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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.