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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.