News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
Talbert Pipes Website - Kentucky Fried Popcorn - My Web Comic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Sinister Finish

Here's something I've been working on for quite some time, a finish color for a very specific purpose.  While most pipes fall easily into either smooths or sandblasts, every once in a while I get the rarity that is surface-flawless enough to be a smooth, but just doesn't have very interesting grain.  Maybe it's loose, maybe it's uneven, maybe it's just plain meh, but for whatever reason, I have a perfect bowl that isn't going to make a particularly grain-pretty smooth nor a dramatic sandblast.  In other words, the perfect subject for a "Dress Black" finish similar to Dunhill's.

My recent work on the Halloween pipe reminded me of the other reason I wanted to nail down a nearly-black finish - For use on Halloween pipes.  And this is another perfect opportunity for our Ligne Bretagne pipes to serve as a testbed for techniques that will be carried upward... and probably not come back down again, because this is not an easy finish to pull off, especially in the LB price range.

The thing is, it's actually quite hard to create a nearly full-black finish, and that is exactly what I have in my mind's-eye - A nearly full-black finish.  What I want is not a 100% black but a 96% black... Almost fully opaque but with just the slightest grain showing, a hint here and there.  That's where the problems come in.  In most cases, the manufacturer wanting a dress black finish would simply paint it with an opaque stain, giving it a 100% even-colored surface.  That wouldn't leave me with any grain to display so I had to stick with other coloring methods - In the end, what I settled on was a natural wood darkening trick I learned in France to take the wood almost to black while still leaving some grain visible.  It has the advantages of being a deep color and not being something that will rub off with handling.  That's the issue that keeps me from simply using aniline black dye, because even without any compounding, a black-stained pipe would first come off too much under a carnuba buffing wheel (Giving me a lighter pipe than I want, plus a black-stained wheel) and then all over the smoker's fingers during early break-in.  This way, there's nothing to bleed out.

...Or at least I hope not, but I had to go and add one extra step for the pipe pictured here, which was a final application of a deep red stain, which helped give the black extra visual depth - An old artist's technique.  I've rubbed it back with alcohol to take off the excess, so I hope it won't give red fingers for the first couple of smokes.  A final bit of oil rubbing gave it a deep, natural, semi-gloss sheen that is not the high gloss of a compounded/waxed/polished pipe or a shellacked/lacquered pipe.

This is another example of a market test - I think it looks interesting and yes, a bit sinister in its monolithic darkness, but whether I make more will depend on whether this one sells.  I've got plenty of spot applications where I can use this finish on Halloween pipes, but whether it becomes a regular look among our Ligne Bretagnes and Talbert Briars will be up to whatever feedback I get on this one.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Talbert Halloween Pipes, Rebooted

So, it's October and for the first time in a few years, I'm making Halloween pipes for open sale.  It's been a long and strange road to get here, and I want to explain just how and why I'm "re-imagining" my Halloween pipes.

I first made them 12 years ago, and at the time I was just getting started in the business and trying all sorts of ideas to see what worked and what didn't.  I had a fantastic time making them and was very proud of what I'd done, but after a few years of putting them out every Halloween and studying the costs of the things versus their labor hours, I came to the unavoidable conclusion that they were simply a deadly loss to make - Not one of them came close to covering the time investment of making them.  And so, for a very long period that covered most of the mid-2000's, the Talbert Halloween pipes went away.

Now they are back, and back in earnest.  I wasn't happy with not making them anymore because they're the most enjoyable pipes I produce.  But, they had to turn a living wage the same as anything else I make, so in the end I decided to do two things - A) Charge the prices for them that I needed to get in order to continue making them, and B) let out all the stops.  Literally, go all-out and stop worrying about how much time one is taking, how much money I can get for it, etc, and just make the most awesomely nightmarish, hideously detailed, and all-around excellent Halloween pipes that I could.  I believe this will more than justify their prices.  Again, they're an experiment now just as much as they were when I first created them - If the market won't bear it, this may be the end of them.  But, if they do sell, there will be more... and more.  I am fully prepared to work on Halloween pipes year-round, as the inspiration strikes, and the new Halloween pipe page on our site could become a permanent fixture, if this little project is a success.

Towards this goal, this first 2012 Halloween pipe is a good bit more detailed than past Halloweens, and offers up a unique and creative internal system as well.  I've had a new stamp made solely for the Halloween pipes... No more with just an "H" stamped after the Talbert logo.  From here on, the new Halloween stamping is this:

The new Talbert Halloween pipes will offer higher craftsmanship, higher value, and (I hope) a higher and more creative artistic sensibility drawn from my ten years of pipemaking experience since the last time I carved any of these beasties for website sales.    I hope you'll enjoy the new pipes, and wish me luck in this venture.  And now, on with the show!

