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

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Unexpected Results

I started out to make a billiard similar to my favorite Dunhill group 5 bent (bottom in the pic), and the pipe above it is what I got. This is a good example of why I am usually vague with expected dates, time frames, etc. It isn't uncommon to try to make a pipe for an order and have several successive attempts turn into totally different pipes. Customers don't understand why you said you were starting on their pipe last week, but it still isn't finished and you're making your fourth attempt this week. I'll try to explain!

Briar is a natural material. There are basically two ways one can approach it - One can force shapes upon it, ignoring the grain and any existing flaws and simply cutting the exact shape that is wanted, puttying in any flaws that are left. Or, one can work with the wood, letting it be what it wants to be. Pragmatists dismiss this sort of wifty approach and prefer to talk in exact measurements and angles. I, however, prefer to "float like a leaf on a river"...i.e., try to feel out what the wood wants to be and let it guide its own shape whenever possible. I started on the block above, and began cutting the basic pipe shape when I was struck by the dramatic upward flare of the ring graining, and how it radiated out and around from a skewed lower center. And also, how neatly the "tail" rings made a curving loop. In little time, it was no longer a bent billiard, and was on its way to being the pipe you see above.

It would actually be much easier if I could just sit down like a laser-cutting machine and produce precise shapes, similar to a topic we've been discussing in Jeff's pipe forum. A lot of people seem to think that pipemaking is like this - that we sit down with a precise set of measurements and keep filing until that last millimeter matches the specs - but freehand pipemaking is a much more organic process.

(This calls to memory a French pipe collector who contacted us after we moved here. He sent us, by mail, an elaborate diagram of measurements and heights and angles and tilt, and wanted a handmade pipe with multiple extra stems... because he apparently chewed through them regularly.... and expected to get this for about sixty euros [An amount of labor time which I ran through just trying to communicate with him]. I was left absolutely boggled at his ignorance of Things Pipe-ish, and finally politely suggested that I wasn't the right choice for his project and he needed to find another pipemaker, at which point he emailed me a torrent of anti-American abuse and insults which I just quietly trashed and ignored. I've had a few interesting experiences with the expectations of a few French pipe collectors, to say the least...)

Of course, it isn't just the French - There are loads of people out there who approach pipe design from a CAD point of view, and essentially want an exact 3D model from a block of wood. It can be done, but it is immensely challenging and usually requires many, many attempts, making such pipes expensive beyond reckoning. I have a private project that I want to undertake someday which will involve making a series of pipes with very precise curves and angles for a thematic purpose, but it remains only a idea on paper because I simply don't have the spare time to burn through the inevitable series of rejects and pieces that don't fit the specs. (If I am ever able to actually produce this project, I predict a series of pipes that will make the Halloween pipes look cheap...)

On another subject, there is another box of pipes ready to go to Pipe & Pint!

Included will be the big, Signature grade Talbert freehand discussed above, and also two horn-stemmed Ligne Bretagnes (One of the ever-popular Canadians and also a neat churchwarden), and three new Morta Classics (One in particular, the bent raindrop shape in back, is a neat piece with a bigger-than-usual bowl). If anyone on this side of the ocean is interested in any of these pipes, please contact me quickly, as they will probably all go into the mail tomorrow or Tuesday (The TB Signature is 530 €, the Mortas are 225 € each, while the LBs weigh it at a tidy 101 € each, all not including VAT, of course). If you're in the US, best wait until they reach P&P for nicer pics and such, unless anyone wants to pounce on something in advance. I know there were at least three of four guys out there who have mentioned wanting "wizardly" LB churchwardens, for instance! I did snap a couple of extra shots of the TB, seen below:

