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Past Blog Entries

July 22nd 2013: Why I make pipes (aside from to pay the rent)


I was out with my wife this evening and was looking at a local tower that went up perhaps 5 or 6 years ago. It incorporates curves and glass and in my opinion is one of the nicest-looking buildings around. Nearby there are a number of the more standard concrete rectangles that are the mainstay of architects whose ideas of architectural beauty have stalled out in the wooden building-block phase of their careers. While these might appeal to the folks in the cost-benefit analysts trade, to me they are uninteresting and unnecessarily ugly. Looking at them made me think about why I like to make pipes.

Let's face it, a pipe is a pretty simple piece of equipment. It requires a more or less fireproof place to burn tobacco and a hole to draw the smoke through. Hey Presto! you have the bare bones makings of a pipe. Like the concrete building block highrise though, it has no soul for lack of a better word. We seem to increasingly be living in a world where objects are disposable and built around the idea that the fastest and cheapest means of manufacture are inherently the best. It assumes that we as people value saving a few dollars over bringing visual interest, quality and beauty into the objects we own.

I began smoking pipes back in the heady days of the very first web pages and Seattle Grunge rock. At the time I had no idea that there were pipes out there that weren't either billiards, bent billiards or bulldogs. They were what I saw when I walked into the tobacconists to buy my pouch of Black Cherry Aromatic. This, by the way was the height of tobacco excellence. It was so good that I could leave the bag open for days -nay weeks!- and it would refuse to dry out. A sure sign of quality.

It was years before I stumbled upon the Smoker's Forums and saw that there were people who made pipes that were different. There were freehands the likes of which I'd never laid eyes upon. The classic shapes were all still there, but they had balance and grain too. Did you know briar had grain!? I sure didn't. Then one day Trever Talbert posed on the forums and I followed his link back to his site. His pipes weren't beautiful in all cases, but they made me react in a way I didn't think was possible with pipes.

I got into pipe making because I wanted to bring interest and beauty to an everyday object. I wanted to prove that pipes could be more than a place to burn your tobacco. I wanted to make pipes that stirred people to interest. I love the classics as well as the pipes where I get to do crazy things with. Done properly a well-made billiard can speak just as much to me as the latest pipe-creature. I am the very first to admit that my pies are not for everyone, but if I have brought any happiness or interest to our community I think I've done what I set out to do.

June 07th 2013: Why I love Delrin


The blog will mainly be about my deep and abiding love of Delrin. If you are normal and this kind of thing makes your eyes glaze over then read no further. Delrin, in my opinion, is one of the best things to happen to pipes and pipe makers. Ever. Well, the discovery of briar might rank up there too, but Delrin has advantages that most of the pipe smoking community knows not of. Let me therefore expound on the wonder that is the humble plastic and open your mind to it's glory.

Lucite and Ebonite are both wonderful materials for making stems, but they are materials that have a tragic flaw: They do not deal well with the extremes of temperature. Too cold and they will shatter like glass when dropped, too warm and they deform - or in the case of bent stems, straighten due to the memory in the plastic. So, now we come to pipes, our hobby and my personal bread and butter. Pipes that require you to set fire to the tobacco in order to operate, fire which will generate heat. Most of us have first-hand experience with stems becoming lose over time and this is often caused by the stem being removed while it is still warm. The friction between the tenon and the mortise walls will stretch out the softened plastic and we have gone from a finely-tuned instrument for smoking pleasure to two desperate pieces of material, neither of which is good for all that much. Here we finally arrive at how Delrin can deliver us from loose tenons. Delrin does not begin to melt until it hits175 degrees Celsius or 347 Fahrenheit. In other words, if you wanted to, you could bake you pipe with a tray of cookies and the Delrin would probably be just fine. Your stem, however would be a melted puddle of hydrocarbons at the bottom of the oven. If you thought burning cheese was bad, Ebonite has it beat hands-down.

What all this means is that a pipe with a Delrin tenon incorporated into the stem will not loosen due to heat. You can take the stem out while the pipe is warm, clean it and put it away. A Delrin tenon is also much less likely to break if you happen to drop your pipe. It is not a brittle plastic and quite resilient, even at freezing temperatures. Finally, Delrin rod actually makes for a faster build on my end of things. It comes pre-sized so all I need to do is drill a mortise the correct size and with only minimal dickering, chamfering, etc. I can get a good fit. For these reasons, and a few others, I love Delrin tenons. Thank you.

October 21th 2011: Advice to new Pipe Makers: Part 2


A few weeks back I posted a blog on advice to new pipe makers. This was in essence an email I wrote back to an aspiring pipe maker who wanted some advice. The conversation continued and he wanted to know what sorts of tools he should look at. I wrote him back and three pages later this is what I came up with. I completely understand if most folks here aren't interested in reading this, but for the very few who are:

Alright so you want to continue along this path of insanity that we call pipe making. To begin with unless you are extremely talented or lucky your first pipes will not be works of technical wizardry, nor will they be great pieces d'art. These are usually the pipe equivalent of crayon drawings and as such using the very best briar you can source isn't essential - or even smart. There is no point in breaking the bank buying beautiful wood for high prices when you are essentially experimenting. What you are looking for is briar that will teach you how to orient the grain and develop your drilling skills. When I was starting out I ran into the same problem and thankfully there are a lot of people out there who offer very decent briar for a not-unreasonable price. Mark Tinsky is the first name that springs to mind. He offers both plateaux and ebauchon blocks at very reasonable prices. The briar is generally clean and more than decent for your first pipes. Mark's page can be seen here: . There are many other sources out there, but from personal experience I can certainly back Mark's quality and service. I'll ad a caveat here. Nobody can tell what horrors lie in the heart of briar and I've had great looking pieces that turned to pot. A single bad piece or even pieces does not mean that the seller of briar is out to fleece the market. There is a good deal of luck in what you get and you pays your money you takes your chances.

The next problem involves tooling. There are very few pipe making specific tools to be found out there unless one is interested in tracking down and buying an existing pipe making company. I hear they come up from time to time, but aside from moving to France you are on your own to make and cobble together machines to make your pipes on.

Before I go any further I need to speak about safety in the workshop. You aren't working for anyone but you and your family. You do not get sick days. If you get injured you are on your own. Any damage you do to yourself in the workshop not only hurts you, but affects your ability to make a living in a trade that will never bring you fabulous wealth. Protect yourself.

Always wear safety glasses and if you are working with metal wear full face protection.
Use the guards on your machinery.
Do not wear loose clothing while working.
Read the instruction manuals- especially with an eye towards safety.
Buy and use a good respirator when you are working with hazardous materials. Be aware of what you are working with. There are a lot of toxic wood sites that can answer if the wood or material you are working with is toxic.
Install a good dust removal system and an air cleaner doesn't hurt. If this isn't in the budget right away get a really good shop vac with a good filter and set it up so you do your sanding work directly into the hose.
Keep your tools sharp and well maintained. Dull tools can grab, chatter and fling things around the shop.

Now that that is out of the way:

The first thing you will need is either a drill press or a metalworking lathe. Out of the two the metalworking lathe is the most versatile and will be the tool you will find most useful. But before we get to that let's talk about a drill press. A press will allow you to drill your pipes both freehand or locked into a vice. It gives you a lot of options in drilling and is a great tool to have even if you already have a lathe. With all that being said though, a drill press will not let you hand cut stems, cut in rings on a bulldog, nor will you be able to easily face your tenons when drilling freehand for a flush fit with the stem; A metalworking lathe will allow all these and more. Then again a very good drill pres can be had for easily half the price of a metalworking lathe. In the end like all tools it comes down to the question I always ask before buying a new tool: Will this tool enable me to do my job significantly better or faster? Is it enough to justify putting the cash into it? Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no.

With drilling comes drill bits. For conventional drilling I like to use standard high speed steel twist bits or pilot point drill bits. They tend to wander less than brad point bits and the pilot points have the added bonus that when drilling a tenon you have a ready-made centre point to drill your draught hole from. Having a ready-made and centred guide for drilling makes my pipe-making heart go all gooey with admiration for time and material saved.

For drilling the tobacco chamber you have a few options. The first and least expensive is to get your hands on - or modify your own spade bit. Tim West at JH Lowe sells pre-made bits of different sizes. To have a look a the sight here: . Making your own bits can also be a good way to go if you want a specific profile on the tobacco chamber. It isn't nearly as difficult as it sounds, all you really need is a permanent marker to mark out the shape of the bit, a bench grinder and a spade bit with the diameter of tobacco chamber you want. The only drawback of a converted spade bit is that it is nearly impossible to drill freehand using one due to the chatter you will get without a very firm grip on the briar.

The next options are a bit more expensive (no pun intended), but can give a smoother bore than what you will find with a spade bit and that is a shaped twist bit or a spoon bit. Both of these can be used to shape freehand, though the spoon bit is by far the easier of the two. Both can be found on Ken Lamb's site here: I've never bought through Ken, but from people who have, I hear that he sells very good quality bits and tooling.

Other drill bits that you will need for drilling stems are tapered bits like these ones from Lee Valley Tools,180,42240 I'm sure they can be found elsewhere and probably more cheaply, but there is a Lee Valley not twenty minutes away and I sometimes go the route of instant gratification. Having an assortment of drill bits will help you out in the long run, both metric and imperial. 9mm filtered pipes are named such for a reason and the closest imperial size isn't nearly good enough. Forestner bits, Auger bits, and carbide bits for drilling stainless steel are also all bits I use frequently.

The next thing you will need is something to shape and smooth your pipes and that means sanding. If I had to choose one type of sander for you workshop it would be a bench-top belt sander. This is not the model I have, but this type of sander would be ideal Belt sanders are just a bit better for shaping than disk sanders in my humble opinion, though I use both frequently in the workshop and it is largely a matter of preference. I also really like to use a three inch Velcro sanding disk attached to a heavy duty flex shaft for intermediate shaping.

Buffing is next topic, and I feel I need to add here that in pipe making everyone who does it uses slightly different methods and materials. I use a variety of 6 inch flannel and muslin buffs to get the job done on a machine I made from a motor, a set of pulleys, an arbour, a fan belt, a jacobs chuck, a light switch, and a chunk of plywood. Other folks use converted bench grinders, a buff attached to a motor which may or may not be a washing machine motor. Different speeds and techniques are the rule rather than the exception, but the basics are the same. Generally though 1/2 horsepower is sufficient and try to stay away from the really high RMP / FPM models and find something that stays below 2000 rpm. When buffing you do not need to press hard. Let the buffing wheel and the buffing compound or wax you are using do the work for you; the end result looks better and the pipe won't be grabbed from your hand to go flying across the workshop.

A Dremel tool with a flex shaft is a great place to begin for detail work and fine shaping, but expect it to burn out after a few years. The next step up is a Foredom which is like the Dremelsaurus Rex... on steroids. More torque, it can take larger burrs and is built like a tank. My own Dremel died a few years back, I bought a Foredom and I've never looked back. It costs the same as three Dremels, but will probably still be working 50 years from now.

There is so much I haven't included that it makes my mind spin, but we're already up to three pages and I could easily go for three more on hand tools alone. With that in mind I'm just going to lightly touch on some of the hand tools that I've found useful: A good set of files and needle files, a fret saw, a hack saw, rubber sanding pads and tadpoles, miniature cabinet scrapers, Vernier callipers, thickness callipers, a depth gauge, miniature lathe tools, a good stainless steel ruler, some kind of sharpener for your tools, a vice, a magnifying glass or loupe, a hand drill, an osculating hand sander, a detail sander...and the list goes on.

That probably raises more questions than it answers, but it's a start. Good luck!

Sept 25th 2011: Advice to new Pipe Makers

I'm going to take a quick break in the, "What Makes a good Smoking Pipe?," series to blog about a topic I get asked about on a fairly frequent basis. Aspiring pipe makers quite often email asking for any advice I can give them in starting their business. Over the years I've written a lot of different letters on the subject and my most recent one was was in my humble opinion one of the better ones I've come up with. So to all you aspiring pipe makers out there, here it goes:

1 If you want to make pipes just start sketching and if possible making them. It is vitally important to develop an eye for pipes. Making a balanced pipe is one of the most challenging skills a new pipe maker needs to master and there is nothing like learning by doing. Ask questions of course, but sometimes it's best to get wood dust on your face.

2 Do not sell any of your first pipes for anything other than the cost of materials. Best option is to give them away to pipe smokers who will give you an honest critique. One of the things I regret is selling some of my early pipes. I wish I could take a lot of them back and dance around the fire while they burned. I made some truly wretched pipes when I started and I began selling them far too early.

3 Look at the pipes of makers who are considered the top of their game or at least the market you are trying to get into. See what they are doing in terms of size, fit, finish, engineering etc. My first trip to Chicago was a huge eye-opener for me and I brought back a lot of things that carried over into my own pipe making.

