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Friday, June 29, 2007

Sandblasts = Flawed?

Biz News - I just posted two new sandblasted Talbert Briars last night. One is already sold, but there's a big freehand remaining, and I still have a few Talbert Mortas and Ligne Bretagnes in stock. I doubt there will be many more of either posted in July, as I'll be making almost entirely Talbert Briars for the Rheinbach show.

A number of pipe collectors believe sandblasts are innately flawed, and seconds in comparison to smooths. I don't believe this, obviously, as I very much enjoy sandblasted surfaces, but I'll go one further and say that I think sandblasts are actually more likely to be free of potentially dangerous flaws than smooth pipes are. Yes, they had minor surface pits which caused them to be blasted, but the process of blasting exposes a much greater surface area, especially if it's done deeply, and offers greater chances of uncovering anything dastardly that might be lurking just under that shiny exterior.

Consider the pic above. Yep, I had yet another discard. This was the prototype stummel for the new Walrus shape that everyone else thinks looks like a whale. The stummel seemed very nearly flawless - In fact, it was a close thing as to whether it would be sandblasted or not. The surface only showed a few minor pits that might be eliminated with some sanding. But, I am lazy - I do not hold my tendency to sandblast everything as any great indicator of personal perfectionism regarding briar flaws, but rather a total lack of interest in (and annoyance with) the usual methods required to hide or camouflage the tiny surface spots that appear on almost all briar. I enjoy the process of blasting, and prefer to do it given virtually any excuse. In this case, I unfortunately left the blasting until later. I shaped the stummel, had it fitted with a stem, and it was essentially finished but for blasting and staining when I began to uncover "the flaw" in the sandblasting cabinet. What resembled on the smooth surface a small sandpit defect widened under sandblasting, and also deepened... and kept deepening! You will have to enlarge the photo above to see the problem, and I have a thin red line draw on the picture just under the long black line in the wood - a black fissure which was about 1cm wide and which ran from just below the outer surface to apparently mere millimeters from the bowl wall. The inner bowl wall was perfectly clean and innocent to see, but the wall thickness in the hollowed crevice above was down to about .5cm and the flaw is still clearly visible.


The irony that the pipe could have been finished as a smooth, showing only the minor dot of the outer part of this fissure, is not lost on me. But again, this makes my point - Sandblasts may be considered "seconds", but they are actually more likely to be free of major defects than smooths can be, because potential problems show more readily during blasting.

In the end, I lost a day's working time but gained a three-dimensional model for future Walruses (Walrii?). I'd love to see a herd of these things together someday.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

When Briar Attacks

Biz Stuff - I just finished a nice website update, posting new Talbert Briars, new Talbert Mortas, and a new Ligne Bretagne Collector. Some of these pipes were already on the site, having been uploaded individually over the past few days.

I work with very good quality briar, so generally I don't have a lot of discards. However, it has been a long time since the last catalog update for a reason - I just ran through four discards in a row, three of which were near to being finished pipes. As a group, they illustrate several interesting points about pipes and pipemaking.

The long and slinky freehand calabash-ey shape in the pic was a real tragedy - It had fantastic grain, a great shape, and some amazing bird's-eye on display across the front. This was one where I shaped the pipe first and then drilled the bowl, because the grain of the block was so extraordinary that I had hopes for a very high-grade smooth. Unfortunately, after drilling and moving on into the fine sanding stages, I uncovered a small sandpit that grew... and grew. I kept sanding down trying to get rid of the thing because it was near the bottom of the bowl on the back side, but it just hung in there. When I finally sanded past it, I worried for the bowl, and the calipers told the story - too thin. In fact, the wall where the spot was had become so thin that you can actually see light shining through the wood if you hold it under a bright lamp!

And then there is THIS piece -
Another pipe that was rough-shaped prior to drilling to ensure that the bowl alignment perfectly matched the direction of the wonderfully straight grain. It also had good odds of being a high grade smooth, and all looked well.... Until, once more, the final stages of sanding! Note the size of the green pin in the picture here. Now, note how much of the pin has sunk into the tiny, narrow little split that appeared on the side of the pipe during further sanding!

Shaping the pipe before drilling is often promoted as a safeguard against such problems, but as you can see, it's still quite possible to waste a lot of working time and still end up throwing a pipe out. For myself, I mix and match - I don't stick strictly to one specific method for shaping and drilling, but instead use different techniques depending on my goals and impressions of the specific block. Any given pipe might be lathe drilled, press drilled, drilled on the big drilling rig, or freehand drilled. While shaping the pipe before drilling helps you to avoid obvious flaws and especially grain deficiencies, you're left investing a good chunk of work into a stummel which could end up exposing hidden flaws during drilling, after you've already worked out the whole design.

