News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Different Tricks

The pipe in today's pic is another one done to send over to Pipe & Pint, which will probably be going into the post tomorrow or the next day. Larry is going to be getting a lot of boxes over the course of next month!

Back before we moved to France, I mixed a lot of my own acrylic for my stem material, and my favorite stock of my own creation was a dark, seaweed-ey green material I dubbed "Sargasso". I made several pokers this way that I called "Old Sea Captains", which all featured extraordinarily craggy black sandblasted bowls, handcut silver bands, and this dark green Sargasso stem material.

When it was time to move, I had to use up the last of my liquid acrylic stock so I cast two big plates, one of amber and one of Sargasso. Or so I thought! Judging Sargasso was always a problem - What looked too dark in the mold was just right in reality, and what looked right in the mold ended up too bright, as with the stem in today's photo. Rather than the dark, seaweed-filled, murky green that I was trying for, this entire block came out quite bright and clear and really very beautiful - more like crystal clear Caribbean water than anything Sargasso-esque. I still have most of that green plate to use, and have been making stems from it rarely, only when I have a project that seems perfect for the material.

Since I hadn't done a green pipe yet this summer, this was the perfect project!

None of this relates to the "Different Tricks" of the title, however. That's a reference to the engineering of this pipe, which is an alternative way of dealing with a particular pipe design problem. As can be seen in the drawing, the "S" curve pipe presents a serious challenge in drilling. The angle of the airhole must be such that the pipemaker essentially has two choices - drill the airhole high in the mortise and disallow pipecleaner passage, or drill it centered in the mortise through some type of trick drilling, usually involving capping off the shank end to cover the very offset entry point of the airhole bit.

Hell, this is definitely too difficult to describe...

I sum up - Usually, either such pipes won't pass cleaners, or they won't pass drill bits, ie, it isn't possible to run a bit through the shank in later years to ream out the gradually-caking airhole. I've used this alternative method before in pipes I've made for testers, but not in a "real" pipe for sale. Basically, I moved the angle bend into the tenon, so the cleaner could still pass easily, following the airhole through the curve inside the tenon and guiding it directly into the offset-drilled mortise/shank airhole. This way, the shape can be made, the shank can be reamed over time, and there isn't any odd drilling to have to disguise.

The question, as always, is whether buyers will see the offset airhole on the tenon tip and shriek, "This isn't what we know! We fear it!" :) It functions the same as any normal centered airhole, but pipe buyers can be a notoriously conservative lot sometimes...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Third Time Charm, or Strike

For some time, I began to mark the stems of our Ligne Bretagne pipes with a series of small inlaid metal dots to connote the grade of the pipe - one dot through five. I thought it would work well as a logo mark and a functional grading indicator combined. What I did not think of (and this will show that experience and forethought can still produce utterly boneheaded ideas) is that this made the grade of the pipe a part of the making of the pipe, and it is often impossible to tell what the grade will be until the final stain and polish.

Dumb, dumb idea...

It did not help that I kept forgetting the dots completely, thanks to eight years of working with no stem logos at all. I needed a logo that could be inlaid early in the pipemaking process, and would be the same on all grades. From out of nowhere, I had the idea of two overlapping dots - a black dot of inlaid morta wood eclipsing a silver dot of inlaid metal. It seemed perfect. Simple, yet has all sorts of ideal connotations - eclipses, infinity, Yin-Yang, and on and on.

So, having five new LB bulldogs to do, I opted to introduce this new logo on these five pipes and officially do away with the old dots completely. I still love the idea, but some quirks did arise during the application and re-application. The holes are drilled by hand, so the two dots are never in the same relation to each other - sometimes nearly totally eclipsing, other times just barely touching, depending on how squirrelly the drill bit is (This will probably drive detail-obsessives nuts). Also, the logo turned out to be a fair bit of work! The first hole must be drilled, the metal mixed and filled, then the prolonged drying period, then the surface must be sanded flush to see exactly where the dot is for the second dot to be drilled in relation, then the morta dust must be ground and filled, then the thing sanded down again.... All in all, a good bit of extra work for a pipe which I don't pocket much profit on!

Anyway, we'll see. These first five examples will be on the way to the US soon. I hope the process will get faster and more streamlined with time, though unfortunately there just isn't that much that can be done to speed things along. So..... Maybe this is the new, final Ligne Bretagne stem logo, or... maybe not!