4 It is easy to become the flavour of the month in the pipe collecting world. The problem is that if your work isn't yet top grade all the collectors who buy your pipes will not return. You have one chance to get it right the first time. Otherwise it will be a slog to try and improve and keep up making a living.

5 Maintain a web presence. I'm still struggling with this one myself. The online pipe community is very important and keeping your face visible is also important to drum up business. It's oftentimes difficult to leave the workshop where you have been looking at pipes all day long to answer questions about pipes that you have already answered a bunch of times before. These people are your bread and butter though, and they are what keeps you going. Ignore them to you peril. Plus most of them are pretty good folks.

6 Do not cheap out on tools or materials. There is a reason why good tools and materials are more expensive and cheaper ones are cheap. There is nothing like buying a cheap drill press, putting it together and watch it shake itself apart into component pieces. (I speak from experience.) Buy once, cry once. Buy cheap and you'll be crying every time it breaks down or a pit turns up in your briar. This isn't to say that everything you buy must be the absolute best, but there is a level where the price is justified by the quality.†

7 Experiment, read and continue to improve. The nice thing about this job is that you can always try something new and there is always room for improvement and experimentation. There should never be a time where you say, "I know all I need to know about making pipes." Your work will show it and you will fade into the background. Constantly revisit your work, your designs and your methods. This will keep you fresh and it will show.

8 Once you begin making money, put the price of materials plus a few dollars aside on every pipe you make. There is nothing like realizing that you are out of rod stock or briar and have no money to buy more. Plus tax people don't take IOUs.

9 On a similar note, keep a few years supply of briar aside for ageing. Aged briar tastes nicer and it is good to have some in the cellar.

Sept 07th 2011: What makes a good Smoking Pipe?
Part II: Engineering

To some folks engineering is nothing but a marketing ploy used by pipe makers to promote their products and bilk honest pipe smoker out of their hard-earned money. Others go so far as to claim that a bent pipe will never smoke as well as a straight because of the turbulence caused by the change in angle in the airway. They then show diagrams where pipe engineering has been replicated in a wind tunnel to show where the airflow becomes turbulent thereby creating condensation.

In my years of making pipes I find myself rolling my eyes at both camps. On one hand I do believe that engineering is extremely important to having a good smoking pipe. On the other I don't think you need a PHD in Thermodynamics and Physics to create a good smoking pipe.

First off, I like an open draw when I smoke a pipe. I find they taste better, burn longer and sucking on pipe to try and get a puff of smoke out just seems like too much work for a past time that is suppose to be relaxing and contemplative. What this means for me when I'm making my pipes is that I drill with a large enough bit to give ample airflow. I'm a fan of drill bits on either side and including 11/64ths. These are generally small enough that they won't draw flakes of ash and tobacco up the pipe and large enough to give a good draw.

The next part is maintaining the airflow. You can have a draught hole an inch in diameter if you want, but if it narrows for to the size of a needle you still won't be able to draw much out of it. So here we come to the problem: People like an open draw and a narrow, comfortable bit. This means that simply drilling an 11/64th bit all the way through a piece of plastic and calling it done isn't going to cut it. That's why most pipe makers drill the stem material with a drill bit that tapers to a point from one side of the stem material then drill with a much smaller diameter bit from the other side. This is followed up by opening up the bit side of the stem with various needle files, thin saw blades, drill bits and other assorted burrs and files. The important part here is to make sure that the airway isn't constricted once the bit is opened up. The airflow should be constant from the draught hole to the end of the bit.

These are the basic rules I follow when I'm making a pipe. Every pipe is different and each needs to be evaluated for the engineering that will work best for the tobacco chamber size and construction considerations. Beyond these two basic engineering aspects people begin talking about polishing the airway, and other more exotic ways of helping a pipe smoke well. At this point it gets into the Law of Diminishing Returns. Basically it's a lot more work for very little -if any- gain.

In my opinion even passing the venerable pipe cleaner test is less a sign of quality and more a convenient way to clean out a wet pipe in medias res. I've owned a lot of pipes that were drilled off-centre and refused to pass a cleaner, but despite this were still great smokers. To me these are more indications of fine-tuning and attention to detail than engineering flaws. Thankfully I pay close attention to detail and fine tune the pipes I make so this is more in the nature of an academic note than it is a real-world issue with my own pipes. I take pride in my work and cosmetic issues are still issues, just not necessarily engineering ones.

In the end the best way for me to check the engineering of a pipe is to put it in my mouth and draw on it to see if it feels right. What makes a pipe smoke well is by its very nature a qualitative experience. Without feeling how a pipe draws I can't be sure I've got all the elements I need to put out a pipe I'll be proud of.

June 12th 2011: What makes a good Smoking Pipe?
Part I: Briar

In the past weeks I've started a number of different blogs, but all of them ended up being rambling, unfocused and generally unreadable. So in an effort to think of a compelling topic I thought about the topics that pop up every six months or so like clockwork in the online forums. The first topic that came to mind was, "what makes a good smoking pipe?" Even better I won't have to defend my points because this is a blog and here I am lord and master! For me a good smoke comes down to four key elements. The Briar, the engineering, the tobacco and finally the person. So, drunk with ultimate power, here goes:

Part one Briar:

First there was briar and it was good. No, I'm not going to be getting into cobs, meerschaums, cherries, clays, porcelains calumets or metal here. Those other things may make great pipes, but I'm a briar guy and am sticking with what I know.

Before anything else the briar must be properly treated and aged for a few years if a pipe is going to smoke well. This is largely the province of the briar cutter and having a good, reliable briar cutter is a very important first step. Once the briar is cut the blocks should be boiled for at least 12 hours in clean water. Most of the resins and other nasty-tasting compounds will be boiled out of the briar during the time in the water. In some cases I've been known to reboil the briar if I get a batch that is a bit more resinous than is ideal. Even briar that has been well processed and boiled will still turn water bright red with briar juices that didn't make it out of the block in the first boiling. Once the briar is boiled it should sit for at least another two years. Longer is better, but two years is acceptable. During this time the wood will mellow, exactly as with a bottle of wine or good vanilla. The briar supplier will usually ship off the briar after letting the briar dry for half a year or so. Once it is on the racks in the workshop it's just a matter of waiting. You can have the most beautifully-grained briar on the surface of the earth, but if it hasn't been boiled properly and given time to sit, chances are better that the pipe will taste foul.

This brings me to my next point. Does grain affect the smoking characteristics of a pipe? The answer to this is yes and no. It is a proven fact that heat is better conducted along wood grain, but we're talking by a few degrees at most in the case of a pipe. I personally don't think that this factors largely into the smoking characteristics of fine grained pipes versus pipes with more chaotic grain. Is it nice to sit back with a pipe and appreciate the way a shape compliments the grain? I think so, but I'll happily admit that I'm also flakier than pie crust and what is important to me isn't always important to others. A Yugo will get you where you are going just as well as an Aston Martin. It all comes down to priorities.

Next: Engineering!

March 30th 2011: Pipe Making Manifesto

Lately I've noticed that there has been some friction on some of the online forums. Nothing unusual in that. When you have contributors from different countries, cultures and backgrounds all in the same place there's bound to be personalities grinding on each other. What makes it even less remarkable is that it is the same old argument that always pops up. As a matter of fact I've blogged about this in the past, but stick with me, this won't be a rehashing of old bile...much.

Just for the sake of familiarity though, here's how it breaks down:

1- It comes to the memberships attention that item X was purchased at X price. It doesn't really matter what the item is, pipes, tobacco, tampers, pipe bags, lighters etc. The item is usually on the upper-end of the price scale for its kind though.

2- Here we have a number of responses. If someone is showing a new acquisition we get a number of the usual, "nice pipe / tobacco / tamper / pipe bag / lighter etc." Then invariably we get the usual comment that boils down to, "You have more money than brains. I could buy a fistful of less expensive pipes / tobaccos / tampers / pipe bags / lighters etc. for the same price." Or, "You're just bragging about your bank account, I don't have that kind of money therefore you shouldn't hurt my fragile feelings by flaunting it."

3- Here the membership breaks into three groups: The ones who leap with all haste to the defence of the one who bought said item. The ones who think their opinion on how or why others should spend their money matters. The ones taking bets on how long it will take for the thread to heat up enough for the moderators to lock the thread and slap wrists.

Having been a part of this discussion a number of times I've learned that this is not the kind of online conversation that is ever likely to change anyone's opinion and no matter how well an argument is made, pro or con. The decisions have already been made and no amount of cajoling is going to change minds. At best the combatants are fighting the good fight if for no other reason than they believe that their position is right and just.

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.

After years of seeing and participating in these conversations repeatedly I've come to the conclusion that they are only really good for a few things: Making me look like a frothing idiot, raising my blood pressure, and leaving me feeling like a dog that has repeatedly run full-tilt until he has reached the end of his chain only to be brought up short in a spectacular and predictable manner. Granted, it has taken years for me to come to this conclusion, but I'll chalk that up to enthusiasm. Stupidity seems less noble.

Ok, that's out of the way and I'll get to my point. All of this online rivalry has got me thinking about the group of people who for one reason or another like my pipes and those that don't. I've had folks say great things about my pipes online and it is always gratifying to hear that my pipes are appreciated. Knowing that my work brings enjoyment is a really big deal for me. By the same token I have folks who would rather douse themselves in lighter fluid and roll naked on a bed of blazing hot coals than buy one of my pipes and say so. That's their choice and while I find it mildly rude I don't take it to heart. The reason is simple. You can never make everyone happy and I will never make a pipe that is for everyone. It's a pretty easy thing to say, but as a pipe maker I need to embrace it. I-will- never-make-a -pipe-that-is-for-everyone. I'm lucky if I make a pipe that half the people like.

First off compared to factory made pipes my pipes are pretty darn expensive. When you buy one of my pipes you are not supporting a factory that has an economically streamline production designed to make a lot of pipes as cheaply as possible while maintaining a certain level of quality. You are supporting a guy hunched over a belt sander in his workshop working on one pipe at a time. This is not for everyone, I'd be surprised if this is even 20% of pipe smokers worldwide.

Next I'll be the first to admit that I make some pretty messed-up designs compared to the average pipe shape. Seriously, most pipes lack teeth, claws and or tentacles. Not so much with mine. Don't get me wrong I love making all pipes, classics included, but with one look at Zombie Bill most of the straight-laced pipesters out there beat a hasty retreat.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me happily making pipes for the small group of Angels and Devils who are good enough to support me and like what I do. And with that in mind, what more could I ask for?

March 05th 2011: How Grain Works

As a pipe maker I often get asked to make pipes that are if not impossible, then highly unlikely. A pipe with birdseye on every surface is something I've been asked to make in the past, but have as yet been unable to accomplish. You might ask why? Does this Downie guy just not have the pipe making chops to accomplish such a feat? Well, possibly, but in this blog I'm going to speak about how grain works in briar burls and you can make up your own mind on the subject.

Flame grain, straight grain, birdseye and cross-grain are all words we've heard bandied about in the company of pipe collectors, online forums and -if we are lucky enough- at the local tobacconist or pipe show. So what are they? How are they made? As one might guess, it all starts with the briar burl. The briar burl is a ball of wood that is used to store water for the shrub that grows from it. In the case of the burl, function defines form and the end grain which best absorbs water is found on the face of the burl. The grain structure is very much like a wagon wheel. If you can imagine that the straight grain radiates out from the centre of the burl like the spokes. Looking at the edge of the wagon wheel the ends of the spokes themselves are the birdseye. The heart of the burl is usually a lot less organized and the grain can be quite chaotic and the best-grained briar will come from the outside portions of the burl. Actually, a dandelion puff is actually a better example of the grain structure, but naming all the parts of a dandelion so people understand what I'm talking about is a lot more challenging.


So straight grain is found in a pipe where the carver has made the surface of the pipe run parallel with the grain of the briar. Flame grain is when the surface of the pipe angles across the straight grain at a shallow angle. Birdseye is when the surface of the pipe is perpendicular to the straight grain.

But what about blasted pipes? Where does ring grain fit into the equation? Blasted pipes rely on a different kind of grain altogether. Instead of a wagon wheel we instead look at an onion. We've all counted rings on a log to see how old it is and these rings are what we see when we look at ring grain on a blasted pipe. The ring grain runs perpendicular to the straight grain and is much more difficult to see. Just like straight grain and birdseye, ring grain can be of varying quality and organization. Bringing out horizontal grain with blasting is very different than staining a pipe to bring out the straight grain or birdseye. The blasting media, pressure, hardness of the wood and even the age of the briar all factor into how well pipe will blast. The quality of the final manifest gain to a very large degree will depend on the skill of the pipe carver.

