The art in pipemaking : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

The art in pipemaking

Hoosier John Crosby takes a painterly approach to his work.

By H. Lee Murphy

In the world of pipemaking, it’s an age-old question. Is the act of carving briar better suited to wood-turners and other craftsmen who are practiced with lathes and drill presses? Or is it the lyrical artist, who can fashion on command pages of original and unique drawings hatched from some mysterious creative impulse, who has the advantage, even if he’s all thumbs in turning a bowl on a machine?

John Crosby, a pipemaker for the past eight years based in Lafayette, Ind., springs from the artist side of the equation. He’s a painter of oils and a printmaker who has had his work exhibited in galleries around the Midwest; his employer, Purdue University, where he works his day job as a counselor and instructor, keeps some of his work in its permanent collection of art.

He embarked on pipemaking never having used a lathe before, Crosby admits now. Yet he never felt at a disadvantage versus the woodworking wizards who dominate much of the industry. “Every pipe has to be well-crafted, of course, and the craftsmanship part has been the hardest thing for me to learn,” Crosby says in a conversation on a warm summer day in the garage attached to his home, where he keeps a modest workshop. “But it’s the art that separates the well-made yet pedestrian pipe from something that is really special.”

The 40-year-old Crosby has his heroes and influences—he admires the work of luminaries such as Svend Bang, Rainer Barbi, Wolfgang Becker and Cornelius Manz—but he keeps a workspace that is notably void of any photos or samples of anybody else’s work. They’d just get in the way of his campaign to fashion his own style. “I’ve been conscious of wanting to make pipes that didn’t look like pipes made by anybody else,” he stresses.

And, in fact, his style has become recognizable. Crosby, who maintains a website at www.crosbypipes.com while selling at select public shows, has become best known as a maker of chubby pipes in such shapes as apples and squashed tomatoes. Many of his creations don’t stretch much past 5 to 5.5 inches in length, a size once frowned upon in a magnum-mad era. But with more and more hobbyists lately forced to catch short smokes where they can amid an ocean of no-smoking laws, the compact Crosby silhouette is catching on again. The sort of nose-warmers that Crosby likes are back in style, though he doesn’t study such shifting trends very seriously. Crosby fearlessly ignores current fashions while building pipes that he himself likes to smoke.

The bias in favor of chubby styles is one reason Crosby has never even attempted to make a pipe in his namesake shape. The long and sleek Crosby pipes favored back in the 1950s and ’60s by the entertainer Bing Crosby, typically supplied by the English maker Merchant Service, are just not John Crosby’s cup of tea. Too bad: Not many pipemakers share a name with a pipe shape. Any Bobby Billiards or Butch Bulldogs out there?

The Crosby career came along by accident, a serendipitous encounter with a student providing the initial spark. Adam Davidson, today a pipemaker and employee at Smokingpipes.com in South Carolina, grew up near Lafayette and was an industrial design major at Purdue a decade ago when he happened to pick up a Federal Express shipment of pipe tobacco on his way to a meeting with his campus adviser, Crosby, to plan his course selections for a new semester. Crosby was a cigar smoker at the time, with a dozen sticks displayed on the desk in his office. Davidson was a pipe lover always on the hunt for new converts.

“I walked into his office with my tobacco, and that started a whole conversation with John about pipes versus cigars. I told him that he could get more enjoyment out of pipes,” Davidson, now 31 years old, remembers today. “He was intrigued, and before I knew it he took my advice.”

Crosby ventured down to a local tobacco shop at the time and bought a Savinelli Apple at the bargain price of $20, then began to troll the Internet in search of directions on how to become proficient at lighting and tamping. It was then that he came across the Pipemakers Forum site, which mentioned the upcoming Chicagoland International Pipe and Tobacciana Show, just a two-hour drive away. He attended his first show in 2003 and was enthralled with the work of attendees such as Michael Parks and Peter Heeschen.

“I hadn’t seen so many high-grade artisan pipes before,” Crosby remembers. “I kept thinking, this is how a pipe should look. For some reason I was taken to the challenge of drawing my own pipe design after a discussion with Michael Parks about the connection between art and pipemaking.”

In short order, Crosby ordered a dozen pre-drilled pipe kits, with molded stems inserted in each block, and sought out the counsel of such experts as Tyler Beard of Pipemakers Forum. Soon Davidson, both before and after his graduation from Purdue in 2003, joined in. The two began spending their Saturdays together camped in the Crosby garage, working as novices on blocks of Italian briar.

He tried carving by hand at first, but Crosby soon had a Jet wood lathe installed and, as he gained confidence, in 2005 began making his own stems. “In my shop I learned to shape first, then I later focused on drilling and engineering and finishing and, finally, making stems,” Crosby recalls. “I was learning on my own, though the Pipemakers Forum was critical for me. It’s there that pipemakers can all get together and talk to each other.”

He took his first table at the Chicago show in 2006 and sold four of the six pipes he displayed, the most expensive priced at $250. Fellow pipemakers were encouraging. A couple of collectors subsequently showed interest by buying up multiple pieces.

Crosby’s career has made impressive progress since, though many of his efforts have come in fits and starts. Between 2007 and 2010, Crosby made 50 pipes or more each year. His volume tailed off to just 20 in 2011, and he was on track this year to make no more than that. Throughout, his pricing hasn’t changed much, with most rusticated shapes selling for $200 to $300, blasts at $300 to $400 and smooths at $400 to $500.

Why the reduced production? Crosby has grown restless in the past couple of years, in search of a fresh breakthrough style that he can call all his own. He says he’s merely reached his pipemaking adolescence, but can’t quite see clearly the adulthood that lies ahead. “This is common for artists,” he explains. “I’m recharging my batteries while I look for ways to accomplish new things that haven’t been tried before.”

Read the rest of the story in P&T magazine or the online digital edition.

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Category: Pipe Articles, Winter 2013

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