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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Story

The following is a true story from our last Christmas in France.

Christmas for expats is the loneliest time of the year.  You're far from home, no family, few friends...  I'm not a very social person by nature, but the feeling of being locked out in the cold is inescapable.  It's Christmas Eve night, 2008, and we're going out for a midnight walk through our small village of Herbignac.  Around me, the stone walls of our house encompass a little pocket of warmth - The den is decorated with lights strung through the ceiling beams, holly on the mantle, and our Christmas tree stands in the corner decked out in the best we can manage, with LED lights doing their slow fading, color changing dance.

I'm waiting for my wife to get ready.  Christmas Eve midnight always seems like the coldest night of the year, and it's impossible to dress too warmly.  While she bundles up, I stare thoughtfully at the tree, thinking about Christmas and where our lives are going...  We're not staying in France, we can't afford it.  Crippling taxes have crushed the life out of our business and we're done - We know there's no way we can carry on into 2009, and we'll be returning to the states one way or another.  I watch the lights, thinking about the house around me.  Home for seven hard years.  We did our best to bring it to life and shape it into something good, but I know in my heart that this is the last time I'll be standing in this den in this foreign land... Still strange and alien, in so many ways, even for all the time we've been here.

When Emily is ready, we're out the door into the frigid night.  There's no snow here, but the cobblestone streets glisten wet from the unending rains and reflect the colorful holiday lights above.  The whole village is strung with decorations, their colors echoing a human defiance of the brooding grey winter all around.  It's like that here at Christmas...  The town is empty and dark after sunset, no people ever seen, but the lights shine on through the night.  You'd think it was a ghost town, or some deserted European village set from a 1940's Frankenstein film.  Sometimes the streets and stone buildings seem carved from one single gigantic rock, a hollowed out chunk of impervious granite.

We cross the rond-point and start the walk uphill to the center of the village.  I know the church has a midnight service but that's not what draws us. It's more a strange, wistful longing just to see someone...  Another human being, people with families, friends wishing each other goodnight and happy holidays, all the warm social connections we've felt so apart from for so long here. 

Overhead, flag cables clang against their poles with that mournful ringing that always sounds so much like ship's rigging.  I know this bell sound is something I'll carry for life, it and the faint sea salt smell of the air, whenever I close my eyes and remember this moment.  Up the hill, the immense church looms against the black sky and our footsteps echo on the sidewalk stones.  The emptiness is so strange, something I still can't wrap my head around...  Walk downtown at midnight in most US cities and if you don't get mugged, you'll find open restaurants, clubs, bars, and all the signs of civilization as nighthawks jostle past you living their after hours lives.  Here, the evening village looks like a child's playset with all the dolls removed...  Perfect, scenic, quaint, "action figures sold separately".

The street into centre ville runs up past the church and opens into the center square, lit up with green and red lights that cross over the road like paths of stars.  The church service is just letting out and it's a unique experience - Literally the only time in our seven years that we've seen anyone but ourselves out on the sidewalks at this hour.  On the church steps, friends and family talk, argue, and say their goodbyes.  We slip through them and step inside and for a few moments, we're almost warm.  The vaulted ceiling won't ever let it be cozy in here, but at least we're out of the freezing wind.  We wander idly around the entry, invisible to the locals immersed in their private lives and closed circles.  It's a beautiful church on the inside but I can't help but wonder, "Where is god in all this grandeur?  People have made this a building worth seeing, true, but is it to impress a higher power or just ourselves?"

No easy answers.  "I'll never see any of this again", I think, and try to absorb the entirety of the scene somehow, pulling it in through my skin and freezeframing it in my memory, even the bits that cut.  After a while it starts to empty out and we'd best be on our way.  Outside, it feels even colder now, but at least the wind has stopped.  The last cars are driving off and that preternatural Breton stillness is descending.  It won't be long before the village is empty again, a deserted movie set with all the crew gone home.  Silent night.

Our footsteps echo quietly as we cross the square to head back toward home.  Unexpectedly, there's someone else on the sidewalk ahead of us.  It's startling...  We never meet anyone out walking like this, not in seven years.  It's an elderly lady in a heavy coat.  She stops at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting.  As we pass by her, she looks up at us and speaks in a tired but friendly voice.

"Joyeux Noël", she says.

For a second I don't even know how to respond... I was expecting her to ignore us like the people at the church did.  Then we both recover and answer, "Joyeux Noël" in return, in sync.  She smiles, we smile, and then we're past her, walking down the hill.  I'm tempted to turn and look back.  Will she still be there, I wonder, or will she have vanished like some Christmas ghost?  Is the street behind me empty?

I don't turn and look.  I'd rather not know.

At the bottom of the hill is our house, lit up by the streetlights and serenaded by the clang of the flag rigging.  I wonder where I'll be sleeping this time next year.  I wonder what the new year will bring.  And I look up into the black sky at the million stars overhead and think to myself, "Merry Christmas."

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Repairing a Delrin Tenon

I recently did a repair job on one of our Ligne Bretagne tenons, replacing one that the owner had melted with a new one, and I thought it might be worth photographing to show the process involved in even such a simple repair as a tenon replacement.  This is an excellent explanation for why $50 factory pipes aren't worth the labor costs to repair, not compared to the replacement cost, unless there is some strong sentimental attachment involved.  Click each page pic below for the full-sized version!

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Yep, that's a movie poster, but have no fear, you haven't accidentally wandered into our "other" blog, Kentucky Fried Popcorn - Instead, it's a reference to what I want to write about today, which is not pipes but the pipe community and our community of fellow humans in general.  I was thinking about this after spending some time writing a long letter to our French friend Claudie, trying to sum up all the things that have happened to us since we said goodbye in the Nantes train station.  It seems a good topic for a post, but you'll have to pardon me if this is a bit more personal than usual.

Our seven years in France cost us a lot...  We lost a US house to foreclosure, all our savings and a lot of our possessions.  Over the course of that extended struggle we were chipped away bit by bit, losing the expectations that people take for granted in their native cultures, as well as a lot of our optimism.  You don't decide to try moving to another country without plenty of optimism, but by 2008, it was gone.  The world was in recession, sales were down, and that was the time the French government decided it was a good idea to double our monthly taxes (Had we remained, they would have doubled again in 2009).  We sold the house and planned our return to the USA, hoping to at least leave France on a peaceful note, but the buyer broke the contract at the last possible minute, months after we'd closed down our business and let our working visas expire.  We were left with absolutely nothing a mere two weeks before the plane flight was scheduled...  Multiple maxed credit cards, no savings at all, no money to come from the house sale, no way to even afford the train ride to the airport, much less pay to have our workshop equipment and belongings shipped to the US.  Those were genuinely the darkest days of my life.

Now here's where that movie reference comes in... It started with an overseas call from an American pipe collector.  "How can I help?", he asked.  The word went out through the pipe community.  Aid raffles were discussed.  Donations were sent.  Two different people offered us rental houses to stay in, free of charge, until we could get back on our feet.  Checks were mailed.  Bank transfers were made.  I finally had to contact my confused parents in the US to explain why these strangers were sending money to her (as a US postal address).  One fellow shipped me a crate of wood turning tools, buffing wheels, and more.  Another drove down several states to visit and hand me $1000.  Another loaded up a U-Haul trailer with a loaner compressor AND sandblasting cabinet and drove it all the way up here from Alabama.  Someone paid our utility bills for a year.  Fellow pipemakers sent briar.  Others sent furniture, household items, food, you name it.

