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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Great Disconnect






Et voilà! 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