News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
Talbert Pipes Website - Kentucky Fried Popcorn - My Web Comic.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Special Orders and Not-So-Special Orders

I have been working on some orders lately for a variety of different folks that I've really enjoyed. At the moment, I'm trying to finish up a set of bulldog shapes (or variants, really) for one fellow, and the photo to the left is a sneak preview of the first of them. The deal is the usual - I'm trying to make at least two or three or more pipes with variations between them, and he can choose which he wants with the rest going onto the website catalog. Speaking of which, I have to add in a plug that we still have two Morta Princes available, though the rest of our stock has been decimated since that last update. Our shop area is one great pile of boxes ready to be shipped. To all those folks who got a pipe and were promised it would ship today, my apologies, but it will be delayed one day. Em went to the PO today and there was a temp worker there, who rang up all of our boxes at twice the normal shipping fees. She was totally unfamiliar with international shipping costs, so after much fussing, Em opted to wait until tomorrow when the regular lady will be back, and came home with two sacks full of unshipped pipe boxes.

I just finished answering a question in the last post's "Comments" box regarding special orders, and I thought that maybe it would make a good topic for discussion. I'll start out by immediately splitting the topic into the idealized desires and the more likely realities. The idealized image lots of folks have about special ordering pipes is that all pipemakers should do it, all pipemakers should be infinitely patient with them as they change their minds, rethink ideas, run out of money, etc. Also, and let's especially hammer on this one - There is an idealized concept that there should be no favoritism. This is all fantasy. In reality, a pipemaker must pick and choose among the orders he receives in a very shrewd, business-like fashion, because taking all orders can kill a maker fast.

A smart pipemaker knows how much time he puts into a pipe and how much he's making per hour on that pipe, and his pricing accounts for the added invisible expenses of taking photos, answering various email inquiries, packing, shipping, etc. When I'm writing back to someone about a pipe, it's working time for me whether I am saying, "Here's your total, we take payment by X and X" or just, "Yes, I find morta to have a really dark sort of musky smoke that favors stronger tobaccos. Did you have any other questions?" The trick about this is that it takes just as much time to answer emails and calls about a 50 euro pipe as it does about a 500 euro pipe... the typing time is the same! Ergo, if I spend a half hour answering inquiries about a 100 € Ligne Bretagne, that working time is a much bigger chunk of the pipe's price and profit margin than thirty minutes spent chatting about Talbert Briars.

Which brings me to the point I was making in my Comments reply - as the price of the pipe goes down, there is less and less room for "run around", especially of the, "Maybe I will, maybe I won't, can I make payments on it, could you do another like it with a slightly longer stem, etc" variety. I've been making pipes for ten years now and have done hundreds of special orders, and I've assembled a few observations about the folks who order pipes. Some of these are not too flattering, but I'm not trying to insult anyone here, only to perhaps give folks a little reflection and food for thought when they approach the idea of ordering a pipe. I'll list some of the types, starting with the best:

The Gold buyer. This is the guy you want, as a pipemaker - He is easy with orders, he understands that briar varies, he accepts latitude for creative expression, and he buys. This is the guy that people see at pipe shows smoking unbelievably rare freehands by famous makers... You know, those pipes that you can't figure out how people buy them, because you never see any for sale. You wonder how this guy got one, and he smiles and shrugs and says it wasn't difficult, and he actually has fifteen more like this one. The reason he got them is because he has a proven reputation with the maker as a client who is great to work with and who actually buys what is made. It's maximum profit for the maker - not much back-and-forth Q&A time, and guaranteed income. Often, Gold buyers end up becoming real life friends with the pipemakers because the relationship is so good.

The Technician. Makers vary widely about their feelings for this fellow. He has an order and he'll pay for it, but it has to be exactly what he wants, and he knows exactly what he wants right down to the millimeter. Orders from the technician sometimes come with diagrams showing measurements and angles. Some pipemakers excel at this sort of work. Myself, I hate it - I spent enough years working in an office that I can't stand the feeling of someone leaning over my shoulder checking everything I do against the specs and essentially using me as a robot intermediary between himself and the briar. When I get orders like this, I turn them down as politely as I can. I don't dispute this fellow's right to get what he wants for his money, it just won't be fun work for me.

The Faux Technician. For new pipemakers especially, it is hard to differentiate between the Technician (a good guy who happens to be very picky) and the Faux Technician. The FT resembles the T in every respect except one - He has no intention of actually buying the pipes he orders. His enjoyment comes from the fantasy of ordering his dream spiral-shanked freehand done to exact measurements. He'll provide specs and never accept the result, no matter how close it may be.... It just doesn't have that detail like he'd really wanted it, and can we please start over? The Faux Technician can be lethal to a struggling pipemaker, because he'll waste endless hours of the maker's time in long, long emails about every conceivable aspect of the pipe, then back out of every sale, leaving the maker with stock that he must put selling hours into all over again, if he wants to be paid.

Big Eyes. Big Eyes is a different kind of special order. He isn't picky like the Technicians, but unlike Mr. Gold he has no intention or ability to pay. More often than not, it's lack of ability. There are an awful lots of Big Eyes guys out there in their twenties, who spot something incredibly pricey and just absolutely have to have another one like THAT.... Often not even aware themselves that they actually will have to pay for the pipe when it is made. These fellows are characterized by their enthusiasm - gushing emails are the norm - and their infectious excitement about the idea of having a pipe made just for them. Then, when it is finished after much emailing, chat, and possibly days of work, all goes quiet.... The person who wrote you every ten minutes for days on end is now mute for three or four days, and then comes the, "I really, really love the pipe, but I just don't have the money for it right now. Can you hold it for me until the month after next, when I can make a payment for half of the price?" The pipemaker is torn between not wanting to hurt the fellow's feelings because he's obviously young and inexperienced, and at the same time wanting to reach out through the phone lines and throttle him. After a maker has been stung by Big Eyes, he is forever wary.

Flit. Flit will pay, or may pay, but he also makes the pipemaker pay - big time. Flit is often just as enthused as Big Eyes, but not nearly as focused. He wants a billiard. No, wait, he thinks a bent poker would be better. With a cumberland stem. No, wait, maybe a churchwarden with a cumberland stem. Can that have a silver band? Wait, what about a bent billiard sitter with a churchwarden stem? You get the idea. The maker doesn't want to hurt Flit's feelings because he appreciates and understands his enthusiasm... but every email back and forth is working time, time that the maker isn't getting paid for, not yet. The magic trick is to be fast - nail one idea and make the pipe requested before Flit can change his mind again. Flit is often a good guy, friendly, and active in the pipe hobby, but he wonders why pipemakers don't seem to take him seriously, and seem to actually shy away a little bit from his advances. Unfortunately, this is because Flit is indistinguishable from...

Flitter Away. FA behaves just like Flit except in one crucial aspect - He isn't buying, he's just daydreaming. Nothing you make is going to match his idea of the moment, and he isn't impressed that you're actively trying to make a pipe for him - He's just really enjoying seeing each new pipe you make and seeing what new variations he can dream up for you to try. You'll never see a sale here. FA is the pipe ordering equivalent of those people who call the realtors and go house browsing with no intention of buying. It's just fun to see all the different houses!

I need to sign off here for the night, though I could go on. I hope this is interesting reading, and not too offensive - If anything, I'd like for buyers to have a little more insight into just what goes on with their special orders, why they may have difficulties getting what they want, or why they may find their pipe requests being politely declined. Everyone will be happier if we all understand the dynamics, and especially pitfalls, of trying to turn a natural, unreliable material into "the stuff dreams are made of".