Writing About Writing About Pipes


I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in terms of the number of reads each of these blog posts gets over time. Posts about tobacco get a lot more attention than posts about pipes. That is not, in retrospect, very surprising. I think that most pipe smokers are more interested in what they believe provides smoking enjoyment (i.e. their tobacco) and don’t care to think much about pipes other than aesthetics. This is similar to how folks that enjoy a good meal at a restaurant probably pay little attention to the plates and silverware when describing the experience to friends the next day. Now if I was interested in simply getting more and more people to read my blog, it would make sense to focus more and more on tobacco. But that is not my goal. I write about what interests me, and if it is of interest to a few other people then I consider that to be time well spent. The writing process forces me to think cleanly about the things I am interested in and to describe them in a way that is relatively accessible. Currently I’m interested in pipes as tools from both a historical and a scientific perspective. The writing I’ve done in my “What is a Pipe” series had helped me solidify thoughts I’ve had on chamber and airway design that would have remained intuition had I not done the research and writing. In other words, I write because I am a selfish son of a gun.

It turns out that writing takes time. And while writing about something you enjoy like pipes or tobacco is, in itself enjoyable, it seems to take more time than writing about something less important. I like to be sure about technical or historical details, and that takes a lot of time. And, while it might not be apparent in the final product, I like to write with care and choose words and phrases that not only convey information but are easy and perhaps even enjoyable to read. Get to the point Mike… writing these blog posts takes time and I am running low on spare time these days.

I’m not looking for sympathy (and certainly don’t want pity), but I want you to understand why my blog writing is going to be a bit less frequent. I work a full time job as a research scientist running a laboratory and have responsibility for several projects and collaborations. This is a good thing as I love my work and am blessed to do something I truly enjoy. Science was my first love, and she has been a perfect mistress (don’t tell my wife). I also run a small side business at CaneRodPipes.com doing pipe repair and restorations. Again, I am privileged to do this work as I love the process and enjoy getting an old friend back in service for my customers. Pipes were my second love (don’t tell my wife or science), and to be able to sustain a hobby simply by doing it is a wonderful thing. And related to this I write this blog and maintain the CaneRodPiper YouTube channel as a way to stay in touch with friends and customers.

While I enjoy every minute of every day, I do need to budget time carefully, and lately I have had to overdraw on several accounts. Unfortunately the ones that tend to take the hit are my wonderful long-suffering wife and time for exercise and relaxation. Balance and moderation are important in life, and we all should strive to make time for ourselves and for those we love. And that is exactly what I am going to do. Starting immediately I will be aiming to publish two blog posts each month, and will probably limit my YouTube presence to twice a month. I’m not going anywhere, just taking some time for the things that are important. If you miss me, you can always get in touch through my web page or through the comments.

Now go do something nice for yourself!


The Pipe as a Friend


I am coveting another man’s pipe. Well, to be fair I don’t know the guy, and he (as of this writing) does not yet own the pipe. But I have fallen in love with…no, full confession, I am lusting after a pipe I will never own.


The pipe above if by the great carver Hans “Former” Nielsen. If you want to see more of it, or buy it (if you want to be “that guy”) you can do so here at SmokingPipes.com . If you don’t know who Former is, you should and can learn more about him on Pipedia  or can check out this excellent interview on YouTube

This oval shank billiard check all of my boxes. Its a straight pipe with a squat pot-like bowl perfectly proportioned to the shank. The pipe has interest in that it is not just a standard billiard but has a beautifully executed oval shank. The stem is a work of art and looks very comfortable. And the grain is simply stunning. I’ve never smoked a Former pipe, but based on his lineage I trust that it smokes like a dream. And I love pipe history, so the connection to Former and the Danish school is a huge plus for me. So why don’t I buy it? Well, to be blunt I simply will not spend that much on a pipe.

