Search
  • howellhandmade

More Commissions


Perhaps you’d be interested in seeing more pipes I’ve made on commission in the past few months. Maybe even in reading a little discussion about commissions in general. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was a bon vivant, and frequently hosted soirees attended by the brightest minds of the day — with the exception of musicians. Asked why musicians were never invited, Saint-Saëns replied, “When I invite scientists and businessmen, we talk about music. When I invite musicians, we talk about money.”

I’m going to try to keep that in mind, but it's not just musicians. Early in my comeback, one of my customers asked me to call. He was pleased with a pipe he had commissioned and he decried the prices of several better-known makers. “I hope you make a ton of pipes and put some of these fellows (not his word) out of business,” he said. Others have emailed, basically, good onya for keeping your prices down.


Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it? Plenty of people think spending more than $20 on a pipe is insane. But let’s back up a bit. Even if I were trying, which I’m not, and even if there was any certainty they would sell, which there isn’t, I couldn‘t possibly make enough pipes at a low enough price to put anybody out of business. And NOBODY is getting rich making pipes. It’s a tricky business, with high material costs, unpredictable time requirements, and a quirky market.


No offense.

Like the parable of the blind men describing an elephant, it's probably of limited benefit for any one carver to talk about "the market.” Especially a carver whose bit of the market is as small as mine is, but hell, I’ve got to write about something. Over the years, I — and you — have seen carvers go from newcomers with lots of pipes for sale, to carvers you have to wait a year to get a pipe from, to carvers who don't get discussed much because few can get (or afford) their pipes. As prices go up, output (usually) goes down. That's the star trajectory, of course. Some who started about the same time I did leveled off, others burned out or faded away, and there are more newcomers now than ever.


But I digress, we were talking about commissions. Every carver has to negotiate the marketing mix. Product, price, placement, promotion. Assuming a solo artisan carver, we're talking about a finite number of pipes. What to do with this finite number? Making pipes on commission is vital to pleasing and retaining repeat customers; making spec pipes is vital to building an audience and getting new repeat customers. Some pipe smokers won’t buy a pipe unless it's done and they can see it, others will buy only bespoke pipes. Fortunately, most of you can go either way, and the majority of my commissions come from smokers who first bought at least one spec pipe to see what was what.


I almost wrote “guys” instead of “smokers” there, and if you’re a lady pipe smoker I hope you’ll forgive the occasional male pronoun. I know that female pipe smokers exist, but, with the exception of wives buying gifts for their husbands, I have yet to serve a woman customer. Which is too bad. We need some more Millicent Fenwicks.

It is tempting to look at a waiting list as a form of security, but it isn't, for several reasons. First, as my dad was fond of saying, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” While most who commission pipes are AAA-rated, in the past year I’ve had four individuals back out of commissions, including a three-pipe set and a 7-day set, all situations I discovered when I emailed to ask a finishing question or to say the pipe was ready. That's not counting a couple others who had placed orders but contacted me first to cancel before I had a chance to start, which I think is fair enough. I haven't talked to other carvers in a long time so I don't know if that's high, low, or par for the course. Any business carries that risk, and there's always the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sympathy when somebody thought he could afford something but then life happened and it turned out that he couldn't. And that’s happened with me filling commissions relatively quickly.


Relatively. Experience has shown that, past a certain point, a waiting list is perishable beyond the normal distribution of financial vissicitudes. The customer who was willing to wait as long as it took six months ago may have forgotten why he was so excited — or indeed that he placed an order at all — when his turn finally comes. Deposits are double-edged and I don’t take them, but maybe we can cut the carvers who do some slack.


And, while I have several customers who have gone well into double digits with my pipes, sooner or later even the most acquisitive collector has enough. So, since launching this new website I've made it a point to put up a spec pipe every week. Admittedly, commissions and spec pipes can be two sides of the same coin. If an order comes for a shape that is fairly popular I'll pick blocks and start several of them for insurance. With any luck, I'll be able to hit the specified finish for the commission. With a little more luck, I'll have another stummel or two that will become spec pipes down the line. Like the Fiery Zulu a few weeks back, that was one of five stummels it took to get a natural blast. Two went into the fire with flaws, one wasn’t clear enough for a natural finish and one was too good to blast.. Often, though, the insurance stummels crap out, commissions go to their intended homes, and the spec pipe becomes its own project. What to make?

