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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sandblasting - Circles and Shanks

Sandblasting stirs up lots of questions. Thankfully, I have my buddy Nick to actually ask the stuff that would make good blog topics! I thought it would be worth addressing because while there are lots of fans of "extreme" blasts out there, there isn't a great deal of knowledge of just how various effects are arrived at, and the design trade-offs that must be made along the way in order to produce various effects. Many times I have seen someone criticize a blast, claiming, "It's not even on both sides", when in actuality, it's perfectly even - It's just that the grain isn't the same. Other complaints often involve out-of-round bowls, shanks, etc... seemingly not really understanding that high pressure, deep blasting deforms by nature, according to the grain & hardness of the wood. Let's look at some bowl examples:

Bowl A is your classic top-down view of a smooth pipe bowl, looking down into the chamber. Light sandblasting, as is done by the majority of blasters, retains this roundness and shape easily, as can be seen in B. It just doesn't take off that much wood, leaving the shape very defined and obvious. This changes when we start doing the sort of very deep, very intense sandblasts that I and others do on our higher grade pipes - One literally begins to sculpt the wood by nature, altering it to nature's inner shape (think of a "skeletal" structure within the wood), as seen below.

Pipe C is a good example of a deep blast and how it changes the bowl. Note that the bowl has actually shrunk from its previous outside diameter - When planning to do a very deep blast, I find I must usually oversize the bowl initially so that the outcome will be closer to what I want. Some people don't like this look - It's a matter of personal preference - but it should be stressed that this IS the natural result of a deep blast. You're literally looking down at the strongest parts of the wood. I make most of my blasts this way because I like and appreciate the natural look. For me, the natural "chaos" of the result is the whole point, in a creative sense - I enjoy starting with a billiard or whatever and seeing what its inner architecture will reveal. However, there are ways to do a deep blast and still provide a more-or-less round shape. One method is to use extremely fine nozzles to allow the blasting to be very precisely targeted in order to retain the overall shape while opening recesses, but this is rare - I know of perhaps three or four pipemakers on the planet who do this sort of work. Another method, more common and simpler, is just to do your deep, high pressure blasting, and then sand across the exterior to bring the shape back to a more precise circle, then lightly blast over the pipe again. You can retain the deeper grooves while providing a full sandblast finish.

This gets much trickier when we move to the stem & shank. One can blast the hell out of the bowl because it has nothing to compare to - nothing it must join to - but the shank must join the stem in lines and visual bulk. Remember, heavy blasting actually makes the wood shrink, so a stem & shank join can quickly look awkward. Probably the most common approach to this is to tape a masking ring around the wood that joins the stem and then blast lightly down the shank, producing a result like A, below.

Picture B is the challenge for all pipemakers - If you carry the same pressure and aggressive blasting from the bowl down the shank, you will end up with this look, which I term "shrivel shank". The shank gets noticeably smaller than the stem. The blast is deep and dramatic and even with the bowl, but the lines of the stem-to-shank join are spoiled. Many collectors are fine with this, and prefer the "all over even" blast depth to a varying blast depth, but it bugs me, personally. I like consistent, smooth lines from stems to shanks. Of course this varies sometimes - If I'm going for a particularly gnarly, battered appearance, I'll often do this purposefully, in order to enhance the overall look of the pipe being really weathered.

I suppose what I'm trying to explain is that all these effects are trade-offs in one form or another. There's no such thing as "perfect", there are just different options.

What I have been doing lately is avoiding the masked-off shank briar ring altogether, and simply fading the blasting intensity down the shank, as shown in C, above. Blast carefully, with an eye towards not hitting anything hard enough to start seriously shrinking the shank. The shank nearer to the bowl can be left a bit thicker and blasted deeper, but I reduce the pressure as the blasting approaches the stem join. This retained that stem/shank line I love so much - one even, connected line top and bottom, rather than a shank with a stark "drop off" where the blasting begins. Matter of personal choice, really.

One other option is to make the whole shank fatter to accommodate a heavy blast to match the bowl, but this doesn't work so well in action. It's hard to get the stem-to-shank join flat, for one, and the higher, harder portions of the wood will remain even after blasting, poking out beyond the stem line I desire.

I hope this helps collectors by providing a bit more of a full picture regarding how and why various sandblasting decisions are made!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some Pipe Pictures

I don't even begin to have a theme for this post, just some pics of a couple of just-finished pipes. The first one up is a Ligne Bretagne Prince sandblast, one of the ones from my recent pipe flavoring adventure. All three Princes are finished now (the unmodified one and two "adulterated" ones, one to sell and one for me to smoke). This one is mine, so I tried yet another variation of Froud Green staining on it. This version includes a bit more brown but I think I actually want to get the recessed areas even more deep brown/green than they are now. Still, I'm quite happy with the coloring.

