•By Marty Pulvers•
Rad Davis achieves elegance in simplicity
By way of background, I, and clearly many others, have found Rad Davis’ pipes, and Rad as well, to be intriguing. I’m not sure why on either count. If you are walking the show room floor in St. Charles, Ill., during the Chicago pipe show, Rad’s pipes don’t look so different than all the other pipes on the floor, and Rad doesn’t look that different than the other men in the room. So, in the midst of his less than exotic pipes and seemingly normal personality, what accounts for this level of fascination (not to mention a strong and devoted buying public among the cognoscenti, both in the U.S. and abroad) that is generated by his output?
With no immediate answer forthcoming, I decided to shelve the curiosity and take another angle; perhaps I could purchase some pipes from Rad for resale.
“No,” he frankly tells me. “It is not that I am averse to taking your money, Marty, it’s just that I am selling all the pipes I can make, and I have an obligation to supply the people that brought me to this dance. It is they who have provided this shiny silver Cabriolet you see sitting here, drawn by these thoroughbreds … who will revert to being rats once the clock strikes. But, should I get to where I have a small surplus of pipes, you are now on the list.”
Fair enough; you have to respect a person with that ethical sense, even if you hate him for it. Yet, it was now quite clear that many people, or enough people, have good thoughts about the pipes that Rad Davis makes. In a very competitive market, his pipes were selling sufficiently well for him to deflect new business. Something more solid than a short-term fad was going on here. These deep roots and the solid trunk that grew from those roots in just about a five-year period deserve a somewhat deeper inspection.
We tend to believe that by understanding the child, we can better understand the man. It’s not likely that Rad was pushed into a pipemaking apprenticeship at the age of 7 by his father, so what did stimulate his interest in pipes and subsequently, pipemaking?
“My maternal grandfather was a pipe smoker,” he tells me. “He died when I was around 5 years old and I don’t remember much about him except that he smoked a pipe. When I would go over to my grandmother’s house to spend the night as a kid, she would let me play with his pipes that she had kept, and they just always fascinated me.”
Rad started smoking pipes in the early ’70s and got the urge to try his hand at pipemaking around 2002, when he met Mark Tinsky while he was a fly-fishing guide in Montana, where Mark lives. Mark gave Rad some basic briar kits to start, but Rad had his own ideas for shaping them.
“I never really drew inspiration from Mark,” he explains. “We were doing totally different things with pipes. I was making the old 1970s-style Danish-type freehands with lots of plateau, and he was doing what he does, making mostly classic shapes. What Mark did for me was teach me how to make pipes and show me what machinery and equipment I needed to get a shop started. Nowadays, Mark and I often look to each other when we have a technical question that we don’t know the answer to. It feels pretty nice to be able to help the guy who helped me so much in the beginning. I like being able to return favors, and Mark made me able to do that. In return, I also had to teach him how to fly fish properly.”
Rad probably made a hash out of those predrilled briar kits, but he eventually evolved into making pipes he could sell.
“When I was learning to make pipes at Mark’s shop, I accumulated around three dozen pipes over that summer. I asked Mark if he thought that I might be able to sell them, and he said he didn’t see why not. He thought there was definitely a market for quality handmade pipes in the $50 to $75 range. He very graciously put a page on his website for me to offer my pipes for sale. This gave me a very nice shortcut to exposure of my work. Mark has a large and loyal following, and people would see this heading, ‘Rad Davis Freehand Pipes,’ and get curious, and I started selling some pipes. I will always be indebted to Mark for his generosity in doing this. This is why I had no hesitation in sharing with him my awesome fly-fishing abilities.”
Rad says the last bit with a slight smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. This testimony gives strength to that old adage: “Give a man a fish, and you will have provided him with an excellent meal, if he has some good side dishes, Pinot Grigio to sip and a properly made dessert. But, teach a man to fish and you may well be creating another pipemaker.”
With a family to support, Rad’s transition into a full-time professional pipemaker didn’t happen overnight.
“At the end of the summer of 2004, Hurricane Ivan ran over my house in Foley, Ala. Literally. The eye of the storm went over Foley. I was still in Montana finishing up the guide season, and my wife was in Foley. My two sons were living in Foley, also, so she had plenty of help getting the house ready for the storm, but it was a scary time, being the first major hurricane to pass over Foley since we had lived there. Luckily, we suffered no damage, but my being in Montana at the time was not a good thing. We decided that I really didn’t need to be in Montana any more during hurricane season, and the pipes were selling pretty regularly, so I determined that I could keep it going year round and probably do OK.”
One might say that it showed a degree of supreme self-confidence merely to believe that he could compete for the always-tight pipe dollar against so many good pipemakers, yet Rad made the plunge anyway.
“I didn’t have that belief at first,” he explains. “I did know that I was selling my pipes at a low-enough price that pipe smokers would be willing to take a chance on buying from me, and I could make three or four of those pipes a day. Remember, I wasn’t hand-cutting stems at that point, and I was making 15-16 pipes a week, so I wasn’t competing with the high-grade market at all, but was selling a very decently shaped freehand-style pipe with a factory stem attached at a very affordable price.”
While he started his full-time professional pipemaking career making freehand pipes, Rad doesn’t make many of them anymore.
“I kept trying new things, eventually getting into hand-cut stems and more contemporary shapes and just making better pipes. I try to make each pipe better than the one before, and I always see something that could have been done better on every pipe. As I got better and demand for my work increased, I increased my prices to reflect the quality of my work, always keeping in mind that I want to appeal pricewise to the largest segment of the market that I can. As far as making a living at it, it has far exceeded my expectations, and I’m very happy about that. All it takes is a lot of work,” he says with a wry smile.
The creative process is often such a mystery, with the dynamics being different for every single artisan. Where, then, do Rad’s creative juices come from? What comprises the unique Rad Davis touch that makes for a top-
“I work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday,” he simply says.
That’s it? Is this article done?
“My creative process usually takes place in the shower. I think about pipes and what I’d like to try. It might not be that day, but I usually get around to trying out what I thought about in the shower. I also think about pipes most of the rest of the day, including when I’m in the shop making pipes and when I’m asleep. Basically, I think up things and then try them out.
“I envision shapes I like, mainly the flow of the shape, and I try to re-create that flow with my own style. I don’t usually copy shapes unless they’re a classic, like a billiard or a Castello 55, or it’s a commission. What I really like is coming up with a variant on my own of a classic or a recognizable shape. Occasionally, I’ll come up with my own shapes (at least I think they’re my own—one never really knows). I was very surprised to learn that Dunhill was copying my Squashed Tomato shape as early as the 1920s.”
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