News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

We can rebuild him

Another trip down memory lane with another 1998 pipe donation needing some work.  This pipe, which I informally dubbed the Marlowe after a certain PI, was one of the most difficult things I'd tried at the time, though looking at it now it's a terribly clunky thing -

To my credit, or excuse, it was my first attempt at a "classical" shape and done without a lathe.  This is a crucial point in understanding the thing.  While it may look a bit wobbly and thick, it was not smoothly cut while spinning solidly on a benchtop lathe... It was shaped by hand files while spinning on friction mounts chucked in my hand drill which was strapped to my workbench with screw clamps.  And this while sitting in an unconditioned garage in the evenings after an 8 hour workday.  The bowl "ring" looks terrible because I was too afraid of my wobbly mount flying off to try to cut deep into the wood! In a lot of ways, even though it doesn't look good, I'm happy it came out as well as it did considering the tools I was working with.  I'm particularly proud of the band fit I achieved - A silver band applied jeweler-style with heat expansion, which has held on perfectly through the last 21 years of use:

When it came back here, however, I couldn't leave it as it was.  For one, the stem was so loose it was falling out so that HAD to be addressed, plus I just couldn't bring myself to sell it again looking as lumpy as it did.

Where the heck to begin, though?  The constraints of the shape meant there wasn't a lot to work with, so no wholesale redesign was possible.  Instead, I adopted a point-by-point approach, fixing each individual issue first before taking an overall appraisal of the result.  First up - The primitive bowl ring was redone as a double ring surrounding a hand-rusticated center ring:

That served the dual purpose of fixing the original ring and also giving the bowl more visual "weight" to help balance that overly large shank.  Next up was tightening the shank-to-bowl join for a more polished and professional appearance:

All this detailing, however, could not get around the pipe's underlying visual issue, that the bowl was too small for the shank.  And this was an f-stop problem, because I couldn't "add more bowl" and the shank could not be made smaller without removing and almost certainly destroying the original valuable silver band.  In the end, I opted for a two-pronged approach - Giving the shank a VERY subtle taper inwards as it moved from band to bowl, and giving the bowl a beveled front edge.  That seemed potentially risky as it was removing mass from an already-too-small bowl, BUT... that mass was rounded and clumsy and adding some edges and detail would, I hoped, give the bowl enough extra visual weight and detail that it would offset the lost mass.  And voila:

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" - It's a truth of life.  But, if you try hard and think about it a lot and put way more work into it than it deserves, you can sometimes turn a lost cause into a minor win with enough stubborn determination.

The problem now is... What the heck do I DO with it?  It has far more labor time in it than it's worth, given that in the end it's a 21 year old 1998 estate pipe restoration.  Also, annoyingly, I have gotten very fond of the thing.  It was a hard fought project both originally and in its "v2.0" recreation, and I can't help but think it would be an excellent pipe to add to my own collection.  I have little enough of my own work as it is, so maybe...

The Past - You can run from it or learn from it

The Saruman

Let's roll back to 1998.  We all accessed the net with dial-up modems and most online pipe chat happened in Alt.Smokers.Pipes and on IRC.  The Lord of the Rings movies hadn't come out yet, and there was no advance publicity about them.  LOTR was still simply this quiet, understatedly amazing fantasy series known mainly to voracious readers and fans of fantasy and SF.  Back in that distant time, I'd been making pipes for a few years for friends, and the main theme I kept returning to was LOTR.  I'd done hobbit pipes, Lothlorien pipes, and more.  But once I'd won the Pipes & Tobaccos carving contest and interest started to pour in, I wanted to up my game and start making some genuine, professional level pipes to sell.

(A side note - Originally I took this pipe and two others to a local brick & mortar shop, which was the traditional way to sell at the time.  The pipes sat in their shop for a week and they called me to say come get them, they're not selling.  Being savvy in this new internet stuff, I took them home and sat for an evening and wrote up my very first website, then put them on it.  All three pipes sold immediately and I pocketed all of the money instead of half of the money.  With that one event, my career, and selling philosophy, was set in motion)

This pipe was the first I ever sold.  With it went a scroll that I wrote up and signed, along with some printed-out comments from Usenet, February 1998.  Recently it's come back here as a donation to help with our fundraiser for my wife (Full details HERE), after she and her parents suffered a string of health issues and natural disasters all through the nightmare year of 2018.

Getting it to a saleable condition, however, was a challenge!  I would ideally have left it as-is, but the stem literally fell out of the mortise, it was so loose.  Back then I turned it too loose to start with, and didn't know enough to ignore a bit of very bad advice I got from the internet, the old "Heat and squish" trick.  A lot of guys will tell you this - If your stem is loose, just heat it up and press it against something and it will bulge and then fit tighter.  This is an awful "solution" because what you get is a tenon with a wide part that will eventually wear the mortise down to its own size, making the rest of the tenon not contact, wobble, and eventually loosen and fall out.  But, alas, I didn't know any better and 20 years later it came back to haunt me.

