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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Value and Mystique

The last pipes of 2006, or the first pipes of 2007? We'll see, depending on how much work I can get done tomorrow. If all goes well, these two will finish out to be a gorgeous freehand morta semi-poker, and a nice ring-grain briar. Trying to get anything done around the holidays is always an adventure in "maybes" - Maybe I'll get them finished, maybe we'll end up at a dinner or a party or something. But, I'm hoping to pass a quiet New Year this year, just like Christmas.

For those who might be interested, there's also an unsmoked example of one of the 2003 Ligne Bretagne Yule pipes available now on ebay. Check it out!

There's a discussion going on a private pipe forum I frequent that put this topic into my head. Perhaps I'm feeling nostalgic with the end of the year approaching, but it occurred to me to post something about what part of a pipe's perceived value comes from mystique. It often seems that at some time or another, every pipemaker gets accused of being overpriced based on hype, and Dunhill catches a lot of regular flack about this (Usually from people who would never spend more then $200 on any pipe regardless, but c'est ├ža).

On the one hand, you have the guys who want to value a pipe solely based on observable criteria - They've got their checklists and they'll sit and examine it under a magnifier looking for flaws and they're ready to obsess if they find this or that detail not quite right. But there's another school of thought that actually has more influence on pipe pricing and resell values through the years, and that is mystique. History, mystery, aura, influence, you name it - When you buy a Dunhill, you're buying a little echo of the man who refused to give up during the bombing of London, and went and set all his pipes up on tables in front of his ruined shop, and did business like that. There's a family history and a tradition there that adds value that's more than the quality of grain on the pipe, or whether they happen to make shapes in the Flavor of the Moment.

For those who enjoy mystique, their pipes are more than a cold recitation of techniques, they're a living connection to stories of adversity, adventure, tragedy, passion.... To all the things that make us human. I know that when I make a Talbert Briar, it isn't just an object, it's a little remnant of me that will (hopefully) be here when I'm gone, and carry with it a little of our adventures in entering the pipe world, moving overseas, the horrendous difficulties that we've endured, the wonderful friends we have made, the very strange sights that we've seen - In short, it isn't just a molded utilitarian object, it's a pipe that's been somewhere. A creation with depth that isn't in the thing itself, but rather in the story of how it came to be made.

And that's why mystique will always play a role in the wonderful world of pipes!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Pipemaking without a Net

There are many different ways to approach making a pipe. There is the safest way, to pick a popular shape profile, sketch it on the block, and cut that shape out of the wood. You know going in that, assuming some unseen briar flaw doesn't cause the pipe to be rejected, the conventional shape that pops out the other end will almost certainly sell. There seems to be a buyer for every billiard, bulldog, and poker that a maker can crank out. This is fun work, because even when I'm working on something extremely familiar to me, it's a comfort to be sure I'll get paid for my labors and I can relax and basically just put my brain on idle.

Another approach is to be calculatedly artistic - That is, to look around at the popular freehand shapes that are hot and do something freehand-ish along those lines. This, too is a comfort, because you can be sure that your end result will likely be something that is widely seen as "OK", and someone will probably buy it. This isn't quite as much of a guarantee as doing a classical shape, because your eye might suck and your Snail design might end up looking downright clunky, but it's a pretty safe route.

Option three is the terrifying one. I don't actually do this regularly simply because I find it too trying on the nerves. The pipe seen in the pics was done with no plan whatsoever, only a very intense mood (I'd say "fit of passion" but that sounds awfully poncey). I didn't sketch it, I didn't plan it, I just picked up a block that had a beautiful grain pattern and started freehand grinding, letting it shape itself. A little off here, a touch there, flatten this, follow the flat plane of the bird's-eye here. Working like this is actually almost terrifying at times because you have to be wide open to your intuitive feeling of what looks right and what doesn't, and where the energy needs to go in the form. It's a matter of almost closing one's eyes and "feeling" one's way along the shape, trying to feel invisible lines of tension that say, "There needs to be a countering curve here", and, "The flow of lines pulls this way, this part is struggling and being pulled along". It isn't about looking at a ready-made pattern and trying to get as close as you can to that pattern, but rather trying to capture a transitional emotion in sculpture - almost the Impressionist school of pipemaking.

