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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Collector 32

Happy Halloween! Today's pipe pic is another "wild thing", and as usual it comes with a little story. This is the 32nd Ligne Bretagne Collector grade pipe - at 290 € it is very nearly the most expensive Ligne Bretagne ever made (This pipe is now SOLD - thanks!), and it's also different from other LBs in having an acrylic stem instead of an ebonite one.

The thing is, it was meant to be a Talbert Briar.

I'd picked the block specially because I knew the briar would give a good sandblast, shaped the thing to highlight the grain pattern, and was well on my way to making a really excellent Signature-grade Talbert Briar (costing over 550 €) when a slight drilling slip put the mortise inside the olivewood decor ring off-center to the olivewood ring itself. With the stem inserted, this is invisible, and the airhole still connects perfectly for easy pipecleaner passage.

BUT... I dunno, it just bugged me. I've seen far more expensive pipes with more glaring flaws, but in the end I decided not to stamp it a Talbert, and instead to finish it as a LB Collector. Emily's opinion was that, "Someone's going to get an incredibly nice pipe for the price" and I think so, too - in fact, this is one of the few I make each year that I'm really tempted to keep for myself. The sandblast is simply terrific, and it has a large bowl yet is deceptively lightweight.

Sometimes one will encounter pipe people who question this whole idea of "flawed" pipes - When I first set up my online catalog, I listed both positives and negatives for each pipe I posted. Many collectors appreciated this approach and the candor involved, but others sometimes seemed to miss the point... I've received occasional questions like, "You list these negative points about this pipe. If these are flaws, should you even be selling it? Don't all real pipemakers only sell their very best, and discard everything that isn't perfect?" They seemed to think that I was somehow trying to foist off flawed pipes, without understanding the difference between flaws and flaws. I can pick out flaws on any pipe - any pipe. The real question is whether the flaws are the result of poor craftsmanship, briar faults, or simple minor accidents (as in this case). Every pipe comes with some combination of these three types of flaws, and the real question is how to balance the "perfectness" of the pipe with the price level it's being marketed to.

Which reminds me that someday soon, I need to write an article about how sometimes it's far more important that a pipe have overall verve than a polished mortise interior... but that's for another day!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Wild in October

Edit: Both of these pipes are shipping to Pipe & Pint on Monday, October 30th

Bonjour! In case anyone doesn't notice, there are TWO new blog entries today - the second one, "Lining the Pockets", got split off from this one because it all became too big for one post. I decided to break the news into two different topics. This one is new pipes!

Maybe it's the season, but I've had a passion for doing sweeping freehand-ey things lately. Plateau-topped pipes can sometimes be an iffy sale, as there are some who want the whole pipe planed off and shaped if they're going to pay big money for it, but I personally love the look of natural plateau sufaces - One just can't get surfaces that rough and chaotic even with sandblasting.

Here's the first of two new Talbert Briars I've just finished, very pretty and very swanky. I wanted to try and get at least a couple of "regular" Talberts made after finishing the Pfeifenigma and before going on to more FdP pipes. I haven't actually decided what to do with these two yet - I may sell them direct or send them over to Pipe & Pint (which translates to, "If anyone wants to buy one immediately, please email me because it may soon be on a boat crossing the ocean"). This one is another "trick" pipe, done using the new method of drilling that I explained in a past post, which allows me to drill more extreme curves using an off-center mortise airhole, yet still have the tenon airhole curve up to connect with it properly. I've got several of these out in the market now and all reports are uniformly excellent, so I expect I'll be doing more and more of these as time goes by. I love it because this sort of shape would normally be impossible with conventional drilling - either the bowl would have to be drilled dangerously low into the underside curve, or the airhole would be way off-center in the mortise with no hope of pipecleaner passage.

It's unusual in another way too - I wanted it to echo the look of a calabash, so I stained the bowl but left the plateau top natural. I was very, very tempted to stain the top black, but decided to leave it like this instead. I like the look, and if a buyer wants it black that can always be added, whereas it's a good bit more difficult to get the stain back off once it's on.....
I'm disappointed by the pics, though - the shank band is polished antler, and has a neat greyish grain with a few natural ripples left in it (I just know someone is one day going to fuss that the band "was not properly finished, it has ridges!!"). Alas, in the pics it just looks dull white.

The second pipe can be seen here:

This second one is a beautiful thing with a large, perfectly-drilled bowl and excellent grain. So why is it only a grade 2, and a good bit less money? Two reasons - it has a small grainless spot smack on the bottom underside of the bowl, and more importantly, freehands like this are sometimes a tough sale as the price starts to rise. Shapes like this are made so often and cheaply as lower-end pipes that they've tended to lose their "perceived value" in the market, so even an excellent sample like this would probably be hard to sell for a higher price, the handcut acrylic stem, contrast-stained grain, and fancy shank bridgework not withstanding. It's a shame, because I love freehands - As my friend Mark has commented, they're very "dwarvish" to me, with a rugged appeal all their own, and a big-bowled example like this is just about my ideal smoker.

