MAKER SPOTLIGHT: JOHN KELLER of JWK 2366 CUSTOM COBS

MAKER SPOTLIGHT: JOHN KELLER of JWK 2366 CUSTOM COBS

Posted by TobaccoPipes.com on 13th Aug 2020

JOHN KELLER of JWK 2366 CUSTOM COBS

John Keller is a vibrant and genial pipemaker with a beard to make Tolkien’s dwarves glower with envy. The 5th generation Lakeland, Florida native would prefer to take my call with a pipe on his back patio, but the heat of Central Florida in August is “just a little too toasty.” So, he talks to me from his workshop instead; the site of much inspiration, joy, and pipecraft innovation. It’s here Keller shapes his “cob-mods”—modified corn cob pipes that are known the world over, including work that’s twice taken 1st Place in Traditional Shape at Cobfoolery—as well as his newer pipemaking venture: shaping briar. Quick to laugh, and imbued with a humble spirit despite his success, Keller’s insights into the art of his making process are inspiring gems that make one remember the fundamental joys to be found in life and pipecraft.

TobaccoPipes.com

So, John, what are you smoking?

John Keller

It’s just a little too toasty here in Central Florida to smoke just yet. I can tell you what I would be smoking—that’s a real easy one. I’m a Virginia guy. My go to is Orlik Golden Sliced. And anything that Greg Pease does can’t go wrong, like Haddo’s Delight for one.

Orlik Golden Sliced& G.L. Pease’s Haddo’s Delight

Try John’s Favorites: Orlik Golden Sliced & G.L. Pease’s Haddo’s Delight


TobaccoPipes.com

Do you remember your very first pipe?

John Keller

My first pipe was a corn cob. Then my first briar was a Christmas gift from my wife; a Savinelli pipe. I got it with a Jedi mind trick: “this is a pipe that you will buy me.” It worked! I was a cigar smoker before pipes, and I do still occasionally enjoy a good cigar.

TobaccoPipes.com

Where do you usually smoke?

John Keller

I’ve got a screened in back patio. Or, in my shop while I’m making pipes. What I really love is what people call “lunting”—walking through the woods or in nature with a pipe. Whether you’re on a beach or watching a sunrise or in the woods on a trail or beside a lake with the waterfowl and aquatic birds. That’s the way to do it.

TobaccoPipes.com

What led you to pipe making?

John Keller

I’ve always been into craft-like things: leather, woodwork, and so on. I’d bought some corn cobs, and as a new piper, I just wanted to learn about smoking technique. Like every new piper, I struggled with how to load a pipe and how to keep it lit. So, I got on YouTube and discovered the Smoking Dagners and started watching Jayson and Jay’s videos and learning the ropes. Before I made pipes, I actually made pipe tampers. I’d carve them from cattle bone into characters or figures; things like wolves and other creatures from different cultures and mythology.

A few of John’s bone tampers

A few of John’s bone tampers

At that time, Instagram and YouTube were new and I thought I might reach out to the Dagners and send them one of my tampers. That opened the door to a friendship. So, time went on and I was kind of monkeying around with this thing I’d heard about called “cob-modding.”

Cob-modding is deconstructing the standard factory corn cob pipe and customizing it into a new creation. I played with that for a little while and it was fun for me and people seemed to like what I was doing. I started making my own shanks and using premade vulcanite stems that I would purchase from Steve Norse over at Vermont Freehand. Now, I will use a Missouri Meerschaum bowl and if it happens to be a design that’s not hardwood plug, I hardwood plug it and make my own shank and my own stem that has a delrin tenon just like a formal briar pipe.

One of John’s beautiful cob mods

One of John’s beautiful cob mods

Over the past year, I’ve gotten into making briar pipes as well. People know me for my custom cobs, and at first, it seemed like a lot of people couldn’t accept that I was making briar. Or maybe I was just mind-tripping myself.

TobaccoPipes.com

You work at something you have a gift for, but as a maker, your creativity expands beyond that one thing.

John Keller

Yep. You can mindtrip yourself into thinking you can’t do both. But then it clicked—do this, and bend it to the outer limits, and continue my briar journey at the same time. It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that, you know, I’ve got a talent here; I say this humbly that people know my custom cobs all over the world. So, I thought, use it, and don’t be ashamed of it, but you can also pursue your dreams of making briar pipes. It’s like a double helping of cake.