When we finally turned into the driveway of our new home, it was simply astonishing.  We walked into a furnished house.  Loaners and donated items filled every need... Couch, chairs, someone's extra TV, a kitchen stocked with food, a foldaway bed to get us by, and a workshop spaces stacked high with tools and contributions.  One lady had even provided outdoor furniture for the rear deck!  It's an overwhelming feeling, looking out into a green backyard from safe shelter when only two weeks earlier I was literally facing a homeless life in a foreign country. 

After we'd moved to France, things began going badly in so many different ways, and I spent years wondering what I had done wrong...  Feeling as though some higher power were out there deliberately punishing me by crashing every hope and blocking every attempt to better our situation.  Writing this, it sounds crazy, paranoid, but it's a very real headspace - When nothing goes right for year after year, you really do start to wonder why.  Was it me?  Was I somehow a bad person?  Books and movies tell us that the bad guy always "gets his", but life isn't fiction.  Why did so many terrible things happen to us, year after year?  I don't know.  Why did so many people selflessly give of their time and money and possessions to help us out when we needed it?  I can't answer that, either, because if I was a bad enough person to deserve such punishment, I couldn't be a good enough person to deserve such kindness.  And I'm not a "good person", not really - In fact, I've always considered that to be a particularly off-putting form of arrogance, those folks who smugly nod and smile and think deep inside that they're "the good people". 

I feel like I should wrap this up here with some sort of heartwarming homily that ties it all together in a neat bow...  "Lesson learned.  The End."  Except that there's not any Great Truth out there on the highways of life, no transcendent Zen moment of enlightenment when you understand the universe, no movie magic scene where you become one with the Force...  Instead, what I took from my experience were these lessons:   Listen.  Give.  Help.  Don't be an asshole.  Also, if we're measured by anything in this life, it's not by what we personally accomplish, but by what we do to help others.  That may not be what they write down in the history books, but it's the bond that holds us together between the lines.

I'm thankful for everything that's happened, and I look forward to tomorrow.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Yule Pipe Question

The pic to the left is an oldie from the year 2000, the last year that we made a Talbert Yule pipe.  After the move to France, we just found ourselves with too much to do to tackle the complexity of a full-scale handmade Talbert Yule pipe, though we did do a Ligne Bretagne Yule series for two years before quitting the Christmas season pipes altogether.  It was a pain in the ass coming on the heels of the Halloween pipes, and it was a sufficient struggle to sell high grade pipes in France that it just wasn't worth the bother.  Now, however, I find myself with more time and a bigger market, and a considerably more positive attitude about the whole thing.  Does this mean that 2011 will see the return of the Talbert Yule pipe?


As I type this, Emily is in communication with a local silversmith regarding the feasibility of having some engraved bands in time.  Ideally I'd like to do a custom cast band, but with the skyrocketed prices of precious metals it's just too expensive at the moment (How expensive is too expensive?  Getting 12 custom silver bands cast right now would cost $700, so materials plus our labor would add at least $100 to the cost of each pipe).  Also, I don't have $700 on hand to throw at the issue.  We're waiting for a quote on a simpler, engraved band and we'll go from there.  There are plenty of other options, of course - I can drill and cut my own bands from brass here, or even do something more unusual, like a meerschaum/brass combination.  The choice of shape will depend on the band, because I need that little part of the aesthetic nailed down first before I can build a pipe around it.  And then there's the time issue - Even if the silversmiths come up with an affordable quote, we'd also need the bands done almost immediately, in order to have time to make the pipes and start putting them up for sale in time for the holiday shopping season.  So, it's an open question...  But it will definitely be sorted soon, because the window of time to commit to the project is closing rapidly and if we haven't started on the pipes by the 10th, we may as well not.

Of course, the biggest questions is interest - Is there enough collector interest out there to absorb a full 10-12 pipe set of Talbert Yule pipes - High grade pieces that would have commensurate prices.  We'll see.  I'm willing to tackle the project and am really pretty enthused about the idea (Like pregnancy, it's been long enough since the last time that I've forgotten all the difficulties in favor of the rosy memories).  If you're interested in seeing the Talbert Yule pipe return in 2011, keep watching this space, and I should be posting the definitive decision very soon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tales of the Pipe Beggars

Today's photo is a quick snap of what's on the workbench at the moment.  Today's topic is one that's come up often, that every pipemaker has to deal with eventually - How to deal with the pipe beggars.   They're out there!  These are the folks who come up with some of the most original, twisted, and occasionally downright ludicrous reasons to try and talk you into sending them a free pipe, sometimes criminally-motivated and other times just apparently not really understanding that what they're asking is for you to hand over $300 of pocket cash to a total stranger.  And they come in different types:

Mr. Tragedy - This is a common one.  Typical entreaties go like this:  "Hello, X.  My father bought one of your pipes years ago, and it is his favorite pipe in all the world.  It is a true sentimental favorite.  Unfortunately, he broke it last May, and recently was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It would be wonderful if you could make another pipe like it, it would mean so much to him in these last years he has.  Unfortunately, I am blind, disabled, and live on a fixed income and have no way to pay for it, so I am asking if you can please donate this pipe for the sake of making a wonderful man's life happier for his final days."  Now, this could be a touchy one.  On the very rare chance that this person is for real, you don't want to be callous, but let's face it, the odds are that you're talking to a total scammer looking to pull a classic 419 email scam for a free pipe.  Best advice:  Ignore completely.  He'll move on to someone else, and this makes it that much funnier when you hear the same story from other pipemakers at shows about how this poor old man actually had a "favorite" pipe that he broke from every single pipemaker you know...

Mr. Pipe Club - I and most pipemakers I know have received emails from this guy in the past.  Typically, Mr. Pipe Club offers you a *great* deal - Send him a free pipe to "review", and he will promote your work to the guys in his club, thus making it "win-win" for both of you.  Hey!  Again, there is the question - Does he really think he's being sincere, or is he actively freeloading?  It's useful to turn this around on him - Ask him if he would be willing to send you $300 in cash, and if he does, you will promote him as a great guy to deal with to everyone you know.  A dose of perspective can help, for those guys who honestly believe they're doing you a favor by asking for several days of free labor income.  You sometimes have to handle with care, though, especially when dealing with anyone who believes themselves to be "Big in the pipe community", because often this "request" for a freebie will come with an implied threat attached - If you don't stroke their ego by giving them their free pipe, they will badmouth you with all their energy.  Fortunately this is a rare phenomenon and most pipe club guys are quite cool, but there are definitely a few of these characters out there, lurking.  I recall one particular fellow that attached to me when I was first getting started, hinting again and again that he was a "reputable collector with considerable influence", and that I should make him a free pipe in exchange for his "promotion".  After I failed to respond to this persuasion, he turned on me in a flash and began badmouthing my work and person online, in chat, and so forth.  Thankfully my reputation survived and he is long gone from the collecting scene, but it does prove the point - A guy who is trying to strongarm you into bribing him for his good opinion is not even worth talking to.

Pitiful Student - Sadly, a common character that a lot of us can relate to.  He's in college at Modern U., he's in a pipe club there, and he really loves your work...  He just doesn't have any money because he's a starving college student.  Could you please possibly give him a free pipe?  Here's the short answer - No.  I'm sorry, I can relate to scraping by in my college years and wanting a lot of things I couldn't hope to afford, but still...  There seems to exist the idea that pipemakers have plenty of pipes just lying around, extra stock to give away to friends, and that just isn't true.  In reality, he's asking for several grocery bills.  I can't go to the store and get free food because money is tight for me, and to be honest, if I do set aside a pipe to donate to a good cause, it's going to be something like the charity auction I held for for Japanese quake victims - Something to raise money for people hit by genuine disaster, not a free toy for one guy. 

