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

Monday, April 30, 2007

Why have Grading? Pt. 2 - The Cons

Biz Stuff - Big update today! The full story can be found on the News page, but in brief, there is one new Talbert Briar (pictured left), three new Talbert Mortas, and one new Ligne Bretagne Collector. Alas, as I write this, both the TB and the LB have already been sold. However, there is a surprise bit of news - There will be a selection of Talbert Briars and Ligne Bretagnes at the Chicago show after all! P&P friend Robert Lawing is apparently taking some of Pipe & Pint's stock to the show to display on his table, so stop by and say hello, if you can find him. For the home-bound in search of my pipes, there are also two currently posted on Ebay, a morta brandyglass and a morta pot.

So, to get back to my ongoing ruminations - Why have grading? I'm going to devote this post to the cons of grading, and use the next one to discuss the pros. We'll see which ends up on top...

Grading, at its heart, is simply an artificial method of loss-leader price fixing. If the pipes in a line were all the same price, buyers would simply cherry-pick the best examples and the rest would go unsold while buyers waited for new cherries to arrive, unwilling to pay the same prices for less desirable pieces. Obviously, makers can't afford this - We need to sell as large a percentage of what we make as possible, which brings the question of how to gently nudge buyers into buying the less desirable pieces. Here we have grading entering the picture - "Yes, that perfect straight grain billiard is a high grade and costs 550 €, instead of the 324 € of the less striking version." The idea is to start spreading the prices out to snag a larger proportion of buyers, but this doesn't always work the way it should.

A pipemaker (I can't recall who - Edwards?) in a past issue of P&T summed it up best when he stated, "We used to have a grading system but we stopped it because everyone just wanted to buy the high grades". This is a very real problem! Because, at its heart, the situation becomes ludicrous - If you know your high grades will all sell quickly while the lower grades sit, there's no incentive to make the lower grades. I get this to some extent - In many cases, it is actually cheaper for me to discard a pipe that would have been a grade 1 or 2, and go on to find a better block, than it is to actually invest the time and labor into finishing the pipe. Once you hit 300 € or more, nobody wants "average". The irony is that the high grades BECOME the average - Suppose for example that I produce nothing but grade 3+ pipes... Are they actually higher grades, or have they just become the new average?

Too, grading scales are insane. Really. I'm a one-man (and one-woman) shop and between my lines, I have five different kinds of grading in Talbert Briars (with five levels each), two different grading levels in mortas, and no less than eleven different grading steps in Ligne Bretagnes..... and by comparison to some, this is simple!! "Grading bloat", like waistline spread, seems to be an inevitable process that occurs gradually over a maker's career as various unusual projects come along that require some new way of thinking and pricing, until eventually you're looking at an entire drawer full of stamps of logos, dots, stars, moons, snails, birds, fish, numbers, and cartoon characters. It really does get ridiculous, and what does it all mean? Is a grade 3, two star fish better or worse than a grade four, one star owl, and how do both relate to the non-numbered five-starred pipes stamped with Speedy Gonzales?

Collectors like to believe that grading gives a measure for a pipe's relative value, especially at resell, but I haven't seen this to be the case - Resell prices tend much more to be influenced by the popularity of a maker's name, how "hot" a brand is at the moment, and just how much someone likes the pipe in question.

I don't think too many Ebay buyers are calculating, "Ahh, that 3 dot Kervorkian has the special WAKKA stamping, meaning it cost exactly $475 when it was made in 1994, which I can determine by deciphering the date coding 785BN427HEMI using Pi. Therefore, proper estate value should be exactly $240 in good condition."
I do think buyers are more often thinking, "OOO, a Kervorkian!! I like/hate it and I'll pay/not pay whatever the asking price is."