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Goodbye Craig

Autumn of 1998, that was me in the left pic there, or rather my first pipe exhibition.  I'd just won the P&T carving contest and lots of people were mailing and emailing and even phoning (It was the Jurassic era, after all...) wanting to see and/or buy my work.  I scrambled like crazy to get some stuff ready for the CORPS show that year but it was too late to register a table and my little handful of pipes wasn't enough for a full table spread anyway.  While I was trying to figure out what to do, Craig Tarler contacted me and told me to bring whatever I could and they'd make room for me on the C&D table.  He barely even knew me at the time, but was perfectly happy to help out a new carver, and as everyone knows there is no better exposure at any pipe show than to have work on the C&D table spread, because 150% of the floor traffic is guaranteed to come your way.

So, we sat, we talked, and we got to know Craig and Patty.  Patty even bought some earrings from my wife, if I recall correctly.  They were wonderful people to know.  When I think back on how I got started, I credit my early success primarily to just a few big helpers - Paul Perri for teaching me how to make pipes, Mark Tinsky for answering a lot of other pipemaking questions back in the days before there were any internet tutorials for this stuff, and Craig and Patty for helping me out with the early exposure that got my work known.  I feel like I owe pretty much all my success today to these folks.  I could say a lot of high praise about Craig because he was a genuinely good guy, but I'll sum it up really simple.

Craig, we'll miss you.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Deadly Trap of Pipe Repair

<-- Howard the Duck lays out the life of the pipe repairman today.

Pipe repair!  If there was ever a business in demand, this is it.  Everyone wants to find a good pipe repair guy who can do great work at decent rates, and I write this because just recently I've had several people in a row ask me if I did pipe repair.  My answer, alas, is no - I only do pipe repair in the form of warranty repair work on my own pipes, not on anyone else's.  Most other pipemakers will tell you the same.

Why is this?  If there is so much demand, why are there hardly any people in the business?  Mark Tinsky may still do repairs, I'm not sure, and there used to be a highly respected retired gentleman in California who did them but I haven't heard of him in years.  Precision Pipe Repair made a big splash a couple of years ago but their website hasn't been updated since last summer.  What gives?  Is there a conspiracy to keep poor collectors from being able to have their cherished collectibles fixed up?

Whenever I talk with new pipe carvers and they ask about doing repair work, I always urge them not to - In the words of that Star Wars character:

My own experience is that it's very difficult to satisfy the customers and virtually impossible to make a living wage at it - That's why so many pipe repair guys are retirees, people with social security and pension income who just want something to do on the side, but don't have to rely on it for their groceries.  The problem, in a nutshell, is an unworkable set of customer expectations:

  • They expect their cherished pipes to return like-new, no matter how complex the job.
  • They expect speedy service.
  • They expect this to all cost around $35.  Maybe $50 if it sounds really complicated.
Pipe repair tends to really bring out the magnifier and protractor set, who examine their returned pipes under the loupe and loudly curse about the skills of the repair guy if any small fault is found, despite the low dollars they're expecting and willing to pay for the work.  It simply isn't financially feasible.  Hell, I'd do it if I could do it profitably, but the reality is that...  Well, let's take a recent example.  

Someone bought a new pipe and asked if I could include a second handcut stem with it.  It was an easy stem to replicate, thankfully, and a rare case where two stems could be workably interchanged on one pipe, so I quoted around $100 for the job and ended up making the stem.  I debated about this because my initial reservation is always, "Yikes, I'm going to get yelled at if I tell someone a stem will cost $100, but if I price it at less I'll make zip and hate the job in the process."  And I know a lot of people wanting pipe repair would absolutely fall down dead if they got a more-typical $150+ stem replacement bill, but the thing is, I could make and sell at least one or maybe two Ligne Bretagnes in the time it would take me to do a single handcut stem and fit it seamlessly to a repair pipe.  That's $200-$300 of income for the same amount of working hours that the repair customer is expecting to pay *maybe* $50 for.  The math just isn't there.

