Today’s pic is a bulldog I made for the request of a regular customer. He had asked for my version of a bulldog by TAO, and while this particular pipe is a fairly liberal take on the idea, it was fun doing essentially a high-end Talbert Briar version of our sadly departed Ligne Bretagne Fat Dwarf pipes. I think it came out pretty well, and it will even sit upright, balanced perfectly on the narrow bottom edge (It isn’t leaning against anything in the photos, simply sitting balanced).

There are difficult pipes and there are difficult pipes. The Mountains of Madness was difficult due to the challenges of shaping and sanding involved…. especially sanding, which went on forever. This bulldog, by contrast, was difficult because it is a prime example of what I think of as the most challenging aspects of pipemaking craft. In one pipe, it incorporates the ability to freehand shape (before drilling) for best grain orientation, wood-turning ability for bowl shaping, the challenge of working with sharply defined forms (note the lack of “blur” where shank meets bowl – pipes like this depend on tight lines), and also banding and custom materials handling (the morta decor), custom acrylic casting (the cast stem material), and being obsessive enough to pull off weird feats like making the thing balance. And even contrast staining..!

If I were talking to an amateur or hoping-to-be-professional pipemaker, one of the best bits of advice I could give would be, “Make this pipe”. Because, getting all of the various bits right is guaranteed to make one a better pipemaker when it’s done.. if it comes out well. A lot of people might look at it and dismiss it as another boring bulldog, but in one pipe it manages to encompass a whole host of particularly difficult technical challenges. Making something like this won’t give anyone an imagination or a style of their own, but it will certainly force their craftsmanship abilities to stretch and improve.

Anyone wanting to be a professional pipemaker, or sell at a professional pricing point (as is more common today), needs to develop this sort of broad-based ability for technical execution coupled with overall design aesthetic. Now, I can go over this pipe and nitpick a few things about it, and I’m sure someday some aspiring amateur will pick it up at a show and fuss, “Oh look, he didn’t polish the tenon!” (It’s Delrin, it doesn’t polish, that’s the nature of the material). This is illustrative of a problem that has been growing in pipe collecting in recent years, especially as more and more part-time pipemakers have entered the field and started trying to “out-perfectionize” each other on Pipemakers.Com. There are simply too many guys out there making a big deal out of the fact that they polish their airhole interiors to 18000 grit, yet have no broad-based technical ability or aesthetic eye.

A recent example of this was a thread where one of the regulars nitpicked the stem craftsmanship of a highly-respected pipemaker, on an absolutely beautiful (and quite difficult to make) bent bulldog shape. There is such a thing as over-attention to detail, and it comes when one loses sight of the fact that the best pipes are composites of many factors – design, grain, eye for balance, elegance – in short, the difference between genuinely good pipemaking and carving somewhat inelegant lumps that have fanatically polished bit slot interiors….. and if there ever was a summation of the growing gap between working professional pipemakers and the crowd who gather at Pipemakers.Com, that is it. One of my favorite sayings regarding art and the need to look at the “whole picture” is this:

"You could spend an hour counting the petals in a flower
It might take you a year to count the veins in each petal
If you spent ten lifetimes, maybe you could count its cells...

...but you'd have completely missed the point
You fuckhead."

This is what springs into my mind every time I read a post where an amateur maker is criticizing a professional’s work because they inspected the tenon interior and found scratches with the use of a rectal probe light and a 25X magnifier. Worse, this sort of mentality springs from a vast disconnect with the realities of fiscally-workable pipemaking – A disconnect that has seriously worsened in recent years as more and more part-timers have entered the pipemaking field with no need to account for their time. All is very well if one can spend an entire weekend polishing the floor of a mortise, but when one actually has to make a living income from pipemaking time, it is a very different story indeed!