It's scary for a lot of reasons, one of the chief ones being that any pipes done like this almost always take three times as long to make and thus have to be expensive, yet at the same time you'll be presenting people with something they haven't already seen before - a risky sales proposition at best. Working with Pipe & Pint has made this a bit safer, though, and allowed me more creative freedom since they're ready to snap up anything, and seem willing to even take risks on the more avant-garde pieces. People ask me, "Why do you send everything to Pipe & Pint?", and I say, "Because I can make exactly what I like to and have an easy sale". So, this pipe will almost certainly be traveling overseas next week. If anyone wishes to buy it in the meantime, it is here and available for the moment. It's hand-signed, with tight sandblasted grain and bird's-eye splashed over the smooth surfaces, and costs 605 €. Anyone interested can email me!

Oh, and before I forget, I also have a bent, sandblast Morta Classic in squat poker shape here, should anyone be in a morta mood.

The Christmas Tankard

Good heavens, it's been a long time since I updated the blogs! Finishing up all the FdP pipes turned out to be a much more difficult and demanding job than I'd ever expected, and I've had to mostly leave the blogs unattended for weeks now. On top of this, we've been going through a very difficult patch with the business - unexpected expenses and such - and I just really haven't had the enthusiasm needed to whip out spry and sprightly blog entries on a regular basis. But, I've managed to finish off a variety of difficult things recently, and hope to start the new year off on a better footing.

I always try to do at least one Christmas-ey pipe each year, and this one is my "artistic interpretation" of the season - huge and fat! But seriously, this was initially intended to fill a special request but it just wanted to be huge, much bigger and fatter than the order had asked for, and in the end it became this wonderful seasonal tankard (Since that is the only term that really describes it). I have not yet decided what to do with it - I may put it in our catalog here, but more probably will send it over to Pipe & Pint next week after Christmas. If anyone wants to buy it direct before then, it is 485 euros plus shipping (580 € including VAT for European buyers), and is currently SOLD.

I've also got one of the FdP pipes available, though it is almost certainly going to Pipe & Pint unless someone over here is interested in it. And that's not counting the rather bizarre pipe sculpture that's going to be the subject of my article for my next blog entry....

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Finishing up the FdPs

Here they are, the last of the FdP pipes. I was able to find some different, slightly smaller horn stems to use, so all the rest will have horn stems after all. There are seven in process, though there's no guarantee all of them will finish OK - I've had a higher than usual discard rate for these pipes, so we'll see. It definitely exposes the waste in larger volume production, where pipe designs cannot be hand-shaped around a block's flaws, but instead must be tossed out if something nasty is exposed.

This is more pipes than I have remaining FdP requests, so there will probably be a couple (or more) remaining at the end, for general sale. If I've had any disappointments about the FdP pipe sales, it has been the number of drop outs (People who asked for a pipe and then never responded to email offers - I quickly reached the point where I began to cross non-responders totally off the list). With no way of knowing if the final members will actually purchase pipes or not, I've decided simply to make a few more than needed and then cease production and move on to other things.

At the moment, I have one very nice FdP variant pipe available - I posted it to the newsgroup late last night and it has not sold yet. It's different from the standard ones in being cut from a plateau block rather than an ebauchon. This allowed it to have a stacked ring grain sandblast pattern as well as a rough, natural plateau rim. Alas, rough tops don't seem as popular with the French, though I love the ultimate naturalism of their style.

Also visible in the photo today is one of the big two-jaw chucks I use on my lathe to hold briar blocks for drilling (even though I now use this technique quite rarely). A fellow emailed me asking for more information on this type of chuck, and I've had inquiries like this before. Unfortunately, I have no help to offer those looking for something similar - mine originally came from St. Claude and was purchased by the pipemaker who worked in this shop before me. All I can suggest is for interested individuals to try contacting the various St. Claude factories to see if they have anything similar to sell. Alternatively, Ken Lamb makes an excellent custom two-jaw chuck which also incorporates alignment pins for easier perfect drilling of the airhole and bowl. It's costly, but it's a serious tool for a serious pipemaker. I've often heard various amateurs and part-timers fussing about Ken's tools being "overpriced". Not to put too fine a point on it, but they're utterly FOS - I had a custom two-jaw chuck made in the past to my specs and it ran to $1000, making Ken's more complex creations a downright bargain. Good pipemaking tooling is expensive, no matter where you get it from.