If you have had the opportunity to attend a pipe show here in North America over the past couple of years, it would be hard not to notice the classical revival of young, enthusiastic new pipe makers that are making their presence known to collectors across the country. The meaning of this resurgence, if in fact it is resurgence, will emerge as time passes and we can look back with the benefit of historical perspective.
Many of these promising young pipe makers will never move beyond the occasional pipe show and the mark that they leave will be soon forgotten as time progresses. The reasons for this are many. It may be that pipe making was simply just a hobby. It may be from a lack of artistic vision or worse, a lack of the fundamental mechanics that are needed to consistently produce a well engineered smoking instrument. Some may have the raw talent, but are unwilling to make the long term sacrifice of commitment to the art form. For other’s it may be a lack of resources, whether they are financial or otherwise. There are some that have the unrealistic expectation that becoming a successful pipe maker will lead to a life of untold wealth.
Interviews are often done with pipe makers after they have gained the notoriety and attention of the pipe collecting community. But what about those carvers that have yet to gain notoriety but are filled with promise? I thought that it would be interesting to take a closer look at two pipe makers on the rise. I wanted to see the world from their perspective as they seek to define themselves as pipe makers.
On the heels of the West Coast Pipe Show in November, I had the opportunity to spend some time with two of these young pipe makers, Steve Liskey of San Bernardino, California and Simeon Turner of Denver, Colorado. It was a chance to discuss and contrast their pursuit of the shared dream of becoming full time pipe makers. Liskey, 28, and Turner, 34, share an unyielding passion for pipe making, yet each of their paths and backgrounds are very different. This is their story as they work to leave a lasting impression on the pipe buying public.
Steve Liskey came from a difficult upbringing that took him from the streets of Las Vegas to the sleeping on the occasional park bench in San Bernardino California. It’s a subject that he doesn’t share easily. It’s a path that ultimately led him to find peace within himself. Simeon Turner grew up in middle class America in Denver Colorado intent on a career as a school teacher. Each of them never could have predicted that pipe making would be the ultimate dream. Their enthusiasm and excitement for pipe making is evident as they took the time to speak with me candidly about that dream.
- Steve Liskey
Steve Liskey: I really didn’t choose to make pipes, I just kind of fell into it, but it definitely wasn’t a conscious decision. I always liked the smell of pipe smoke and my Dad was a pipe smoker when I was younger. The smell had nostalgia to it so of course I went and bought a Dr. Grabow and some cheap drugstore tobacco. At that time I had a roommate and he was burning incense on an end table and accidently set the table on fire. My pipe, sitting on the table, was burned beyond repair in the fire. At that I point I wanted to buy a nice pipe and quickly understood I couldn’t afford a good one. I always loved making things with my hands. I enjoyed making things with wood, metal and sometimes even leather. It just seemed natural to make a pipe. My goal (he says with a chuckle), was to make it smoke as well as my Dr. Grabow. I bought a pipe making kit on line and with a Dremel tool, carved my first pipe. It was horrible! It was a pickaxe with a pre-molded stem. It was smokable, but I needed to change it three or four times. I ultimately used it to experiment with bowl coatings.
As a young man, I surrounded myself with things that were not constructive. There wasn’t anything in my life at that point that I could firmly hold on to and progress. Pipe making gave me something to look forward to each day. It was a pleasant distraction and it gave me a direction to go rather than having no direction at all. That was seven years ago, but it was some time before I started to make them as a means to make money.
Simeon Turner: I was not a smoker of any kind growing up. When I was seventeen, I took a school trip to the British Isles. I was in London at the Davidoff store and I thought that a pipe would be a great “British” souvenir. I had no intention of ever smoking it. A teacher that was chaperoning the trip happened to be a pipe smoker and suggested that I ought to try smoking it sometime. While still on the trip, I tried to smoke it and became terribly sick! After graduation, I kept dabbling with the pipe and soon learned to really enjoy it.
A few years later, while teaching high school English and having access to the school’s woodshop, I decided I liked the idea of trying to make one for myself. I had no real woodworking experience. Actually, I had no experience with any type of craftsmanship! I started with a pre-drilled block and at the time, I thought it was the most beautiful pipe I’d ever seen, but looking back (laughing) it was horrifying! It was a square block with rounded corners!