The bottom line for a maker is, unless your grading system is simple, which most are not (witness moi), NOBODY CARES. At the end of the day, buyers want a really nice example of your work. When it reaches the point where a maker is tossing out pieces that would have become low grades in favor of only creating higher grade pipes, is there really any point to having grades anymore? Why not simply say, "My pipes cost between 350 and 600 € based solely on how cool they are", and leave it at that? Or to paraphrase a friend of mine, when asked why a certain pipe was a certain grade, "That pipe is that grade because it took three days of work to make, and that's the salary I need to make for three days' work".

This is getting longer than anticipated - More to come in the next article, same Pipe-time, same Pipe-channel!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Brief Intermission - Google page

A quick intermission between grading articles! Look to the right, just under the RSS feed links, and you will see a new addition to the page - a Google link. Clicking this will let you easily add this blog to your Google homepage or Google Reader. It should be ideal for those who don't use RSS but would like a quick and simple way to see if there are new posts or not - Check out the screen cap of my example Google homepage here to see what it looks like. Mighty strange to see that Pipe Blog headline there amidst all the (so often depressing) "real" news! And if you're not using Google homepage, I highly recommend it. It's my one-stop shop in the morning for the highlights of every news site that I read. No more hopping through a half dozen news sites for me, a quick scan from one page does it all. Very handy!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Why have Grading? Part 1

Biz Stuff - I've just made some catalog additions. Newly posted are several new Ligne Bretagnes, including the hilariously short & fat Collector grade piece shown to the left. Also posted is a sandblasted Morta Classic, the first of several more which will be posted over the next week. See the News page for full info and details.

Why have grading?

It's a serious question. And it touches on all sorts of issues of the human psyche, and how people buy and why, AND squarely cuts across pricing levels to reveal the different buying "thinking" going on with purchasers of middle-grade and high-grade pipes. I've meant to write about this for a while, and I realized finally that I'd never fit everything I've observed into one article, thus this is the first of..... who knows? A couple, at least. Before I even start on the issues of grading, I want to write a little about these differences in market mentalities as one hops through different price points.

What is the rarest Ligne Bretagne, the grade that has only a few examples in existence in the world (In fact, IIRC, there is only one)? A grade 5. That's the top of the line for the standard-line Ligne Bretagne and sells for a princely 176 €. The one example that I made sat unsold for several weeks, too, due to being such an "expensive" example of its line. It was a magnificent piece of briar, about as perfect as I have seen, with excellent grain. A Talbert Briar of equivalent grain quality would be 750 € or more, and would likely sell almost immediately, yet the grade 5 LB was a slow sell.

What is the rarest Talbert Briar? A grade 5? One of the incredibly-rare M grades? None of the above. The rarest Talbert Briar is the grade 1, of which there is only one example on the earth. This was a smooth Talbert with "so-so" grain (Half beautiful bird's-eye, nearly half bald) that was had for as cheaply as $275. Yet today, I never produce this grade - for all practical purposes the grade 2 is the "standard", entry-level grade. The highest grade Talberts I've made have all been pre-sold - in fact, I have entire lines of standing requests for any new examples of my M grade that might appear.... quite a difference from the poor grade 5 LB! But LB grade 1's fly out the door, yet that grade 1 Talbert Briar sat unsold for nearly six months IIRC.

What lessons can be drawn from these two curiously opposite experiences? At different price points, buyers want different things. The guy looking for a good middle-grade pipe hunts around the $100 mark and has probably never in his life bought a pipe that cost more than $150, ergo that entire market segment will balk at the "extreme" price of the 176 € grade 5 Ligne Bretagne... Yet conversely, buyers of high grade pipes often aren't interested regardless of the exceptional quality of the briar, because it's perceived as a "middle grade" line.

Jump to the Talbert Briar price category and buyers are after something different - They want a high grade pipe in all respects. That means that they don't see the lower price of the entry-grade Talbert as a positive selling point - to them, it's the "bottom end" and not desirable, and they want the grade 4's and Signature pieces. It's an almost complete reverse of the middle-range buying market, and reflects the thinking that, "Heck, if I'm spending 400 € already, I'll splurge a little and get the best I can, rather than save money on the cheaper model".