Here is a little group photo of some of the new pipes bound for P&P, if Larry wants them. The grain on those bulldogs is quite nice. The star, however, is that Signature grade morta with the olivewood shank - a briar-sized morta, for once! Weirdly, this started as just another goofy idea, an alternative to a bamboo shank, and even when the pipe was first finished, I was neutral on it. But, the more I look at it and hold it, the more I like the classical proportions and overall "meat" of the thing. It has certainly grown on me.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Squishy Brain Fun

Pyramid of pipes! I was trying to figure out some cute way of taking a group photo of some pipes in production, and thought I would try stacking them on my sketchboard. All of these pipes are destined for Pipe & Pint (or perhaps I should say, "Whichever of these actually are finished", since I usually end up tossing one out of every four or five stummels by the end of work).

Lots of comments on that last blog article! There is some interesting further reading down in the Comments section, for anyone who missed it, and it sparked a very good discussion thread in a private forum I frequent. I was pleased to see it didn't generate the sort of flames it might have produced, and once again I'm pleasantly surprised with the insight and civility of my readership. If you're reading this, truly, count yourself as an elite of the pipe universe ;) Of course, the more cynical possibility may just be that I write too damned long articles, and all the hotheads who would normally go berserk don't have the patience to read long enough to get offended...

This is the inside of a pipemaker's head:

At risk of sounding like a precious "artiste", pipemaking does often present creative challenges and problems that resonate on all sorts of personal levels. Many times I've found myself disliking a shape for no explicable reason, or expressing an unforeseen good or bad attitude towards a particular project. A useful technique I've been experimenting with lately is called Mind Mapping. I'd never even heard of the process before, until it was introduced on one of Kelly Howell's "Theater of the Mind" podcasts (I enjoy these on occasion, having been introduced to them through the audio CDs that Ms. Howell produces. The "Brain Sync" audio seems to help a good bit in getting my mind into different brainwave states. Yes, I really am quite odd. If curious, there's a bit more about our brainwave ranges here and here).

In a nutshell, the practice of mind mapping works on the basis of the brain being a nonlinear thinker - That is, we come to problems bringing a whole sack of issues, many often totally unrelated to the case at hand, and they can play havoc with our ability to focus clearly and think creatively (I was particularly amused that one of my side-tangents in the design map above went all the way off to a persistent memory from my early 20's, when I wanted to become a full-time artist and a family member told me to be sure and take the course called, "How to Survive on $1,000 a Year". The things that stick in our heads...).

For the problem above, I had rough-shaped a stummel to a semi-horn shape. The grain was stunning, it looked like it could become a really striking pipe, and I was really floundering with the design - I really, really did not want to make it a horn, or anything particularly Danish-ey, for that matter. So, the thing lay around for a while and I kept staring at it, waiting for inspiration to hit, until I decided to try mind-mapping the design ideas and seeing if this produced any insight.

Mind mapping helps creativity because it forces your brain to fire on all levels. The idea is to start your problem in the center of a really big paper, and go in every direction. Use a lot of colored pencils and change colors often, letting colors represent different themes. Make the map a mixture of text, random comments, unfiltered thoughts and reactions, and drawings - especially drawings, because they force more right/left brain activity rather than simply slipping totally into rational, decision-making mode. Which is often very limited. I can attest that sometimes very unexpected results will be arrived at! The pipe in question, which could have become a very conventional horn shape, instead became this.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Become a Better Pipemaker in One Step

Today's pic is a bulldog I made for the request of a regular customer. He had asked for my version of a bulldog by TAO, and while this particular pipe is a fairly liberal take on the idea, it was fun doing essentially a high-end Talbert Briar version of our sadly departed Ligne Bretagne Fat Dwarf pipes. I think it came out pretty well, and it will even sit upright, balanced perfectly on the narrow bottom edge (It isn't leaning against anything in the photos, simply sitting balanced).

There are difficult pipes and there are difficult pipes. The Mountains of Madness was difficult due to the challenges of shaping and sanding involved.... especially sanding, which went on forever. This bulldog, by contrast, was difficult because it is a prime example of what I think of as the most challenging aspects of pipemaking craft. In one pipe, it incorporates the ability to freehand shape (before drilling) for best grain orientation, wood-turning ability for bowl shaping, the challenge of working with sharply defined forms (note the lack of "blur" where shank meets bowl - pipes like this depend on tight lines), and also banding and custom materials handling (the morta decor), custom acrylic casting (the cast stem material), and being obsessive enough to pull off weird feats like making the thing balance. And even contrast staining..!

