My college freshman English teacher said, “You don’t know what you think until you see what you say.” Which I guess explains why some of my posts swerve around a bit. Here’s what happened this week: I got this skookum 100mm macro lens and full frame digital camera body a couple of weeks ago and have been using it to take photos for the website. I sent the Magnum Acorn images to a friend, who wrote back saying that some of the shots were almost pornographic, which I took as a compliment. Even if I am shooting JPEGs and using a fraction of the camera’s capability, you can zoom right in on stuff. Dust specks, for instance.
But also finish quality, creases, transitions, and while we were geeking out over the detail in the photos my friend suggested that I should develop the idea as a blog post. You know, catalog the details that go into making a good pipe.
Simple. Show some zoomed-in bits and talk about details. But the more I circled the topic looking for the soft underbelly, the more I realized that it was mostly hooves and horns, and a lot bigger up close. I’m not an expert on pipes in general, I just know about the ones I make, and even then, where to start? Most of the dimensions of pipe quality are separate topics, easily. Technical difficulty. Proportion and harmony. Fit and finish. Many details in each, and if you take a detail out of context the tail can start wagging the dog.
For instance. Early on, I shared a table with Greg Pease at a couple of Chicago shows, so I got to ask questions. As a recently arrived carver, I was learning about the whole “high grade” thing, and here were high grades from horizon to horizon. Some of it was obvious. I spent a really long time looking at a much-smoked Lars Ivarsson Blowfish. It fascinated me like an M.C. Escher drawing, how it was both asymmetrical and balanced, simple and complex. I really wanted to buy it to study more (the dealer was starting to hover and clear his throat) but I was fresh out of $2,500 bills. I probably couldn’t buy that pipe for $10,000 today. Oh well.
Some of it seemed arbitrary. The “polished mortise face,” for instance, was a big deal one of those early years. About the third time someone took one of my pipes apart and frowned, I asked what was wrong and was informed that my mortise faces weren’t polished. So? Although I was impressionable enough to try to get an oval stem to fit both ways I thought polishing the mortise face was pointless. You want the mortise face and the stem face to mate perfectly. If your engine’s head gasket leaks it’s not because the surfaces aren’t polished, it’s because they aren’t flat. If you do it right, a machined surface will be smooth, flat, and square. Polishing on a wheel introduces curvature and is for external surfaces that don’t have to mate with anything. Like the entire outside of the pipe. You can lap a flat surface to mirror finish if there is any reason to, and If the mortise face has gotten off-axis and needs to be lapped back to square, fine. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Lars Blowfish, while clearly high grade, did not have a polished mortise face.
During a lull, I asked Greg, “What‘s with the polished mortise face? Why is that even a thing?” Somewhat sheepishly, he said, “Umm, I may have started that.”
As I recall — I can’t find the article I’m thinking of on glpease.com but I also can’t find the one about one of my pipes from around the same time so we’ll call it a push — Greg had written about a certain carver, calling attention to, among other things, his polished mortise faces. Greg hadn’t meant to single out a polished mortise face as independent evidence of goodness in any given pipe, it was just an example limning this maker’s overall high level of finishing. Some readers mixed corellation and causation and sociology took over from there. Seemed plausible.
If I’d been on the other side of the fence I’d probably have done the same thing.. With most goods and services, higher cost means a better product UP TO A POINT, and in almost every case there is disagreement about where that point is and about what you’re paying for after that. Attention to detail is commonly cited, but it can be hard to know what you’re looking for. It takes a lot of study and experience and passion to become confident enough in your appraisal to proceed alone when dropping serious coin, so most of us look to experts for guidance on significant purchases, and finding bargains. Of course, buying an artisan pipe, whether $200 or $2,000, is an emotional decision. It’s art; if you didn’t love the art form you’d smoke cobs. You won’t buy a pipe that doesn’t move you, that you don’t love even if you can’t explain exactly why. That said, there is an economic component. Kind of like real estate, where are the comparables?