If you have followed my “What is a Pipe” series, you probably have gotten a sense of how I think of pipes. To me, they are tools. I know from the world of woodworking that there are good tools, and bad tools, and beautiful tools. But there are also tools that are priced higher because of the name on the tool. I think it would be a bit silly to buy a chisel that I didn’t intend to use, to hit with a mallet, to sharpen, and possibly one day exhaust. To me, the quality of the tool is much more important than the name on the tool. Likewise I want a pipe that smokes well. It should be pleasing to look at, and feel good in my hand and between my teeth. Beyond that I don’t care if it is stamped Grabow or Dunhill. In other words, I am a pipe smoker, not a pipe collector. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a pipe collector, it’s just a different hobby.

I’ve heard folks discuss the difference between a “tobacco guy” and a “pipe guy.” The tobacco guy is focused on the tobaccos he smokes. He is constantly looking for new blends to try and accumulates a diverse cellar of blends enjoying the different experiences that each brings. Of course the tobacco guy has his favorite pipes and enjoys a new pipe acquisition, but it is the tobacco that drives his interest in the hobby. On the other end of the continuum is the pipe guy. To him it’s all about the pipe and he may prefer one maker over all others, focus on a particular shape or style, or perhaps obsess over the design of the button on the stem. And yes the pipe guy enjoys his tobacco, but is less driven to try every new blend that appears. His cellar will tend to be more deep than wide with a focus on a few favorite blends, or types of tobacco. It’s not a black or white thing, and most people are somewhere between the two extremes, however most people lean to one side or the other. I am a pipe guy.

My pipes are like friends. I remember when I met each one and how we got to know each other during the break in process. And just as I have friends that I can enjoy a baseball game with, and others that enjoy a classic film, I have pipes that go well with burley, and others that appreciate a Virginia perique. And like friends, I enjoy getting to know them better with each encounter. Learning what makes them tick. I will almost always choose a pipe first and then decide what tobacco I will smoke. After all, a good host wouldn’t force his interest when a friend drops by.

We find our friends in the circles we travel. I’m sure that there are many hundreds if not thousands of people out there that would be like minded and make great friends, but we will never meet. They may be geographically isolated from me, or travel in different social circles, or perhaps we just never cross paths. Likewise, there are many many pipes that I shall never smoke. They may be lost in someone’s dusty attic, or bought by someone before I had the chance, or priced outside of what I consider a reasonable expense for a tool. And while I can fantasize about attending a Phillies game with Steve Carlton, or smoking a pipe made by Sixten Ivarsson, I accept that these are fantasy. The secrete to happiness is to be thankful for the friends we have. And if you are lucky enough to be the friend of that Former billiard, then I wish you many happy smokes.


A Defense of (God help me) Aromatics


As I write this, I am smoking cherry flavored pipe tobacco. Anyone that knows me will understand how difficult it was for me to write that sentence.

I began my pipe smoking journey, the way many do, with a Dr Grabow pipe and a pouch of Captain Black White Label. For over a year I had one pipe and one tobacco, and I was content. Then one fateful day curiosity got the best of me (it seldom gets the worst) I wondered into a tobacco shop in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh and received my first formal pipe smoking lesson.

The teacher could not have been a more incongruent subject in my life. You are expecting me to describe some kind and wise bearded gentleman puffing on a Dunhill-ish briar as he explained the secrets of the leaf. But in reality I was met by a gruff octogenarian woman smoking a corn cob pipe. I swear to you that this is true!

I never knew her name, or had much of a conversation with her beyond what I am about to describe. In fact, I don’t think she liked me very much. But then again, she was the sort of person that you wouldn’t expect to like many. The phrase “tough love” comes to mind. But I will be eternally grateful to that dear woman for the lesson she gave me in tobacco.

The counter, a large U-shaped structure that filled the center of the shop, was lined with jars of tobacco. I was overwhelmed with choice and just sort of stared at the jars until she broke the ice with “What do you want?” In those 4 words she made it clear that I was interrupting and inconveniencing her by having the audacity to enter her shop (yikes!) I blurted out something about never buying tobacco from jars and she quickly took me on a tour of the tobaccos. “We have aromatics, and English. You don’t want aromatics, they’re no good.” Then selecting a jar of Lane Ltd. Number 10 Downing Street without any input from me she asked, “How much do you want?”

