He is someone whom I have invested my time in. I think he will continue to improve.
DM: How do you handle the critics who say that a lot of the new pipe carvers have not spent enough time learning the traditional shapes? Do you think its true?
JG: I generally tend to eschew dogma, but this is one “rule” that I think should be followed. I have participated in an online pipemakers’ forum (www.pipemakersforum.com) since its inception and have seen countless pipemakers submit their work for peer review that revealed a void in knowledge on basic pipe design. The basics are most easily accessed by studying and making traditional pipe shapes.
JG: When I first began making pipes I was resistant. I wanted to express my creativity and felt that traditional shapes were restrictive and stifled creativity. Yet, it was only after I began exploring traditional shapes that I feel that advancements in my freehand work began to accelerate. Billiards are the basic building blocks on which all pipes are made. That old, old shape is the starting point. And that one single bowl shape has inspired so many variations. I am actually preparing a video for my blog that discusses a three billiard set that I’ve just made—each one is based around the same bowl shape, but employs different design elements that make each of them unique. For all that they share in common, each is its own pipe.
Traditional shapes force a burgeoning pipemaker to focus, and that focus is critical to design and execution. These elements are then transferred to all other work that a pipemaker undertakes in the future. He will know the rules, which can be broken or bent, and how it may be done.
So, to reiterate my answer: yes, I think that focusing on traditional shapes is (in almost all cases) critical.
DM: How often do you go outside the normal boundaries of pipe design and do you wish the pipe community would be more open to seeing these unique creations? To see how many ‘rules’ can be broken in order to achieve something new, is clearly a very hard thing to do.
JG: I go outside conventional boundaries as often as I feel my customers will go there with me. As an artist I love to explore, but as a business owner I need to sell that which I make. If a collector approaches me about creating a unique an unconventional pipe, I will certainly go there with him or her, and thoroughly enjoy doing so.
DM: What appeals to you about the life of a pipe maker?
JG: Not having a boss is nice. Setting my own hours. Meeting folks from around the world and from all walks of life. I’ve really made some great friends through this business and met some people who are utterly fascinating. Traveling is great too. It’s all good. There’s very little about the lifestyle pipes afford me that I don’t like.
DM: You just completed a trip to Europe. Which pipe makers did you visit?
JG: Oh, let’s see. I visited quite a few and had a chance to work with two. I visited Peter Heding, Benni Jorgensen, Jess Chonowitsch, and Lars and Nanna Ivarsson. All are superb people and really great carvers. Sykes and I spent a lovely day at Lars’ house in the country. What an inspiring setting! I was really touched by their hospitality. Lars and Nanna have so much history in their work; pipes just flow from who they are. I worked with Tom Eltang for several days followed by a few days in the shop of my good friend Cornelius Maenz in Germany. Tom’s shop is a pipemaker’s paradise. It has everything you could need and more. Not to mention that he’s great company and he and Pia are very generous hosts. I made four pipes in his workshop, all using his famous ‘Golden Contrast’ stain and etched, “Made in Denmark.” And in Germany, Cornelius and I shared some techniques and began working on a collaborative set of blowfish together. It was all really great to finally see all of these people, many of whom I’ve known and corresponded with for years, on their own soil and really in their respective elements.
DM: Did they leave any lasting impressions on you about themselves, their work and how they approach their version of the craft?
JG: It was fascinating to see how we were all approaching similar problems with the different techniques we have all developed on our own. As we learn to carve, we all innovate in different ways while tackling the same problem. Jess does things one way and Lars another, Tom does them another way yet again, Cornelius has his method and I have my own approach as well. We all do the same thing but sometimes very differently.
JG: The tour was not a learning tour in that sense, I have been at a point for a while now where there really are not a whole lot of secrets that I want to know, that I don’t know already. …then again, maybe there are such well kept secrets that I don’t even know to ask! It was absolutely great to be able to spend time with all of them.
DM: What do you think differentiates the different high grade pipe makers you visited from one another and specifically in how their personalities affect what and how they carve?
JG: Their different personalities are very much reflected in their work. You have someone like Tom who is a very engaging and enjoyable person and you can absolutely see those qualities in his pipes. You can see the whimsy of Tom inside his work. You know Tom loves what he does and he’s like a kid sometimes. Seeing that & observing it was fun to watch and be a part of.
JG: Jess is a much more reserved personality and you see that in his pipes. They are very precise, classically based, reserved master-pieces.
Cornelius on the other hand has a bit of both. He has the detailed technical design background but he also has a really vibrant and fun personality and you see those elements in his work. You see a lot of classical influence but also just enough of that whimsy to make it Cornelius.