Grains n' Onion

Et Voila! The mysteries of grain have been revealed!

Aug 23th 2010: Stuff... and things!

It has been a month or two since I've blogged here. A lot has been going on both in the workshop and in the computer room. This blog will be a sort of ramble about what I've been up to and what will be coming up in the following months.

After three and a half years in it's current form the Downie Pipes website is due for a big update. It has been a bit embarrassing having my gallery page end at 2006, when we are somewhat further advanced in years. Unfortunately my HTML chops were not up to tackling the tables within tables within tables within tables in the site's current form so I'm rebuilding from the ground up. It has been a boatload of work, but in the end I'm going to have a webpage that is easier to navigate, look better, have links to social sites, have a proper blog, be easier to update and be a better reflection of me and my work online. In the process I've had to learn a lot of what has been going on in the years I've been out of the web design business. Cascading Style Sheets and working in Wordpress are just a few of the items for required study I've been working my way through. There have been a lot of very good things going on in the web design world updating and working with the website promises to be a lot easier once it's all put together.

Fall looks like it's shaping up to be a very busy season. Some surprises will be coming up which I'm really excited about. I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag yet, but I've been in touch with elements in the pipe world about a fun project we're going to work on. Also I have a number of creatures of Smoke that will be appearing in the following months. One of which will be an octopus themed pipe. I seem to be getting more of those lately. Victorian Dolphins, Nautiluses . . .Nauteli? Darn Latin.

Speaking about the Creatures reminds me of an email conversation I had a while back. A gent asked for a pipe and felt bad that he had to ask me to restrain my artistic impulses. It's funny because I like making all sorts of pipes. In my opinion classic shapes can have an elegance and beauty all their own. I've become known for making some pretty out-there pipes, and people are sometimes taken aback when I say that I'm quite happy making pipes without scales, tentacles, viscera etc. Case in point is the most recent pipe I've added to the site. I absolutely love the pipe, but it's a fairly standard shaped horn, not a gill or tooth present. I enjoy making classics or tweaked classic shapes a lot too. I didn't go out of my way to be known for making figural pipes. In fact the first one I made was an attempt to bring people to my table during the Chicago Pipe Show. It worked, and a side affect commissions started flowing in for all kinds of beasties, which is fun, but also a whole bunch of work. It's nice to work on a pipe and be able to go from start to finish in a few days versus a week plus. Variety being the spice of life and all that. What is the point of all this? I guess it's to point out that I do enjoy making all kinds of pipes and am not int he least bit offended when people ask me to reel in the more extreme pipe making I'm known for. I like 'em all.

June 20th 2010: Briarking the Green Man.

The Green Man is a symbol that has interested me for a long time. It is one of the very few pre-Christian icons that has been used constantly through the centuries without stop to the current day. I've always found the image of the Green Man to be compelling though I have to admit that I'm somewhat anachronistic and flakey at the best of times, so that isn't exactly surprising.

The idea of a green man pipe was in the works for a number of years. I had the idea to make the pipe for the Chicago show one year, but ran out of time. It was one of those pipes that was always on the back burner, it would get made one day, but your guess would be as good as mine as to when. So it was a pleasant surprise when I got an email asking about the possibility of making a Green Man pipe. Warren, the gent who was asking about the Green Man has an uncanny ability to be on a similar wavelength as myself when it comes to pipes. I'll think about how nice it would be to make a certain shape one week and the next week I'll get a note from Warren asking if I'd like to make it. It's very good to have mind-reading pipe smokers out there who like your pipes!

To get the maximum effect for the face of the Green Man I decided to use a modified Ramses shape. It allowed lots of room for the face and beard and would give the pipe the feeling of a carved bust. The actual carving of the detail on the pipe is always my favourite part of the work and in the case of this pipe took the longest to complete. Sadly it was the last project my Dremel will ever complete. Just as I was finishing it began to to stutter and rev strangely. Unfortunately it wasn't an easy fix like changing out the brushes and the Dremel was put out to pasture.


After a lot of time with rolled-up bits of sandpaper and rubbing with steel wool the pipe was ready to be stained. I wanted a specific colour when I stained this pipe. There is a colour of green in the summertime where the setting sun shines through a green leafy canopy and flying bugs swirl in the beams that make it through. I'm not sure if you've ever seen it, but it is a colour of green that is unlike any other green I can think of. I really wanted to capture that colour in the pipe and it took a lot of experimentation to get it right. After a bit of work I discovered it wasn't a single colour I was looking for, but a colour gradient of darker and lighter greens. To get the effect I used multiple layers of both alcohol-based and water-based stains to get the right look. The veins in the leaves , the panels on the pipe, the vines and the highlights on the face of the Green Man all needed this treatment. Thankfully the high points were the light points and the recesses were dark. This made it a lot easier for me to get it right and this is where the multiple layers of stain and more use of ultra-fine steel wool came in handy. A uniform green - or even a green gradient - for the whole pipe didn't really suit me however. I wanted to also give the leaves an autumnal look and tipped the leaves with a hint of red and yellow. Blending the stain into the leaves without sharp edges was the next staining challenge and by the end of it my fingers were a very interesting collection of colours. It was probably one of the most complex staining efforts I've attempted and thankfully it worked out the way I wanted it to the first time through. Stripping this pipe down and re-staining wasn't an option.

The final challenge of this pipe was sealing the stain in. Water-based stains are great in a lot of ways, but also have their faults. The main one is that we are also water-based and holding a pipe long enough will cause the stain to transfer from the pipe to the hands. This is why most of the time I like to use alcohol-based stains; less chance of stain bleeding onto hands. Another problem I've come across is that the stain fixing agent I use on my alcohol-stained pipes will handily wipe away water-based stains. I had to find something to fix on the stain while keeping the colour. Thankfully, after a bit of sitting and staring I found a solution that I thought would work, and even better, I was right.


So now you know a lot more than you probably wanted to about The Briarking. This is one of those pipes that I've wanted to make for a long time though and I thought that it would be good to write a making of for the whole thing.


May 08th 2010: Smokable Art .

Another month under the belt and more pipes on the site and off the commissions list. Increasingly I'm finding that Creatures of Smoke are the pipes that people are asking me to make, which I have to admit is a bit strange. I'm not complaining; I enjoy being able to spend a week plus on a project. It lets me sink my teeth into the whole process, which is as it should be as a lot of Creatures have teeth of their own to sink into me. The time spent making these little ghoulies is considerable and the sense of completion at the end of the project is proportional to the time invested. I do find it odd though that pipes that are generally my most expensive are the ones that seem to be flying off the shelf. A lot of the world is still staggering back from the recession but looking at my upcoming list of commissions I see a lot of Creatures waiting to be made this year.

The next part of this blog will be in the form of a rant so those who don't like to read such things should skip to the next paragraph. The only thing that irritates me about making these kinds of pipes is the comment that without fail is made on boards and forums across the net. It goes something like this: ďI buy my pipes for smoking. That pipe simply looks too strange to smoke well.Ē For those of you that have typed these words or something like them, I'll let you in on a little pipe-making secret. Just because one spends effort making the outside of a pipe look artistic does not mean that the effort gets all used up when it comes to engineering. I have never, ever said: ďGee, that pipe looks great, it's a shame I used up all my time and effort on the outside. Looks like I'll have to do a crappy job on the engineering to save time.Ē I have yet to run into a pipe maker that does not first and foremost make items meant and designed specifically to smoke and smoke well. The exterior is simply that, the exterior. Often pipe makers try to follow the grain to make shapes that are harmonious with the wood and add their own artistic flourishes, but inside the pipe there remains an apparatus that is constructed with the express idea of transporting smoke from the tobacco chamber to the button as smoothly as possible. A good analogy would be to say that all red cars are fast and all brown cars are slow. Like the man said, ďit's what inside that counts.Ē

Back on track after my little fit of catharsis there; I'm really excited about the upcoming projects. On top of the more conventional pipe projects I have pipes based on tarot cards, a Geenman pipe, a Victorian stylized dolphin, and two possible Halloween projects that are always fun to put together. Things are shaping up to be a fun year.

March 20th 2010: Kentucky Fried Pipe.

At least a few times a year the online community debates the pros and cons of using a bowl coating on new pipes. The usual hurt feelings and damage to fragile egos are the inevitable results. In the last five years, however, there seems to be a greater acceptance of bowl coatings, with fewer people in the camp that pre-carb is used solely to cover up imperfections and tool marks in the bowl. That said, there is a dark side to bowl coatings. Which brings to mind an experience I had a few years ago.

I was in the usual midst of pre-Chicago pipe madness and I was due to be flying out the next morning. At the time I still used pre-carb on my pipes and still needed to coat the bowl of the last one, a blasted poker. For those who don't know one recipe for bowl coating - and the one I generally prefer- uses sour cream as a binder. In a fit of culinary experimentation, Lexa had splurged days before and bought a tub of Jersey Cow sour cream and the usual sour cream had fuzzy green circles living on it. Thinking that sour cream is sour cream and that it wouldn't make any difference I used the Jersey Milk variety in the fridge, dumped the science experiment, made my usual pre-carb recipe and grabbed the last few hours of sleep before flying out. Chicago was the usual fun time of sleep deprivation, late night IHOP trips, and nicotine it always is. I arrived back home happy having had a great time with friends and selling most of my pipes. It was back to business as usual for another year. A few weeks later I received an almost apologetic email from the gent who bought a blasted poker from me explaining that the pipe tasted, 'funny,' and he thought it was the pre-carb that he was tasting. I was a bit surprised as I'd never had any problem with my pre-carb before. I go out of my way to make sure that I test the taste of my pre-carb recipe before it touches my pipes and the recipe I was using was one I'd refined over a few years. With a bit of gentle questioning I found out the pipe most tasted like fried chicken.
ďFried Chicken? As in the Colonel?Ē

At the time I was too horrified to consider it, but there might be a market for KFC flavoured pipes. So if anyone reading this has a love for deep-fried chicken that they would like to marry with their love of pipe smoking, let me know, I can get you hooked up. Back to the story: I stand behind my pipes and of course offered to have a look at the pipe and at the very least get rid of the offending bowl coating. When the pipe arrived I immediately recognized it through an association with the feeling of watery, red eyes and tired limbs. It was the the final Chicago pipe, the pipe I'd used the mystery sour cream to make the bowl coating for. I didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what went wrong after that. On the next trip to the grocery store I checked out the fat content of Jersey Cow sour cream and sure enough it was a lot higher than the standard sour cream I usually use. The bowl coating was sanded out and the pipe went back to a gent who no longer felt an urge for potato salad and biscuits with gravy when he lit up his new Downie.

Clearly not all bowl coatings are created equal, but I've recently been thinking about starting to use them again. There is a lot to be said for bowl coatings. They give the pipe a more finished look to begin with. They also give me a bit of insurance against the possibility of burn through. Briar is a funny kind of wood. The most beautiful piece can have a flaw millimetres below the surface, waiting to open up and start burning a hole toward the surface of the pipe. The most simple pipe will usually take a minimum of 8 hours to finish and most are much more than that. Bowl coatings are a bit of insurance for both myself and my customer that if there is an unseen flaw in the wood that a brown spot won't begin appearing on the side of the bowl slowly turning to black.

Feb 18th 2010: Haiti. 

When the earthquake hit Haiti my heart went out to the people suffering there. I visited the Dominican Republic some years ago and while it isn't Haiti, I felt like I had at least some connection to the place. At the same time I didn't really know what I could do to help outside of donating a few dollars. A week later and from the news coverage it seemed as though things had gone from horrible to worse in Haiti. A friend of mine who is part of the Vancouver Pipe Club suggested that it might be a good idea for the club to put some funds toward commissioning a pipe to auction off and donate all funds to a charity working in Haiti. I thought it was a great idea and as luck would have it, had a spot open up where a gent wasn't ready from me to begin work on his pipe. I got to work and increased the grade of the briar and material I used in hopes of getting as much bang for the buck out of the pipe. The end result was a nice grade 2 Calabash with a Bakelite stem. I've been meaning to revisit the Calabash shape for a while and it seems like it's a shape that a lot of people like which makes it great for an auction.

With the help from a number of members of the pipe club steering committee the ebay listing was made up and luminaries in the pipe world were contacted for advice and support. The pipe community stepped up with their usual selflessness and a huge amount of work was put in behind the scenes to make this as successful an event as possible. All proceeds from the pipe will be donated to the Canadian Red Cross' efforts in Haiti. To check out the ebay listing click here.

The fact that Haiti isn't in the news as much anymore unfortunately does not mean that the suffering there is any less. At the risk of sounding callous, the media knows that people have a shot attention span and the story will fade off the TV screens even if will take much longer for Haitians to rebuild and count their losses. Even if you are not interested in this pipe, consider donating to the Red Cross.

