Tobacco Pipes Blog
Steve Lavoice Jr, the artisan pipe maker behind OWL Pipes, is an up-and-comer that we’ve watched almost since he started. Depending which side you catch him on, you might think of Steve as an old-world throwback or a Millennial rock star. Either impression would be partially right.
Steve’s whimsical interpretations of traditional briar pipes are bold, original and infused with a creative spirit which only adheres to tradition when he expresses a preference for black stems.
I sat down for a phone chat with Steve on a quiet Tuesday evening, after both of us had worked a long day and tucked our respective kids in bed. I was impressed by how he combines a clear flair for artistic drama and a working man’s commitment to getting the job done. It’s a marriage of opposites that allows him to be both prolific and beloved by a community of pipe smokers in what seems like an impossibly short time.
Talking OWL with Steve Lavoice Jr.
Renia: How did you become a pipe maker? What got you interested and how did you start?
Steve: My Grandfather smoked a pipe and that was most of the exposure I had to it until a couple of years ago. Then a customer from a job I used to have gave me a pipe as a tip and I found that I really enjoyed smoking a pipe. One day, about a year ago, I realized that I might be able to make pipes for myself. When I decided to do that I immediately thought about my grandfather again and that’s why we’re called OWL Pipes. It stands for ‘Old Warren Lavoice’.
My early handmade pipes were just meant for me. I’m not sure I ever intended to sell pipes, but as I posted photos of my work on Instagram people started asking how they could buy them. I think there was a connection to the idea of owning a highly individual pipe that people liked. It excites me too and really helped me build relationships. No two of my pipes are ever alike and it seems to excite my customers to know that. Instagram made the process really symbiotic, but it was pretty much an accident at first.
Renia: It’s incredible how quickly your pipes have caught on! How do you keep finding new ideas?
Steve: Not every pipe maker will agree with me on this one, but I can’t imagine running out of ideas. You can literally think of anything and, as long as the holes are drilled correctly, you can turn that idea into a pipe.
I do a lot of driving in an area with poor cell phone reception, which means I have plenty of time to think. Sometimes I will sketch out pipes, but more often I find myself think about vague ideas that will later find their way into my hands when I am at my workbench.
Renia: Having plenty of contemplative time sounds like a perfect way to pass a day for a pipe smoker. Do you tend to plan all of your pipes that way or do you take it as it goes?
Steve: I do think constantly during the day, but honestly I don’t usually plan out the details of a pipe too closely. I find that when I sit, pick up a block and go, I make the strongest pipes. Something about being able to work off-the-cuff seems to make me more creative.
Renia: So is your process entirely different each time or do you have any rituals around making your pipes?
Steve: It’s different every time. There is no real process. A few things do stay the same each time though. There is always a block of wood. I drill the holes first. Then I make the bowl and finish with the stem.
Renia: Do you have any opinions on what makes a good pipe?
Steve: Honestly, not really other than making sure the hole is drilled straight! I think it’s different for everyone and really depends on your preferences. For instance, I’m not a big fan of Churchwardens even though I thought I would be. Instead I prefer my nose-warmer, which I didn’t think I would enjoy. Surprise!
As long as it works and the draw is good, almost every kind of pipe will work for someone. It’s all about finding the right owner for the right pipe. Like art and music, smoking pipes are highly subjective.
Renia: That makes complete sense! Is there anything you wish pipe smokers understood about the process of making a pipe when they purchase from you?
Steve: Only the work that goes into each piece. People who don’t work with wood often don’t appreciate the time and materials that go into creating something from a block of briar. Many of the blocks I buy can’t be used at all and there are hours and hours of labor and love poured into each piece.
Renia: It sounds like you sometimes experienced the artist’s curse. Would you consider that your biggest challenge?
Steve: Probably not. My biggest challenge is time...and figuring out what someone else wants and is interested in. Often I’ll make a pipe that I think is cool and no one seems interested. Then I’ll make one that’s not a favorite for me and people go nuts for it. I’m still learning how to judge what people want.
Renia: It surprises me to hear you say that. You’re unboxing experience is so impressive! The first time I opened one of your boxes I thought, “Now that’s a guy who gets marketing.”
Steve: That’s all my wife! She’s the kind of person who makes her own clothes and creates from scratch. She stains the boxes and makes the foam inserts. She is wonderful at making each of my pieces an experience for someone.
Renia: It sounds like you make a great team. Is your wife also responsible for the playful names your pipes carry?
Steve: Sometimes. Three of the Owl Pipes you’re starting with at TobaccoPipes.com were named by her. Other times it’s just a vague idea the pipe makes me think about.
We are honored to help bring Steve Lavoice Jr. and the whimsical handmade Owl Pipes to a new audience! Please say hello to Steve in the comments below.
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