If I were talking to an amateur or hoping-to-be-professional pipemaker, one of the best bits of advice I could give would be, "Make this pipe". Because, getting all of the various bits right is guaranteed to make one a better pipemaker when it's done.. if it comes out well. A lot of people might look at it and dismiss it as another boring bulldog, but in one pipe it manages to encompass a whole host of particularly difficult technical challenges. Making something like this won't give anyone an imagination or a style of their own, but it will certainly force their craftsmanship abilities to stretch and improve.

Anyone wanting to be a professional pipemaker, or sell at a professional pricing point (as is more common today), needs to develop this sort of broad-based ability for technical execution coupled with overall design aesthetic. Now, I can go over this pipe and nitpick a few things about it, and I'm sure someday some aspiring amateur will pick it up at a show and fuss, "Oh look, he didn't polish the tenon!" (It's Delrin, it doesn't polish, that's the nature of the material). This is illustrative of a problem that has been growing in pipe collecting in recent years, especially as more and more part-time pipemakers have entered the field and started trying to "out-perfectionize" each other on Pipemakers.Com. There are simply too many guys out there making a big deal out of the fact that they polish their airhole interiors to 18000 grit, yet have no broad-based technical ability or aesthetic eye.

A recent example of this was a thread where one of the regulars nitpicked the stem craftsmanship of a highly-respected pipemaker, on an absolutely beautiful (and quite difficult to make) bent bulldog shape. There is such a thing as over-attention to detail, and it comes when one loses sight of the fact that the best pipes are composites of many factors - design, grain, eye for balance, elegance - in short, the difference between genuinely good pipemaking and carving somewhat inelegant lumps that have fanatically polished bit slot interiors..... and if there ever was a summation of the growing gap between working professional pipemakers and the crowd who gather at Pipemakers.Com, that is it. One of my favorite sayings regarding art and the need to look at the "whole picture" is this:

"You could spend an hour counting the petals in a flower
It might take you a year to count the veins in each petal
If you spent ten lifetimes, maybe you could count its cells...

...but you'd have completely missed the point
You fuckhead."
This is what springs into my mind every time I read a post where an amateur maker is criticizing a professional's work because they inspected the tenon interior and found scratches with the use of a rectal probe light and a 25X magnifier. Worse, this sort of mentality springs from a vast disconnect with the realities of fiscally-workable pipemaking - A disconnect that has seriously worsened in recent years as more and more part-timers have entered the pipemaking field with no need to account for their time. All is very well if one can spend an entire weekend polishing the floor of a mortise, but when one actually has to make a living income from pipemaking time, it is a very different story indeed!

I should mention that I mean no disrespect at all to Kurt Huhn here, or to all the good work he's done in keeping the pipemaking forum going. He and I have talked privately on this subject, and it has always been a problem of the forum - It is tagged "PipeMakers Forums" but there are virtually no working pipemakers there! In past years, there were at least a few full-timers, but attitudes and competition have gradually driven a lot of the pros away. At "fin du jour", why should someone like myself give out free info to help a part-timer compete with me for my dinner money? I know it may sound brutal, but that's what it is - Every pipe sold by someone who's just mucking around in the wood shop for beer money represents a grocery bill or payment lost to a professional maker who relies on his work for his entire income. Worse, it is gradually warping the expectations of buyers who become accustomed to critiquing pipes based not on real working time but on "hobby time".

I don't know if there is an easy solution to getting pros to participate on the forum. There is a private tier, but the entry standards were set such that virtually anyone get get in, and thus it became little different from the public forums, with all the same names. The later creation of a third "pro's pro tier" didn't attract much traffic. I don't know if this is because most pros had already left the forum or chosen not to participate, or if, instead, we just stick to that tried-and-true method of information exchange... direct conversations! If I'm going to explain to someone what it cost me hundreds of dollars in wasted materials to learn about acrylic casting, A) he'd better be able to offer something equally valuable in return, B) he needs to be a full-timer, and C) I'm only going to do it in direct email or chat, not in a posting to a forum where I have no control over to whom the information may eventually get distributed. I suspect others may think likewise.