The Pipe Museum - This one also is tricky because there really are a few legitimate pipe museums out there, often surviving on a thin margin, and you want to support the hobby and the honest places that showcase our creations.  However...  Well, here's the usual pitch:  "Hello X.  I am the president of the pipe club of Nigeria, and we have selected you as our Pipemaker of the Year for 2011!  We will need a sample of your best work for our club's pipe museum, where we showcase the best carvings of the pipemakers who have received our award in the past."  (It's always your best work too, mind... These guys aren't happy with just anything, they want you to send them the single Top Grade you made that year, for free)  Here's the thing - If it's a genuine pipe club with the 75 members that he claims, it would be easy enough for all of them to chip in a few bucks and actually purchase the pipes for their museum, if it exists.  Otherwise, sadly, what's really happening here is that someone is saying, "Hi, you don't know me, but if you send me $900, I'll tell you you're cool."  Bottom line - Ignore this one unless you can look their museum up on the web and it's been in at least a book or two.

There are others, but that's enough writing for now.  Over the years, though, the single best and funniest example of this that I have ever encountered was the guy known as "The Shoe Cobbler".  Some years back, I received this quite-long email from a fellow saying he had followed my work for years, I was his absolute favorite pipemaker for my brilliant designs, etc etc, and how he was devoting his entire life to the labor of hand craftsmanship.  He was learning to make shoes by hand, the old-fashioned way, and could truly appreciate the long hours and toil that went into creating a handmade pipe.  However, this apprenticeship left him very poor, but he was hoping against hope that - as a fellow appreciator of quality craftsmanship - I might send him a pipe for free, since we were obviously rare kindred spirits.  I gave him the usual polite refusal ("I'm sorry, but I need that money for groceries/rent this week") and thought I'd heard the last of it, until conversations with other pipemakers revealed that we had ALL received the exact same letter.  Each and every one of us was his single favorite carver, he'd been following us all for years, and we were all brilliant...

All I could think was, next time, at least change your text a little before you copy/paste to 25 different guys. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Detail Steaming

Here's a useful trick to know.  I found myself in the annoying position of having to change the grade of a pipe yesterday.  This is not something that I have ever done before, but I felt it was warranted.  There have been a number of times in the past when I've looked at something and thought, "You know, I really could have marked that a grade higher."  This time, however, it was something I changed my mind about after the fact.  I was working hard to finish this pipe up for the CORPS show, and ended up doing the final stamping and detailing on it the morning that we were packing to leave.  At the time, I was fresh from working on it and filled with the usual enthusiasm that I get for most current projects - The coolest pipe is always the one I'm working on "now".  I looked it over, admired its tight ring grain, was impressed by the fact that I could leave it natural, and made the quick decision (with my wife walking back and forth past me with stuffed suitcases) to stamp it a grade 3. This put it on the same level as the chubby bent billiard I recently finished:

While nice, I got my first real chance to look at it objectively at the show, and the new one just wasn't in the same grain league with the bent, which had much friendlier wood and an accordingly deeper blast.  With extended consideration, I decided I'd marked it one notch too high and wanted to change the grade from a 3 ($550) to a 2 ($415) before posting it on the site for sale.  This brought up a prickly problem, though - HOW to get rid of a nice deep "3" stamping in a crowded smooth oval on the bottom of the shank, without sanding it out and making a recession/ripple.  And also without removing the logo and year stamping!

I talked about this for a while with Emily and she came up with the final solution.  Most people know how to use a wet rag and an iron to steam dents out of a bowl, but this needed more finesse.  What I did was this:

  1. Scrubbed thoroughly over the surface with acetone to remove wax and help remove any surface moisture.  Once it was rubbed to an almost white tone...
  2. I soaked a Q-Tip in water and held it on the stamp mark.  I let it soak for a bit.  I soaked a small, folded-over rag with water and twisted the corner round till it was a small point.  I put this point against the single "3" number stamping and let it saturate the wood.
  3. While this was going on, Emily had turned on our soldering iron and let it heat up.  
  4. I touched the hot tip to the wet rag exactly over top of the "3" stamping, making a small burst of steam.
  5. I wet the rag again and repeated the touch, steam, re-wet process 3 times, after which the wood had expanded back to its previous shape and there was barely a trace of the stamping mark.  
  6. I gave it a final rub-over with 800 grit paper wrapped around the tip of a flat stick, and that was that - A newly pristine surface space on which I could stamp my re-thought grade 2.  Voila!
I hope I never have to do this again, but for what it's worth, there's a handy new trick to jot down in the grimoire in case of unexpected need.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quandaries and Colors

I've posted about this pipe on G+ and Facebook recently, but thought it was worth a proper blog posting because it is a finish that raises a variety of issues.  This is a pipe finish that I've been working on for a while, which I've informally been referring to as bleached bone - It isn't a stain, but rather a leeching of color from the outer wood to leave it as pale as possible.  It's a complex process and takes about a week to pull off, so it isn't something that's going to turn up on our less expensive pipes, but at this point I am prone to not use it on any of our pipes...  at least not in this current look.  Whitening the wood has some excellent applications that I'll get into, but there are a lot of potential problems with this from a brand owner's perspective as well. 

When I posted these pics initially, the comments were split in two - Collectors all said to leave it white so it could color with use, and other pipemakers all said they'd stain it because white pipes just didn't age well.  That's my main concern here.  It looks nice in the photos - Very nice, in fact - but it isn't quite so ideal in person.  The white varies in tone, fading between bone and a very pale tan.  While this look is great for a pipe colored to mimic actual bone (And I intend to use this on some Halloween designs in the future), I'm less sold on the aesthetics on a "normal" pipe.  The bigger problem is in how it would color over time.  Collectors seem to look at it and see meerschaum or normal unstained briar - That is, something that will darken evenly and beautifully.  I look at it and see a mess 2-4 years down the road.  The thing about ordinary unstained briar is that it colors with smoking but also with handling, from the sweat and oil of our fingertips.  This pipe would work the same, but normal briar starts from a brown-ish color and just gets darker.  This, unfortunately, would more likely start out white and go pinkish, with dark brown stains along the outer edges from handling.  Couple that with rim scorching, random color picked up from sources smokers would normally never even think about (Your brown pipe might pick up faint touches of red from the color of your shirt pocket interior, but you'd never know it.  Here, ANY little color streak will stand out vividly), and I'm not sure I'd want someone showing this to someone else at an expo as an example of my work. 

This is one of those issues you have to consider when you have your name on something.  Not just, "Does it look good enough to sell today?", but, "Is it still going to look and perform well 5-10 years down the road?"  The problem here is that I can't really even do anything to protect it.  Waxes and shellacs carry their own color tint and even the lightest mist-over of natural finish would tint the whole thing yellow.  I joked on G+ that I should just encase the exterior in acrylic, but unfortunately that's about the only way to keep this surface looking good.  I'll probably put some serious time this year into experiments with different finishes to see if I can find something that could offer some color-neutral protection, but for now it just makes me nervous. 