Smoking-wise, it's odd but enjoyable. It's been such a long time since I've smoked a pipe that's been "tweaked" this way that I'd half forgotten what it was like. The flavor isn't as tangy as I remembered - a difference of using local French cooking ingredients, perhaps? This is why I wanted one for myself to smoke as well as one to sell, just to make sure using mixtures from a different 'terroir' did not overly alter the result. I'll have to try a subtler VA blend in it tonight - The initial smoke was with 1792 and I suspect the tobacco probably overpowered the innate flavor of the wood.

The other pipe I finished today was this Talbert Briar noseburner, done for a special order:

I find it completely bizarre that I'm currently working on a small pile of requests for Talbert Briar billiard noseburners. Not that many years ago, such tiny pipes (This one is barely over 10cm long) would have been dismissed as toys and been completely unsellable, but today they seem to be passing into a phase of being very popular. They are amazingly cute, regardless. Oh, and in reply to a previous blog comment about the different in blast depth between bowl and shank, it's a conscious decision because I don't like deforming the shank lines. Many pipes with high pressure, very deep blasts will have frustrating shank lines, with the briar shank suddenly thinning sharply as it flows from the stem because of the blasting. It's easy to shape the bowl "fat" - that is, initially larger than it's intended to be, so it can be heavily blasted and the overall size reduction is invisible, but once the stem is shaped to the shank, deep blasting produces a shriveled shank. I prefer keeping the shank lines consistent and just letting the shank blasting depth be lighter, but it's a personal thing.

Here are a couple more pics of the rather nice bowl detail:

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Killer Billiards, Wandering Goblins, and Dried Princes

Here's the first finished billiard of the bunch I've been working on recently. Zowie! It didn't just come out well, it's probably the best looking blast I've done so far this year. For another shot:

It's funny, because this is precisely the sort of blast that some people would probably examine and pronounce, "Carved, harumph! Yes yes, that blast is obviously carved!"... and yet, no carving tool ever touched that surface, it's completely natural. The lesson in this is that unless a person was actually IN the workshop watching something get made, one should never put total faith in any declarations about how any maker creates his pipes. One detail I enjoyed doing was the exotic wood shank decor - I haven't done one of these in a while and have always liked the look. In this example it's a ring of bocote flanked by two olivewood rings set in a handcut cumberland stem. I should probably mention that the pieces are all handcut, too - Probably a lot of folks believe such stuff is just "off the shelf" in pre-made rings, but on Talbert Briars like this I actually use rods of olivewood and rods of every other wood, drilling them out to fit the stem and turning and cutting each one to size by hand, rather than having them readymade. Takes much more time, but that's the nature of a high grade pipe!

Anyway, it's certainly a nice way to kick off the billiard run! (In some ways, this is bad, because it's going to be hard to equal this, much less top it) I've got several orders for noseburner versions thereof, some oversized ones, the usual mix. Look for the blog to be awash in photos of billiard variations in coming days & weeks. I'm not sure yet what will become of the pipe above - haven't heard anything back from the fellow it was initially offered to, so it may be sold or it may end up on the site, I'm don't know. Given its size and light weight, I'm sure it will end up as a happily enjoyed pipe for somebody. Scratch that - the pipe is now sold.

In other news, there is a wandering Goblin available for sale! I made this one last October for a German collector, but circumstances have pushed him to part with it. I remember it well - It's extremely round and fat, with large curled claws and a short, beefy horn stem. It's different from the other Goblins in two ways - it is a 9mm filter pipe, and it has a stem ring of a different horn pattern as part of the larger filter/tenon engineering. Anyone interested in picking up a fun Goblin should email Andreas Rosczich, and you can talk over the price with him. Here are some more pics of the pipe:

Last of all, the LB princes that I've been doing the Virginia flavoring experiments on are just about ready to be finished. I'm thinking of finishing the VA Prince and the regular, non-tweaked LB Prince together and putting them both on a stand for sale as a set, but I'm not sure if that would be sellably viable or not. On the one hand, I (as a smoker & collector) would be fascinated to have the two identical pipes with different smoking flavors and strengths, but OTOH, Ligne Bretagne buyers generally aren't looking to drop 230 euros on a single purchase package like that. So, I dunno... (If anyone is specially interested in buying the two as a set with stand, please email me)

They came out well, though. They've now been tracked through two full heating cycles and I'm just monitoring them daily until they settle into humidity equilibrium with the environment before I start the drilling and finishing. Oddly, weight loss on one was minimal (.1 gram) while the other dropped a full .7 gram - a 3% loss overall, not bad for these older LB stummels that are virtually impossible to get to shed weight after years of drying.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Classical Halloween