I should mention that I mean no disrespect at all to Kurt Huhn here, or to all the good work he’s done in keeping the pipemaking forum going. He and I have talked privately on this subject, and it has always been a problem of the forum – It is tagged “PipeMakers Forums” but there are virtually no working pipemakers there! In past years, there were at least a few full-timers, but attitudes and competition have gradually driven a lot of the pros away. At “fin du jour”, why should someone like myself give out free info to help a part-timer compete with me for my dinner money? I know it may sound brutal, but that’s what it is – Every pipe sold by someone who’s just mucking around in the wood shop for beer money represents a grocery bill or payment lost to a professional maker who relies on his work for his entire income. Worse, it is gradually warping the expectations of buyers who become accustomed to critiquing pipes based not on real working time but on “hobby time”.

I don’t know if there is an easy solution to getting pros to participate on the forum. There is a private tier, but the entry standards were set such that virtually anyone get get in, and thus it became little different from the public forums, with all the same names. The later creation of a third “pro’s pro tier” didn’t attract much traffic. I don’t know if this is because most pros had already left the forum or chosen not to participate, or if, instead, we just stick to that tried-and-true method of information exchange… direct conversations! If I’m going to explain to someone what it cost me hundreds of dollars in wasted materials to learn about acrylic casting, A) he’d better be able to offer something equally valuable in return, B) he needs to be a full-timer, and C) I’m only going to do it in direct email or chat, not in a posting to a forum where I have no control over to whom the information may eventually get distributed. I suspect others may think likewise.

I only half-joked with Kurt when I said that very likely, if a genuine full-timer’s forum was established and frequented, the talk would probably have very little to do with pipes! I suspect the conversations would be much less about secret techniques of briar flavoring and a lot more about good audiobooks to listen to while working, ways to keep your wrists from seizing up, swapped info on good tool sources (and bad), and, of course, really weird customer stories….;)

I’ve often seen people ask if there are any books on pipemaking. Often the next question is whether there are any really serious books on all the secret advanced stuff, the stuff that the Pimo book leaves out. In closing, I want to mention the best book on professional-level pipemaking that I’ve ever read – Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. It has nothing to do with pipemaking; it has everything to do with being a working artisan and how to approach one’s craft… whatever it may be.

Categories: Pipe Blog

6 Comments

Anonymous · June 13, 2006 at 11:45 pm

Hi Trever,

I actually think you are missing one big point and that is the customer.

I mean, honestly, I’m European, German to be exact, and what you are writing about is probably an American phenmomenon anyways… in Germany there are not lots but some new pipemakers, most of them doing this part-time. Those guys mostly do a good job and are selling their pipes for quite reasonable prices, say 100 to 300 EUR. That’s different in the States where you find lots of newcomers selling (or trying to sell) pipes for prices you can get a Barbi (to stay in Germany) for. I don’t think Barbi would care too much if this would happen in Germany since those pipes don’t match the quality, the attention to detail and the eye for design of the pipes he makes. Not to mention the experience he puts in every pipe. Customers know this. So I actually wonder why someone who made the Mountains Of Madness or the very pretty bulldog in this example or in general, pipes which have a very unique selling point, concerns about hobbyists. No one who has 500 EUR left would buy a pipe of a new pipemaker because Barbi doesn’t polish the tenon, and if someone indeed bought one of those newcomer pipes he would return to Barbi/Talbert/however afterwards since customers are not that stupid after all…

Just my two Cents

Best regards,

Wolfgang

Trever-T · June 13, 2006 at 1:19 pm

Karol Tarka wrote:

> – do you actually feel the pressure of hobbyists on
> the market?

Me, personally? No. But I do know that there has been growing pressure across the board for all professional one-man shops to stay competitive during the past five years or so. This comes not from the genuine hobbyists who just make a few pipes for fun, but instead from what could be called “dedicated part-timers” – Guys who have a full-time job but basically follow the checklist (German ebonite rod stock for my handcut stems? Check. Briar from Mimmo? Check. Danish-ey shapes? Check. $400 price? Check!) and set up their own websites and such. As recently as 2001-2002, nearly all the pipemakers online were full-time professionals. In the intervening years, we’ve seen an absolute explosion of new sites going up and new names that are all this type of part-timer. Where once the money was flowing to full-time artisans who needed it for food, a lot is now diverted to part-timers who just want pizza money, and will probably leave the market after a few years.

