News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
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Saturday, September 29, 2007

New stain, Better pics

I wasn't very pleased by the photographic results of those last shots from the workshop, so today I took advantage of the natural light out in the retail smoking lounge and snapped some considerably better photos of the new stain for sandblasts. I'd like feedback on this, as I'm likely to start finishing a fair number of pipes this way and I'd like to know beforehand if everyone hates it. It's a very subtle two-tone, with a color shift from a medium mahogany red in the recesses to yellow-gold on the highlights, with a semi-matte finish. I like it, but it does require some work, whereas just leaving a pipe unstained is of course zero labor, so I suppose the question is whether anyone else thinks it looks decent or not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Great Disconnect

Et voilĂ ! In the pics above, one can see the first finished result of my sandblast staining experiments from a previous post. This pipe was done in the same method as the sample at the very bottom. It will be in the next Talbert Briar catalog update (some ways off yet) unless it sells in the meantime from these preview shots (It's a grade 4, 515 €). I'm mostly pleased with it - The coloration is JUST present enough so that the rings are further highlighted and the flow of the grain is apparent, without looking garish. Granted, it's MUCH easier to just leave a high-grade sandblast unstained, but I think this adds just a tiny bit more visual interest without compromising the "natural, virgin, see-there-are-no-hidden-flaws-here" look.

I got today's topic title from a throwaway comment on the pipemaking forum, in regards to the sometimes bizarre disconnection between the popular ideas of how pipes should be made versus how they're actually made. I don't want to make this post ten miles long by listing lots of examples, but let's consider one cherished chestnut:

Proper pipes should only be finished with carnuba wax.

In wandering through Rheinbach and looking at hundreds of the best high grade pipes available, I saw hardly any that were finished with just carnuba. In fact, finishing a pipe with just carnuba invites all sorts of problems - The stain can easily rub off or smear, the pipe will go sticky through the first smoke, and will be dull and smudgy thereafter. Carnuba wax has no resistance to heat and dissolves immediately in use. Aniline stain contains no inherent adhesiveness of its own - You can paint it on and wipe it right back off if it isn't somehow "stuck" in place. All of the best German, Danish, and even many American pipemakers utilize some sort of sanding sealer or washcoat to help keep their stain in place and looking good through years of use. This doesn't "seal" the wood at all, nor prevent it from "breathing" - Most of the finishes involved are natural themselves, so it's really odd that somehow carnuba got to be the "natural finish" with group approval while the other natural finishes are viewed as suspect.

Oil, shellac, lacquer - These are all natural products, with shellac and many lacquers being derived from the edible (If you really wanted to!) secretions of the lac bug, and oil being taken from wood resins. None of these finishes causes a pipe to "smoke hot", as is so often claimed - I really feel for the many guys who have stripped off their pipe's finish in hope of improving its smoke, only to find themselves with dirty, constantly smudging and staining pipes. Also, the concept that pipes should only be waxed flies in the face of reality in the case of sandblasted and rusticated pipes, which no sane person would want to try to wax on a commercial basis (It IS possible, if liquid wax is applied and evenly, more or less, distributed over the bowl, but the gooey liquidity that results from heating this accumulation isn't the definition of desirable).

The weird thing is that, with the rise of the internet and greater community between pipesters, we now have a struggling new group of semi-pro pipemakers (See "Open source pipemaking" for more on this) who have derived their know-how entirely from the pipe club ideas of "The way it should be done" rather than the way it's best done. Having been one of them, I feel for their puzzlement out there as they wonder why their pipes go dull, and never seem to have the long lasting shine of a "name high grade".

The question is, how did we get to the point where we have an entire buying group that believes something totally wacky and incorrect? The situation could be compared to a driver holding the ferocious belief that to be a good car, a car must be powered by teams of racing hamsters under the hood. None of the cars on the road are, most people would not really want a car powered by racing hamsters, and yet the misconception persists.

