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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Making Halloween, ma-king Halloween...

It's that time of year again!  

Although, in our case, a rather challenging time of year...  Our Halloween pipe production has waxed and waned over the years depending on the circumstances of the moment - It's not always possible to set aside the long stretches of working time needed to make elaborate Talbert Halloween Pipes.  This year has been exceptionally difficult.  I've detailed in other posts some of the family health issues we've had, but in a nutshell, my wife's parents are both elderly and her father fell and broke his arm in two places.  It turned out to be a particularly nasty break and he's just come through the second surgery for it, after spending the entire summer in a recovery home from the first surgery.  The results for him are promising, we hope - Multiple steel bars implanted in his arm means he'll never get through a metal detector again, but he now has a hinged steel elbow to boot.  The downside is that he's going to be in a recovery home all through this month and probably next, and we are having our time split in several directions by visiting and helping out my mother-in-law with house care, errands, etc, as she is no spring chicken herself and is now on her own for an extended period.

So...   with all that on our plate, the initial plan was to have no special Halloween pipes this year.  However, that decision started changing when we found this new little show on Netflix called Stranger Things, which managed to perfectly nail the sort of gleeful, "out after dark" autumn fun ambiance that I run on like gasoline.  I knew I had to do something this year.  It just had to be something more adaptable to my fractured workdays than complex Talbert Briars that would need nine uninterrupted hours of focused working time every day to get right.

My solution is this - The Ligne Bretagne October Pumpkins!  A set of wickedly carved Jack-O-Lanterns would allow me to utilize the basic template of our regular Ligne Bretagnes for labor savings and put all my working time into the carving details, making the pipes more affordable (much) for fans who don't have a grand or more for a Talbert Halloween, while making them repeatable designs (at least to an extent), so I can make them to order.

Yes, you read that right - We are making these to order.   If you want an October Pumpkin, you can order one off of their catalog page and we'll make it for you!  So go check out Pumpkin #1 and Pumpkin #2.

This is a limited time offer!

I plan on making these through the rest of September and into October, as many as I feel I can reasonably be sure of finishing and getting to their owners by Halloween.  The goal is for everyone who wants one to have their pipes by October 31st.  That means - I don't know how long they will be on offer.  If sales are ideal, I'd love to be taking orders and shipping pipes from now right through to the week of Halloween.  If, however, we get a deluge of orders right off the bat, I will shut down the catalog pages when I feel I've got as many orders as I can reasonably handle and be confident of getting finished in time.

So, the answer is... They'll be available for order from now until sometime.  I should be able to give a better estimate after I see what the initial sales are like.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Ligne Bretagne - Classics and Uniques

Big news!

We're doing something new with Ligne Bretagne.  For the 14 years they've been in production, we've been plagued with one consistent issue - Lack of stock.  We post them, they sell out, and casual website visitors then write me to complain that all the pipes are always sold.  I don't blame them, I would not want to have to watch a site like a madperson 24/7 to insta-grab anything that got posted, myself.  The flip side is that we could not afford to do them as commissions, either.  The price levels they sell for simply don't accommodate the sort of back-and-forth consulting and talking that happen with every commission, and the limitations of working with machine-fraized shapes prevented a lot of the sort of size and shape requests customers might want anyway.

What to do?

Our solution is this - We're dividing Ligne Bretagne into two kinds of pipes, Ligne Bretagne Uniques (each one individual, the same as we've been doing), and Ligne Bretagne ClassicsLigne Bretagne Classics will be pipe designs that we work out carefully for repetition - Cuts of bowl, shank, stem length, band, and any other decor that we'll set up our workshop to reproduce accurately as many times as needed.  We'll select each bowl to be of consistent and matching grade to insure there will be no "losers" in our output.

And the best part is - You'll be able to order them.  

If you see a shape & design in the Ligne Bretagne Classics list that you like, you can purchase it right then!  Your order will go into our production queue and you'll receive an email with an estimated shipping date.  When your pipe is ready and finished, you'll receive specific photos of your personal pipe.  If you're happy with the results, your pipe will ship out as soon as we get your OK!