Despite these misgivings, this briar bleaching process does offer one huge advantage for me - Truer color reproduction.  There's a reason most pipes are stained some variation of red or brown.  They're color relations to the base color, brown, and don't show major changes as the stain wears and the pipe darkens with use.  Other colors are more sensitive, such as yellows and greens.  Bleaching the briar first allows much better green stains, because highlights become a lighter green instead of highlighting to brown.  I've been absolutely delighted with the results from a lot of the green pipes I've made lately where I employed this technique.  I suspect that my background in visual arts probably makes me slightly over-obsessive about color fidelity...

So, after much deliberation, I think this one is getting stained.  Green, maybe, but I won't make the final decision until I'm sitting at the staining desk.  Or maybe not.  We'll see...  In any case, this pipe will be going with me to CORPS, in some color or other!

In other news, I just received today some intriguing new e-cig goodies - A tank system for my Janty that will avoid the refill/filler media issues of cartridges (While bringing its own new issues with it, such as tight draw and problematic liquid feed) and also a pipe tobacco liquid flavor from a blender that prides themselves on making high quality tobacco blends - A flavor area that e-cigs have not exactly excelled at.  I've tried it - So far, so good.  I am still not sold on the pipe tobacco flavor, but this vendor's version of RY4 (A common flavor vaguely comparable to "burley" among tobacco blenders) is the best I've had yet.  Alas, the other new item I wanted to try, a Delrin drip-tip (Designed for on-the-fly feeding of liquid to the atomizer) arrived DOA.  This is an advantage briar pipes will never yield up to electronics - They just work, and without electricity, even!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Three Most Overblown Pipe Controversies

It seems like there's been a round of late-summer flamewars on various pipe forums over the usual suspects.  I don't know what it is about these topics that makes it impossible to ever have a rational public discussion about them, but in my 18+ years in online pipe forums, I can't recall any conversations about these things that ever didn't degenerate into arguments and name-calling.  And while they each have some degree of interest to those of us in the hobby, none of them are worth even 1/100th of the bickering they generate because - *Gasp* - None of them are that big a deal.  Here they are -

Bowl coatings
There was recently a long and fairly obnoxious thread on Smokers' Forums regarding this subject, in which some pretty ignorant statements were made by a lot of people who take this issue far too seriously.  The gist of the argument that the antis would have you accept is that all pipes would automatically smoke better if pipemakers would just leave out those awful, foul bowl precarbonizations and let the naked briar perform its magic.  Two seconds of thought will identify the error in this logic - It presupposes that the main aim of working pipemakers is to find ways to make their pipes smoke worse.  (I often wonder what they think pipemakers do..  Do they picture us sitting around trading ideas amongst ourselves for bold new ways to sabotage our own products?  "Hey, I've got this great idea, we'll use two-part epoxy as the coating binder and that will make it taste EVEN WORSE.  Brilliant!")  No, the bold, bald truth of the matter is this - A bowl coating is just a thin layer of carbon.  Just like the cake that smokers work so hard to build.  This is the irony of the dedicated coating-removers - They buy their pipes and then work so hard to carefully remove the carbonizing, so they can work all over again to build a replacement carbon layer for what was already there.  I won't argue the buyers' rights to do what they want with their property, but I do find it a bit funny, I have to admit.  It's akin to buying a new car and being convinced that the factory paint coat is inhibiting the performance of your vehicle, so one meticulously scrapes off all the original paint and then repaints by hand.  Also, a hard truth that the religiously anti-coating crowd won't accept - 95% of the time, if you blindfolded the smoker and he didn't know which was which, he either could not tell the difference between a coated and uncoated bowl, or he'd pick the coated bowl as the better break-in smoker.  Unfortunately, it is "cool" among the forum crowd to be anti-coating, so this is not the sort of opinion you're likely to hear.  (The SF thread specifically asked pipemakers not to vote in the poll or comment, which is like hosting a debate on climate change and telling working climatologists not to attend) In the end, all a coating is is a thin layer of carbon that can be left in or taken out.  It's not a holy war, and there is no grand plot by the makers who use them to purposefully ruin the smoking experience of those who buy our pipes.  I know this is a radical concept to consider versus the popular opinion, but it's really that simple and that minor.  Really!

Pipe Finishes
In another thread, someone once asked about pipe finishes and I gave a straightforward and open answer about how most pipes were finished.  This got me yelled at by a guy whose entire collection consisted of a dozen basket pipes he'd bought at yard sales and refurbished, but his brother-in-law "works in a furniture company so he KNOWS what he's talking about!"  Yeah.  Here's the thing - Most pipes on the market are not finished "only with carnuba wax" and nobody can tell any difference.  The oft-repeated claim that finishes will "seal the wood" is mostly nonsense, at least when it comes to an educated pipemaker properly applying a finish.  I can't tell you how many times I have had some guy lecture me about the importance of not "sealing the wood" while he sat there happily smoking a varnished pipe.  Unless the finish is applied too heavily or badly, it's just not an issue.  When pipes are finished with something that makes them smoke terrible, they either never make it to market or get pulled off of market because they smoke terrible.  Again, pipemakers are not in business to sabotage the performance of our own work.  The idea that one can buy a cheap pipe and sand the finish off to make it smoke better may have some origins in the mass-produced pipes in the lower-end range (It depends heavily on the "roll up my sleeves and tinker" mythology that we can make our cars/wiring/furnaces/whatever perform better than factory spec with a little hand work).  Maybe you can improve the smoke in a Grabow by sanding the finish off, I don't know, but what I can say with certainty is that if you sand the finish off your Dunhill Dress Black, all you're going to get from the experience is a ruined finish.  Today's artisan pipes are a pretty evolved item - While it might have been possible back in the 60's to do some aftermarket tweaking to get an extra 50 horsepower out of your musclecar, all this finish removing and carbon removing today is more like the kid buying an ungainly aluminum wing to bolt onto the trunk of his Honda Civic.  It's a lot of work that isn't going to do the owner or the pipe any good.  And it's definitely not worth arguing about.

Is it impossible to talk about pipe pricing in any public forum?  Pretty much.  There's no good reason for it - Artisans want to know what their potential buyers think of their pricing, and collectors want to keep tabs on what costs what, but despite this, virtually any thread about pipe pricing will degenerate into a flamewar.  The problem is that a lot of the huffery will come from guys who are not in any sense potential customers - They've never bought a pipe over $50 and never intend to, and are therefore convinced that anything more expensive than that is a ripoff and they're doing you a favor by "calling it what it is".  Recently, some random fellow on one forum came at me with the usual - "Those are nice pipes but they're all overpriced museum pieces that real people can't afford.  What you need to do is cut all your prices to $50 and you'll sell a lot more!"  This kind of attitude comes from commodity thinking, the belief that any price cut will automatically transform into increased sales, which is completely inapplicable to the artisan pipe market.  Most of us are making pipes as fast as we can right now - I make and sell as many pipes as I can create to my personal standards each year.  Cutting their prices won't magically make more pipes TO sell...  There's no untapped volume increase out there to fill in a greater demand, unless I start hiring employees and turning the shop into a factory, and that just defeats the entire appeal of an artisan pipe brand in the first place.  And why is pricing even a controversy?  What possible business is it of anyone's, what others pay for pipes?  So there are pipes that sell for $500, $1,000, $3,000...  Big deal.  There's no reason for this to be controversial.  Expensive pipes don't keep us dependent on Mid-East oil, they don't take budget money out of our schools or our roads, and they aren't being produced in sweatshops by slave labor.  Despite their harmlessness, there are still guys who will froth at the mouth over pipe prices.  I don't get it.