How could this be made to work?  Mostly, it would take a substantial attitude adjustment on the part of the customers, who would have to realize that service fees for pipe repair are going to be on par with what they pay for other skilled service labor - Try getting an auto tech to do 3 hours of work on your car for $50.  It isn't happening.  I realize that a lot of times, the pipes they want repaired only cost them $75 new, and that's the other crux of the problem - It costs more in labor time for an independent craftsman to make a new, matching stem than it ever did for the factory to turn out the entire original pipe on an assembly line.  I can understand the sentimental drive behind the guy who's willing to pay $100 to have his nostalgic favorite Peterson fixed up, but I don't want to be yelled at (as has often happened) by the guy who reacts, "WHAT?  You want HOW MUCH to replace that stem with a handcut one and refinish the whole pipe?  Why, I only paid $65 for the whole thing when it was new!"  

Yes, sir, I know, but them's the realities of economic time scales...

In closing, do any of my readers know of current pipe repairmen?  I'd like to have some good names that I can send people to when they ask me if I do pipe repair.  For my part, though, it just isn't happening.  I regard setting up shop in pipe repair as a death trap, with way too much demand and way too little willingness to pay the labor costs of the job.  If you want to work 80 hours a week for below minimum wage, though, what a career opportunity...!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In need of a Web Boffin

Having just put together another website update, and spent some time updating our shipping fees as well, I've been looking into one other issue that I'd love to fix if possible. Paypal's payment buttons currently don't have any way of automatically marking an item sold on our site, so I have to mark each item manually. This is working time that I would love to not have to waste doing this, because it's a pain (Open Photoshop, find catalog item pic, add "Sold" text, run outline action, save, open Dreamweaver, upload pic to site, open item page, mark "Sold" in text, remove payment button... for every single item that sells...), and also it would be handier for buyers if items could be immediately auto-marked as Sold upon purchase.  What happens sometimes is that I'll post an update, then get back to work in the shop, and several people will all try to buy the same thing before I come back to the computer to see it's been sold and mark it accordingly.

From what I can (vaguely) comprehend from Paypal's tech help, the Paypal buttons can be set up to send some sort of acknowledgement to a script on your own page, which can include code to update a site database accordingly.  Now, everything in the latter half of that previous sentence may as well be Russian to me as I know nothing about scripting for sites or site databases.  So my question is, does anyone know of a good tutorial or system which could accomplish this auto-marking of sold items for me?  If it's not horrendously complex I could probably figure it out for myself if there are any plain English explanations available, and obviously it would be desirable to be able to fully understand and operate the system on my own.

My limitations are those of most one-man businesses - I don't have the time to take off a week for learning all about site databases, nor the money to pay a site guru.  Though I would be amenable to some sort of pipe trade if anyone was able to provide some help explaining and/or setting something like this up.  I know there are some shopping cart systems that do this, but those all cost money every month and that's something else I want to avoid - I like using the Paypal buttons because they're free and only pay to PP for items that sell, rather than hitting me with a $50/month bill AND credit card processing fees.  If anyone has any ideas or solutions for this issue, please give me a buzz or leave a comment.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

For New Pipemakers - The Boringness!

Whenever I am stuck for a post subject, one reliable default has been to write How-To articles about pipemaking.  This is usually interesting to everyone, has many pretty pictures, and helps spread useful information.  Today, however, I'm going to write a How-To that's specifically for newer pipemakers, and it's going to be dull as hell - No sexy workshop photos, none of that.  What I'm going to write about is how important it is to know...
A)  How long it takes you to make your pipes, on average, and
B)  What your average hourly wages are per pipe.

You have to know this because if you don't, you will go out of business unless you are so wildly overpricing your work that your income can easily accomodate your lack of planning.  Also, you need to know this because it's the only way you'll know if you're getting faster, and speed is important because as you learn to produce equally good results via more streamlined processes, that's more profit for you and more competitive edge in your pricing.  If you've never kept records of your average times on various pipemaking steps, you need to pay me $350 to come over and hit you with a rolled-up magazine, because it's that important.

Right now, my own records start off here:

I've got a great big Excel file that I use to track our income and expenses, and two pages of this thing are dedicated to figuring out how much time I'm spending on what, between our various types of pipes.  This can have a hugely beneficial effect - For example, for years I didn't make a lot of Ligne Bretagnes because they were lower in average hourly wages than our Talbert Briars.  I knew there was a pay gap there, and over time I calculated it down to my average wage per LB, AND what it needed to be to make equal money to a Talbert Briar.  With those figures in hand, I knew I had to raise prices, and also exactly how much, because I didn't want to overshoot or gouge anyone.  IIRC, I ended up raising the average LB price from something like $119 to $136 - A small jump, but just enough that it bumped the wages on them up to match the Talberts, and it enabled me to make a lot more of them each year.  Before, we made maybe 20-30 LBs a year.  Now, we do about 100-130.

