I make pipes.
I spend a lot of time making pipes, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Truly, it is an obsession; of late I am far more interested in comparing notes with the experienced pipe making friends I talk with regularly than a lot of other things. And I’m fine with that. Hopefully my friends reading this feel likewise.
I have to admit with some shame that before I ever picked up a soldering iron or cast my first sheet of metal, pipe making skill was something I took for granted. I have had the good fortune in my career to work alongside some very skilled (if mercurial) pipe makers to whom I always showed respect and, never presuming the need, probed minimally about their tradecraft.
They say necessity is the mother of invention; in my case it felt more like existential panic. I moved my shop from East Hampton to East Haddam a few years ago, and when that happened, the person who handled most of my pipe shop work to that point (the semi-retired Stewart Skates) said that with advancing age he was cutting down his schedule. That, and that for him the now-longer drive to East Haddam was too far to be worth it. Stu had been generous enough to share a few tips with me and my staff over the years, but like most guys from the old school, full hands-on training was only granted in the rarest of circumstances. Any candidate had to have the right attitude and aptitude. Stu was at the end of his career and felt he had done his share of training; too often he had felt — likely with justification — that both in Belfast and later, Management had sent yet another witless trainee into his department, expecting a magical transfer of knowledge and skill in requisite time. I saw more than a few guys pass quickly in, and then out of the pipe shop in Hartford, and in my time there had been dealt the same hand more than once in my own department, so I empathized when Stu politely turned me down.
This aside, Stu’s decision was now forcing me to make my own. I had already invested time, money and effort in setting up some pipe making facilities in my shop and I wanted that to continue. Among many colleagues the conventional wisdom was it was good to be facile with basic repair, but that actually casting metal and making pipes -- especially facade pipes — was the province of the established (suppliers) or the wealthy (boutique). Why bother with all the fuss and back-breaking work when a fully made set was not much more than a phone call (and a large check) away? This entirely sensible rationale kept me out of the arena for years.
Through a combination of several circumstances, over the last five years I went from this tentative state to now being All In. Making certain early sets of pipes became a necessity; after years of observing I forced myself down to work and the bench, enduring the expected early failures. I often joke about a chance conversation I had with John Boody that led to setting up our casting, but like all jokes there’s a grain of truth. John originally had encouraged me to buy John Brombaugh’s casting set up, which Brombaugh enthusiastically discussed with me in several email exchanges back in early 2012. Once we actually got the approval on the DECD loan that helped finance the equipment purchase, I learned that Andover was also selling their casting set up and sent Mr. Brombaugh my regrets; I’m not sure he’s ever forgiven me for making a choice based on price and convenience.
I should note that while setting on this course, more than one colleague questioned my sanity. Eventually I stopped trying to explain. In fact, I distinctly recall a conversation about all this with Jonathan Ambrosino a few years ago. As I wound into my explanation, he quickly ascertained my sincerity and said: “Oh, you’re doing it because you want to.” I paused a moment and said, “Basically, yeah." As reason as much honest as it is spare.
What I never anticipated was how my exploration and pursuit of pipe making would become something that would completely change how I think about and approach my work as an organ builder. I have done plenty flue voicing before, but the experience of making and then voicing my own pipes has taken me to a place that is drastically different from my tentative steps in to (and later, out of) Hartford some twenty years ago. Now I am reaching for something in my work that is much more focused and refined. I have a thousand more words I could say on the subject, but perhaps some things are diminished when we try to interpret them too succinctly. Hopefully you get the idea. 2015 has been a great year of professional growth here and I’m looking forward to more.
Man, twenty years. That’s a story for another time.