The Briar Imp
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
This week I finished up my first two commissions in a while. They were my favorite type of commissions, the type where the customer says, “Smooth or blast, open to either.”
Actually, let’s walk that back just a bit. That’s my second-favorite type. My favorite type is for customers like these two who are articulate and amiable correspondents, who know what they want yet have reasonable expectations, and who recognize and appreciate a fellow human’s efforts to be of service.
Perhaps the business about being flexible on the finish is part of having reasonable expectations, but not necessarily. If you only like smooths or only like blasts or only collect natural, unstained blasts I can dig it, that’s one reason for a commission — to scratch that itch you can’t quite reach any other way. And I’m here for you. But being willing to take what the briar gives really cuts down the number of pipes I potentially (probably) must make in order to hit the requirement. If you order a smooth, I’ll usually select four blocks to rough shape. One will be lost to a major flaw (maybe can be turned into something else), leaving three blocks for the normal distribution of one smooth to two or three blasts if I were just making pipes as they come. If you order a blast, that’s three blocks to start. You have to allow for the major flaw, then for the possibility that one of the remainder won’t blast well or will be too good to blast.
Too good to blast? Yes, there is such a thing.
There is nothing quite like pipe making to turn a rational, logical son of a science teacher into a druid. I know, that’s a sloppy use of "druid." My suspicion that each block of briar comes with its own imp isn't quite a superstition, and it isn't a belief; it's something I can't quite shake even though I know better. While the number and distribution of flaws in any briar block is unknown, the flaws occurred in the growing of the plant and they must stay where they are. They must interact with my intended placement of pipe surfaces within that block in a perfectly rational, physical way. Because I don't know where the flaws are it’s just probability (luck) whether they appear in final sanding or stay safely buried. Period. The flaws cannot change position or manifest or dissolve to frustrate me or reward me, that would be magic. People often attribute to magic events that are actually somewhat unlikely. Or not unlikely at all, merely fortunate or unfortunate.
All that being true, a pipe maker has to deal personally with those events messing with the desired outcome, which is, something he can sell. Sometimes it seems that the briar wants to be what it wants to be, or doesn't want to be what it doesn't. Sometimes you can have a feeling about that, and if you ignore that feeling the briar will punish you. Yes, that would be magic. If you're scoffing at me, consider that superstition usually seems silly when you don't have any skin in the game.
I've never tried very hard to play the original-shapes game, but I do have a couple of shapes that are original at best, mildly derivative at worst. One of those shapes is the Clam. I’m not sure how many I’ve made. Probably 12 or 15. When my hands were younger I’d make them on spec, but as the sanding strokes piled on I started making them only on commission and haven’t made one in years. Which is fine. There is a class of pipes that are pipes in the same sense that the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile is a car, and the Clam is pretty close. I’d still make one, if the buyer agreed to “smooth or blast, open to either.”
This story is about one particular Clam. Might have been my last one. The customer had ordered a blasted Clam. I’ve made them smooth and blasted, and really, the blasted outside (shell) contrasting with the smooth inside (flesh) is definitive, but as I sanded this Clam down to 220 grit it was PERFECTLY grained for a smooth. It was spectacular. Great symmetry, great distribution, great flow through the shape, no pits. I emailed the customer and offered to finish the pipe smooth for the same price as blasted, to which he said, no, he wanted a blast.
Fair enough. Cue internal dialogue. At this point I’ve got a number of hours in this pipe. Dammit, what a great smooth. But if I finish it smooth I must put the same number of hours into at LEAST one more block to get to the same point for the commission and time is short. Remember that this is a complex shape with demanding symmetry and considerably more surface area than a regular pipe so more things than usual can go wrong right up to the end. It could take three more tries to get one with all of these surfaces even good enough to blast. Or, I could just blast away this awesome grain and cash the check.
I uneasily chose the easy way out and went to the blasting cabinet. It was really a fetching blast, as great straight grains tend to be, until the blast caught a flaw. This flaw was in the middle of one of the “lips” of the shell, about six or seven o’clock on the right side. The flaw was completely invisible when I was sanding; somehow I had sanded right up to it on both sides of a 1/8” or less lip without it appearing, and if I had finished it smooth that .006” of briar on either side would have preserved the illusion of flawlessness forever. But, as I blasted, that .006” of briar on either side disintegrated along with the flaw, leaving a nice, round hole through the lip.
Sigh. Actually, no, not sigh, long stream of expletives.
You could have hung it on a keychain. I gave it to a friend and started over. Carl Sagan wrote, “Given an infinite universe, that which is not specifically prohibited by the laws of nature is mandatory.” Certainly nothing in the laws of nature prohibited me from shaping to within a hair, twice, of that flaw. It was not impossible. Merely very, very unlikely.
That is the scientific view. But no matter now rational and scientific I wanted to be, my feeling was that this had been a test and I had flunked. The briar's imp had offered me a fantastic, unique pipe — and set a trap. It had given me more than I had hoped for, something that, had I been wise enough to stop, might have been significant in my output, I don’t know, maybe a P&T (RIP) magazine cover. When I spurned the gift for immediate gain I wound up getting an Aesopian spanking.
When I emailed photos of one of this week’s pipes to the customer he wrote, “To be honest, I prefer blasts but it would have been a shame to blast away that grain.”
Yes. Yes, it would have been.