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Thread: George Dibos (PSPR&R): Why are There so Few Pipe Repairmen?

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    PSU Owner dmcmtk's Avatar
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    George Dibos (PSPR&R): Why are There so Few Pipe Repairmen?

    This is a re-post from elsewhere, a thread at pipemag, by George Dibos. It should give people a lot of food for thought,

    I thought I'd start a thread that's 50% personal observation and 50% starting point for discussion.

    It concerns repair & restoration, but in the consumer sense not a technical one.

    In the pipe repair world, for reasons lost to history, the output of repair shops is viewed as a consumer commodity in the same way as tires, toasters, or cameras. When buying those items, the only difference is who sells them to you and for how much. The quality of the same make & model item is the same at all retail outlets.

    In the artisan pipe making world, though, the output of carvers is unique, and each piece is considered individually and priced accordingly.

    While the second case is fitting and economically sustainable, the first is not.

    There are several reasons why carvers outnumber repairmen by fifty (or more) to one in our hobby, among them being the equipment and inventory requirements. While a carver needs only what's required to create pipes that fulfill a chosen aesthetic, a full-service repairman needs the tools and materials to replicate the work of ALL carvers and brands, both new and old (some go back a century or more), and in every style.

    Another reason is the stress of working on someone else's property. It is enormous. There are no "do-overs". Tossing a project into the fireplace when a fatal mistake is made is not an option.

    But the main reason is the commodity pricing structure, especially when it comes to replacement stems. No matter the quality or price of the original pipe, there's an expectation that a new stem for it should cost a fixed, nominal amount.

    What pipe repairmen do however, is not the same as being a retailer of tires, toasters, or cameras. They sell labor, not merchandise.

    In fact, it's not even equivalent labor. Most pipe makers agree that the stem takes as much time to fabricate---sometimes more---than the rest of the pipe. Add to that the second time around, after the stummel is complete and its shape cannot be further modified requires a stem to be made "in a vacuum" to fit that stummel exactly. That is more labor intensive still. Then, often, the labor/time demand is increased yet again by requiring the replacement to exactly match the original. (The original maker didn't have to follow any pattern or meet any particular set of dimensions... whatever simply "looked right" to them became the finished product.)

    For the record, and to be 100% clear, I am emphatically NOT criticizing or trying to minimize what "whole" pipe makers do in any way---being truly good at it is insanely difficult and requires having ALL of MANY uncommon skills rolled into a single person. I know any number of them personally, and respect what they do---and am occasionally in awe of what they do---more every day. That their work and business model is more linear and streamlined isn't something they are responsible for creating, it's simply how things are.

    It's the combination of those three main things---high financial barrier to entry, working on other people's property, and laborious nature of matching the work of others as opposed to creating it in the first place---that keeps people from entering the repair field (or staying with it for long when they do).

    Entire articles have been written about this situation before by highly qualified people, btw. Here's a good one:

    http://talbertpipes.blogspot.com/201...pe-repair.html

    So, what's my point with all this? It is to take a swing at raising awareness, and thereby, eventually, make the specialty field of pipe repair more attractive to newcomers by encouraging them to adopt a tradesman model of business instead of a fixed-price commodity one. In short, price their work according to time spent instead of by simplified task categories. That's how it has always been for other tradesmen, from plumbers to machinists to welders. Try getting a fixed-price/categorical quote from one of those guys for clearing a blocked drain, machining an antique motorcycle engine part from billet, or repairing a cracked flange on an oil pipeline. Their pricing is, and has always been, based on labor and (when applicable) materials.

    I think that such an approach would not only help to attract more repairmen, but, over the long term, would benefit their customers. First, since there would be more of them, turnaround times would improve. Second, because the quality of EVERYTHING in life varies, workmanship included, after a while skill would correspond with cost. Demand would make it so.

    Why would that correspondence be a Good Thing when shopping? Consider the following sets of photos. The price paid by the customer was the same for both stems shown in each pair. The lesser quality ones were the result of someone thinking that since all replacement stems cost essentially the same, he might as well go with the closest shop geographically to save on shipping time and postage. Had their maker not been able to hide in the level-pricing-across-the-trade bushes, the customer might have been curious why shops charged different rates, done some digging, and been spared having to buy a second set of replacement stems before he was satisfied.

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    PSU Owner dmcmtk's Avatar
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    George, I've had the same conversation with Ronni B. covering some of the same points you've made quite a few times!

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    Great article!
    With kind regards, Bo


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    I worked in a bicycle shop for 7 years. We were really good with repairs and had a complete set of Park tools with a few old Campy frame tools. The guys who worked at the shop loved the repair work, and it was a certain draw. The honest truth is that repairs basically broke even. It was labor intensive, and it required a certain amount of inventory. Bicycles themselves were close to a wash once you factored in labor to assemble, floor space, and time spent selling. All the money was in accessories. Margin on shoes and bike shorts was decent, and you could afford to have the inventory.

    Here is the problem. The industry changed with Nashbar, et al. People would come to the shop and try on helmets or shoes and the order online. We could sell labor because that is hard to mail order with a bicycle, but there was no money in the labor. It was a break-even proposition. Pretty much you sold bicycles and repairs to drive the accessory purchases. Due to internet sales, it became a business proposition that was getting worse. The owner sold the shop and many bicycle shops went out of business.