I'm not sure what it is about these three topics.  I've seen grown men nearly come to blows over each of the above.  I myself have been tempted to knock a few teeth out of the occasional guy who accuses me of willfully screwing over my customers by my prices or because I like a carbonized break-in smoke.   Yes, they're topics of conversation, but I don't understand why they hold such religious fervor for so many.  My best guess is that it's the usual male thing - "Pipe Expert", deep down, is convinced that if he can prove his superiority to the crowd it will improve his standing in the pack and increase his mating potential.  Yeah...  :D

PS - As a closer, I must add that I will only discuss these three issues with people who can make it to the end of the following chart:

Thursday, September 01, 2011

E-Smokes Revisited

Back in October of last year, I wrote a blog piece about the new subsection of the smoking hobby, the increasing popularity of e-cigs.  To recap, a typical e-cig is something roughly like the diagram to the left - A battery, an atomizer, and some sort of cartridge to hold the flavored liquids that replace tobacco as the "smoke".  There are a thousand varieties of these devices now, and all boast the one great advantage over tobacco in that they produce only moist vapor, not smoke, and are legally enjoyable in non-smoking spaces (Whether the proprietor will allow them is another story, as many locations request e-cig puffers to not "light up" simply because it "looks like smoking"... a damning indictment of the hypocrisy behind the suppression of smoking as a public health hazard).  But these little things are clean, pretty safe, don't leave lingering odors, and can be dropped into a pocket without burning a hole in one's shirt.  While I know many traditionalists will scoff and dismiss them as toys, I don't think they are going away.  My personal opinion is that we are looking at the future of smoking for the iPod generation.

I've had a few of these devices for about a year now.  My small collection consists of a Janty Ego:

... a standard 510 model:

...and a couple of dead DSE-601 e-pipes:

As you can guess by my modifier above, the DSE-601 epipe is trash - Don't waste your money.  It's designed so that the atomizer is a permanent part of the bowl, so that when it fails (Typically within 2 months), the entire bowl section must be replaced at a $40-50 cost.  While I know lots of former cig smokers who love these things and think replacing the bowl every month is no big expense compared to boxes of cigarettes, it is galling to a pipe guy accustomed to buying a pipe and keeping it forever.

The Janty and the 510 have kept on plugging, however.  An aftermarket atomizer has failed while the Janty's original unit soldiers on, and the 510's atomizers continue to work just fine.  If anything, I would say that the budget 510 delivers a superior smoke to the Janty (Better flavor, easier draw), but it isn't made nearly as well, and leaks fluid in rest.

So, what are my observations of e-cigs from a year's use?  They don't replace pipes, but they do have their value.  They excel at portability - If I'm going over to the pipe shop and only have ten minutes to sit and chat, I don't want to bother taking a pipe and having to fool with filling, lighting, etc, when I can stick an e-cig in my shirt pocket with a dropper bottle of my fluid flavor of choice, smoke it as long as I want, and not have hot ashes or mess to contend with.  The downsides?  Well, they are appliances, first and foremost.  I have yet to see an e-smoke device that anyone is going to love like a handmade wood pipe.  It's a very throwaway culture, where the smokers buy the coolest new gadget and use it for a few months and then dump it in favor of a new model with different features.  This is the opposite universe from my world of guys who buy pipes and keep them and use them for forty years.

Also, they're amusingly seasonal, at least for me.  I enjoyed them all through last Fall and then stopped smoking them entirely when winter hit, because the cool metal cylinders just did not provide the warmth in the hand and the full, heavy latakia flavors that I craved on cold winter nights.  I nearly forgot about them, but when springtime rolled around I dug them out again because they're better summer smokers than pipes - There's nothing like sitting on the back porch drinking a root beer and smoking a chocolate/banana flavor blend on a dusky summer evening.  E-cigs excel at sweet tooth flavors and are generally mediocre to lousy at tobacco flavors, at least in my experience so far.  The latakia and perique liquids have little in common with their tobacco counterparts, but where a caramel-waffle-flavored tobacco would make me gag, such a flavor in an e-cig is likely to be delicious.

(Note - Some lawmakers are already stirring up noise over just this sort of flavorful e-cig blend because it "appeals to children".  Never mind the fact that e-cig blends can be enjoyed completely without nicotine, chemicals, or any additives other than food flavorings...  They don't want to see anyone "smoking" because Fuck You, that's why.)

I mentioned in the closing of my last e-cig post that I was considering a Talbert epipe - Now, a year later, I still am.  I've sourced the parts I need and have all the bits on hand to put together test samples, but just haven't had the spare time to work on it.  A number of people have inquired about when I will have some for sale, and the answer is still, "No time soon."  I need to build a few, experiment with them, live with them, and generally get the feel of the mechanics of the things before I'd even consider making anything for sale.  The big issue for me lies in whether it would be possible to marry the charms of a briar pipe with the convenience of an epipe - Only time and experimentation will tell.
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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Pipes of Interest

For several days now, I've had in my To-Do list the nagging, unchecked reminder that the Pipe Blog is due for a new article (Yes, I now have reminders scheduled into my To Dos, to be sure that the blog is updated regularly and avoid those 6 month long desert periods when I used to forget it existed).  But I've been stumped for a subject.  When a blog about pipes has run for as many years as this one has, one pretty much exhausts the available topics and thinking up posts that aren't rehashes of previous articles is a major challenge.

I grumbled about this in my recent email update notice, and one of the responses I received suggested writing an article about what constitutes a true high grade pipe.  I was prone to dodge this one primarily because this is an undefinable subject and anything that I write is likely to send someone into a blithering rage, but on second thought, I realized something had changed in my outlook over these past 13+ years in the business and I hold an odd opinion here:

I don't care what is or isn't a "high grade" pipe.

What I do care about are interesting pipes, or perhaps I should say Pipes of Interest.  Whether a pipe is interesting to me personally is far more important than whether it is considered a "true" high grade or not, because to be frank, that sort of class division seems a bit silly anyway.  Take it down to the bone, and what you will tend to find with collectors who only want to buy "true" high grades is that they're desperately afraid of ever buying something that might be perceived as lesser, lest this somehow reflect badly on them.  A)  I'm not that insecure, and B) I'm not that much of a snob... and really, we're speaking of snobbery here in unadulterated form.  I've witnessed long debates over whether a high end factory pipe could be considered a "true" high grade or not, and in my opinion this totally misses the real question, which is, "Do you want to buy it and smoke it?"  If you like it and want it, what difference does it make if it's perceived as a "high grade" pipe or not?  (I'm going to wear out this quotation mark key, but I just can't type "true high grade" seriously.... See, there, I did it again.)  And if you don't personally like the pipe, what bearing does its perceived grading status have on anything?

A lot of stuff gets proffered towards this debate - High grades should have handcut stems, they should be from single artisans, they can't be factory pipes, they must be fully handmade, they must be in some exotic shape that's the current de rigeur among collectors...  I could go on and on here but ultimately, I consider this a fruitless attempt to build a "true" high grade checklist that one can refer to in order to be 100% assured that they're buying a genuinely elite pipe and not some "lesser" item.  Personally, I think worrying about where a pipe falls in the Great Pecking Scale is virtually worthless in comparison to whether I actually like it or not.

