Choosing a Finish
Since we are in the pipe business, I thought I would dabble on the topic of pipe finishes and the decisions that an artisan makes during the various processes. As one of the go-to pipe guys here at Smokingpipes, and having handled tens-of-thousands of pipes (new and estate), plus making my own pieces, a lot of people ask me about particular finishes, mainly smooth or blasted. How does a pipe maker begin a pipe? How does he choose the block to be a smooth? While there are many different aspects to these choices, they differ from the vast majority of factory pipes which often hold a template next to a block to see if it will fit, put in in a machine of sorts, and turn the piece. If it's a smooth - great! Blast? Also cool! Pipe artisans that I talk with often take the same approach, with varying degrees of superstition, and copious amounts of luck when it comes to grain.
Firstly; most artisans I know first think of a shape they want to make before sorting through dozens of blocks to find a particular size or grain orientation. By sanding the block's sides or wetting it with water, we can see what the grain looks like on the outside and how it might appear to shift on the front. After this, most of us draw an idea on the block and either use a band saw to rough out the profile, or simply start chewing it away on a coarse sanding disk at high speeds. Most times, we will slightly dampen the block during the shaping process to see what the grain is doing, and shift or change the shape to complement it (this is only done with the "shape first, drill second" technique, mind you). When we start to see something really nice happening, it might be time to drill the mortise, airway, and tobacco chamber before tweaking the shape around these features. Everyone I know who makes pipes is optimistic - at least while they are making pipes. Getting hopes up for a killer smooth is risky, so hoping for a nice blast is safe. Even so, there are a number of times when we think to ourselves "Oh, Momma....please don't let there be any pits!". Because every piece of briar has pits somewhere, we are really happy when we've avoided them. Sometimes a small sandpit will show itself during final sanding. Will more sanding make it go away? Who knows? Decision time (again). If the shape is perfect, the pipe might just be blasted (after all, shape always wins over grain). If there are no flaws, would this pipe look better as a smooth or a blast? Sometimes growth rings arm-wrestle with the grain and a decision must be made which one to choose. It's been said before - and quite true - that finish is often a choice. Blasted pipes don't necessarily have flaws, but are sometimes simply the finish which looks best for a particular shape or grain pattern. We've all had shapes with no pits, but the grain just wasn't good enough to justify the price of a smooth. Contrast-stained pipes (smooth or blast) are also more time-consuming, but show off the grain really well by making the briar look more vibrant.
Seeing the end product, some of us probably wonder what choices were made during the process of making the pipe. In the end, every pipe is different and lovely in its own way. What is your preferred finish? Given the update tonight, you will hopefully find something that catches your eye. New pipes from Ardor, Tsuge, Askwith, Adam Davidson (that's me), Il Duca and Peter Heeschen all came from the hands of artisans. When you receive the pipe, take a moment to think about how it was made. When you are really excited about the grain and finish, you can understand how happy the maker was seeing it blossom - and knowing that someone else will enjoy it, too!
Adam Davidson: Quality Control & Pipe Inspector
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