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Friday, April 21, 2006

That Shiny Stuff

No pipe pic this time - Since the subject of today's blog is the mythology of pipe finishes, I was spurred to find a picture of "something shiny", and thought I'd take the opportunity to post a shot of some of Emily's jewelry. She mades both earrings and other bits, often with our pipe materals - These earrings are hand-shaped from briar slices, for instance!

For those folks who are not on our email list, I posted some new pipes last night. I've finished up the Moebius Bolus shapes I was working on, and they're all posted now. Two of the three have already sold! Alas, my favorite of the three remains, probably because I made the fatal mistake of using the word "cute" in its description. In addition, there is a very, very unusual freehand smooth posted. It has been a pet project for some time, a personal bit of attempted artwork done in tribute to US pipemaker Joe Mariner. It will also probably sit here unsold forever because A) it is weird, B) it is expensive, and C) all the collectors who would ordinarily snap it up are saving all their cash for Chicago next month. But at least I'll get to fondle it for a while before I have to let it go...

My topic for the day was inspired by a thread on Smoker's Forums started by pipemaker Stephen Downie. It is an interesting discussion of finishes, and I wanted to weigh in with (I hope) some useful info since discussions of pipe finishes so often end up being regurgitations of the same old mythology over and over again... ie, "Only carnuba wax is permitted", "Shellac and lacquer are evil incarnate", etc. Without further ado, I am pasting in the entirety of my reply in their discussion, beginning with some info on shellac:

FWIW, shellac is not a problem innately. Tons of high grade pipes are shellacked, as well as being finished with polymers, oils, varnishes, and lacquers, and they smoke and continue to smoke just fine despite all the mythology surrounding the issue. Unfortunately, there is a definite sort of, "OMG Teh pipe has sh3llak!!" attitude that just keeps going round and round no matter how much the facts say otherwise. Some random thoughts-

Talk about "natural" and "lacquer" finishes is mostly nonsense. Carnuba is natural, shellac is natural - it's an all-natural product that we can even eat if we really want to, just like any number of other lacquer & varnish finishes. The widespread perception that every finish but carnuba is some sort of non-breathing acrylic polymerized glaze is just incorrect.

Shellac can be good or bad. If applied too thickly, it can bubble during hot smoking because of the heat. It can also soften. Applied in thin coats and allowed to dry properly between coats, there is literally no one who could tell the difference in the smoke of a shellacked pipe and a non-shellacked pipe in terms of smoking experience. That said, shellac itself varies. There are various kinds, each with different tints and also different "flavors" - which is to say, the smell of the finish that is given off when it is heated. Some finishes have a distinct scent of their own, and this subtle smell can color one's experience of a tobacco's flavor because it mixes together in our olfactory experience. The bad buzz about shellac is primarily due to experiences with shellac that has been either applied too thickly, not allowed to dry properly, was too old (it does have shelf life), or was of a lower quality type that carried a noticeable scent signature.

Shellac is not, however, the finish of choice among a lot of serious factory pipes and artisans, because it isn't as durable through heat cycles as varnishes (natural oils mixed with resin and drying elements). For an example, I have a fantastic high grade Italian sandblast sitting here in front of me now. It is not finished with carnuba or shellac - the finish is a lower gloss than shellac, and it is much more even (Shellac penetrates wood and thus produces an uneven finish as a gloss. It's actually used more often as a sanding sealer). I don't know personally what this finish is, but my guess (based on the surface gloss, evenness, and the fact that the finish sits on the surface rather than being in it) is that it is a type of varnish. Does the pipe smoke hot and "not breathe" because of this? Not at all - It is a terrific smoker. Again, it isn't the mere presence of a finish that causes problems, it is more often the use of lower quality finishes and (most commonly of all, I'd guess) mistakes in the application of these finishes that produce annoyance down the line.

There are some practical reasons to be cautious of surface glosses - application of an even, non-penetrating finish such as lacquer produces an even reflective surface, and as such it is often used to effectively hide fills on middle-range pipes because it conceals their different reflective quality from the surrounding wood. Also, again, any finish applied too thickly (or worse, applied before the underlying layer was fully dried) can bubble and haze during use.

