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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! ;)