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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.