I've often heard guys demand, sometimes angrily, just why anyone uses these finishes - They "prefer their pipes natural, with only carnuba wax!" The buyers have only themselves to blame for this - It's rather like politics, where we get exactly the government that we vote for. Put a typical pipe out with only a carnuba finish and lookers will be disappointed. It won't have the high shine of the high grades, and after less than a day of casual handling the gloss will be gone and it will be a dull pipe. People aren't attracted to dull pipes - the same guy that thinks he only wants a carnuba-waxed pipe is going to pass you by (because your pipes look dull) for the next table where all the expensive pipes are shiny. I know a lot of high grade pipemakers and I can say that I can't easily think of *anyone* I know who only finishes by waxing - but one doesn't hear too many tales of their Nordhs smoking bad because they "can't breathe" The fact is, there really aren't any fully sealing finishes unless one gets into stuff like marine varnish or acrylics that attempt to link into a solid chain on the molecular level. Shellac or oil varnishes will "breathe" just as well as carnuba....the problem is using the right ones, instead of finishing your pipes with some sort of MinWax stuff that's going to smell horrible when heated.

I know of at least a couple major brands that even shellac the interiors of their bowl chambers, instead of leaving them bare or using precarbonizing. One of the funnier encounters I've had was with a guy who was proudly displaying an uncoated pipe he'd bought, and saying how he only bought pipes without "that black stuff" in the bowl.... totally unaware that his pristine "uncoated" bowl interior was actually gloss-finished with shellac! I wonder which he'd have preferred to smoke, natural carbon or natural bug excrement.....

In any event, pipe finishing is a complicated issue and a lot of what gets passed around is pretty much mythology. I'd recommend "Understanding Wood Finishing" by Bob Flexner, as a good starter book on the subject. Coincidentally, Jim Cook recommends this very same book in his pipemaking video on the Chicago Show's educational website!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Defining the Breaking Point

I've been slow to update our blogs lately because "busy" doesn't define our lives at the moment. Emily's parents may be coming to visit and between that and trying to tie up several different bits of business (plus tax time, of course), I haven't had much spare time to write. However, I've had this particular project sitting here unfinished for a couple of weeks and I thought it would be worth a comment.

As I mentioned in the description of the Moebius Bolus, one nice thing about not doing the Halloween pipes as a specific seasonal set this year is that I'm essentially free to do really weird pipes whenever the mood hits me, instead of having to save them all up for October. My recent adventures in Urban Dead have put zombies on my mind, and I thought it would be fun to do a zombie pipe. I jotted out a simple sketch of this thing and got to work.

With every pipe, there are flaws. Fluff about "using only flawless briar" is just that - advertising. The trick is to carve the flaws out of the pipe so that when you're done, the exposed surface area is as flawless as possible. One can never know what is inside the wood. Educated guesses can sometimes be made by observing the character and number of flaws that turn up during carving (I have sometimes discarded potentially viable blocks simply because they evidenced what I felt were too many flaws during shaping, and I judged that even if I could achieve a semi-flawless surface, the odds were too high that the pipe would be compromised by an internal & unseen defect). However, even then, there is no way to know. I recently saw a regrettable thread in a German forum where a pipemaker was accused of using "rotten" briar because a high grade pipe had cracked and, in the process, revealed an internal fault via a shank split. The fact is, there is no way to tell what's in the wood - The pipemaker doesn't know if there is a fissure or problem inside the material, and he won't find out until he ends up refunding someone's purchase money when an invisible defect makes itself known via an obvious problem.

The "breaking point" in today's title is that point where the pipemaker must make the decision to abandon a pipe-in-progress or not. It essentially means losing a lot of working hours to zero pay. The more working hours invested in a pipe, the higher the tension becomes, and the greater the need to find ways of working around a flaw... which is sometimes dangerous, because one can spend further hours trying to make an untenable situation work, and still end up with a pipe for the trash can. It's a challenging question of nerves - Do I keep working and see if I can get around this problem, or do I cut my losses now and get on to something else?

This was the nightmare factor in the Halloween pipes, especially. Shaping a billiard involves an hour or so of labor, maximum. You can get the shape where you want it, and if there are any serious problems, the pipe can be discarded without a serious loss of working time. This is the case with most popular classical shapes. A good repeatable shape is "time friendly", which is to say, it is easy and quick to get the design rough-shaped, in order to see if the wood has any problems, before one invests the much longer working hours into finishing the pipe (In terms of ratios, I can often get a pipe shaped and drilled in an hour, but it will then take six to ten hours to do all the finishing work - sanding, blasting, drilling and shaping a stem, etc). Carved pipes and elaborate designs are the ultimate in non time-friendly work - You put hours and hours into a complex shape only to find a fissure or fault, and suddenly have to radically change or discard the pipe. Making pipes like the Grendel and the Mountains of Madness was worse in stress than in the actual work, because I never knew when I might find some disastrous fault that could derail the entire piece and force me to abandon a week's solid work.

