News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Last big update of 2008

Biz News - As expected, December was a pretty quiet month here on the site, with no new pipe updates, but I'm making up for that now with a BIG pipe catalog posting to carry us into the new year. First up, we have a pair of new Ligne Bretagne Collectors, both handmade sandblasts with horn stems, and one of them is our last green pipe of 2008! Then there are also two new Morta Classics, a prince and a poker, for those folks who want to snap up a Talbert Morta made from Briére morta while they are still available. Finally, I've also posted our first new Talbert Briar in a long time, a beautiful new freehand of exotic shape, for the fans of our highest grade line. In other news, I'm about to go take out the Christmas-themed items from our Gift Shop, but I hope to replace them with some new and interesting goodies in the near future.

This is one of those classic examples of, "I really should have known better". Here it is five days past Christmas and I have yet to finish the first of the Christmas Ghost pipes, for which I currently have enough requests to keep me working until June... but who wants a Christmas pipe in summer? I've been away from the Halloween pipes too long, and should have remembered that if I even wanted six or seven for October, I had to start working in January. Still, this first one IS coming along beautifully, and looks to be every bit as disturbing and yet graceful as I had envisioned. Now it's just a question of digging in with a good audiobook (or three) on the headphones and listening my way through forty straight hours of detail sanding...

Since this will be my last blog post for 2008, I'd like to wish everyone a very happy New Year! 2008 was certainly a tough one for us, so we're looking forward with both anticipation and trepidation to 2009, which I hope will be a better year for everyone out there. Our very best wishes to all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all that stuff!

OK, I know this is terribly crude and simplistic and very "1994", but it's my first-ever attempt at doing an animated GIF and I just learned how to make them this afternoon, just for this project.

I wish everyone a wonderful and happy holiday season!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Away in a Madhouse

This little group project has now grown to the point that I thought I would share it here. I'm a mod/admin on a little forum called "The Pub Crawlers", which I've mentioned here before, which is a sort of catch-all-topics group of friendly sorts who share particular interests in pipes, Lovecraft, horror films, SF, fantasy, genre movies, Trek, etc. For a forum group project this holiday season, I proposed that we stick a Christmas tree on our forum logo banner, and then everyone in the group could contribute small pics of decorations or gifts or whatever else they found, to be added to the tree - making it our own "community-decorated" forum tree. From a simple, plain tree, it has grown a bit this month! Here it is in its current version:

I contributed Santa Cthulhu, while Emily provided the worried-looking Coraline ornament, and everyone else in the forum added the rest. It's still growing by the day, and I suspect the tree may not even be visible by the 25th. This is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraft fans are asked to make a Christmas card...!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pipe's Progress

Here are a few quick snapshots of the pipe I talked about briefly yesterday, where I posted a photo of it at an earlier stage. It's coming along startlingly well. I believe it was Mark Tinsky who once compared pipemaking to gold mining in the sense that one does not "clock in" to an hourly job, but rather one hunts and hunts for the few gems and nuggets that are most valuable. This definitely is!

It is not far from completion, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to nap a few more photos of it in unfinished state, before the final sanding and polishing occur.

Also, there are still decisions to make. This is a "shape strong" pipe, meaning that the shape is the star here, and there is plenty going on IN the shape, so even though the grain is pretty excellent, I do not intend to give it the sort of high-contrast grain staining that I might apply in other circumstances. While a simple billiard shape can be "jazzed up" via some strong black contrast stain, this pipe would just become raucous, with too many strong elements fighting for attention.
The choice now is between an even, all-over orange/yellow/red stain or just leaving it natural. The staining would show off the grain better, while leaving it unstained gives maximum prominence to the curves and shape of the pipe.

Decisions, decisions...

I should also mention that I don't yet know what I'm going to DO with it... Whether it will go up in the catalog or be shipped off to P&P or elsewhere. Fortunately, given that I'll probably spend a week of spare time sanding the thing, I'll have plenty of time to decide.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I never know what I'm doing

I just recently posted in the site news that there would probably be no new Talberts posted this month due to the work on the Ghost pipes, but here is one on the way! The Ghost work has been fun yet incredibly stressful and frustrating for all the same reasons the Halloween pipes were (the stress of needing cash for bills NOW and looking at a half-finished pipe that won't be done for another week and a half, at minimum...) While waiting for a couple of stummels to dry after boiling, I took advantage of the time and roughed out a new Talbert Briar freehand. If the grain is any indication, it should be a damned nice piece when it's done, assuming it doesn't develop some disastrous flaw in the final stages. Never planned for it, but it's a nice diversion! (Speaking of diversions, there will be another couple of LB Collectors coming along eventually, also)

People ask me what I'm planning for the next month and what will be available. I don't know what I'll be working on tomorrow... (But I do know that at least three quarters of every day is being devoted to Christmas Ghosts, which at this point are more likely to all be January Ghosts)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What's on the burner

December is going to be a very quiet month on the website. I have requests piled up for the Talbert Briar Christmas Ghosts, enough to probably take up all my time right through January, so I don't expect to have many new pipes appearing on the site (except maybe for a new Goblin here and there). We did finish up this bamboo-shanked morta the other day for a request, but unfortunately the sale fell through and it's now sitting around until I can decide what to do with it (Options are to either photo & post it to the site catalog here, or send it over to Pipe & Pint, who have no mortas in stock now). I'm trying to finish up another Goblin in/around the Ghosts, and may photo this morta with it. Until then, if you're interested in this morta, just email me. Note - This pipe is now sold. As I mentioned in a previous post, we are ceasing production of the locally-harvested Briére morta pipes, of which this is one, and just using up the last of our morta stock until it is exhausted. Once it's gone, it's gone!

These three stummels are another running side-project. When I'm spending day after day doing detailed carving on complex designs, I try to stack up time-consuming work on the side, letting things dry, soak, boil, heat, etc, so they'll be ready to go when I can get to them. That's how it is with these three - I have a request for a billiard created with the curing treatment I discussed in a previous post, and I wanted to do several LB pipes this way and have them heating and drying alongside my regular daily work.

