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Grinding Lines

Many years ago I walked into Lou’s Barber Shop in Squirrel Hill. My friend Dick Holland had a great head of hair and always spoke highly of Lou. I still had some hair back then and needed a haircut. Lou, an old Italian barber straight out of central casting, raised an eyebrow at me.

“Dick Holland says this is the best place in town to get a haircut” I offered as an icebreaker.

Lou snorted. “Dick Holland? What the hell does he know?”

Which was funny, but somehow it left a mark and is memento mori whenever I feel myself about to act knowledgeable. What the hell do I know?

So I’m going to write about a pipe just up for sale:

but there’s a bit of back story. I attended my first Chicago Pipe Show in 2004. I sold one pipe and was lucky to sell it. I shared a table with Peter Heeschen — take a moment and let that sink in. I had decided to go to the show after all the tables had been taken and had planned to share with Greg Pease, who had been advising and mentoring me based on emailed photos. But there was some complication with space because of the launch of a new blend and I wound up scrowging on Uncle Peter, who was just lovely. He was so kind and welcoming to a newcomer that the only possible explanation was that he was that way with everybody. Trying to sell pipes next to Peter was like manning the kissing booth next to Charlize Theron’s but I sure learned a lot.

I also got to spend way more time than I deserved with Tom Eltang and Kent Rasmussen. Tom Eltang is known for his frank appraisals of new makers’ work. He will ask, “Do you want me to be honest?” Of course, why would you ask for an opinion and not want an honest answer? Well, you’re about to find out why. It may sting but you’d better swallow your pride and listen because there are no better carvers. I particularly remember Tom’s picking up a largish pipe of mine that was almost perfectly spherical. I had seen the “Ball” as a listed shape somewhere, had lucked into a piece of briar that yielded 360-degree straight grain and decided to quit while I was ahead. I’d made a damned baseball on a stick is what I’d done, and Tom gave me words to carve by as he held it up and tilted his head. “There’s a nice pipe in there somewhere” he said. “You must have the courage to keep cutting even when the grain is good.”

Kent Rasmussen is the one who afflicted me with the obsessive behavior featured on today’s pipe. Kent was very nice to me. Almost everyone at the Chicago show is nice, which makes sense because everybody who is anybody in the pipe world is there. Word gets around so if there are three days out of the year not to be a jerk it would be these three. But nobody is asking established, eminent pipe makers like Rasmussmen to teach, and yet teach they do. “Cut to the bone” is how Kent described his shaping aesthetic. I could go on, but let’s cut to the chase. Kent handed me one of his pipes, a Butterfly-grade Dublin with a long oval shank that was worth more than the Ford Taurus wagon I’d driven to Chicago. He watched me as I turned the pipe over, obviously waiting for me to notice something. When I failed in that regard, he took the pipe back and showed me: “The stem fits both ways,” he said.

It was true. The stem displayed perfect bilateral symmetry, which happened to be the answer to a question on my freshman biology final exam. Up or down, no difference.. Now, why does this matter? At a certain level, it doesn’t. There’s not much to a pipe, after all. You stick tobacco in the big end and stick the little end in your mouth and Bob’s your uncle, no need to overcomplicate things. Corncob pipes have lots of fans. But if you value handwork, there are details that separate things made with care and attention from things made to a price.

Because Kent, who may have been one of the four or five highest-priced carvers in the world at the time, considered this detail important enough to point out, I lampreyed onto it. I could see that to pull it off you didn’t need to be Kent Rasmussen, you just needed to make a plan and be willing to do the work. Which I was. Usually. My high school piano teacher scolded me at one point (I was not the best piano student). She said, “You can’t play a lot of pieces I can play, but there is NO REASON ON EARTH you can’t play THIS piece as well as I can.” That’s pretty close to where I was vis-à-vis Kent. His Butterfly-grade Dublin that somebody bought for close to three grand (don’t hold me to that either way; it was a long time ago, I was easily boggled, and whatever it was, it was a lot) was the Tchaikovsky piano concerto while the reversible stem was the Bach two-part invention that I could play cleanly if I would just PRACTICE for heaven’s sake.

There is wisdom in the old Chinese story about the master potter who had a rival who was copying him. When asked if this upset him, he said, “No, when we are both dead, people will think I made his good pots and that he made my bad ones.” So while it is rare that I don’t think of Kent’s “cut to the bone” motto or Tom’s “There’s a nice pipe in there somewhere” quip when I consider whether or not I’m done shaping a pipe, I’ve focused on techniques and principles rather than trying to copy their shapes. Maybe that sounds a little too self-congratulatory. After all, what the hell do I know?

We were talking about the stem that fits both ways. I said in a previous post that the professional cuts close to the line with a coarse tool, and in another previous post I mentioned that I do a lot of shaping with rasps and files. To sanding wheel-centric pipemakers that may seem contradictory — shaping with a rasp sounds so slow that you might as well strategically dab peanut butter on the block and let your dog lick it into shape.

Not so. A sharp rasp, particularly a Nicholson No. 49 or 50 patternmaker’s rasp, will remove a lot of wood quickly, so if you’re not paying attention you can cock up a shape just as easily with a rasp as you can with a sanding wheel. But if you establish a true line and pay attention, you can use the inherent straightness of the tool to your advantage, bear down and take your cut as close to finished dimension as you wish, or dare.

Oddly enough, I learned about the patternmaker’s rasp not from pipe making, but from a book, Sam Maloof, Woodworker. Compared to a rocking chair, a pipe isn’t that much rasping.

Often when shaping I will leave a sharp line as a guide. Keeping that line even on each side of the pipe maintains symmetry, like a knife maker’s grinding lines. Most of the time these lines on a pipe are scaffolding that gets removed or blended in during final shaping, but sometimes they acquire a life of their own and become a feature. Using this pipe as an example, the first step is to establish the planes of the top and bottom of the shank and stem. Remember that the goal is a reversible stem, so these two planes need either to be parallel or to converge on the airway axis equally. Then, the corners of the shank get shaped down until they create side lines precisely coplanar with the airway. Or reasonably so anyway. The airway slot is a handy reference for one end of the lines. Machinists have a phrase, “square to the world.” Once everything lines up — side lines with the airway slot corners, airway slot with the top of the bowl, side lines with each other along the shank — with the stem in either position, the pipe is square to the world and it is just a matter of reversing the stem now and then during shaping, using the low surfaces from the previous orientation as guides to shape down the new proud surfaces, back and forth. As the tools get finer, the differences lessen.

I’m not saying my way of achieving this fit is the best or only way. After all, what the hell do I know? I guess I’m showing you for the same reason Kent showed me. It evinces attention and care. There may be other ways to achieve a perfect reversible fit, but it sure doesn’t happen by accident.

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