A Conversation With Brad Pohlmann

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This article is courtesy of Smokingpipes.com, and used her by permission. All rights reserved.

A Conversation With Brad Pohlmann

Brad Pohlmann has been making pipes for over thirty years, though for many of those years he pursued another career. During the past three years, he's returned to his original calling and again become a full time pipe maker. He kindly took some time to sit down with Bear Graves for an interview:

BEAR: Every pipe maker seems to have a common theme that is apparent in the majority of his work. Yours are very distinct. What is your inspiration and how do you maintain your theme? Why are your pipes special?

BRAD: Themes, to me, move in and out. A single theme or the combination of several might appear in one pipe, but usually within a grouping of several pieces done within a close timeline, and are modulated and affected by extenuating circumstances- things like the block of wood itself, the grain, pits, available tooling and how much coffee I've had that morning . Really though, I do love my coffee in the morning, and I have made it a routine that I take a mug with me on a walk of my property every morning, to take a few minutes to breath in the air, and to just "smell the roses", so to speak. I find alot of inspiration doing simple things like watching the river flow by, or observing the lines in driftwood landed on the banks of the river. Some mornings I go up to the pond above my workshop and watch the wildlife starting their day- the turn or twist of a tree limb, a flower or a clump of reeds- all these things can inspire ideas or simply put one's mind into an emotional mood where the subconsciousness aides in translating these influences, and co-mingles them with the current work at hand.

I think there are several reasons why my pipes are unique. To start with, I am first and foremost a pipe afficionado and have been for forty years now. During that time I have consiously and unconsiously "absorbed" a myriad of pipe shapes from the time spent in pipe shops and within the community. Lessons have been learned as to what makes a shape timeless and desirable over the long term. Add to that eight years of preparation to become an artisan pipemaker, between my time spent with The Briar Workshop for the latter half of the 1970s, followed by an 8000 hour/4 year tool and die apprenticeship. Not only do I handmake every pipe, but I also have made most of the tooling I use to create them. This ability with tooling helps to constantly maintain or improve quality of workmanship, which translates to a superior smoking experience. Finally, I have aquired a truly diversified stock of briar to draw from, and can pick specific blocks from different stocks to achieve the characteristics I am looking for in taste, finish, and effect.

BEAR: If somebody has never tried one of your pipes, why should they buy one?

BRAD: I'm a pipemaker, not a salesman! Ha! Geez, that's a tough question. I mean there are some great pipes out there. I guess I would say that with the purchase of one of my pipes, one is not only getting a truly well-engineered tool for enjoying pipe tobacco, but to a certain extent a piece of accessorized jewelry. Although I have operated in relative obscurity over the years, I still bring a certain amount of American pipe heritage to the craft. As far as I know, I'm the only US pipemaker that has actually worked in a pipe factory environment, working with the owner of the old Arlington factory and several of the men who used to work for him, including Charlie Tusa. Finally, when someone buys one of my pieces they not only get the pipe- they get me; I stand behind what I make, and I am never more than a phone call away if the need arises. This is my life, and I pour every bit of my heart, soul, and mind into each piece- no matter the price point. One word that I find others continually using in describing my work is "precise". If that aspect of the craft rings your chimes, my work deserves a closer look when making a purchase.

BEAR: Describe a perfect pipe making day.

BRAD: A perfect day would conjure up notions of everything going exactly as planned, and that hardly ever happens. Pipemaking really is a continual process of problem solving and creative improvisation, so I would say the perfect day would be one where the final outcome of the pipe would be superior to the initial concept that I started with. Some of the best pieces I have created were born within this framework. I live a 36 mile round-trip distance from town, and to be able to grab what I have available to me in the shop and make a tool that is needed to accomplish a task is really satisfying. Running into a sand pit and creating a work-around that is pleasing while still retaining the overall concept is a thrill, and can take the piece from ordinary to extraordinary. Running into a new idea on my morning walk and returning to the shop to implement the idea provides an instant gratification. If you were to combine all of these, that would be a great day!

BEAR: Many pipe carvers, on occasion, experience the carving equivalent to "writer's block". Does this ever happen to you and, if it does, what do you do get get your train back on the track?

BRAD: That is a great question. Yes, it does happen and usually with those pipes with the best grain! It took me awhile to develop a sense for when it is happening, and it has paid off. My natural instinct is to keep on going with the work at hand, and that is a mistake, because the solution to making the piece as it could and should be is usually far simpler than anything that I could conceive when I am "forcing" it. I have changed my operating procedures so that I have three or four pieces in production at all times, and when a block occurs, I STOP, put the pipe down and start on a different pipe. I do try to bring all the pipes through to the same stage before moving on to the next step, but sometimes it is just not possible with the piece that is stumping me. I have had works-in-process sit on my bench for weeks; when this is the case what usually happens is I will be sitting at my bench later in the evening with a good beer or glass of wine, and I will look at that piece and the solution just pops up on its own, and I end up laughing at myself for not seeing it from the start!

BEAR: Which pipe makers influence you?