While the Ligne Bretagne Classics design list is small today (consisting of just two bulldogs for starters), we intend to add more shapes to it as time goes by.  We're starting with bulldogs because they've always been among our most popular sellers.

This makes things better for everyone - If someone wants to buy a design, they can, and they can be guaranteed of getting their pipe.  There's no racing to the page to try to grab something before the new stuff sells out.  Producing ongoing series of standardized pipe designs lets us save on production cost and time, savings that we can pass on to the buyers in the form of lower prices - Where our typical Ligne Bretagne Uniques tend to run around $175, Ligne Bretagne Classics can be ordered for $140 plus shipping.

I'll answer the two most likely questions here, and add more info as new questions arise.

Can I customize my order?  (Ex: I love the bulldog shape but I want one in red instead of black) - Not at the present time.  Maybe eventually... I'd like to be able to offer some checklist options in a drop-down menu style for finishes, especially, but for now I want to keep things simple to get these pipes off the ground as smoothly and successfully as possible.

Are these pipes any different from the other Ligne Bretagnes? - No.  They're made from the same aged stummels with the same stem materials, band materials, production techniques, and finishing processes as all our other pipes.  A Ligne Bretagne Classic is not a "cheaper" pipe... It just costs less!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

"But I won't do that"

I thought I might talk about the rules that individual pipemakers work by, in terms of form vs function.  I've seen a lot of beautifully sculptural pipe shapes in the past few years, and I love the looks of them and admire their originality and would make similar work myself, except... I always remind myself at the start of the workday that I am, ultimately, making a functional object, not a shelf sculpture.  It has to smoke, and it has to smoke well. 

A big part of that "smoking well" is down to the layout of the airhole, and how smoothly the smoke can travel from bowl to bit.  Have a look at some examples:

What you're seeing above, in cross-section, are a few examples of airhole layouts.  #5 at the top is the typical full-bent style, with an airhole that curves through the stem and then diverges at an angle from mortise to bowl.  #7 is an example of a more difficult shape, but still do-able - You have a curved airhole through the stem coming down to meet a small angle in the shank extension section meeting another angle at the tenon meeting another angle as the airhole bends back up towards the bowl.  Tricky, but it will still pass a cleaner.  #8 is an example of the sort of sharp angle that starts to become an issue.  The more that bend increases, the more likely a pipecleaner won't pass, even if the drilling is centered.  Also, the more it's likely to gurgle.

Back in my former life in HVAC, I had a decent education in duct systems.  The focus there is on consistent air movement, low noise, and smooth flow.  When I got into pipemaking, I applied a lot of these basic principles to my pipes, using what were at the time radical ideas like conical drillbits for stems to ease the resistance as the airhole flattened and widened toward the bit, as well as being a big proponent of the open draw.  The simple principle there is, the more complex the air passage is, the bigger the airhole needs to be to allow smooth flow. 

One trend that bugs me is the use of connecting airholes drilled at different angles and plugged to hide this fact.  Basically, you have an angle that's impossible for a straight drillbit, created using either a curved drillbit or two straight drills that form a bend.  It allows the creation of some stunningly sculpted pipes and I certainly envy the beauty of the results, but... I won't do that.  Why?  The minute that one uses a curved drilling or multiple angles in a sealed system, one has just cost the smoker the ability to ultimately clean and ream the airhole. 

It's not an immediate cost.  The pipe will probably smoke fine if the drilling is done well and the airhole is sized large enough.  The problem comes years later.  Airholes, just like bowls, accumulate cake inside with use, especially down near the bowl.  A couple years of regular use can reduce a 5/32" opening to a 9/64" or smaller, as the inlet gradually closes down.  That's why it's necessary to have a selection of long drill bits on hand for longterm maintenance, to enable the owner to push it through to the bowl and manually ream the airhole back to original size.  And that's why I don't do tricky airhole drillings, because... Full stop.  They can't be reamed. 