    It is all a matter of where the margins are. If it is not a good business model, a few people will do it as a hobby industry when they retire, but there is not much draw.
    "Prov'dence don't fire no blank ca'tridges, boys" Roughing It, Mark Twain

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    PSU Member BillyPM's Avatar
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    Food for thought. I've always wondered how pipe repairmen could make any kind of living given the amount of labor required for even the "simplest" of repairs.
    Billy
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    Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

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    PSU Member _Pruss_'s Avatar
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    Hi George, thanks for the thought fodder.

    As an amateur pipe restorer, well amateur pipe cleaner really, I appreciate the thoughts you've put to e-paper.

    I am an aspiring pipe repair man, a guy who is learning by doing (and by researching; and by talking to other pipe restorers, carvers, collectors) and building up my shop as I do so. I can perform the basic tasks to make a pre-loved pipe safe to smoke again, and make it pretty, and can perform minor repairs. I don't yet have the skills, tools or material to complete repairs like banding or stem turning. But I am working towards a goal of being able to complete those tasks. In a few weeks I will own my first and second lathes, and a French wheel, and I will be receiving instruction in stem production. I'm on the slow and steady track to learning the requisite skills to become a pipe repair man, as I fulfill my employer's and family's needs to put food on the table and a roof over my head by being fully employed outside of the pipe world. Learning these skills is my hobby, and it is slow going.

    In addition to refurbishing and re-selling estate pipes, I perform routine cleanups of pipes for guys in my pipe club, and friends who are in need, and those requests are coming from farther and farther afield as the dearth of folks doing pipe repair/restoration/cleaning becomes more prevalent. I'll be honest, I don't charge for the work that I do right now. I have received wonderful gifts of pipes, tobacco, spirits, coffee, food and good will from folks who I have done pipe-work for, but I don't think I'm in a place yet where I'm comfortable hanging out a shingle and charging for work.

    I recoup my investment in material and equipment by re-selling estate pipes which I purchase, clean up, and re-sell. I am painfully clear about the condition of these pipes when I re-sell them, and sell at prices which I think are fair given the pipe and the time and material that went into its cleanup.

    As to the question, "Where have all the pipe repair men gone?" I think that at least part of the answer lies in the dissolution of the brick and mortar store and the associated industries that supported their operations. Fewer B&Ms leads to fewer pipes feeding the shop of the local pipe repair shop, leads to fewer pipe repair people. Fewer pipe repair people, leads to fewer resources for aspiring pipe repair people, leads to fewer pipe repair apprentices. So not only is the pipeline of work drying up, the funnel of future repair people is shrinking.

    On the question of pricing, I like the idea of pricing by the hour with an add for materials. Once a repair person has an understanding of the average time spent on a job, estimating the cost of a repair should be fairly straightforward. Now, whether or not this would work as a competitive pricing strategy depends entirely on whether the pricing offered is competitive with the pricing of repair folks who are pricing by the job.

    The other thing to consider in any pricing strategy is the quality of the work. I have a feeling that an excellent repair person who does first rate quality work consistently will never be out of work, regardless of how they price their jobs.

    Thanks for the morning thought starter, George.

    -- Pat

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    Interesting discussion. I've always found it difficult to put a price on the time spent working on a pipe. I usually keep in mind what I would be willing to pay for that particular pipe, but if I actually figured paying by the hour the cost would be prohibitive.

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    Nice read, thanks.
    You can't push a rope, teach a rock, or inject common sense

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    Frankly, I don't know how pipe repairmen (or women) can really make a go of it on a flat rate. I know most people are doing it on the side for a little extra money, perhaps holding down a day job or even restoring and selling pipes on the Internet or maybe even carving their own, but how much is your free time worth to you? Probably more than most are charging. I've had a couple of repairs done through my local shop over the years, and they sent them out to Lee von Erck, who I know makes more on the hour carving than he could have doing my little stem jobs, especially after the store takes a cut for postage and whatnot.

    I say set an hourly rate and do what it takes to do a nice job. If you feel it took longer than it should have, you can always write off a little time, but when you put a flat rate out there before you've even seen the pipe and the customer has even seen your work, you're either going to work for peanuts or not work at all if people think you're overpriced. Do what the auto repair folks do: get it in your hands, estimate how much work you think it will take, and communicate with the customer before you start, letting them decide what they pipe is worth to them. If it's too involved for them to have you bother with it, you can always make an offer to buy it, so you can restore it and make a little money anyway.

    Personally, I think flat rate pricing is an artifact of a time before communication was so instantaneous.
    Herb

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    Quote Originally Posted by HCraven View Post
    Do what the auto repair folks do: get it in your hands, estimate how much work you think it will take, and communicate with the customer before you start, letting them decide what they pipe is worth to them.
    That's exactly the way I handle it, myself.

    Usually I give a best guess min/max range based on past similar jobs, but make clear that nothing is firm until I have the pipe in hand. There are too many potential "gotchas", otherwise, such as a pipe that needs a stem replacement, but the mortise is badly out of round, coned, or jugged Getting THAT sorted out is necessary before even starting on a stem.

    The catch is you have to have a lot of experience to even know what to look for, never mind be able to fix what you find.

    So far, so good. It seems most of the mid-grade and up collectors understand the approach.

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