DM: The average pipe smoker just likes to smoke their pipe. Their world is made up of an inexpensive pipe, some tobacco, a nail for a tamper and that’s it. All of this extra information and detailed insight into this world is not something that most of them are accustomed to seeing.
JG: You’re dead on, the majority of pipe smokers smoke pipes costing less than $50. That’s the bread and butter of pipe retailers, what I would consider inexpensive pipes. They enjoy it and that’s great. I am happy to invite those people into my shop as I am someone who buys multi thousand dollar pipes. Many people that I invite into my shop really reflect the broader pipe community in terms of education. Not all of them know the small details and by coming to the shop, they can learn. When we go to shows, we see people who are extremely enthusiastic about pipes but they are not the majority of the pipe world. So being able to go to a pipe show and to let some people hold the raw materials in their hand, it really lets them experience the genesis of a pipe. They get to see the craftsmanship that goes into it. Seeing the tools that go into the process of pipe making can be very educational for these people.
DM: For most of those pipe smokers, your pipes are out of their financial reach.
JG: Selling pipes in the range that I sell in, you often get some impolite judgements on the price. Once they however see what goes into the process. The time, the energy and the need to source all the materials from all these places all over the world, once they see what truly goes into it, then they begin to appreciate the specialty nature of what it is that I do. So the education process is an important one.
I also ask that people provide politeness when they see the price of my pipes.
DM: Whats next for you and J. Alan pipes? You have reached a level where you have now mastered most of the classical shapes. Is there anything else you want to attain now that you have passed that goal?
JG: Not really. I just want to keep making pipes and keep enjoying what I am doing. Making collectors happy is nice. I am just happy with where things are at. There are lots of things that I could do from this point. Right now though, all I want to do is make really good pipes and continue to get better every day.
DM: Any area of the pipe design realm that you want to explore?
JG: I am strategic more in the business sense, not as much the artistic sense so for me, I think that the more that I plan, the worse the work gets. I just want to make the pipe shapes that I like. I am actually visiting with a collector friend right now who is into mid-century art. I have seen a lot of interesting Art Deco designs through out his house. Coffee accessories in particular. Those will be the basis for a new pipe. So you see, I just kind of look around and get inspired by life as it presents itself to me.
DM: Do you express yourself artistically with other mediums?
JG: Yes, I do. I have been interested in various artistic media for as long as I can remember. From cooking to painting, and music to surfboard making, I am always doing something. I have long been a student of coffee, having rebuilt a few commercial espresso machines, roasting my own beans, and regularly working with a local roaster as a cupper. I originally attended college in a music program in guitar performance, writing, and studio engineering. I’ve built electric guitars, designed and built electronic effects pedals, and I’m planning out my first acoustic guitar project. I’ve repaired many surfboards and have also designed, shaped, and glassed my own. I’ve painted and drawn. I’ve done graphic and web design. There are so many things. I have forgotten many. But I’m sure my wife could write out a list for you. I guess the theme is that I really like to learn and make things.
DM: Your website is very interactive. You are also on Facebook, you have Youtube How-To Videos, you tweet on Twitter- why do you think thats important?
JG: Any way that I can reach new customers and interact with current and potential collectors is helpful from a business perspective. I want people to feel very close to my workshop and to see new designs and pipes unfold in close to real time. Twitter allows me to post photos as I am working with very little time invested. The videos are another way for me to welcome the pipe community into my workshop so that they can get to know me and my work. This hobby has given so much to me, this is a way for me to give back to it.
DM: I hear you have a new website? What can you tell us about it?
JG: I do, in fact. I’ve been working with a programmer on a new site for about a year. We had initially planned to launch last year, but boy did life get busy! But, I just received confirmation from him that it should be online on Monday. I’m excited about it because it incorporates several of those very social media features that have been really effective tools for me to use communicating with people who are interested in my work. Twitter will be built into it, as will Flickr, so you’ll see feeds of all this info right on the front page. Most exciting for me is that the site is more easily updated with pipes. That’s been the biggest obstacle to me listing pipes on the site…it was so much work, and took so much time! Now it’s easier. That’s all behind the scenes though. The most exciting features for visitors to the site will be dedicated photo and video pages where these media will be posted and organized. They’ll be much easier to enjoy in this format, I think. I’ll also have a searchable archive of my work. That’s the real killer feature of the site. You can find all my sandblasted pipes from 2007, for example. It’s going to be great! I’m sure we’ll have some bugs to work out, but once things are running smoothly, it will be a really solid user experience.
DM: Are you still surfing?
JG: Yes, I surfed yesterday.
If you would like to order a J. Alan pipe from Jeff Gracik, you can contact him with the information below:
Phone: 609.937.8317 (USA, California)
Unsmoked J. Alan pipes are also available for purchase at these pipe retailers:
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