That pic above shows my time measurements for the first stage of a typical handmade Talbert Briar.  If you're new at this, I'd suggest breaking these stages out a lot more - Measure your average times spent drilling (So you can later compare your averages via lathe drilling, drill press drilling, and hand drilling), shaping, measuring, etc.  The value of these initial figures will show up when you can accurately compare, say, the average times for 20 classical shapes turned on the lathe versus 20 freehand shapes styled by hand.  Over my 15 years at this, I've mostly worked out the kinks in my process so I have a good idea what's what, and these days I squish my steps into smaller lumps for a more overall comparison.

It does still help to keep track of times for blasts vs smooths vs rustics, though.  The part of this that will bite you in the ass is the nest step, which is tracking all of your OUTSIDE-the-workshop time for a particular pipe:

That's a bunch of extra time, there - From the photography of the pipe to the website catalog page write-up to the email inquiries, the actual selling of the thing to a buyer, the time it takes to pack it up and box it, all the way to the time spent driving it to the post office and writing Thank-You emails to your customer.  (And if you don't write Thank You letters to your buyers, you deserve to go out of business, but good customer relations is a whole other blog article...)  All that extra time has to be figured into the price of that pipe.

A couple of things you'll notice in that pop-up pic - I keep tabs on what percentage the "after workshop" work is to the total cost, and I also track possible wholesale wages based on easily adjustable wholesale discounts.  I found out two things early on - I can't afford to wholesale Talbert Briars to any dealer at the usual 50-60%, not without taking a whopping wage cut, but I can afford to wholesale Ligne Bretagnes.  The workshop times for the pipes are sufficiently smaller compared to the after-workshop time that if I can eliminate all that after-workshop time by selling 20 of them in one lump to a retailer, I actually make the same amount of money because of the time savings.  Ergo, now you know why we've been retailing LBs via Pipe & Pint these past couple of years!

The bottom line is, you have to know how much you're REALLY making, and then you have to use that to figure out how much you need to set aside each month for taxes, and what you'll have left over... So you know whether you really can afford that new car, or big-screen TV.  AND you'll know, as the years go by and your bills increase, how much more hourly wage you need to cover them, and just how much you need to raise your prices.

If you've read this far, congratulations!  Just by reading this, you've already demonstrated enough regard for the important parts of your business that you're 300% more likely to survive your first two fulltime years than the next guy.  Go forth and make pipes!

Oh, and I lied - Here's one sexy closing picture, at least.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Workshop, Romanticized

I've mentioned elsewhere that our biz recently got an Android tablet, which is why it's been so long since last I updated - I've spent a good week or more just learning the thing, backwards and forwards.  It's a fascinating little device and quite a departure from the world of iOS.  The tweaker and fiddler in me loves the ability to customize it, while the perfectionist is a bit let down by its lack of "that extra 10%" that makes iPads such a seamless joy to play with.  Since I can't do two things at once (I've never been able to do this.  I boggle at people who can multitask as I invest 110% in exactly what I am doing until it is done, then move to the next project), that has meant a delayed site update and delayed production.

However, one good thing has come from this bit of sidetracking, and that is that our Cafe Press shop has gotten a small bit of new stock.  The tablet has an app that produces some fascinating photographic effects and between that and some Photoshop work, I've created a few "enhanced" pics of our workshop stations - Check them out!

Above is our larger metal lathe, where we do some of our pipe drilling, some stem drilling, and all of our Ligne Bretagne shank drilling.  Below is my personal workstation in the adjoining room, where I do all of the hand shaping and detailing of the more complex pieces, along with detail polishing, sketching, and every other complicated manual process.

And finally, here is the pic I chose for our Cafe Press shop - A beautifully romanticized, enhanced photo of our staining table that shows off the small mountain of different colors and tints we use to create our finishes.

