Steve Liskey makes beautiful pipes, up in the clouds in Southern California, where it snows
by William C. Nelson
Photos by Brighton de los Santos
Steve Liskey, 32, has been making waves in the pipe world just long enough now that some of the trappings of fame are beginning to adhere to him. The Seattle Pipe Club and the Austin Texas Pipe Club have commissioned Liskey to craft their 2016 pipes of the year. Before that, Liskey made a good enough impression in the North American Pipe Carving Contest at the 2012 Kansas City pipe show that the young artisan won a spot in the final seven-day set of bulldogs. This was a true mark of distinction, bulldogs being such an exacting pipe form to craft. These laurels didn’t come to Liskey overnight, but still he remains a new enough talent to give us hope of following his development for decades more into the future.
Liskey says he made his first pipe sometime around 2005. Like a lot of beginners, he recalls, he used a PIMO pre-drilled kit and a Dremel. “I think I still have that first pipe somewhere, locked away in a box. I smoked it for maybe the first two years after I made it. That pipe wasn’t the most beautiful work of art you’ve ever seen,” Liskey recalls with a chuckle. “Eventually I found much better things.” Today Liskey mainly smokes high-end pieces crafted by his pipemaking friends—“Scott Klein’s pipes, Tyler Beard’s pipes, pieces like that,” he says. Liskey’s taste in tobacco, too, is describing an arc familiar to many pipe smokers: “After a long spell of smoking English blends, I’ve more recently started getting into Virginias,” he relates—and a lot of readers of this page know just what he is talking about.
Liskey had only been pipe smoking for a year or two before he tried his hand at pipemaking. He says he’s not sure why he decided to start smoking a pipe, although it apparently owes at least in part to parental influence. “My dad used to smoke a pipe. He was a customer of the local Tinder Box,” Liskey says, “so that could have had some- thing to do with it. Anyway, I just sort of liked the idea of it.” Early on, he says, he smoked drugstore tobaccos in Yello- Boles and Dr. Grabows. “I didn’t know, really, what a very fine pipe could be. I only knew about the very simple factory stuff. And that was my view of the pipe world.” But soon enough—about a decade ago now—Liskey discovered the world of pipemaker discussion forums on the internet, and he began assembling a coterie of friends in the trade who proved willing to guide him toward mas- tery of the craft. With that, developments followed on themselves quickly, and a new vision of self-employment began to suggest itself to him.
Last year, Liskey and his wife, Jamie, moved into their first owned home, in the San Bernardino mountains of Southern California, in Crestline, seven miles west of Lake Arrowhead. Their place is situated at an elevation of 5,100 feet, which means the Liskeys are among a minority of Southern Californians who deal with snow every winter—and in fact, it’s not only a feature of winter. The Liskeys have even seen snow falling at their house in June. It all makes for a wondrous and idyllic setting within which a craftsman might pursue his trade, ample reward for a long-fought struggle to get where he is.
Home to Liskey, of course, is a region where, every day, residents are watchful of the threat of wildfires, the same way Floridians worry about hurricanes, or Kansans are alert for tornadoes. But the hazards, and pleasures, of life in the California mountains are equally familiar features of home to this native of the Golden State. (Liskey was born and raised in San Bernardino proper.) “The greatest thing about living where we do now is the weather. It’s usually 20 degrees cooler at our house than it is down in the valley,” Liskey says. He also observes that there exists a close-knit sense of community and neighborliness in the hills that is not so prevalent down on the flatlands. “And besides,” he sum- marizes, “Jamie and I love the snow.”
For nearly 10 years prior to their relocation, Liskey worked full-time as a purchasing agent with a welding sup- ply company and came home each evening to make pipes in a backyard shed. “That was a period of my life with many 20-hour working days,” he remembers. It took the Liskeys all of those 10 years to save the down payment for their home in the hills—a move that at long last afforded Liskey the chance to do his pipemaking inside the house, in a room toward the back that leads out onto a patio. More importantly, today Liskey can relish the rewards of a pace that runs a bit slower and sweeter: life in the sticks, as he calls it. Without doubt, this new lifestyle took a bit of getting used to. “Things around here close at 5:00. There are no streetlights. You don’t go anywhere. And so you just kind of nestle in for the night.” Jamie Liskey, also a native Californian, works a few miles away at an outdoor camp retreat for children and adults, while back at the house Steve dedicates about 10 hours each day to pipemaking.
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