This is a perspective born of a couple decades of carving.  Wild shapes are seductive to new carvers, because they grab attention easily and have a powerful, "Hey, WOW, look at that artist!" Instagram/Twitter/Tumblr appeal for their visuals, but be careful - Some of those amazing shapes can come with some pretty annoying compromises, and they may not even become apparent till a few years down the road.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Defining a Symbolic Language of Pipes

And how is that for an imposing and pretentious-sounding article title?  It isn't quite as esoteric as it might sound, though - Really, all I've been doing is gradually, over the years, assembling a visual "alphabet" per se, of the lines and curves and forms that I love in pipe design.  One can find pipe shape charts everywhere, but what I am after is more elemental, more of a fundamental means of building an attractive shape.  The Legos of Beauty, I might say.

(I will, however, readily admit that I'm one step from creating an alphabet in code form out of the lines and curves I'm defining, for the sole purpose of inserting secret words and riddles into the very shapes of the pipes I make... One of these days I'm going to go full-Kit Williams)

But enough of the prattle, let's see some pictures.  Here's one of of my symbol charts, where I've gathered together the basic curves and shapes that I love most:

In a nutshell, these are lines I have a passion for... specific curves and weights of line and flares and elegant twists that look good in pretty much any form, from nature to automobiles to human bodies.  There's an old-but-true saying that the more you can make your car/carving/anything resemble the curves of a reclining female, the prettier it will be.  What I'm trying to do is sit down and put together a fairly comprehensive collection of specific elements that can be blended together to create beauty to the eye, when they're put together in a harmonious way.

So far, so vague?  Let's try and showcase some of these lines in action:

I dearly love the S curve, and try to work it into every bent pipe that I do.  Above and below you can see this philosophy as it's incorporated into the physical object of a handcut stem, in specific the stem of the Talbert Briar Emerald Teardrop.

S curves abound in my work, as well as teardrops and spirals.  Below I'm posting a few pics of the Emerald Teardrop - Take a look at the pics and the symbols above and see how many you can spot!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Experiment in Tenon Repair

A while back, I accidentally dropped one of my favorite pipes on our hardwood floor.  This is not a thing that I normally do, and I was annoyed with myself.  Further, the stem snapped neatly off, with the tenon breaking in the middle.  It left me with half a tenon stuck down at the bottom of the mortise.

Here's a little extraction trick, possible when your pipe's shank is thick enough to allow it:

Thread the wood screw in carefully, then grip it with pliers and tug the broken tenon section out.  Voila!

PS - If you do this with a too-large screw or in a thin-shanked pipe and crack it, don't come crying to me.  This blog fully supports the concept of Your Mileage May Vary, and Use at Your Own Discretion.

The next part was the experiment.  I wanted to try some special plastics glue, a 2-part mix designed exclusively to bond "hard to glue" plastics with bonds requiring exceptional strength.  I followed their instructions for preparing the broken surfaces, then applied glue and pressed.  I carefully scrapped off the overflow, then sanded the area of the tenon break before re-polishing it.  The split line is visible, but hard to see.  Better yet, the bond is amazing - Thus far it has held up to quite a bit of experimental twisting and insertion. 

Only time will tell whether the fix will last long-term, but it's certainly nice to have my pipe back again!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making a freehand

This is going to be a long post, but I'll try to keep the words to a minimum and let the photos do most of the talking.  Basically, this is how I make a freehand, and when I say "freehand", I mean a pipe with no advance planning as far as style goes.  The internal drilling is carefully plotted and it has a straight airhole connecting to a centered bowl chamber bottom, but as far as the shape went, I simply selected a plateau block with an unusual grain arrangement and decided to let the grain shape the pipe.  It's the antithesis of the working style that involves sitting down with graph paper and protractors and designing every detail of the pipe's shape beforehand.  Some guys are excellent at that, but I dislike working that way because it feels too mechanical for me.  On the other hand, working "without a net", so to speak, requires a LOT of courage and hope and the willingness to take crazy chances.  Both schools of design have their advantages and disadvantages.