Next time I'll be writing about how pipe prices break down (to answer those inevitable questions of, "How can you charge 400 € for something that took ten hours to make? That's 40 € an hour!!" Well, no, it isn't, but it is definitely a subject worth writing about...). Either that, or another article I've been meaning to write that will be titled something like "Unavoidable Realities", and focus on some things that people just often don't want to accept, like there being no such things as magic briar, some pipes will just smoke poorly no matter what, there's often a reason behind what's perceived as weird workmanship, and how it's entirely possible to do everything right and still produce a pipe that will smoke poorly or explode.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Elections 06 - Choosing the FdP Pipe

For those who weren't aware, I am doing a pipe for the French "Fumeurs de Pipe" pipe club this year. I agreed to do this way back in October of 2005, but other projects kept interfering and I've been unable to get started on it until now. I had always intended to make several potential pipes, and let the FdP guys vote on their favorite shape among the candidates. Unfortunately, the growing troubles with the sandblaster delayed things further. But, I finally got the last two sample pipes finished, and for those who are curious, the full page listing the candidate pipes and their photos and descriptions is now online here. Also note that all of these "model" pipes are each for sale! Prices are listed after each description, though as I write this, the pre-smoked Pipe #2 has already been spoken for. I suppose I should actually add #3 and #4 to the Ligne Bretagne catalog proper, as they are brand-new unsmoked stamped pipes, but I'm too lazy for now. This way the FdP guys (and blog readers) can have first chance at them if anyone wants one.

I finished writing the page up and posted it late last night, around midnight. The last work still to be done is to translate the individual descriptions into French, but a lot of that is beyond my language abilities so I'm hoping some enlightened linguist from FdP will help out :)

It's been a fun project so far, and I hope it continues to be. But it can be a frustrating challenge trying to come up with a pipe that will have broad appeal AND can be affordably made on a budget that will make everyone happy (or at least equally unhappy...). This pretty much guaranteed that the pipe would be a Ligne Bretagne of some sort, though I may make a very few Talbert Briar versions of the preferred shape if anyone is so inclined (A fully handmade TB version of Pipe #1, on a larger scale and with thicker walls, would be a nice piece indeed for those with the budget).

I made no secret of my favorite of the bunch - It is the one pictured above. A couple of the others are more graceful, but also more fragile, and this one would make some terrific sandblasts... especially considering that the pipe in questions sells for the equivalent of $157 over here! Alas, it is currently dead last in the voting, LOL...

I am going to let the vote run for at least two or three weeks before declaring a winner, to allow as many of the club members (many of whom are going, or returning from, holiday) to vote. If you are a member of FdP, please go vote!

If you are not in FdP, Please do not vote, even if you are tempted - This is for club members only.

Though, I should add that if Pipe #4 doesn't get chosen, there may be a few of those made as regular production LBs anyway...........

Friday, July 21, 2006


The sandblasting cabinet is fixed!

And not just fixed (though the repairs are still temporary), it's quite a bit improved. But let's start from the beginning....

I posted a pretty harsh assessment of our struggles with our sandblaster here some time back. I also wrote a displeased email to the European distributor, Matthys (The actual equipment is US-made by SkatBlast). I must admit that I really did not expect to receive any reply back, so I was dumbstruck to learn that not only had my blog posting really rattled the EU distrib, but it had also gone all the way back to the US and right up the ranks of the SkatBlast company. The Matthys folks wrote me a long and involved letter, and we ended up on the phone for some deep discussions of sandblasting juju. To my delighted surprise, SkatBlast and Matthys together agreed to "make it right", and to that end they sent me a crate-load of replacement parts, as seen in the photo above.

The total list of broken bits came to two vac motors, one feed tube, hoses, two vac bags, two new HEPA filters, new gloves, and a new floor pedal valve. All of which was replaced at no charge, despite the setup being out of warranty. I take back everything negative I said about SkatBlast and Matthys - I was really both surprised and taken aback that they were so willing to do all this. Alas, we didn't get any pay for the solid day it cost us to do all this rebuilding, but one can't have everything. I took the opportunity to do my compressor maintenance and change my window shield while I was at it, and in the end I practically have a whole new system.

