BriarWorks and Todd Johnson Pipes

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saltedplug

Preferred Member
Aug 20, 2013
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smokingpipes has a lovely BriarWorks Calabash for sale for $550.00 whose shape is very much like those sold under Todd Johnson's name that sell exponentially higher. What features do Johnson's pipes have that the BriarWorks don't have? I think to some extent it's simply the imprint of his name, knowing that while some will pay for hot air most won't.

 

cosmicfolklore

Preferred Member
Aug 9, 2013
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Is Todd still associated with BriarWorks?

If so, or even if not, the difference would be that one was made by Todd, and the other BriarWorks. I have heard that he isn't associated with BW anymore, but I could have heard wrong.

 

laniromee

Junior Member
Jul 31, 2018
72
34
Besides the obvious weight of Todd's name on his pipes: Basically, Todd makes his briar calabashes from scratch. He has a post in a old blog where he details the process: http://todd-m-johnson.blogspot.com/2009/04/evolution-of-calabash-or-why-high-grade.html
Briarworks calabashes were designed by Todd but the stummels are machine made and hand finished by the pipemakers working under the marquee (Adebayo, Micah Redmond, Shalosky, Pete Prevost... All of them sell their own fully handmade pipes for upwards of $600). Also, the stem is made of acrylic and are precut and later modified, instead of cut from rod and made of bakelite or ebonite, which are regarded as more high end. If I'm not mistaken, Briarworks get their briar from Mimmo too, but I'm not sure if they use plateaux blocks or ebauchon for the signature line.
I don't think I've ever read anything about Todd leaving Briarworks altogether, but he surely handed over the administration and the day-to-day business to Pete Prevost and the other guys. He most likely still owns a lot of shares or quotas of the company.

 

saltedplug

Preferred Member
Aug 20, 2013
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So let's say the preformed bits save $500.00 of cost, but what other objective qualities do these expensive pipes have?
When I bought pipes I did so based on shape, finish and weight, but it' was all the same to me whether the artisan or a machine produced these qualities. What I was asking supposes that Mr. Johnson's pipes justify the sticker shock given the craftsmanship that only an artisan could add.
The half-dozen Danish elites, Mr. Johnson and some others make bank on their pipes because the oddities of their market valuation, but surely there must be nuances of craftsmanship that the artisan pipes have that machine-made don't that justify their elitist prices.
This issue reminds me of all the hot air about "engineering." I'll admit ignorance as I'm not a pipemaker, but at least 70% of this airy term is accomplished by drilling a straight line that enters the chamber correctly, and on the other side connects to a stem with an open bit. I'm sure I'm wrong but it strikes me that engineering is mostly correct drilling.
So we ooh and ahh about Former and Johnson, etc., but just what is it in the stummel, airway and bit that justify our various accolades. There must be objective qualities that can be enumerated. Right?

 

cosmicfolklore

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Aug 9, 2013
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surely there must be nuances of craftsmanship that the artisan pipes have that machine-made don't that justify their elitist prices.
Absolutely not.

The name is what makes the price. It's like when people ask me about why a certain artist's work is so expensive. the answer is the name, and all of the artwork that has come before the piece is what makes that piece worth it.
I had a thread a few years ago when Pablo Becker died, I had found out that my Beckers were made by his son, because Becker had stopped making pipes a few years before. The pipe was still expensive because of his dad's name, without his dad ever having touched the damned thing. the name adds the magical pixie dust that makes it expensive.
In the art world, this is all known and is what is collected. The top end collectors know this too. But, for the layman at the bottom of the totem pole, they will never understand. So, if it is too much in your opinion, don't buy it. You will never understand enough to be comfortable paying their prices.

 

laniromee

Junior Member
Jul 31, 2018
72
34
If it's all the same to you then that's about it, really. Value is subjective and the matter of price has been revisited time and time again about every product in the history of mankind. You have asked what features Todd Johnson pipes had that BW lacked and I just pointed some of them out. Whether you think those qualities are worth the difference in the price tag or not is kind of irrelevant.
There certainly are objective differences between factory and handmade, if we are to disregard the method in production: stems cut by hand are thinner (therefore, more comfortable), the fit is much better, drilling better aligned, the design can be less restricted, more attention to the nature and quality of the grain, more time spent sandblasting to flesh out those rings... Again, are they worth the difference in the price tag? That's another question.
I own a lot of Briarworks pipes. They look pretty good and smoke pretty well. They are money well spent. I wouldn't purchase a Todd Johnson pipe because to me, the above qualities are not worth their price point. But I won't ever say BW pipes and Todd Johnson pipes are the same because they're really really not.
The way I see it the price of a pipe is calculated over objective and subjective traits. The ones that really make up the bulk of it are usually the subjective traits - your so despised "hot air". That's the market. Just don't buy one, I surely won't.

