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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reflections on the Classics

Biz Stuff - I've just posted two new new pipes to the website catalog for direct sale, following up on my promise to try and keep more pipe available on the site this year. Freshly available are a beautiful, HUGE Morta Signature Grade, and the Talbert Briar Billiard above.

Are high grade pipes in classical shapes a dying breed?

It's a serious question. More and more, "high grade" seems to suggest freehand, Danish-ey sculptures with organic shapes, fancy lines, and dramatic colors. I enjoy making exotic freehands as much as the next fellow, but I also prize making my own examples of the classics - the bulldogs, billiard, dublins, and others. I'm a little worried, though, that these forms may be starting to be considered passé. In a world of Ballerinas and Rameses shapes, can a simple billiard impress the discerning collector? Pipemakers balk at the restrictions of having to produce such specific shapes, but I believe two things - One, it's excellent practice and good for building skill, and Two, classical designs offer plenty of room for putting one's individual stamp on a design IF one really focuses on the "maneuvering room" with a shape's parameters.

But wow, those parameters can be strict sometimes! Ask a group of collectors who makes the best straight billiard and you'll spark an argument roughly equivalent to locking a bunch of Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken fans in a broom closet together (with cricket bats!). About all that ever seems to be agreed on is that the bowl should be as tall as the shank is long, and billiard walls are supposed to be straight up and down. Not that my Dunhill is, mind - It has a rounded bowl just like my pipe above, and I like them better that way. When it comes to good design, though, it's hard to beat the straight billiard. Set out to make one, and you're like a conductor looking at a Mozart symphony and a fresh orchestra. You're both starting with an established masterpiece, and it's up to you to interpret that outline in such a way as to not totally screw it up.

What makes it good? The straight billiard is a perfect example of the Golden Ratio in use. Artists, designers, architects, and mathematicians through the Renaissance have long realized that the ratio of 1:1.618 is pleasing to the human eye - For whatever unknown reason, it triggers our aesthetic sense of harmony, balance, and beauty. Use of the golden ratio abounds in the artwork of the masters. In many cases, a knowledge of, and use of, the golden ratio can help elevate one's craft or art to a higher level. Some of us see it naturally, others need to measure to get it. A lot of that is just practice, though, because I've been working with the golden ratio in my pipes since the 90's.

But let's get back to the fun of making classical shapes. And it is fun. There is more room to "be yourself" than one might guess - I can usually pick out my own billiard "look" from among other examples, just as different conductors and orchestras will produce radically different performances of the same symphony. Traits I like - a very, very tight join of shank to bowl. It is a secret weight saver, and helps sharpen the form. My billiard above was not turned on the lathe, it was shaped entirely by hand, all to better incorporate two other details I like - a slight forward tilt to the bowl, and a top that's just a tiny bit canted from the bowl tilt. My bowl walls are usually a little more "plump" than normal, because I like thick walls, and my shank airhole actually angles slightly upwards down the length of the shank to allow more briar under the heel of the bowl for long-term (think decades) durability. Also, my shanks are never round! I know some folks consider it a sign of craftsmanship to be able to rotate the stem in place, but that comes at the expense of line balancing in side views and top views. I like my stems to flow fluidly, perfectly smoothly, from the shank - with no distinct separating point between stem line and shank line. With the side view of the lines sloping down (to the thin bit) and the top view of the lines curving out (to the bit which is wider than the stem body), it doesn't produce a perfect circle, but rather an oval.

There are so many little details to play with, from button size and curve to shank thickness to degree of bowl wall curve, that it's a shame such classical shapes seem to be fading from interest in today's high grade market.

Regarding my posting about my money tracking database, I do intend to post it. But, it will require some work and lots of explanation to get it presentable, so it probably won't be happening immediately. Keep an eye on the blog, though, it will be here eventually.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Quick Notice

There's something posted in the Talbert Briar website catalog again! Granted, it's only this one pipe, but at least it's a start. I hope to be able to hang onto a few over here every so often over the course of this year, so I can have my pipes available on both sides of the ocean. This is the prettiest pipe I've done in a long time, and full info can be found on the catalog page link. It is sold.

I've also got a Morta Classic sitting here for the moment, but it's getting ready to go into a Pipe and Pint box before the weekend, so if anyone wants it, speak fast! I've posted a pic of it at the bottom of this blog entry.