After an embarrassed series of questions on cost and minimal amounts I left the shop with 2 ounces of my first non-Captain black tobacco and my life was for ever changed. Now I quickly learned that her definition of English was basically equivalent to non-aromatic, and went on to explore Virginias, Burleys, etc. But I faithfully avoided aromatics because “they’re no good.” Well there was one sad experience with a pouch of OTC apple tobacco that is too painful to recount. But otherwise I was faithful.

That began to change about 4 years ago. When the Christmas season comes round each year, I find myself pining for an aromatic experience. The thought of filling the room with a pleasant Christmassy aroma while I enjoy some spiced fruit cake like tobacco became an obsessive fantasy. The first year I gave into marketing and tried McCleland Christmas Spirit. It was slightly better than the above mentioned apple blend, and after about 3 bowls I gave the tin away. The next year was a Cornell and Diehl We Three Kings. The result was the same. I also tried Lane 1Q which is supposed to be the best selling bulk tobacco in the world. I believe that 1Q is actually some sort of elaborate practical joke that Lane is pulling. I just don’t understand how people can smoke this stuff!

The majority of aromatic tobaccos use synthetic flavorings. These, like many natural flavor components, are aromatic compounds that typically contain a hydrocarbon modified ester. For example, the vanilla flavor we know and love in our cakes and ice creams is produced by extracting aromatic components from vanilla beans. The primary component of this extract is vanillin, a phenolic aldehyde.


Synthetic vanilla can be produced by the synthesis of the above compound, but because the natural vanilla extract has many other minor compounds in it, the flavor is not quite right. Various other chemicals have been developed in an attempt to more fully mimic the taste of natural vanilla. For example, acetanisol is a chemical originally extracted from a glandular secretion of beavers (I’m not making this up). Acetanisol is supposed to have a fruity buttery vanilla flavor that better captures the complexity of the natural product, and is used for a flavoring a variety of products including tobacco.


Now here is the problem. Acetanisol, and other synthetic flavorings are not necessarily bad, but there are many people like myself that simply can not taste the intended flavor. I smell vanilla, but I taste bitter oily horribleness. I first noticed this problem with the advent of flavored coffee. I could not understand why people drank them. French vanilla, hazelnut, and Irish cream all taste the same to me, and don’t get me started on the annual arrival of “Everything Tastes Like Pumpkin” season. It’s all bitter oily horribleness. And I am able to detect the tiniest amount of these chemicals. I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I have thrown away because the store used the same grinder or carafe to make flavored and unflavored blends.

So I was doomed to never enjoy a nice bowl of holiday aromatic tobacco. I am biologically incapable of tasting what everyone else tastes. And yes, I did say I started with Captain Black. But I did not then know what tobacco was supposed to taste like and I guess I just assumed that you had to take the bad along with the good. I revisited Captain Black a few years ago and found it to be vile. I believe that my problem is not that uncommon as every time I talk about it folks step forward to say that they have the same problem. Sometimes they say that they think it is the humectant propylene glycol that they are tasting, but I don’t agree. I smoke tubs of Carter Hall that certainly have more than a healthy dose of propylene glycol and have never noticed the taste.

So I like to think that the gruff cob smoking lady of Pittsburgh shared my affliction and was not simply being closed minded. But even so, was she right? Are aromatics “no good” for those of us with a taste handicap? Well….no. As part of my stubborn quest for a holiday aromatic I stumbled across Germain’s Plum Cake Mixture and my eyes were opened!


There are good and bad (in my opinon) aromatics! And a it seems that many European aromatics are made with more natural flavorings. Actual spices and fruit peel and juice added to the tobacco to create the flavor. Plum Cake Mixture tastes of orange and honey and spice and wine and…it is wonderful. In the years since I have found a few others that have made it into my holiday rotation, and even as an occasional non-holiday treat.