TobaccoPipes.com

How do you think about innovation while working with something as iconic as the corn cob pipe?

John Keller

I’ll tell you by way of a story. A couple weeks ago a friend reached out to me. He knows I don’t do commissions or requests because I like to have my artistic freedom. I want to get in my shop and get right into my vision versus having someone who wants streamers on this buzz bike, with a dinger bell on the right-hand side and a white basket with yellow daisies on the handlebars. I want to build the bike that’s a lowrider; that’s different. I don’t want to be strapped down and have to perform to what someone wants.

So how I feel about working with an iconic American emblem like the corn cob pipe—that’s where I was going before I started chasing that squirrel—is that a friend of mine asked me if I would consider making a new stem for his grandfather’s pipe. Just think about it, he said, and let me know. When I read his email, I said, “there’s no thinking. This is his grandfather’s pipe.” My hashtag for the project is #notyourgrandpascob. I considered it an honor.

I told my friend what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to make my take on what a factory stem should look like. I wanted to make it out of amber, not too aggressive about removing any patina, because that itself shows how much Grandpa loved it—it is just loaded with nicotine on that yellow shellac! Those colors are something else.

So, I made my take and blended everything real well and took just a little of the cake off. I posted it on Instagram yesterday and my friend was blown away. He said he knew his Grandpa George was looking down from Heaven and grinning ear to ear.

Grandpa George’s Cob – Before & After

Grandpa George’s Cob – Before & After


TobaccoPipes.com

You’re reshaping legacy within the current moment and with your particular aesthetic.

John Keller

Exactly. When people see corn cobs, it’s Popeye, Granny Clampett, and MacArthur. I love the corn cob. My personal goal has always been to change the mentality that corn cobs are throwaway pipes. Properly cared for, they can give you many years of joyous smoke, you just got to give them the same dedication and care as your briars, your meerschaum, your mortas. My goal when I make my custom cobs is to make it a PIPE. I don’t want people going “oh that’s just a corn cob.” That’s a passion of mind; to change people’s thinking about the possibilities of a corn cob pipe.

JWK Custom Cob


TobaccoPipes.com

Can you walk me through the pipe making process from idea to visualization?

John Keller

Let’s say I’ve got my supplies and I’ve got the Missouri Meerschaum, referred to as the Acorn. I’ll take one of those and I’ll remove the stem and I’ll be thinking, “let’s turn this into a Devil Anse.” Well, how can we do that? First thing I’ll do is round the thing off. Then I’ll make a custom tapered shank, whether it’s of briar or oak—I like using oak because you don’t have to worry about tannins. Plus, when staining, the oak is easier to pair with a stain of choice than with a briar. Briar can be a bugger sometimes.

Of course, we all know that a Devil Anse has that bolt that’s canted forward from a tapered shank, and generally Devil Anse’s tend to be short, so I’ll either put a tapered bit on it, or a saddle bit that’s custom, or I’ll take it in the opposite direction and I’ll put a Danish-style bit on it. Whatever strikes my fancy.

So, we take that Acorn bowl drilled at a cant. Then I have to decide if I want to keep the shank more factory or if I want to go a little bigger. Whatever material I’m using, I have to visualize the bowl from the junction of the shank toward the bit. Do I want it to taper or do I want it straight? What do I want to use for a ferrule? Do I want an ebonite spacer with a funky acrylic or to keep it traditional and maybe do some horn after the spacer? Then I start thinking about my stem material. Do I want standard German ebonite or a swirl ebonite or to be more modern and flashier and go with acrylic? It all depends on the look

I do find that corn cob smokers like flashy bits. Sometimes I’ll have funky ideas and smash them together. When you start modding corn cobs you can segment together pieces of bowls and create bends, but for me that’s the once a year Cobfoolery type of pipe.

The two times I did win Cobfoolery, in 2017 and 2018, I took first place in Traditional Shapes. I’m more of a traditional maker; even my briars. I can’t wrap my mind around the funky shapes. They’re really cool looking, but I stick with traditional.