The two in back have already started getting their very-deep grain contrast staining, even at this stage with much sanding and shaping still to do. The front one is going to be a natural, however, and it shows off a nice side effect of this briar treatment process - the visual enhancement of the briar's natural growth rings, even on a smooth pipe. It's striking how visible the ring pattern is.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Talbert Shirts and Gifts now open

Biz News - Two new Goblins and one new Talbert Briar! There are also several new Ligne Bretagnes, including a seasonal churchwarden sandblast. And then there's the subject of this blog post....

We have a clothing & gift shop! It's a minor affair, and pretty basic in selection, but you can now check out a starting collection of Talbert Pipes shirts, hats, and various other goodies in our new Café Press webshop. The shirts and coasters all showcase our snazzy new logo, recently redesigned by myself. I was perfectly happy with the old one but did feel its muted colors weren't quite accurate for us, so the basic design has been reworked into a newer, somewhat more "graphic novel"-ish look, and the coloring has been reworked to showcase all the colors of Autumn, my favorite season.

Probably of more interest to general pipe folks, I've also posted some "all purpose" pipe smoker shirts, hats, and other gear. We have a seasonal Christmas card pack (more on that in a sec) plus all sorts of fun pipe-ish gifts for the pipe connoisseur of your household. A Talbert Pipes shirt, a Smoking Zone hat, and a Goblin wall calendar should make great stocking stuffers this holiday season! Everything is priced in USD and ships from within the US, so American customers can expect to get their goodies pretty quickly and international customers can get things in time for Christmas if they order within the next week or two.

Why are we doing this? For fun, really. Café Press prints the items as they are sold and handles all the billing, shipping, and guarantees, while we collect a (very) small slice of profit for the use of our logo and other graphics. I don't have much control over the pricing so please don't complain to me if you think such-and-such is too expensive - odds are that we're only making a buck or so out of an item's total price, and I seriously doubt that any of this stuff is going to sell in the millions of quantities it would require to make us rich. I will be quite happy if the gift shop can just manage enough sales to buy me a free pizza each month, and it will probably be unlikely to even achieve that. What it does do, however, is provide some fun gift items and surprise presents for our collectors and fans, and it will also be a handy source of stock for us when we're off to shows and need "stuff for the table". Who could resist a mousepad like this?

It will also give me a chance, time permitting, to play around a bit with some "pipe art", posters, and other artistic pursuits, with a convenient sales outlet ready-to-go for whatever I can produce. I plan of shuffling the inventory OFTEN, assuming anything sells at all, so expect items to vanish and be replaced by different items and different logos over time. This opening offering is pretty simple, just what I have been able to put together in recent weeks in my spare time, and I hope to do better once I can relax and focus on one picture at a time instead of having to get a dozen finished at once. In particular, the current Christmas card is likely to change within the next week. I think it's OK as it is but there are things on it I'd like to change and tweak, so it will probably be updated or totally replaced.

Aside from the new pipes and this new shop, there have been a few other subtle changes on the site. Emily has started learning her Gimp and HTML so she can do more site work (giving me more time in the workshop), and her first project has been to (finally!) fix the menu buttons on the home page and in all the menu bars. After something like four years, the little buttons all light up properly again, and the text graphics have been reworked to match our new logo in color and style, while being darker and sharper for easier reading. Also, I dropped Yahoo as our website search engine after they unceremoniously broke the code that I had been using. The site search is now Google-powered, like the rest of the universe. Em is currently reworking the link graphics in the "Life in France" section, and will eventually have the whole site unified to one graphical look, assuming she doesn't explode first. One last item of note - The "Pipe Resources" pages will partly be going away. I'll leave the links, but a bunch of the workshop pages are now so old and outdated that they're just clutter, and the whole idea of that site section has been superseded by this blog.

That's it for now, back to the shop!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ghost of an Idea

I mentioned in my last email notice that I had a speck of an idea floating at the back of my mind. In the US, we tend to focus all our horror and fantasy-oriented projects around October, culminating in Halloween, but I've been amused and entertained since moving to France, to learn that Britain has a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories. In fact, the BBC is more likely to air haunting films across the twelve days of Christmas than they are Halloween night!

I think it's fitting - Christmas is a time of joy (in theory), but it's also a little bit scary and creepy, especially for those of us who grew up loving the story of Scrooge and his all-night haunting. With that in mind, I decided to see if I could create a few Talbert Briar "Christmas Ghosts" this year. I want them to be a bit different from the Halloween pipes, more suggested horror than overt - a theme that's proving to be an exciting design challenge.

Here are a few of the first sketches of what I have in mind for one single pipe idea. I don't know how many I'll make - as many as I have time for and seem likely to sell - and I don't know how much they'll cost (but unlike the Goblins, they will be genuine Talbert Briars, handmade right here from end to end, and probably falling into the category of, "If you have to ask..."). If I could sum up this first idea, I'd call it, "Something very disturbing under a sheet." Among the various derivations, the top left and the bottom right drawing are my favorites, and I'm especially taken with the extra-long wrap-around nail for both disturbing and practical reasons.

We'll see where it goes....

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rough Sailing

Biz News - There is one new Goblin posted, finally! More to come, I promise. Also, I recently posted the fiftieth Ligne Bretagne pipe for 2008. I can't believe I've made fifty LBs this year!

Here you can see some scans of a few sketches I've made for this year's batch of Goblins. Ideas range all over, from the cute to the decidedly sinister (The pipe in the top sketch is more likely to become a Talbert Halloween pipe than a Goblin). The little fat creature with legs reminds me of something from a Miyazaki film. Several sketches can be seen as completed pipes in the photo below, showing the three most recent pipes in the final stages of their finishing. Alas, only one of them is currently finished and posted - BOTH of the others have been unbelievably fussy and problematic and appear determined to fight to the last against ever being finished. Yet more are in the pipeline, though, and I hope the newer ones will be more pleasant (and at this rate, they may be done before these trouble-prone ones are!). The sad part for me is that now it is virtually impossible that any of the new Goblins will be done and posted before Halloween, when I had hoped to be posting new Goblins every few days for the last half of this month.

