Monday, December 26, 2011

Creature of Smoke

As I have said many times, and will say many times again, I am a geek. That's why it is no surprise when my jaw dropped when I first saw this pipe:

(Balrog, by Stephen Downie)

I don't know how I first stumbled across the work of Stephen Downie, though I think it was from a link on another pipe related website. Since that fateful spotting of the Balrog, Stephen and I have been in frequent contact, discussing projects, games, book, music, and everything else. His work is phenomenal, appealing to more than just geeks, specifically to anyone with eyes.

I have discovered that Stephen is not only an incredible artist and a first rate pipe-carver, but his is also a great guy, fantastically intelligent and hilarious. Here is a little interview I conducted with him recently.

Ethan Brandt: Pipe carving isn't the usual avenue for the artistically inclined. How did you first get into making pipes?

(Stephen Downie)

Stephen Downie: Pipe making was something that I fell into through an odd series of events. I was working in the film industry here in a bunch of different jobs as needed. I was location scouting, Production Assistant on set and getting into the editing side of things as an assistant editor. I got into the film industry because I wanted a job where I could be creative, and in reality anyone who has a lick of creativity should stay far away from the entry positions in the film industry. There is very little creativity involved for the majority of the people employed in it and working your way up to the point of actually having any sort of creative input is the work of decades. As a PA I didn't often get asked about shot composition, dialogue delivery or lighting. 

What I did get as a PA was long, long hours sitting in the rain and staring at trees on location. By this time I had been smoking pipes for a while and one night I decided I wanted to make myself a tamper out of an Alder stick. I did and the next night I made a second one. Soon I was bringing Rosewood and Cocobolo blanks to work and leaving little piles of wood dust behind me. The idea that I had got into my head was that once I made enough tampers and developed some skill in shaping wood, maybe I would graduate into pipe making as something to do on the side. At the time I was living in an apartment and one birthday my good wife, Lexa, consented to let me bring a drill press into the livingroom. After that pipe making became a hobby. 

After that the film industry went through one of its Phoenix impressions and self-immolated, leaving a lot of us in the field scrambling to find work. To make matters worse, we just found out that Lexa was pregnant with our daughter, Helaina. Film industry hours are not normal hours and 15 hour days were the norm rather than the exception, especially while working on set. Spending that amount of time away from one's family didn't strike me as a balanced way to be a good father or husband. Thankfully I had paid a good number of hours into employment insurance at that point and was eligible for a course on how to set up and run your own small business. I was accepted to the course and pipe making became a full-time pursuit. Being able to hang out in a warm workshop with my wife and daughter close by is a much nicer way to spend my time!   

EB: You are very well known for your "Creatures of Smoke". What first inspired that series and what do you enjoy most about it?

SD: Truth be told the first creature of smoke was half a publicity stunt, half something I had wanted to do for a few years. It sounds horrible, but that's how it started out. I was attending my second or third Chicago show and I wanted a pipe that would draw some attention to my table. I always liked some of the carved Meerschaum pipes and wondered if it would be possible to do something similar in briar. Trever Talbert's Hallowe'en pipes also probably had something to do with it, I was and am a big fan of his work. It was a big risk because these pipes take weeks instead of days to complete, but I decided to take the plunge and after that more commissions came slowly rolling in. I was actually surprised when they did and I eventually had to come up with a separate grading system for them.

I think what I like most about these pipes is that they are something you need to approach with a sense of respect for lack of a better word. I know that I'll be investing a ton of time and being paid a fair bit of money for these pipes, so I had better get it right the first time. There is a definite series of steps to be followed, it's sort of like the anticipation and enjoyment of going on a long road trip. The design, materials, time and creative energy need to be all there before I can begin. When I finish a more conventional pipe there is always a nice sense of completion, Creatures of Smoke are that times ten. 

EB: What inspires your pipe creations today, aside from commissions?

SD: The great thing about pipes is that there are so many avenues to being inspired. You can be inspired by the elegance and balance of a classic shape. You can look to nature for organic shapes. You can look at what other artists are doing, not just in pipe making, but other professions like knife making, sculpture, architecture, artistic movements, whatever there is out there. Sometimes the inspiration is just to outdo what I've done before. I've been inspired by the shape of a toilet flush, it's often more difficult not to find inspiration.

EB: What do you feel sets your pipes apart? Give me your sales pitch!