Here you can see the total preplanning that was involved with this pipe.  Drilling angles, and a very basic idea of the shape size:

The initial shaping work defined the basic form along the flow of the grain.  It became obvious that the huge bird's-eye display across the front would be the centerpiece of the pipe.

The main surfaces are sanded smooth in the above photos to give me the most accurate idea of what the grain was going to look like, that I could then start fine-tuning the shape around the grain.  Also, it made a handy test to determine the level of flawlessness of the wood - If there were likely to be sandpits that would make the pipe a sandblast, they'd probably have shown up on those big smooth sections.

Next up was the stem.  I always work on the stem in tandem with the pipe so I can keep the two in visual balance with each other, as regards size and heft, and also match curves and lines.  Below you can see a smaller stem reject that I'm using as an initial model for this pipe's stem, which is handcut from German cumberland rod.

It's funny how my Taig lathe has become my favorite stem filing mount.  Takes all the strain off the wrists from holding the things by hand.  With a drill bit in each end, I can freely rotate the stem and compare the bit thickness to the size of the bit airhole, to get it thin without making it dangerously so.

Now you can see the pipe starting to come together.  The bit work is finished, leaving the body of the stem to be shaped to match the pipe.  The main shape of the bowl is now established along the lines of the grain flow, allowing the grain itself to determine the lines of the center curve that defines the pipe from front to back.  

It was still looking too chunky for me, though, so work from this point focused on tightening the base of the pipe inward - Still keeping to the arc of the grain, but emphasizing the strong heart-shape of the bowl via a more pointed bottom.

The bottom has been tightened inwards and the curves are more accentuated.  Now begins the stage of making the stem's freehand shape work with the pipe body.  Since it's a cumberland stem, it has "grain" of its own that needs to be considered and worked with, as well.  After some initial sketching of a couple of different ideas, I decide to go with a three-ringed approach using rings of diminishing size, with the nearest ring mirroring the curve of the shank end and the smaller ring curving in the opposite direction, giving a jaunty "flip" to the eye as it flares away from the bowl.

Once the basic shape of the stem rings was established and rough-carved, the bowl goes through a couple of processes to improve its initial smoking flavor, and is colored with a penetrating stain tint mixed with oil.  While that's drying, I work on finishing the stem in fine detail.  Once the pipe has received its final fine-sanding and polishing, it's finished!  What began as a block of wood is now a piece of sensually curving, smokeable craftsmanship.


And that, above, is the "Making Of" part of my post.  This next bit is the "Why", where I'll attempt to explain a lot of the specific details of the shape and why they were done the way they were done.  This gets into the nature of how the eye sees lines and curves, but I'll try not to get too esoteric.

First up, I mentioned shaping the pipe around the grain.  This applies to a lot of the pipe that may not be initially obvious... such as the top arc line of the shank flare.  It wasn't chosen randomly.  When one looks down the length of the pipe, the arc of the shank's flat top edge follows the arcing curvature of the grain on the bowl:

Note that the curved swirl of the cumberland flows in the same direction.

It's not the only curve that matches, though.  The flat plane at the top of the shank mirrors the flat plane across the bowl top.  Moreover, the two stem rings are shaped differently for a reason - The larger one creates a visual echo of the bowl's round body curves:

The smaller stem ring, by contrast, is cut into a teardrop form that echoes the teardrop shape of the end of the shank:

Some of that is probably hard to make out in the photo.  Oh, for a better macro lens!   Even the top edge of the smaller stem ring has a gentle flattened curve to it that calls to the shank's top.

The other area of visual excitement that I wanted was in the shank & stem profile.  Why excitement?  The human eye loves matching curves - One of my art professors once stated bluntly, "The more your design reminds someone of a nude woman, the more beautiful people will find it."  While round shapes look nice in echo of each other, lines do best either converging or mirroring in opposition.  I could have made the stem lines copy the shank, but it wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic as this opposing curve (There's an edge there in the cumberland, which tends to look invisible in the photos due to the cumberland grain):

More curves playfully flip in opposing directions between shank and stem, giving the pipe a sense of dance, almost - Two in harmony, one in opposition:

Finally, the silhouette profile presents more curve harmony as multiple shapes echo:

In that respect, the dual-ring design of the stem shape becomes a smaller mirror of the relationship between bowl and shank flare.