Lest this just be another, "Buy what you want, smoke what you want" monologue, however, I will say that I do distinguish between pipes in one way - To me, there are Pipes of Interest and everything else.  A PoI, in my opinion, is a pipe & brand that says something to me...  Something that intrigues, excites, and tickles the fancy.  In the glory days of the Dunhill pipe, Dunhills were PoIs because they weren't just a pipe, they were the story of a brave entrepreneur who developed fascinating new techniques in pipe finishing, and who sat at a table in front of his demolished shop after a German bombing run, selling what he could salvage.  For me, PoIs are about the shapes that grab me and the stories that go with them.  Bo Nordh, wheelchair-bound and making pipes still, or Tom Eltang, master of the contrast stain.  Where did the artisan come from?  Does he have a vision?  Has he ever done anything truly original, or does he just crib from others?  Does this brand follow trends or make them?

Does the maker or brand have a story?  If I see a pipe from David Enrique, I know that not only is it a well-designed and clever bit of artistic elegance, but also that it's from the young fellow who apprenticed for years in the French pipe factories, learned the trade moving from job to job, and even traveled as far as Brittany to talk with me about techniques and sandblasting.  He's got a history and a story behind him, and that carries into his work and makes it more interesting to me.  Not so much, I have to say, for the guy who decides he's going to make pipes on weekends and goes online to copy down all the available technical instructions to follow to the letter.  Today there are plenty of pipes on the market using "briar from Mimmo", "only the finest German ebonite rod stock", etc etc, in every version of blowfish you can imagine, and for the most part I just don't care.  Most don't grab me - There's not enough passion and sacrifice in them to make them PoIs for me, regardless of whether they qualify or not on the "true high grade" checklist.

Here's an example - I'm very fond of the clay pipes of Gerard Prugnaud.  High grade collectors might sniff and balk since these are clay pipes with... *gasp* molded stems at affordable prices, but I look at them and know Gerard's lifelong history with clay and his collection of molds a hundred, two hundred years old.  They're not just cheap clays, they're a unique creation of one man born from decades of immersion in the craft and from a history of clay pipemaking that's far beyond a lot of "high grade" briar artisans working today.  This is why a 40 euro bent clay calabash is a PoI for me while the latest damn $900 blowfish from the latest hot new maker is not.  PoIs are all over the price scale - It's not a matter of grain or shininess or how much fossilized Megalodon tooth is used as decor, it's about - for me - the story of the maker behind it...  Who he is, where he came from, and whether his work is unique.

And that's why I don't care so much about what constitutes a "true" high grade or not.

Monday, August 01, 2011

New pipes at Pipe & Pint!

Here's a bit of news - Our local pipes & tobaccos & beer & cigars & wine shop now has their website open and stocked with available pipes.  They even have one of mine, a Talbert ring grain sandblasted freehand from 2007, probably our best year in France (It was a bit odd to see our old "Faite en Bretagne" stamp on one again).  Sharp-eyed folks may notice I've included their logo and a link to their site on our website's home page now, too.

At the moment they are in the process of posting their stock of estate and artisan pipes to the site, so check back with it often as there is new stuff going up.  Also, they're about to have the first new infusion of pipes from our workshop in a long time... Probably since around 2008!  We've finished up ten special Ligne Bretagnes as our re-introduction to their retail shop.  Emily spent considerable time digging through our stock of LBs to find ten stummels, each one a different shape, that were all flawless enough to finish as naturals.  Each one is also fitted with a stem ring handcut from teak decking off of the USS Battleship North Carolina.  I've used this material before (For up-close pics of an example, see here).  Larry, P&P's owner, picked up the material while vacationing at the NC coast and mailed it to me in France some years back, but I haven't had the chance to work with it until now.  It's beautiful material, and between the stem decor and the unstained bowls, these are going to make a special and affordable set of pipes to restart our P&P relations again.  Check out the pics here for samples of a few of them!

The pipes are finished now and I'll be dropping them off at P&P sometime this week, probably Wednesday.  I've talked with Larry about having an afternoon "Meet and Greet" where I would be there to talk to interested folks, and could show off the pipes directly, but we haven't set a date yet.  If you're interested, contact the P&P guys at their website by phone or email!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Refinishing my own morta, a project

Ten years ago, before we moved to France, I made this silver-banded morta pipe.  It was during the year prior to our move, when we were working out the detail of the workshop purchase.  I asked for some scrap morta to be mailed over, so that I could spend some advance time working with it to see what it was like.  One of the chunks was this piece, a fairly large block by morta standards, though it had a number of flaws.  I decided to try making it into a sandblasted tester pipe anyway, which I left with a collector friend here in the states.  8 years later, after our return home, he gave the pipe back to me and instigated this refinishing project.

The pipe had held up well over the years, despite being basically a beater, and once I had it back I determined to refinish it completely, including replacing the original molded acrylic stem with something handcut and better suited to the pipe.  I want at least one medium-size Breton morta of my own before I run out of the material, and while I just can't afford to keep a $600 pipe for myself, I hope to turn this piece into an attractive regular smoker.

Getting to that point meant tackling a couple of problems with the pipe.  It was unevenly colored, with a brown bottom, the sort of morta that I would avoid using today, though I must admit that this piece turned into a fine smoking pipe.  The bigger problem was that it had a few fissures in the wood - The sort of small splits that are problematic with morta and make finding large workable blocks a challenge.  Morta splits aren't like briar flaws.  With briar, you tend to get unsightly black pits.  With morta, you get deep splits and fissures - They may be visually small, but you can often insert an entire pin into one as they go all the way through.  This pipe had several, though fortunately none of them were deep or went into the bowl or the airhole/mortise.  Since it was just a tester pipe, I had originally mixed up a filler for the fissures using Conap epoxy and ground morta dust, effectively making a hard morta paste that would not only fill the gaps but keep them from ever splitting further.  The trick worked out, too!  8 years later, the ground morta fills were still invisible since, unlike with briar fills, there is no problem with stain not matching the putty - It's flat black, just like the morta around it, and the only telling clue was a slightly different surface texture in a few spots.

First step in the refinishing was to lightly blast the entire thing again, to remove the prior finish and let me examine the state of the original paste fills.  They were still hard as rock and showed no signs of cracking so I left them alone and moved on to the coloring.  Since I'm not particularly crazy about the mottled coloration of the bowl, I'm going to do something I don't do on the mortas I sell, and stain it evenly black.  Annoying, but it will make the thing look better (Sometimes color gradations in morta can be used to artistic advantage, but this one is just splotchy).

Once this beastie gets its final finish, the last step will be to make it a handcut stem.  I'll post more pics in a follow-up article as it progresses, and I expect this will probably be one of my new traveling pipes that I turn up at shows and pipe shops with.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Good morta, bad morta

I'm currently in the process of working through the last of our larger-sized blocks of Breton morta.  I've got plenty of small blocks, but they're good for thimble-size bowls only - The last of the bigger bowls will be turning into pipes through the rest of this summer, most likely (And I should add, I'm not taking any orders for any of these - I'm just going to play with them and make the best shapes I can from them and post them to the site as they're completed.  Most of the blocks are not suited for the traditional shapes folks like to request, anyway).  This spurred me to write a quick post about morta and how to judge it, because even more so than briar, it comes in good and bad quality.  Here's a block that showcases the bipolar nature of the stuff, with the opaque black portion being some of the best quality of morta that one can get, and the ragged brownish part being unusably sub-standard (Click the pic for a larger view).