Several of my friends were pipe smokers and I got some attention from them for my efforts. I made a few more pipes for myself during the years I was teaching. It wasn’t until several years later that I started to think that I might have a knack for pipe making. I realized that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do just for my own smoking enjoyment but for others as well. I lacked experience as a craftsman and as a result, I viewed it as an opportunity to engage in an artistic pursuit. I began purchasing my own tools and started to take pipe making seriously. I knew the shapes that I liked to smoke, but I quickly realized how difficult it was to create a pipe that was both functional and aesthetically pleasing. That was just a little more than two years ago.
- Simeon Turner
Steve Liskey: My very first influence was Jeff Gracik. It was just by chance that I had come across his web site and my jaw just dropped! It was then that I saw what was possible. The second pipe maker that made an impact on me was Todd Johnson. I was simply amazed at what these two guys were doing. Cornelius Manz, Bo Nordh and Tom Eltang all inspired me by their uniqueness. Their work has a “life” to it and that inspired me to push the envelope out further and further. Even today, I am still amazed by what their minds can create.
Simeon Turner: When I first started out there were two pipe makers that were major influences. My concept of what it meant to be a high grade pipe maker came from Jeff Gracik and Love Geiger. I would really like the opportunity to work with Love at some point. Both of these pipe makers are still influencing me today.
Steve Liskey: It is definitely difficult as a newer pipe maker to establish yourself. The pipe makers that are not passionate about it, or who are looking to it as a money making hobby and not looking for guidance and progression will likely weed themselves out.
As a young pipe maker, I am always looking to the future. I am always seeking out ways to make a better pipe. I look to see what variations I can bring to the table. My wheels are constantly turning as I think about each pipe that I am creating. I can often tell by the attitude and approach of some young pipe makers that they won’t progress. I try to approach the craft with humility. The will and desire to progress has to be there. There are some carvers that feel they are already “there.”
It’s just like growing up, when you are influenced by your parents and friends; it isn’t until you are an adult that you start becoming who you are. In the pipe making industry, as a young carver, it just takes time and many new carvers are not willing to put in a lot of time because they think that they may not gain from it. Those that stick with it will develop a flavor that’s all their own.
Simeon Turner: Unlike when I made my first pipe, there has been a dramatic increase of available information on the internet to help new pipe makers learn a lot of the steps to making a pipe rather than having to go through the process of figuring it out in the workshop. It’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. It makes it easier for people to get started, but it can also make for an influx of low quality pipes.
Setting myself apart from other new makers comes down to a couple of things; The first thing that I believe separates the amateur hobbyist from those that are serious about the craft is stem work. Completing a stem that is actually functional as a high grade stem with good air flow, that is aesthetically pleasing and comfortable in the mouth is the difference for many pipe makers. The guys that can really “dial in” their stem work really do separate the hobbyist from the professional. The second thing is time, taking the time to develop artistic style and signature comes from producing consistently over time.
- Simeon Turner
Steve Liskey: The statement that “one has to learn to paint” is one that I agree with first and foremost. However, there are styles that appeal to me and I look to pull them from established pipe makers. It could be things like the way someone does a button. I look to someone like Jody Davis and how he creates stems. His stem work appeals to me and then as a pipe maker I want to be able to make stems with that same essence and my own interpretation. But, again, that comes second. The ability to make a fundamentally solid pipe has to be learned first and then everything else comes afterward.
Simeon Turner: It’s a little maddening because anyone that has that creative desire just wants to create. It’s like having a vision in your head of Michelangelo’s work, so you want to create that, but then you realize that you don’t yet have the creative talent to do it. Some new pipe makers fall into that trap of trying to create something unique and it just becomes muddled. Focusing on shapes that are easily recognized is beneficial to the learning process because if you make a basic billiard and it doesn’t come out quite right you can have others easily critique it and let you know where you missed. If you are making classic shapes, it’s much easier to get that feedback, rather than making freehands because there isn’t a standard to adhere to.
