If you’re like me, when you took up pipe smoking, you started off with a factory pipe. For me, I started with a Peterson, but Savinelli’s, Stanwell’s, Nording’s, Comoy’s, etc are all great first pipes. Go on your online vendor of choice, and you’ll have all sorts of pipe manufacturers to pick from that are in your price range. Heck, you could just buy one brand of pipes for the rest of your life and be happy.
Spend any amount of time on the pipe section of social media, though, and you’ll discover an entirely new world of pipes. These pipes aren’t made in a factory, but rather in the garages, basements, and workrooms of hard working and pipe carvers. All around the world, talented men and women spend all day taking blocks of briar and carving them into stunning works of art. These countless men and women have taken their love and appreciation for tobacco pipes to the next level, leaving their mark on the pipe world with their own personal style.
I have a ton of respect for these entrepreneurial pipers, as being an independent pipe carver takes hard work and dedication. It’s easy to be a bystander and take independent pipe carvers for granted, but we shouldn’t. To be a pipe carver and survive in this market, one must wear many hats to succeed and make a living with their passion.
First, they have to have the talent to shape a briar block into a desirable pipe. Just one misstep or mistake, and that billiard that would’ve gone for sale now becomes their own pipe in a best case scenario. It also takes multiple pipe carvings before a pipe maker can start offering their pipes for sale. Some pipe makers even choose to live with another pipe maker to learn under them as an apprentice. That alone is an investment, as that takes time away from their families and their non-pipe carving work, not to mention money spent on travel, food, or room and board. Not to mention, a pipe carver must decide whether to follow the light side or dark side of pipe making in their apprenticeship. I’d say more on the subject, but George Lucas did a few pretty good (and not so good) allegory films for pipe making. Just replace “Jedi” and “Sith” with “pipe maker”, and you’ll understand fellow padawan.
Then there’s the money investment to become a pipe carver. The pipe maker has to buy the necessary tools, briar blocks, and stem materials to make a pipe. Even if they already have the needed equipment, the supplies alone comes out of their pockets. That’s a lot of money to spend on following your dreams of having your own line of pipes.
So you have the necessary equipment and supplies and can carve a billiard, so you’re set, right? Not so fast. After learning how to carve a pipe, next you have to develop a style, a signature look that’s all your own. This comes with practice, and lots of it. You carve a pipe how it’s supposed to look, and then look for ways to separate yourself from the pack. If you only carve generic pipes, you’ll easily lose yourself from the rest of the pipe makers out there. That doesn’t mean you have to create wild, out of this world briars, but you need something that screams you. You need a brand to distinguish yourself.
Even if the pipe carver has the skills and style down, there’s still an uphill battle to become established as a successful pipe maker. The pipe maker has to juggle being a pipe carver, as well as a business entrepreneur and a brand marketer. The pipe carver can’t just worry about carving a good pipe, but learning how to sell their pipes. Otherwise those beautiful briars are going to languish on their shelves, gathering dust as they wait to be bought.
What does this all mean? Well, the pipe maker can’t hide in their workshop and carve; they have to get out there and sell their wares. The pipe maker can’t put all their hopes into being picked up by an online pipe retailor; they’ve got to get noticed first. The good news is that there are a wide variety of methods to get your name out there to attract prospective buyers. The pipe maker isn’t limited to making a webpage or etsy store to sell their pipes. Some pipe makers have managed to make a decent business by simply selling their newest pipes on Instagram, even before they’re finished. It might take a bit of time before the pipe maker gets to this point, but the tools are there.
Likewise, social media is a great place for a pipe maker to connect with a wider audience. It’s a way for the pipe maker to show pictures of their work as it’s being done, as well as adding a personal touch by being personable to commenters. By interacting with fellow pipe smokers, the pipe maker can develop lasting relationships with potential customers. The person complimenting your new Dublin might not buy that specific pipe, but later down the road when they’re looking for a new pipe, they’ll know whom to contact.
This, of course, adds an additional wrinkle to the mix— customer service. The pipe maker has to reply to emails and direct messages, answering inquiries and potential commissions. And when the pipe maker sells a pipe, they also have to address possible issues the customer has with the pipe. The pipe maker can pour their heart and soul into a pipe, but if it’s not what the customer wants, well, then it’s back to the workshop and hope it doesn’t affect their future business prospects.
Also, as a pipe maker, they’re at the mercy of what their customer wants. While they can make the kind of pipes they want to make, many take on commissions. The pipe maker might want to be creative and carve all sorts of shapes, but if it’s not what the customer wants, then they have to put those ideas aside and make their commissioned pipes. Want to carve an egg or cutty? Tough, you have to carve five poker pipes in a row for your clients. And if you make it big with a certain shape, expect to make more just like it.
With all this in mind, I have the utmost respect for the hard working pipe makers out there. Having followed the pipe world on social media for the past five years, I’ve seen promising pipe makers come and go. Some pipe carvers will work hard to establish themselves from the rest of the pack, put out their hard work, and disappear a year later after failing to find an audience. It’s not an easy line of work, and the market is full of competitors, all looking to have a piece of the proverbial pie. And let’s be honest here, there’s not a massive amount of pipe smokers out there. To make it as a pipe maker, you have to be determined and be willing to keep going through some lean times.
And these are all the possible issues that I, a non-pipe carver, can see from the outside. There could be other hurdles that I haven’t accounted for in this article. It’s a tough business.
