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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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