Cornell and Diehl Autumn Evening was another eye opener. This one is harder to explain. I taste butter and maple and according to my wife it fills the room with the smell of pancakes. I doubt that it is all natural flavoring as C&D claim it to include fruit, citrus, maple, rum, sugar, and whiskey. They use a special steam process that supposedly infuses the flavorings into the leaf as opposed to the usual “topping” method. I can’t explain why I find this tolerable, but it is a very nice treat and I probably go through a tin every year often smoking it early Saturday mornings with coffee.


The ArtfulCodger, a dear friend of mine from YouTube, introduced me to Sutliff Black Spice as a alternate holiday blend. This one does not get a lot of love from the online pipe community, and I’m not sure why. It is a delightful smoke with a rich vanilla cinnamon nutmeg flavor that is just wonderful. As with Autumn Evening, I don’t know why this one gets past my broken pallet, but I thoroughly enjoy it and have added it to my holiday rotation.


And now we come to my current smoke, Peter Stokkebye Cherry #3. Of all the vile aromatics, cherry always ranks vilest. What was I thinking?? Iron Rails And Pipe Dreams, another friend of mine from YouTube has a pallet that often agrees with my own. We seem to like similar non-aromatics, and an occasional cigar. But he also smokes aromatics. Now I always just dismissed this as he does not suffer from my taste affliction. But then one day he presented his impressions of PS Cherry #3 and gave it a glowing review. I was confused. Peach cobbler, Christmas cookie, even Lane 1Q I can accept, but no one should like cherry tobacco. I said as much in a comment and Andy encouraged me to try it. A few weeks later I need to spend a bit more to make the free shipping cutoff on a tobacco order and wound up owning 2 oz of PS Cherry #3.


I fully expected bitter oily horribleness. What I got, to my surprise, was cherry. Not cough syrup, but cherry. Perhaps leaning a bit towards cherry cordials with some minor chocolate notes. I smoked a bowl, then another, then the sample was gone and I ordered another 4 ounces. It’s an occasional treat and I doubt I will need to by more for at least a year, but I want to have this tobacco available.

So I thought I had it all figured out. Only natural flavored aromatics were going to be tolerable. That certainly explained Plum Cake Mixture, and maybe it could be stretched to explain Autumn Evening. But no one is going to believe that Sutliff and Stokkebye are using real nutmeg and cherry juice. What started as a beautiful theory ends as a cautionary tale. There are some good aromatics, keep an open mind. Now I’m not going to become an aromatic smoker other than a bowl or two each month for a change of pace. But I have new respect for some aromatic blends. Of course, Lane 1Q is still awful.

Now where I did I put that Burley Flake #3…

What is a Pipe Part 5a: Stummel Materials


We call the bowl and shank of a pipe the stummel. Stummel is a word borrowed from the German language meaning stump, stub, or butt. I am not sure why this word became associated with pipes, but can guess that it might have something to do with the source of briar, the most common stummel material. But briar was not always the material of choice for pipe makers.

As we saw in part one of this series, the first pipes where simply holes in the ground for burning tobacco. As the pipe evolved into a hand held object, a variety of materials were used including hardwoods, stone, porcelain and clay. Clay held prominence for a long period beginning with the introduction of tobacco to England in the 16th century. It was an abundant resource, relatively easy to shape into pipes, fireproof, and provided a pleasant smoking experience. However clay was not without issues. Clay is a poor insulator, so clay pipes get very hot when smoked. And it is fragile and difficult to keep clean. One humorous suggestion was that the best way to clean a clay pipe was to throw it into the fireplace.


Meerschaum was first used for pipe stummels in the mid 18th century and quickly supplanted clay among those that could afford the higher price. Meerschaum was, and still is, prized for it’s ability to provide a cool and dry smoke. It is a relatively soft material that can be carved into a variety of shapes and with intricate patterns, even whole scenes appearing on pipes that seem more art than smoking tool. Aficionados of meerschaum believe that it is the perfect stummel material. Personally I have never enjoyed a meerschaum pipe more than a briar, but I do appreciate their beauty.