 

sasquatch

Preferred Member
Jul 16, 2012
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I don't agree, Cosmic.
If you took a Todd Johnson hand-made Calabash and compared it to a briarworks one, you'd find noticeable, obvious differences in crafting - the slot and button work, for example, the overall fit and finish.
There is cache in name - branding is big business and TJ has always worked hard to brand himself. BUT.... his pipes are also exemplary, the two things have to go hand in hand.
To the OP.... the calabash in question is a multi-part pipe, including a magnetically seated insert bowl. Quite a bit more work to make than a regular pipe. Therefore more expensive.
To make a one-off version takes more time, more skill, most likely more expensive materials, and add whatever "name tax" you want for whatever maker it is.
But the idea that a pipe by S.Bang is somehow no different, that there would be not detectable differences between that and a Stanwell... for example.... it's nonsense. Go to a pipe show, see the pipes, learn what makes a pipe adequate, good, or great, from an aesthetic and technical point of view.

 

cosmicfolklore

Preferred Member
Aug 9, 2013
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If you took a Todd Johnson hand-made Calabash and compared it to a briarworks one, you'd find noticeable, obvious differences in crafting - the slot and button work, for example, the overall fit and finish.
We had Todd on here telling us how the buttons are all handcrafted on all of the BriarWorks pipes, and being just like his particular points of elegance was the selling points. This was what Todd used to sell that whole BriarWorks projects.
But, I understand what you are saying. There will be minute differences, especially when you get to other pipemakers and their side companies. Or, artists, and their prints or jewelers and their handmade, verses their casted works.
But, all in all, do those minute differences make up thousands of dollars in differences... absolutely not. I can get (sometimes) better handmade pipes by other artisans for the price of a factory Briarworks.
The name is what makes up the bulk of differences.

 

cosmicfolklore

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Aug 9, 2013
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But the idea that a pipe by S.Bang is somehow no different, that there would be not detectable differences between that and a Stanwell... for example.... it's nonsense.
Yes yes, but take a Stanwell and an SBang side by side... sure there are differences. I have had a few SBangs come cross my bench, especially thanks to our very own Cajun Brad. Yes, there are differences, but you cannot tell me that the differences in prices is merely a little fiddle work here and there. Not enough of a difference to account for the thousand dollar disparity between the two. And, especially with SBangs, can be a couple of thousand dollars. The name carries a lot of the credibility for the pipe.
But, specifically for Todd and BriarWorks, he did sell the hell out of BriarWorks, saying that the button work was "as good" as his pipes with his name on them.

 

fishnbanjo

Preferred Member
Feb 27, 2013
3,032
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My take is a pipe made by say any of the Ivarsson family and one by Stanwell using their shape, the Ivarsson pipe will be priced accordingly to their name branding as will the Stanwell since the shape may be the same but the Stanwell will never be an Ivarsson pipe.

banjo

 

sasquatch

Preferred Member
Jul 16, 2012
1,008
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A Stanwell with a few flaws is sandblasted (or filled) and sent out the door. An S.Bang with a few flaws is thrown in the garbage and started again.
You wouldn't beleive the number of blocks I cut and discard. And I don't make especially high-grade pipes - my judgment is "would I want this?" and if the answer is "no" it goes in the trash.
Making REALLY nice pipes costs a lot of time and money, you have to pay for that (or not have it). It simply isn't available any other way.
Not surprisingly, people (and there are many, I'll relate a story shortly) who are capable of making a pipe as nice as say, a Todd Johnson Ballerina... they get paid very well for their own pipes too! Because it takes a serious degree of skill to do these things at this level. Would a TJ stamped pipe identical to... say a Herbaugh... go for more? Yes, he has stronger branding. Is it "all in the name"? Hellz no.
I was chatting with TJ once about "the danish formula" and he mentioned that he saw three similarly shaped pipes on a table from different makers, and from a distance basically he thought they all looked as good as his - the bar is now high. And these three other makers, yeah, they don't commmand quite the dollar he does,but they haven't been in the game as long as he has either, haven't branded themselves quite as strongly. But the point here isn't that all these pipes are a rip-off - no, the opposite is the case - all these pipes were technically and aesthetically top-notch, and not every joe with a lathe can bang one out in 2 hours.
There ARE stratospherically priced pipes - when you see a Nordh go for 20,000 on ebay... no, that's not "objective" I guess. But if you pay JT Cooke 800 bucks to make a pipe that takes him 2 days.... geez that's not unreasonably at all! Why can't pipemakers earn a living wage?

