Monday, July 28, 2008

Gearing up for Columbus

With the NASPC show in Columbus, Ohio only about 4 weeks away, I figured it was time I geared up for it and got some affordable stock ready to go with me. The picture here shows a bunch of the stuff that's in the works, including some pre-turned stummels and a couple test blocks from a new batch of briar. I keep all the stuff I'm working on at any given moment in a plastic bin like this until it's ready to go on a pegstand, that way I don't misplace any of it.

That thing on the top is something that I've been experimenting with. Using pre-turned stummels and finishing them by hand is a good way to quickly experiment with stains, finishes, and techiniques. It's also a great way to keep costs down for pipe buyers. The term "hand finished" is something that Trever Talbert has been using for a few years now to differentiate his pipes made from pre-turned stummels from those made completely by hand. He's the one who originally suggested to me that I find a source of these to play with, and has since helped me get on the right path on how to finish drill since these come without a mortis. If you've seen pictures of Trever's workshop, you know it's a treasure trove of old machinery, some of it still a bit of a mystery. A guy like me could spend weeks in there, playing with stuff and figuring things out. It's a royal shame that he's in France and I'm in Rhode Island. Some day, though, I hope to get out there and spend some time geeking out with his tools.

At any rate, the tool I mocked up in that photo is a good concept, but it turns out it was poorly executed. It's designed to hold the shank of the stummel and has a recess underneath where the bowl goes. However, the first stummel I tried ended up with a mortis that wasn't in line with the shank, and despite it being a straight billiard, the airway was out of wack with the mortis bottom. Now, not being one to let something like that slide, I tried again. I figured it had to be because the pipe's shank was ever so slightly tapered, and that might cause it to rest to one side or the other. I lined the holes with cork, hoping that would help, but the next result was just as bad.

After some careful consideration, and lining things up and seeing how they all interacted, I came to a frightening conclusion - my drill press is garbage. I check square on the tool, and it's off by about 2 degrees. Turns out the non-adjustable table on my drill press is off by exactly that amount. Compounding the problem, the quill on my drill press has some serious rattling problems. At full extension, if you grab the chuck and shake, it will move rather freely. I'd say it's time to retire the $99 drill press and go buy another. It's just as well too, since this particular one has been irritating me for about 3 years now.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sandblasted bamboo

Today's post has a bit of an unusual pipe as the subject. This little gem is an experiment all around, and grew out of a little free time I had a couple months ago. For being an experiment, it sure is a sweet pipe!

For starters, the bowl is actually a complete mistake. I was making an apple shaped bowl for a pipe that was designed to have a long shank, but when I was turning the top of the bowl on the lathe, I swung the chisel the wrong direction while not paying attention, and knocked the entire shank right off the bowl. Now, normally a mistake like that would have ended up embedded in the wall on the opposite side of the workshop, but for some reason I just took it off the lathe and set it on the shelf behind me. There is sat for over a year until I came along one day and thought about trying to salvage it. And since I was going to try and salvage it, I figured that it would be a good time to try some other experiments I've been meaning to undertake.

Now, clearly I used bamboo, but what's a little unusual is that I chose to sandblast it instead of leaving it smooth. As a result, I didn't have to use the cleanest and most uniformly colored piece of bamboo on my supplies shelf - perfect for an experiment, and especially since it's going to be one I'll be keeping. I don't know who originally came up with the idea to sandblast bamboo, but I've seen it from a couple makers recently, and I know that early on I saw a really nice example from Love Geiger (click here for his site) and was really impressed.

Surprisingly, bamboo is actually kind of tough to sandblast. You'd think it would be fragile and would simply disintegrate under the 100+ PSI of aggressive blasting media, but it didn't. Instead, it grinned at me a few times, flipped me the bird, and then eventually started developing a pattern. It took almost as long to sandblast this piece of bamboo as it did the briar bowl.

Of course, I had to leave a bare spot for the stamp, and I also wanted to see how unblasted bamboo would take stain. Well, you can see, not so great - but that may have something to do with the method I used for applying the stain. Like they say "try, try again", so I'll be trying it again at some point. The blasted portion of the bamboo stained very, very well. It's almost indistinguishable from the briar, and the gnarly texture of the blasted bamboo blends in so well with the blasted briar, that I think the two are really meant for each other.

The final experiment on this pipe is the bowl/shank junction. I only had the barest hint of a briar shank left to use on this bowl, so I figured I would see how well my method of attaching bamboo shanks works when placed that close to the burning tobacco. The verdict - pretty damn good. The joint is holding up very well, and it shows no signs of degrading at all. I wouldn't sell a pipe with the joint this close to the fire, but it's still good to know that it would hold of well even if I did.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Knife pictures, finally!

It turns out that, even using a convenient service like Blogger, it's still possible for me to neglect writing a new post. That's unfortunate, because there's actually some pretty big news in the works. First things first though, a while back I promised pictures of knives.

This first one is a design I came up with after getting irritated with a pocket knife. When I'm out working in the yard, I typically have a knife clipped to my pocket. However in summer weather I typically wear shorts made of lightweight material, and even if they do have pockets, they're so flexible that it's a royal pain to clip a knife onto them. I figured hanging a knife around my neck was a much better way to carry it around the yard. Of course, if you're going to hang it around your neck, it should be small and comfortable, and easy to use.

