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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!