This was going to be a major challenge, because it needed an all-new tenon but I had to fit it, centered, into an original stem that was hand-rounded, do it without taking any thickness out of the thin mortise walls, and be able to match the naturally-colored 20yo stain for any parts I did sand.

Annnd... Wouldn't you know it, but the original stem exploded when tightening in the threaded replacement tenon.  >POP< and that was it.

BUT, once it was obvious I needed to make a whole new stem, I was really quite happy, because I feel like now I can do a considerably better job than I did on the original:

Also, I had the chance to improve one aspect of the design.  Back then, I drilled the pipe as a moisture well/expansion chamber pipe, Peterson-style.  The airholes of stem and shank deliberately did not connect and the well took the moisture.  Over the years since, I've come to prefer a connected airhole, and I had the chance to fix this quirk on this pipe by using a technique I dreamt up 15 years ago or more, the guided tenon outlet.  In a nutshell, rather than having the airhole centered in the tenon tip, I drilled a smooth, subtly angled airhole within the tenon that let the opening exit on the front side.  Voila:

The result?  A pipe that was never intended to pass a pipecleaner... will now pass a pipecleaner, from bit to bowl!

It looks a bit odd up close, but it does the job nicely, and I've found over the years that this technique opens up a lot of shape curvatures and drilling angles that were previously unworkable.  Now when I post this pipe for sale, again, it will be the best of both worlds - A beautiful, professionally cleaned and waxed example of my early carving style with the bowl in untouched original form, and a modern, better-cut stem coupled with a much improved airhole connection.  Most people never get the chance to go back and make something from their past better, so I find myself oddly grateful to have had this run through our workshop once again, after all these years.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Reworking the flashback

Very recently, I've gotten my hands on a small treasure trove of my older work which I'll be cleaning up and selling in order to raise funds to help pay for my wife's cancer surgery.  It's been a fascinating trip down memory lane, particularly in regard to the oldest pipes of the bunch (I've got the first two pipes here that I ever sold!).  A few of these are even unsmoked after all these years, so it should be a nice selection of goodies for any avid Talbert collectors out there as I gradually get the pipes photographed and posted. 

It has brought me up against one annoyance, though, which every artisan can relate to - The chance to look back in up-close dismay at the amateurishness in some of the early work.  In my defense, the late 90's were a different universe from today in terms of pipemaking.  No YouTube How-To videos, no Pipemakers' Forum, no thousands of websites showing step-by-step processes, and no custom makers of pipemaking tooling either.  Everything that I was doing, I had to figure out for myself, as there was no pile of YouTube tutorial videos telling me how to make a turned brass shank end cap. 

In some ways I think this was good, as the profusion of pipemaking help available today has led to a certain sameness in output, in my opinion... Everyone is following the same process steps, aiming at the same goals, and producing very similar results.  But it also produced a lot of learning-by-breaking and learning-by-screwingup. 

A case in point - The 1999 Talbert Briar Yule Pipes.  This was actually the second Yule Pipe set I'd done after a little three pipe foray in '98, but this was a big first for me in lots of ways.  It was the first time I'd tackled doing a matching ten pipe set of the same shape and it was the first time I'd used brass rod (I drilled out and turned solid rod to make the shank end bands for each pipe).

I've got three of these '99 Yules here to sell, but looking at them, I'm choosing to fix a few issues they have to "modernize" them a bit.  To wit:

Above is an as-yet un-improved '99 Yule.  I look at it now and am immediately thinking, "Wow, the stem's too fat, it needs to lose a lot of weight in the middle and that ring section needs to be moved closer in to the shank, and re-turned to better echo the brass ring, because right now it doesn't stylistically match at all."

A little work later, and I've tweaked the stem on another one like so:

Purists, I suspect, will be horrified by this altering of past work and I'll probably be getting a few emails fussing over how much better the original looked, even though it didn't.  The revised version removes that awkward visual bulge where the stem was fatter than the shank ring, and retunes the stem's ring to be a much better match for the brass ring. 

More important than the visual are some functional improvements.  Back in '99, I was doing very simple bit slots (All of that stuff about, "You MUST have a deep V slot, blah blah blah" that's considered so important today... NONE of that was given any credence back then).  I really wanted to improve this part of the pipes so I've been widening the bit slot and carrying the V down into the stem to make for much easier pipecleaner passage.  You can see the difference below, with an unmodified '99 Yule stem on the left and a newly-modified '99 Yule stem on the right:

I don't plan on drastically altering the shaping of any of these older pipes, but I do feel that some functional visual and internal improving is well worth it, much like all the guys that buy old GTOs and immediately fit them with four wheel disc brakes!