Updated: Nov 29, 2020
As I sanded the stem and shank on a Billiard, keeping the taper even from bowl to button and making sure the stem fit both ways (see Grinding Lines), it occurred to me this probably wasn't a thing back in the day. My imagination furnished a 1930-ish conversation in the Dunhill factory:
“Billy, I was looking at some of these pipes to which you’ve fitted stems, and I must say, it’s rather unusual work.”
“Why, thank you, sir, I do my best.”
“You’re welcome, Billy, I think. Actually, the lads putting the white dots in the stems called my attention to it. They were wondering which side to put the dot on, as your stems fit both ways.”
“Aye, that’s my own special touch. I work them down bit by bit, switching sides all the while, so that in the end it makes no difference which side is up.”
“Billy, why do you suppose we put the white dot in the stem?”
“Why, sir, it’s to show that the pipe is a Dunhill, the finest pipe in the world. Proud to do my part.”
“Quite so, quite so. It also happens that the dot is there so THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO WHAT YOU’VE BEEN DOING. How long does it take, fitting a stem?”
“Oh, not much more than an hour.”
“You’re daft, Billy. And you’re fired.”
If I knew fifteen years ago what I know now, I might have come up with a stem logo to show which way is up. And when Kent Rasmussen showed me his symmetrical stems I would have given more weight to the realization that he wasn’t doing that extra work for free. But once you start doing something, whether it’s making stems that fit both ways or not putting enough value on your time, you’re kind of stuck. Especially now that I’ve put it in print. As soon as I decide “screw it, nobody else does this,” and let bilateral symmetry go to hell the guy who buys the pipe will wonder why he got a sloppy one.
You can find some discussion online, if you care to look, on why a Billiard is called a Billiard. Some say it’s because the straight, tapered stem is reminiscent of a cue. I suspect the French makers who started carving briar pipes decades before anyone else simply chose random British-sounding names (like Prince, or Liverpool) for pipes they were selling to the British market. (See my post, Bully Dog.) Or perhaps the manufacturers were calling the shapes what their customers called them. If the origins of the Billiard name are lost in the mists of time, it is clear that the first pipe catalogs emerging from the major manufacturers in the late 1800s and early 1900s all called the same shape a Billiard. While the different companies may have given their own names to minute variations, the Billiard shape had somehow gotten established long enough prior that everyone agreed what it was, everyone made one, and nobody accused anyone else of stealing it.
And that’s as good a reason to make one today as it ever was.
Pipe shape rules are a little like music theory in that composers like Bach wrote music that sounded good, and then, later, people tried to figure out how to explain it. Great composers may break rules, but for artistic reasons; bad composers either break rules because they can’t help it, or follow rules slavishly and write garbage that follows the rules. Beginning pipe makers are often advised to make Billiards until they can make a pretty one. This is excellent advice, if rather stern — I have yet to encounter a maker who has followed it. Myself included, although when I return to pipe making after time off, I do usually make a Billiard just to get tuned up. A Billiard ruthlessly illuminates most of the common hobbyist gaffes. If the stem/shank transition is round and wallowy, if the stem surface is wavy and uneven, if the shank is not centered on the bowl, if the bowl is of uneven thickness, there is nowhere to hide. What about the shape? Are the proportions correct, or at least pleasing?
That last one is a real gotcha; there is latitude in the proportions, but knowing just how much and where it is the tricky bit. I think that if a Billiard is well proportioned, you can’t tell how big it is without something else in the picture. Like Richard Esserman, for instance. It is commonly agreed that a Billiard has a cylindrical bowl with a rounded heel, a shank that equals the bowl height, and a stem that is as long as the stummel. To be sure, many ugly Billiards have been made that follow this formula, and many beautiful ones that do not. Purely cylindrical walls have a cheap, unfriendly look and feel, I think; the bowl needs a little taper or barrel shape to fit the hand, but too much and it’s an Apple or a Brandy. The bowl height/shank length is a rule especially prone to breakage; I don’t think any harm is done to the shape by making it a bit longer and slimmer, and it only makes sense to put half the extra length in the shank and preserve the stem/stummel balance. And, frankly, almost all of the shape charts that say the shank equals the bowl height have an illustration where the shank is a little too long.