Jan 18th 2009: Lazarus Blog.

It has been nearly two months since I wrote a blog for the site and I've been feeling bad about the lack of upkeep on the website. Between the business of the holiday season and multiple family birthdays in December and January I just haven't got off my backside to make it happen. So what is new around here? Quite a bit actually.

I finished another Creature of Smoke in December based on the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings. The pipe is probably the most complicated Creature of Smoke I've ever made and it was a lot of fun to put together. I mean, how often does a pipe maker get to make a pipe with component vertebrae and connective tissue!?... I guess the question should also be asked: How many would really want to? Another Creature of Smoke took form in late December and was finished in early January. It was based on the Nautilus shape I made earlier in 2009, but this one had tentacles. To have a look at either of these pipes go to the commissions page and click on the picture.

The Holiday season was a joy and a trial as it always is. It was awesome watching my then 4year-old and her cousins enjoy Christmas together, but I could do without the usual December chaos. My salvation took the form of two words: ďOnline Shopping.Ē Shopping in December brings out the axe-wielding maniac in me and it is much better for my sanity to calmly place my orders online. No fuss, no muss, and no blood to clean up; everyone wins. With that thought firmly in mind I bought myself a preemptive Christmas present using the money that my parents and grandmother usually give me for Christmas and my birthday. A shiny new wireless router and my very first laptop were the results of an online Black Friday sale. I'm all wired up now and can update the website and blog from inside the workshop. I'm not convinced that I'll update the site more often, but it will be easier to get on the computer when I do. Having a computer savvy 5 year old in the house has its drawbacks.

2010 looks like it will be an interesting year. I have a lot of very fun projects coming up. I will have the pleasure of working on a number of Creatures of Smoke including the start of a series of pipes based on Chess pieces, a Greenman, the usual Halloween fun that might include another NC pipe maker this year, a zombie pipe, and a pipe based on the work of HR Giger if time permits just to name a few. My daughter and wife will be heading to school and back to school respectively. I'll continue to be growing tobacco in the back, roasting coffee in the kitchen, paying off the credit cards in the workshop, running on the trails, and learning to play the mandolin anywhere I can sit down. It's going to be a good year.

Nov 08th 2009: Life and Times.

The months trundle past here and this month's blog is in the form of a general update rather than a rant or a blog on a specific topic. October started out with finishing the Cthulhu pipe, which was a very fun project to work on. It seems I'm getting known for some off-the-wall big project pipes as I've got more Creature of Smoke pipes coming up on the commissions list than I have ever had in the past. Some of the ones that stick out in my mind as being particularly fun include the Balrog pipe, A Greenman pipe, a Zombie pipe, and a chess piece pipe. I'll begin work on the Balrog pipe in the next few weeks for a pre-Christmas delivery.

The month continued with my wife and I heading inland to the Okanagan vineyards for the annual wine festival. We've gone every year since we were married in 2001 and always have a great time. This year I topped off the event by running my first half-marathon, which will by no means be my last. I found out about the race a little under two weeks from the date I ran it it, so I didn't have a huge amount of training time. I've been running for a few years and really enjoy getting out and pounding the trails. I'm considering training for a full marathon at some point next year. It's nice to turn the stereotype of the wheezing, thrombosed smoker on its head. I didn't finish quite as quickly as I wanted, but still managed to run a 1:52 time which was better than most in my age group.

Here's a lovely shot of me just after finishing the race. Did I mention that it was -10C when it started?

Later on in the month the family was lucky enough to be invited to Richard Friedman's yacht in Bellingham where he showed me around and we enjoyed a bowl of Stonehaven. The pipe smoking community seems to be rich in some interesting and truly good people. By now it shouldn't surprise me, but it still does. Richard and his wife certainly fall into this category. He took us out for Mexican which was better than most of Mexican food I'd eaten in Mexico and I went home with my pockets bulging with tobacco from Richard's cellar. I'm looking forward to Richard coming up here so I can return the favour.

Halloween was a lot of fun this year. My daughter is going to be five in January and she had a blast. We decorated the inside of the house, carved the pumpkins and she spent the next week on a sugar-fuelled bender. My wife and I are of the opinion that if she eats all of her candy at once then it's over. We won't have little mini sugar bombs exploding from now until Christmas. The bag is now nearly empty and the cats are looking forward to being able to sleep easily again.

The month concluded with a nice big order of briar from Mimmo coming in to replenish the briar racks. I received some great pieces in the shipment and my hands are itching to start work on them. All in all I'm ready for a good winter making briar dust and hopefully selling the occasional pipe.

Oct 6th 2009: Tobacco Harvest and Processing.

This year's tobacco processing experiment has begun! Early on I decided to try and keep it simple this year with a minimum of fiddling around. Those of you who know me, know that keeping things simple is something I'm not terribly good at. This time though I rebelled against my natural tendency to overly complicate things. I took the tobacco leaves out of the large cardboard box they had been stored in for the last year and started the process by re hydrating last year's leaves with distilled water.

After that I cut out the centre stem and piled the leaves up. I was sparing with the water as I only wanted the leaves to be pliable again and didn't want to encourage any mold. So far so good! The tobacco was a nice yellow and brown colour and smelled sweet and grassy. It had gone through a lot of changes since I put it in the box at the end of last summer. I rolled up the tobacco pile up tightly and packed it into a sterilized soup can. With the help of a c-clamp and a fitted Maple plug that I cut on the band saw I compressed the tobacco down. Then the whole apparatus went in the oven for three hours at a 100 degrees. I let the tobacco plug cool off overnight and took it out of the can in the morning. What remained of last year's 8 tobacco plants was a 250 gram plug of tobacco.

Not much for eight plants, but enough for me to smoke and enjoy. I cut the plug into flakes and this evening rubbed out a half a bowl worth and gave it a try. It was surprisingly good! It reminded me a bit of a combination of Dark Star and Best Brown Flake. Oddly enough I'd grown and processed tobacco that actually tasted and burned like tobacco!

Not bad considering last year's hockey puck sits and glares at me from inside its mason jar when it isn't plotting against me. I can tell this year's effort will improve with age and I'm really looking forward to trying this tobacco again in a few months. In the meanwhile I've harvested, sweated and dried this year's leaves and they have replaced last year's vintage in the cardboard box.

The only thing left for this year's plants to to take off the seed pods for next year's plants. Here is a shot of the leaves in the process of being sweated on the lawn.
I'm not sure how well they will do as we didn't get the high temperatures at the end of summer like we did last year and sweating requires some pretty warm temperatures. I'm hopeful though.

Aug 30th 2009: Workshop Makeover.

Building a good workshop takes a lot of time and money. Good equipment isn't cheap and bad equipment is simply not worth the aggravation of poor results and inevitable replacement. Up until recently I've been running a 2.5 inch dust collection system off the trusty Ridgid shop vac. I have nothing but good things to say about the vacuum. It has lasted much longer than I ever thought it would. I bought it in 2003 and have since logged literally years of work on the poor thing. It was not built for continuous use though and recently I began to smell that funny electric, ozone smell that lets one know that a motor is nearly ready to pack it in. It was time to put the shop vac out to pasture.

After a good bit of research I ended up buying a new General International Dust collector. I really like the quality of General International and whenever possible buy their tools. I had hopes that I'd be able to hook it up to the existing 2.5 inch system and did so. The results weren't spectacular. The shop vac gave a good bit of sucking power out of a fairly narrow hole where the dust collector moved a lot of air, but wasn't designed to put out that much hard suction. Granted, the suction for the dust collector was about the same as the vacuum, but I knew that I'd get waaay better performance out of a larger diameter system. I think a good analogy would be hooking up a juice box straw to a fire hose Ė not terribly practical. The old system had to go and in its place I put in a new 4 inch system which works great with the new collector. I opted for the cannister versus the bag system as it keeps suction for longer, is better with small diameter dust and is a lot easier to clean. As an added bonus one can get a sort of American Beauty feeling watching the briar dust swirl around in the clear collection bag.

With the new and much larger dust collector going in I took the opportunity to move some machines around and make the workshop more space efficient and streamlined. I also added some new overhead lighting and got rid of some of the junk that had collected in the corners over the last three years. The result is that the workshop is now remarkably dust-free, has more light and a lot more open space. Around this time of year I'm always thankful that I have a nice, warm workshop to work in when I think of my time sitting in the rain working on movie sets. I spend a lot of time in the workshop and the changes have made it an even more appealing place to do so.

July 28th 2009: Tobacco.

A few years ago I decided that I didn't have enough on my plate, what with being a new father and running a small business clearly not being challenge enough. I decided that I needed something to take up all the scads of extra time I had. So I found an online vendor and bought some tobacco seeds. Since then I've grown tobacco plants in the backyard with varying degrees of success.

In the few years I've been growing tobacco I've come to the conclusion that growing the tobacco isn't the hard part. The hard part is processing the tobacco into something vaguely resembling a product that you would want to smoke. Up to now I've only had what one generously describe as mediocre success. If bullheaded stubbornness worked for Sir Douglas Haig though, then it's good enough for me and this year I've given tobacco growing another shot. Going 'over the top' this summer means that I'm on the verge of processing last year's tobacco leaves and have planted another tobacco plants using last year's seeds. I think I may have moved the seedlings outside a bit late this year as they should be twice the size they are now. Still, with more warm weather on the way I'd imagine that they will catch up by the time it starts to cool down and it's time to harvest.

Here is a shot of this year's plants not terribly impressive at the moment, but they grow fast. I suspect that by the middle of next month they'll be hitting 5 feet. They're at that awkward early adolescent stage where they suddenly start sprouting. Thankfully tobacco plants forgo the acne and mood swings of their human counterparts.

June 17 2009: Cigars.

As some of you may or may not know I've recently begun smoking the occasional cigar. For some reason I've never been a huge fan of cigars. I would usually try one once a year, but for one reason or another they never appealed. Pipes seemed like a more enjoyable hobby. After all, when you finish a pipe you still have the pipe. At best when you finish a cigar you've got a band. My attitude got a big adjustment while in Mexico last December. For some reason I decided to grab a cigar and I ended up getting a Cohiba Panetelas from a store in Cancun. Chances are excellent it was a fake, but regardless it was the first time I actually enjoyed a cigar. Lexa managed to immortalize the moment in this rather embarrassing picture.

In my defence it was a Corona Cerveza beach party and they were handing out the feather boas as you came in. My daughter now does it much more justice than I did. I digress. Some months passed and I learned that a friend of mine had got into cigars in a big way. I wasn't completely ignorant to cigars, but I also couldn't tell a Corona from a Torpedo. He offered to give me a primer on cigars and after a very pleasant dinner we sat down and enjoyed a few cigars. A Trinidad Fundadore followed by a Cohiba Secretos. That was the final nail in the coffin. If I didn't get the appeal of cigars before I did then. Since that night I've bought my own little humidor, was given another, and managed to spend a bit too much money on cigars. It's a slippery slope, made slighty more slippery by the fact that Lexa usually sits down with me and samples cigars from the humidor with me.

A thing I have noticed about cigars is that it seems to attract a very different bunch of people than pipes. Both groups of smokers identify themselves very differently. I recently went on a cigar cruise put on by a local tobacconist and it was not difficult to point out the cigar smokers as they arrived and milled about waiting to board the boat. Compared to pipe smokers they were a comparatively beardless group with more of a focus on personal appearance, many more expensive watches and assorted bling in evidence. I thought that this was a bit odd, I've known a lot of pipe smokers that smoked cigars and I've known cigar smokers who smoke pipes, but the difference in appearances was marked to say the least. I guess it comes down to how people like to be perceived. Pipe smokers tend to think of themselves as contemplative and calm. Cigar smokers seem to be a bit more social and driven. It is interesting to note that a box of decent cigars is often more costly than a mid grade pipe and with aged and limited edition cigars the sky is the limit. Any anthropology students out there interested in a research paper?

June 06 2009: Update and Coffee.

This is not the first - or even the second time I've started this blog. The first time a thunderstorm rolled through and the power went out. For some reason the auto save didn't catch it and I lost the nearly completed blog. The second time my daughter closed down the word processor in a blind attempt to get to her games. The rest of the time it seemed like I sat down to write, got past the first few sentences, then was called away for some reason or another. I've begun to thing that I've been placed under a geis preventing me from finishing this blog. I will preserve and hopefully the third time will be the charm.