This picture is now available from our Cafe Press shop in the form of a 9"x12" framed wall print and a pack of greeting cards (Note - Both of which are further enhanced and much higher definition than these JPGs), so those of you who like to decorate with a pipe theme have something to hang on the wall AND something to mail to your friends for the next special occasion!  If anyone is interested in any sort of print versions of the other two pics, let me know and I'll be happy to post them on our Cafe Press store also.  In the meantime, I hope you've enjoyed this little "beautified" look into our home workshop.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Bit of Social Network Re-Alignment

So, a couple of months ago I wrote a detailed blog piece about social networks, and their value to a pipemaker (or really anyone working as a self-employed artisan marketing their own wares).  Things change fast in the world of social networking, and today I find myself having to do more pick-and-choosing with my time.  At the time I wrote the original article, I had active accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and Chime.  However, this past month has seen me setting up an ongoing web comic of my own, and that has eaten seriously into my social networking time.  The KFP web comic is mainly a labor of love and fun, something to do outside of my professional work where I don't have to make a living at it.  It is still, however, a fairly big time sink to keep it updated in a vaguely timely manner, and this has definitely impacted my participation on my social networks.

The easy one to drop was Pinterest, which didn't interest me much to start with (See my comments in my previous post on the subject).  Google+ was the other casualty.  I still maintain a business presence there, but I've virtually stopped posting random notes, updates, and the personal chatter I used to.  Some people might very well prefer it this way!  I don't feel I can afford to drop it completely simply for its marketing reach, so I'll continue posting notices of website updates and pipe previews there - It's just that my participation will be cut down a good bit.  G+ seems to be going dead for me anyway...  More and more, it's like an empty cavern.  These days I can go for a week without checking my G+ account, but my Chime account is overflowing with notices every day.

So here's how things stand now -

My Personal Facebook page.  Follow me here if you want random chatter.  I rarely post pipe stuff to my personal FB account.  It's mostly a stream of nonsense about movies, geek trivia, video reviews, cartooning, etc.  If you are interested primarily in my pipe work, you need to follow...

My Facebook Talbert Pipes page.  100% pipe-related news.  Pipe previews, work in process, website update notices, and pic galleries.

My G+ Talbert Pipes page.  The same as the FB business page above, though not updated as often.  Still gets notices of all website catalog updates, though.

My Twitter Talbert Pipes page.  Strictly website update notices and occasional preview pics.  Also a bit of casual, pipe-related chatter, but I'm not one of the people who updates his Twitter feed hourly... or daily, or sometimes even weekly...

Beyond business, friends can also find me here -

My page.  I love Chime, seriously.  It's far and away my favorite social network, and my daily feed is always filled with all sorts of interesting stuff.  My Chime account is dedicated strictly to Kentucky Fried Popcorn-related posts, so don't go there looking for pipe stuff because I don't post any business news there at all.  Chime is just for fun, for me.  What I DO post are movie reviews, web comic stuff, macabre humor, and a lot of random horror movie stuff.  I suppose it is safe to say that Chime is where I geek out after a long day in the workshop.

My Web Comic.  100% written and drawn by Yours Truly.  This is what I do for my spare time fun.  The comic chronicles the ongoing adventures of a bunch of 70's kids who build a time machine for watching movies from the future.  Think Calvin & Hobbes with a sci fi/horror twist.

My Movie Reviews.  Dedicated to my own written reviews of the weird crap I find on Netflix.  There's a wee bit of pipe chat sometimes, but primarily it's dedicated to commentary on films about giant man-eating Korean pig monsters.  And other equally amusing cinematic joys.

And that's it.  For the moment, at least!

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Visual History of Pipes in Movies, pt 3

Kentucky Fried Popcorn presents a visual history of the role of pipes in movies.  What other choice could I make for the 40's but film noir?

 Part Three - The 1940's

A Visual History of Pipes in Movies, pt 2

Kentucky Fried Popcorn presents a visual history of the role of pipes in movies.  And yes, I know the 30's didn't come after the 50's, but when I realized I'd missed a golden chance to do a Universal Horror toon, I couldn't resist.

Part Two - The 1930's

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Visual History of Pipes in Movies, pt 1

Kentucky Fried Popcorn presents a visual history of the role of pipes in movies.

Part One - The 1950's

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Social Networks - An Exploration

Social networking - You just can't escape from it these days; it's everywhere.  Some of it is good, a lot of it is crap, but if you want to market your own work online, you pretty much have to dive into it in order to get your work seen by others.  I thought I would try and post my basic experiences with the current crop of networks, from the perspective of someone who does business on them.

I've had an account on Facebook since it was the underdog alternative to MySpace.  In fact, I have two pages there - My personal page and my business page.  I would strongly recommend that if you're going to have a Facebook account, you learn to use their customized friend lists, because you're going to need to divide your posts up among your personal friends and the hundreds of people in your hobby who will "friend" you because they know of your work.  Use this custom list when you want to post about politics, religion, or seriously controversial topics like the American Godzilla movie.  Believe me, all your customers do NOT want to hear you ranting about this stuff.

