What begins as a small chunk of wood turns into a little work of art in the skilled hands of Nick Pancheau and Sean Thomas.
Pipes made from imported briar wood in Pancheau’s and Thomas’ home workshops transform into a variety of highly polished sculptures that also provide the pleasure of smoking aromatic tobacco. Since the two Billings friends advocate enjoying a pipeful only once in a while, they’ve named their enterprise the Occasional Pipe Co.
“Most of the customers we’re selling to ascribe to the same motto,” Pancheau says.
In fact, at the most recent SummerFair, two elderly women bought the pipes for their beauty, he said, not for smoking.
“They recognized the art and beauty of the object as a small artwork,” he said.
Pancheau, an architect, works full time for Collaborative Design Architects in Billings. He is also known for the simple but elegant furniture he and his wife, Hanna, create and sell under the name of Pare Furniture+Design.
Thomas, an artist, is employed as a pharmacy tech at Costco. But he is known for his colorful graffiti-style artwork that uses spray paints and other types of paint.
The pair’s pipe-making business is no conveyor-belt operation. Though certain steps of the process remain the same for every pipe, the design is chosen based on the grade of the wood and its grain pattern, as well as the shape that strikes them at the moment.
On a recent snowy morning, Pancheau and Thomas began work on a new pipe. The chunk of wood bore little resemblance to what would eventually be the finished product.
The high-pitched whine of a drill bit burrowing into the wood mingled with classical music emanating from a nearby radio. Bits of wood shavings flew in the air as the bit chewed deeper into the center of the block.
Pancheau and Thomas outlined the steps they follow to make a pipe.
“We start with marking out the center for the tobacco chamber and then for the air hole,” Pancheau said. “And then we sketch the general shape of the pipe on the outside of the block.”
The wood used for all the pipes is briar burl. The wood is purchased from a seller in Vermont, who imports it from Algeria or Italy.
“It has a bunch of different grains working through it,” Thomas added. “It makes a great smoking pipe because of the density of the wood and its ability to take heat.”
Using different-sized bits on the drill press, he or Pancheau drill out the tobacco chamber and then rotate the block of wood and do three different operations to drill the air hole.
In this case, Pancheau moves to a hand drill and uses his own custom-made rounded bit to finish bottoming out the tobacco chamber.
“That puts the domed bottom into the bowl, and that’s what meets the air hole,” he said.
At that point, he fits the pipe to the vulcanite stem. The tenon cutter on the drill press pares down the tenon, the male portion of the stem, to fit it into the shank, the female part of the pipe.
As the cutter peels off a portion of the tenon, the odor of burning rubber fills the air. To finish that step, Pancheau sands the stem by hand, then fits the two pieces together, hand in glove.
Next comes the shaping of the pipe, which initially may be done on a band saw. It also requires use of a vertical belt sander, hand files and sandpaper, which progress through grits of sandpaper ranging from 150 to 1,000.
Next, the pipe is stained with a leather dye. That’s followed by sanding, dyeing and then polishing.
“And then finally we wax the pipe on a polishing wheel with carnauba wax,” Pancheau said. “That’s what gives it that glossy finish.”
If the piece of wood has surface imperfections, it doesn’t work as well for that type of design, he said. Instead, it is rusticated with a distressed finish, and the exterior of the briar burl is left exposed at the top, giving it another unique style.
“On a pipe that has a bent stem, at that point we will heat the stem and put the bend into the stem and polish it again,” he said.
It takes eight to 12 hours to make a pipe, Pancheau said, and they generally sell for $125 to $250. Most are sold by word-of-mouth, although the pipes also are on display at two downtown businesses, Heartstrings Gallery and Stogies.
The two men, friends for seven years, came from very different places. They “grew up opposite, but have so many similarities,” Thomas said.
“We were made to create, we can bounce ideas off one another,” he said. “We can come up with something completely similar but from a different angle, with his background in architecture and mine in art.”