This joins with my new media to produce a much-improved sandblasting experience. I just finished and posted two new bulldog blasts, and both of them were an absolute joy to finish - clear view, constant pressure, no media clogging... It was just a real blast, pardon my pun, to be able to have fun sandblasting again. For too long it has been a chore, driving me to finish more damned smooths than I really wanted to (I have nothing against smooths, but I do prefer blasts both for making and for smoking - more fun to finish, more fun to hold, IMO at least).

Although, sticking my arms in long, heavy rubber sleeves is such a joy in 94 degree weather.....

The downside of all this is that my discussions with Matthys turned up one frustrating fact - these cabinets just aren't made to work well with my previous choice of media. Even the stuff I'm using now is really too fine for the filter system, and it is very likely that eventually I will once again be looking at another vac motor failure. In the meantime, I hope to be able to save up enough cash to invest in another cabinet entirely, one better-designed for super-fine media, and use this one solely for heavy grit preliminary blasts.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why Experimentation is Good

Today's blog post was meant to be all about my recent adventures with my sandblaster - adventures which have now reached a happy conclusion thanks to surprising intervention by no less than both the European distributor and the American manufacturer of the equipment. I now find myself with a greatly fixed & repaired cabinet, working vacuum, and also a much better sandblasting media to work with. The whole story will be in the next post, but for now I am going to tell the tale of the first product of this revitalized sandblasting procedure, Ligne Bretagne Collector #31.

For starters, like most LB Collectors, this was meant to be a Talbert Briar - and not just any Talbert Briar, but a showcase piece in several ways. I have a box of perhaps twenty of the largest, ODA+ sized, massively long Algerian blocks that I have ever seen. I'm talking about fist-sized blocks that are as long as DVD cases (and in case anyone inquires, no, I'm sorry, but I don't use any of these blocks for special orders - I hoard them greedily for my own personal projects). This pipe was intended to, well, "show off" a bit... to be impressive to those in the know with how centered the airhole drilling was despite the great length of the shank (due to normal bit wander with small airhole bits, it's often as much luck as skill to get the drilling correct on a very long-shanked pipe). The original shank was a good 4cm longer than it is currently.

So, the mortise is drilled, the airhole is centered at both ends, and all is well. I look forward to producing one of my very, very few-ever "plus size" Talberts which will sell for a 500 €+ pricetag. Unfortunately, when I mounted the pipe to flatten off the end of the shank, disaster struck. The great weight of the pipe over-torqued the mount and the pipe split off the rod, breaking a big chunk out of the shank on one side of the mortise.


So, there I was, picking up this ruined, formerly eye-popping Canadian-shanked bulldog from the floor, watching another big chunk of work get thrown out the window. I wondered if it would be possible to salvage the pipe, not as the wild piece it was but as a more "normally" proportioned Danish-ey style. The problem that immediately presented itself can be seen in the pic drawing - the original airhole and mortise were drilled at such angles that, while they were centered, it would be impossible to drill a new mortise with the airhole centered in the bottom.

At this point I would normally have been forced to throw the pipe away, because I don't make Talberts that won't take a pipecleaner all the way through. However, by happy chance, I had recently been doing some experiments aimed at finding solutions to just this problem, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to use my new trick again.

I drilled the new mortise. Drat! It wasn't perfectly centered to the airhole - I knew the airhole would be high in the bottom, but it was even off a touch to one side (drilling the mortise after the airhole and trying to get it centered is a much stickier problem than simply drilling the mortise and starting off your airhole drill in the bottom center). But, my magical new guided tenon airhole could make short work of that problem, and with a bit of fiddling, I produced another stem featuring a gently curved airhole through the tenon - It tilts upwards to meet the offset airhole in the mortise and cleaners slide through with nary a problem.