There are a variety of other materials that have been used for pipe stummels for better or worse ranging from hardwoods (cherry, pear, etc), to pyrolytic graphite (Venturi), to corn cobs. While these materials all have some interesting characteristics, they offer little advantage over clay or meerschaum, and all are a distant second to the most popular stummel material in history, briar.


Legend has it that the first briar pipe was made in 1854 in St Claude, France. Given what you are about to learn about briar, you will see that it is a miracle that someone just happened to try it as a pipe material. Briar wood comes from the tree heath Erica Arborea (shown above) which grows throughout the Mediterranean, Africa, and parts of Australia. But the growing conditions are very important and only a few Mediterranean regions produce briar of a suitable quality for pipe making. Pipe making briar grows wild in rocky mountainous regions. The plant is well suited to these conditions as it is tough and has adapted to survive. As you can see in the image below, the plant has an interesting system of roots that extend from a large, subterranean burl (also termed ball, or tumor). The roots can extend broadly in the rocky soil collecting scarce moisture and nutrients. These are then transported to the burl for storage. The part of the plant that we see above ground extends from the top of the burl. I wonder if the burl being the “butt” or “stump” of the plant is what led to the word “stummel” being used for the bowl and shank of the pipe.


The reason no one farms briar is that it takes between 30 and 50 years for the burl to reach maturity. And even if you had the patience to wait that long before your first harvest, there is no guarantee that a farm could replicate the harsh growing conditions needed to produce quality briar burls. So the burls are dug in the wild, one at a time, by hand. They are then gathered and transported back to the sawmill where the processing begins.

The first step at the sawmill involves wetting the burls to keep them from cracking, and placing them in a dark place for several months until the plant basically expires. The burl will continue to send out shoots for quite a while in an attempt to re-grow the rest of the plant. After a few months, the briar is sawed into blocks. This is a process that takes great skill on the part of the cutter. They must read the grain, maximize yield, and keep all of their fingers. If you think I am kidding about the last point be sure to watch the video below where Mimmo Romeo, one of the top briar suppliers today, demonstrates his briar cutting skill.

There is still some work to do. Once the blocks are cut and graded, they are placed in cloth sacks and boiled. This step is designed to remove impurities that would lead to an off taste when the pipe is smoked. After boiling, the blocks are allowed to dry for a minimum of 18 months before being sent to pipemakers. And many pipe makers will continue to dry/age the briar for years before using it.

So the idea that a carver in 1850’s France just happened to pick up a block of briar and make a pipe strikes me as miraculous occurrence. It almost seems that briar was fated to be the material of choice for stummels. And we are very fortunate to have it because it does have several unique characteristics that make it ideal for pipes. We will delve into some of those characteristics and dispel a few myths in the next installment.

Tobacco Aging and Melding

HeaderAs I write this I am smoking a bowl of Petter Stokkeby Luxury Bullseye Flake (LBF) in a large Hercules billiard. I like LBF as a change of pace from my usually burley-laden rotation and often find myself smoking it in the spring. It has just enough perique, and the black cavendish smooths the VaPer into a delightful sweet and sour treat. I keep a fair amount of this blend cellared, and the jar I am now smoking was purchased in May of 2015. Not terribly long ago, but seemingly enough to make a difference.

I recently purchased a few ounces of LBF to replace this jar in my cellar and sampled a bowl straight from the vendor. It was good, but not as good as this ~3 year old tobacco. The perique was bit sharper, and the Virgina was more tangy and bright. It was far from bad, but just did not give me the same level of enjoyment. So what happened in those 3 years?


Tobacco aging is a complex topic and one that folks seem to love to argue over. You can find experts suggesting that burley does not benefit from aging, and others that say it does. Some say that aging ruins Latakia, others say that it mellows wonderfully. Even the mechanics of cellaring are debated with some saying that it is necessary to leave ample space in your jar to allow for the magic aging process to occur, while others will tell you that vacuum sealing is the best way to age tobacco. No one seems to agree on anything!

