Steve Norse is from Vermont, where his family settled nine generations ago, before Vermont was even a state. Like many established Vermont families, Steve's did not offer much in the way of "old money" backing as he started out in life. Instead he has had to be creative to put together a living in an area that offers little in the way of steady employment. As an ambitious 20 year old, Steve started serving as caretaker for a beautiful 50 acre estate, which has served as ground zero for his livelihood ever since. The arrangement includes the use of a large outbuilding that now serves as his pipemaking studio and warehouse downstairs, and living quarters upstairs. Steve also keeps a 7,500 square foot vegetable garden on the estate that yields 1,800 to 2,000 pounds of fresh produce a year. This helps to feed Steve and his friends, both directly, and in barter for other locally produced food and goods. And there is enough left over to sell fresh produce to local farm-to-table restaurants.
Steve was first educated as a furniture maker, and later started making pipes. He estimates he has made between 200 and 300 pipes at this point, but does not keep careful track. His first pipe was from a kit he bought from Pimo Pipe Craft. The kit not only got him started making pipes, but also served as an introduction to Pimo's long time owner, Ginny Baire. They have had an excellent relationship ever since, with each helping the other as Steve grew to love pipemaking, and eventually, the pipe making supply business.
Steve is the owner of Vermont Freehand, which stocks what is undoubtedly the largest selection of pipe making supplies in the world. He started the business in 2005, with only $20 in seed money. You may be thinking, "how is that possible?". Well, that's only because you don't know Steve. He's extremely motivated, has a tenacious work ethic, takes great care of his customers, and he's smart! He's developed relationships with the best suppliers of briar, ebonite rod, and other tools and supplies from around the world, and has learned the ins and outs of the complicated business of importing and exporting the various materials through the customs process. He takes full advantage of buying in volume, stocking 40 variations of briar, ebonite rod from 3 different manufacturers, and 200 varieties of pre-molded stems in acrylic, vulconite, and bakelite. At times he also has nearly impossible to get meerschaum block and rare strawberry briar. He has developed an ongoing relationship with a group harvesting bog oak (Morta) in the Ukraine, and he stocks a good inventory of both black and white bamboo (sometimes Buda Bamboo) and various other exotic materials used for accents in high grade pipes.
After years of helping Ginny Baire with various tasks associated with the Pimo Pipe Craft operation, Steve purchased the business and merged it with Vermont Freehand. And very recently, he also bought Pipe Makers Emporium, and added their remaining inventory to Vermont Freehand.
Norris's pipe making supply business has flourished with the influx of new pipe makers. Some of them are looking for a hobby, while others are artists finding a fulfilling outlet and sometimes a living, or at least a partial living making pipes. The internet has been a huge part of all of this new interest in pipes, the influx of new pipe makers, and has served as Steve's main vehicle for providing supplies to them. The time was right for a pipe making supply business of this kind. Vermont Freehand now has more than 9000 repeat customers in 135 countries placing orders. Much of this happened through social media and eBay. Norris never even bothered with his own web site until July 2014.
One of the many things Norse does for his customers is bring a massive selection of pipe making supplies to the Chicago Pipe Show. This gives them the opportunity to hand select briar and other supplies, a rare and treasured opportunity for many of them.
As you have guessed by now, Steve Norris seldom takes a day off. In spite of that, due to the success of Vermont Freehand, Steve's pipe making has taken a back seat. The few handmade pipes he makes a year are beautiful, and well crafted. Steve is self taught. When he started he only had a couple of sanders, a coping shop, and some sandpaper and stain. Like many others in recent years, he learned a lot from the Pipemakers Forum. And then it was just a matter of practice. Norris says it took about 50 pipes before he gained a full appreciation for how important the little things can be. He now has a very well equipped pipe making workshop, and works hard to make sure all those little things come together when he finally has time to make pipes himself. "I've been doing it a long time now, and yet I'm still learning. I can't just whip out a high grade", Norris says.
In addition to his hand mades, Steve recently designed several pipes which are serially produced for him by BriarWorks. They come in several shapes and finishes in both briar and Morta.
Steve also likes doing other things with the material he stocks for pipemakers. Early on it was briar jewelry - and very unique pieces! He's made practically everything from bracelets to earrings to necklaces. Another interesting project he completed recently with the help of luthier friend, William Seeders Mosheim was a MandoBanjo or Banjolin, made largely from the materials he loves and stocks at Vermont Freehand:
- You may also enjoy hearing Brian Levine interview Steve on the Pipes Magazine Radio Show
- Most of the information in this article was gleaned from an excellent article in Pipes & Tobacco Magazine. The link is the first part of the article, but if you haven't yet, you should consider subscribing. It's a fantastic publication!
Steven E. Norse Dorset, Vermont 05251 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.vermontfreehand.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VermontFreehand/