A lot of this came from my experience working with Jeff Gracik. Working with Jeff is like trying to drink water from a fire hose! I spent three days working with Jeff and each day I left mentally exhausted. Not only was I absorbing his techniques, but everything he does is methodical, even with organic shapes. There is a very methodical process to his pipe making. Up until that point, I had not followed anything like that in my own process. That process had a dramatic effect on my shaping. Developing a routine gave me more consistency. It also helped me to realize that time is money. Things should be done in a specific order.
Steve Liskey: I don’t necessarily think that I have found my voice just yet. Things are still evolving and as time passes, I can see there are consistencies. As far as my style sense, I can’t say that I have found a niche that is “me.”
Simeon Turner: It’s developing. It comes down to production. After creating one hundred and forty pipes it’s not enough to develop a specific style, but I can see it emerging. Once I reach a point of making enough pipes, it will then be time to expand on my style. It simply takes time.
- Steve Liskey
Steve Liskey: It’s a very difficult road. When I came to pipe making I was pretty much fresh off the streets. I was living out of a backpack and sleeping on the occasional park bench. I had left Las Vegas and arrived in San Bernardino with nothing. I was very upset about it so I didn’t make my situation known. After I began full time work and started making pipes, I still had nothing. Like many new pipe makers, it takes a financial investment, so at that time money was a big concern.
I didn’t have anyone to teach me pipe making so I was looking at a lot of photos and practicing a lot of reverse engineering. It was a very humbling experience for me. I had gone from having nothing to making some money as a mechanic’s helper and being promoted to a purchasing agent, and then back to nothing while I was spending my extra money on buying pipe making supplies and briar. I spent a lot of time making those first pipes only to realize that they weren’t yet good enough to sell. I finally placed a pipe I was pleased with on eBay in an effort to gage people’s reaction. It ended up selling for $400! I was excited and my only thought was to use the money to buy more briar and machinery. The next pipe I placed on eBay sold for something like $30 and reality set in fast. I was able to learn from those first eBay pipes what people liked about my work.
Simeon Turner: There are two things that are challenging. The first one is proficiency in making a pipe that both looks good and smokes well. That is a hard one because it takes time and a lot of trial and error.
The other relates to the fact that there are some pretty good pipe makers whose names are unknown. It’s important to be out there and have exposure. Going to shows is important, but in the pipe making world it’s also important to have relationships with people that are in a position to help make you known to pipe buyers. I think that becoming known sometimes requires a little bit of luck too.
- Simoen Turner
Steve Liskey: The fear of rejection is always the hardest, especially when I have put a lot of time and resources into what I am doing. I know what I want my pipes to be and I know what they are at this point in time. I am a firm believer that I can do almost anything I put my mind to, so making high grade pipes is more a matter of finding good mentors. As long as I can take constructive criticism and direction, it all comes down to practice at that point. I know it’s just a matter of time.
Consistency is a very important part of sustainability. Constantly reaching outside of myself to create a better pipe each time is an important part of being sustainable. There is always a new direction to go and master. After mastering that new direction, I always want to be seeking the next direction. I don’t ever want to lapse into the same thing and not grow.
Simeon Turner: There is always the financial fear. There’s a fear of pipe making being worth the financial investment. Fortunately, I am pretty well over that now. It was getting used to sending a couple of thousand dollars over to Italy for briar and hoping that I could turn that briar into pipes that people would enjoy.
The harder thing is the “unspoken rejection” that comes from pipe smokers stopping by my table at a show, picking up a pipe and then putting it down and walking away. It’s an internal critique that screams out at me. I can understand intellectually that there are many reasons why a person walks away, but it’s painful. I don’t know if I will ever get over that. You are putting yourself out there and the judgment is really whether or not people are willing to pay for it. It makes me wonder if that person doesn’t think that I’m good enough.
At my first Chicago show in 2009, I experienced some doubts as well. The level of quality and the sheer volume of pipes in the room left me wondering if I really had the right to be recognized at all. If it were not for a great conversation with Paul Hubartt (Larryson Pipes), I might have quit from a sheer lack of confidence. He did a great job of encouraging me to believe that I had what it takes to be a successful pipe maker.