The bulk of the block is excellent - Extremely hard, fully mineralized, resistant to blasting and burning, and ideal for pipemaking with a rich, dusky flavor that enhances darker tobaccos.  The right-hand section was not, in effect, fully "cured" by time - It's still partially fossilized but it's much softer and lighter than the black stuff, as can be seen from the surface.  The entire face of this block was sandblasted equally, and it's clear which portion is most dense and where the weaker part is.  While this can be used for pipes, I don't - I prefer the denser material by far.  It's noticeably heavier and most importantly, naturally black.  I've heard of some of the morta on the market needing to be stained black... Folks, that's just not good.  Brown morta, from what I have personally experienced, cut and cured, is softer morta, not ready to become a pipe.  The wood isn't sufficiently fossilized to resist flame as well, and it has a woodier taste to it. My personal opinion is that if it has to be stained, it's better not to use it.

I'm still looking for reliable sources for good quality morta to use in future - We'll see how it goes.  In a strange way, I'll probably miss these tiny little blocks when they're all gone, since by their very size, they force one to be extra-creative in trying to wring a decent looking pipe from them.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Morta Calabash

I've just finished up this Morta Calabash project I've been working on all week.  After that last, very avant-garde calabash design, I wanted to do something in a more classical shape, and also something that was a bit more practical - More compact, more portable, and just plain more rugged.  I've gotten a great deal of enjoyment out of my own little sandblasted meerschaum over the years, but I have not until now made a pipe from this material that I intended for sale.  This is the very first Talbert Meerschaum ever available, and is in fact one of only three in existence at this point (The others being my own and one I made as a gift for a friend).  I shot a lot of photos as the pipe progressed, and here they are collected into a visual presentation of the making of the pipe.  I'll probably print these out in "Suitable for framing" versions for whoever buys the thing, to make a nice little extra.  I've said on occasion that I wish I could afford to keep this pipe or that one, but probably never more so than with this one - I really want this pipe for myself, and I'm going to seriously envy whoever ends up buying it (As I write this, it is still available, and has not yet been posted to the website).

Click each pic to see the full-size (and more readable) image!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

And the next challenge is...

I've just finished up one longstanding project, to turn all my old pre-drilled blocks that I've accumulated over the years into pipes - I first posted on this subject in blog entry Variations, and in the pic to the left you can see the very last pipe made from those old blocks, a rusticated Ligne Bretagne Collector with a horn shank ring (It isn't on the website yet, but will get posted with the next update).  So, that's one box nearly emptied, and a little shelf space nearly cleared for newer inventory.

What's left now are the other blocks in that box, a pile of small briar chunks that I've also accumulated over the last ten years or so, made up of excellently-grained wood sections cut from larger blocks that had significant flawed areas.  Typically, they were cases where 1/2 or 2/3 of a plateau block consisted of perfect tight grain, and the other 1/2 to 1/3 was bald.  I tend to just saw these down to the usable wood and set them aside for future use...  and then forget about them, leaving them to accumulate.  Here I have a pile of these that need to be used, so they're all getting turned into pipes over the coming month(s) (Except for that one ebauchon in there - No idea HOW that got mixed in, but it needs to go back to the ebauchon shelves).

I enjoy projects like this because they're creatively challenging - None of these are going to make large pipes, and it will be interesting to see if I can even get interesting designs out of them.  The less wood you have to work with, the more limited your options become, but also the challenge is greater to come up with something interesting.  The first Talbert from this stock is already in the works (As seen in my Twitter preview pic from last night) and it looks to be a fun morph of a tall organic shell design.  Some of these blocks just aren't usable for pipes - There are a couple that are simply too small to do anything worthwhile with, and they'll become handmade tampers.  The others, though...  Well, let's just say that the next month should be a good one for Talbert Briar fans who are looking for smaller-bowled pipes.  For a better size comparison, check the pic below, which includes a typical full-size plateau block in the upper left.  You can virtually look at that and see how these smaller blocks were created, via cutting away rough tops and large flawed areas to zero in on the perfectly-grained section within.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Comic Strip that Never Was

Once upon a time, I came very close to designing and writing a pipe shop comic strip for this blog.  Coming up with subjects to write about time after time, for the (Good lord) 9 years that this blog has been going, can get to be a hell of a challenge - Most of the article topics I think of, I've either already done or Neil Roan has done better.  But a few years back, I wrote a post called "The Insta-Guide to Pipe Forum Personalities".  It got a lot of laughs and has remained one of my most popular postings over the years since, and has been linked in a fair number of forums (I do hope that my concise definitions of everyone a person can hope to encounter on a pipe forum has proven useful to various newbies, even though today I could add several more character types to the list).

Shortly after, I started thinking that a comic strip might be fun - Something to add some variety to the blog and provide an amusing mirror of our hobby, building off of the character types I'd written about.  While still in France, I doodled a few simple character designs and turned the idea over in my mind a few times.  It would be set in a pipe shop, would feature some simple hand-drawn art, and would revolve around the quirks of the folks in the smoking lounge.

I was reminded of this idea recently when I started work on my own comic strip for my Kentucky Fried Popcorn blog, which is all devoted to movie reviews of the wacky films I enjoy.  I've been sketching out the different characters for the KFP strip and having a great time of it - The little fellow pictured above is going to be the lead, in what I'm setting up to be a culture commentary cartoon set in 1977, when my younger self builds a time machine that allows he and his friends to view movies and broadcasts from other times (and occasionally travel there).  It will be a gentle creation most likely... A touch nostalgic for life at age 11 coupled with opinion on modern life and film.

While the KFP comic project is well underway, the pipe comic project is lost and forgotten, with all the sketches for it trashed sometime before our return from France.  The biggest blockage over there was time - It became rapidly apparent that I was never going to have the free time to sit down and do anything like this, just for fun, when money needed to be made.  But also there was the problem of politics - Namely, pipe world politics, which would have been a difficult and very touchy subject to navigate for one who is part of the business.  When you've worked in it for as long as I have, you see plenty of situations that deserve a good sound mocking via humor, but the downside is that you're almost certainly going to mortally offend someone and that person will be all over the forums flaming you to a briquet.  There were a few people quite offended by the Pipe Forum Personality Guide, so I can only begin to imagine what the reaction might have been had I done regular comics poking fun at the ranting blowhards, the distinguished trivia experts, and the crazy guy who only smokes Captain Black.

I don't have the time for that sort of thing, nor the patience, really - I'm much better at working quietly in the background, just doing my thing, than trying to sooth ruffled egos and cope with public relations once some fellow has had an aneurysm from his frothing conviction that some particular cartoon joke was aimed at him.  I'll stick with Kentucky Fried Popcorn, where I can say whatever the hell I think is funny without worrying about whether it will cost me a sale to my customer base.  But it's a bit sad, too, to think about what might have been, and where the idea might have gone - I do think our hobby could use a humor injection and our own web comic to give us some common ground, so maybe with any luck someone else will pick up the idea and run with it someday.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Experiment in Smoke, Part 3 - The Pipe

So, today I sit myself down to write the last part of my article series on this pipe.  Please pardon me if I ramble a bit, as I was up late last night for our regular Sunday night "Twitter and a Movie", a recurring internet get-together where various friends and I all queue up a streaming Netflix movie to watch and comment on (Last night we managed to survive 1960's Dinosaurus!, a stop-motion mashup of Land of the Lost and Gilligan's Island that included a dinosaur fight and a caveman in a dress).  The pipe just shipped out to its new owner and since it won't be appearing on the website, I thought I'd post the final photos of it to conclude this "Making of" story.  To say I'm pleased is an understatement - It's rare that a project goes so perfectly from initial rough sketch to final design.