It occurs to me to wonder if the same carries over into autos - I imagine plenty of Twingos are sold in base model form with no options, but probably damned few Mercedes.

So, having established that sellers must contend with a rather fickle market that goes in different directions at once, in the next post I'll talk about just what grades mean, why they're assigned, and even, yes, question their usefulness! Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Are there really differences in briar?

Biz Stuff - I've just uploaded two new Morta Classics and two new Ligne Bretagne Collectors to the website catalogs, for those who may be interested. There's a green one...
Also, check the News page for info on the further tweaking of the website, including the new estimated dollar pricing in the catalogs.

Today's pic is the pile of stuff I just got in the mail - LOTS of new drill bits, including some experimental ones, plus more bundles of delrin rod. I ordered a few half-round bits to try on airhole drilling - We'll see how they do.

The subject of this post is a topic that arose on a pipe forum I frequent. Are there really differences in the country of origin for briar? Some people will swear by Corsican, or Algerian, or Italian, claiming that these different regions of briar produce superior flavor in pipes. But is this true?

Yes and no.

Before I answer further, consider - No one really knows where their briar comes from. Seriously. Briar mills buy briar burls from all over the place, different countries, different suppliers, and they're all mixed together in cutting and drying. The mill you buy from may be in Italy, but that's no guarantee that their briar is all Italian - It could be from anywhere around the Med. So, anytime someone says that their briar is definitively of this or that origin, take it with a grain of salt.

Past this point, there are two major arguments - Briar is briar versus the contention that briar varies noticeably from source to source. To address that second argument, we've got to first break down just what "good" means in briar. ANY briar source can produce beautifully-grained, excellent smoking wood.... but there are variances. If you want a block that's likely to be less badly flawed in terms of bald spots or cracks, this depends much more on the cutter that one is buying from than on the origin country of the wood.

I've worked with briar from many different sources, and I have the rare ability to be able to actually comparison smoke different briars. To know that both pipes are drilled with the same size of bowl, the same chambers, the same airhole size, and utilize the same stem material.... because ALL of these factors also influence the flavor of the smoke! Smoke the same pipe with an ebonite and an acrylic stem swapped out, and you'll be surprised at the flavor difference. So, already we're looking at an equation that's nearly impossible to boil down to simple measurements - Someone who thinks they like Algerian briar because they believe a brand they like uses Algerian briar may just as easily be responding to the stem design this brand uses, or the airhole layout and size. Too often, big generalizations are made regarding the quality of briar from different countries, often on quite shaky evidence.

But IS there a difference? I can give a very qualified yes. Smoking the same tobacco in identical pipes made from two different briar sources, I can - sometimes - detect a very small flavor difference. In order to notice this difference, I have to actually be smoking the same tobacco in both pipes back-to-back, and on the same night - swapping one with the other every few puffs, because if I smoked them a day apart I would never detect any difference, it is often so minute.

Which of course begs the question - How do I know that the difference between the Greek briar block and the Algerian briar block is down to the source, or rather just the natural variance between two random blocks of briar? I can't. Not all Greek briar smokes the same, nor all Italian. One just has to take what nature deals and make the best of it. If pressed, I have *generally* noticed the following minor characteristics, but they're definitely subtle. Algerian briar, to me, seems to offer a darker, richer, heavier flavor. Greek seems extremely neutral, allowing the tobacco itself to shine. Italian and Corsican seem "bright", giving blends a sharper edge. At least in my experience. But often none of these things are true. It's like that, in nature...

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Wages of Photoshop

Biz stuff - I've just posted some new Talbert Briars, one Talbert Morta, and there are still (just!) two Ligne Bretagnes available, though I just sold one while working on this blog entry!