This month..... Gads, this year. What a horrible year this has been, easily the worst since the year of continual disasters (which actually lasted about 2.5 years) following our move to France. It already seems certain that 2008 will be another year of no Christmas presents, this time not for each other nor anyone else we know, sadly. Unfortunately, the news of the world suggests it's going to be a while before things get any better - There's nothing like trying to hold to your standards and create a high-end luxury item during times when everyone is ducking and running for cover as banks and financial pillars crumble left and right. I'm left to wonder how Alfred Dunhill felt during the war, except that today, it looks like bank foreclosures rather than German bombs that will force us all out onto the streets to sell pipes from fold-out tables.

Now that I've gotten a few Ligne Bretagnes into stock, once these current Goblins are finished, the next big project I want to tackle will be more Talbert Briars - nice Talbert Briars, some quality examples of the best work I can do.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Halloween Pipe that wasn't

There's another Goblin posted. As I write this, it has already sold in-between the time that I posted the catalog page update and wrote the brief News page update to announce its arrival. I realize that must seem like an awfully pitiful product for a week of work - one single Goblin - but words fail to describe what a financially disastrous week this has been, in terms of both money and lost working time.

In the pic to the left, you can see a Halloween pipe that might have been - Something I've been working on in hopes of posting this month. I've still got another couple rough-shaped, but I don't think my odds are great of getting them done in time. This discarded one is a classic example of the sort of hidden faults that can lurk inside of any briar block, no matter how "perfect" or "flawless" the exterior might be. This is also a great example of why I've often said that for all the fluff about sandblasts being "inherently flawed", they are actually much more likely to be structurally flawless than smooths, because these kinds of epic, "just under the surface" failures would be exposed and seen rather than lying in wait.

This pipe looked flawless. The briar was excellent quality, pits were minor to nonexistent, and it gave no indications that it might have any serious problems. The design idea was to make a more complex, more sophisticated, and generally more creepy version of some of the "walking" Goblins, but in full Talbert Briar Halloween complexity, with a curling, scorpion-like tail stem, hand-shaped to arachnid design, with detailed legs paused in motion, one raised to move forward. It would have been smooth and very black, with a massively deep contrast-black stain that I've been working on and have dubbed "Sinestre"- very dark yet still with contrast enough for visible grain.

Unfortunately, while sanding the front of the bowl round, after much carving and shaping, I exposed a small pit. More sanding enlarged it, and within about 2mm of sanding, it opened into a fissure within the wood which could swallow most of a test needle. So much for that pipe! This sort of dramatic briar flaw means days of lost labor, a 700+ euro hole punched in the month's income, and the general desire to hurl things across the shop. Grrr. One can only hope next week will be better!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Goblins do Facebook

Biz News - I've posted several new pipes to the site in the past couple of days, including some new Ligne Bretagnes (including one Collector-grade poker) and this October's first Goblins. More will be arriving very soon!

Today's photo is a sneak preview pic of the next Goblin that will be hitting the catalog in a day or two. I'm trying to schedule the work on them in sync so I can post a few at a time together, but so far am not having much luck with it, and always seem to have one that's near done and three others that still need work. They'll be going up from now until Halloween, though, so watch the Goblin catalog page for new postings.

Rollicking times these days, eh? I'm sure that like most artisan pipemakers now, we're crossing our fingers and hoping we can make it through this current economic crisis, that always seems to hit the little people the hardest while the Wall Street crowd float away on their golden parachutes. All I can do is give a heartfelt plea to all the pipe folks out there to please help support our artisan community now, as best you're able, because times are most certainly tough. I suspect we'll be seeing more than a few makers pull out of the biz for better pastures in the weeks and months to come.

But in other ways, the wretched state of the world economy has actually helped us - after years of being abnormally high compared to the devalued USD, the euro has finally started to fall a good bit, making our pipes MUCH more friendly in pricing to US collectors. What was $628+ only a few months ago is now $540, a whopping savings! The change is all the way through the lines - even the Ligne Bretagnes benefit with USD costs falling from $190 to $160 or less. So, hooray for falling currency values ;) I hope we'll be able to stir up some more (and new) business in the states again soon, after virtually having to abandon the market there for lack of pricing flexibility due to the high euro. I'll be happy if we can - While I'm pleased that our market is now much more worldwide, with collectors all over the globe, the US is still near and dear to my heart and it's been intensely frustrating being at such a competitive disadvantage. I've always prided myself on making a damned good pipe for the money at every price level we sell in, and having the table stacked against me has not been fun.

Finally, a few of you had some early warning that Goblins were about to be posted if you were following my Facebook profile. Facebook has apparently exploded with activity affecting me in the past month - I've had an account on there for about a year now, and there was NOBODY on there that I knew. It seemed like a completely pointless exercise, and I never bothered to update my profile or keep track of it. Now, suddenly, it seems that my entire high school has joined and all started contacting me, plus numerous pipe folks (making for an eclectic group of friends to be sure!). Due to this activity, I finally went in and added photos to my profile, and have started actively updating it. So, if you're interested in what we're up to here at Ye Olde Talbert Workshop, just add me as a friend on Facebook and you can follow up-to-the-minute notices on what's happening. Of course, there's a fair bit of ordinary life stuff mixed with the pipe stuff, but curious parties can see a bit of Brittany, some of the places we've been, and even follow what I'm reading now via my profile's "Virtual Bookshelf", where I'll be posting my own reviews of my daily reading.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Still around!

We are still alive! Albeit, just barely, in my case - I came down with the flu last week in the middle of finishing up the last of the group pipes, and am still slogging along with intermittent fever, sore throat, cough, and general blah. I realize the blog has been awfully silent for a long time, and I hope to redress that in the weeks to come. For now, I'll hop through a few quick news items:

* The group pipes are done! Those, and various other side projects, have kept me busy for the last month or more, and I look forward to working on some very different pipe ideas now. As of today, the discount deal for the group pipe shapes is ended. I had a good time making them, but it's going to be a while before I want to do any more of these shapes again!