My impression of Facebook?  It's a monster, and a monstrous mess.  FB gives you the broadest reach for your marketing efforts but your posts are being broadcast to a polyglot mixture of family, friends, customers, your old high school class, and more.  Your business page will attract a more targeted audience but the unfortunate fact is that most likely, FB people will be searching for your personal page first because that's the name they know.  Some people are interested in the personal lives of the artists & artisans they like, others are not.  YMMV.  Also, it may sound cold to say, but it won't be long until your news feed becomes useless, as your daily wall will be filled with posts about what your college roommate's brother had for dinner.  If you want more control over what you see, that brings us to Google+...
G+ was supposed to be the hot new network that would knock Facebook off the pedestal, but instead it seems to have lapsed into a sort of low key torpor, broken by keen discussions on a few popular interests.  G+ improves on FB by allowing you to group your friends into "Circles", letting you see only the chatter from specific circles and easily post to specific circles.  Facebook offers similar functionality with its customized friends lists, but it's a much clumsier execution.  That said, G+ has one serious issue that remains a problem for business types - You can't "broadcast" your own circles and allow people to subscribe to them.  The simple description of this problem is, I get a notice that Joe Joejoe has added me to his circles.  I don't know Joe Joejoe, and have no idea why he has added me.  In my case, odds are he is interested in pipe postings, and that's where I put most of my G+ contacts - Into my pipes circle.  However, he might want Kentucky Fried Popcorn updates instead, and there's no way to know.  You have control over what you broadcast to whom, but there's no way for others to choose which topics they'd like to hear about from you.

The other G+ problem is the lack of traffic.  Don't get me wrong, it's a terrific site for commercial networking - The pipe community there is huge and thriving, and I probably get more click traffic from G+ website announcements than I do from Facebook.  But that's all there is - Most of my personal friends are not on G+, they're on Facebook.  I don't go to G+ to see how a buddy is doing, I go there to post website updates.  This lack of informal chatter is compounded by serious site slowdowns over the past month or so.  It has reached the point where I can open a G+ tab, then open my FB tab and read and reply to messages there in the time it takes for my G+ page to finish opening.  It's really interminable, sitting and watching the page drop in chunk by chunk...  In the beginning, it was light and fast, but recent additions of extra features and now an ungodly slow YouTube page link have made the site crawl.

The plus side is that G+ interactions tend to occur on a higher level.  As one poster said, "Facebook is where people go to return to high school behavior; G+ is where I go for intelligent discussion."  I can testify that threads and conversations on G+ tend to be more in-depth and literate, and wonder if G+ is gradually siphoning off the tech savvy from Facebook, leaving it to be ruled by Farmville moms.
I really don't understand the popularity of Twitter in the broader world, but it serves ideally as a tool for focused interaction with people interested in what you're selling.  Again, I have a personal and a professional account there, and the professional one is for people interested in 100% pipe talk.  The short post form is annoying - It's really impossible to have anything like a complex interaction, but what Twitter excels at is quick notices.  Website updates, workshop news, and sneak preview photos of pipe in progress - These are an ideal use for the service.  My personal account is about as useless as my Facebook personal account, being a boiling morass of people connected with me via a dozen different interests, and I restrict it mostly to trivial chatter.  At this point, I kind of regret even having a personal Twitter account.  If I had it to do over again, I'd have started a Pipes account and a Kentucky Fried Popcorn account and used them each for strictly focused news updates.

Pinterest is the one network I'm most likely to abandon.  There is no pipe community there that I have found, and thus far I've only registered a account for Kentucky Fried Popcorn as a test.  In my couple of weeks there, I have found it indescribably banal.  Gizmodo describes it as "mostly for the ladies" and I guess I would agree, as the flow of posts seems focused mainly on fashion, shoes, and wedding plans.    There are no status updates, per se - It's entirely a streaming wall of images from all over the web, found and "pinned" by members to share with their followers.  Members can create boards on whatever subjects they like (My Kentucky Fried Popcorn boards are for movies I've reviewed, my favorite moments in horror, and a page of my favorite web comics).