There was a little debate about how to finish it, but even though it came out very nicely, I knew I didn't want to put the Talbert stamp on anything with an off-center airhole (Knowing full well that, despite the elegance of the fix and how neatly it works together, someone, somewhere, would one day pick the thing up at a pipe show and exclaim, "Gee, that Talbert guy sure didn't know how to drill, did he?"). So, it became one of the nicest Ligne Bretagne Collectors ever to bear the name. I know some folks will balk at what they see as a high price for a Ligne Bretagne, but as I look at it sitting here on my flat desktop, perfectly balanced on its rounded bottom point like a little craggy scorpion with tail upraised, I know there's no way I'd take a penny less. If anything, it will probably end up in my own collection !

So now that the story is told, I want to add my own sad goodbye to Bo Nordh, recently departed. I know everyone has probably already seen this on the various pipe forums, but I haven't posted elsewhere about it simply because I didn't know what to say, it's such a blow to the pipe world. I never got to meet Bo in life, which I really regret, so I'll smoke a bowl for him tonight - the man who made this stuff look so easy!

Monday, July 10, 2006

The White Tenon

This falls into the category of "unusual things that tend to startle very conservative buyers". I use white delrin tenons occasionally, but for a very specific reason. Translucent materials, like the horn stem above, can sometimes show shadows, or profiles, of tenon inserts that are made from the usual black delrin. Had I used a black tenon with the stem above, one would have observed that the portion of the stem near the ring looked shadowed somehow... darker inside the material. Unlike fully translucent or transparent materials like some acrylics and faux ambers, horn is only subtly translucent - It looks opaque, but you can see more of the material within the material than seems obvious.

I think white tenons sometimes have a bad rap because the ones people encounter most commonly are the screw-in white nylon tenons used in so many meerschaum stems - Many of which have very restricted draws as well as being a bit flexi. While it looks the same visually, the white tenons I use are handcut from white delrin rod, exactly the same material as the black delrin that I normally use except for color.

Here's a pic of the rest of the pipe:

It's sitting out in the shop waiting to ship to Pipe & Pint at the moment. A very nice Ligne Bretagne handmade Collector! (If anyone on this side of the ocean is interested, write or phone me soon as I expect the pipe to go into the box tomorrow or Wednesday latest. Price is 215 € + VAT if applicable) Speaking of Pipe & Pint, so far the blog poll votes by European buyers are pretty clearly in the majority for preferring to buy pipes direct from me, even in the face of having to pay VAT. It does present a conundrum, because if I hold back a few pipes to sell direct here, they'll still be on the site and available to US buyers, and I'll have the same old shipping problems again. I can't really limit sales to one group or another without someone inevitably whining about "the other side getting all the good pipes". Personally, I feel that the EU buyers will like buying from P&P a lot more than they think they will now - at the moment, it's just an unknown quantity, and I'd wager that many of the "direct sale" votes would change after positive experiences. We'll find out, though, once the P&P site is open and selling for a bit. Speaking strictly financially, at the moment I just can't afford to have pipes sitting around here for window shoppers - The work needs to move, and thus it goes to P&P.

Coming up next blog entry - THRILLS! CHILLS! Join me in the further adventures with our Skatblast vac and cabinet! Hear amazing revelations about sandblasting media! See the arrival of a truckload of new repair parts! Hear me spend a solid day cursing as I change piping, motors, valves, and hoses! Experience the shocking tale of my encounter with Matthys and SkatBlast USA over my blog comments! AND...... Join me in the discovery of a horrifying new truth about my system that will chill Rad Davis to the core......

Saturday, July 08, 2006

To VAT, or not to VAT?

That is today's poll question! I'll be adding a new mini-poll shortly targeted at my EU buyers, who surely have more experience with the pros and cons of buying pipes from the USA than I do. With the recent decision to begin selling the majority of my pipes via Pipe & Pint's website (Still in construction as of this writing), I've gotten lots of inquiries about whether I would still be selling any pipes direct or not.

