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Plan B

New pipe, 7/8/20:

It would have been sometime in the early 1990s, when I was building bamboo fly rods for a good part of my living, that I attended the Denver Fly Fishermen’s Expo. One of the features of the expo was the fly tying theatre; the expert sat at a tying bench on a little stage with a video camera trained on the vise, and large screen (well, for the 1990s) monitors gave everyone a close up view of the master’s hands in action.

Jack Dennis, famous fly shop owner, fishing guide, and fly tying book author, was tying some sort of complex deer hair popper (a fly pattern that mimics a grasshopper) and about three quarters of the way through the tying thread broke. SPROING, the precisely assembled and wound materials exploded like a clock spring. We in the audience chuckled and waited for our hero to reach for the razor blade as we had done ourselves all too often, to cut the mess off the hook and start over.

Jack calmly re-threaded the bobbin, tied the thread back in, did some sleight of hand that somehow corralled the exploded materials, and finished the fly. As we boggled, he dryly remarked, “The mark of a professional is not how good a fly he can tie, it’s how bad a mistake he can fix.”

Ain’t it the truth.

The anecdote resonates for almost any profession, adversity and accomplishment being two sides of the same coin. As much as we may complain about the latest dumpster fire at work, if everything was easy and nothing ever went wrong most the proficient would have no opportunity to excel and most of our occupations wouldn’t exist in the first place. Often clarinet students will make a mistake in a lesson and just stop, as though the rest of the orchestra will wait for them. No, no, NO, you can’t get bucked off that easily, you have to fight to stay on, you have to keep going. When you make a mistake in a concert you can’t just go home. And you never know. Sometimes, like Paganini breaking a string, the save or the fix winds up being more noteworthy than what would have been had everything gone perfectly.

It would have been about 2001 that I was playing Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) with a PSO ensemble for a local chamber music series. The work ends with violin and percussion alone as the devil leads the soldier off to hell. The violin part is challenging, mostly double and triple stops, very rhythmically complex. In the dress rehearsal the violinist asked if I could turn her page at a certain point. Certainly, no problem, I was just sitting there, but we didn’t rehearse it, and in the performance we were sitting a bit further apart than in rehearsal. I may have misjudged the timing, it may have been the distance or the angle, but when I tried to turn her page, the music, which was an accordion of taped-together single-sided xerox copies, slipped off the edge of the stand and fluttered to the floor like a paper slinky.

It might have been easier, in my haste and consternation, to organize a live octopus than the shamble of music on the floor. Nobody would have blamed her for stopping, but the violinist continued playing from memory while I put the pile in order and replaced it on her stand just before the piece ended.

I’m guessing people who were in the audience remember that.

Now, pipes. Doing something where you can slow down and consider and proceed carefully is much different from performing in real time — music, sports, surgery. I would imagine that when you’re holding a beating heart in your hands and there is a complication you only have so much time to consider your options.

With pipemaking you can take all the time you like to plan the next move and whatever consequences result from mistake or misfortune are private and usually merely economic. That said, every occupation is preoccupied with its difficulties. Sailors have the storm, pipemakers have the flaw. A major element in pipemaking is the adaptation to the flaw, the adjustment of the shape or the size or the finish in order to keep the project going, to avoid junking the whole thing, including your time already invested. It’s how we got the bamboo shank and the horn extension. Something went wrong, how can we fix it? Of course you can’t always, and also part of doing something professionally is knowing when to stop throwing good time/money after bad, but if you have a modest bag of tricks and make good guesses, some percentage of the time you can save a block from the trash and that feels like an accomplishment.

When I bandsawed into a small but ominous flaw in this week’s attempt to carve a 55 Interpretation (see Unicorn, a previous post), and when I cut a little deeper by way of biopsy, and when I decided the flaw was going to tunnel and sawed through the middle of it discovering an even larger one, I thought of Jack Dennis. What could be saved?

Well, this pipe. It is lithe and light because that’s how much briar was left. But that’s good news for those who like pipes like this. And the pipe smoker who wants a pipe like this would have had little use for a 55 Interpretation. As my dad would have said, beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Much of pipemaking, like just about everything else, is figuring out what you can make out of the shrapnel after plan A went off in your hands.

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Sep 22, 2020

Thank you, Neill. I believe I called it a Thin Acorn, but if I make another (a candidate for an amber Bakelite stem if there ever was one) I may just call it Plan B in your honor.

The thing to which I didn’t call enough attention was the favor that initial flaw did me. If I hadn’t sliced off the side of the block to explore the first flaw, which turned out to be nothing, I would gotten no pipe at all because I would have shaped right into the much larger second flaw that was buried like a Balrog.


Sep 22, 2020

I have to write—as the proud and grateful owner of Plan B (can’t you come up with a better shape name?)—I’m really grateful the original didn’t pan out. The long shank, the elegant arc, the perfect Virginias bowl....all these things combine to produce a wonderful pipe—one that I find myself relaxing with at least once a week. Although you didn’t intentionally set out to create this pipe, maybe you should think about putting this one in your repertoire. I love it. It’s a keeper.


Jul 15, 2020

love it. i have something similar happen when turning a leg for a table. a carpenter been tunnel that started as a speck and became 12” long.

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