BRAD: There are some great makers out there and narrowing the field to a specific few would be difficult. Within the past two years I would have to say Todd Johnson, hands down. He has just been unbelievably generous to me with his time and hospitality. I had the pleasure of working with him at his shop on three occasions, and found it an invaluable experience. I'm looking forward to a trip in July to visit Jody Davis (J. Davis) at his shop, and Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes) will be there as well. I just know we are going to have a great time, and the best part of these visits is that the subtleties of influence never surface in my own work immediately, but will begin to happen several months later. I'll be making a pipe and all of a sudden I'll produce a pipe that departs in some ways from former work, and I think "Where did that come from?" Then delayed intelligence kicks in and I realize that it was something I saw while collaborating, but was unconscious of the observation. I consider S. Bang a benchmark pipe. There is something about their more elaborate shapes that just knock me out; the finish as well as the shaping and incorporation of grain pattern is spot-on. I am really taken with Gotoh (Kei'Ichi Gotoh) and Tokutomi (Yuki Tokutomi). I had a chance to spend a day and a half with Tokutomi while visiting Todd, and was knocked out with his bold shaping skills and the way his fingers danced around the stummel while it was in process. I think Paolo Becker has taken the classic shapes and really stretched the boundaries with his current work. I really have done nothing that reflects his influence at the present time, but at some point I plan to play in that sandbox. I admire the work of Cornelius Mänz. I'm attracted to his generally smaller sizes, finishes and use of material combinations. I'd love to get a chance to work with him at some point. I don't think any list would be complete without Tom Eltang's name. To me, Tom's influence is more towards attitude and approach, with process following close behind. Tom's sense of humor and sometimes skewed perspective that he brings to his work is refreshing and keeps me from taking myself too seriously.

BEAR: Do you smoke a pipe? What is your favorite tobacco?

BRAD: Oh yes. I've been in love with pipes since the first time I walked into Max's Pipe Shop in Alhambra, Ca. when I was around 15 years old. That shop hasn't been there for years now, but it was pure magic. I think I still own every pipe I've ever acquired, minus about three. I'm really a virginia flake fiend, but have found myself venturing into strange new territories as of late with some Danish aromatics and predominantly cubed burley blends. When I want a really serious bowl I invariably reach for the English flakes from the two Gawith houses, as well as Escudo and Dark Twist. In my Briar Workshop days I smoked Dunhill 965 almost exclusively, but nowadays I look for a little more sweetness, which the flakes and MacBaren aromatics provide.

BEAR: Do you ever have visitors to your workshop? Tell us about some of them.

BRAD: As far as other pipemakers, I have not had that pleasure- yet. I know Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes) will be up sooner or later, and Love Geiger keeps on threatening me. Joao Reis had planned on coming out after Chicago this year, but he didn't make it to the show. This is all a good thing though, because my shop's location is so beautiful that when they finally come I will have a hard time getting them to leave! I had a friend and part-time maker from San Jose show up for a visit over Memorial day weekend to work on his stem making, and I showed him the shape first / drill second approach to making a pipe. Most recently, I had my very dear and long-time pipe comrade, Charles Wheeler, for a four day visit. Charles and I first met around 37 years ago in a pipe shop, and we have had a friendship based on pipes and tobacco ever since. Charles brought several vintage tins of tobacco and a few pipes for repair and one old Brakner for an "extreme makeover". It was an incredibly large rusticated chimney with a tobacco chamber of a size that would send you to the poor house. I blasted the exterior and then refinished it with my blackberry stain, and made a calabash-type briar bowl insert with a plateau top. It turned out really nicely and was far more attractive than its former self. We fired up the barbecue and had some first-class meals and enjoyed more than a few "adult beverages". Visitors are always welcome at the shop, but I'm off the beaten path.

BEAR: What are your plans for the future?

BRAD: I moved to Oregon three years ago now, and immediately went to work on making pipes, without really putting my shop together in any sensible or permanent way. I would like to have the time to accomplish that. Pipe-wise, I want to continue to stretch myself into more intricate and difficult shapes, taking obvious advantage of the grain patterns in the wood. I'm planning a trip to Europe within the next year to pick more wood from several different mills, and plan on visiting several pipemakers while I'm there. I would also like to start attending more shows in addition to Chicago and Richmond.

BEAR: Aside from making pipes, what other things or interests are you passionate about?

BRAD: I'm overboard on acoustic guitars. I see real beauty in their construction and materials, and admire the luthiers that create them. I've been taken with acoustic blues since I was around 16 or 17. I'm a big fan of the old delta blues players like Son House, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Patton and the next iteration of it in the early Chicago sound-- players like Muddy Waters. My favorite contemporary artist of the genre is John Hammond, and used to have the opportunity to see him perform regularly when I lived in southern California, but it is a long trip from Jacksonville to Portland to see any big names now. I enjoy playing and singing the blues on my two Martin guitars and enjoy it when I have the chance to swap tunes with other players. Sports-wise, I would love to have more time to improve my golf game. Right now I only have the time to play three or four times a year, and that just isn't enough!