Updated: Jun 11, 2021
One of the reasons for this blog to exist is to offer a bit of my perspective on the pipe maker's craft, to expand on some detail or process that comes up in correspondence. If some people have the same question, perhaps others do as well.
Sandblasting, for instance. Sandblasting is a generic term for propelling abrasive media with compressed air; most makers use very fine glass bead media, eroding the softer material faster than the harder, leaving raised rings and striations. The pattern on a sandblasted pipe results primarily from the differential between hard and soft briar, which varies from block to block. The greater the differential between hard and soft, the sharper and deeper the blast. Further, the striations and rings vary independently in hardness. Sometimes the rings are more prominent, sometimes the striations, sometimes they are more or less equal. There are variables that the maker controls — air pressure, nozzle size, distance between the nozzle and the work, angle of attack relative to the grain, steaming or moistening the wood before blasting — but ultimately the wood will only do what it will do. Some of my blasts are deeper and sharper than others, but not necessarily more beautiful.
Every so often, someone will send me a picture of a sandblasted pipe, perhaps even one of my own, with the request to reproduce THAT blast. To which I respond that not only can I not reproduce a given blast, I cannot guarantee that any blast will look like ANYthing. Every blast is unique. I will invite the enquirer to look at the blasted pipes I’ve made in the past few months to get an idea of the range of possible outcomes. If only one of those possible outcomes is acceptable, the commission is apt to be either expensive or unsatisfactory. While I work hard to pick good blocks and get the best blast I can from each attempt, you never really know what the wood is going to do until you start blasting.
Photo: Neill Archer Roan
Years ago, I made a blasted Ukulele for Neill Archer Roan. Actually, I think I made it for the Chicago show. He bought it and has been fending off requests to sell it ever since. As I recall, I didn’t have high hopes for that block; the grain was mixed and indistinct, and the only reason I made a Ukulele from it was that it was wide enough. When I blasted it, though, a craggy, windswept, UNIQUE surface emerged. I’ve had a number of requests to duplicate that pipe — not just that pipe, THAT blast. It is not possible. Even when I've made dozens of the same shape for club pipes, no two blasts were exactly the same.
So, we have a finishing process that interacts with a variable raw material to produce a somewhat variable result, and we have some pipe buyers who want only a particular result. You can imagine the Venn diagram; the more restrictive the customer's finish requirements, the more expensive the pipe. Most customers — not all, though — recognize that the more difficult they make it for me to fill an order, the more it will cost. Often briar makes it hard enough to make a pipe, period, never mind a one-in-a-hundred blast.
When I explained this to a prospective customer recently, he said, huh, he had assumed that my results would be somewhat reproducible. After all, other makers seemed to be able to do it.
Ouch. Ok, let's talk about that. Perspective.
First, we should make sure that the highly reproducible results cited are actually blasts, and not carved or carved/blasted hybrid finishes that can look very similar to blasts but produce deeper and more regular grooves than a natural blasted surface. Second, remember the availability heuristic. Third, different makers have their own techniques to which I believe they are entitled. For instance, there is a blasting technique using a micro-fine nozzle where the maker pinpoint blasts in between each grain ring, creating unusually deep grooves between razor-sharp ridges. J.T. Cooke is the leading practitioner, and his pipes are distinctive. I don’t use this technique, partly because it’s hella time-consuming and partly because it’s J.T. Cooke’s thing, not mine. That’s just one example. There isn’t much regard for intellectual property in the pipe world, and while I don’t care to get started on that — at least not right now — it reminds me of a Chinese parable that I think I used in a previous post.
A master potter had a rival who was copying his pots. When asked if this bothered him, he said, “No. When we are both dead, people will think that I made his good pots, and that he made my bad ones.”