• howellhandmade


My dad used to say, “Life is full of choices.”

This may be a slender premise for a blog post, but it can’t be any more slender than the one about drawer space, and may be informative for some.

Halfway in, last week’s Large Panel looked like it had the makings of a great smooth. Which, frankly, isn’t as great a thing for a spec pipe as it used to be, but when such an opportunity presents itself I've learned that I should take it. It can’t be just an OK smooth, though, it has to be distinctive and worth the trouble — not just of the finishing, but of making another pipe to fill the sandblast order I was probably trying to make in the first place. The time when an absence of flaws was all that was required of a smooth is long gone. Nowadays customers are likely to prefer blasts over smooths anyway, and only a smooth pipe that has full coverage and not a hair out of place will get attention.

Briar rarely gives you what you want the first time. Recently I had an order for a natural blast Zulu, and wound up making five stummels. Two of the best-grained blocks wound up in the trash, one I could see wouldn’t blast well for a natural finish, and one was too good to blast and wound up as the Fiery Zulu a couple of weeks ago. Certainly could have been worse.

Also, briar often saves a curve ball for the very end of the game. Occasionally it’s a good surprise, more often not. Something that may not be obvious about the Panel shape is that if you want big, bold flats you must start with an oversize pipe. If you run into a flaw on a nearly finished pipe and try to save it by making it a Panel, you wind up with walls that are too thin or not much of a flat. So it was in the oversize round form that this pipe had strong, even straight grain all the way around and I started imagining an amazing straight grain Panel.

However, as I flattened the sides of the bowl, the grain on three sides stayed strong and straight while one of them flamed and washed out slightly. Not terribly, but enough to require consideration.

First option: forge ahead with a smooth finish. This might turn out ok if the flamey panel took contrast stain really well. Sometimes if there’s very strong grain it’s interesting enough without being perfectly straight. This is somewhat iffy because these days if you finish a pipe smooth the grain had better be awesome, but three sides WERE awesome. And keeping it smooth I could make the lines really clean and sharp. It could also turn out to be a big waste if the stain didn't go well — it takes a lot of time to finish a smooth pipe. But you can always blast a smooth finish later, while once a pipe is blasted it’s blasted.

Second option: forget smooth, blast it. Starting with a really clear pipe might result in the elusive natural blast, and once I started staining for a smooth, the natural blast option would be lost, you can never blast every molecule of stain out. Kind of interesting how a smooth stained finish and a natural blast are mutually exclusive.

Blasting takes less time overall, and if there is any doubt about how the smooth finish will turn out you might as well do what customers prefer anyway. On the other hand, blasting is like sanding in that you never know what evil black pit is lurking a few thousandths of an inch below the surface. In a previous post (The Briar Imp) I told you about the hole that blasted through the lip of the Clam; if I told you every single story about briar snatching defeat from the jaws of victory I’d write about little else. And you never really know exactly what kind of blast you’re going to get. Anyway, blasting a pipe is not without risk. Life is indeed full of choices.

The deciding factor was probably the very low temperature out in the garage where my sandblasting rig is, and my lack of enthusiasm for standing and freezing for an hour. So, as you could tell all along from the photos, I finished it smooth, took pictures, and set up the catalog page.

And immediately starting having second thoughts. Man, so close. I felt compelled to put the above picture first. You understand; if I put the picture at the top of this post first and you thought “WOW!” and clicked on it you might be disappointed when you got to this one and feel that I was pulling a bait-and-switch. Even worse, you might miss that picture and hit the buy button without seeing the weaker panel until you pulled it out of the bag . . . that would be bad. But if I put the flamey picture first you might assume the rest of the pipe was worse and not look at it at all.

The amount of explanation a decision requires is inversely proportional to the correctness of the decision. The fact that I was arguing with myself at all made it clear that I should blast the pipe and should have done to begin with. Becoming attached to those three great sides and focusing on the outcome had flawed my process. It was obvious, I just didn’t want to admit that I’d wasted the time and I still didn’t want to stand in the cold. Finally I applied the test I should have used in the beginning:

“What would Tom Eltang do?”

I put on a coat.

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