 

chilllucky

Senior Member
Jul 15, 2018
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Chicago, IL, USA
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You know that we stick these things in the most bacteria laden orifice on a human being and set fires in them, right?
As long as the holes line up, all other considerations are subjective and cerebral. You get to decide for yourself where value lays.

 

zack24

Preferred Member
May 11, 2013
1,726
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I agree with Sasquatch on this one. To add a bit more to that, when you see a pipe with incredible grain like some of top graded pipes from Todd and some of the best makers, it's not an accident. One of my briar suppliers in Italy has blocks going for up to $100 each...and then you add in a bit of Mastodon ivory, silver and some antique bakelite, and you have $125 in just materials and a lot of fussy finishing. That's on the extreme side. The reality is that if his pipes weren't viewed as being worth the money by collectors, he wouldn't be selling them...and he does sell them...
It's a really bad example, but Thomas Kinkade was known for production prints that were hand retouched. He also had the originals that he painted that sold for a much higher price. (and the amusing part of this comparison is that when I was in California a few years ago at a pipe shop in Carmel, I saw one of Todd's early pipes...that was owned by Thomas Kinkade)

 

cosmicfolklore

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Aug 9, 2013
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The reality is that if his pipes weren't viewed as being worth the money by collectors, he wouldn't be selling them.
Just for reiteration, I did not say that his pipes were not worth the money. But, his name does carry some weight, as it indicates his years of experience and quality. But, it also explains why you Zack (and many other pipemakers) do not get the same prices for your work that he does.
We've discussed ad nauseum the prices of pipes and why some prices are more than others. There is a point in all pricing where the level surpasses the quality of the actual item. In factory pipes, Dunhill (or the old Dunhills) surpassed the pricing of other factory pipes, just as (and for the same reasons) some artists get more for their work. Branding, the name, and the reputation that follows the name.
I would stand by Todd's work surpassing BriarWorks pipes in quality, if they had not been sold by Todd himself as getting Todd's quality at factory prices. However, I will agree (without looking at proof) (for the sake of argument) that there may be other aspects of the Todd Johnson Pipes that surpasses BW pipes. But, thousands of dollars?
Now, I don't make the argument to disparage artisan work, not at all. And, I do think the name is worth it. But, if Joe Schmidt from Timbuktu, Georgia had of made my Becker pipes with the same quality that Becker pipes all have, we can all admit that they wouldn't be worth the thousand+ dollars that Becker gets for his work. Why? Because the buyers expect something magical in return for Becker having made the pipes. Correct?
If you, Zack, had made a pipe with exact quality to a Todd Johnson pipe, would you be able to get the same money for it as him?

 

sasquatch

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Jul 16, 2012
1,008
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The exact same dollar? No. The name, the branding, does have an effect. But if Zack made a pipe exactly as good as a Johnson ballerina, it would fetch big money. So it might be 1100 instead of 1500. But not 200 instead of 1500, and not 1100 instead of 11,000.
I had to laugh a bit at a post on facebook the other day, I'll quote it actually: The question asked by the OP was "could a skilled pipe maker make a high dollar pipe from a pre-drilled kit?" Naturally "high dollar" is a bit vague so the answers ranged from "yes" to "no" (myself being on the yes side). But one fellow replied during the argument that " If you could buy $30 kits and sell them for $600 then you would be doing it all day long." My response was that I do something even dumber- I simply buy undrilled blocks and rod and make pipes out of THAT stuff all day. And again, if absolutely anyone could do it... everyone would. But that's not the case. The people skilled enough to do it get paid for that by the people who think it's worth paying for.
And yeah, Cosmic,I get that you're not saying that pipes are all worth the same or anything like that. We're parsing it pretty finely here.

