Southern Narratives

Pipe Dreams

The art of pipe making is reignited in Adam Davidson’s workshop.

Adam Davidson is in the zone. With a cup of tea in one hand and a pipe clenched in his teeth, he opens the door to his garage workshop. The latest Beck album plays in a continuous loop on the stereo, and the space smells of wood shavings and pipe tobacco. It only takes a glance to recognize that this is the workroom of a master craftsman. When not at his day job at one of the world’s largest online purveyors of pipes, tobacco, and cigars, it is among the lathes and drill presses, grinders, and sanders, that the South Carolina pipe maker can most often be found.There is a Zen-like quality to Davidson. Nothing like the professorial, tweed-elbowed type one might imagine, he is surprisingly young; and in a black T-shirt, jeans, and square black glasses, the thirty-four-year-old could easily be mistaken for a college student or, perhaps, a rock musician. A closer look reveals that something of an old soul lurks beneath the surface.

“Does anyone mind if I smoke a pipe?” he asks. As he begins to speak, his hands automatically begin the ritual well known to those who follow the culture. He carefully places ribbons of Peter Stokkebye Luxury Twist Flake from a humidor into the bowl, packs and tamps the tobacco, lights, pauses, and relights. Gently puffing, he moves through the aromatic smoke toward a shelf stacked with oddly shaped chunks of wood.

The misshapen blocks are called briar wood. They are the roots of the heath tree, and the type of wood from which almost all pipes are made. Originating from tumor-like outgrowths that develop between the root and stem of the low shrub found primarily in Mediterranean areas like Italy, France, and North Africa, the wood can be up to 250 years old, and must be soaked in clear water after harvesting to remove the bitter tannins collected over time. This particular assembly of briar has come to Davidson from a cutter in Italy, who is known as one of the best in the world.

Another shelf holds short stalks of bamboo. Most of these have come from China, but Davidson admits that he has a few secret spots in South Carolina where he harvests his own. These will be used to elongate the stems of some of the pipes he will create. Though there is nothing to outwardly differentiate the individual pieces, Davidson knows the origin of each piece of briar and bamboo.

He picks up another bamboo piece and holds it out for inspection. “This is from Virginia,” he says. He points to the raised joint on a stalk with multiple, closely spaced joints, “This is called a knuckle. The closer together the knuckles, the more interesting it makes the pipe; the more desirable and the more expensive. This is a ridiculously good piece.”

As appreciation for hand-crafted and vintage items have grown, the pipe smoking culture has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Davidson’s pipes start at around $550, and depending on size, shape, and customizations, can go for as much as $1,500. The beauty of his creations is obvious, and the precision with which they are made has catapulted his reputation to a worldwide audience of collectors, though he considers himself to be more of a craftsman than an artist.

“An artist can be creative with many things,” Davidson says, “but a craftsman has to make something work.”

Davidson’s industrial design degree from Purdue University and his uncanny knack for both form and function help him to draw the very best from the thick blocks of briar, and have contributed equally to his success in the field. Though he has only been at his craft since 2007, his understanding of the structural elements critical to pipe design has brought him international notoriety, and signature shapes like that of his “fig” design have allowed him to find a niche alongside longtime masters in the field.

While he estimates that there are probably thirty or forty American carvers, he allows that there are only about ten who do work at this level, and he is the only one in the state. He has traveled to Japan to study with masters, and has also hosted masters here in his workshop. Surrounded by specialized tools pioneered to perfect his craft, estate pipes he has collected, and pipes in various stages of construction, his conversation is peppered with equal parts of history and technology; easily applying one to the other.

The work is a labor of love for one whose interest in pipes dates back to childhood trips to antique stores with his parents. When Davidson steps to the grinder in his workshop with a block of briar, the wood seems to come alive beneath his hands; preening and posturing against the spinning disk in its effort to help him release the shape that has laid waiting inside for centuries.  Within minutes, amidst the roar of the motor and shavings that fall softly to the concrete floor, the pipe’s form begins to emerge.

There will be many hours of sanding and drilling ahead, and at this moment the future for this block of briar is not immediately clear. It may ultimately wear a collar of silver, or a band of mammoth bone; travel across the ocean to a collector in Russia or Japan, or be proudly displayed on the desk of an upstate South Carolina pipe smoker. But for the present, there is no better place for the hunk of hard wood destined to become an Adam Davidson pipe.

By Susan Frampton