In 1929, when he was just thirty years old, Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte produced one of his most controversial paintings, The Treachery of Images. The simple oil on canvas painting presents the image of a traditional, half-bent billiard pipe on a flat background. Underneath the image are the words, Ceci n’est pas une pipe, scrawled in elegant cursive. The words translate pretty directly into English as: This is not a pipe.
What Magritte was trying to do with the Treachery of Images was make a distinction between looking at a painting of a pipe and the reality of holding a pipe in your hand. While talking to Jesse O’Hara about his pipemaking, for some reason, Magritte’s painting kept coming to mind.
What Jesse does with a small hunk of briar is not just pipemaking. And the objects created during his process are not just pipes. They are labors of passion, feats of technical skill and tiny marvels of artistic vision. Each pipe is a part of himself that he wants to share with those who also find passion in pipes. If that sounds a little sentimental, a little romanticized, we have no problem telling you with a straight face it is absolutely true.
Raised outside of Boston, Jesse moved to Pennsylvania as a teenager, and attended both high school and college in the southeastern part of the state. After graduating from college, he got married and got a job in Philadelphia, where he expanded his carpentry skills, doing increasingly more detailed finish work. In 2008 he moved into Lancaster city with his family and began to assemble a woodshop with a friend. Gradually, he became his own boss, doing custom-designed furniture and making pipes for seven months out of the year, and helping to manage growing operations at a local greenhouse the other five months of the year. As a father of three young children, he spends four days of the week keeping track of his kids, while working in his shop in the evening, or in whatever other spare time he can manage.
Ellicott & Co has partnered with Jesse to create a line of hand-crafted pipes for the modern man. But, he hasn’t always known he would become a pipe-maker. Still, pipes have been a part of his life since he was young—his father smoked a pipe. Of course there are memories: “Some of my best childhood memories are of spending summer evenings on the porch with my dad while he smoked. He would do this cool thing where he would take bottles of bubbles, fill his mouth with pipe smoke, then blow a bubble. The bubble would come out filled with swirling smoke.The effect is hard to describe, but it was like a swirling crystal ball floating through the air. My brothers and I would chase and pop them.” It wasn’t until Jesse went to college that he got his first pipe, a gift from his grandfather. And so, over the years, with images bound up in the memories of his childhood, pipe smoking became a pastime for Jesse.
Then, there was a moment that changed everything. After returning home from his shop one night, feeling stuck with a furniture project, Jesse turned to the internet, looking for some design inspiration. The photo he found was of pipe called The Turtle made by maker, Maigurs Knets. It changed his work-life entirely: “It was a real transformational moment in my life. You know, people talk about about that moment when something clicks, and it’s just like “Whoa!” When this picture popped up on my computer screen, it just floored me. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. There were just so many curves, so much going on in this pipe, that I was just thinking, in about three seconds, this is something I’m going to be doing at some point.”
Jesse’s depth of knowledge of his craft—even as a maker relatively new to the pipe world—is impressive. Before he ever even attempted his first pipe, he spent 2-3 years doing research on the best materials, various techniques, and even about how smoke moves inside of a pipe to ensure a quality smoking experience. And his knowledge is matched by an enthusiasm for the genuine romance he sees in the old-fashioned nature of the pipe industry: “As you delve into the pipe world, there are a lot of families where this is the third generation, whether they are pipemakers or briar harvesters, so the pipe world only gets more interesting the deeper you dig. It’s what everyone romantically wants a business to be. It’s sustainable, there are concerns on both ends, with the maker and the harvester both wanting the product to be used correctly. There’s no part of it that’s not awesome.”
The raw material that Jesse uses to craft his pipes comes from a heath tree (Erica arborea). Traditionally called briar, this type of wood is used for pipes because it is extremely heat resistant and gives off no scent when exposed to heat, preserving the flavor of tobacco during a smoking experience. The wood is harvested in the form of a burl, which is a tumor like ball that grows on the roots of the heath tree, and can only be harvested after 30-50 years of growth. Heath trees grow mainly around the Mediterranean basin region, with the most sought after burls harvested from Italy and Greece. After harvesting, the burls are cut into approximately pipe sized blocks, then boiled to extract the resin and sap. Typically the blocks will be air-dried for at least one year before being sold to a pipe maker. Jesse allows these blocks to dry in his shop at least one additional year after he receives them, to be sure the blocks won’t develop cracks later on in the process. For making the stems, Jesse uses a high grade form of vulcanized rubber called ebonite that comes in the form of a dowel rod, produced in Germany. Each stem is shaped to fit seamlessly with the specific design of each pipe.