Like this, for instance...

In this case, the grain in the block was diagonal so I simply drilled the bowl at an angle with the grain, and found myself looking at an amazing internal split in the briar about as long as my fingernail's width. But, at least a lot of work wasn't wasted on this one! Another for the junk heap. Although, it does bring up one subject which has often rankled me - There are people who like bowl coatings and people who don't like them, and that is all well and good, but there is also a class of people who actively promote the idea that coatings are used to hide flaws in briar, and this is stunningly insulting. I could easily putty in that split and coat over it and no one would be the wiser, but instead it is going into the trash (Though I'd be happy to throw it at the head of the next guy I see going on about, "Coatings are just used to hide flaws.") I have a whole basket of similar discards accumulated over the years that I could have turned into money if putting coatings into bowls was about flaw-hiding - It's an easy break-in and protection issue only, no more.

So, after four discards, I hope I've used up my bad luck for a while to come!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Cold War

Biz News - I've just posted a bunch of new pipes over the past week. Some are already sold, but there are still plenty available! Posted are a number of new Ligne Bretagnes, including many of our popular Canadian shape (Several in smooth natural finish, no less!) and some new Talbert Mortas, including a large sandblasted Signature grade piece that sold almost instantly.

Today's pic is an example of how I use my Taig mini lathe as a handy stem mount while filing handcut stems. It lets me avoid holding the stem in my hand, helping guard against carpal tunnel problems in future.

There is a Cold War taking place in the pipe hobby, and it isn't doing us any good. Anyone who has spent any time around pipe forums has surely seen threads with titles like these:


X brand pipes have fills!

Bad experience with company X

And so on. These threads, often ill-thought, are nearly always the result of buyers angry over some perceived, possibly misunderstood, problem, who believe they are doing the community a favor by alerting them to the dangers of some insidious crooked business. And indeed, there have been a few crooks in the pipe biz in the past, so this can occasionally serve a good purpose. However, FAR more often, it's considerably more damaging (pointlessly) than it is accurate. In the majority of these cases that I have seen, the problems were simple, and could nearly always have been remedied by the customer contacting the vendor directly before venting their anger to a public forum. Because that's the problem, see..... The mantra of, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" is ingrained in everyone's consciousness, and even when dubious claims and complaints are publicly exposed to be false, the memory lingers on in the minds of everyone who read the thread.

And the pipe community is a pretty small and tight one, so one bad word can impact a HUGE slice of the buying audience.

This is the problem in a nutshell - The angry customer doesn't really realize that the vendor he's slandering is just another working guy like himself, trying to make enough to live on, and that a few bad words spoken in flame mode can have a sizable impact on small family businesses like those that make up so much of the pipe biz. Instead, he thinks, "EVERYONE knows about X brand tobacco, so they are a huge rich business, and I am going to show everyone just how crooked they are!" A couple of examples:

In recent years, a buyer purchased a high grade pipe (not from me) which proved to have an unseen internal fault in the shank that caused the shank to actually crack. Rather than seek remedy from the vendor of the pipe, said customer went immediately to the online messageboards and announced that pipemaker X used "rotten briar" - That it was obviously rotten and poor quality, and that the buyer was deceived.

In another case, a buyer purchased a pipe from a company which stakes its rep on using no fills. The buyer found what he believed was a fill, and immediately posted another "exposé" style thread on a public forum, alerting all potential buyers that said vendor was being deceitful in their advertising.

In both of these circumstances, the whole of the problem was simply down to the unpredictable quirkiness of briar. It's easily possible for briar to have internal flaws, unseen by the maker, that never show until the pipe has been in use enough to cause them to become evident. Selling a pipe with an unknown internal flaw is no example of "using rotten briar", nor is it evidence of deceptive business practices - It simply means the pipemaker could not see the potential problem during the creation. We're all aware of this, it happens, and every pipemaker I know would quickly repair or refund for such problems if they are addressed to the maker. Unfortunately, all too often the problem turns into a public torching of someone's very hard-earned reputation. The same was true in the case of purported fills - Briar really does have strange pulpy areas, naturally occurring, that can strikingly resemble fills and yet are not.

So how is this a Cold War? So far it sounds more like a shooting gallery with industry businesspeople as the targets. Well, it becomes a Cold War for the ill feeling generated - Pipemaker X isn't Sony, or some wealthy faceless business that pays no heed to public pillorying. Instead, pipemaker X - and everyone else in the pipe business - is an ordinary guy (or family). He watches these flame fests happen and gets pissed. As the saying goes, forgive your enemies, but remember their names. Vendors increasingly turn defensive, feeling under siege. Names of repeatedly difficult customers are shared, and we start working to avoid and isolate those buyers who believe the internet is their personal battleaxe, to be used as a weapon to bludgeon down businesses that they don't like.