There has been a lot happening around here and if you get my updates via the mailing list a lot of this will be old news. It just goes to show how embarrassingly long it's been since I've updated the blog! First off my wife, Lexa, was relieved of her job in late January. It was a bit of a shock at the time, but when one door closes another opens and she's looking at going back to school in September. The timing was particularly bad as I usually start putting pipes aside for the Chicago show starting in February and with pipe making being the only source of income I wasn't able to maintain cash flow and put pipes away at the same time. So this was the first time in the last 5 years I haven't made it to Chicago. I am planing on making it back next year.

A lot of you know through meeting me, reading my emails or this blog that I enjoy a good cup of coffee. For the normal person this wouldn't be a problem: Go to store, buy coffee, make coffee with coffeemaker of choice, enjoy and repeat as necessary. Unfortunately I've got a personality handicap where if I can take some part of the process and tinker with it I will. This usually leads to additional time, expense and more often than not ends up requiring a lot of effort for minimal return. In the case of coffee I've surprisingly found that the opposite is the case. It seems like enough other people with similarly afflicted personalities have paved the path ahead of me! In January I decided that I would begin roasting my own coffee beans and Lexa gave me the expression that I've seen often enough to know means, '(sigh)here we go again.' I ordered a sample pack of green coffee beans and a little coffee roaster called the iroast 2. I expected to spend a few months tinkering with the machine to get an acceptable cup of coffee, but oddly enough by the third roast I was able to get a very good cup of coffee and even the first two roasts were better than just drinkable. To make matters even better the cost of green beans is much less than the price I was paying for the Intelligentsia Black Cat I was drinking before. I've even subverted Lexa who was never much of a coffee drinker before to join me in a morning cup.

my preciousss

The only drawback with the whole process is that there is a bit of smoke for the darker roasts and we have an oversensitive fire alarm in the house. The dog does not like the fire alarm and her feelings about the whole thing have transfered to the entire roasting process. She will actually whine now when she hears me dumping the green beans into the roaster. I guess one can't please everyone.

Holy crow. I actually finished a blog!! †

Nov 28 2008: The Year in Pipes.

This year has been an unusually good one for my pipe collection. I've crossed a number of pipe maker's names from the list and have been lucky enough to have been gifted pipes by pipe makers I hadn't considered collecting. I try to collect pipes from pipe makers I know and whose work appeals. I know it's a bit on the flimsy side as far as a collection focus is concerned, but I enjoy thinking about the person who made the pipe when I'm smoking it. It gives the experience a bit more depth and resonance. I typically try to only buy one or two pipes a year but this year has been a bit unusual.

The year started off with the arrival of my first Talbert Briar commissioned for me by my good wife. I'm usually on the other side of the commissioning process so it was a bit of a novel process commissioning a pipe from another maker. I own a number of Trever's LB pipes and have yet to be disappointed so it was just a matter of timing before I owned a Talbert briar. The shape Trever came up with for my pipe is called 'The Flame' and the design was a perfect rendition of the pipe maker's art given what I asked for. I wanted a fairly large bowl diameter, a Lucite stem and the feeling of motion found in certain of his pipes. A picture of it cn be seen at the head of this blog. Trever really came through in the creation and it is one of my favourite pipes. I've dedicated it to PCAA Dulcet and it has become one of the pipes I reach for when I want a good pipe.

The year wore on and I found myself in possession of a new Peter Heeschen that I acquired on trade for one of my own pipes. I've been told a number of times that Peter's pipes were 'smoking machines.' Having met Peter a number of times in Chicago and seeing his pipes up close I couldn't wait to give his pipes a whirl. I wasn't disappointed. If I had to chose a word to describe the smoking experience it would be 'smooth.' The pipe has a great draw and a level of symmetry to the shape that is only found with a carver who has truly mastered pipe making. I've been smoking a Red Virginia Flake in it and I find I have to agree with the consensus, it is a smoking machine. † †

The next two pipes that came to me were a huge surprise from a friend of mine who also happens to be a Benedictine monk. Over the years I've made Father Basil a few pipes and have done minor repairs and polishing up for him. He knows that I enjoy a more artistic kind of pipe. Often on meeting how asks how I'm doing with all the Dragon's claws, eagle's beaks and lion's tongues. Father Basil is more of a classic shape kind of gent and I can completely understand the attraction. Through a rather sad chance of fate it seems Father Basil came into possession of some Poul Winslow pipes and knowing my love of pipes a bit off the beaten path gifted me a beautiful freehand, almost as an afterthought he also offered me another beautiful full bent to do with as I would. After a bit of cleaning and elbow grease the pipes were reamed, sterilized and ready to smoke. Both pipes smoked very well. Having gone over both pipes very closely, I can certainly see why Winslow pipes are so sought after. He has a design style that is immediately recognizable as his own and a level of workmanship that is difficult to find any fault with. These are the only pipes this year where I don't have a relationship with the carver, but as a gift from a friend there is the same resonance I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.† †

The last pipe (so far) comes from a maker that I've admired for a long time. There have been numerous times when I was on the edge of buying a Rad Davis pipe, but there was always something that stepped in the way. Unexpected bills, or just not being able to find quite the right shape. At the beginning of the year it was decided that Rad Davis would be the carver of the year for the online board 'Smoker's Forums.' The price was extremely reasonable and I liked the shape. It didn't take much time to decide to jump on it. The pipe arrived a few days ago and I've got to say I'm impressed. Great balance, stemwork and engineering. I've only smoked a few bowls through it but I'm very happy with the level of work and craftsmanship in the pipe. I've chatted with Rad a number of times over the years over a beer or three and it's great to at last own one of his pipes.

Nov 02 2008: Plantation Downie.

I thought in this blog I'd post of my experiences in tobacco cultivation. Three years back I decided to try and actually grow tobacco. I can hear a lot of you now: 'Grow Tobacco - In Canada? Good luck.' Oddly enough It can be done and actually there use to be large fields of tobacco grown not less than a 45 minute drive from here. With that firmly in mind I sent away for some Virginia tobacco seeds. To make a long story very short the seeds sprouted and promptly died. Not a reassuring start for Plantation Downie. Last year I decided to cast myself once more into the breach and try it again. This time using the fleshy thing between my ears that is not my nose I decided to try sprouting the seedlings in one of those peat pellet propagators. What do you know, the seeds not only sprouted, but a few actually grew into some fairly large plants. Only two of the plants really grew full sized, but I harvested the few leaves I could, sweated them, dried them, rehydrated them, removed the center stalks, pressed, heated and fermented them. In the end I had something the shape and colour of a small hockey puck. I put the aforementioned puck into a mason jar to age and oddly enough it smells a good deal like Marlin Flake. I think I'll try it and see how it tastes fairly soon. But I digress.

With the increasing luck in tobacco rearing I decided this year to expand the tobacco growing operation. I used the seeds I harvested from my own plants the year before and in early March got the ball rolling. Soon I had a good number of Tobacco seedlings on the go and I waited for the good weather to come so I could bring the plants outside. And so I waited.. and waited. After perhaps the coldest and wettest spring I can remember had at last passed I had 8 stunted and rather pathetic-looking, off-green tobacco plants to put in the ground. The same time last year the plants were twice the size and were a beautiful, healthy green colour. When the sun did finally show it's face though the tobacco started to grow and by the end of summer I had 8 plants that were taller than I am.

With my daughter Helaina's help I harvested the bottom leaves as they ripened and sweated them by carefully watching the weather reports to get a good hot spell then laying them out on the lawn where the moisture in the grass kept them from drying out and let the leaves yellow. Soon they were a nice golden colour and it was time to dry the leaves. So using pipe cleaners to hold the bunches of leaves together I hung them from the ceiling of the workshop and with the help of a ceramic heater dried them out.

Once the leaves were completely dry I put them in a box and put them in the corner of the workshop to age a bit before I rehydrate and ferment them in the spring. I'll post as things develop, but so far it's been an interesting experience. There is actually surprisingly little effor involved in growing tobacco and I'll certainly be planting again next spring.

May 20 2008: The Blowfry.

Iíve always liked the blowfish shape. The shape itself is so nebulous and open to interpretation that one could make a cross-grained billiard and arguably call it a blowfish. To a Jonnie-come-lately pipe maker such as myself this is a blessing as I can make an endless line of these Ďblowfishí and who is to argue? Aside from the occasional expression of gas pain on the faces of blowfish collectors there has been little in the way of public outrage. The day a concrete form for the blowfish is agreed upon will be the day my gravy train runs off the tracks. Until then I can keep on pumping out a variety of shapes and call them all Ďblowfish.í To that end Iíve just finished the latest Ďblowfishí for a collector who is acquiring a number of these blowfish from different pipe carvers. This has put me into a bit of a quandary. Being compared and contrasted against other carvers who donít necessarily take my looser interpretation of the shape has forced me to rethink my usual habit of throwing bits of playdoh at the workshop wall and using the resulting random shapes as blowfish inspiration. I had to actually dust off the sketchbook and figure out how to work my pencils again. After a lot of head scratching and swearing I came up with a design that I thought might do the job. I was surprised that the end result actually resembled something approaching a blowfish. Sudden visions of Chimps banging typewriters and quoting Hamlet whizzed through my head as I was waxing up the pipe. It was with an actual physical start of surprise that I realized I had a grade 2 Fantasy pipe. These arenít quite as rare as Chimp-typed Shakespearian scripts but theyíre pretty rare. I only make perhaps 2 a year and it was on the edge of being my first ever grade 1. Iím very happy with this pipe and I think it is certainly in the top 5 pipes Iíve ever made. To have a gander have a look in my "commissions" area

May 05 2008: Sweet Home Chicago.

Chicago, the Mecca of the pipe world has wound down for yet another year. Despite the event being non-smoking I have to admit that I came home with a bit of a tobacco hangover exasperated no doubt by a general lack of sleep, a diet high in caffeine, and jet lag. It took four shots of espresso, a Coke, and a dose of Advil to get me on my feet the first day back. Things have slowly begun to come back into focus since then.

I spent yesterday answering emails and getting the workshop back into a state that doesnít resemble the aftermath of a rampage by a particularly aggressive and destructive Hippo. I generally like to tidy up the workshop after I finish every pipe so I can find all the things Iíll need for the next one. The pre-show orgy of pipe making simply didnít accommodate the usual clean up. Iím not particularly anal about tidiness; my routine has more to do with practicality and less to do with a compulsive cleanly nature. I discovered early on that spending hours searching for drill bits and chuck keys is generally counter productive so in my case cleaning is more of a necessity than a psychological imperative. But I digress.

I arrived at the Pheasant Run compliments once again of Tim Snyder who was good enough to again pick me up at OíHare and make the long trip out to St. Charles. Iím seriously considering petitioning the Vatican to make Tim the patron saint of pipe makers. Iím not sure how Tim would feel about being canonized, but heíd have my backing. Anyway, after stumbling up to the check-in I saw the photocopied paper that would cause so much discussion and chagrin over the course of the show. Iím referring to of course the paper that let us know that there would be no smoking during in the exhibition centre. It seems that the anti-smoking bandwagon caught the sent of brimstone- or at least Latakia- in the air and ambushed us with legal action in the 11th hour. I was fairly certain that nobody had seen my forked tail or horns when I arrived, my pitchfork wasnít allowed on the plane due to the new security measures, but somebody must have been sloppy. Remember folks wear hats to hide the horns; itís harder for the anti smoking crowd to catch us that way.

Despite the best efforts of the anti-smoking bunch the CPC came to our rescue with a very pleasant smoking tent complete with heaters, beer, food, comfy chairs and tables. In a lot of ways it was a big improvement over years passed when we were shoulder to shoulder in the bar trying to find a spare seat. The only negative I found with the smoking tent was that the number of people going from room to room was much diminished. Everyone it seemed was in the tent. Many pipe makers -myself included- packed up our pipes and brought them to the tent instead. The traffic flow still wasnít quite the same, but I did manage to convince a few people that my pipes were worth parting money with.

Saturday I showed up an hour early to the show, bleary eyed and in search of large doses of caffeine. Having an espresso machine at home tends to build up oneís tolerance and the drip pot in my hotel room was nowhere near up to the task of dealing with six hours sleep spread over two nights. Thankfully the folks at came to the rescue by setting up an espresso machine on the spot and handing out little cups of pure sunshine to the weary and pale faced attendees. I wonít go into why I arrived an hour early, suffice to say that while Dim Sum is usually a sharp cookie, it is always a good idea to double check times with multiple sources.

The show this year did not start with the bang it did last year. Last year I managed to get rid of five pipes before lunch. This year not a one moved off my table and truth be told I was getting an unpleasant sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There was the very real possibility that I might not make enough to cover my expenses. Post-lunch sales were much better (not that they could have been any worse) and three pipes left for their new homes. My stomach settled down and I began enjoying myself more. Let me make this clear, I donít go to Chicago to make money, I like meeting with pipe smokers and shooting the breeze and that in itself is reward enough. On the other hand it does cost money to go and breaking even is something I generally try to shoot for.