SD: When I make a pipe I make it to smoke and smoke well. Engineering is the base that everything else is built on. A pipe should smoke well no matter how crazily the briar is shaped around it. When you get right down to it a pipe is a couple pieces of wood and plastic with holes drilled in. Even with great engineering I could probably make three pipes a day. It is building something on top of the engineering that I think sets my pipes apart. What I try to do when I make a pipe is to make a common object extraordinary. A box with a door can be a building, but so can the Chrysler building. I'm not saying what I do is anything so grand as that, but I think today there is too much emphasis placed on manufacturing things quickly with an absolute minimum of quality to keep costs down. I understand this, but in my way I think I'm trying to make pipes that go beyond a simple smoking instrument into an object that can be appreciated on many different levels. I think a world with just boxes and no Chrysler Buildings, Sagrada Familias, or Taj Mahals would be a much more dreary place.

EB: How do you like to go about making a pipe? Is there a certain process you follow, including the environment in which you work?

SD: I can't really say that I have a strict process per se. With commissions I like to sketch out some concept thumbnails before I start cutting briar. It lets me work out some design ideas and also helps avoid confusion later on. With some of the more complex pipes I use modelling clay to figure out how it will work. There is nothing like being 28 hours into a Creature of Smoke and still not really have a clear idea how the final shape will turn out.

As far as my approach to the wood, a lot of what I do is commission work and that means that I'm looking for a specific shape in the grain of a block of briar that will accommodate the shape. When I make a pipe for the site I generally grab a block of briar that looks interesting and fit the shape to the briar. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.

When I'm working I'm usually listening to an audiobook or music on my MP3 player. I find this a bit odd since I'm not usually all that great at mufti-tasking. I've found about the only thing I can't do with a set of earbuds in is to write. Something else I've found is that when I'm listening to something I like I spend more hours in the workshop.

EB: What pipe carvers have been the biggest influence on you?

SD: I think without a doubt Trever Talbert was initially the pipe maker that showed me that a pipe didn't have to be just a pipe. It could be something to admire outside of being simply a smoking instrument. Outside of that I've tried hard to not be influenced by specific carvers -at least as far as design is concerned technical aspects are a different matter. It is too easy to be seen as being derivative and even unconsciously bring elements of another carver's work into my own pipes. If I see elements of pipe design that I like I try and put my own spin on it, but I try not to study individuals. 

That said, there are carvers that I certainty admire. Rolando Negoita for instance deserves a lot more notoriety than what he has. He has developed a specific look to his pipes where most other pipe makers rely on tweaking the designs of pipe makers that have come before them. I find that incredibly compelling. Michael Parks does some really awesome stuff as does Will Purdy, Rad Davis, Jeff Gracik, Todd Johnston, Adam Davidson, Nanna Ivarsson, Bruce Weaver, there are a ton of others too.

EB: Outside of the pipe world, who would you say has had the biggest influence on your work?

SDWithout a doubt my wife. Every pipe I make gets a critique and gets looked over before it is finished. It's easy at times to not see flaws that are staring right at you when you have been working on a pipe for 10 hours. She finds them. It is invaluable to have a fresh set of eyes and thankfully she is mine.

EB: Do you have any particular plans for the future, both in and out of the pipe world?

SDI have a few things in mind with pipes, but no hard plans just yet. I'm pretty happy with what I've got on my plate. I'm always looking to streamline production though and next year I'm hoping to experiment in planning out my production schedule so I can take better advantage of overlapping projects.

I've slowly been studying and tooling up for knife making over the last few years and that is another avenue that I'll be exploring in the future. Thankfully there is a lot of cross over in tools and techniques between the two crafts.

EB: What is your favorite type of pipe to smoke?

SDI like to smoke pipes made by people I know and have spoken to. I have a bunch of factory made pipes that are great, but there is something nice about being able to light up a pipe that was made by a friend.

EB: What is your favorite type/blend of tobacco?

SDIf I had to chose I would say straight Virginias. I do also like English blends, non-goopy aromatics, and Orientals.

EB: Other than pipes, what are your other interests that you are passionate about?

SDMy family, playing the Mandolin, long distance running, online gaming, music, reading, coffee roasting, making the perfect cup of coffee, local beers and wines, cigars, always learning something new.

EB: What is your favorite book and who is your favorite author?

SDYe Gods and little fishes, there are so many great works out there. It really depends on my mood. Lovecraft, Poe, Tolkien, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss, Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Vernor Vinge, China Meiville, Phillip Pullman, Douglas Adams, Terry Prachett are all names that spring to mind. How could I possibly chose just one?


  1. Great interview Ethan. I am fortunate to call Stephen friend. You really captured the essence of a wonderful pipe artist and true gentleman.

    Well chosen pipe shots and the other photos were nicely done as well.

    Thanks for your good work.

    Richard F.

  2. Really enjoyable read Ethan and Stephen. All I can say is that Stephen's passion for his craft really shows up in his work.

    Ed Anderson