Not a lot of science has been done around the topic of tobacco aging. One are that has recently been debunked is the concept of “bloom” or “plume” or “crystals.” Folks will open old tins or jars of tobacco and proudly show off the “sugar crystals” that have formed from the aging process. Cigar smokers are equally proud of the small white marks that develop on their smokes. Well, if you are one of the folks that proudly smoke your sugar coated aged tobacco I have bad news for you; that ain’t sugar!


Some guys over at Friends of Habanos decided to put the whole cigar plume thing to the test. They collect samples of cigars with plume and submitted them to a lab for analysis. In every case, the samples were identified as fungal in nature. They extended their study to include some aged pipe tobaccos that exhibited crystals, and once again every sample was either mold, or in a few cases bacteria. You can read about the study and reactions here.  Be sure to go to page 6 where the pipe tobacco study is described.

Now before you panic and empty you humidors and toss your pipe tobacco, keep in mind that people have been smoking this stuff for a long time with no apparent ill effects. It is unlikely that anything even remotely biohazardous could survive the heat of combustion. But at the same time, you need to realize that the crystals and spots are not signs of quality aged tobacco. So what does the aging process do to improve the smoke?

One possibility is fermentation of sugars. This is what provides a faint vinegar scent to some aged tobaccos. I say faint because the chemistry/biology involves the fermentation of sugar into alcohol by yeast, and then a secondary bacterial fermentation in which the alcohol is converted to acetic acid (aka vinegar). To get the vinegar doused McClelland experience without adding vinegar to the tobacco would require a rather high alcohol and bacterial content. Sugar will burn hot and produce some sharpness in the smoke, so fermentation may help to mellow the qualities of the tobacco. But this is unlikely to be the primary aging process. Also note that our friends mold (yeast) and bacteria play a central role in the process.

The other thing that definitely occurs with all blends is a melding of flavors. This poorly defined process involves the equilibration of the mixture, and possibly the transfer of some volatile flavoring components from one leaf to another. I can’t give a chemical formula for it, but I believe that most pipe smokers have experienced it happening. One of my favorite bulk C&D blends, Old Joe Krantz, often arrives in what I consider to be an unsmokable form. It is harsh and overwhelming. But after just a few weeks in a jar it becomes a wonderful smoking blend. I believe the same is true for the LBF. It just takes a bit of time for the flavors to settle and for them to begin to work together.

So give your tobacco some time to meld and see if you notice a difference. And the next time you try a new blend and find it harsh, jar it up for a few weeks and revisit it. You just might find a new favorite.

Things to Come


I am traveling to Pittsburgh this week and won’t be able to take the time to put together a regular post. So I thought I might take the opportunity to update you all on what is to come here on the blog.

I have really enjoyed working on the “What is a Pipe” series, and I think I have 3 installments to go: “stummel material”, “stem material”, and “bringing it all together.” The reason I have not yet written the stummel entry is that I am getting bogged down in what is really a vast subject. In the end, I have decided to focus on what I know (briar), and just give passing mention of the many other possibilities (clay, meerschaum, hardwood, porcelain, plastic, corncob…). Even then, briar can expand into a huge subject including growth, harvesting, processing, aging, carving, curing, finishing, and a host of briar “myths.” You really could write a book on briar, and I’m surprised that has not yet happened! I think that for this series, I am going to focus on the properties of briar that make it the most common stummel material and save all the other stuff for future rambling. I’ll take a similar approach with stem materials will I’ll give a historical nod to things like horn and bakelite and focus on ebonite and acrylic.

The Exploration of Burley entry was well received, and I have gotten several requests to follow up with a post on Virginia, perique, etc. The problem is that I am not an expert on tobacco, I just really like burley. Taking the time to do the research on these other leaves is something I would love to do, but finding the time to take is a challenge these days. So I do hope to eventually follow up with some more tobacco posts, but that will not be happening in the near future.