That night I met up with fellow Canuck Michael Parks and we enjoyed our traditional Pheasant Run feast; in my case prime rib, in his case steak. Iím proud to be Canadian, but one place where the US of A leaves us in the dust is with good beef. I have yet to have beef in Canada that can come close to what is served in the States. After dinner I enjoyed a pipe in the smoking tent and admired the work of Adam Davidson who is not only a great pipe maker, but a great guy to sit down and chat with as well.

That night I wrestled to get the fifty pounds of briar I ordered from Mimmo and received earlier that day into my suitcase and carry-on bag. 5 hours of shut-eye later and I was up for the exhibitorís breakfast and day two of the show was in full swing. Once again I was leaning heavily on the complimentary espresso at the Smokingpipes table and Red Bull figured prominently into the dayís beverage of choice. Four more pipes flew off the table with a rapidity that Iíve never before seen on the second day of the show. Needless to say I was very pleased with my sales and left Chicago with a smile of my face for the fourth year in a row. Along with the sales I met up with a lot of old friends, made some new ones and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Iíd like to take a moment to thank Frank Burla and the CPC for putting on such a great show under less than ideal circumstances. Iíve taken a look at what it takes to put on a pipe show in the hopes that Vancouver might one day host such an event and to call the project staggering is a vast understatement. The trials of Hercules might come close to illustrating the work that goes into such an undertaking, but I doubt it. So thank you Frank et al. You guys are the true stars of the show.

Mar 24 2008: Chicago Again.

It has been a very long while since I last updated this blog and I donít really have much in the way of any good excuse. Iíve started a number of blogs, but in the end found that the subjects just werenít all that interesting. Maybe at some point Iíll go back and try and polish them up a bit.

For those of you who come back to my site on a semi-regular basis youíll know that this time of year is the mad scramble to get pipes finished off for the Chicago show. This year is not in the least bit different. Iíve been spending a lot of time in the workshop and with my nose in the sketchbook working on pipes for the upcoming pipe extravaganza. A lot of you have heard me moan and complain in years past at how making pipes for Chicago stifles cash flow and slows down commission work Ė which it does. Under all the whining and complaining though Chicago is actually a good and necessary thing. For a few months of the year I get to really stretch artistically and come up with some new designs. Occasionally Iíll get a dream commission where I get very lose parameters to work with, but most of the time I work on pipes that are loosely based on this pipe or that. It is on the pipes for Chicago where I can really sit down and work in a direction that interests me. It seems like a lot of my best and longest-lasting designs come from this time of year. Iíve only made a few pipes so far for this yearís show, but I donít doubt for a moment that these will have elements that Iíll incorporate into pipes that come later. This year in particular Iíve been spending a lot more time sketching and I think the quality of my designs has really improved because of it. There are pipes and then there are pipes and this year, even more than years past, I want to show up with some truly stunning designs.

The other more obvious element that I really like about Chicago is showing up and immediately seeing the faces of friends. The pipe making and collecting community isnít a large one and itís like a big reunion, especially since itís the only pipe show I attend throughout the year. Being able to meet people that Iíve only ever communicated with over email or on the phone is a huge benefit. There is a lot to be said for being able to sit down and enjoy a pipe and a beverage together.

Dec 23 2007: Having a Fit.

Itís not going to be a very long blog this week; Christmas preparations seem to suck up the time with an alarming capacity. I had great plans on making a Christmas pipe this year, but at the moment it isnít looking good. A run of bad luck with briar has evaporated the little extra time I had allotted to the project. I have a great design and concept, but outside of divine intervention I canít see it happening this year. On the up side I have finished the ďWorkshopĒ page in the pipe making area. So those with a burning curiosity to see where I work can have a gander.

Iíve been wrestling with a problem of engineering for the last few months. The problem is that if a pipe is smoked a lot and isnít cleaned very carefully the draught hole can cake up over time restricting the draw. A lot of my pipes have pretty extreme bends in them; shapes like these are only possible through a fair bit of fancy drilling. While all of my pipes will pass a pipe cleaner, extreme bents do not allow for a drill bit to be slid down the airway in order to clean out the cake. To get around this problem Iíve made a lot of my shank extensions removable using a mortise and tenon fit so all that one need do is remove the shank extension and feed a drill bit down the airway. This in itself has led to problems. By leaving the join between the shank extension and the briar unglued there is the possibility that over time that one of the sides will warp. This warping can cause a gap between the shank and the briar. You can often see this sort of thing happen between the stem and the face of the shank in nearly any pipe. When you get a pipe brand new there is usually a perfect fit, but after a while you will often notice a space forming. This usually is caused by heat and the difference in humidity between the place the briar was cured in and the place where the pipe finally ends up.

There have been a lot of different strategies in getting around this problem. Articulated drill bits that can drill curves, off-centre drilling of both the airway and tenon, gluing the stem to the shank and having the shank separate from the briar, the list continues to grow. Lately Iíve been dealing with this problem on a pipe-by-pipe basis letting the customer decide what they would like. Iíve yet to come up with the perfect solution and Iím not convinced I ever will. It seems to be one of those thorny problems that were never meant to have a satisfactory solution. I think itís important for pipe smokers to understand what is happening though when one day they notice that the fit between their stem and shank or shank and pipe isnít fitting as well as it did when they first got the pipe.

Dec 10 2007: Smoke what you like and...

This weekís blog is in the form of a bit of a rant. For those not interested in such please read no further. This is more in the nature of a cathartic experience for me and is not necessarily designed to instruct and delight.

In the various and sundry realms of the World Wide Web there are a few mythical beasts that are often spoken of, but seldom, if ever, seen. One of these is what is referred to as the Pipe Snob. In my not insubstantial time perusing pipe pages, boards and forums Iíve yet to spot one. From whispered conversations and second or third hand accounts the pipe snob is one who belittles others for owning affordable pipes and trumpets the brand name and price of their newest acquisition from any hilltop high enough to reach the largest number of people. Again, Iíve yet to have spotted one of these beasts, but simply for the sake of curiosity I hope one day I will and so see what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately the reverse snob is a much less elusive creature.

The world of pipes is filled with variety from $1 Ebay estates to unsmoked Bo Nordhs selling in the tens of thousands of dollars. Each category has its proponents and for the most part pipe smokers share a bond that transcends grain, price and name brand. Go to any major pipe show and youíll see folks from wildly different economic and cultural backgrounds chatting about their favourite tobaccos and showing off their newest finds. Despite the general bonhomie and egalitarian feeling one gets when attending one of these events it never ceases to amaze me to log on to one of the many online forums and watch while a high end collector is dragged through the muck for daring to show off their newest find. The conversation usually follows thus:

Check out this new (insert medium or high end pipe maker here) pipe I bought, the shape and the grain are just what I was looking for!

Wow, great looking pipe, waay out of my price range though.

I just fell in love with the shape and the way the pipe maker highlights the grain.

I need to feed my family and buying pipes like that to me is simply irresponsible

I have a Peterson that Iíll bet smokes just as well and for a tenth the price

Why spend money like that on a pipe when you can get a cob for $10

People who spend that kind of money on a pipe are just elitist snobs trying to show off and to belittle the rest of us who will never be able to afford that kind of pipe.

The sad part about this is the frequency in which Iíve seen conversations like this. There seems to be some sort of cultural bias where it is perfectly acceptable to dump on people for buying pipes above a certain price point. To make a strange phenomenon even stranger 90% of the people railing against this wretched excess are people who have never smoked or even seen a high grade pipe up close. I sometimes get the feeling that there is some misguided idea that because people have more disposable income they can take the hits a bit better, after all they have the money to pad the insults. I donít have the money to buy an expensive car, home, or many high-grade pipes but I certainly donít begrudge those who are able to.

To further muddy the waters, more often than not the people who buy high-end pipes are guys like me who save up their pennies for a year to be able to afford one. Instead of buying one or a few pipes for $40 a month I like to buy one medium to high-end pipe per year. In instances like mine, it isnít necessarily that the collector has more money than anyone else, but has different priorities in his pipe purchases. My wife commissioned a pipe for me some time ago from Trever Talbert. I was really happy with the pipe, but decided not to post on a few of the major forums because I didnít want to have to deal with the backlash or be told that, ďA fool and his money are soon parted.Ē Itís at times like these that people seem to forget the saying, ĎSmoke what you like and like what you smoke.Ē

Now that, that is out of my system Iím hoping that next weekís blog will have something a bit more constructive to it.

Nov 24 2007: The Price of Tea in China

What is a pipe worth?: Now thereís a loaded question. Look at the online pipe smoking community and youíll find endless discussions, debates and flames as to how much pipes are worth, were worth, and should be worth. For the most part it seems though that people seem to think of pipe pricing as an arbitrary thing. ďWhat the market will bearĒ is a phrase I hear tossed around a good deal. When I read this phrase I get mixed feelings. On one hand, yes, a small handful of pipe makers have priced themselves into the upper echelons of what the market will bear. On the other hand most artisan pipe makers price their pipes on things like time spent, material cost, and overhead. There seems to be the a prevailing attitude that artisan pipe makers chose their pricing strategy on what they can get, versus what a pipe is worth. The image of monocled and waist-coated fat man lighting his pipe with a dollar bill springs to mind. After all you can get a new Dr. Grabow for $20 or even a Stanwell for $50! Surely anything over $100 for a pipe is the worst kind of gouging.

To begin with, material costs for the artisan pipe maker are much higher than what one would find for a large pipe making operation. Artisan pipe makers usually buy the best quality briar they can find. This means blocks anywhere from between $25 and $70 dollars. Compare this to ebauchons and bulk plateau bought by pipe factories that range in the single digit price range. Pre-made moulded stems which most of the larger pipe factories use are also a good deal cheaper than those made from more expensive rod stock. So while the cost of the raw material of a factory-made pipe is quite often under $10, the cost to the artisan pipe maker is rarely under $40 and quite often much more.

Next to consider is the time it takes to make a factory pipe versus an artisan made pipe. In the case of the factory made pipe the block is hopefully, oriented, clamped into the fraising machine, shaped and drilled, had the shoulders sanded off, had a stem attached, sanded, stained, and waxed. The process may take up to an hour to complete from start to finish by several different people. The artisan pipe maker designs the pipe around the shape of the grain in the block, shapes the briar, drills the stem and briar by hand, sands and finishes the pipe. A single person making one, or a few pipes at a time makes it a much more labour intensive task. I canít speak for others, but a standard pipe will take me between 10 and 15 hours to complete.

If pipe making was all I did then I certainly would be able to make a lot more pipes. Like a lot of other pipe artisans I hunker over the keyboard and maintain my own website. I get behind the camera and attempt to take decent pictures of my pipes. I do my own online marketing and mailing. All this fun usually adds at least another hour, usually two onto the workday every day. Even if a pipe maker sends pipes to online retailers or Brick and Mortar shops to be sold they are typically charged 30% - 40% of the asking price. This all has to be incorporated into the cost of the pipe.

Next to be factored into the cost of the pipe is the cost of space, electricity, the cost of living, machinery maintenance, and consumable like sandpaper, blasting media, sanding disks, stain, wax, bandsaw blades etc. It is also important to note that because artisan pipe makers arenít hired by anyone they need to personally take care of things like dental, medical, life insurance, business licences, and many of the things that are often picked up by an employer. While many of these things seem to be minor expenses they all add to the cost of the pipe.

My marketing strategy and most of the pipe makers I know have attempted to keep their pipes within the reach of most pipe smokers. In making pipes my purpose is not to get every last red cent I can out of my customers, but to make a decent living and sell my pipes to people who like them. I like to think that in most cases my customers are happy with the pipes Iíve sold to them and in buying my pipes they have given me their vote of approval to continue on making pipes. I donít know any pipe makers who can claim to be rich, and I doubt I ever will. But pipe makers donít get into pipe making because they want to get rich, at least those who do are soon disabused of the idea. I like making pipes, because I like making pipes. I like working with briar and I like the idea that every pipe I make is a new challenge. I like holding a finished pipe in my hand and being proud of my work. I like to think of people enjoying my pipes. I think most of us are a bit odd to tell the truth.

In any event, this little blog was my own attempt to show that the pricing of artisan made pipes is not an arbitrary thing and is not simply based on what the market will bear.

Nov 15 2007: Stain or Goin'?