* October is upon us, and this means Goblins.... Yes, Goblin fans may want to start checking the site regularly, starting next week. The little beasties will be running wild for the next month...

* The other day, our mailing list software apparently did a mass clean & purge of expired email addresses - I received an email that a large number of emails had been removed from the list due to excessive bounces or delivery failures. Shortly thereafter, I began to receive some inquiries from worried folks who had received notice that they had been unsubscribed from our email list. If you have received such a notice, your email was removed from the mailing list - probably your ISP has been filtering or bouncing the list emails as suspect spam, or perhaps there are other reasons. If you want to continue to receive our email notices, let me know by email so that I can re-add you to the mailing list if needed.

Look for new pipes on the website soon! Finally!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Staining Fun, and one available Bullhorn

We're still working on the Israeli pipes here, but are very close to finishing up that project and should soon be back to our normal output. I have managed to produce one extra Bullhorn for sale, however, if anyone is interested. Like the mortas of last week's blog notice, it's a sideline piece that I haven't really decided what to do with yet...
Note - This pipe is now SOLD

In other news, one of many side-projects that I've been pursuing is coming to fruition - that of working out the steps of my own personal contrast staining techniques using natural, easily obtainable materials instead of some of the complex chemicals that are often used for this purpose. It's actually quite similar to a process currently being discussed on the Pipemakers' Forum, but using slightly different ingredients and an extra step to help curtail the "greening" effect that often occurs when gold colors are applied over blue-black grain contrasts. Here's an example:

It isn't as sharply gold & black as Tom Eltang's finish, but I didn't set out to copy his techniques in any event, rather to work out my own personal methods. I think it produces a really nice effect overall, especially with the three-dimensional aspect of the grain (This sample is perfectly flat and glossy, even though parts appear shadowed and textured). Look for this finish to start turning up on Talbert Briars in future - Between the improved stains and some changes in finishing techniques, I believe the smooth Talberts will be improving by a quantum leap in attractiveness.

... And then there is the other side project, developing some perfect greens! Somewhere, the rule was written that all high grade pipes must be either natural, gold-orange, red, brown or black, with no other colors allowed (Probably out of fear of being confused with the myriads of candy-colored factory pipes on the market, all of which are somehow supposed to attract "youthful buyers" with their neon-zebra striped coloring). I think I've managed to take some serious chips out of this rule with some of the variations of green that I've been selling over the past few years, and I hope to make an even bigger impact in the year to come. My goals are simple - a range of green finishes that display grain excellently, that have visual impact, that retain their depth of contrast for the life of the pipe, and that have much greater visual depth and complexity than the commonly-seen bright greens of gimmick pipes. Here's one of the current test strips:

I think it looks quite nice, with really strong contrast in the grain and an attractively rich green shade. I look forward to seeing some smooth finished Talberts in this color. I've also continued to work on my ideal green-brown, earth-toned green, but it doesn't scan nearly as impressively despite looking "richer" to the eye - It doesn't have the strong contrast between bright colors and black that these two do, so it seems to be a bit of a wallflower by direct comparison.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Wandering Mortas

We continue to be extremely busy with group pipes and orders, but in and around the fringes of the main work, I managed to do a couple new Morta Classics. I haven't decided what to do with them yet - One may already be sold (the prince), but I'm not certain, and I also don't know if I have the time to do full photo & catalog entries for them, so they may just ship direct to a dealer. But, I thought I'd post a couple of quick pics here first just to see if anyone wanted to snap one up direct. They're each 209 €, or 250 € with VAT for EU buyers, and thankfully, the euro has started dropping finally and US buyers can now purchase a good bit more easily than a mere six months ago! Today's rate is $1.47/euro, down from a miserable $1.58/euro only a month ago. Note - Both pipes are now SOLD

Like all the Morta Classics, these are both smaller bowls, best suited for flakes, plugs, etc. They're also of note because they are officially "the first of the last" - We are officially going to be ceasing production of the Briere-harvested morta pipes. If I can find a reliable commercial source (hopefully one of the new wave of morta pipemakers can help me here), I will continue to make morta pipes, but the cost of finding, harvesting, and site-drying is simply more than I can bear in time and money. Our existing stock has dwindled to the point that we now have a limited number of small-bowl Morta Classic-size blocks remaining, and a select stash of larger blocks for Signature pieces, and when the Briere morta is gone, that's that.

And that's the news of the moment! Anyone interesting in snagging one of these two should just email me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Special Offer from the Workbench

I haven't had any new pipes or news for the site in a while, but here are a few pics from the workshop of what is taking up our time - the 2008 Pipe of the Year for the Israeli Pipe Club. These are pics from the first batch of pipes that are on the way to them now. They're all sandblasts, and each one is unique according to its grain. Obviously every block is going to blast differently, but I'm trying to make them a nice mix of traditional grain layouts and some more dramatic stuff, according to the personality of the individual block.

Talbert Briars are normally so individual and one-at-a-time that it's strange to see such a matched set of TBs in one spot! I don't think I've done a set of limited run Talbert Briars like this since the 2000 Yule pipes, if I remember correctly.
While we are currently set up with templates and optimized tools and workshop streamlining for these shapes, I can offer a special discount for anyone else who wishes to order a pipe in this shape - 15% off the normal prices, according to grain. What this means is:

* A grade 2 (meaning pretty average grain), normally priced at 305 € (around $478 in today's USD) will be 259 € (around $406)

* A grade 3 (meaning nice, interesting grain and more dramatic sandblasting), normally priced at 390 € (around $612 USD), will be 331 € (around $520). The pipes in the above group set are all nice examples of grade 3's

* A grade 4 (meaning absolutely stunning, knock-out grain - spectacular rings, etc), normally priced at 515 € (around $808), will be 438 € (around $687 USD)

Requested pipes can be stained differently but that's as far as they can vary from this shape before they start losing the time savings and the discount. This offer is good until I finish this group pipe set and all orders received - meaning probably for the rest of August, at best. Once the set is finished and we start up other shapes again, the discount will be no more, so if you want one, let me know soon!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Fun with Group Pipes

Biz News - There is one new morta posted in the morta catalog. It's been waiting here all week, the poor thing, for me to try and find the time to make a catalog entry and post it.

