BriarWorks brings pipe manufacturing back to America
By Larry Wagner
If you were to think about pipe manufacturing, where would you expect the location might be? It’s likely you’d envision a mid-century factory in an industrial section of London, a bustling production facility in the commercial center of Milan, or possibly a modern building with clean lines and Euro style in a leafy Copenhagen neighborhood. The odds are you weren’t envisioning Nashville, Tennessee. And yet, Nashville is the birthplace of homegrown American pipe manufacturer BriarWorks USA.
There had been a thriving U.S. pipe making industry up until the late 20th century when a diminishing supply of quality briar, increasing labor costs and overseas competition forced most American pipe factories to shutter their operations. In the wake of the mass-production companies arose a burgeoning artisan pipe carving community. Pioneers like Jack Weinberger, Paul Perri and Micoli paved the way for such luminaries as J.T. Cooke, Mark Tinsky, Elliot Nachwalter, Ed Burak, Tim West and Mike Butera, among others.
From this group of American artisans came BriarWorks president Pete Prevost and his co-founder Todd Johnson. Prevost’s innate skills were nurtured under Johnson’s watchful eye, and the pair soon established themselves among this country’s premier pipe carvers.
Tobacconist recently caught up with Prevost, and he shared the history and mission of BriarWorks.
How did you get started as a pipe carver?
I was a musician in Bakersfield [California], and in 2005 I moved to Nashville. I ended up joining a band and making a career out of it for quite a few years. When I would go out on tours, there was a lot of downtime during the day, and since I was already a pipe smoker, I decided I was going to make my own pipe. I ordered a pipe kit online, and as soon as I got it, I put it to work. I made my first pipe just with some hand tools, some rasps and files, and I was instantly hooked.
You mentioned you ended up ordering six or seven kits to make more pipes. How did you transition from pipe kits to being a carver?
In Nashville, I met Jody Davis, a well-known maker of handmade pipes. He was also a musician, and that’s how we met. Jody started teaching me pipe making, and then he introduced me to Todd Johnson, another highly regarded pipe maker. For the next two years, I was working in Todd’s shop. I was at the point where I wanted to get off the road [and] spend more time with my family, but I didn’t want to abandon doing something creative. Todd approached me with the idea of starting a pipe factory together. So I left the band, and in 2013 we officially started BriarWorks.
Their idea was to create high-quality, serialized pipe production. The concept was to produce affordable, reproducible shapes with the quality, fit and finish of one-of-a-kind handmade pipes. To this end, they designed and manufactured their own specialized equipment, allowing them to turn out pipes with the look and feel of unique one-off creations. And while the two pipe carvers certainly had the creativity and skills to create such a product, bringing it into the realm of reality proved to be more challenging than they could have realized.
What led you to believe you could set up a factory to produce pipes in the United States?
Todd had the idea of opening a factory, but it wasn’t originally for a U.S. factory. He had quite a following among Chinese pipe smokers, so he came up with the concept of opening a factory in China for the Chinese market. When I first started with Todd, he had already begun to set up a factory there. He and I made a few trips there to train the workers, but unfortunately it all fell apart pretty quickly. We found that unless we were there, we couldn’t get the quality of the pipes to be what we wanted them to be.
With the Chinese factory shutting down, did the plan for making factory pipes start to look like a failed concept?
We were trying to figure out how to make this work, and I encouraged Todd to create a U.S.-made, high-quality factory pipe. I said that no one else is doing what we’re trying to do right now. So we came back and started from scratch with no machinery.
Then how did you expect to be able to produce factory-made pipes?
I’ll give you a brief history of our machinery. We had used some of the off-the-shelf machinery in China. We knew we wanted to use a version of what we had there, combined with other, older-style pipe making factory equipment. So we decided we would design a CNC [computer numeric control] type machine, which would be more accurate, more precise.
Eventually we came up with a concept we liked, and we hired a guy to build it and gave him a deposit. We waited and waited, and finally we went down there—he hadn’t even started on it. So Todd and I—we both had done some welding—we actually welded up the frame and built a lot of the mechanical aspects of the machine.
