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New Paul’s Pipes: Meet Paul Menard

New Paul’s Pipes: Meet Paul Menard

Posted by Renia Carsillo on 27th Mar 2015

Paul Menard is a Renaissance Man, more so than anyone I’ve spoken with in a long time.

Over the course of a nearly two hour interview, our conversation moved seamlessly from tobacco pipes to books. I listened with no small amount of envy as he spoke of living among the redwood trees and learning secrets of artisan pipe-making from contemporary greats. We even dipped our toes into a bit of philosophy.

Paul’s faith is strong and it fuels his work. He believes every day is a gift and every burst of creativity a precious thing.

With a perfectionist’s unyielding determination, he crafts raw pieces of briar and manzanita into the most sacred offerings he can dream up. There is a thoughtfulness in the way he explains his process that translates into every pipe.

I was thoroughly enchanted with Paul’s Pipes the moment we unboxed them, but speaking with him directly helped me understand how, in just a few short years, Paul Menard has become something of an internet sensation. His pipes are beloved by their owners and more than one of our Instagram friends told us, “You got to get Paul’s Pipes!”

Join me as I sit down with the newest pipe maker to join the community, Paul Menard.

A Conversation with Paul's Pipes

Renia: Tell me what got you interested in making pipes? How did you get started?

Paul Menard and Family

Paul: I’ve been working with my hands my whole life. When I retired a few years ago, I needed something to do with my hands. I was only 50 and felt like I might want to learn a few new things. I turned my garage into a shop and started making things out of reclaimed wood.

Over the years I’ve taught myself lots of different things--philosophy, fly fishing, you name it. The challenge of figuring out how to do something new on my own is part of the fun of it. I didn’t set out to be a pipe maker, but once I started the craftsmanship needed to make a good pipe took hold of me.

A friend gave me a wooden lathe and I used it to start making duck calls. The word spread and a number of hunters told me my calls were the best they had ever used. Carving pipes follows some of the same principles, so I decided to try one just for fun.

My first pipes were made out of Brazilian Walnut. I destroyed my lathe and a fair few tools that way! Then a friend suggested briar wood, and I found myself enchanted with the possibilities buried within each block.

Before I started carving my own pipes I didn’t smoke a pipe. An unpleasant experience as a young man--before I had the patience to slow down and figure it all out--made me think I didn’t like them. However, once I started making my own I took up the hobby and now enjoy smoking a pipe almost as much as I like making them.

R: That’s a great story Paul! I bet where you live really inspires your work.

P: It does, but I’m most often inspired by other people in the community. I’ve been carving pipes for several years now and I like being involved with others on YouTube, Instagram and other places. Sometimes I’ll even Skype with another pipe maker while I’m working.

R: The sense of community seems to be a common attraction to the pipe community, particularly online. Where else do you get your ideas from?

P: When I make a pipe I always have a certain type of smoker in mind. I think about whether the pipe is going to a guy who will be carrying it throughout a workday or someone who will sit on his porch with a good book while he smokes. I’ll think about how the pipe will be used and what that might indicate about the smoker.

Many of my ideas come from talking with other pipe makers about how the different pipe tobaccos interact with different shapes.

I’ll talk to a veteran smoker or maker and learn something new, then I want to try it out for myself. For example, I’ve made my fair share of Pokers. They tend to do well with working men who smoke primarily English blends while they are on the job. In contrast, a bent pipe is usually smoked while sitting down and relaxing. Knowing what the smoker will do with the pipe and what kind of blend is going in it helps me make the best piece possible.

R: It sounds like you’re creating an experience with each pipe you make.

P: I like to think I am. My hope is that a pipe smoker who purchases one of my pieces will pick it up and say, “WOW!”

I am a perfectionist and hope that comes through in my work. My hope is that a Paul’s Pipe will be that smoker’s favorite pipe. Most of my customers are repeats and I like it that way.

R: It seems like you take your work very seriously, like it’s much more than a hobby. Can you walk us through what your process looks like?

P: My work is very important to me. A pipe won’t leave my shop if it isn’t right. I have a semi-photograph memory so I build each one in my mind before I begin and I work backwards from most carvers--creating the stem before the rest of the pipe.

I like to let the wood take its shape as I work with it. Also, many of my shanks are not perfectly round because I spend tons of time hand sanding to make it feel more ergonomical. I will often spend many hours just sanding one small area.

Each pipe that comes out of my shop is completely finished before I move to the next one. I don’t have any desire to do assembly-line type work. I can’t let go of one pipe for awhile and move to another one. It has to be finished.

R: That’s a profound way of looking at it. Purchasing a handmade pipe like yours seems like the equivalent to being a patron of the arts. Does making your art challenge you sometimes?

P: Of course! Because I am a creature of habit and perfectionist by nature, I have certain expectations that require me to overcome hurdles I don’t always see coming. Letting things go, starting again, these are difficult for a perfectionist.

Just the other day I was working on a pipe for hours and hours. At some point I realized it was just slightly off center and had to throw the whole thing out. I have to remember that each so-called failure is really a learning experience.

My father was a teacher, so I like to think I learned to take each set back as a teaching moment from him.

R: That is one of the toughest lessons for us all to learn isn’t it? Do you have a favorite of all the pipes you’ve made?

P: That’s a tough one. My favorites are probably the ones that started out with a mistake and turned into something else. Awhile back I made one that was too narrow at the bottom and wide at the top. I had to get creative with it and I turned it into a castle. A friend in Ohio now has it and I’m really proud of that one.

R: It sounds like your process is very labor intensive, even more so than some of the other artisan pipe makers I’ve talked with. What do you wish your customers knew about the process before they buy from you?

P: Every piece challenges me in some way. It keeps me humble.

Sometimes a smoker will come to me and doesn’t realize how many hours of labor goes into crafting a pipe. For instance, sanding the drought hole can often take as much as two hours and one little mistake means starting all over again.

Everything that comes out of my shop is made by hand, from the stems to the leather bags. A good pipe maker is pouring his/her soul into the work. In some ways I feel like people are borrowing the pipe, like a friend would. As long as I live and am able, I’ll be involved with the pipe with them. I’ll answer their questions, help with problems, because they are enjoying a piece of my legacy. My pipes are not anonymous. Someone loved them into being.

As my conversation with Paul drew to a close, I couldn’t help but picture him walking beneath those giant redwood trees he loves, pipe in hand, dreaming up the next piece to add to his ever-growing legacy.

We are proud to introduce you to Paul’s Pipes and can’t wait to see what Paul does next.