So, for me, or any maker, to write a “what makes a good pipe” article is a bit like, say, Jeep telling you what makes a good car. The information might not be wrong, necessarily, but it will have a slant. There are many details to pipe making, wresting a living from it is difficult, and it’s only good marketing for a maker to draw attention to some detail or design feature that he or she executes particularly well. I reckon all carvers are doing pretty much the same thing: amalgamating the advice from more experienced craftsmen with personal experience into a way of doing things, and combining that with some notion of what is beautiful, or at least likely to sell. That said, I mentioned photos, which is what started all of this.
Something that I quickly learned was a big deal in the artisan pipe market is the stem, especially the part that goes in the teeth. There is a range of preferences, but it needs to be less than 4mm thick, and not too wide, narrow, flat, or curved. The button is almost a different topic; many high grades seem to have almost no button at all, which looks racy, but deprives one of the opportunity to hang the pipe off one’s lower front teeth with almost no jaw pressure. I figure if my buttons are too prominent for someone, reducing is a moment‘s work. Enlarging, not so much. Anyway, what caught my eye in the above photo was the reflection in the stem. Years ago I started trying to build a Moire interferometer to look at the cut of clarinet reeds. While that project came to naught, I retained an appreciation for Moire fringes, which is what you see in the reflection of the fabric weave in the stem. The fringe is like a topo map, a little skewed because of the angle of reflection, but you can get an idea of the curve, which is nice and smooth if I say so myself. Ignore the bit of buffing compound in the slot, I took care of that.
Car, pipe, shotgun — a lot of value rides on fit and finish. I’m not saying that mine is better than anybody else’s — it might be more modest to use Eltang, et al, as examples but, crucially, I don’t need permission to post my own photos. If I were to pick one detail that I’ve improved in 20 years I’d point to flocs. When I started, I did most of my decorating to the stem rather than the shank because it was easier, but as I started looking at the Danish style with the thin, raised ivory or boxwood ring at the end of the shank, I saw the sense in it. If you are going to decorate the stem/shank transition, might as well do so in a way that protects the sharp edge of the shank when the stem is removed. It took me some practice to get the right amount of protrusion and have the curved surface blend with the straight(ish) surfaces on either side.
That‘s not a detail that physically affects how a pipe performs. Some — not all — of the details that make a difference are difficult to see. Centered, flush drilling, good bowl geometry, adequate airway size, tenon seating flush with mortise bottom, managing angles to pass a cleaner easily, smooth funneling of the airway inside the stem, decent weight and balance. Sometimes the buyer’s priorities require a compromise; there are some who love extreme bends and will accept a bit of fiddling with a pipe cleaner, while for many if the pipe cleaner so much as catches it’s game over. Some won’t buy a pipe over 50 grams, while others want a certain size or sculptural quality and understand that there’s no free lunch. The fins on a ‘59 Cadillac don’t save weight.
Actually, I’m going to backtrack on “physically affects.“ If you didn’t find extra pleasure in well made implements you probably wouldn’t be reading this. You certainly can write with the ballpoint you got free with the dry cleaner’s name on it. But maybe you enjoy the feel and the flowing, expressive line and the heft and the craftsmanship and the deep ink color of a high quality fountain pen and you have a few extra bucks — the sky is the limit. You can chop vegetables with a $5 chef’s knife from the grocery store, or you can savor every stroke of a damascus blade hand-forged and ground by a master bladesmith, the sky is the limit. How can anyone but you say how and how much your appreciation of the object’s beauty and the skill and labor it took to create it affects your physical sensation of using it? And why would they want to; whose money is it anyway? It is said often enough that you can have anything you want, just not everything you want, and I’ve known several fishermen who drove rusty old pickups but fished with vintage Leonard bamboo rods and Hardy reels. Why should pipes be any different? If we have the right receptors we respond at some level to another human’s striving. I guess we might as well call it beauty; it takes striving to turn a musical phrase to which at least some people will respond ecstatically. It takes striving to create any object that has the feel, the balance, the look, the precision that will make someone desire it, and prefer it over less costly alternatives.
If I have failed to catalog the details that make a really good pipe — and have I ever — let’s just agree that it’s complex. Maybe I’ll nibble away at it in future posts if this one doesn’t drive everyone off. We pay for time, but not everybody’s time is equal. We pay for beauty, but we all have different standards. Years, ago, in a university marketing class, I read that people do not buy goods or services, rather, they purchase a perceived satisfaction. I hope that clears things up.