I only half-joked with Kurt when I said that very likely, if a genuine full-timer's forum was established and frequented, the talk would probably have very little to do with pipes! I suspect the conversations would be much less about secret techniques of briar flavoring and a lot more about good audiobooks to listen to while working, ways to keep your wrists from seizing up, swapped info on good tool sources (and bad), and, of course, really weird customer stories....;)

I've often seen people ask if there are any books on pipemaking. Often the next question is whether there are any really serious books on all the secret advanced stuff, the stuff that the Pimo book leaves out. In closing, I want to mention the best book on professional-level pipemaking that I've ever read - Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft". It has nothing to do with pipemaking; it has everything to do with being a working artisan and how to approach one's craft... whatever it may be.

Friday, June 09, 2006

All Things in Mod-eration

Today's pic is a two-shot photo I made of a Morta Signature done for a buyer in Israel, and the bamboo-shank Talbert Briar which is currently on its way to Pipe & Pint. I hope I haven't posted this before. I may be losing my mind. Emily has adopted another abandoned baby bird here, so our schedule has gotten a bit bizarre with lots of napping and feeding every couple hours.

I wanted to write a few words today on the subject of moderated boards. I mentioned in a past blog post the tendency over recent years for the pipe community to fracture, and spread out from the once-central alt.smokers.pipes to many different public and private boards. Reasons for this are numerous and varied, but a commonly-cited grievance is the preponderance of flames and spam and crossover threads on ASP. A large percentage of collectors, especially collectors of higher-end pipes, have relocated to small private messageboards such as the one run by my friend Jeff Folloder, where they find the high signal-to-noise ratio that they crave. But one question is often raised - is board moderation good? ASP has seen many instances over the years where someone has appeared and raised what they saw as huge issues regarding various moderated boards. Claims of censorship, ego tripping, personal exclusion, and just bad manners abound.

I personally am a fan of the Quiet Room. I think all pubs should have a big, loud public room where everyone can party and dance on the tables and talk about garden gnomes all they want, but they also need some nice private back rooms where those so-inclined can gather for more in-depth discussion. Everyone is happy. But, alas, problems arise when individuals incompatible with one or the other venue try to cross-visit. Just recently there was a long and hot thread on ASP about censorship on the Pipes.Org moderated board. This particular board pops up often in complaints, with some observers calling it a "fiefdom" and arguing against what they see as overly-restrictive moderation.

I disagree, and I'll try to explain why.

In a nutshell, every moderated board is a fiefdom - They are private discussions run by approved members chatting about a common topic, and the mods are free to make of the boards what they will. If a moderator is an ego-madman and bans/censors posts randomly, the board simply won't last. Posting to any moderated board is an explicit statement that you understand the policies of that board and agree to behave in a manner befitting that board's general comportment, whether it is the hardcore non-commercial nature of the forum, the relaxed-but-serious mutual friendliness of the Folloder forum, or the family-friendly Smokers' Forums.

Some may find it strange that I would defend Pipes.Org when I had my only banned post in sixteen years of online posting there. I posted a link to an article written for this blog, which I thought the readers might find interesting, and the post was rejected on grounds that this blog connected to my site and thus constituted a commercial link. My reaction? Well, what I did not do was go start a huge flame fest on ASP crying about how I'd been unfairly censored - Instead, I shrugged, realized I had misunderstood the extent of their board's non-commercial policies, and stopped trying to post there (I don't feel I can adequately split out my commercial pipe identity from my regular self to participate in such a non-commercial venue without it having some shade of brand-identity overtones).

It did leave me wondering about those who so frequently complain about moderated boards, however, and praise ASP for the "freedom" of its communication - the very freedom that has sent so many others off to private boards! As I mentioned, I've been posting about pipes online since AOL in 1990, and I post to multiple moderated forums both private and public, and during all that time I have had only one post censored. I find today's moderated forums pleasing, relaxing, and (despite claims to the contrary about elitism and totalitarianism... and please, if anyone is actually going to use the terms "totalitarian" or "Nazi" to describe something as trivial as private PIPE clubs, for god's sake, please pry them out of the basement...) much freer in terms of open communication than the public boards. I say a lot of things on Jeff's forum, for instance, that I would not say elsewhere because in other forums the joke would be lost, meanings would be misconstrued, or worse, deliberately twisted for purposes of argument.

At the end of the day, if one finds one's self continually being censored and/or ignored or banned by moderated forums, the odds are very good that it is not actually a problem with the forums themselves...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Some available pipes, Speak soon!