Pancheau, who grew up in Billings, has been working with wood since he was about 8 years old.
“My parents let me set up a workshop under the stairs — we had an old split-level house — and I’ve been building things from that point on,” he said.
You have free articles remaining.
Pancheau graduated from Senior High in 2002. He earned his degree in architecture from Montana State University in 2007, and then he and Hanna moved to Seattle for a job.
When the economy imploded in Seattle, Pacheau knew it was time to relocate.
“The economy in Billings was doing better than Seattle, and there was a place for me here,” he said. “I knew Jeff Kanning and he had a spot for me at Collaborative.”
Pancheau calls his furniture making and pipe making “a creative outlet for the parts of architecture that are technical. This is a repository for the excess creativity, more or less.”
He started focusing on how different materials come together and need to be expressed. That eventually turned into furniture making, which began to clutter his home.
“My wife is a very patient woman, but at some point, the house filled up with these things and I knew they had to go somewhere,” Pancheau said.
The couple decided to see if the chairs, coffee tables, end tables and beds they created together — Hanna is a seamstress/upholsterer — could sell, and they did. Pancheau is pleased that one piece has been accepted into the upcoming Yellowstone Art Museum auction.
Art was a big part of Thomas’ life as he “grew up pretty poor” in North Hollywood, Calif.
“One thing we had was art programs through school,” he said.
He also learned to create with anything he could get his hands on — dirt, mud or paint.
“I filled up so many sketchbooks with random characters,” Thomas said. “I did drawing. I didn’t paint until I moved to Montana.”
He saw lots of graffiti-style art everywhere, art that had to express itself. He didn’t follow suit, afraid of getting in trouble for defacing property.
But it inspired him.
“Something inside of me needed to create something,” he said. “I would see the idea of something inside of me as the best way to express life, emotions, to put into something creative rather than something destructive.”
At age 21, a series of events took him to Silverdale, in Washington state, about two hours across the water from Seattle. He met his wife, Laura, in Washington, and they married in 2005.
She was working for a financial planning company and he was employed by Costco. It took him a year to convince her to take a six-month road trip across the country, which they did in 2007, driving 10,000 miles to North Carolina and back.
“We were living out of our ’91 Ford Explorer, staying at campgrounds and with friends,” he said. “Somehow God landed us in Billings, because of the cost of living.”
Both took a semester of classes at Yellowstone Christian College at a time when Sean thought he would become a youth pastor. That didn’t happen, but the couple ended up at West Side Baptist Church, and that’s where he and Pancheau met.
The friendship just seemed like a good fit, Pancheau said. The two young couples met, and the architect and the artist felt something click.
As for pipe making, Pancheau had seen iconic photos of famous architects, Charles-Edouard Jeannert-Gris — better known as Le Corbusier — and Charles Eames smoking pipes.
“I thought maybe when I became a licensed architect, I’d smoke a pipe from time to time,” he said. “Someone told me in the drafting room (that) ash in a pipe wouldn’t fall on designs.”
Both Pancheau and Thomas smoke a pipe once in a while, more for special occasions than out of habit. About three years ago, Pancheau talked to Thomas about the idea, and they both decided to tackle making one.
“He started down one path and I started out with another,” he said. “Sean came out with a really beautiful pipe and I came out with an ugly one.”
Thomas has his own take on how it went.
“Nick has the ability to take an idea and figure out all the technical aspects of it,” he said. “I just want to throw it all together and call it a pipe.”
Eventually, through much trial and error, they honed the process of creating beautiful, functional pipes. These days they continue to explore shapes of pipes that are pleasing to them.
They’re guided, in part, by their clients’ desires. For instance, one person asked them to create a pipe like the one seen in the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
They’ve sold between 20 and 30 pipes. It’s more of an occasional venture, as the name of the enterprise implies, Pancheau said. Their main goal is to pursue creativity, not big profits.
“We view it as a little sculpture you can complete in a concise amount of time,” he said.