The short answer is, as few as possible. I'm perfectly happy to sell pipes direct to buyers in and around France, but the situation becomes much more difficult when people buy from further afield because then we must contend with France's notoriously unreliable international shipping (I say unreliable not because packages go missing - They never have, to date - but because the service is expensive and transit times are all over the map... One box will reach the US in 6 working days, another will take five weeks). After a few years of answering shipping inquiries on nearly every single box sent to the US ("It's been four weeks, where is my pipe?" And all I can answer is, "The tracking site says the box is 'In their system'"), I will happily turn shipping over to P&P, from whom buyers can purchase and see their pipes in a few days instead of weeks.

But, this brings up the question of today's poll - What would EU buyers prefer? If they purchase direct from me, their pipe will arrive pretty promptly, but they can buy just as easily from Pipe & Pint and save 20% on VAT. This could be a big difference on a 500 euro pipe! However, it does introduce the potential of customs charges, which seem to be random the world over, as near as I can tell. If EU buyers overwhelmingly prefer to buy direct, I will keep my site catalogs operating, albeit at a reduced level. I'll be curious to see what the votes show.

Today's photos show a few new pipes that are also slotted to go to Pipe & Pint, probably early next week. This piece in the close-up is my "Fantasy Bulldog" - I'm working on several Talbert Briar bulldogs all at once, and most of them are fairly traditional, so I had to have at least one that was rather surreal. I drew on the standard bulldog's general proportions but offset the entire bowl to the right, with a curvy sweep to the shank and stem. For once, it isn't a huge pipe, so it should please those folks who want Talbert Briars that are closer to flake-style sizes. Here's another pic of it from a different angle. I do not envy Larry having to try to take multiple photos of this thing to give a decent feel for it, as it's hard to capture in two dimensions.

This pipe has one rare distinction - It may have my best-ever hand signature and stamping alignment! ;) Not that this is saying much.....

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Whimsy in the Air, but No Suction

Today's pic is another little pile of pipes that are on the way to Pipe & Pint, or at least they will be, depending on what days the post office is open next week. For once I am tripped up in reverse - expecting a US holiday and not getting one, instead of the more common situation of expecting everyone to be working and finding out this is Saint Elasmasaurus' Day or something.

They are a whimsical bunch, mostly mortas, with one Talbert Briar sandblasted Alchemist shape lurking in the background. Two of these were actually meant to go in the last box, but got held out when we noticed (during packing) that they had not been stamped! That poker in particular is a very neat piece.

News from Pipe & Pint is that their website is nearer completion, so with any luck, a lot of these pipes that I've been previewing will pop up online for sale sometime later this month, over there in the US. This is probably the next-to-last box I'll be sending P&P for the moment - I still have a small pile of Talbert Briars in process to finish and send over, but after that I will be starting on the FdP pipe project and that will pretty much crowd everything else out for a while. We'll see how it goes...

In the, "Never rains but pours" department, we've just recently lost our sandblasting vacuum again. I wrote a fairly harsh article on the quality of our SkatBlast cabinet and gear recently, and now have another reason to curse those people, as our replacement vacuum (second replacement vacuum, third replacement motor.... in three years) just died. Or rather, it began the exact same behavior as the past motors - shrieking like a banshee for a couple of days - and then died. I wrote a fairly disgruntled-but-polite email to the supplier, Matthys, last week, and never even received a reply. Needless to say, I would not advise anyone else to do business with these people, neither for the quality of the products they rep, nor for the service they're providing. In any event, that makes 1000+ euros in vacuums poured down the drain in failed parts, and now I get to go spend another 500-1100 euros on a new vacuum - from a different supplier! The trick will be finding one to fit (I hope the hose sizes are standard) that we can lay hands on easily.... which of course means lots of phone-booking in French to local outfits to see who carries sandblaster cabinet supplies. Yech. Whichever way it shakes out, it's guaranteed to be at least one solid day wasted as well as a big chunk of cash.

Some days I think, "One day we'll be caught up on our bills, and able to take some time off"... and then something else breaks.....