For those who may be wondering, the reason our website has gone very quiet is this little project, the 2008 Pipe of the Year for the Israeli Pipe Club. Group pipes can strike fear into the hearts of pipemakers everywhere, because they can go from enjoyable experiences for all to extended struggles where no one ends up happy. For the benefit of any pipe clubs that might follow this blog, I thought it might be worth running through the most common errors and misunderstandings that can crop up, and talk about how to avoid them to get the best group pipe purchase your club could hope for.

Let's hit on the most frequent problem spots:

  • The Discount Issue - The very first potential spot for trouble is, of course, money... Specifically the question of discounts for group pipes, and how much. Today's buyers tend to view everything as commodities negotiable for steep discounting with volume purchasing, but pipes don't really work that way unless you're buying from a mass producer or factory. The maker is still going to be doing the same amount of labor making your group pipes, one at a time. There will be some speed savings thanks to doing one repeat shape over and over, but there usually just isn't the huge amount of price fat to be discounted that some clubs may think. The situation is more akin to service work than commodity purchasing - Your HVAC installer can't do fifty installations for half his normal price just because it's an order for fifty, because getting a big order doesn't actually make him magically able to work twice as fast. The key to the best group purchase discounts is time - How efficiently can the project be done, how reliably, and how much time can the pipemaker shave off his working time on your project, per pipe. How much your club can help him with these areas will make all the difference in your end price. Pictured below - The 2008 Israeli Club Pipe
  • Too Many Variables - The phrase "Too many cooks spoil the broth" is rarely more apt. In order to work to maximum efficiency to give your group the best price, the pipemaker needs the project streamlined as much as possible. One shape, one finish (or smooth or blast at most). Working that way, your maker can zoom, and enjoy himself along the way. Where these projects go astray is when one guy asks for his pipe to have an acrylic stem instead, another two want silver bands, three others want a saddle bit instead of a tapered, etc. If your maker has to keep track of multiple different requests for a pile of different orders, it's just like working on a bunch of individual orders, and there goes the time savings... Not to mention that this sort of thing almost invariably gets confused and messed up - Maker forgets about the saddle stem request, or club president neglects to mention that half the orders want smooth pipes instead of blasts.
  • Too Much Haggling - In the spirit of efficiency and cost savings, the process needs to be smooth and fast from the start. Nothing blows the labor costs out of the water faster than spending six months going back and forth talking about shape options, whether the bowl can be just a little bit taller, can you make an example in the same shape but with red stain, etc. Remember, this is working time for the maker. If he's typing replies to you, that's billing time that is coming directly out of your pocket, and is time he has to collect for. The best thing to do is make your initial inquiry, then get your club together to decide on a few shape options that everybody could be happy with. Take those to your chosen pipemaker and see what he has to say. A couple go-rounds are normal as the project is refined, but nobody will end up happy if this stage drags on for months and changes direction weekly. Pictured here - An example of the Israeli Club Pipe, close-up
  • Please, No Extortion - Yes, it happens sometimes, and makers are very wary about it. It's all well and good to ask for a group discount, to haggle a bit and such, but too often these sorts of inquiries are couched threats - ie. "Give us a huge discount or we'll all go on ASP and trash talk your work". Be careful of your language, because we in the trade are hyper-sensitive about our reputations (hard fought as they are) and are likely to respond very poorly to this sort of implied threat.
  • Work out an efficient payment method - Anyone who's run a pipe club can tell you that chasing payments from members can be a pain. Again, maximum efficiency is needed to get the best deal. Have one person in the club handle all payments and deliveries, and treat payments (and only payments) as orders. Pay the maker in lump sums as he ships boxes of pipes - It's fast, simple, and efficient (There's that magic word again). If there are members who want to make multiple payments or can't get the cash until next month, that needs to be worked out within the club - Dragging the maker into this sort of money-chasing is effectively costing everyone in the club out of pocket, because it's his working time that they have to pay for, in the price of each pipe they buy.
  • Match your Pipemaker with your Price Range - This is another big fumble. Here's an example - Club X wants pipemaker Z to do their group pipe. Pipemaker Z is known for doing fancy 600 € freehands, but the club's maximum budget needs to be around 100 € per pipe. Pipemaker Z may not even know HOW to mass-produce pipes fast enough to meet that price (*Cough*Cough* ME), but at best, he'll literally be slapping together a cheap pipe that's nowhere near his capabilities, just to hit a cheap price target. The only end result is that the buyers will all get their pipes and think, "Wow, this isn't very impressive and doesn't look nearly as good as that 700 € blowfish he has on his website". This, of course, is because you get what you pay for. I'm really enjoying this current pipe project because these are high end pipes - Talbert Briars with handcut stems, every one - and I'm happy and proud of the quality level I'll be able to bring to them for the agreed prices. It's best to decide early on whether your group wants a high end pipe or something more affordable for all, and stick to it... Then go and find a maker who has a good rep for your desired price range. Shop around for someone who's known for making a good $100 pipe, or a good $400 pipe, as your project requires, but don't try to get Ashton to make a set of club pipes for $75 each. (I once had a group inquire if I could make them a set of one particular Halloween pipe shape, with a max budget of $125 per pipe!)

I hope all that will help someone out in future, maybe even to serve as a handy guideline for any clubs contemplating getting their very own group pipe commissioned. For closing, here are a couple more pics of this year's Israeli pipe. There's a nice shot of a couple in the works, with stem rods fitted and waiting to be filed, and a close-up of my bits for these pipes. A good bit is crucial, really, and I'm working hard to make these comfortably thin while still offering a deep, wide V slot for effortless draw and easy pipecleaner passage. I've changed my bit designs around a bit over the years, but I think this is pretty much my final ideal - big wide slot and rounded edges all around.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pens for sale!

