A Look at Northern Heights Co.

Story by Justin Allec, Photos by Nate Church

Peruse your local head shop and you’ll find pipes, bongs, and bubblers that come in all shapes and sizes, with a thousand variations on the basic pipe made from materials like glass, stone, wood, and even (yuck) steel. Northern Heights Co. is a local pottery company that manufactures ceramic smoking ware, and their pieces are the very definition of ‘functional art.’ Drawing inspiration from the wilderness surrounding Thunder Bay, owners Nate Church and Gayle Buzzi have created unique product lines that reflect the aesthetics of the north. The Little Dipper pipe I’ve been test-driving recently is a case in point: it has a generous bowl drilled with three draw holes, it fits well in the hand, and the cosmic “Galaxy Glaze” finish is practically bulletproof. Add in the ability to run Northern Heights’ pipes through the dishwasher and you’re probably looking at your next everyday piece.

“We had come up with the idea [for Northern Heights Co.] around January, but then it kinda went where a lot of good ideas go,” Buzzi says about starting the business. “But then COVID happened, and I lost my job.” When the couple found themselves isolated, it seemed like a good idea to explore alternative options for income. Buzzi adds that “with legalization, it’s probably the only time in our lives that an entire new industry will open up.” With a strong business background, Church had operated an online lighting store that was also unfortunately shuttered, but with Buzzi recently graduating from the University of Manitoba with her Master of Fine Arts, the couple decided to forge ahead with their idea. Though Buzzi has training to work with both ceramics and glass, she decided to focus on pottery as the chosen material for Northern Heights because it was easier to start up under quarantine conditions.

Given that I wasn’t familiar with ceramic pipes, Buzzi explained the process of slip casting. After sketching and playing with clay, she first makes a maquette, or a small preliminary model. A negative mould is then built around the maquette to provide a consistent shape. Liquid clay is then pressed into the mould and allowed to partially dry; this step allows the clay to take shape, but it also produces the hollow drawing channel that’s necessary for a pipe to function. After a bit of touching up with brushes and a Dremel tool, the moulded shape is fired in the kiln for 12 hours.

Church is clear about the appeal of their pipes: “They’re locally crafted, we’re able to oversee the whole process, and we can easily respond to customer’s needs.” Strong sales through local retailer Kia Ora Kannabis support the online store, and Church is looking beyond Thunder Bay as well—he’s recently made connections with retailers in Winnipeg and the Niagara region. Buzzi also keeps pushing what’s artistically possible with new glazes and two new designs that will be released soon. Beautifully crafted and incredibly durable, Northern Heights Co. pipes are a testament to northern inspiration.