Today's photo is a case in point. As can be seen in the sketch, the original idea was for a full head, with a domed skull to allow a decent-sized bowl even though a large portion of the briar block could not be used for "chamber area" due to being the hanging lower jaw. I made good progress in the carving, got the bowl drilled and airhole centered, and had begun to rough-shape the face when I hit my problem. There was a large flaw in the "forehead" of the skull. I shaped inwards but it didn't go away, and ultimately I had to completely grind off the upper portion of the skull to remove the flaw. The lower section seems to be flawless so far, but I am now faced with a quandary built on two basic questions:

A) What are the odds of continuing the work further and finding another flaw? Do I keep on carving on the likelihood that this was the only flaw in the wood, so as not to lose the hours I have already invested in the pipe, or do I abandon it here and deal with having worked for a solid day without pay?

B) Removing the upper part of the skull has drastically shortened the bowl to something about the size of a Group 3-4. People who buy expensive pipes tend to want a lot of "bowl" for their money, and I've found it's very hard to sell costly pipes with smaller bowls... often just using the word "small" in a pipe description can be the kiss of death. And, with this pipe, the carving work isn't any less with the bowl being smaller - I still have quite a long way to go before the shaping is finished. In the end, I'd mostly likely be producing a 800 € Group 3 pipe.... Not the easiest thing to sell!

Thus, the breaking point becomes that time when a pipe is a question of probability - the odds of flaws versus the potential price of the pipe versus the potential likelihood of the pipe actually selling. If I'm looking at a ring-grain sandblasted billiard, I can safely guess that the chance of finding a problematic flaw during finishing is minor, say 5%. The price will be upper-middling, so it's worth finishing, and the likelihood of a sale is virtually 100% because it is a popular shape. With this skull, the odds of finding a flaw jump, which is bad. The potential price will be high, which can offset the risk, but the probability of sale is middling at best, so that pulls things back down. And that, in a nutshell, is the Breaking Point. If any of our visitors ask why I have this perfectly-drilled, half-finished, small-bowled skull sitting in the rejects bin, I can point them at this blog entry!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Moebius Bolus, or, Things to Come

During the years I was making the Halloween pipes, I was occasionally overheard to say that if I had my choice, I would simply make Halloween pipes all year and drop the conventional shape work altogether, but the problem was the financial obstacle - If one is going to sell one's entire yearly production in October, one has to be able to pay bills for the year preceeding this somehow. I don't actually think I'd abandon all classical shapes, as they are fun to make in limited doses, but I have begun edging closer to this dream in 2006, starting with such modest creations as the new Moebius Bolus shape pictured here.

This pipe is now posted for sale, along with another sandblast, on our Sandblasts page. Also there is the re-listed virgin-finish Bulldog #1 - The sale on this pipe fell through so I have reposted it to the catalog.

As can be seen in the preview pic above, the Moebius is the first in a series. I intend to make more of this shape, varying the design from pipe to pipe and shuffling details around as I work with it. Actually, one of the unfinished pipes was made entirely by Emily. I was looking for a shape idea that would be creative and identifiably "me" while also being repeatable in a way that some of the Halloween pipes simply weren't, and the idea for this design sprang from one of my personal favorite Halloween pipes, the Dhole. I did a page of sketches or variations on the idea, and kept coming back to intersections in space - I wanted a combination, even a synthesis, of the wriggling organic design of the Dhole and various "worms" and "snails" I'd made in the past, coupled with an Escher-esque overlaying of objects in space. There's probably a subtle astrological self-commentary there, too, of my Scorpio nature - the sign that will sting itself to death if it can't find something else to grapple with. I was keen to have portions of the design intersect in a recursive way, while trying to steer far clear of the Eltang-esque "bamboo rod that passes through the bowl and out the front side" look (And I do not mean this in any way to sound critical of Tom's pipes, because they are awesome - I just didn't want to get folded into that "genre") Of course, at the end of the day it's just a cute little curly pipe...

In years past, I would have had this idea and cursed because it was an obviously perfect Halloween pipe, but that meant that I had to either A) do the work now and not get paid for six months, or B) put the idea on hold until September and deal with it getting stale in the process. Ideas are like milk - they have a definite expiration date, after which the initial enthusiasm is gone and the project becomes just so much work, usually to the detriment of the finished result. Fortunately, with no Halloween pipes this year, I was free to simply hand-sign this as a Signature grade and pop it up right now, fresh off the press. I am hoping we'll be able to finish the other two next week, and more can be made as demand warrants. Sadly, I think all three of these are going to be blasts, which is a shame, sort of... I think the design would look very good as a smooth finish, but I also know that the amount of sanding required to get all the detailing smooth would push the price to the 1K mark or beyond.