I have been considering a YouTube video on buffing for a long time now. I want to do something similar to my <retort video> and get into details on buffing compounds, wheel composition, surface speeds… Once again, my tendency to dig into detail (yeah, it’s probably a form of OCD) has prevented me from getting this project started. So I am considering doing this as a video with a companion blog post that can absorb all of the “sciency” details.

One other potentially controversial topic I have been considering as a follow on to “What is a Pipe” is a discussion on choosing a first pipe (or any pipe). I’ve seen a lot of bad (in my opinion) advice on this topic and would like to weigh in myself. But I also want to avoid alienating folks that might disagree with my opinion. It is a fairly subjective topic that I think can be made a bit more objective, but people do have strong feelings about what the best choice is for the beginner.

I’m surprised at how easy it has been to find things to write about here on the blog, and I’m even more surprised at how many people have found it worthwhile to spend time reading these ramblings. If you have any thoughts on content you would like to see in the future, please let me know in the comments below.

Better, Faster, Cheaper…Pick Two


Some of my favorite tools are files, and I am always looking for more. There are good and bad files to be sure, but for the most part even very inexpensive files can be sharp enough to do rough shaping of ebonite or acrylic. And since they come in a variety of shapes and cut patterns, I seem to never be able to pass up a chance to try a new file for stem making. In the picture below you can see my three newest files that I tried out on a new cumberland stem.


The files are (from left to right) a coarse, medium, and fine cut. They cost about $5 each and have no markings to indicate where they were made. They are noticeably poor quality compare to the Nicholson #1 pillar file laying across them in the picture. The Nicholson has very square safe edges, crisp markings, and cost $18. It is the perfect tool for finishing the shaping around the button and maintain sharp corners between the button and the stem. The 3 new files are not safe edged (although I may grind a safe edge on them), and the steel is of varying quality. In fact, if you look closely you can see a rust spot on the middle file about 1/3 of the way up from the Nicholson.

So why did I buy these? Well, just as the Nicholson is the right tool for final button shaping, these new files are fantastic at quickly removing ebonite and getting the stem close to final shape. However, the finish they leave is far from perfect and I need to switch to better quality files and scrapers before I can start sanding. So the cheaper files get the job done faster, but not better.

The title of this post is based on a quote I first heard about 10 years ago during a budget meeting at my day job. If I knew the origin of the quote I have long forgotten it, and Google was not helpful, but I believe it was an engineer, and possibly a NASA engineer that first put these words together. The concepts are simple, but not often linked in our thought process. For any task, you can get it completed at a lower cost, but this has to occur with either an increase in time or a decrease in quality. Likewise, if you want the task done cheaper, you will either have to sacrifice quality or wait longer. And finally, if you want better quality, you either spend more or wait longer.


I thought about this triangle as I turned cumberland to dust, and realized that the really is no way to escape it’s bounds. Ebonite rod costs about $2/inch, and most stems I make are 3.5 – 4.5 inches long. So the material costs are on the order of $7 – $9 per stem. Preformed stems cost about $2 – $5, so they are cheaper. And with some work, no one would be able to tell the difference between a preformed stem and a hand cut stem. But this is where the triangle rears its pointy head! To get the preformed stem to the same quality of a hand cut stem I need to switch to a 4 jaw chuck on the metal lathe, mount and center the tenon, turn the tenon to the correct dimension for the pipe, face off the end, probably drill the airway a bit wider, chamfer the end. Then start all of the handwork on the exterior of the stem to fit it to the pipe, remove the flashing, and refine the shape. And I still have not started to shape the airway! It actually takes me longer to make a stem from a preformed blank!


So I could save a few dollars on material with a preformed stem, but it would take me longer to provide a quality product which would then lead to an increase in what I charge per stem. I could, of course, skip some of the finer detail work and get the preformed stem out the door faster, but then quality suffers. So I take the more expensive route, and I take my time. This allows me to keep the price reasonable and still provide a product that makes me proud. Better, faster, cheaper, you only get to pick two.