Biz News - I've added one more Morta Classic to the Morta catalog, this one an example of a potential regular new finish. It's a combination of rustication and sandblasting in a shape similar to the last couple since #100.

I wrote in a previous post about our little side project, learning to make pens, and now actually have a small result to show for it. What you see to the left are our first tiny offerings in the realm of pen sales. These are NOT of our own design, they are based on standardized pen parts that we inherited when we took over the business here, so this is not what could be called a genuine "Talbert" pen (much in the same way that we finish and tweak Ligne Bretagnes, but don't make them from scratch). On the plus side, they're a LOT less expensive than what my ultimate vision for a genuine signed, individually handmade Talbert Pen will be. What these pens are, in a nutshell, is practice - Practice at assembling pens, finishing pens, selling pens, and providing after-sales support.

The design is a classic European closed-end quill pen with internal cartridge and removable cap. The wood is turned palissandre violet, a dark red/brown with swirls of black grain striping. The pens are available in either smooth or sandblast finish. I'm doing the sandblasting here in our pipe cabinet, and finishing the pens from there.

I'll be curious to see what the reception is for the sandblasted pens - It seems to be an unusual idea in pens, though I must confess I really like the feel of the pens in hand - They aren't rough and edgy enough to be wearing on the fingers, and they have excellent grip (speaking as someone who used to do a tremendous amount of drawing).

Each pen comes in a dark green padded gift box. Sandblasts and smooth pens are both the same price, 55 € HT (When we moved here, these same pens were being sold in the retail shop for between 80 and 95 € in 2002, so I hope this represents a pretty good deal on a hand-finished pen), or 66 € TTC including the VAT for EU buyers. I've probably got enough parts here to make around twenty or thirty of these at most, and when they are all sold, they're gone, we'll be moving on to another shape. If anyone is interested in buying one, just email me!

Here's a better look at the subtle grain appearance on the smooth pens (Click the pics for enlarged views):

Pipe people, don't despair, this blog isn't getting permanently sidetracked into pens, I just wanted to toss out news of the first ones to be available for sale. As things progress, I'm not entirely sure what I'll do, but I suppose it depends on the demand for the pens, really - A few offers here and there can be posted here without major interruption, but if it becomes a serious ongoing enterprise, I will either make a dedicated page for pens or add them to our main website. My one reluctance there is that I don't want to add a tab for pens until we have our own, 100% original creations on offer at prices that will make everyone shriek. But really, everyone needs a Halloween pen...

Monday, July 14, 2008

What's In, What's Out

Biz News - One new Morta Classic is posted. I've got another one in process of the same shape, so check back in a day or two if you like (and miss) this current one. It's another in the same design as the #100 pipe.

Folks in the pipe hobby like to think of themselves as non-trendy, timeless sorts who aren't swayed by passing fads, but truth be told, we're just as fickle in our tastes as the rest of humanity. Case in point - There seems to be a current burning trend of fascination for ultra-short "noseburner" pipes. I've had more requests for, and interest in, these funky little stubby beasts in this past year than I have had in my previous ten years of professional pipemaking. I don't mind at all, because they're lots of fun to make, but it does seem odd that only a few years ago, most folks I know would have balked at paying a high grade pipe price for something that was just a few inches long. They take just as long to make as a full-sized pipe, yet the value perception tends to be "small = must be cheaper", so there just didn't seem to be much demand for me to be carving 300 €+ Talbert noseburners. Now, heck, I seem to get a regular stream of requests for the little buggers - the one in today's picture was done for a Japanese collector, and is a really excellent bit of sandblasting if I do say so (The briar gods were smiling).

Contrast this with bamboo-shank pipes today, which seem to be largely dead. Back in the late 90's, I had seen a few of these and loved them dearly, and I began to make my own. Every one sold, most nearly instantly, and they were impossible to keep in stock. Lots of makers began doing them, and suddenly it seemed half the pipes on the market were bamboo-shanked... to the point that I actually stopped making them for a very long time, just to avoid being part of the trend. Somewhere along the way, however, it seems to have died out cold - The only two mortas we've had unsold were both bamboo-shanks, retailers I talk with report that bamboo-shanks are slow to sell, and they're just not as omnipresent as they were only five or six years ago. A shame, because bamboo-shank pipes remain my all-time favorite pipes, for their light weight, their exotic "Adventurer's Club" aura, and the wonderful smoking and seasoning flavor that the bamboo imparts to the tobacco as the pipe is smoked (It isn't a flavor alteration, like morta, but rather more of a richening and deepening that I quite like).

Perhaps it's a sign of our economically-stressed times, with "obvious extravagance" being out and "minimalist frugality" being in. Alternatively, I could just be mad...

Oh, and my apologies for the very slow blog updates. We've had some big increases in our business taxes this year and it's forced us to pretty much devote all our waking hours to workshop, money-producing work. It's annoying because I've got several good ideas for blog posts, but just can't find the time to write them up. Ahh, well... This too shall pass, as the saying goes.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Emily has a side project

No pipe news today, but news of a related sort. My wife Emily has been working diligently for a while now to learn the art of pencrafting, and she in turn has been teaching me what she's picking up. When we first purchased this house and workshop back in 2002, the previous owner had divided his work equally between pipes and pens, and we got a huge quantity of pen parts and pen stock with the purchase. It put us in an odd position, since we'd had no previous experience in penmaking. We did, however, have a lot of basic, roughed-out and partly finished pens built around one of the previous owner's designs, and for some time after we arrived here, we did a steady business in finishing and selling those existing pens in our shop. However, we never really considered them "ours".

Once the semi-ready parts were used up, we suspended penmaking for several years and just focused on pipes, since we had enough pipe demand to occupy all our workshop time anyway. But I've always had in the back of my mind a desire to branch out a little, and work on creating some other high quality (and distinctively "Talbert") handmade items, and pens are a natural project. So, Em has been learning what she could in her spare time, and we ordered some basic pen kits to help us get a good feel for how a pen is put together, how to get use from our existing stock, and how to essentially produce a series of pens that were all ours.