Last week I finished work on a very abbreviated page on pipe finishing for the web site and I thought Iíd use this blog to elaborate a bit more on the topic. In my opinion pipe finishing is one of the most complicated and variable aspects of pipe making. There are so many possible ways to go about finishing and so many different possible outcomes depending on what steps and techniques one uses. This spring in Chicago I was surprised at how many upper-end pipes had what I consider to be poor or mediocre staining. I approach finishing as a way to bring out the grain in the wood. Up to the point of finishing and staining a great part of making the pipe has been focused on using the grain in the block of briar to the best advantage. To not try and bring out the grain in finishing just doesnít make sense to me. It looked to me that a lot of pipe makers simply quit at that point, slapped down a single coat of stain, buffed it off, and left it at that. Proper finishing can make a great pipe spectacular, and on the reverse side of the coin can make a great pipe mediocre. I saw a lot of great shapes and uses of grain that fell short because there was little to no effort put into bringing out the grain in staining. Iím not sure if there is some sort of backlash against the ultra-high contrast staining that some of the Danes have been using or if the pipe makers in question simply couldnít be bothered with the extra effort.

While I donít generally go for extreme contrast staining, I do like to see some contrast to bring out the beauty of the wood. The grain pattern in briar is one of its strengths compared to clay, calabash, or meerschaums. Staining to bring up contrast is a fairly simple process; a relatively heavy and dark layer of stain is applied first then buffed or sanded off. At this point you have a basic contrast stain. Briar absorbs stain unevenly and the harder portions of the wood will absorb the stain less than the softer. When sanded off the hard portions are lighter and the darker portions show where the stain has penetrated into the wood more deeply. From this point one can leave the pipe as is or go on to add other lighter colours to the surface.

Other techniques to enhance contrast staining involve using a combination of alcohol based and water based aniline dyes. Using the same base of dye can sometimes have the effect of adding unwanted shades or smudging colours already in the wood, having dyes that will not dilute existing dyes can help a lot. Heating the briar before staining will also tend to give better penetration of the dye and a more sharp contrast. All of these tips and techniques are fairly common knowledge amongst pipe makers. The things that take a lot of time to learn are how different colours and stains will affect those above and below them and knowing how to mix stains to get a desired colour or affect. I have a lot of notes and scrap briar tiles where Iíve tried different finishing techniques. Having them there can really help deciding on what finish fits a particular pipe.

So far Iíve only really spoken about contrast staining smooth pipes, staining blasts and rusticates requires a completely different approach. Iím not going to get into it at this point, but hopefully Iíve gotten the point across that staining is a very complex part of pipe making and takes a good deal of experience and time to get right. When it is done right though it brings out the inner beauty of a pipe in a near-magical way.

Nov 09 2007

Iíve been fiddling a fair bit with my grading system lately, adding new grades and generally trying to figure out what to do with my pricing. After a lot of thought, research, and discussion with other pipe makers Iíve decided to change my pricing and base it in Canadian dollars. The US dollar seems to be on a bit of a slide these days and I would rather not be constantly adjusting my prices to mirror it. The hope is that the Canadian dollar will be a bit more stable and will better reflect the cost of running the business. Iíll still accept payment in US dollars and will include a Canadian and US dollar value on each pipe based on the current exchange rate. This wasnít an easy decision to come to, but after seeing my income drop by nearly 25% in the last year and my costs staying virtually the same it became apparent I needed to make a change to stabilize my costs.

Itís been a while since Iíve updated my blog, thought in my defence I have added another page on finishing to the pipe making section of the website. Iíve also been taking pictures for the, ďtools,Ē and ďbriarĒ parts of the pipe making area so look for updates there in the next little while.

November has started off fairly well with some decent work getting finished. This is in sharp contrast to October, which was more or less a write-off. Iíve even managed to get a pipe up on the website for sale which these days seems more like a freak occurrence than an intentional act. Iím hoping to soon add a few more pipes to the site and have begun work on this yearís Christmas pipe design.

Iíve slowed down for a few days due to a minor surgery of a male nature. Iím happy to say that I have recently become a non-productive member of society. Instead of resting on my, erÖ laurels, Iím going to be taking this time to put some upcoming pipe designs that have been rattling around my head on paper and get a bit more work done on the website. Itís sort of sad to say that it has taken a surgery to make me spend time on the web site.

Thatís about it for now, Iím going to try to get another blog up in the next week or so that is a bit more focused on pipes and pipe making.

Sept 28 2007

Iíve been following a thread on the new Pipes and Tobacco Magazine forum on engineering and it has inspired me to write this monthís blog about it. Engineering is a term spoke of in hushed tones around the flickering glow of computer screens where haggard pipe smokers trade tales of spine-tingling horrorÖ Well, maybe itís not as bad as all that, but it comes pretty close. Whenever someone finds that they have a pipe that just wonít smoke right for them it often gets blamed on bad engineering. To make matters worse there seems to be a huge amount of confusion surrounding the term engineering and what constitutes good and bad varieties. So what does good or bad engineering mean? Ask 10 different pipe smokers - or pipe makers for that matter - and youíll invariably get 10 different answers. Because pipe smoking is such a subjective thing there will always be differing opinions as to what makes a well-engineered pipe. That being said I think there are certain universal qualities that transcend personal taste.

In my case good engineering means that the airflow in the bit is not constricted and the airway allows the same volume of smoke through from the draught hole to the slot. Iím lucky enough to have a bit of a background in understanding what happens with air as it moves, expands and contracts with my pilot training. It seems like an odd connection, but theory of flight, meteorology, and pipe engineering have a lot of similarities in common.

Unless the airway is a very small diameter an unrestricted airway means that the pipe will have an open draw. Even if you enjoy a more restricted draw on your pipe a non-constricted flow in a small diameter airway will help in keeping the smoke a dry one. Expansion in the airway means the smoke slows, cools and the moisture in the smoke condenses and compression means the exact opposite. A good illustration of this principle is the Peterson system pipe. Petersons open up the airway purposely in the sump where the pressure lowers, smoke cools, condenses and the moisture collects. There is no need to have an unrestricted airway when a good deal of the moisture in the smoke has already been condensed out of it. A smooth, unrestricted airway also has the secondary affect that a pipe cleaner will pass easily from stem to tobacco chamber.

Good engineering also means that the draught hole is well centred at the bottom of the tobacco chamber. A pipe drilled too high will collect moisture below the draught hole and has a better chance of collecting moisture there to be sucked into the mouth of an unsuspecting smoker. A centred draught hole is also much more likely to draw evenly from the entire tobacco chamber. Getting a centred draught hole is not an easy task, especially on bent pipes. Itís a matter of getting the angles right otherwise chances are good the draw will be out of the shank side of the chamber and the possibility of unburned tobacco and uneven bowl draw once again rear their ugly heads.

As a final note I also like a thin, comfortable bit in my pipes that will still stand up to being held in the teeth but here we stray into a bit more of a subjective realm, especially for people who use rubber softies on their bits. Getting a strong thin bit with an open draw is technically not an easy thing to do and is probably one of the fiddliest aspects of stem work. An open draw and a thin bit are at odds with each other and being able to create such a beast has taken me a lot of practice.

Now that Iíve outlined what I think good engineering is I should also say that a pipe that does not comply with all of these engineering guidelines can, and will often be, a great smoke. I have a good number of pipes that smoke very well with off-centre draught holes, thick bits and airways that open and narrow a number of times before the smoke reaches my mouth. These are engineering principles that Iíve found will generally make a good smoking pipe.

Here endeth the lesson for this month.

In completely unrelated news, it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Robert Jordan aka James Rigney. A pipe collector and creator of the Wheel of Time series. Jim passed away earlier this month as a result of complications arising from the blood disease Cardiac Amyloidosis. Iíve read Robert Jordan novels since they started coming out nearly 20 years ago and have passed the time making pipes in the workshop with the novels playing on my MP3 player. The number of pipes Iíve smoked while hunched over the pages of a Robert Jordan novel, not to mention the number of headphones destroyed while listening to his novels is more than considerable.

When I read the news at 2:00 am it felt like Iíd been hit in the stomach with a medicine ball and spent the next day in something of a daze. Iíve spent half my life looking forward to the next instalment of the Wheel of Time series and it is a strange, sad feeling that the next book will be the last Iíll have to look forward to. In my opinion he was one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time. Goodbye James.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes againÖ

Aug 18 2007

Well itís been a very crazy month. It all started off with my wife and daughter getting into a car accident where our Honda Civic was sandwiched between two SUVs. My daughter, Helaina came out of the accident without a scratch while my wife was less lucky and is suffering from some pretty severe whiplash in her back and neck along with torn ligaments in her foot. On the bright side sheíll recover from all of her injuries in time and there shouldnít be any permanent damage. I foresee a lot of Tiger balm and back rubs in my future. If people notice the smell of mint upon receiving their pipes over the next few months you now know the reason.

The aftermath of the crash has left me doing a lot of car hunting, driving to physiotherapy, acupuncture, and doctor appointments and generally not spending as much time in the workshop as I should as the single bread winner in the house. We have purchased a new Honda Fit, which was an exercise in frustration in itself. The car is great; getting it was a comedy of errors mostly due to the lousy trucking company that moves cars from dealership to dealership for Honda. Things are just starting to calm down now thankfully and Iíve been able to get some solid work started in the last few days. I donít think that I would have made it out of the mess as well as I have without the company of espresso.

For this monthís discussion on al things pipey I thought Iíd touch on something that I get asked about a lot: Do you smoke different tobaccos in different sized bowls. The answer to this is a simple: ďYes.Ē There are exceptions to every rule, but I have found that flake tobaccos smoke much better in smaller bowls .75 diameter or smaller, while ribbon tobaccos smoke the best in larger bowls .8 inches in diameter or larger. This has caused me some problems, as I like smaller pipes for the fact that I often hold my pipes in my mouth while in the workshop, but I also love McCranieís Red Ribbon, which smokes best in a larger sized bowl. It isnít easy finding a small pipe with a large bowl and Iím always on the lookout for them. If people donít have a clear idea when they come to me what size of tobacco chamber they would like I usually start with what kind of tobacco they like to smoke the best and match it up from there.

July 19 2007

After re-reading some of my more recent posts I think Iíll try and make this and future blogs a bit more focused on matters having to do with pipes and pipe making. In a way I started these blogs in hopes of demystifying pipe making and hopefully educating people to know a bit more about their pipes. Lately though it seems like the blogs have turned into more introspective navel gazing. In this blog Iím going to address the question of grain orientation and how it works.

On more than a few occasions Iíve been asked to a pipe with birdseye on every surface. Iíve had to decline for the simple reason that for practical purposes it canít be done. The way briar grows and the way briar cutters chop up the burl simply exclude having only one kind of grain on a pipe. Briar starts out as a round burl around the size of a pumpkin. The anatomy of briar grain is such that straight lines of grain radiate out from the centre of the burl. The end of the grain when seen perpendicular to the lines of straight grain is known as ďbirdseye grain.Ē The grain radiating out from the centre when running at the same angle as the pipe surface is called ďstraight grainĒ and when the surface of the pipe is at an angle to the grain it is known as ďflame grain.Ē So if one were to sand the surface of a burl down they would see nothing but birdseye. I suppose if one were so inclined they could drill a burl and indeed have a pipe that complete birdseye coverage I doubt that it would fit in a conventional pipe rack, pipe bags would indeed be difficult, and keeping it lit without the aid of a vacuum cleaner would be problematic to say the least. That said, I have seem some ambulatory tobacco campfires made by Ardor that seem to be approaching the size of a mature burl.

Spending hours bent over bits of briar in various stages of completion would be a much more of an onerous task if it werenít for audio books and music. Donít get me wrong, I really enjoy pipe making, but having the ear buds in really helps pass the time and keep the mind occupied. Keeping the MP3 player all charged up is nearly as important a task as having my morning cup of coffee. For the last year and a half Iíve been using a Sandisk 1 gig MP3 player with an extra 1 gig chip to listen to in the workshop. It has been a little workhorse and has been nothing but reliable. At long last though the volume control has started to malfunction increasing the volume as I spun the knob to turn the volume down. On several occasions I swear I saw my eardrums leap out of my head to settle against the far wall of the workshop. So a few weeks back for the sake of my eardrums I decided to start the search for a new MP3 player. I wanted one that would play different formats like .OGG files and have a bookmark function. It gets irritating when you turn off the player and upon turning it back on again spending five minutes trying to find the spot you last left off from. So after a fair bit of research I settled on a player called the iAudio 6 from Cowon. So far Iíve been very pleased with the purchase. Itís compact, plays nearly every format out there, bookmarks, has an FM radio and has extremely good sound. Now that my eardrums are solidly back in place Iím a happy camper.