Usually I just scratch where it itches. Maybe there's a shape I haven't made in a while, or perhaps ever. Occasionally I look at my website analytics to see which of my previous spec pipes have gotten the most views in the past week or two. If a pipe from a month ago has, say, 15 views in the last seven days, I think perhaps the market is ready for another one like it. Not knowing exactly when who is looking at what (I’ve kept my analytics non-google because I don’t like being tracked either) and not knowing exactly why ANY pipe sells in the first place keeps this system in the experimental stage. Maybe 15 clicks happened because one guy gave his phone to his 3-year old as a pacifier.

The number of commissions I can make In a given week varies with the commission and how my hands feel, so the waiting list goes up and down. A couple of months of full-time carving taught me that even if I’m willing to work 12 hours a day my thumbs, elbows, and shoulders are not, so the average wait has probably gone up a bit. Many of the commissions are basically like my spec pipes and cost about the same, so there’s no reason to show you all of those. Some commissions, though, like the Volkimo a couple of weeks ago, are much different. And like the Clam.

In describing the Clam as an original shape I don’t even feel the need to use quotation marks. It used to be a specialty of mine, coming up with shapes that are impossible to buff. The Clam is a shape that I won’t do on spec anymore, it’s just too hard on my hands. But once in a while a collector comes along who wants what he wants.

Perhaps it‘s worth mentioning that pipes like the Clam (or Volkimo, or 55 Interpretation, or Sphinx) usually mean a longer wait than Billiards or Rhodesians. It doesn’t make any sense for me to start three or four Clams for insurance, even though it is highly likely that any given Clam will wind up in the trash and I’ll have to start over. It takes too much time, for one thing. Suitable blocks are rare, and if I wind up with any extras it could be a long time before another Clam order comes. There’s no downside to starting three or four Billiards.

It’s interesting, sometimes, what I get asked to make on commission. I left my old website up so that people who want to go wayback and look at photos can do so. Because I created it with an html authoring program that is now gone and unsupported, I can’t seem to grab the files with any other program, so I’ve just let it drift as a ghost ship, and if something stops working, oh well.


All of which is to explain how a customer pulled up a pipe shape I’d completely forgotten about for a commission. 2005? Maybe. I called it a Danish Egg, so named for the flip stem that I guess I stole from Kent Rasmussen. Perhaps you can see its paternity of the Clam.

The stem is Tuscanite, the last of a piece I got from Rad Davis years ago. No, I don't have any more, and it's just as well because if I did have any I would throw it right in the river. I'm not sure what it is, guessing melamine or some other organic resin. It cuts easily enough and doesn’t smell terrible but my piece had some irritating qualities. Like the occasional inclusion that would wreck a stem if it showed at the end (imagine starting this stem over), and its way of folding over itself and hiding deep scratches through successively finer grits of sandpaper and only revealing them when you buff.

It isn't always the shape that makes a commission noteworthy. This Billiard was ordered with a horn stem. I'd rather work with horn than Tuscanite, but finding a suitable piece of it can be a problem. This commission included a regular vulcanite stem for daily wear. I have this thing about making stems that fit both ways, and if you think that's fussy, try making TWO stems fit both ways.


Hmm, haven’t said anything about retailers. Should I? What the hell. Over the years I’ve had discussions with several retailers, who, generally, make the case that they will give my pipes more exposure, take over the work of selling, and get my prices “up where they should be.” I understand the system and am not opposed to it, and some of the retailers are friends whom I'd be glad to help. But I’m already making all the pipes my tendons will tolerate. I like having direct contact with customers, and I would rather write the ad copy and take the pictures and handle the shipping than pay someone else to do it. That’s not to put down the service a retailer provides, I just reckon if I’m going to work for myself, might as well go ahead and do so.


Saint-Saëns was right, there I go talking about money again. I reckon we carvers are all trying to do more or less the same thing, and there’s no instruction book.







115 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Pause