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Back to Work

Updated: Sep 29, 2020



Tomorrow, Thursday, September 24, will be the first day I have played live with other musicians in over six months. The measures that allow a few of us back together(ish) are extremely strict — we enter the backstage area singly through a checkpoint where we answer a questionnaire, have our temperatures taken and get bracelets to show we’ve been checked. We proceed to separate stalls where we unpack instruments, and thence, singly, to widely spaced places on stage, or, for wind instruments, the outdoor Heinz Hall garden. All traffic is one-way along marked paths. There can be only so many musicians in an ensemble given the distance requirements, so these will be chamber works — woodwind or brass quintets, string quartets. No audience; we will be recording for future digital release, and that’s about all I know about that.


I went to the hall Monday the 14th for my COVID test (negative, obviously, or this would be a much different post) and to get some stuff from my locker. It felt completely alien. I’m writing this on Thursday the 17th, having just found out my casting. I’ve been playing more regularly the past couple weeks and I think I sound like me — for the first ten minutes anyway. I’m putting in two or more sessions a day to regain my endurance, to get back to two or three hours a day. I’m also lightening up on pipemaking to let my hands rest. And my elbows. I've been making pipes with a certain sense of urgency, partly because work is how I deal with things and partly as a feasibility study.


And I’ve learned a lot. For instance, I’ve learned that I could make a living as a pipemaker the way I’ve been doing it — if time travel were possible. It turns out I’m willing to work a lot harder than my hands are. Making a living selling $300 pipes is something you can do when you’re young, tough, and there is nowhere to go but up. Or if your process allows you to make several pipes a day, and you’ve grown your life around the craft. Making a few pipes as a side hustle is one thing. Making enough of them to cover your nut is entirely different.

The “aren’t-pipe-prices-ridiculous” thread blooms several times a year on every forum. There’s a lot of hostility out there about what things cost and how other people spend their money, and as a carver it’s generally not worth stepping into the mud wrestling pit, but in the spirit of letting you 25 loyal readers behind the curtain, the math is pretty simple. Material cost (there’s a lot of waste) and shop overhead is at least $100 per pipe. When someone throws out $40 for materials for a handmade pipe in a forum post and goes on to divide the remainder of the price into an hourly rate and concludes that if you make one $300 pipe a day you‘re pulling 50k a year that is pure, unadulterated ignorance. Briar waste is the big one and depends a lot on your relationships with cutters — it can be 20% to 50%. My first big briar order I wound up getting a batch of poorly dried blocks and 90% of the 150 had big internal cracks and voids. Stain would seem like an insignificant cost, but a bottle of aniline dye is $20. Sandpaper is cheap, right? At a dollar a sheet it adds up. Every so often you have to replace a rasp ($70) or a file ($35). Or a drill bit ($12) or some carbide lathe inserts ($1-8 each) or your date stamp ($70). You’ll need new blasting media ($75), you’ll need fresh epoxy, you’ll need way oil for your lathe, your heat gun will decide 20 years is enough. If your air compressor croaks you’re out $2,000 and there’s no putting it off because everybody wants sandblasts. Most tools last a long time but nothing lasts forever, and I could go on and on.


When you’re self-employed you pay both halves of social security so federal/state/local taxes take 40 percent and upwards of your net, depending on your bracket. If I sell a $300-ish pipe, well, I said the math was simple. It takes me a full day to make a pipe, give or take, depending on the pipe and my luck. Some pipes have shapes or features that take more time. Many catastrophic flaws don’t show up until you’ve invested several hours in the pipe, so a streak of two or three bad blocks can wind up costing much more than $40 per block. Then there is the non-carving time. I’ve put many hours into this blog, for instance, and there’s the photography and website copy and email correspondence. Being accessible and communicative is part of the value an artisan provides and it’s almost entirely enjoyable (and often educational). It’s also not to be overlooked when you try to figure out how you’re doing. Beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, and lots of people are doing worse.


As one of my college math professors used to say in the middle of a proof, “So far, so what?” Maybe it sounds like I’m complaining but it’s just the facts. It’s the same as a musician; when someone would ask what I spent on reeds and I’d respond it was like a car payment it would seem like I was whining but I was just answering a question. Pipe making has gotten me through a profoundly disturbing summer. It has kept me from sinking into — ok, staying in — a complete funk, has given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and has shallowed the financial glide slope. I’ve really enjoyed renewing old personal connections in the hobby and making new ones. Having invested this much time and energy, I’m not pulling the plug on carving even when (being positive here) the PSO goes back to work as normal, which, this upcoming series of recordings notwithstanding, isn’t happening for a few months at least. I do need to find a better balance, though. With my process, making five pipes a week is a full time job, and my hands just won’t take it and still allow me to play the clarinet well. Actually, they won’t take it, period. As Dirty Harry observed, a man’s got to know his limitations.


I’ve been thinking a lot about this. When I started posting pipes for sale in March (I never really stopped making them, just went underground and made a few commissions when the orchestra was on vacation), the first pipe I put up sold right away (thanks, Martin), but then a nice blasted Canadian sat for weeks before someone pulled the trigger. Trust is hard to win and easy to lose. I’ve done what I thought I needed to do to get back in the game, to get new pipes in people’s hands and get some discussion going about them at a time when most of us have been unsettled and cautious. I feel lucky that everything has worked as well as it has.

It’s a delicate balance and there’s no instruction manual. If my pipes cost too much, they won’t sell. If I make too many of them, my hands suffer. If I make too few, customers wait too long for commissions and lose interest. So long as there are concerts on the horizon, I must preserve my ability to perform as a musician. The key word for my pipe making is “sustainable.” What that means, exactly, your guess is as good as mine.


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