Finally, I'm thinking about posting the database money charts that I've assembled via experience and tinkering. Basically, I've built a multi-page spreadsheet in OpenOffice which charts pipe income, operating expenses, bills, income goals, and most of the various important parts of working professionally as a pipemaker. It's a handy way to answer the questions of, "Am I really making any money?", "What do I make per hour?", "How much did I make last week and how many hours did I work?", etc. It's also very useful for direct comparisons of the labor hours and payback-per-hour of different pipe grades and styles. If anyone would like to see this posted, let me know via the comments section. It would be a fair bit of work to make a blank copy of the template and then post multiple blog entries about what each category and item is for, and this would all bore the living shit out of non-pipemakers (while working pipemakers face another horror - finding out exactly what they're making per hour minus expenses!). Thus, I won't post this unless there is a lot of demand for it. Plus it's entirely likely that all the full-time pipemakers who visit here already have their own systems in place to track their work and cash.

And to sign off, here's the cool little morta being readied for the P&P box!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Best Advice I've Never Gotten

The sun is out here! C'est bizarre. The skies are blue and clear and everything. This is so strange and startling that I tried taking some pipe photos today by natural lighting..... with mixed results, as you can see, but as these pipes are also destined for P&P, I wasn't too worried about making showcase photos for them. If anyone wants to buy this bamboo-shanked Talbert Briar direct, it's available this weekend, but will probably ship out Monday. It's a grade 2B, 437 € - a great big thing with plenty of "splash". I have no idea why, but I just wanted to make a flat-bottomed freehand that would balance on its base and generally be a good sitter. The stem is a custom color of cast acrylic, and is a bit thicker than my norm, as this material can be more fragile when cut too thin (Meaning, I hope no one buys this pipes, thinks, "This bit is too thick! I'm going to file it thinner.", and then does so, and then promptly bites the bit off) I find it plenty comfortable as it is, though, it's just on the thicker side.

I've also got a nice bamboo-shanked Morta Classic on hand, but I think it may be sold. Time will tell... Also, I just spoke with Larry again about the long-delayed Pipe & Pint website and it appears to be an active project again. With any luck, I may have good news to post on it in coming weeks.

There is a thread on the Pipemakers' Forum titled "Best Advice You've Gotten", posing the question of what is the best advice anyone has given you during your pipemaking career. I can't answer it easily, though, because I have no single "best". I've gotten a lot of excellent advice from more pipemakers than I can easily count, on all sorts of subjects, but sometimes the best advice I learn from is the kind that isn't given, but experienced. For instance......

There was the time that I cast an amber acrylic of my own, and filed it very thin, and sold it.. and it came back within a year, bitten through. That was good advice about the survivability of a fragile material when sent into the world in a fragile state.

And then there was the pipe I kept to smoke myself, early on, because it seemed to have a fairly thin wall. I wasn't sure if it would be OK to sell. This was a wise decision, because within two bowls the thin area began to turn actively darker until I had a round black spot on the bowl exterior. That was good advice on what constituted workable bowl wall thicknesses.

When I was learning to cast acrylic, there were several times when I added too much catalyst to the mixture, resulting in too much heat, resulting in beautiful plates of colored acrylic that were totally filled with a hundred cracks and splits internally. This was like flushing $50 bills over and over.

I inherited a lot of horn stems when I purchased this business & workshop. They all seemed thick at the bit to me, so I made one for myself and filed it down to what seemed like a proper thickness level. On the first smoke, I put a tooth through it. That was good advice on the reality that sometimes what may seem to be bad crafting may actually be needed compensation for limitations in a material or a design.

And of course, Emily just recently got some very good advice about how important it is NOT to hold your file in your hand by the pointy end.

I envy people who can learn from rote text - I've never been very good at it. I learn best by doing, by working, and by getting my hands dirty with a project and seeing first-hand what works and what doesn't. If I sit and read a set of instructions, I don't retain it very well unless I go and do it immediately. I guess the fumbles are just my natural way of learning, because I certainly don't forget them!

Oh, and the best advice I've ever given? "Wireless headphones" And I can follow that up with another secret magic pipemaker tip - When you're doing this round the clock, all day, every day, it doesn't take long before you listen your way through your entire CD collection until you're sick of it... and then your audiobook collection... and no one wants radio commercials or obnoxious DJs (a breed which needs to be actively exterminated from the human gene pool as soon as conceivably possible). Discovering Iceberg internet radio was a god-send - Piles of channels of free internet streaming radio grouped into handy commercial-free themes. I spend at least a third of my workshop time grooving to the Drifters and others on one of the many 60's channels. Metal? Would you like death metal, hair metal, black metal, speed metal, or the roots of metal? There are classical stations. A neat Celtic station. Even a horror-themed program that's updated weekly! It's really a wonderful thing, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for workshop entertainment to carry you through that third hour of fine-sanding.....

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Pipe Forum Insta-Guide

I've just finished up a couple of really fun, squat, fat tankards, one of which is the first smooth Talbert I've done in a while. The smooth is another utilization of my curved tenon inlet trick too - handy, that, as otherwise it would have been nearly impossible to get such a sharp angle of bend without employing some sort of drilling trickery that would have made cleaning a hassle later on. Note: These pipes are both now sold.