And, in a nutshell, that's how I look at pipe design.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

2016 and Onwards!

Whoah.  I just discovered to my surprise that I haven't written a pipe blog article since February of 2015, when I introduced the Morta Collectors.  I haven't exactly been active with this blog for a few years now, but that's quite a gap between posting, even for me.  By way of explanation, I'll just say that our year of 2015 went downhill sharply after that last post... My wife's parents were in the hospital several times, there were various crises happening, and it seemed as though every mechanical tool we owned broke down in some catastrophic way.  As I write this, we're still missing use of our air cleaner (down from a dead control board), our inherited station wagon (down from head gasket death), down one computer monitor that needs replacing, and still in need of a pressure regulator for the sandblasting cabinet since the old one packed up around November.  Still, I'm not going to sit around whining about this stuff, because it's time to move onwards and upwards!

Ligne Bretagne
Last year saw us focusing most of our production on Ligne Bretagnes, largely for the rather sad reason that my attention was just diverted to too many family health crises to really focus on making Talbert Briars properly.  It all made me very thankful to have Ligne Bretagne, though, as a reliable source of income that could adapt better to the crazed "Work one day and run to the hospital the next" style of workweek that characterized 2015.

The biggest trend I watched in 2015 was seeing nearly every other artisan maker create their own brand of factory-made pipes, essentially flooding the market with $100-ish factory pipes in a race to the bottom on pricing.  Most of what I've seen is not sustainable pricing-wise, based on my own experience with Ligne Bretagne, and I think after a year or two a great number of these fellows are going to find out just how much money they're losing with a lot of the prices I've seen.

I've given the situation some thought and opted to do the opposite of what "the crowd" is doing and take our Ligne Bretagne brand a wee step upmarket.  Prices aren't going to jump into the stratosphere or anything, the increases will be minimal, but my goal is to put more work and individual attention into each and every pipe.  I'm going to leave it to the factories to stamp out a hundred copies of the same shape in the same finish, and focus instead on our strong point - Individuality.  More creative finishes (Emily is now working on a carved knotwork finishing style that may end up being really striking), more individual touches to every pipe (Witness our recent increase in custom bands, rings, horn stems, etc), and overall, a greater focus on making each Ligne Bretagne a unique creation and less of the cookie-cutter type that have swamped the biz lately.

In a nutshell, there are plenty of good $100 pipes available now to choose from.  Ligne Bretagnes are going to be made for the buyers who may not have the cash for a $500 artisan brand, but do want something more unique, more unusual, and a little bit more polished than  the competition.  That's the goal, at least - Now it's up to the buyers to tell us if we hit it or not!

Talbert Briars
2015 only saw five Talbert Briars made.  Five, for an entire year.  As I write this, we still have one of them available, as well.  Should anything I've made ever become collectible, 2015 Talbert Briars are going to be one of the rarest pipe stampings on the planet!  As I mentioned above, I simply didn't have the time or the focus to make a lot of Talberts last year, but I hope to rectify that in 2016.  I've got a great number of sketches and designs piled up, and a lot of creative shapes I want to try... All I really need is a bit of breathing room to relax and focus on them.  Talbert Briars have never been a 75-pipes-a-year artisan brand (Usually I'm doing good to make 40-50), but they will always remain our flagship line that represents the best of our best, and I do hope I'll be able to put a few more of them onto the website in the next twelve months.

Oh, and also...

A number of folks have bemoaned the sad silence of my web comic, Giant Radioactive Lizards eloquently discuss Collectible Tobacco PipesIt went dormant due to the circumstances mentioned above - It's hard to get inspired to make a funny web comic about giant monsters arguing over Dunhills, when you've spent every third day of the year worrying that a family member is going to die, or is in terrible health.  They WILL be back, however, as soon as opportunity allows.  That's a promise!