On another subject, I was pleased to see that my previous post on the reasons vendors often don't involve themselves on public forums generated a lot of good debate. Better still, the vast majority of the responses were both understanding and supportive. This makes me happy, because it tells me that I'm achieving one of my aims with this blog, which is to write an ongoing account of the perspective of a "pipe professional" that treats its readers as adults - I have taken the risk of saying some controversial things based on the implicit understanding that the majority of my readers are responsible, sane grown-ups who aren't going to fly off into hissy fits on any perceived slight, and it seems to be paying off in the form of consistently increasing readership. If this is going to be interesting to read, it simply can't read like a press clipping - everything can't be bright and shiny and soulless and carefully preened of anything that might-god-forbid-offend anybody anywhere. So, I suppose an occasional rant will be a part of the mix. As long as I don't turn into the pipe world's answer to John Dvorak, I'll be happy.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Bit about Bits

Today's post starts off with the latest news - I've just posted three more new Talbert Briar sandblasts to the catalog. All three are neat, but two are exceptional bargains, even for the poor US buyers suffering from the exchange rate blues (and this has improved substantially - US folks who may have been put off in the past by the unfavorable exchange rates of the past couple of years have much better prices today). We have been cranking hard to try and build up some inventory during this pre-Chicago show business slowdown, when sales annually drop off for a month while everyone saves their pennies for Chicago.

I am making a concerted effort to try and get some actual inventory onto the site catalogs, to pull a little ahead of the "always sold-out" look. While that may (often falsely) give the impression that a pipemaker is "hot", it has the unfortunate effect of really hurting site traffic - if the catalogs are all sold-out every time someone visits, eventually they will stop visiting!

The topic today is the pipe bit, or maybe the degree of variation thereof. People have a lot of different ideas about what makes a "good" bit, and pipemakers have a challenging time trying to straddle the different desires - which are often going in opposite directions, as with the "more open draw, but thinner too" requests. I'll toss out some thoughts on a couple of common bit types and we can develop the dialog from there.

One type of bit, which I have typically favored, is the slightly thicker design that allows for at least a 2 to 2.2mm draft hole. I am speaking here of size top-to-bottom, not side to side, as I believe the best performance is achieved with an oval V-cut internally, to keep the airflow optimal. The reason I like the 2mm+ bit is for easy cleaner passage - a hole of this size will allow even extra-fluffy pipecleaners to be smoothly passed through down into the bowl. It also has another characteristic which is both advantage and disadvantage. The bit slot is large enough to allow tool entry for polishing and smoothing, and is also large enough to allow easy inspection... which is to say, if the interior of the slot isn't smoothed and finished, it's obvious. I try to create a smooth, rounded cone shape in my bits, without any edges or corners, and typically use a series of small 1.5mm Dremel jewelry bits to smooth and finish the interiors.

A second kind of bit, also very popular, is thinner and uses a smaller draft hole from top to bottom, typically 1 to 1.5mm max. The smaller top-bottom size allows the bit to be cut thinner while still retaining strength against bite-through (Remember, the outside diameter is really chosen by the inside diameter desired, not vice versa). I debate about switching to making this type of bit a lot, because I often hear about how collectors prefer thinner and thinner bits, and the design offers a couple of nice advantages to the maker - aside from a thinner profile, the slots are easier to create because they aren't as large and open as the ones described above. Essentially, one works in a 1mm drill bit and grinds it back and forth, and voila, one has a slot. There isn't room for insertion of the usual shaping and polishing tools so a good bit of interior finishing work is saved. The disadvantage with these sort of bits is in easy cleaner passage - while the hole can be widened to the same general size while keeping its low top-to-bottom, 1mm just doesn't allow a fat cleaner to pass easily. I've got some very thin bits that I have trouble even getting a normal cleaner to pass through without some twisting and fiddling.

Of course there are plenty of other bit styles - thick, rugged pieces designed for heavy clenching, and uber-thin delicate styles meant never to be bitten. I've been thinking for some time about whether to change my bit styles or not, and thought I would post a little poll here to see what others favored. If you have the time, read through the options in the poll to the left and let me know what you prefer. The readers of this column are the market, after all, and my goal is always to try and give buyers the best pipe for their desires.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Those Stinking Greedy Merchants

Today's pic is a little something I found in an archive folder tagged "Paul Keene Visit". My system of photo archiving is complex, detailed, and unknowable - especially to myself. I don't know why Paul's photo folder ended up full of pictures of last year's Halloween pipes, but c'est la vie. At least it gives me more pipe pics to choose from! Paul, however, might be unnerved to know that Halloween pipe pictures seem to be migrating to his proximity.