I was just recently invited to join another pipe forum, and it reminded me of a silly topic I've always wanted to try writing up; namely, a handy guide to the standard personalities that nearly all online pipe forums come equipped with. Yes, it's true... After spending around seventeen years now involved in various online pipe forums from AOL to ASP to our current situation of roughly six hundred different web forums, I can say with total conviction that this guide should admirably serve the newcomer to any pipe forum by providing him or her with a handy reference guide for quickly discerning the identities of the various characters he or she will encounter.

I should mention that this is meant to be funny. I know it won't help, and that someone will be absolutely infuriated by this and probably flame me from nose to toes, but hey, that's the way it goes... :D And without further ado, here is your field guide to pipe forum personalities!

The Old Guy
This fellow is old. You know because he mentions this fact in roughly every other post. Also, he has been smoking pipes since 1905.. or perhaps even longer, should you yourself happen to have smoked pipes since then, because he's older than you, too. He also knows more, because he's been smoking a pipe for decades, and thus this automatically makes his every opinion the only correct one. "You clean your pipes? !! That isn't needed! I've been smoking a pipe since 1905 and I've never cleaned a one of 'em, and they're all just fine!" All dissent will be quickly squashed by a refutation of how long he's smoked a pipe. He's never bought a pipe that cost more than $3, and never bought tobacco anywhere but Walgreens, because by gum, that's all anyone needs! Now get off my lawn, kid!

The Sophisticate
(Yes, this fellow is affectionately named after the fellow who really did go by this name on ASP some years back) The Sophisticate is the natural enemy of the Old Guy, and you'll have great fun watching the two of them go at it. The Sophisticate loves the finer things in life. He lounges on his calfskin settee in the midst of his collection of hundred year old French wines, fifty year old discontinued tobacco blends, and five hundred WW2-era Dunhills... all in pristine condition, of course. The Sophisticate can detect the nuances of no less than forty-three different flavors in every bowl of tobacco smoked, and knows the entire Dunhill family tree by heart. A fountain of knowledge and obscure errata, the Sophisticate's great trial in life is coping with the unwashed masses who occasionally dare to challenge his assertions... Something the Old Guy does with relish.

Fox News
Fox News smokes a pipe, in theory at least. This can be determined by the fact that his posts occasionally are signed with "Haddos in a Tinsky". However, no forum participants have ever seen him actually post regarding the forum topic, pipes, because the entire focus of his presence seems to be to promote right wing ideology. The liberals are coming for his tobacco and guns, and by god (One Nation, under), he's going to make sure everyone knows about it! Fox News can derail the most innocent threads into political rants. The European Union has banned smoking on the TGV? It's because of socialism, damn it! Oddly, pipe forums seem to be free of Fox News's natural opposite, Nader Moore, which is probably a good thing since otherwise no one else would ever be able to say anything over the volume level of the political rhetoric. Why are gonzo liberals not attracted to pipe forums as are gonzo conservatives? They probably really believe all that "Smoking is dangerous" stuff. Pinkos.

The Expert
The Expert differs from the Sophisticate in, well... let's just say he lacks sophistication, but that doesn't make him an iota less absolutely convinced that his word is Ultimate Truth. Yea verily, all threads must kneel to his intricate knowledge of aerodynamics, expansion rates of tobacco smoke, heat indexes of burning tobacco in differently-shaped chambers, and exactly what secret ingredients go into C&D's Cross-Eyed Cricket to give it that special flavor. The Sophisticate finds him boorish and uncultured; to the Expert, the Sophisticate is a preening snob and most everyone else isn't worth notice, except to correct them when they're inevitably wrong. Experts, perhaps more than any other character type, tend to evolve through their participation, and over the course of years often transmute into Greedy Merchants, Royalty, or occasionally Apeshits.

Like Fox News, no one is really sure if this guy even smokes a pipe, or what he's really doing in the forum, but you'll never escape his presence because he posts a minimum of fifty off-topic posts per day on topics ranging from cheese flavors to carnivorous plants, but always with an air to the silly. He's the forum equivalent of the guy at your office party who gets drunk and begins dancing on the bar top with the stuffed moose head - Fun to watch, as long as you're well out of range of the inevitable fallout of his antics. This is because Jokerman is the black beast to various other characters, especially the Expert, the Sophisticate, and Royalty. Like clockwork, Jokerman's escapades will eventually tick off his enemies, resulting in furious flame wars about the group's topic drift, the sins of off-topic posting, and how many people are going to quit the group now.