- Steve Liskey
Steve Liskey: As a relatively unknown carver, it was an honor. Getting your name out there can be difficult when first starting out and I was given the opportunity to introduce myself to the pipe collecting community. At the same time, I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. I am not used to people wanting to know more about me so although it’s flattering; I find it a little difficult to get used to. A collector looking at my work isn’t where the pressure lies, it’s in their expectations. But pressure can be a good tool too, it facilitates creativity.
Simeon Turner: The award was huge for me. I think as an artist I crave affirmation. The sale of a pipe is obviously a big way to feel that affirmation, but having peers and industry insiders grant me an award really does feel like an even greater affirmation. It means that I am doing something right, I’m improving.
I don’t feel any added pressure as a result of the award. I think a better way to put it would
be an added sense of responsibility, both to my “brand” and to the collectors who have already purchased my pipes. I want to reward their willingness to “take a shot” with me by continuing to solidify
my pipes as worthy of their attention.
- Simeon Turner
Steve Liskey: I think what makes a pipe maker “collectable” are four things, consistency, quality, availability, and style. I believe it takes all four things in conjunction with one another to become a collectable carver. It’s what sets an artisan carver apart from factory made pipes and hobbyists.
Quality is the most important of the four. It encompasses engineering and finish work. Does the pipe smoke well? Are the materials used correctly? The next determining factor that is looked at by collectors is style. Does the pipe move you? Is it balanced and proportional? The next two factors are availability and consistency. It is very important to make every pipe just as well and with the same attention to detail as the last pipe. Being consistent in form and function also helps determine availability. As a single carver it is very difficult to produce a large number of pipes without sacrificing quality so the number of pipes made each year is kept relatively small, fewer than 250 per year. This makes them difficult to get which helps to drive collectability. Every collector has his or her own reasons for collecting but as a new carver it is always a good idea to keep these four things in mind.
For me, being collectible is the key for having success in this business. I don’t want to be a guy that makes several hundred pipes per year. I want to be able to make a smaller number of pipes that I can spend the time needed to create a piece of “functional art.”
A relationship with your customers is important to becoming collectable too because it allows you to impart your personality into your work. It also makes it easier to pair a pipe with a particular collector and makes each piece more valuable to the collector knowing it was tailored to fit them specifically. They often become my friends as well as my customers.
Simeon Turner: I think what makes a particular pipe maker collectible is a combination of two things. The pipe maker exhibits an extremely high level of execution in the fundamental design of the pipe itself. But maybe even more importantly, it’s an ability to create connections with collectors interpersonally and/or through charisma and persona.
It’s important to be collectible, and I try to manage my expectations even though I’d like to be the next Bo Nordh. You have to be at the top of your game from a technical standpoint and then you must have the connection to the people that can impact your career. There has to be a connection to the collector.
There are good smoking pipes made by factories. But that relationship is something that is somewhat unique to pipes. Collectors are not just collecting the material item, but they are also collecting the person. That personal or emotional connection is a big factor for many collectors.
From an artistic standpoint, I don’t want to lose perspective of the actual act of creation. I don’t ever want to be making a pipe with my expectation being that the pipe has to be collectible and have the pipe turn out to be not what I wanted artistically. I want to be collectible without sacrificing my vision.
- Simeon Turner
Steve Liskey: I think I have reached a place where the “process” is what I will be looking to improve. The process of consistently making a well engineered pipe every time is always a place to improve.
I would love to work with other pipe makers this year. It would be great to have like minded people in the same room to create something. The collaboration of giving ideas and taking ideas really changes one’s perspective.
Simeon Turner: I am excited for this coming year. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I have really upgraded my shop so I am excited about that. I would like to reach the milestone of having more of my work picked up by vendors, as that means a lot of exposure as well.
A year from now, I’d like to be able to look back and be able to say that I have further improved my stem work and shaping. I think this year will be the year that I find that “voice” as a pipe maker.
I have enjoyed the opportunity to see and smoke early edition pipes created by each of these men along with some of their newest creations. The improvement in shape and design is significant, from bowl to button.
So, will we see these two young men ascend to greatness in the world of pipe making? Only time will tell, but if passion and determination are two of the key ingredients, both Simeon Turner and Steve Liskey are not lacking. It will be a joy to watch each of them as they navigate their path to a dream!
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