The title of today's post refers to a thread that recently popped up in Alt.Smokers.Pipes. It consists of a lot of outright attacks and insults leveled at those merchants (pipemakers, tobacco blenders, and retailers) who occasionally post advertisements on ASP but do not regularly participate there. From some of the invective hurled, I got the idea that many view this as despicable greed on the part of the advertisers - How dare they post ads without even coming here to chat with us regularly? This sort of attitude rankles, and I thought I would post an explanation of sorts here. I write this because I'm sure that many of ASP's newbies probably view me as one of those evil "Ad-Only" merchants, having no knowledge of the history of the newsgroup and my participation in it through years past. In short, I was a regular poster there for nine years, and am one of only a handful left today who can count our participation all the way back to the early nineties, in the heady days when Greg Pease was Skydog and no one had yet seen a "What are you smoking right now?" thread. I have faded out recently, and don't post anymore except for advertisements and a very occasional comment if something offbeat catches my eye.

Does this make me a greedy selfish merchant?

Before anyone answers, let me explain why many professionals don't turn up as regular participants in online forums. I'm sure nearly everyone reading this has been to a business dinner. Are they fun? Are they relaxed occasions to socialize and really "be yourself"? Of course not. Business dinners and parties can be enjoyable and genuinely entertaining on occasion, but there is always an underlying feeling of comportment - Namely, that you are chatting with people you do business with and must always maintain a certain sense of decorum. For those of us "in the business", I've just described online pipe forums. We can chat there, we can certainly have fun and make some friends there, but at the end of the day these forums are places where we are interacting with customers and clients, not pubs. After a while, it can get stressful and frustrating - vendors must bite their tongues a lot at some of the comments that pop up, and especially some of the mythology that gets promoted. It isn't relaxation when you're in the biz.

A second reason for these 'Ad-Only' posts is the sheer number of pipe message boards today. In the nineties when I regularly posted and chatted on ASP, ASP was pretty much it. There were boards on Compuserve and AOL, but nothing like the plethora of pipe forums today. Offhand, I can think of a dozen easily and twice that with consideration, and I'm sure there are many more than I'm aware of... not counting all the boards in other languages (There are two in French). What was once a central discussion forum for all has now splintered into multiple forums with specific individual focus - Some on pipemaking, some on casual chat, some on high grade pipes, some for beginners, and others for professionals. No one has the time to participate in all of these but anyone attempting to advertise their wares needs to hit all of them. Where once a single ASP ad post would reach most of the online pipe community, now one has to post ads all over the place and in far more venues than anyone has time to actively participate in. I hate this, because I personally enjoy interacting with customers and potential customers in these forums, but there is only one of me and I just don't have time to build ongoing relations in ASP, Pipes,, #Pipes chat, #ASP chat, Pipemakers' Forum, etc. If a vendor posts regularly in one forum, participants elsewhere accuse him of "just using their forum for advertising" because he doesn't post there too. Something to think about before jumping to the conclusion that a vendor is a greedy aloof bastard because he doesn't sit around for a couple of hours each day chattering with the regulars!

Which brings me to a third point - Most vendors don't post in online pipe forums because we are working. After spending ten or twelve hours a day making pipes, answering pipe emails, discussing pipemaking, packing pipes, shipping pipes, and entertaining pipe collector visitors... forgive me, but I don't want to sit down in the evening and "relax" by spending more time talking pipes! I don't go to ASP after hours for relaxation, I go elsewhere, to the Urban Dead forums or the Horror Channel forums or Message from Cyberspace or a dozen other places where I can kick back and relax and not think about business.. and especially not have to worry about watching what I say or behaving in a professional manner. While ASP is the place that office managers go to forget about their daily grind, pipes are what these vendors are getting away from! So, perhaps there can be a little more understanding for those vendors and pipe business people who advertise, but don't spend a lot of time personally chatting in one's favorite pipe forum.

Finally, on a personal note, yes, I have dropped out of ASP after many, many years. I did not depart in a huff, and did not announce my departure because A) I'm not looking for attention and pleas to stay, B) probably no one there today will even notice I'm gone, and C) I just really didn't feel like making a "deal" out of it. I bear no ill will and wish everyone there the best, but I don't feel I know anyone there today very well, and often sense a sort of " cold shoulder" effect directed towards those like myself who just don't have time to post regularly. I also didn't announce I was "leaving" because one does not really "leave" a newsgroup, one simply stops regularly reading it and posting in it. I'm sure I'll post the occasional odd remark in future as events and threads warrant, and of course I'll still post occasional advertisements there to reach the broad pipe community, but that will probably be the extent of my involvement.