Before beginning, Jesse selects a block of briar and squares off the sides on his table saw, revealing some of the grain pattern underneath. There are two types of briar: Plateaux blocks are cut from the outer edges of a burl and are used for more high-end pipes due to striking, dramatic bird’s eye and flame grain patterns, while Ebauchon blocks are cut from the center of the burl and tend to have more subdued grain patterns. Jesse always considers the grain first and foremost before deciding on a direction for a pipe’s shape.
Next comes the technical side of the process—drilling the block. Jesse’s method is to secure the block to the table of the drill press, for precision’s sake. He told us, “I basically drill three holes. There’s the chamber hole which is where the tobacco sits. There is the mortis, where the stem fits in, and centered in the mortis is the draught hole which is where the smoke is pulled from the chamber up through the mouth piece.”
After drilling, the technical gives way to the whims of artistry. On a sanding wheel, Jesse begins to remove material from the block, allowing the shape to emerge, pass after pass. He likes to be open-minded during this part of the process, rather than trying to come to a predetermined shape. It is a matter of intuitive exploration, a matter of paying attention to the grain of the wood, and the inspiration he is feeling for each pipe.
After achieving more refined shape with the wheel, Jesse turns to hand files to finish sculpting the finer attributes of the pipe’s shape. Around this part of the process, Jesse attaches the rough ebonite mouthpiece and shapes that with the rest of the pipe, also with hand files.
When Jesse is satisfied with the shape of the pipe and has achieved a snug fit between the stem and shank, he is ready to start the real work—the sanding. He sands all his pipes by hand, starting with 220 grit, then moving through a series of progressively finer grits, all the way to 1200. The incredibly fine grit eliminates any scratches created during the pipe’s shaping.
More traditionalist pipe makers usually apply a coat of shellac at this stage of the process, which makes a pipe shiny and flawless forever, eliminating wear over time. Jesse’s personal philosophy is, instead of preventing such changes, to invite them. What happens to the pipe without stain? It simply darkens the more is it smoked and allows the owner’s hand to interact with the wax finish, dulling it in the places where it is most often held.
After sanding, Jesse’s final step is polishing the pipes on a buffing wheel. First, with tripoli compound, then with a white diamond compound, and thirdly, with carnauba wax. The buffing takes only a matter of minutes, but the transformation is remarkable.
It’s hard to describe what one of Jesse’s finished pipes feels like in your hand. It’s like smooth-polished glass, but somehow lighter and warmer and more natural feeling, almost like an extension of your body. It’s like experiencing the subtlest of truths. Holding one of these works of art, surveying the details of its composition and construction and natural beauty, you can’t help but think, This is indeed a pipe.
For Jesse, every details matters—from the intricate, swirling grain patterns, to the quality of the smoking experience, to the warm and silky feel of a finished pipe in your hand. This is a complete experience he makes possible for those looking for quality, intimacy, and an avant-garde twist to classic pipe designs.
Jesse is not only a fine craftsman, but an incredibly articulate conversationalist. So, instead of us telling you what it means for him to be a part of the “maker’s movement” in Lancaster as well as what it means to partner with us, we’d rather just share with you his exact words.
On The Maker’s Movement in Lancaster
“Lancaster is full of woodworkers; everyone and their mother makes something. I have never once felt like someone stole work from me, or to the contrary, I have many times referred people to other makers. I’m just like, ‘You know what, this is their thing, it’s not really my thing. I could do it, but it’d be really expensive because it’s not what I’m set up to do. They’ve got it down. Why don’t you go there?’ It’s a much healthier way of looking at it. When you don’t have a factory, you don’t need five hundred customers a year. I need like four or five that I can really pour everything into.”
“Any kind of craftsman who does this kind of thing one piece at a time, 99.9% of the time is not getting rich off it, and that’s not the goal going into it. I have no illusions that pipemaking is going to bring me fame and fortune. It brings me a lot of soul-nourishment and joy. I played the game when I first started doing furniture of having the ambition of being the best. I've completely lost that, and I gravitate a lot more now toward the idea that it's not about being the best, doing work that is recognized as being "better" than everyone else's. It's more like, what can I as an individual contribute to a community of talented craftsmen that are producing beautiful work? I have no desire to be the loudest voice...I just want to be in the conversation."
On Working with Ellicott & Co.
“They are definitely doing a service to these makers, so that there is a forum now for them to put stuff into, at least give people a taste of what’s out there. But, it’s also a service to consumers, where you don’t have to track down nine different people to see cool stuff. They’ve consolidated a bunch of cool things into one place, and as long as it benefits everybody at the end of the day, in some way, whether it’s financial or personal or whatever, it’s a good thing. It’s really refreshing to have the people in charge who actually care about more than money. The guys behind Ellicott & Co are enthusiasts themselves, and that goes a long way toward making guys like me more driven to produce good things for them.”