The folks on my mailing list have already heard this, but I've recently got Photoshop - a substantial graphics-handling upgrade from my 1997 edition of Paintshop Pro for Windows 95, with which I've done all my website graphics lo these many years.

To say that I'm stunned by the difference is putting it mildly.

Within one day of creating "actions" (Pre-programmed strings of recorded graphics commands and adjustments, such as "Enhance brightness 39%, Contrast 35%, resize to 1000 pixels width, Sharpen"), I've managed to save myself untold hours of slogging through the same menus over and over again every time I have a photo to assemble for the catalog. It's like heaven. For the past few years, doing any sort of website updating had become such a grinding slog that I'd really grown to hate it, but between Photoshop and Kompozer, it has once again become fun. I can't imagine what it might be like to use a "real" professional website editor like Dreamweaver, considering how enthralled I am with simple little freeware Kompozer after ten years of doing all my website updates with a text editor.

In coming months, I intend to completely overhaul the website. It isn't going to be redesigned, but it's going to get a lot of subtle graphics enhancements, better-looking catalog page photos, and some rearranging. If anyone has complaints, issues, or suggestions, please put them forward now! Especially due for some updating is the long-neglected Resources section. Even the main title page is getting tweaked - the logo photo above looked like the photo below only a few hours ago...

Friday, April 06, 2007

It's Superman

Biz Stuff - Five new Ligne Bretagnes have been added to the catalog page. The website overhaul continues apace, with the opening page for Ligne Bretagne getting a clean-up and simplification. Over coming months, I'd like to give the entire site a going-over like this - dropping pointless bits here, nipping there, and generally freshening everything. As with the redesign of the catalogs, the goal is to make the site easier and faster for me to update while enhancing the Google-like simplicity of the layout. The catalyst for all this fiddling has been my discovery and use of Nvu and Kompozer, programs which have transformed website work from tedious HTML typing into happy play.

Today's pic is a change of pace, a shot taken of us working by a photographer for a Breton magazine on village life. This is pretty much my working day captured in a snapshot, with the sole exception being that we'd normally both have wireless headphones on, tuned to our audiobooks of the moment.

And speaking of audiobooks, I'm currently listening my way through "It's Superman", by Tom De Haven. Why does this merit mention in a pipe blog? The book is quite good, for one - Far better than I was braced for, as I am not normally a Superman fan (As a wee lad, I much preferred Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, or better yet Werewolf by Night). I was expecting Smallville, and instead got the Superman version of Batman Begins. It also contains a fair bit of smoking references... and they aren't all negative. It's set in a very grimy and impoverished 1938 on the brink of the war. Lois smokes. Clark smokes. There is no preaching about the evils of smoking - yes, it's 1938, but over the past few years I've become accustomed to such insidious bits of political correctness as altering old films, subtly inserting "anti" messages into supposedly period fiction, etc. Even more amusingly, the book's one major anti-smoker is........

Lex Luthor.

Yes, Lex is not only about murdering his way through competing gangsters and underworld bosses, wiling his way into government, building a criminal empire, and generally being nasty - He's also vehemently anti-smoking, and reviles the demon weed while planning to forcefully stamp out its use. I must say, it's quite refreshing to see a Superman book coming down on the side of personal freedom and showing the anti-tobacco mentality for what it is, namely, the desire to control what other people can do based on prejudice.

Up, up, and away!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Still Alive, mostly

Gah! No posts since the 18th of last month! I haven't died, but I have been incredibly busy working on new pipes and pouring time into the ongoing project of rejuvenating our long-dormant website catalogs. I've just finished posting some new pipes yet again, including the first Ligne Bretagnes to hit the catalog for direct sale in a very long time indeed (I think it's ten months?). Full info can be found on our website's News page, but here is a bonus shot of the whole pile of pipes together. It's comparison pictures like this that really show how monstrously fat that tankard is!

I'll be posting new articles as soon as possible. I have plenty to write about, I just need to grow a few more hours in each day....