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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?