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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...!