Royalty are rarely heard from, but their presence is felt keenly, and occasionally they venture forth to the forum to speak to the masses. These are the Olde Guard, the forum members who have been with the forum since the Olde Days, back when the level of discussion was much higher and everything was on-topic and the riff raff had not yet overrun the place. Some of the Royalty may have been on the forum as long as, oh, four years or more. They don't post much anymore, prefering to simply look down from on high and be amused by the squabblings of the common folk.

Greedy Merchants
These people were either in the business to start with, or entered the pipe business through their passion for the hobby. Well, that's what they claim, anyway. What they really want is YOUR money, all of it please, as fast as possible. They are, every one, the seediest, most untrustworthy individuals in the forum, and it is crucial that the second any business deal becomes slightly difficult for the buyer, he or she must immediately publicly flame the Greedy Merchant until he's a blackened briquet, for everyone else to see, lest they ever make the mistake of possibly thinking of dealing with said Greedy Merchant.

The Apeshit
Yeah, them. They've got plenty of opinions, alright... on virtually anything, but the problem is connecting the opinions they pop out with to the topic of discussion. They live in treehouses, armored, liberal-proof bunkers, or occasionally even (god forbid) France. They provide the weird stuff on the forum, like the ten page posting about how the orbit of Venus affects the burn rates of Cavendish tobaccos, or why all pipes should really be made from stainless steel. Key signs of the presence of the Apeshit are strong suspicions that they're pulling your leg. When you find yourself reading someone's post on how he's mounted a miniature battery-powered turbine fan at the top of his bowl to superheat the burning tobacco for more flavor.... Well, you've found the Apeshit. Is he serious, or is he an elaborate practical joke? (The Royalty are occasionally found to be secretly behind outbreaks of the Apeshit, because they're amused by the reactions stirred up) Enjoy his meanderings on why briar bowls perform better lined with 2mm of concrete, but watch from a safe distance, because the Apeshit draw cannon fire from virtually everyone else in a way that can be truly awe-inspiring to see.

Well, that's all I have time for now. I hope you've enjoyed, hope no one is too horribly offended, and I'll check back tomorrow to see how badly my email box is smoking... :D

Friday, March 02, 2007

Largest Pipe I've ever Done?

A lot of the pipes I make are larger in size, but I may have outdone myself. The pipe on the right above is a nicely large 1982 Group 5 Dunhill - positively dwarfed by the giant horn I just finished. In fact, here it is again, this time pictured next to the immense Ser Jacopo Maxima Maxima that I received for Christmas:

My sandblast is not only taller, but has a larger diameter bowl chamber at 2.5cm. I can get a whole finger into it, and can only wonder at how much tobacco it will devour... but, I'd still love to keep the thing as I enjoy huge pipes out of sheer laziness (The annoyance of having to change pipes during a long evening's smoke). Bigger and better pics of the beastie can be see here, and yes, it is for sale and available, for a whopping 456 € (not including VAT for EU buyers!). I've actually stamped it XL and for the first time in my pipemaking career I've applied my "XL" price mod... Largely because it was cut from a giant-size ebauchon of a couple decades' age that was in a size no longer available. Yes, that was ebauchon, not plateau! I can only wonder at how large the original burl must have been....

It isn't the only new Talbert on hand - There's also a more modestly priced (390 €) and sized (group 5) fat, pointy-bottomed goblinish little sandblast that can be seen here. It's also available.
I plan on sending both of these overseas at the start of next week if they don't sell over the weekend. Money-wise, I have a good bit of ground to cover and I want to cover it this month, so new pipes will be appearing fast and frequent, and shipping out just as fast.

The huge pipe was in one aspect a disappointment for me - It was incredibly close to being a smooth, and in the end was only let down by one small pit that just wouldn't go away without deforming the shape. It would have been several grades higher as a smooth, because of the crosscut nature of its grain - All of the left side of the pipe was bird's-eye, and very large and swirled bird's-eye as well. Quite dramatic. Unfortunately, crosscuts make less attention-grabbing sandblasts because of the nature of the grain. While the detail and general gnarliness can easily be seen here:

and also on the bird's-eye side here:

... There are a lot of people who don't understand what they're looking at, all while readily identifying and enjoying the more obvious ring structure of pipes like the goblin. In the pic above, I've added some little black circles to highlight the actual clusters of bird's-eye - the swirled circles and ovals that contain many tiny points, each of which is the "head" of a spot of bird's-eye grain. I've heard people in the past mistakenly dismiss such grain orientations as poor blasts, and even comment that the bowl is "blasted unevenly" because the ring structure is visible on one side but not the other, not understanding that this is how the rings are displayed on a crosscut bowl, and that the strange moon-crater-like side is really a large expanse of bird's-eye grain.