Now, with that preamble out of the way, why should you consider buying your next pipe from a pipe carver? Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand in some derelict pipe workshop and beg you to buy a pipe from a poor, needy pipe carver like I’m in some commercial in the middle of the night. I get it, it’s easy to just go onto a pipe website and simply pick a new pipe from what’s available. However, having purchased a few artisan pipes myself, I can tell you, buying a pipe from a pipe carver is a rewarding experience.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. First, you’ll be paying more for an artisan pipe. Normally, you’ll find factory pipes priced around $100 or less, depending on the brand and finish. Some of those factory pipes can still cost as much as $150, but $100 is the baseline from what I’ve found. You can find some artisan pipes around the $100 mark, but for the most part you’re looking at $150 or more, especially if it’s a commissioned pipe. If you want one of those fancy schmancy blowfish or reverse calabash pipes, expect to pay more.
It’s a simple matter of economics. A pipe carver doesn’t have the same resources that a factory does. They work at a slower pace than the factories, because it’s usually a one-person operation. While a factory can churn out many pipes in a single day, the pipe carver can take multiple days on one pipe, depending on what they’re making.
Likewise, when you order an artisan pipe, expect to wait a few weeks before it arrives. This is especially true if you’re commissioning a pipe from scratch. You have to wait while the pipe maker finishes the pipes they have on the bench before they can get to yours. Then, the pipe making process can take a few days, depending on the shape and finish you want.
Also, depending on the pipe maker, you might not have much to go on in terms of their general reputation. If you’re working with a new pipe maker, you’re trusting that they’re competent at their job. It’s an investment to their work, and sadly not all investments work out in the end.
Finally, once you get your pipe, if you’re not happy with it, you have to deal with the pipe carver to get the issue sorted out. You can’t just contact smokingpipes and try to return the pipe. It all depends on the pipe carver you’re working with, and when you’re dealing with a person rather than a company, there’s a chance you might run afoul with the pipe maker. And should that fight become public on social media, well, no one wants to see that. Thankfully, I haven’t heard of too many instances of this.
Now that we have the negatives out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff!
When you’re commissioning a pipe, you’re creating the pipe YOU want! You’re not limited to the available stock on a website or in a pipe shop. If you’ve always dreamed of owning a full bent poker pipe, there’s a pipe carver out there that’ll make it for you. If you want a billiard with a grey finish with rustication, there’s a pipe carver that’ll make it. Want a Bing pipe with an apple bowl? There’s a pipe carver that’ll make it. The only limits with a commissioned pipe are your imagination and the skills of the pipe carver.
When you work with a pipe carver, they’ll generally be in contact with you every step of the way. With all my commissioned pipes, I received constant updates of the progress of my pipe, with questions and suggestions of what to do next. I’ve never been out of the loop during the carving process, and every decision was made by me, unless I gave the carver the freedom to do what they wanted. From the rustication on the pipe to the choice of stem color, I had the final say. If I wanted a billiard with a neon pink stem, and they had that stem, they’d shrug their shoulders and do it as they questioned my taste.
When you own a commissioned pipe, it’s completely different from owning another factory pipe. Every pipe has a story behind it, and with a commissioned pipe, you’re part author. You know where it came from, as well as who carved it. And one day, when you reach the end of your pipe journey, you have the chance to gift it to someone else. One day, I’ll be able to give my commissioned pipes to my son (should I have one), and tell him the story of each pipe as I pass it along to him to keep. You’re not just commissioning an average pipe; you’re creating an heirloom.
By commissioning a pipe, you’re also investing in someone’s personal business. You’re not handing your hard earned cash to another company, but to a person who’s following their dreams. That pipe you ordered helps someone keep their business open, and the feedback you give helps the carver develop their skills. It’s a real win-win situation, you get a pipe to treasure, and the carver gets to make more pipes.
If you’re buying a pre-carved pipe from an artisan pipe maker, you’re still helping them out. By buying one of their pipes, you’re not only helping them out financially, but also letting them know that something they made caught their eye. This helps them in knowing which styles and shapes to focus on in their spare time. That alone is valuable feedback to the carver, and they’ll appreciate your business.
The relationship between pipe carver and customer doesn’t end the moment the pipe arrives in the mailbox, either. Once you have that pipe, you have the chance to support their work beyond the money you sent them. Take pictures of the pipe! Post the pictures on social media and tag the pipe carver. Talk about the pipe on your pipe forums and social media. Show the pipe off and tell people where you ordered the pipe. The pipe carver can only do so much in self-promotion.
When you tell people about your artisan pipe, you’re giving the pipe carver valuable help in getting their brand out to the pipe masses. A happy customer showing off their pipe does more for the pipe maker than countless Instagram photos of their work. There’s no better way of saying thanks to a pipe maker than spreading the word about their skills.
Over the years, I’ve purchased four artisan pipes, three commissioned and one purchased from etsy. All four of them are fantastic pipes, and I couldn’t be happier with them. I heartily recommend that all pipers take a chance on an artisan pipe maker at some point in their hobby.
So, for part 2 of this series, I’ll be talking about my most recent pipe commission. So stay tuned to learn more about the pipe, and more specifically, the pipe maker: Nate Rose of RosePipeCo. Hopefully, by the end of this series, you’ll consider saving up and taking the plunge with a pipe carver.
Until next time,