Perhaps you had to shave a bit off the rim to get rid of a sand pit. Just a little, it’s still a Billiard with a slightly long shank. A little bit more, now it’s a Pot. This is just a taste of all of the shapes that are “like a Billiard, only . . .”
The Billiard has a tapered stem. Unless it has a saddle stem, then it’s a Saddle Billiard. Unless the shank is a little too long and the saddle stem a little too short, then it’s a Lovat. Keep extending the shank and shortening the stem and you’re in Canadian/Lumberman territory. And so on. The point here is not so much to create a prose encyclopedia of pipe shapes as to underscore the Billiard as an ur-shape, one of the earliest shapes, a jumping-off point for dozens of other shapes. Like anything else, this can be taken too far. One of the shape charts I just looked at called the Oom Paul a billiard variant — “Take a Billiard bowl and severely bend the shank . . . “ No. Just . . . No.
Making a Billiard that follows the rules, or bends them just a bit, is pleasant work. We have rules in music, too. I tell students over and over, you buy rhythmic freedom with rhythmic integrity. “That was rubato,” they say. No, I explain, it‘s not rubato if you don’t put the time back, if you don’t hit the post. Yes, musical expression sometimes involves making some notes longer and some notes shorter than strict rhythm — distorting it, if you like — but if you don’t establish a context, a purpose for the distortion then it’s properly categorized as an error. When I was in college, my teacher once asked me why I played a phrase the way I played it. “Because I thought it sounded good,” I said.
“If that’s your only reason, you are merely masturbating,” he said.
Ouch. He was right, though. I took it to heart, and I find ways to tell students the same thing today without landing in the Dean's office.
So, as a young musician you study, internalize, then apply harmonic principles, you look for the music’s logic and learn to find expression in the road rather than in the bushes, and if you ever get that question again you can say “because the F is a suspension” or something like that. In pipe terms I guess the bilaterally symmetrical stem, as much as I complain about it, qualifies as expression. It is within the shape and it expresses my personality, which may be just a little obsessive. It goes hand in hand with tapering the stem and shank as a unit, sometimes starting with a slightly larger diameter where the shank meets the bowl in order to make the taper more emphatic. When a shape has only a few lines, each line must work for a living — the line either shows care and skill, or a lack of one or both. There really aren’t any other choices, the pipe doesn’t make itself. Which, again, is like music. Sometimes the job is not to jump through flaming hoops, but to play a single note like your life depended on it. Which sounds a hell of a lot easier than it is.
I like a Billiard shank and stem to describe a long, thin triangle. With just a hint of flesh to it, like the hull of a rowing shell or the blade of a dagger. Most factory Billiards have a straight shank, then the stem tapers. The line from bowl to button isn’t something just anyone will notice, but these pipes aren’t for just anyone, they’re for people who appreciate this kind of meshuggah. Tuning the draw and smoothing the airway is a personal touch, too, but I‘m not the only one doing that. That’s kind of the game these days, and no doubt those old carvers would shake their heads if they could see the attention makers today are lavishing on pipes that back in the day were made with about the same care as hammers. Or maybe a bit less, hammers were important. I’d like to think that I and my artisan colleagues are doing more than just adding frills. Although adding frills can work as an economic strategy; there are bakers adding four ounces of frosting to a 50-cent muffin and selling it for six bucks.
Maybe it’s the equivalent of a six-dollar muffin to take one of the oldest, simplest pipe shapes ever and spend all day making it symmetrical, straight, and smooth-drawing, with a stem that tapers to a thin, comfortable bit. I hope there’s a market for that, Lord knows what I’ll do otherwise.