What you see in the photos here are the first couple of results that Emily has produced in her spare time. As artisan pens go, these are just starter items, done to learn-as-we-go and built around common pen kit plans - the equivalent of the typical hobbyist's first pipes built off of pre-drilled block kits with attached molded stems. But still, I'm quite happy with them, like any craftsperson who suddenly sees something new appear fully finished out of a collection of parts and raw supplies.

These pens bring our pipe experience into the craft in two ways - They're made from French morta, for starters (the 3000 year old petrified bog oak found in our local parkland), and Emily had the bright idea to sandblast them. I've looked around a few pen sites and this sort of finish seems uncommon if not unknown, so I'll be interested to see what sort of results we can get from different woods... especially briar. Imagine a pen girdled with growth rings! She used a larger grit media than we normally use for pipes, to give the blast surface a smoother, more undulating texture rather than making it sharp and edgy - not an appealing goal for a pen surface. I wasn't sure how they would turn out, but so far I find them excellent - smooth enough to be comfortable to hold, yet textured enough to feel interesting and to offer a lot of "grip" in the hand.

We're currently going to be beating on these and future creations, to see what breaks, how the finish holds up, etc, in regular use. This is a fair way from being a commercial project, but don't be surprised if eventually the website gains a "Talbert Pens" section where Emily can go wild (and me too, of course - I already have some quirky ideas for a Halloween pen). In the meantime, as I did with my early pipes so long ago, we'll be turning out a lot of Christmas gifts for family and friends! ;)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Need Spackle

So, this block looked perfectly fine from the outside - no visible flaws, cracks, or splits. Then I made the first bandsaw cuts.


No worries, though. A little putty and no one will ever know... :D

On the serious side, I realize this is the first blog post I've made here for ages, but I've been abominably busy. I've got several topics kicking around in my head, including one on drilling, drilling angles, why airholes are drilled in certain ways, etc, but have not at all had the sort of time to assemble such an article (with accompanying sketches and such). I'll be back eventually, please bear with us. Rumors of the blog's demise are highly exaggerated!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Tale of Two Princes

Biz News - There are two new pipes posted. I've just posted the first Ligne Bretagne Collector to be available in some time, and there is a new Talbert Briar sandblast also, the Chunky Billiard.

The pipes in today's pic aren't related to the subject, it's just a handy shot I had of three recently-finished Talbert Briars in gold/brown contrast stain. The silver banded one is on its way to Israel, while the fat monster in back with the ivory ring is en route to Pipe & Pint. No, today's subject jumps back to my previous blog post on my briar treatment experiments. I finished up a matching pair of Ligne Bretagne Prince shapes, one treated via a process I've worked out which delivers a very smooth, almost creamy smoke and which I find to favor sharp Virginia blends - it seems to take a lot of the bite out, for me. The other pipe was left natural and unaltered, for comparison. The buyer has been smoking both for a while now, and here is his report. Again, let me stress, these are two identical prince shapes made from the same briar stock and with the same aging. The differences in smoking are purely down to my treatment process employed. In his descriptions, the dark pipe is the one specially treated - the lighter-colored pipe is the unaltered one.

Day 1 & Smoke 1

I loaded each pipe up with some perfectly dried Kendal Louisiana Flake. Picked the KLF because it has a mild flavor and only certain pipes bring out the best in this Va-Per mix. Fired up both pipes and smoked each for 5min for initial impressions. Both smoked cool and dry, great airflow. There is distinct difference right off the bat: the Dark Pipe has a mellower, almost creamy taste, whereas the Light Pipe has a stronger presence of perique.

Half-way through the bowl the perique was more apparent in the Dark Pipe, but the flavor of the tobacco was still mellow-creamy and very pleasant. At half-way the Light Pipe had stronger perique spiciness, in addition to the virginia flavor, and had the distinct woody taste that new pipes with no bowl coating generally do.

In bottom half of the bowls the differences between the pipes lessened. Probably due to the stronger taste of the tobacco concentrating moisture etc in the dottle. My overall impression of the difference between the two pipes was similar to cooking a bolognese pasta sauce or a bowl of chilie. When all the ingredients are added and cooked for a short period of time the ingredients are tasted as distinct entities, i.e. the Light Pipe’s spicy perique flavor separate from the virginia flavor. After simmering the sauce for some time, the flavors meld together and make a “complete” flavor, i.e. the mellow singular flavor of the Dark Pipe.

Day 3 & Smoke 2

Today both pipes were loaded up with Escudo, a favorite of mine. Again the two pipes had distinctly different flavors. The Dark Pipe had a mellower character like a long aged whisky and the Light Pipe had more of a kick from the perique like a young whisky (e.g. Laphroaig 10yr versus 25yr). Escudo has a distinct flavor in it that creates the body of the smoke, it is what I love about this mix. This flavor comes across differently in the two pipes: in the Light Pipe it is nutty and in the Dark pipe it is like carmel. Additionally, the plum flavor of Escudo is more pronounced in the Light Pipe.

After the first smoke, I enjoyed the flavor of KLF more in the Dark Pipe. It seemed to soften the edges of the tobacco in a very pleasant manner. However, this time the Light Pipe brought out nuances in the Escudo that aren’t as noticeable otherwise. Which pipe to smoke at any given time might be choice between a hunger for virginias (Dark Pipe) or perique (Light Pipe)…

Day 7&9 and Smoke 3&4

These comments are from two smokes as I didn’t have time to write up smoke #3. Both pipes were loaded up with Sam Gawith’s Full Virginia Flake. FVF should be good test, as it is pure virginia and a favorite of mine. The Dark Pipe brought out a nice sweet caramel flavor. A well rounded virginia flavor that I could smoke all day, presumably without burning-out my tongue as virginias sometimes do. A very good pipe for FVF! In the Light Pipe I’m got more a woody taste, a brighter, almost greener taste. Somewhere in there is a hint of spice, maybe cinnamon. There is a shade more tongue bit in the Light Pipe. The flavor regardless of what it is, is stronger in the Light Pipe than in the Dark Pipe.