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I intended to create a Halloween set of classical shapes. A few people asked me how on earth this would work, so I thought I'd post a little preview, just for the sake of explaining my overall design goal. In short, I want to make "classical shapes gone mad" - a definitive version of each of the main classical shapes (the straight billiard, bulldog, Dublin, etc) but twisted into extreme versions of themselves. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here's an initial design sketch for the first pipe - Everyone's favorite classic, the straight billiard.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pipe Trolls I have Known

Biz News - I've just added three new Ligne Bretagnes. These will probably be the last for a while, as I have some Talbert billiards to do, more mortas to make, and a Club PIpe to do... not to mention Halloween pipe work!

Today's pipe pics show off a Goblin I just finished for a collector, which came out pretty neat, I think. It's a fun combination of the Squidling's bulbous octopoid head and Seawocket's scrambling "feet". And it's also the perfect pipe to go with today's "pipe thought" - What exactly do pipe forum trolls get out of their strange behavior?

The subject came to mind due to a recent observation in FdP, the French pipe club. I've noticed in recent months that, when I happen to be using Google to browse the forum, some unknown person seems to be assigning a one star Google rating to every post that I or any of the other halfway knowledgeable members make, while giving five star ratings to any posts that are basically rants about "those greedy artisans who won't sell their pipes for 45 €". This is funny for several reasons - One, when I post to FdP, I usually try to post en fran├žais whenever possible, and if I'm going to that much work to post, I definitely try to say something of value. Second, it's amusing to think of whoever this odd person is, lacking the actual courage to confront myself and his other targets, just sort of sitting out there in cyberspace feverishly scanning the forum for any posts to vent his passive-aggressive spleen on.

I really don't understand what drives such people. I mean, it's a hobby - I love it to death, and love making pipes and talking about pipes and tobaccos and favorite makers and blends and techniques and all, but at the end of the day, it's just a hobby. The only "enemies" I've ever had in this hobby were people who've attacked me directly without just cause, and the whole concept of these entrenched camps of opinion really depresses me. FdP, in particular, has had its share of flame wars, nearly always started by the fans of low-price pipes who seem driven to see "elitism" in any discussion of artisan pipes simply due to their own personal insecurity. I'm not at all intimidated by discussion of pipes I'll never be able to afford... Hell, I find them fascinating! But then again, I survived moving to France; I'm not intimidated by much of anything these days. But there is a fierce, almost Communistic streak running through the French pipe world that believes firmly that the only pipes of value are fifty euro French factory pipes, and everything else is scary scary elitism. This is just nonsense - There is room for all in the family of pipe smokers, and the fact that high grade pipes exist doesn't take anything away from that $75 Peterson I just bought. I know it isn't a Bang, but if I like it and it makes me happy, why on earth should I care what anyone else thinks of it? I've seen flame wars carried to the point of the utterly ludicrous, with angry "anti's" insisting their Ropps are every bit equal to the best Bo Nordh... What can you do, at that point, but just shake your head in bemusement?

Here is some food for thought:

A Ropp is similar to a Bang in that it has a bowl, a stem, it smokes tobacco, and is made of briar. Beyond that, it has little more in common with a Bang than my Clio does with a passing Ferrari. Both will take me from one destination to another, but they are made for totally different buyers with totally different interests. This does not in any way state that one buyer group is "better" than the other.

The sky is blue. Damn it.

The anti-artisan brigade should pause for thought, because they are exactly the same people who are pushing today's anti-tobacco crusades... They simply have a different cause. Most conflicts boil down to this simple basis - One group of people who only wish to do as they like, and another group who believe the first group should be forced to conform to their wishes. In "factory pipes versus artisan high grades", unfortunately it is the "All pipes should be cheap" crowd who fall into the anti role.

Class warfare does not behoove pipe people. Simply by virtue of enjoying pipes, we are ALL automatically smarter and wiser than the masses, and should content ourselves thus. Now how's THAT for elitist? ;)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Adventures in Pipemaking, Cont.

Just a quick note for today - The stummels are back in their overnight soak again. Four days of systematic heat drying reduced #2 from 25.1 grams to 23.4 grams, and #3 from 23.6 grams to 23 grams. That's an initial weight loss of 7% and 3%, respectively. This may seem underwhelming, but keep in mind that these are pre-roughed stummels that have had their chambers drilled already, and been left to air-dry for decades. There just isn't much organic moisture content left that isn't normal atmospheric humidity.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Monsters are coming

Biz News - I've just posted another flood of Ligne Bretagnes to the catalog. Among them is the pipe in today's pic, a nice smooth, fat, deep chocolate apple which looks good enough to eat. Also, the churchwarden that was marked as sold is available once again - unfortunately, the sale seems to have fallen through.