My chief complaint with Pinterest is that it is miles wide and an inch deep.  When I set up my boards, I logically made them fairly specific to the interests I intended to post on, so followers could pick exactly what they wanted to hear about from me.  In looking at other profiles, however, what I see are extremely broad categories...  "Art", "Fashion", "Movies".  I'm not interested in subscribing to someone's movies board if half their posts will be about Woody Allen movies (My dislike for him is epic), so the result has been that I've had little interaction there.  I can see an excellent business use for it - Pipe hobbyists are all the time seeing pipes they like and want to share with friends, and a streaming wall of pipe & tobacco imagery would be a fine thing indeed, but searches for pipes give no hits.  Maybe it's the fact that Pinterest is the one social network with a strong female majority, I don't know, but thus far its chief focus seems to be as a place to see photos of food, celebrities, LOLcats, and interior decoration.

When Twitter appeared, everyone complained about the forced-simplification of its 122 letter posts.  I guess it was inevitable that another service would come along that made Twitter look brainy.  I'm interested in hearing if anyone else has had better experiences with the service than I have - Maybe I'm just missing something, but thus far, Pinterest seems to have little value as a marketing venue for, well, anything that's more obscure than what you'd see in a typical issue of Cosmo.

Chime.In is easily my favorite social network of the bunch, hands down.  This is because it is focused on interests, not friends.  Yes, you can make friends there via shared interests, but the world of Chime revolves around the stuff you like to read about as opposed to what old schoolmates are doing with their garden.  The "following" setup adds what G+ lacked - People can look at your profile to see the subjects you post about, and subscribe specifically to the topics that interest them and leave the rest.  Or, you can just set up some key interests for yourself and watch your feed as posts roll in from across the network that are tagged for that interest.  While my Facebook wall is a stream of updates from people I don't really know about topics that usually don't interest me, my Chime wall is a targeted list of posts about horror movies, Godzilla, HP Lovecraft, etc.  If I see consistently interesting posts by someone, I can go look at their profile and subscribe to the interests that I like.  It's an ideal system, really.

Thus far, there is barely a pipe presence there so I have only set up an account for Kentucky Fried Popcorn.  I would love to see this change, as it would be nice to be able to see a feed of pipe-specific postings in addition to my daily horror movie news.  That said, it is a pleasant experience to log into a social network and see only updates that interest me, and I recommend it.  It's the smallest of the networks listed here, but I even like this as it lends the place a more intimate atmosphere.  For a pipe guy, the marketing usefulness is thus far nil, but the potential is huge should a community develop.  Still, it's my favorite social network thus far.  That said, let's not forget the real "ultimate" social networking site, your own website!

I've talked with a few aspiring pipecarvers and other small artisan types who dismissed having their own site and intended to do all their selling via places like Ebay, Etsy, etc.  This is something I would strongly advise against, because you don't want to pin your business's survival on the continued relevance of someone else's website.  My site has been in operation since 1998 and it's there that I have posted, corresponded, answered thousands of email inquiries, operated our mailing list, etc.  You only have to go back a few years and Facebook did not exist.  Yesterday, MySpace was the place to be...  Five years from now, the internet architecture of "hot spots" may be totally unrecognizable.  With that kind of flux, you really need one distinct spot to stake out for yourself and maintain, year after year, to connect with your customers and provide them a reliable and enjoyable experience.  You can do what you want there, say what you want, and you never have to worry about Facebook claiming they own the rights to everything you've ever posted.  The personal website might invoke dismissive memories of Geocities nightmares, but it's a reliable anchor that isn't going anywhere as you navigate the stormy seas of social networks.
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some Alternative Drilling

Everybody already knows how pipes are drilled using drill presses, wood lathes, and spoon bit/hand drilling, so I thought I would put together a visual demonstration of how I just drilled a Talbert freehand today.  It's a different technique that doesn't rely on the drawn centerlines of spoon bit drilling, but which still allows one to shape the pipe first and drill after, letting the pipemaker get maximum use out of the briar block's grain.

The tooling shown all came from St. Claude, France, and to my knowledge the only way to get hold of anything like this would be to either go there and buy it from a factory directly or to have a machine shop custom-build something for you - A pair of not-inexpensive propositions.

Click the pics for an enlarged view!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Livescribe Smartpen

Note - This is a product review of a new toy I'm using.  If this review gets you all wildly fired up to buy one of these things, you can buy one from this link and I'll get a few bucks of credit and you'll get 15% off, which is nice savings on a gadget that can run $100 to $200, depending on how fancy you want it.  I was not given a free pen or anything else to shill for these folks, I just happen to think it's a cool gadget and I needed a blog post subject this week - Ergo, a hardware review.