John Keller’s Devil Anse

John Keller’s Devil Anse


TobaccoPipes.com

Are you making decisions in real time as you’re working, or do you have the final vision in mind from the get-go?

John Keller

Pipemakers might not always admit it, but the pipe will tell you how it wants to be made. Seriously, I’m a firm believer, and that goes for briar, morta, cob, or meerschaum. Sometimes I’ll start out and say, “I’m going to take this billiard cob bowl and I want to have a bent shank with a certain type of inlay and a certain stem.” But for whatever reason, when you start doing that it’s like a little voice says, “I don’t want to be a bend. I’m supposed to be straight. I need to have this color stem.” You have to listen. And those are the pipes where people say, “holy cow!”

John at work in his shop

John at work in his shop


TobaccoPipes.com

It’s your job to let the pipe have the reins.

John Keller

I guess in simple layman’s terms you have to “go with the flow and let the work happen.” You have the be the vessel; the conduit.

TobaccoPipes.com

Do you have any rituals or superstitions when you’re making a pipe?

John Keller

When I’m in the shop and I start making a pipe I’m determined. But let’s say I have a setback. I adjust and go with it. Then say there’s a second setback. The hairs on my neck start standing up but I’m ok; I’m good with this. But then, if you have setback number three—pardon the expression—I have to say, “to hell with it, it’s time for a beer.” When there are three bad signs, you got to wrap it up and head to the house.

TobaccoPipes.com

And when you come back, it’s with fresh eyes.

John Keller

That’s true for me. One of my mentors has told me that when you’re in the heat of the moment and you’re perplexed, just set it down. Come back tomorrow. Smoke a pipe. Go for a walk. Get back to it with an open mind, a relaxed body, and look at it with those fresh eyes. Nine times out of ten, you’ll see where you need to correct things. And it won’t be from an overreactive judgement because you’re pissed.

TobaccoPipes.com

Do you have any favorite makers?

John Keller

Oh yes, lots. I’m an extreme fanboy of Tom Eltang and Master Former. A lot of Danish influence. I try to incorporate some of that Danish style in cobs because if you think about what the Danes do with briar, they’re working a lot of times with classic shapes. For my cobs, I like a Danish and American flair.

TobaccoPipes.com

What are some of your favorite pairings with a pipe?

John Keller

A good morning smoke to wake up with is Peterson’s Early Morning along with a medium-bodied coffee with cream and sugar. Peterson’s Nightcap goes great with a stout or a Bloody Mary. Or Orlick Golden Sliced in the summertime with a margarita, a mojito, and being that I’m from the South, sweet tea with a spritz of lemon juice.

few of John’s favorites: Peterson’s Early Morning and Peterson’s Nightcap

Try a few of John’s favorites: Peterson’s Early Morning and Peterson’s Nightcap


TobaccoPipes.com

Tell me about your tools; what’s a favorite in your arsenal?

John Keller

For anyone interested in cob-modding you can get by with basic tools: a drimmel is a very handy tool to have when making custom cobs. I have three lathes—one that has a buffing wheel station. I have a mini, machinist style lathe that I use strictly for my stems. I also prep my JWK custom corn cobs using my wood lathe and the drimmel and hand-sanding. My micro-lathe is my favorite. I love that tool—it’s such a workhorse.

John’s Workshop

John’s Workshop


TobaccoPipes.com

What other hobbies do you have? How do they inform your pipe making?

John Keller

I like taking pictures. Capturing random objects and trying to get the way light might play off them. I like to cook occasionally or hang out with my wife while she’s cooking. And just getting out in nature. I love to fish. A day on the lake, even if you don’t catch anything; that’s a great day. Helps you appreciate the simple things in life and realize “hey, the world does not revolve around me.”

TobaccoPipes.com

You and your wife just celebrated thirty-two years—is she involved in your process?

John Keller

She’s very supportive and we’ve made one cob together. She’s a sounding board—I might have something in mind, but she’ll come up with something else, especially with color, and I’ll realize that she’s right. But there’s times in all honesty where she’ll say “uh, can we talk about something else? I’m kind of over talking about pipes today.”