Then we brought it back to Nashville and hired a company to finish up the electrical wiring. It was a crude machine, and although it got the pipe production going, it was slow, and the pipes weren’t as accurate as they needed to be. So we went back to the drawing board (not even a year later) and started working on a different design and hired a guy to make that for us. And now we’re on our third design, and it’s what we’ve been using for the past three or four years. It’s a CNC design, which we’ve programmed to produce whatever shape we’re running. It drills out the bowl, and it cuts the shape out so that when the bowl comes off the machine, about 10 minutes later, it’s completely drilled and completely shaped.
And how long is the total amount of time till the finished product—the sanding, staining, assembling and everything else—is complete?
We do about 80 to 100 pipes in one shift. This is what I want to stress. I think the technology is great, but what I really want people to understand about BriarWorks is that there is so much hand involvement in making the pipes, and the experience of the carvers is what makes BriarWorks pipes so nice.
You’ve got a machine that will precisely cut and drill the pipes. But from there we’re pretty unique because everybody that finishes pipes at BriarWorks is a handmade carver. The pipes are hand sanded, stained and buffed by artisan pipe makers.
For the record, those artisans are all renowned pipe makers in their own right, who still produce unique handcarved pipes on their own time, as well as performing all aspects of production and finishing for BriarWorks. In addition to Prevost, the team consists of Jesse Perdue, who serves as manufacturing manager and has oversight of product technology; Sam Adebayo, production manager; Micah Redmond, pipe maker and graphic designer; and Bill Shalosky, who brings his extensive pipe making skills to the production and finishing of BriarWorks pipes.
BriarWorks originally produced two distinctive lines, Icarus and Neptune. These were serially produced shapes that had the look of one-of-a-kind handmades. After the Classic line was introduced, enabling the company to reintroduce shapes such as the Author and the Prince, several Icarus and Neptune designs found their way into the newer line of BriarWorks Original, allowing all the products to be branded under the BriarWorks name.
Recently, BriarWorks acquired Moonshine Pipe Co., a small company producing handmade pipes with a strong focus on brand and design, for whom BriarWorks was producing factory pipes as a private label.
One thing that stands out is the quality of the finish work, which showcases the beauty of the grain. It suggests you have a good source for fine briar.
The finishes stand out, and the smooths especially; they just pop and catch people’s eye. And also, we’re picky with our briar sources. We only have two suppliers who are consistent with the selection of the briar and the curing of the wood. One is Italian, who we also use for our handmade pipes, and the other is Greek. The majority of our factory pipes of the past few years have been Grecian briar.
Talk about the mouthpieces for your pipes. It seems you use exclusively acrylic stems.
It was almost out of necessity. In the beginning, we wanted to use Ebonite, like on our handmade pipes. But for the factory pipes, we couldn’t find a supplier that could make them for us in a high quality that weren’t injection molded.
So we started with the acrylic, thinking we could switch to Ebonite, but we started getting comments from retailers that they loved that the stems won’t oxidize; they always look shiny and new, and they’re very comfortable as well. A lot of the customers said they didn’t notice the difference, that they weren’t Ebonite. The stems come from Italy, and when we get them there’s still a lot of steps involved. We trim the tenons to the proper length, [and] we drill out the draft hole with a larger, tapered bit to make them smoke better. Then they’re fit to the shank of the pipe, and they’re sanded together.
Let’s discuss your marketing strategy. It’s not traditional, is it?
In the beginning, we used the traditional distributor model, and they did a great job of getting the name out. But we found that, for the quality level we wanted to produce, we couldn’t afford to sell at a distributor’s price and make any money. We had to change the model to where we, the factory, sold directly to the stores and built those relationships, but also put pipes up on our website to sell directly to the consumer to balance out the wholesale and actually make a profit.
Our retailers never had a problem with this. Also, I think we’re the only factory where the end consumer can contact us directly if they have a question or an issue with a pipe. We can say send it in, and we’ll take care of it for you. We love that we’re able to have that interaction and personal relationship with the customers and the stores. I think that’s what makes us pretty special.
Lastly, what’s on the horizon for BriarWorks?
We just moved the factory from Nashville to Columbia [Tennessee], about 40 minutes south of town, and we’re about to open a retail store inside of the factory. We want to create a pipe collector’s destination where they can come to the factory, enjoy a pipe or a cigar in our lounge, and they can look through the window and see the factory in action. We want people to be in-house and enjoy that pipe in the same building that it was made in.