It's tough to see from the photo, but the handle is actually sculpted with finger and thumb channels that position the knife just like an extension of your hand. In addition, the micarta handle has been bead blasted to bring out the rough texture of the material and make it easy to grip.

The blade is convex ground 1075 carbon steel, two inches long from tip to handle, and sharp enough to shave the hair on my arm - much to the dismay of my wife. And, like damn near all knives I'm making these days, the blade has been differentially hardened to produce a "hamon" like you might see on Japanese blades - or, in all actuality, really nice knives from any maker that knows about the benefits of differentially hardening the steel they shape, it's just that most people equate the hamon with Japanese smiths.

I constructed the sheath from Kydex and secured it with Chicago screws instead of brass rivets. I opted for that route because it makes it very easy to open the sheath to clean it out, and then close it back up again. If it were riveted closed, you'd have a real ordeal on your hands if sand and dirt got inside.

This particular one isn't for sale. It's a "proof of concept" (can you tell I'm an engineer?) for the actual production run. After I've beat on it for a couple months and decided that it's a good design, I'll start making these on a regular basis. If you want one, send me an email at and let me know. I expect the pricing will be about $75 as shown here. I am, however, probably going to dump the nickel pins, and use stainless steel tube to help secure the handle. I'm not sure I like the solid pins on this knife. Overall the knife is only 3.75" long, and the cutting edge itself is only 2", making it easy to carry around, and won't alarm anyone - well, as long as you don't take it to an airport or anything.

The other design I've got floating around is a variation on a knife that I sent out to another knife maker during a themed exchange. The theme for the exchange was "Gentleman's every day carry", and the knife was designed to be short (about 3" cutting edge) and use ornamental or rare materials - hence the "gentleman" part. To the right is a photo of that knife. The handle is Giraffe bone, with copper bolsters and nickel pins. The blade is also differentially hardened 1075 steel and is razor sharp. I sent it off in hopes that I would get some really critical feedback and be able to hone my skills even further. What came back was compliments and praise - so I guess I made a decent knife. It was actually that incident that indicated to me that I was ready to start offering knives to the general public, rather than making them and sticking them in a drawer or giving them away.

On the left is the knife that is based on the above, but slightly less decorative, and much more usable from a yard work or workshop point of view. It turns out that this is a really nice design for an all-around utilitarian knife. This particular one has a tan kydex sheath, and it also has a belt loop since it's really too big to hang around your neck or stick in your pocket, and should fit belts up to 1.5" wide.

The cutting edge on this 1075 steel blade is a hair over 3", and overall it's about 6.5" long. I kept it short so that if you happened to be at your mother-in-law's house and needed a sharp knife for some reason, you wouldn't give her a panic attack by producing some Rambo-esque implement of mass destruction. I was aiming for a useful blend of utility and tastefulness, something that can be used in a variety of situations, and not alarm the masses should you have it on your person in polite company.

The handle is briarwood, the very same I use for pipes. This particular piece of wood is unstained, and finished only with a couple coats of Danish Oil then lightly buffed. It's a nice satin finish that will age well and continue to be attractive even through hard use. I secured it with some stainless steel tube, and I really like the way it looks in this case. Using tube like this really does interesting things to the handle. I like the way it all works together.

And unlike the knife above, this one is actually for sale. If you're interested in this one, pop me an email and let me know. I haven't made a page for it yet, but it is available immediately for $120 plus shipping (about $6.00 within the US).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Pipe kits and supplies

In recent months I've been asked by folks if I could help them source some harder to find supplies and materials - especially ones that simply aren't available in smaller quantities. The number one thing they're looking for? Pipe kits.

A pipe kit is a pre-drilled block of briar with a stem fitted to it. It's really the most difficult part of making a good smoking pipe, and the area where craftsmanship and a little "engineering" come into play. All the holes have to be lined up just right, the airway in the briar has to meet the airway in the stem just right, and the stem has to have it's slot cut so that airflow is unimpeded. There's lots of little nuances and subtleties that go into this part of pipe making, and you have to have a feel for detail. It sounds like a lot of time and effort, but if you've got your workflow down and you've developed a feel for your tools, it doesn't really take too long and the payoff is enormous. Unfortunately, drilling a block of briar is best done on a drill press or a lathe, and fitting a stem can be lengthy process without a lathe as well. And if you don't have room for these tools, drilling a block of wood can be a daunting undertaking.

Once the holes are drilled and the stem fitted, the rest can be done with files and sandpaper in the absence of any kind of power tool. It can be slow going, but not impossible, and and the slow steady progress can be relaxing and therapeutic. With some time, and a little luck, a pipe is born!

A couple weeks ago I started offering pipe kits on eBay. I decided to offer mine with a twist since, let's face it, there's a lot of outfits out there offering pipe kits. As mentioned above, I make sure the airway is well crafted, the tobacco chamber and airway meet correctly, and that the stems I fit have been reworked internally to provide an enjoyable smoking experience. On some pipe kits, I even turn the top of the bowls to provide a head start in keeping everything symmetrical and even. Not the entire bowl, mind you, I don't want to be dictating someone else's vision. Only about the 1/8 to 1/4 inch of the top is turned, just to give a guideline for folks.

Unfortunately, they've proven so popular that I can't really keep up with demand. When they're available, you can find them, along with some "garage sale" type stuff, here:
I'm also going to add them to my site soon, so keep an eye out.

In other news, the knives are finished and ready for photos. And I have an interesting experiment in pipe finishes to show off as soon as I polish the stem. Stay tuned!