I believe I would smoke FVF in the Dark Pipe, given the choice. After the first handful of smokes, I couldn’t tell which pipe was “treated”. But I can say that I prefer the Dark Pipe for the taste of virginias. I will smoke it when looking for a relaxing, no concentration smoke. The Light Pipe will come into play when my hunger for perique is the order of the day. Also, the Light Pipe seems to bring out individual flavors, so I may use it when trying a new tobacco to get the full bouquet of flavors. Better, worse… neither, just pipes for different moods. And with that, I have no idea whether this log helps you out Trever!

Of course, this sort of feedback is excellent for any pipemaker and especially good in the sense that these were not "gift" pipes or junk testers but finished, purchased pipes - ergo, with a lot less room left for "gratitude" in the commentary! I do think I may start offering this flavoring technique on special ordered pipes as an option. I'm not sure I want to do it across the board on all my pipes, but I'm certainly pleased with the process and results. If anyone would like to request a Talbert Briar or even a Ligne Bretagne treated in this fashion, just drop me an email and you can experience a different taste in briar!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How to Read your Sandblast

Biz News - I've just finished and added three new Ligne Bretagnes to the catalog, one of which is going to be used in the examples below. Check them out!

"This blast isn't even on both sides!" How many times have pipemakers and vendors heard that line, usually in reference to a pipe that's simply not cut inline with the ring stacking? After the popularity of my last article on sandblasting, I thought I would do another devoted solely to explaining just how grain and growth rings are arranged in briar, and how to "read" the surface of your sandblast to learn more about it. Let's start with how grain affects, and is affected by, sandblasting. In the pic below you can see sketches of a typical briar block:

Imagine you are looking at the block end-on. Grain rarely actually goes straight up from bottom to top (Wouldn't that be easy?), so I've drawn in figure A some more typical curved, slightly sideways grain lines. Laid through the block are also the briar's age rings, which are shown as shaded horizontal bars. The age rings curve and bend with the shape of the wood. Also, note that they tend to be more widely spaced deeper down in the block, and to tighten together considerably the closer they are to the outer plateau surface.

Figure B shows what you would get if you sandblasted that block - a surface where each age ring creates a pronounced ridge. But this only shows age rings, not actual grain. One can picture a briar block as a stack of slices of cheese, with each slice of cheese representing one year's growth. Punching down through these stacked layers are the lines of grain, like long needles pushed down through our cheese slices. They resist sandblasting ferociously, and limit the degree to which one can achieve sandblasted depth between the layers of cheese.

Blasting at higher pressures can only help so much - the more you blast, the more the total surface of the wood will sink in, as shown in the drawing above. It's the bamboo branch effect - One can easily snap a single branch, but bundle fifty of them tightly together and Hong Kong Phooey would have a hard time punching through them (particularly if his cat wasn't along to help). This is why very tightly-grained briar tends to render less interesting sandblasts - the tightness of the grain itself resists all but cursory ring depth. Drawings C and D, below, are a typical comparison of the difference in surface depth between a block with wide-spaced, loose grain lines (C) and a block with very tight grain lines (D):

Now that we've got a handle on just how rings are created and what they are, let's take a look at a typical bowl. Getting a "ring grain" - meaning a stack of vertical rings - is actually no great challenge if one has the capability to drill blocks at off-angles inline with the grain, but sometimes this isn't possible (particularly in machine-made shapes and middle-grade handmades, for reason of production labor costs), and sometimes the pipemaker doesn't even want this effect because he's bored by it (me). The problem is that the effects created are sometimes misunderstood by collectors unable to visualize how the grain in their pipe flows. For example, take bowl E, below:

There we have a nice crosscut billiard-like bowl, seen from the front, with grain flaring across the bowl and producing a lot of bird's-eye on the right side. Picture F shows what this same grain arrangement would become after sandblasting - The rings show horizontally to the direction of the grain fibers. I once heard someone complain that a pipe's grain was "sagging on one side" when in reality it was as above, simply a factor of the sideways tilt of the age rings in the bowl.

The disadvantage in offset ring stacking like this comes where there is a lot of bird's-eye - the "end points" of the grain fibers. Bird's-eye looks totally different after blasting from grain blasted from the side - It won't blast deeply and there are no growth rings to see, because you are essentially looking down at the stack of cheese from the top, rather than being able to see each layer from the side. This is where folks will sometimes mistakenly think a pipe isn't "blasted evenly" - of course the pipe is blasted evenly, as in to equal pressure, equal attention, etc - but the surface created is completely different.

Let's look at some real examples. If we take that blast in F, above, and look at it on both sides, we'd see this:

And here is the same arrangement on a real pipe! First, let's look at this grain layout on a smooth example:

And here is a nearly identical grain layout in sandblast version - First the side that matches the bowl above, and then its opposite side:

(And how does everyone like this finish? It's new... or rather, it's the end result of a LOT of gradual experimenting and developing. No name for it yet, but I think it looks very nice, showing off the blasting detail with great highlights and all without having to buff the edges off. Some pipes with this finish are currently queued for shipment to P&P and to Israel)

(BTW, the above pics WILL enlarge for a more detailed inspection if clicked)
Now that we know how to recognize the layout of the grain in the bowl, we know what we're looking at and how to recognize it. You can see the age rings, the lines of the grain passing through them, and every individual "stalk" of grain from the top point down, on the side that is all bird's-eye. That swirling miasma in the second photo is the result of looking directly down into the grain of the wood, as if you were looking onto the outer skin of plateau.

I'm fond of unconventional grain layouts, personally. I like it when every pipe is NOT necessarily a stack of growth rings from top to bottom. Probably my personal favorite of unusual grain layouts is the back-to-front seen in the sketches below:

This is where the grain starts on the back of the bowl, the part facing the smoker, and expands outward over the bowl and shank. I find this look particularly appealingly craggy for some reason, probably because it so perfectly illustrates the radial fan of grain that existed in the original block of wood. Here is a great example of this layout in smooth:

And here is a very similar layout after sandblasting (This pipe, #08-45, is posted in today's catalog update, if you want to see more of it)

I hope this has helped a bit to explain why various sandblasts look like they do!