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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Grading part 3 - Where does it come from?

Biz Stuff - There are a few new additions to the website. The Ligne Bretagne catalog is no longer all sold out, as I've just added two new pipes, and there were three new Talbert Briars also... alas, two of them sold immediately, but there's still a quite nice natural-finish sandblast available. Full info can be found on the News page.

Today's pipe photo is what you get when you create a multi-exposure of all of the 2005 Talbert Halloween pipe photos. Creepy. Could this be foreshadowing? I'll never say.

So, to continue on with the grading discussion - Where does it come from? I've already talked about why grades exist and the problems with grading, but haven't yet addressed just how these numbers and stamps are chosen. There's a good reason for this - Namely, that pipe collectors probably don't really want to know just how arbitrary the application of grades can be!

How many times are Ebay pipes described as "undergraded"? Isn't it interesting that none are ever "overgraded"? Where do we get these numbers? Aren't continual hypothetical questions annoying? But seriously... Grading scales don't emerge fully mature and perfect from the Elysium Fields; rather, they birth like vaguely-formed amoeba and mutate over the course of their lives to encompass all sorts of mutually exclusive ideas until eventually their whole framework collapses under the weight of their obfuscation. Some collectors absolutely love this - They live for the collection of trivia, and shiver in anticipation of each new nugget of information to add to their Total Pipe Trivia Package - an encyclopedic knowledge of strange stamps and limited editions that the makers themselves have long forgotten.

I got my grading setup in a very typical way. I started out with a simple division of smooths and sandblasts, and then learned very quickly that not all pipes are created equal in terms of grain, and prices must reflect this. Thus, the grading scale of 1 to 5 was born. All pipemakers like to have some sort of super ultra-high grade as well, and thus I dreamed up my M grade. This was fine for a while. It rapidly became apparent, however, that some of the shapes I like to carve were just too labor-intensive for my standard prices. How to price a complex shape with decent grain versus a simple shape with exceptional grain? Obviously, I needed a whole new grading scale to compensate for pipes with extra hours in them, so I created the Signature grade. And, of course, there are the limited edition pipes, the Talbert Yule pipes and Halloween pipes floating around. I'm just one guy and this is already overcomplicated, so one can see how people write entire books around deciphering Dunhill stamping.

But... HOW are grades assigned? Everyone has different methods. Some actually count sandspots and rank accordingly (A method for the masochistic, as someone is almost certain to eventually find a miscount and pitch a fit), some rank by grain quality, by size, etc. All of these methods have their weak points - Does incredibly stunning grain make a pipe with several sandpits worth more than a pipe with OK grain but a perfectly flawless surface? It's hard to lay the laws down in stone, and at this point we get vague, because I can say definitely that in the course of my career I have both undergraded and overgraded pipes. But that latter didn't arise from greed or cackling malice - instead, the rare times it's happened were usually just from mood. One finishes a difficult pipe and it comes out much better than anticipated. One is in a really good mood about this, very enthused, and thinks, "Yes, this is definitely a grade X". Then later, looking back more objectively, one thinks, "Hmm, that probably should have been one rank lower after all."

Much more common is undergrading, the case where you just can't decide what grade a pipe should be. My norm is to round down, which is to say, when I just can't quite decide, I mark the pipe to the lower of the grades in question. Such is the case with the natural Talbert blast in the catalog right now. A lot of people will automatically grade anything that can be left unstained at their highest, and that's a very nice pipe, but I wish the blasting could have been a bit deeper... I wish the briar had been a little more cooperative, and not quite so rock hard (A common problem with extremely old blocks). Ergo, I settled on a grade 3 instead of 4.

The key point here is that grades are based on some pretty vague keystones - the emotion of the moment (People with stamps are still only human), the enthusiasm for a particular piece, and a generalized set of guidelines for how the pipes are stepped. All pipemakers do their best to be as consistent as possible, but the reality is that sometimes it's just a roll of the dice that separates 300 € from 400 €.

Next time I'm going to talk about what's good about grading...!

Oh, and in case anyone is curious, I grade Talbert Sandblasts by the following exacting criteria:

1 - I don't make them because no one wants to buy them.

2 - The catch-all grade for good, well-crafted pipes that don't have really outstanding features of one sort or another (grain, usually).

3 - Excellent pipes with really nice grain, fun shapes, etc... Just overall what I think of as "better than usual". Any natural finish is automatically a grade 3 at least.

4 - Stunners. The pipes that you HAVE to have, that are just really exceptional looking. Grain, shape, over all, the best.

5 - A virtually mythical grade never produced in normal work. This is reserved for the sandblasts that I can't believe even exist - combinations of striking shape and amazing grain that would inspire even me to spend 700 € on one, and that's saying something.

So, there's my own grading breakdown in a nutshell! Highly technical, eh?