I also like to repurpose things. My wife and I go antiquing quite a bit and restore furniture. Lots of objects in our house are things we’ve repurposed together. When you get both of us in the shop, she’ll have the vision and I’m there to be her helper. Our house is a kind of modern farmhouse.

TobaccoPipes.com

Do you have a collective of pipe makers you work with, give feedback to, and who critique your work?

John Keller

For my briar pipe making, I do have a couple of mentors. One is a Master and the others are Journeymen. Out of respect for them, I’m not going to namedrop. I’m open to my work being critiqued by my mentors, and they’ve ripped me a new one, believe me.

As far as the cobs, there are people I’ve pointed in the right direction as they begin their journey into making custom cobs. I say this humbly that they would look to me as the Master in that scenario. When people say that to me, I say: “no no no. I’m not worthy of toting my mentors’ file bag.” I’m far from a Master and I try to remain humble about that.

TobaccoPipes.com

Did they ever intervene in any way that reframed your making process?

John Keller

In reference to my briar, definitely. There are guys out there that think that just because they have a lathe, they’re a pipemaker. A Master told me he didn’t mind critiquing my briar because I give a damn and have the heart and desire to keep our craft alive. But some guys are just spinning briar to make a buck.

That same mentor also told me that someday I will have the “aha” moment where things click. That moment only comes with dedication. He told me that you’ll go through periods where there are lulls, but that as a maker, we can learn something every day. When you choose not to learn every day you need to hang up your apron.

TobaccoPipes.com

It’s that curiosity, right? It’s what keeps your work innovating.

John Keller

Exactly. You’re not thinking about making pipes as “how much can I get for this?” You’re thinking, “how do I make this different?” It’s a challenge. It’s a personal challenge. I do lots of studies of different work and try to take apart the process. Innovation comes through study, like the Danish makers I mentioned.

An elegant cob mod

An elegant cob mod

TobaccoPipes.com

What are you listening to while you’re working?

John Keller

Most of the time I try to listen to something peaceful—zen type music—things like techno spirituality enlightenment vibe stuff like Desert Dwellers and Liquid Bloom. The reason I like that music when I’m working is that it’s calming—it takes me to a place where I have something other than sheer silence, but it’s still peaceful and allows me to be creative and really focus. Also, it doesn’t have the triggers of music you know; I’m not listening and then thinking, “hey, this song came out in 1981 when I was in 8th grade and I remember how so-and-so did this at the football game and that’s where I met Susie-Q” and all those kinds of nostalgic associations. Or even just singing along and getting distracted. I like peaceful music that puts me in a zone where I can let the work happen.

It also depends on the task I’m doing. If I’m turning on the lathe, I want peaceful. But if it’s a task during a pipe build, I’m open to almost anything, though I get strict with the cutting of my stems and bits. I don’t want to be listening to AC/DC with an aggressive beat and realize I took too much off with my file. I’ve had it happen! Like a maker once told me, once you take it off, you can’t put it back.

TobaccoPipes.com

Which pipe that you’ve made are you are the proudest of?

John Keller

Your question makes me think of a phrase one of my mentors shared with me: “the best pipe I can make is the one I haven’t made yet.” I like to approach my briars and my cobs with the ideal that this may be the last pipe I’ll ever make. I want it to be the best it can possibly be. Sometimes a finished product doesn’t live up to that goal, but sometimes I’ll look at a pipe in my hands and say, “you know, that’s pretty badass.”

TobaccoPipes.com

It seems like the best makers always have one eye on their work and one eye on the horizon.

John Keller

Yes, I agree completely.

TobaccoPipes.com

What’s next on your workbench?

John Keller

I’m working on an acorn shape corn cob with a carbon fiber shank that will have a brown-copper-goldish acrylic stem. I’ve also recently started a creative membership with a group of guys called the Eldritch Brothers—it’s myself, Frank in Atlanta who is a leather smith, and Mikko in Finland, who is also a pipe maker. This is a collaboration I’m really excited about that allows me to do what I need to do without parameters. We get to take on our inner personas and create off-the-wall work that some people might view as dark. There are limitless possibilities. We have a few things lined up—cobs from me, more pipes from Mikko, and leather from Frank. A brotherhood—no pun intended.

John Keller