The quality of the briar helped a lot, of course, but for this pipe the briar was really secondary to the overall design.  I love tackling projects where I'm not entirely sure what the outcome will be - Doing it because it's interesting and enjoyable and intriguing, not because you hope it will sell or be a big hit.  To recap my original goal, what I wanted here was nothing less than a re-imagining of the concept of the Calabash pipe - Something that was modern and dynamic, yet still classical and functional enough to equal the smoking qualities of its design forbears.  To do this, I used a hollow meerschaum expansion chamber fitted into the interior of the lower wood section, where the smoke could expand, cool, condense, and provide a lighter, less biting flavor to the taste.  Here's the fitted stem and decorative mortise that caps off the interior chamber:

While it isn't the sort of pipe one is ever going to clench due to size and weight, I did try hard to give it a substantial bowl size (One of my chief complaints with Calabashes in general is that the bowl chambers tend to be so small because of the need to fit them into the outer shell with bottom drainage).  The only technically challenging parts of the construction were the measurements of the internal bits - Turning the meerschaum chamber, cutting to length, fitting the briar mortise and brass ring, etc.  Usually I don't keep specific notes on individual pipes since I try not to repeat myself a lot in Talbert Briars, but this is one example where I intend to write out detailed step-by-step archive instructions, complete with drill bit sizes and all measurements, for reference in case I ever make another of these things.  That, of course, will depend on demand, though if spare time permits, one day I'd like to do one of these for myself.  I have a mania for collecting different "pipe philosophies" - Clays, briars, meers, expansion chamber pipes, Kiseru, etc - and this is just the sort of bizarre and unusual creation I like to have for smoking comparison.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Experiment in Smoke, Part 2

Here is the continuation from the first part of this story.  To recap, I've been thinking about an expansion chamber design that would be a modern, more exotic variation on the traditional calabash.  My last post brought me up to the stage of designing an African meerschaum insert for the lower body of the pipe, which was made from aged Holly.  The meerschaum insert separates the smoke from the Holly and provides an absorbent chamber where the smoke can expand and condense.  The entire mortise insert section took some planning, and resulted in a three part assembly of meerschaum chamber, briar mortise (To be stained to match the upper bowl), and brass surround ring to guard against cracking.

With that assembled, it was time to turn the stem.  Normally I prefer Delrin as tenon material, but this needed to be a one-piece design so off to the lathe:

Probably the hardest thing about this project was trying to keep the order of assembly straight in my head, since it was a nest of things that various bits that could cause all sorts of headaches if they were fixed in place too early or too late.  I picked a swirled, milky acrylic to serve as the spacer between briar bowl and Holly lower body, and began the shaping of the thing in earnest.  I knew going in that any pipes like this were going to carry a high price tag due to the hefty labor involvement - It's basically like making two regular pipes.

Here it is roughed out and ready for fine-tuning, with the turned stem rod test-fitted.  Not the most elegant thing to view at this point!

The Holly lower section polished up beautifully, with a subtle grain ring pattern that complimented the shape without being very obvious.  My goal was to create the same sort of visual balance as a traditional calabash, with the lower bowl section being of a near-uniform color while the upper briar bowl would be stained to really make it pop, as seen below:

The contrast stain on the briar bowl is going to show off some really beautiful bird's-eye on top - It's just a nice piece of briar all-around.

It's in the final stages now, with just detailing remaining.  Below you can see a process shot of stem work, where I'm using adhesive-backed sandpaper to sand flat the internal V of the bit.

This pipe took a lot of draw-testing.  With the airflow going through so many bends and curves and twists, it would have been very easy for it to feel constricted and tight, and I was keen to be sure that it was still an easy, smooth draw when all was said and done.  It's laid out well for long-term cleaning - A straight bit can be twisted down into the airhole in the briar bowl bottom to ream the air passage between bowl and expansion chamber, and the bottom of the mortise is large and open to allow Q-Tip (or pipecleaner) cleaning of the expansion chamber.  All this comes from my general dislike of fancy pipe designs that have smoke-crippling problems built in, especially pipes that don't allow airhole reaming as the years go by.

And so, here we are after a week's worth of work - The pic below shows the pipe nearly completed but for the final polishing and stem bending.  As I type this, it is fully finished and sitting in the cabinet with several others waiting for the next website update.  Which is going to be sizable, by the way...  I realize it's been some time since the last update, but it's usually fairly pointless to post new pipes in the week before the Chicago show, so I've been working hard to try and finish a little something for every page on our site.  If all goes well, I should have a couple of new Talberts, a new Goblin, some new LBs, and even a new tamper and some jewelry by Emily to post this week.  Fingers crossed!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Experiment in Smoke, Part 1

I posted this sketch page recently to our Twitter feed, and after a bit of work on this project, I thought it had the makings of an interesting blog post.  The story begins with the various doodles at left.  Of the lot, my favorite was the top one, but it does have the minor problem of not having any sort of airhole connection to the stem, so I knew it was going to be a project requiring some thought.

Fortunately, expansion chamber designs are something that has always interested me - I started working with test pipes utilizing different sorts of chambers some 10-11 years ago, and have kept at it since.  The concept is simple, and has been in use by Peterson and gourd calabashes for ages - Instead of keeping the airhole connected and of generally the same size from bowl to stem, insert a large open area into the path to allow the smoke to expand and cool.  This has a benefit and a drawback - It takes some of the bite out of the smoke, and mellows it, but it also produces a localized spot of condensation that must be dealt with.

In the case of this pipe, what I wanted to do became a fairly complex project.  I needed an airhole extending from the bowl chamber down, passing into the top part of an open expansion chamber in the lower section.  Not wanting to use two pieces of briar due to the visual mismatch of differing grain patterns, I opted for a lower section made of very old and well-seasoned Holly.  Here are the two blocks rough-cut and ready for drilling:

The next trick was the design of the expansion chamber itself.  I didn't want the Holly to be directly exposed to the smoke, since it isn't as flavor-neutral as briar.  Also, I wanted something more absorbent - The main enemy of expansion chamber designs is accumulated moisture, so I wanted the chamber to be made from the most absorbent material I have.  That would be Somalian meerschaum, a tough and rocky variant of meerschaum that is much more porous than Turkish.  The surface is granular and soaks up moisture wonderfully - In fact, my own Somali meer is one of the best smoking pipes I own, despite being a long way from the prettiest.  With this in mind, I sketched out the design for a tube insert, made from this meerschaum, with an open interior in which the smoke could expand and the condensate be absorbed.  The stuff dries out very quickly, and cleaning would be easy with a pipe cleaner or Q-Tip if it did begin to gurgle.  

The layout got complex - I'd need a brass inset ring for strength around the mortise joint, which would leave the tenon opening into the expansion chamber below.  The above pic shows the cutoff ring insert and a sawn off chunk of Somali meer, showcasing just why it is so much less pretty than its Turkish counterpart.  Here, however, I'm after performance, not looks, and it should be ideal.  It goes onto the lathe to be turned to the size of the drilled hole in the lower half of the pipe:

Once turned, it is slipped back into the chuck to help prevent cracking and then drilled out, opening it up so that it can become the meerschaum lining of the expansion chamber:

When all is said and done, I've got my internals - A highly absorbent and quick-drying meerschaum expansion chamber that will last effectively forever with proper care, and the making of a strong stem join.  Part 2 will look at the progress of the pipe from here.  If all goes well, I should have not only a new and interesting alternative to established expansion designs like calabashes and system pipes, but also an enhanced creative freedom in design, since the setup allows me to break away from the traditional straight-arrow airhole layout.  The most crucial questions at this point are - Can I tie it all together visually into an attractive and exciting design, and also, will there be any buyers for such an exotic specimen?