I've recently finished up a couple of really exceptional Signature grade pieces, one briar and one morta, which are not going to be posted on my site because they are marked for shipping over to Pipe & Pint. However, I thought I'd post a couple of preview pics of them for two reasons - to see if anyone wanted to snap them up before they went into the box, and as a preview of future Pipe & Pint stock, assuming no one grabs them within the next day or so (It seems tomorrow will be a holiday here also, so I guess they'll be shipping on Tuesday or Wednesday).

I should point out that these photos aren't quite as nice as usual, being snapped and assembled fairly hurriedly, though they do a good job of showcasing the pipes' details. Unfortunately, the Signature-grade briar (left) comes out looking rather more stumpy and thick in its pictures than it is in reality, where it is a pleasantly graceful piece. Emily thinks the stem magic trick is too twee; I love it for its continued theme (from the Moebius Bolus pipes) of intersections in 3D space. Plus, it will mystify folks in the shops who wonder how you're drawing smoke through it. I can't say enough about the briar quality on this one, though - Really, if the design had supported a bit more "splash" and "fancification", this probably would have been the third M-grade pipe of my career. It was just that good. I love being able to leave smooth pipes natural - I realize that it subtracts some of the potential visual impact one can gain from a nice contrast stain, but in cases like this I believe the virgin finish complements the fluidity of the overall design. A strong contrast stain would have made this too "loud", in my opinion. In any event, it's one of the highest grade Signatures I've made, and is available for anyone with 729 euros in pocket - just get in touch. American buyers, however, are encouraged to wait and buy it from Pipe & Pint if it ships to the states. If it goes, it will arrive there in a month and you can just purchase with a phone call and get your pipe in three or four days, instead of the vague "one week to five week" shipping times of the French post.

I'm going to be selling a lot more pipes this way in future. I've had it with the French Colissimo, really - They make it virtually untenable to run an export business here. According to their site, boxes to the US should arrive in 4-8 working days. In reality, this can be anywhere between 4-8 working days and about five weeks, with a lot of shipments taking four weeks easily. I'd love to have back the sheer amount of working time that I've lost answering customer inquires wanting to know where their pipe was, if they should worry, if there is anything I can to to check on it, etc. It annoys me to no end that my own image of speedy customer service is sullied by forced reliance on this French vagueness.... It is "in our network"... somewhere! Thus far, tracking numbers return only a few replies virtually devoid of useful into - Either "The box has been picked up from the Herbignac PO", "The box is in our network", "The box is at Reux, the export center", or "The box has been handed to local service"... but it can say any one of these messages for the entirety of the trip, making tracking nearly useless ("The box is in our network" is a very common thoroughly vague reply). When the inevitable email inquiries come to me from worried buyers, all I can ever do is say, "Buzz me after thirty days and I'll file an insurance claim, which will make the pipe appear by magic in two days". Which happens every time a claim is filed. It's like they need to be kicked just to provide basic delivery, really annoying.

So, potential US buyers, unless you absolutely HAVE to have one of these pipes and don't want to take the chance of them being snagged by someone else beforehand, you'll have a much more pleasant buying experience if you wait until they arrive at P&P and buy from them!

The other available Signature-grade pipe is this giant Morta Bettafish:

I say "giant" because of its size in comparison to the usual Bettafish we make for half the cost. It is proportionally identical to its smaller siblings, making it look just the same in photos, but in hand the difference is obvious. The bottom photo does a decent job of showcasing just how much larger this pipe is - It is pictured next to my own first Bettafish, the pipe displayed on the opening morta page. Beautiful morta grain on this one, and it benefits from a handcut churchwarden stem filed and drilled from black German ebonite rod stock. Normally I try to avoid making high-grade churchwardens simply because it's terribly wasteful of stem rod - I could have gotten three normal stems from this section. The price on this one is 650 euros, and again, contact me if interested, otherwise it will be going into the box of pipes for Pipe & Pint this week.

After all that, I've run out of space for the article I intended to write. I have three topics tacked up for future blog posts. One will be on the technique of mind-mapping, and using it to tackle design and focus problems, while the other two will discuss the growing gap between amateur and professional pipemakers and the burgeoning trend towards ridiculously over-obsessiveness, otherwise known as, "I was shocked to find a noticeable scratch on the interior of the shank airhole of my $150 pipe while inspecting it with my combination rectal-probe-light-magnifier." Ought to generate some amusing buzz... ;)