I'll hazard a guess, though - While shellac and oil are lousy covers for fills, various thicker surface glosses are excellent at disguising such faults. Factories doing volume business need some way to help hide their less-ideal production, and applying a strong even gloss over the surface can do it pretty decently. I suspect that over time, the mindset developed that everything even remotely able to disguise a fill's "glare difference" became suspect, and that probably got us to where we are today - that, plus the fact that thick surface finishes of this sort are subject to chipping, bubbling, and generally going ugly as time wears on them, as opposed to finishes that are part of the wood itself. The question, of course, is what the heck to do about it now, as the general buying public has this myth so firmly embedded in their minds that they reject any attempts to correct it - Hell, I'll probably lose a few potential buyers due to this post, because somebody out here will start spreading, "Teh Talb3rt usez shelak an thaz why all hiz pipe smok3 hott!!!"... while they happily puff on their equally "non PC-finished" Dunhills and Bangs and Barbis and what have you. At Rheinbach, a pipemaker I chatted with talked a bit about the lacquer he finished with, and added, "Of course, if anyone asks, I just use carnuba and nozeoil!"

And if anyone asks ME, my pipes are only finished with all-natural, distilled wax made from the pure milk of family-farm free-range cows that only drink from pure springwater and get milked by young blond girls named Heidi. :D

Friday, September 21, 2007


Biz Stuff - I posted a pile of new Talbert Briars and a pile of new Talbert Mortas to the site. Some of them have already sold to folks on our email list, but there are still some excellent pieces available. As I write this, Morta Classic #89 seems to be sold also. The two to really have, however, are the Talbert Briar "Fantasy Calabash" and the TB Gold Dublin, which is ideal for fans of larger-bowled featherweight pipes. Also, the Gold Dublin is a perfect example of the staining techniques I discussed in the last blog entry.

Today's pic is a preview of soon-to-be-posted pipes - A Ligne Bretagne Collector churchwarden and an ODA-sized Talbert Briar.

I've meant to write a blog article on pipe superstitions, and specifically pipeMAKING superstitions, for some time. I get reminded of this every time I go hunting through the workshop for our green magic marker, so I can mark a drill bit's stop-depth. Yes, 'tis true... I am in many ways horrendously superstitious about my craft. Let me count the ways...

The Green Pen: Green has been my favorite color since I was a child. Later, when I got into painting, I read a good bit on color theory and color psychology as it pertained to human moods. Green feels natural - It's the color of grass and freedom and creativity, and every artist could do worse than to surround themselves with green "stuff". In my case, I have the Green Pen always on hand. It's a Sharpie permanent marker that I use to do, well, nearly everything... I draw rough pipe outlines on blocks with it and I do ALL of my drill bit marking with it. I do mean all. I will hunt the workshop for hours looking for the green marker, eschewing a can full of black, blue, and red markers, all because I have developed this pathological idea that if I mark my bit depths in green, the drilling will be good, but other colors are likely to go astray. This is only reinforced by the fact that the green markings nearly always DO come out ideally. Obviously, this works. The green pen has a companion, also -

The Green Pencil: I have a green technical drawing pencil that I use sometimes to sketch out pipe designs in advance. I don't want to use anything but this pencil. With this pencil, I have done the vague, barely identifiable scribbles that went on to become all of my most popular pipes. I've got a box full of a good hundred pencils of all shapes and sizes. I use one.

Beware of Doctor Mood Swing: I'm very sensitive to my own moods when I work on pipes. I have the vague, unpleasant fear that if I work on a pipe in a bad mood, that feeling will somehow transfer into the pipe itself, and it will become a bad pipe. This makes daily work oodles of fun, given the usual sorts of bother and irritation that we face in normal life. But, I've adapted and overcome via the wonders of work shuffling - If I start getting really annoyed by a particular pipe, I go and do a billiard (or other classical shape). This has become a mantra of our workshop: "Go make a billiard." The reason is that I don't invest emotion into classical shapes. I eye them carefully and pay close attention to keeping them balanced and as visually elegant as I can, but they don't bear the weight of, "Will this end up looking stupid?" that original freehands carry. They're guaranteed. I KNOW the end result will be attractive and practical, so I can work without stressing, which gets me back into a better frame of mind, so I can then return to working on the difficult freehand that isn't quite sure where it's going yet. In my mind, there is a firm chain of connection: Good Attitude > Good Work > Good Pipes.