Lining the Pockets

A seasonal pic today! This is a very rough pencil sketch I did many years ago as the initial figure study for a painting. It was for a portfolio piece, pretty much a "generic vampire" illo, ergo the Bela Lugosi look ;)

But, I thought it tied in with this post's topic, which is the greedy bloodsucking of pipe distributors..... or is it?

I picked today's topic from a thread currently disintegrating on ASP. What started out as an inquiry thread about why a Pipe of the Year project wasn't going very well has turned into a rehash of some ridiculous nonsense from years back, largely due to one particular troll. For those who don't know the back story, it's pretty simple - in recent years, many regular folks (meaning, "not officially in the pipe business") discovered through the power of the internet that some brands of Italian pipes could be purchased much more cheaply direct from Italian dealers than they could in the US. Said fellows began to buy the pipes in bulk, tack tiny margins onto them, and resell them on ebay or direct, undercutting the prices of official channels by a fair margin.

Needless to say, official channels were not pleased.

Equally needless to say, the reactions of some of the folks profiting from this were of the immediate conspiracy variety - "They don't like us because they're making too much money and we're cutting into their fat margins!!" "If they didn't overcharge, this wouldn't be a problem!!" And so on, and so on....

The companies applied pressure on ebay and the result was the VERO conditions, which protect licensed distribution of marques in specific markets. This effectively translated to, "Grey-market import fifty Castellos to sell out of your closet, and ebay will shut your auctions down". Again, the reactions were volatile, with some going apoplectic about what they insisted on seeing as protection of price gouging.

The thing is, it isn't.

There were always two glaring differences that the "fair margins" champions missed - First was the difference between what a fellow earning a regular salary considers a fair margin on his part-time weekend hobby project, and the other (and even stickier) was the issue of service and warranty. The margin issue was really bad - Yes, someone with a paycheck and regular job might think a 5% margin ("Hey, that's $10 on a $200 pipe, just for posting a picture online!") was plenty, when it's quite a different situation if one must actually pay their bills out of these margins. Convincing people that it wasn't being "greedy" to try to make more than $50-100 per week just never seemed to penetrate in some cases, and there are still a few "mouths" who go on about this today.

The warranty problem was even worse. No one thought twice about buying their Ser Jacs on the grey market, where they were cheaper, yet when they burned them out, who do they go to? The closet dealers weren't replacing pipes, so naturally the guys were hauling these things to their local retailers and to the US distributors wanting warranties - not a good situation when said distributor made nothing on the pipe to start with, and is now expected to provide free labor for customer service to fix it.

Given these conditions, the VERO deal was a pretty reasonable fix, but there are still those who rage about it today. The biggest lesson that can be drawn from the whole sorry experience was that in the internet age, every manufacturer needs to think twice, and then five or six more times, about being sure their pricing is consistent across their markets.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Yeesh. I sit here tonight rather fried, after doing a marathon working session focused solely on one specific project, the newly-posted Pfeifenigma (which includes this year's Halloween pipe). Like the original Halloween pipes, this was a pet project that I just decided to do.... mostly just to see what would happen. I'm pretty fervent with possibilities for future Pfeifenigmas, but it will really depend on the reaction of folks to this first one, and it's highly possible that the whole idea is too complex to easily sell (following the adage of, "It's too complicated if it can't be boiled down to 'DIE HARD on a train' or some such). We'll see. I also posted two new mortas, a smooth and a sandblast, though the blast has already been spoken for as I write this. Very, very strange to be doing photography and posting new pipes to the catalog, after so many months of simply shipping everything over to Pipe & Pint.

I know it's been a long time since the last update, but I'm simply too tired to post anything insightful or complex. Instead, I'll just lavish some praise on two other new Freeware programs I've switched to lately, which have done Very Good Things for me - Nvu and Comodo Firewall. I've always kept my site simply, and so never needed anything like DreamWeaver, but I feel I've launched forward a decade or more with Nvu. Nvu is a WYSIWYG HTML editor that is amazingly easy to learn (I whipped up the Pfeifenigma site pages with it the first time out) and actually produces good HTML coding, unlike other WYSIWYG editors that could be named. And it's free. Perfect for starving pipemakers with websites to maintain, all round the world.

For firewalls, I've used ZoneAlarm for years, but it has gradually gotten annoying, between the nag screens to buy the commercial version and the recent tendency of the True Vector monitor to crash repeatedly (a torrent problem, it seems). I didn't realize just how simple ZA was until I installed Comodo's free package, which leak-tests better and has a wagonload of extra features (just being able to see what is using the net connection at any time is quite nice).

There's my public service announcement for the day. Now I'm off to collapse on the couch and figure out what tonight's October horror movie will be!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Children of the Night.....

"Vaat moozic they make!"

Ahh, Bela, we miss you!

No pipe picture today, just a quick announcement that the Talbert Pipes page has gone seasonal again. Also, the Korrigan pic on that page is clickable for a bigger view with a little bit of info.

Scary - I realized this was the first picture I've done in ten years now! It's just a simple pen, ink, and watercolor pencil drawing of a local goblin I know, but it was a weird experience to be sitting at the drawing board again instead of out in the workshop.