Silver Gray is a talented artisanal pipe maker who works alongside Brad Pohlmann out of his shop in southern Oregon. Although they share much of the same equipment, Silver maintains a unique pipe aesthetic and style, drawing heavily from the Danish and American schools while adding her own flourishes along the way. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Silver and talk about her life, pipes, and processes, which you can read all about below.
Silver split her childhood between Alaska and northern Maine, but moved to Oregon in 1978, where she's stayed ever since. The daughter of a senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, Silver was taught from an early age the importance of making something work with the materials at hand — be they actual objects or given circumstances. It's a lesson she's passed on to her four children, and one she applies to each and every pipe she produces today. Aside from pipe making, Silver held an accounting career for over 30 years, even opening up her own firm. In her spare time, Silver has made quilts and sewed clothing for many years. She's also, of course, an avid pipe smoker.
Introduction to pipe making
Silver's introduction to pipe making came from her friend and talented artisan Brad Pohlmann. One afternoon, Brad invited Silver to visit his shop, and she instantly fell in love with the craft. Although this was her first glimpse at the pipe making process, Silver always had a fondness for machinery and woodworking, and Brad encouraged this passion by allowing her to experiment with some of his scrap briar. "I didn't start out making pipes," she recounted in our recent interview, "I started out by making small hearts out of his [Pohlmann's] scrap pieces of briar — with many bloody knuckles from the grinding wheel." This experimentation helped Silver learn how to use most of the equipment, sand each piece to perfection, and use various stains to create the final result. Silver actually still makes a number of these hearts, which she sells as pendants at pipe shows.
After making these ornamental hearts for a while, Silver decided to try making her own pipes. She picked through Brad's discarded stummels and mouthpieces and refashioned them into smokeable pipes, pieces which she still occasionally smokes to this day. Actually working with briar to create a functional pipe gave her further insight into the craft. In her words, "It allowed me to see how the whole pipe making process works, step by step." Wanting to take her newfound hobby to the next level, she then acquired a few blocks and Ebonite rods from Brad and began creating pipes from scratch. After researching various pipe makers and styles online, she applied and adapted them, and began to develop her own aesthetic.
On the subject of adapting styles, Silver's work suggests a range of influences. Given that she uses much of the same equipment as Brad, you'll notice a slight similarity to Pohlmann's work in her stains and finishes. Shape wise, however, Silver maintains her own unique style. Her research introduced her to the world of artisanal pipes, particularly those created by the Danish greats like Sixten Ivarsson and many others — exposure which would really shape her approach to pipe making overall. According to Silver, "Sixten's innovative shapes and style struck me from the very beginning of my work. I have made a number of his smaller pipe shapes, and they have come out beautifully."
The creative process
As a full-time pipe maker, Silver starts her day with a cup of coffee, a review of her work from the previous day, and a planning session to plot her next steps. Rather than working on one pipe at a time, Silver prefers to work in batches of four to six, adhering to a pretty meticulous timeline. Here's what she had to say about her general process:
"Day 1: Choose shapes or design new ones, choose the best briar for the shape, draw out the shape on the block, band saw the shape, draw out my pre-drill lines, and pre-drill.
Day 2: Preshape the pipes.
Day 3: Do the final drilling both for the bowl and draft hole, and then carve the close to finished shape.
Day 4: Choose stem material and lengths, drill and insert the tenon, drill and shape the funnel, then fit the tenon to the pipe.
Day 5: Carve the stem to fit the pipe, then file, file, file the stem into shape.
Day 6: Determine whether the briar is good enough for a smooth, if not, sandblast. Then start the hand-shaping process.
Day 7: Sand, sand, sand.
Day 8: Sandblast or sand, sand, sand some more.
Day 9: Choose a stain that will highlight the pipe to its best advantage, then apply the finish.
Day 10: The fun day! Buff to perfection. "
This process of time management allows her to methodically work on multiple pipes at once, without sacrificing detail and precision. In fact, that precision is really a defining factor in her pipe making approach. She mentioned in our interview, "As a prior accountant, my pipes tend to be exact... I strive to make exacting airways for ease of smoking... I strive for a great feel in hand, and I make every effort to ensure the end smoker is pleased with their pipe."
Aesthetic & style
Moreover, that exacting approach determines many of the shapes she creates. Silver enjoys working with smaller, lightweight designs. She also enjoys making pipes with mathematical or geometrical components to them — six or eight paneled arrangements, diamond shanks, and Bulldogs. In her own words, "I enjoy exploring shapes that challenge me to be exact. I may make the same pipe over and over adding or deleting dimensions until I achieve my desired result." These exacting standards surely pay off, as she even takes the time to keep the mortise-tenon fit as flush as possible, even with the stem turned 180 degrees.
Silver's signature Eskimo Egg shape (cross-section view).
You can see that exacting approach and appreciation for precision and geometry, as well as her classic Danish influences, in many of her signature shapes. Her Eskimo Egg design, for example, features a plump, voluptuous Egg bowl set to a more stylized and architectural, broad diamond shank. Her choice of diamond shank for this particular shape-concept is an excellent one, allowing Silver to stretch the shank's cross-section to impressive breadths (think Sixten's Ukulele or Tom Eltang's Eskimo), without interfering with a comfortable feel in hand. Furthermore, the precise linework across the shank, underside, and transition also has an interesting effect on the overall aesthetic, offering a slight sense of juxtaposition against the fuller, more curvaceous form of the bowl and the silhouette's playfully arcing bend in profile.
This same concept applies to many others as well, like her low-slung Saucer-esque Bulldog variations and even her takes on the classic Billiard (lending the bowl a series of clean, precise panels all around for a very modern, streamlined look).