> – do you think that critique on pipe making forum
> might steer a potential
> buyer from a particular pipemaker?
>
Yes, I’ve see it happen over and over again. Someone will more mouth than sense will make a big deal out of some little detail and claim it means pipemaker X’s work is badly done. Collectors, interested in what they think are the techniques of pipemaking, hear this without understanding the full picture and parrot the same info elsewhere repeatedly.

> My experience with pipe making made me realise how
> easy it is to make a
> smokeable pipe, for godssake one can smoke from a raw
> hobby block… It also
> made me realise how incredibly hard it is to make a
> nice pipe, shape that
> flows and all that.
>
This is the good thing about hobbyist pipemaking – people learn that it’s difficult πŸ™‚

> Personally I don’t believe that you should feel
> threatened by hobbyists. By
> retreating from such forums you are just supporting
> those who are polishing
> the air holes to 1800 grit and then making big deal
> out of it. By being
> involved you might actually put these guys on the
> right track and make them
> appreciate things that are more worthy. Now I
> understand that you don’t have
> time to participate on forums and that the last thing
> you want to talk about
> at the “fin du jour” is pipes but I think blaming
> hobbyists for shrinking
> your slice of pie is just ridiculous πŸ™‚
I wouldn’t say “threatened by”, but rather “annoyed by”. After you’ve heard for the thousandth time some completely untrue bit of info (for example, “polish to 12000 grit, then buff”….when buffing compound is actually a lower grit than you’ve just sanded to…), it often requires so much tongue-biting to keep from snapping at people that it is better to just avoid the forums. Same thing that happens with ASP, really.

> Pipe smoking is dying (!!!), at least here in New
> Zealand less and less
> people smoke, not to mention pipes. Everyone who is
> out there interested in
> pipes should be very valuable to you. You should be
> educating these people
> as they are your best walking talking advertisement. I
> might be wrong, there
> might be very fragile economics behind these opinions
> but hey, it’s just an
> opinion.

It may be that this is our future – Dave Fields and I were talking about this. The pie is getting smaller and smaller, and now we suddenly have this vast horde of new people all wanting their piece of that pie… So perhaps the future will eventually see the “names” (both full-time professionals and factories) dropping out of the scene completely and surrendering the field entirely to boutique part-time makers. Could well happen.

Kurt · June 12, 2006 at 11:46 pm

I’ve noticed that a lot of professional pipe makers have not been frequenting the forum as of late. I always attributed that to the fact that a web forum is a very cumbersome interface for discussion – unlike email which is a nice lightweight method of discussion that most folk use regularly anyway. I’m on several listservs that, if they moved to a web forum, I would leave in a heartbeat due to the added time needed just to have a simple conversation.

Great post, Trever. Hopefully it will help out some folks in figuring out priorities. Some similar advice really struck home for me a couple years ago during one of my brief stints as a full-timer while between one dot-bomb and another.

Anonymous · June 12, 2006 at 5:26 pm

Trever, I think that it could be a good idea. But first, I should make an english style bulldog and, actually, I’m trying to carve some english style shape. This week I’m working on a Cutty, a Zulu and a Poker. If I success with those ones, I’ll start with english bulldog and then, maybe, one like you made. Proportions are very hard to keep… and carving the lines in the junction between the shank and head.

Sure, dialog is much more different in the forum you mentioned and it’s very interesting to have this vision πŸ™‚

Trever-T · June 12, 2006 at 12:35 pm

Thanks! You should try one, they’re good exercise. Actually, if you or any other visiting guys want to try your hand at making similar pipes, send me photos of the results and I will post the good ones here. Could be some handy advertising for your work!

It occurs to me that, since you are on the Folloder forum, you actually see a more realistic discussion of pipemaking there than you could at most other places. It must make for an interesting contrast to read :O

Anonymous · June 11, 2006 at 9:21 pm

Excellent article, Trever.
The Bulldog is fantastic. You did an amazing job with it. I love it πŸ™‚
As for your reflexion between professional pipemakers and amateur, it is interesting. I had a thought about this few time ago.
Congratulations for the bulldog. For the moment, I keep carving much easier shapes πŸ™‚

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