It just plain isn't a fun situation.

Plus, defensive thinking dampens quality. I like making very thin stems, but when people bite through them - despite being warned in advance that they're thin for comfort, and best recommended for people who aren't heavy clenchers - and then tell others that the stems are "poor quality"... Well, I'll make them thicker next time. I won't be as happy with the work and other buyers may not be as happy either, but over the years I've increasingly seen online sellers forced to be more and more ass-covering in their relations with buyers, lest they wake up the next morning to find their name smeared all over some online forum for a problem they could easily have corrected had they even been told about it. Reckless attacks generate far more bad feeling than they're worth in almost every case. And so much of the Cold War could be avoided if people would only think twice.... If there is a problem, contact the seller of the pipe or tobacco. Almost always, they will make it right, end of story. Public shaming should be reserved strictly for those businesses that legitimately deserve it, that ignore complaints, that take payments and don't ship pipes, etc. There's a vast difference between the businesses (the majority) that stand behind their work and fix what's broke, and those that cash your checks and then don't answer phone calls.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Money talks!

Biz news - I've just added a very bizarre Signature grade Talbert Briar to the site, as well as some mortas that have nearly all sold between the time I added them and now.

Regarding today's photo, yes, my briar supply is guarded round the clock by a ferocious giant rat! Not to mention giant monster Iris from the recent Gamera movies. In fact, my entire workshop and office are a virtual cornucopia of odd toys.

Some time back, I mentioned the database that I had built, first in Excel and then later transported to OpenOffice. I use it to track the details of our pipe business, including production, taxes, profits, hours worked, and other details of the pipemaking trade. It has proven to be very handy for learning about the business of pipemaking, and especially for such murky bits as identifying the most (and least) profitable lines, times of the year, etc.

I had initially thought about simply posting the database file for other pipemakers to use. Over the years, I have watched several talented, promising pipemakers attempt the jump into full-time pipemaking with disastrous results... sometimes through lack of talent or marketability, but more often than not simply for lack of business (and especially accounting) experience. When you're not really sure if you're making money or not, you can't be sure of anything, and it's entirely too easy to fall into the trap where you feel like you're working all the time, every day, and never getting ahead. It sucks all the fun out of the work fast, so strange as it sounds, good accounting really does inject more fun into the pipemaking job rather than being a detraction as most might think. I know that providing this sort of "pipemaker's accounting tool" will take up a fair bit of my time, but I'm willing to sacrifice it if it will, in future, maybe possibly help keep some other artistic-yet-financially-challenged pipemaker from going bust.

However, in debating whether I wanted to get into this, I gave it a lot of thought. In the end, rather than simply providing a blank, ready-to-use database file with formulas in place, I've opted to post a series of threads on the Pipemakers' Forums explaining how to build such a file yourself. This was done for two reasons - the inevitability of the need for the file to be individually customized based on country, local tax laws, etc, and also for sheer self defense. While I am happy if I can genuinely help someone, experience has also taught me to be very leery of free handouts because they bring out the worst in people. Simply posting a blank file would almost certainly doom me to YEARS of the same emails over and over again, all from people who've downloaded the file on a whim and can't figure out how to use it, and most with little regard for my working time.... and, of course, you also get those people who actually rant or gripe at you for providing them a free thing, because they can't understand how to use it.

Instead, I've opted for a series of threads that I'll post which will show JPG screen caps of the different pages of my own database file, along with detailed instructions of what the various fields are, which formulas to enter where, and so on. It will require a lot of work and time for a pipemaker to build his own file, but then, it took me a longer time to build this one from scratch, and my hope is that making them build it themselves will handily winnow the field of interested parties quickly from, "Sure, yeah, I'll take a copy of that! Huh? How does this work?" down to the tiny handful of serious full-timers and hope-to-be full-timers who are really willing to learn. It's pipe bookkeeping via the philosophy of, "Give a man a match and he will be warm for a moment. Set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life."

So, for those who are interested in the world of actually making a livable living from pipemaking, check out these threads on the forum:

Thread 1: Setting up the various pages and Building the First Page

Thread 2: Building the Incoming Cash and Labor Costs page

I will gradually post more screen caps and instructions for the rest of the pages in the database over the coming weeks/months (?) based on how much free time I have, if any. I won't be touching on this any more in the blog, however, because I don't want to send readers away screaming like schoolgirls. Anyone who wants to follow the instructional posts will need to look for them on the forum as they appear.