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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!