The Lathe Cutter wants to Kill Me: Most of the other tools in the shop view me with either benign indifference or annoyance that I haven't oiled them lately, but my drawer full of metal cutting tools all want to kill me. Or at least maim as badly as possible. I'm positively paranoid about always removing the cutting tools from the metal lathe's tool post when I'm not using them, because in my experience, if I leave a sharp tool in the post, I will be tugging on something or twisting something or otherwise engaged, and as if by magic, my hand will slip off and wham into the cutting tool for a new slice. This will happen even if I'm on the opposite side of the workshop - I'm convinced that I could be draining the compressor and if my hand slipped, I'd be dragged a solid fifteen feet until I slammed it on the tool post.

I think that's enough for now...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Really Ugly

Today's pic is a quick group shot of some of the new pipes that will be appearing on the website shortly, probably tomorrow, once they're joined by a couple of late arrivals. I'll finally have new pipes available in all three catalogs again!

Good heavens, this has been a busy late summer! If only more of that activity had actually involved making money... I've been spending a lot of time recently experimenting and trying new techniques to improve my work. The new smooths and sandblasts in this next website update will be some of the first results of all this fiddling, and they'll all sport what I hope will be improved color and finish quality.

But one doesn't get this stuff easy! There comes a point where it starts to require more and more labor just to gain a tiny extra bit of knowledge. Learning is easy absorption in the beginning, but eventually turns to huge amounts of work for tiny improvements over the years. Still, I think this sort of "shake up" is crucial to the survival and thriving health of any craftsman's work - I wouldn't want to ever hit a plateau where there was nothing left to learn and play with.

I thought I'd at least post some of these experiments, for amusement's sake as much as anything, as an example of just how many poor results one must contend with to find those rare excellent solutions. All of the pics below are variations of ways to stain sandblasted finishes - They are combinations of stains on test surfaces. Some work, some obviously do not...

First up is this, a yellow/gold highlight over black recess staining. I've never liked having to buff down all the edges of my blasts to show ring contrast, so I've developed different methods of contrast staining that enhance the depth contrast while leaving the edges bare. This one came out pretty well. The yellow doesn't go green (a common problem) and the contrast is strong and clear.

Here's a variant of same, using an orange top stain rather than yellow (and a less-fine blasting media). Another nice result, with clear difference between colors and no annoying blending. And then there was this:

Yowza! It's a stronger orange over black, and got dubbed the "Bumblebee Finish" because the contrast of the colors is so strong and the orange is so..... ORANGE. I think it looks great fun, though I don't know if it would actually sell, not to mention the fact that this is only a test slice, and such a combo could well be quite overpowering on a whole pipe. We'll see...

This one was a disappointment. I'd hoped for a nice golden red contrast, but the yellow so totally overpowered the red contrast stain that it ended up a murky mess that looks worse in real life than in this pic. We called it "egg-drop soup" and moved on.

The above test was considerably uglier. The yellow overpowered the black and dried very opaque, yet there's still enough color combining to make it look murkily pea green when seen from the right angles and in the right light. Moving on...

This one's done the same, yet with a yellow/orange color blend to help counteract the greening effect, and a diluted mix to let the understaining show through better. It makes a strong contrast, but the color is unpleasantly suggestive of baby excretions.

Much better! I wanted a coloration that could be used on the best specimens, the pipes that didn't need dark staining. They can always be left unstained, but I wanted to play around with ways of giving them just a little color while enhancing the contrast between ring edges and depths. The yellow is still a bit strong, but another trip round the block produced this:

Very subtle depth-to-edge contrast enhancement, beautiful color, and the added benefit of nicely showing the actual flame grain of the wood under the sandblasted surface. We'll see how it looks on a pipe one of these days...

And it's as simple as that! (Not counting the other ten slices I didn't have room to show, nor considering the next question of what effects different finishes would have on the colors of the different stains....)