 

aldecaker

Preferred Member
Feb 13, 2015
4,409
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Thomas Kinkade gets a bad rap. Every time I see a TK painting, it makes me feel good, and if evoking emotion isn't what art is about, then I'm sadly mistaken. Meanwhile, Jackson Pollock's "Number 19, 1948" looks like a hobo puked on a house painter's drop cloth, and sold for $58.4 million. Probably because the first schmuck who bought a Pollock piece paid way too much for it, and then doubled down on the avant-garde bullshit spiel instead of admitting he got taken for a ride by a drunken, no-talent hack.

 

cosmicfolklore

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Aug 9, 2013
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So, lets supose for fancy that I make a pipe that rivals every attention to detail that Todd Johnson gives his top end. I just happen to wake up gifted in the ways of briar and woodworking tools... and by miracle I rpoduce a pipe that under scrutiny of the masters of pipe criticism agree (and agree quietly) it a perfect pipe by Todd Johnson or SBang or Eltang. And lets say I put a modest price of 75% of what Todd would get. You see where I am going?

My mistake may be in using Zack as my example. I have one of his pipes, and he is good, very good. And, maybe he has a name in the right circles. So, maybe if I, Joe Schmidt from Cesspool Lane, Geoegia, wants a mere $1000 for my pipe. I just get an etsy and get rich, right?
No, no, there is a reason we say “make a name for yourself.” My name carries nothing. The pipe would be good to get $200, if even that.

 

zack24

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May 11, 2013
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And, maybe he has a name in the right circles.
Yep...my wife thinks I'm fabulous...:)
What I really wish is that I had the time to spend time with some of European masters- (which Todd did on several occasions). The early pipe I saw that was owned by Kinkade was very different than what he makes today- many small differences and a few surprises like a brass tenon....
...sigh...too damn busy working on the day job at the moment...

 

sasquatch

Preferred Member
Jul 16, 2012
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But I guess my point is, that literally could not ever occur, so it's moot. By the time you have that skillset, you have a name. There is no other way.
Take any random example. I'll use Micah Cryder. Started making pipes...I dunno, let's say 6 years ago. Dude shows up on the pipe making forum, asks for advice. Gets it. Brings the SAME pipe back,re-worked. Gets more advice. Brings the SAME pipe back,it's probably done now. He does this a few times, works very very slow. And he's getting really really good because he's developing this meticulous skillset. Meanwhile I am making billiards, getting 1.4% better at them.
Skip ahead a few years, Cryder makes crazy good pipes - all kinds of attention to shape, form, function. No one's heard of him, he has no sales venues, no big following, because he's only made a few very good pipes. But he gets hooked up with someone like smokingpipes and boom,the pipes sell,and they sell for pretty good money, because they are very, very good pipes.
If you woke up with a Todd Johnson skillset, you'd be hailed as a wunderkind, a sort of saviour of modern pipemaking, and your mythos would be both immediate and irrevocable. It would be easy to make a mark, as it were. But this is all moot, as I said before, because it absolutely can't happen.
Let's play it the other way - for fun, let's have TJ make a pipe and take it to completion. He mails it to me and I stamp it. Does it sell for the same price as a Todd Johnson on the open market? No. Is it a 200 dollar pipe? Hell no, I'd ask and get... whatever, 1000 bucks or something, because people would look at it and say "Wow, that's a hell of a step for Mr Billiard, I think I'll buy that pipe." Every single pipe I've offered as an experiment, every single pipe I've offered as a cliche, every single pipe I've ever said "Hey,this is a great piece, I want about double what I usually charge..." they've all been snapped up. Because they were... pretty good, mostly.
And conversely, if I make a bit of a dud, it will sell slowly, or only for a reduced price. The best pipes sell themselves, the worst are what's left over on every website. Because there's an educated pool of buyers who recognize real skill when they see it, regardless (+- some premium for name, yeah) of the stamp.
We don't outright disagree, Cosmic,but I think you are presenting this as being, like, the name on the pipe is worth... 3/4 of the value or something, and I don't think it's that much. Even crazily over-priced pipes like Dunhills ... are still some of the nicest pipes on the market. Your run-of-the-mill Ashton is not as well cut as your run of the mill Dunhill. That's just a fact. And it's reflected in the price points.