Over the years of writing this blog, I've commented on some various unusual workshop tools, and here is another one that's fast becoming an essential part of my working process.  I don't know how other pipemakers keep their records, but I am an inveterate scribbler - My work station is usually overflowing with small notepaper scraps that I've covered with pipe designs, ideas, and reference instructions for various processes.  In the past, this stuff would typically get lost or tossed out, leading me to the frustrating problem of often having to RE-figure out how to accomplish an effect that I'd already figured out a year or two previous, but hadn't done in a while.

The first step in handling this was to create my own little "grimoire" in the Mac app Notebook.  That's an extremely useful program that allows one to assemble piles of mixed media - Audio, video, drawing scans, text, etc - into a notebook format that can be easily annotated and added to.  I started scanning my sketches in and made a point to type up the step by step guides that I made for our workshop reference.  It worked well and I quickly assembled a fairly comprehensive "Book of Pipemaking", a cyber-tome that includes such errata as staining guides, toolmaking tips, HTML and website info, writing ideas, design ideas, and even a blacklist of known bad seed buyers to avoid selling to.  This worked pretty well but for one flaw - My scribbling typically runs far ahead of the info that I have taken the time to enter into the notebook, so there were plenty of times I would throw something out instead of bothering to scan it and enter it.  Also, just typing out notes is time-consuming and written text doesn't always convey the nuances and asides that I might have had at the time.

Enter the Livescribe "Echo" smartpen, a 4 gigabyte "pen" that can literally record my drawings and handwriting into itself as I scribble, and transfer that directly to the computer when plugged into a USB port.  This is freaky, especially to a guy like me who grew up when a techno-gadget was the ratcheting motorized antenna dial in the box on top of the TV that rotated your antenna between channels 2, 8, and 12.  The Echo literally "reads" my handwriting and drawing as I make it, and feeds it to the computer in the form of PDFs, PNGs, text-to-speech, or even animated videos that record the sequence of a drawing as it is done.
It's every bit as freaky as it sounds.  The real advantage, for me, is that it also records audio as well as writing.  Picture this typical workshop scene - You're sitting down planning out how to do something complicated, say a bamboo-shanked churchwarden with decorative rings at each end and a handcut stem, and you want it to be a contrast-stained bowl.  You want to get all the steps in order so you pull out this insane intelligent pen and start writing in what goes when.  As you're writing, you can just talk, commenting on additional thoughts or ideas at each step that are too complex to write out in detail...  Talking is always faster than writing.  What you're writing AND saying is all getting slurped into the pen for easy reference later, and the thing is even time-synched - That is to say, you can tap your pen on different steps you've written and it will play back what you were saying at that time.  For instance, imagine the sequence below, the steps involved in making one of the 2011 Yule pipes:

The rough pen writing is as simple and crude as most of my notes, but the file has the advantage that I can simply tap the pen tip on step #7, say, and it will play back my synched audio of comments about that particular step... which are likely to be much more involved than the actual written step.  Pages of text & diagrams can be saved as PNG files or combined visual/audio PDF files, and tucked into my Notebook app as individual subjects and chapters.  Ergo, "How to achieve a two-toned sandblast with black recesses and gold highlights" can quickly go from a scrap page of notes to become its own chapter title in my collected grimoire, complete with full audio playback of my comments about the process.

It's pretty awesome.

It's also been handy in drawing the cartoons for my gradually-developing Kentucky Fried Popcorn webcomic.  The pen does not read existing pencils, so I can do rough sketches and poses and wireframe figures with pencil, then carefully use the smartpen to ink over my pencils and produce a polished, finished ink drawing without any erasing needed.  It's the high tech version of drawing roughs with non-photo blue pencil.

It has limitations.  The biggest is that it requires custom paper to "read" from - You can either buy notebooks and sketchbooks from Livescribe or print your own paper from free templates if you have access to a 600dpi laser printer.  Also, its ability to read complex shading and crosshatching is limited - Too many overlapping fine lines will cause it to leave blank spaces in the computer scan version where it lost the ability to track the lines.  What it really prefers are strong, elegant, controlled lines in drawings.  I'd love to see its abilities as an art tool developed further, because right now the only other similar tool on the market is the Wacom Inkling and it lacks the Echo's audio recording and synching abilities.  Battery life has been excellent, but the occasional firmware updates are annoying - As a traditional media artist, I am not accustomed to having to apply software revisions to my pen.  Other than those caveats, though, it is a pretty impressive piece of kit, and I'd definitely recommend one to anyone whose job involves a lot of note taking.