What's next in the workshop? Goblins and billiards... an unusual combination to be sure. I'd already planned to start work on several really nice Talbert Briar billiards for the catalog when I just happened to get an order for another (If anyone is interested in ordering a Talbert Briar billiard, bent or straight, now is the time). This run of billiards is also going to include something that's been missing from the site for far too long.... a new Halloween pipe.

In fact, I intend to make a Halloween series this year, but they'll be posted and sold differently from in the past - no huge group posting in October, but rather an ongoing, one-at-a-time series of pipes that are each posted as they are finished. And the theme, of all things, will be classical.... as in, THE most popular classical shapes, all gone somewhat... bad. Insane, warped, deranged, and so forth. I look forward to working on a classical bulldog that looks as though it's been reading too much Lovecraft!

In other news, the stummel experiment continues. Pipes #2 & 3 started out at 23.5 and 23.9 grams of weight, respectively, before their immersion - today #2 has dried back to 23.8 and #3 has already dried past it's original weight, and currently weighs 23.2 grams. Repeated heat treatments are dropping them each about a half gram per day, and I'm curious to see how low they'll go before we repeat the immersion process.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Adventures in Pipe Flavoring, part 1

For a number of years, I have pursued a rather unusual side-hobby to my pipemaking - that of tweaking briar to favor different tobacco types. This could be called a curing process, but I've never really liked that term since it suggests that somehow briar is innately bad unless something is done to it, and with good briar and proper aging, I don't believe this to be the case. However, there are a variety of tricks and techniques to affect the wood - leeching out remaining tannins, imparting different flavors, etc. I got interested in this a good ten years ago or more and have done quite a number of experiments since.

Along the way, I found one particular treatment that seemed to excel in creating a superior Virgina smoker. It utilizes some basic, organic acidic soakings to soften and dissolve remaining compounds in the wood, and leaves an interestingly tangy, ideal VA flavor tint... I've sold a number of pipes treated this way privately over the years, and all reports have come back that the pipes became the owners' favorite VA and VA/Perique smokers. But I haven't wanted to actually apply the technique to any pipe brands on a large scale, since I don't want to narrow the smoking performance down so much. However.... I've been eager to try this again, and thought that this time around I would A) create a series of blog posts that would follow the progress, and B) finish a pair of pipes - one treated, one untreated, for sale as a pair for "buyer entertainment"... The buyer can try both and decide for himself which he prefers and why.

I took some care to pick Ligne Bretagne prince stummels that all shared a similar grain arrangement, and I picked a third testing candidate to treat and smoke myself, just to insure that the end result isn't too wretched. This will be the first time I've tried this in several years, and the first time with French-bought ingredients using a different oven, etc... all great potential to screw up the outcome! But at least I'll have a trial in there for myself, so I can avoid the possibility of selling a poor-tasting pipe if anything goes south.

So, for starters, Pipe #1 will get no other treatment than the magical mystery effect of sitting in a sunny window for a few weeks, while pipes 2 & 3 are about to be seriously heated up. Before heating, they weigh out as follows:

Pipe #1: 25.2 grams
Pipe #2: 23.5 grams
Pipe #3: 23.9 grams

That's a pretty typical variance for machined stummels, and a great example of just how handy it is to have thousands of these things on hand to experiment with. Back when all I had were briar blocks and handmaking everything, any sort of experimentation was doomed to hell and lunacy because the end results would vary so much in size and weight, and thus also in thickness, absorption, etc. With a stockpile to dip into, it's quite easy to try several varying ideas at once and have ready-to-smoke examples that are very easy to compare. After heating, the weights of 2&3 are down as usual:

Pipe #2: 21.9 grams
Pipe #3: 22.7 grams

That's fairly typical - a 5-7% weight loss due to evaporated moisture content. Now they're nice and hot and dry, ready to go into their overnight soak. More to come!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Last of the Blowfishies

Whew! Tomorrow the last of my six week run of blowfish shapes will be going out the door, enabling me to get to work on a few new Goblins and finally start thinking about a group pipe set for a particular pipe club. I close this run with my usual mixed feelings that I always have when doing blowfish - I always feel that the shape is so fundamentally "Jess" that I get turf-encroachment vibes. Perhaps that's behind my tendency to go in odd directions with the shape. I don't have this problem at all with the classical English shapes, strangely enough. This fishy came out absolutely enormous - note the scale of the pipe to the bit! It will shortly be on its way to a happy buyer who, one must hope, really likes pipes that you can knock someone out with...