• howellhandmade

The Commission

Updated: Mar 2

Here’s the pipe and tamper set I made this week. Yes, “the“ set, it took me all week. That’s not bragging, certainly there are faster pipe makers. I don’t normally put up pictures of commissions but this one is unusual in a couple of ways and the collector for whom I made it doesn’t post anything online, so this is the only way anybody else will see it.

The pipe is one of my “original” shapes. The quotation marks are in self-defense. I made the first one of these in 2005 as a combination of a Volcano and an Eskimo — thus, Volkimo. I thought I had invented the shape until I took one to the Chicago show, where a guy picked it up and said, "Hell, that’s just a Ramses with the bowl sticking out.” When I looked up a Ramses I could see what he meant, although I knew that wasn't what I had intended at all.

Why did this set take a week? Because, briar. And symmetry. I’ve written before about Tom Eltang delivering his critique of an early, nicely-grained but lardy pipe of mine: “There is a nice pipe in there somewhere — you must have the courage to keep cutting even when the grain is good.” Every block of briar is more or less full of flaws. If more, you cut into a crevasse and pitch it in the trash. If less, you have the occasional pit that appears and gives you a moment of stress as you wonder whether it will sand away or keep tunneling. I actually roughed out the pipe some weeks ago, wanting to let it sit and stabilize. Briar, like any wood, can move once it’s cut, and considering that you can feel a mismatch of less than a thousandth of an inch when you run a finger across it, this stem/shank junction is insanely sensitive.

The block for this pipe (not the first block, but not going to whine) was good in that all of the flaws turned out to be of the pepper speck variety — highly visible but only a few thousandths deep — but bad in that there were a lot of them. In carving a shape like this, one is constantly balancing. Every sanding stroke runs the risk of exposing a flaw whose excision necessitates a like removal on the opposite side of the pipe. You have to remove enough briar to make the shape and forestall the “there’s a nice pipe in there somewhere” comment, but you also have to sense when you’ve pushed your luck far enough.

Even when hogging off material, you need to keep track of symmetry. Yes, you can just LOOK to see if it’s even, but eyes can play tricks and if you don’t pay attention early on it’s possible to get off track and not leave enough room to recover. Just like an expanse of birdseye invites one to play Where’s Waldo for the sand pit, an extravagant, swoopy shape invites scrutiny to see if one side differs from the other. We don’t all see the same things the same way, and the more you look at something the more accustomed you get to how it looks, so it’s possible to miss stuff.

Years ago I treated myself to a new pipe — the most expensive pipe I’ve ever purchased — by a maker I liked and admired. He always sold out in Chicago, so one year I told him in advance that I wanted to buy a pipe at the show and asked him to pick one for me. He handed it to me, I paid for it without scrutiny, but when I started looking at it later, I noticed that it was lopsided. The left heel was considerably heavier than the right, and although the pipe was otherwise just fine, I couldn’t unsee that bulge and eventually sold it.

So, I measure to make sure I’m not overlooking something that the customer will find disappointing. Perhaps it’s bound to happen, but not for lack of effort on my part.

An old machinist once told me, always index to the holes. Every surface on this pipe is indexed to the plane of the rim, which is perpendicular to the chamber. With the rim held against a flat surface, I use a surface gage to check the height of various salient points, and I use a pencil held in an indicator stand to draw topographical lines, which help me keep equal curvature on both sides. Or at least, I’ve found that if you can’t see the difference with topo lines, you can’t see it when the pipe is finished.

For the tamper I was given carte blanche with the proviso that it share design characteristics with the pipe so that the two would be unmistakably a matched set. The briar cap unscrews and there’s my usual tool steel pick/blade in there, should have gotten pics of that but didn’t. I thought it was important to have that brass button in the middle of the briar cap so that I had a place to stamp the Kokopelli, and I wanted to stamp it before assembly. It takes a lot of effort to stamp brass in my arbor press, sometimes it doesn’t go well, and if I chowdered it I only wanted to re-make one part, so the button is the head of a screw that threads into the brass fitting that holds the pick and threads into the barrel. That’s only a big deal if you machine all the parts one-off.

The tamper provided the same suspense sanding it as did the pipe, just waiting for the flaw to appear that would obviate several hours of work and send me back to the rack for another piece of briar. Both pipe and tamper had that quality of not being done until I taped the box shut. Even final buffing was done with ‘bated breath, because those sharp edges are just the thing to catch in the buffing wheel and launch the pipe (or tamper) on a .223 trajectory right into the wall.

But it’s done and in the mail. I may show a few other commissions in the future, I dunno. Once in a while I get an email from someone praising me for keeping my prices down, which I guess shows that everything is relative. It’s understandable; my weekly spec pipes are generally standard-ish shapes and generally in the $3-400 range, so it might be easy to assume that this is all I make.

Most of my commissions are indeed similar to the spec pipes and in the same price range, but once in a while an order comes from somebody who wants something in particular and is willing to pay for it. Which is not the unmixed blessing it might seem. Shapes like the Volkimo (and Ukulele, and 55 Interpretation, and Sphinx, and . . .) waste a lot of briar, are hard on my hands, and are generally not relaxing. There is risk going to 400 grit on a pipe that has taken a couple of days to get to that point. Fatal flaws have shown up at 400 grit before, and even a mere flesh wound requires backing up a couple of steps, balancing with the other side, blending the stain.

All along, the temptation is to stop as soon as you have good grain and no flaws, but you have to keep cutting until the shape is right. Finally, it’s uncomfortable putting a big price tag on a pipe. For me, anyway. I once heard a cabinetmaker say that if you’re not embarrassed to say the price, it’s not the right price. Oh, well. If I’m going to make a pipe that takes the time and briar that would have made three normal pipes a commensurate price is necessary, but so is a flawless delivery.

I know, boo bloody hoo, right? We should all have such problems. Well, having gotten used to high stakes and intense scrutiny in one profession, I can tell you that there’s no free lunch.

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