June 09 2007

Recently I made a fantasy figural pipe for the Chicago show. It was a lot of fun to make and certainly fell into the category of what I like to call ďproject pipes.Ē It wasnít the kind of pipe I could just blast through in a day, but took time, research and planning to pull off. After a fairly exhaustive search of the Internet in search of dinosaur skull pictures and vertebrae I took the plunge. Truth to be told I get the feeling that I did my research a bit too well as most people thought it was suppose to be a dinosaur skull as opposed to the dragon it was suppose to be. I think maybe Iím just a bit flakier than your average down to earth pipe smoker. Either way the pipe took a lot of time to make and was certainly the most detailed pipe Iíve made to date. The pipe ended up being a sort of a mixed homage to Georgia OíKeefe, Margaret Wies, Tracy Hickman, S. Yanik and the older Talbert Halloween pipes. After testing the water Iíve decided to try and make a few more in the coming months and see how they sell. If the response is positive I could very well see myself creating a new grading system specifically for them. In hindsight making the pipe brings to mind the saying: ďMan fears time and time fears the pyramids.Ē Well the pyramids fear the time it takes to make these fantasy figural pipes. These pipes will certainly never be my bread and butter, but Iím hoping theyíll make for a nice occasional distraction from more prosaic pipe making.

Summer approaches here in Vancouver and with the warmer temperatures it has really started to heat up in the workshop. Iíve got the usual fans blowing on me, but this year Iíve decided to take a different tack than the usual sweating and grumbling. First Iíve decided to forgo the standard shorts for something with a bit moreÖwell airflow. Iíve had my eye on something called an Utilikilt for the last few years now since I met a grip wearing one during the filming of Catwoman. This year at the St. Patrickís Day parade I decided to take the plunge and ended up buying the Workmanís model. Iíve been wearing it in the workshop ever since and Iím very pleased with it. Iíve got dual Canadian / Scottish citizenship, but Iíd recommend wearing one to anyone looking for a good piece of workshop wardrobe. Scottish citizenship, or even heritage is completely optional. Lots of pockets, durable and built-in AC! Theyíre a bit on the pricey side, but on the other hand Iíve got a lot of pants and shorts that are permanently impregnated with briar dust that when totalled up cost a lot more than the kilt.

The second change is that the beard has been shaved off for the summer and with it went the hair on my head. Peeking into the shop one might think they were seeing a Shaolin monk crossed with a Scotsman. An odd pairing to be sure but Iím looking forward to a cooler summer in the workshop than last year.

In pipe news Iíve just added a grade 2 blowfish to the site. Itís the first grade 2 smooth Iíve ever made and it is a beauty. To have a look point your browser here: Blowfish

And here in the last picture you can see the true reason for the success behind Downie Pipes. Iím just the front man.

ďpay no attention to the girl behind the curtains! I am the great and powerful OZ!!Ē

May 09 2007

Chicago has come and gone for another year. I got back late Sunday night and as of yesterday (Tuesday) I was still staggering around in a nicotine-induced fog. I blame this squarely on a general lack of sleep, the fact that even while not smoking in Chicago you are still smoking, and the ghosts of Guinness and single malt Scotch. Today I feel Iíve rallied enough to write down my impressions on Chicago in a semi-coherent form.

The first impression I have of the show beyond the myriad pipes, tobaccos and associated materials is the people. The pipe-smoking community never ceases to amaze me with the quality of the individuals that comprise it. The arrival to Chicago started off with a frustrating trip from the airport that involved being overcharged for a late cab that not only took the scenic route to the Pheasant Run, but also managed to get a flat tire enroute. Not the best start for someone worn out by marathon pipe making the week before. All the frustration and weariness left when I arrived at the Pheasant Run and was immediately greeted by many old friends and acquaintances. I met up with Phil Lau, Brad Pohlman, Jeff Gracik, John Crosby and others to experience the culinary delights of Chicago in the form of the iconic hot dog. After dinner I met up with some of the Vancouver contingent and enjoyed the hospitality of Smoking Pipes dot com in the form of an open bar and wonderful company. The rest of the weekend continued in a like manner meeting up with Neill Archer Roan, Nina and Glenda from the Smokerís Forums, and so many other good friends that I could never mention them all. Some highlights include smoking Balkan Sobranie in a Dunhill Calabash, packing into the elevator and wondering if this time the grinding, lurching stop would be followed by plummeting down 13 stories, smoking McCranies Red Flake for the first time, then finding tins of 1983 Red Flake for sale, being treated to dinner on Saturday night by the Smoking Pipes dot com crew, being entertained by the antics of certain Scandinavians who were three sheets to the wind, drinking single malt scotch in my room with Phil and company, and most of all meeting up with people Iíve only known through the one-dimensional window of my computer screen. Iíve said it before; Chicago is certainly an experience that every pipe smoker should partake in. The great thing about it is that each year as you get to know more and more of the regulars the show feels more like a reunion of friends.

As a pipe maker I also really enjoy Chicago from a technical standpoint. I try as much as possible to stick to my own style and aesthetic, but creation does not happen in a vacuum and seeing what I like and dislike about other pipes being displayed can give me ideas as to where Iíd like to see elements of my own design go. I also like to compare the technical quality of my own work to other pipe makers. Itís a good way to gauge where I need to improve - or not as the case may be. It was a good feeling this year to only come back with a small list of improvements Iíd like to work on with my own pipes. I would highly recommend all newer pipe makers to make a trip to Chicago Ė or any pipe show for that matter Ė simply to see where they need to get to make an exceptional pipe.

This year as with all others I left for the show asking myself why I put myself through the stress of trying to get ready for the show and I got back looking forward to next year. For those interested the pipes that made it back are the bamboo-shanked Veriditas (Sold) and the Bakelite-stemmed Calabash (Also Sold). Iíll be adding them to the blasted portion of the site in the next few days unless someone reads this and gets in touch of me ahead of time.

April 23 2007

It seems like a long while since Iíve done anything remotely concerned with this portion of the website. My time seems to be consumed with getting pipes ready for the Chicago show, commissions and getting the new website up and coded. Even using Dreamweaver to help code on the new page has opened up itís own particular can of worms. I wonít bore people with the details, but pages coded with Dreamweaver look great on Internet Explorer, but need a lot of hand coding to make it look anywhere decent on Firefox. In any event the page is up, if not entirely complete yet. I still have a lot to add into the ďPipe MakingĒ area and hope to have it all up and running as soon as possible. Future plans include using my skills as a one-time videographer to put up some pipe making videos. That wonít happen until the summer at least though.

As is usually the case in April Iím in the throes of the annual Chicago Pipe Madness (Trademark and Patent Pending). Iím getting to really dislike this pre-Chicago time. Work on commissions slow to a trickle while I madly try to make enough pipes to justify the cost of the Chicago show. Chicago itself is a great time and every pipe smoker should make it at least once. Meeting old friends, making new ones, enjoying the huge assortment of pipes and tobaccos seems to be an excellent reason to make the trip all by itself. However, by going one also has the opportunity to rub shoulders with pillars of the pipe community who are to a lesser or greater degree alcohol impaired. The sheer volume of blackmail material is phenomenal. One with a good camera, few scruples, lots of extra memory chips and a bit of initiative could probably keep themselves in high quality pipes and tobaccos simply by agreeing to withhold certain pictures from ever making their way to Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine.

On the home front Spring is well and truly here. Helaina is spending a lot more time in the back yard, especially now that she has a slide to injure herself on. Thankfully we are within a few minutes of a hospital with a large stock of small splints and bandages. Worms are also a big draw. It is a rare day that goes by where she doesnít request to go digging in the garden to find some. Snails, while interesting are a poor second in her affections, but will do when there are no worms to be found. This interest in the outdoors, emergency medicine, and vermaculture has had the very pleasant effect that I can take a cup of coffee and a well-packed pipe out into the backyard to keep an eye on her and her continuing violent attempts to seriously incapacitate herself.

Back to pipes, Iíve just added the bulk of the pipes Iíll be taking to Chicago with me to the Commissioned Pipes page. Again, these pipes for the moment are not available for sale. If they come back with me from Chicago they will go to the regular ďSmooth / BlastedĒ areas for sale.

January 23, 2007

The Internet is certainly a modern marvel that will more than likely go down in history as one of mankind's greater technological achievements. As one who owes his livelihood to sales on the Internet I wouldn't describe myself as anything but a fan. There is however a dark side to the Internet: Spam, hacked sites, viruses, spy ware and of course, unscrupulous advertising. The last one is a particular annoyance to me. In the last 6 months my guest book has become an unwilling forum for people flogging cheap prescription drugs, hot sexy teens, Viagra, Cialis, affordable health insurance, Christian-singles: in your-Area, and FREE Trial- Better than Botox!! As much as the idea of getting rid of those pesky crow's feet around my eyes with Botox is entertaining, I spend a fair bit of my time in my workshop and am rarely much in the public eye. My wife and daughter only shriek in disgust and horror at my wrinkled and leather appearance perhaps every second time I shuffle out of the workshop: In short it wouldn't be money well spent.

To tell the truth I'd like it much more if I didn't have to log into my guest book every day to delete these pointless and often mildly pornographic advertisements. In general I'd describe the whole affair as being as irritating as a cactus in a pair of monkey's pyjamas. With the upcoming website upgrade I'm hoping to be able to get around the problem otherwise the guest book's days may be numbered. I don't want my site to become the place where singles meet to find the best price on Viagra.

Since we moved house in August I've been lucky enough to have a much larger workshop. Cramped would be understating the corner I had curtained off in the living room of our last apartment. It was a place to start, but that's about all one could really say for it. The current workshop is actually an insulated one-car garage that is attached to the house. With the larger workshop came the larger tools that I couldn't really buy due to space constraints. A new Drill Press, Dust filter, and Metalworking Lathe are the most recent acquisitions. I've also been able to space out the different stations so working is much easier and much less claustrophobic than my previous situation.

Since I spend a lot of time in it I've tried to make it as comfortable as possible. I've filled in the gaps with insulating foam, added lots of lights and even put up a small TV with an old DVD player for some of the longer sanding marathons. Sometimes my ears need a break from the MP3 player and it's good to listen to DVD commentaries. I have to say that I've enjoyed spending time in there this winter. In contrast to my last job working outside in the rain on film sets this is much more comfortable.

Bandsaw and Briar

Metalworking Lathe

Finishing Station

Buffing Station, Micro Lathe and Drill Press

Jan 15 2007

H appy New Year! This year has started off with a bang, I've nearly completed 4 fairly complicated pipes, updated and upgraded the website and have generally been working as fast as I can to catch up. It seems I'm always catching up even when I'm unsure as to exactly what I'm catching up to. In the past week I've had a few people ask me what the date of this year's Chicago show is. When I told them, without exception, the response was: ďPretty close then.Ē This has started me sweating. Last year and the year before it was a mad dash for me to finish enough pipes for me to make it worth my while to go to the show and make enough money to pay for t he hotel, airfare etc. This year I'm hoping to turn over a new leaf and have already started on the pipes I'll be bringing with me. When people ask me why I don't attend more shows the answer is that it's just too stressful!!

The website has received a few much-needed upgrades. I've started a ďcommissionsĒ page, which oddly enough will show the pipes I make on commission. It will also have the pipes I have yet to complete listed to give people an idea when to expect their pipes. Waiting is rarely fun and at least now people can see that I have not forgotten them. I'd say at the moment that a good 80% of the pipes I make are commissioned and if one were to any judge from my page you'd think the only thing that happens in my workshop is a good deal of scratching. This, I'd like to assure you is not the case. I like to keep scratching to an absolute minimum in the workshop. This is happening on the heels of the much-alluded to updating on the site which should be expected in early February. I've been bouncing screen shots back and forth with my web developer and I think we've at last come to a meeting of minds and will soon give birth to out shiny new cyber-baby. I'm expecting the experience will be much less messy in involve fewer sleepless nights than the real thing.

As some of you may know it seems that headphones develop suicidal tendencies when around me for any extended period of time. The latest have shuffled off their mortal coil and have sadly gone to join their fellows in the ears of the heavenly choir. This Christmas I was given a gift card to a local chain of shops that deals in CDs and most forms of entertainment technology. I'd been using a set of headphones from a Walkman I bought in 2000 as a stand-in for my ear buds. They're yellow, don't have the best sound and look to be designed for some mutant race that has perfect half-moon slots in their ears. The ear-buds I replaced them with fit with the close intimacy I'd expect from a stranger in an overloaded city bus. The sound quality was excellent and all this came with a not inconsiderable price tag. I rationalized that between exercise and work the sheer volume of time I spend working with headphones stuck in my ears the price would pay off in the long run. Our brief time together was very pleasant. Sadly only a week into our relationship while leaning over the buffer to turn on the shop vac a stray wire peeking out from my work apron caught the edge of the wheel and the now-familiar whine of dislocated stereo wires whipping through the air was once again heard in the workshop. Their death was nearly as impressive as the sound quality. Needless to say I'm back with the seemingly indestructible yellow headphones. Rest in peace Sony MDR - EX81SL