Hey Guys (and Gals)
Below is the Briarworks pipe-story in a nutshell for anyone who's interested.
First, to answer Oklahoma Red's question, yes, we started a factory in China to produce pipes specifically for the Chinese market. After about a year and a half of traveling to and from China, I realized that the pipes were only getting produced to my standards when I was physically at the factory. Then I was faced with the decision either to move to China for a couple years or accept the level of quality that our workers were capable of in my absence.
So I met with a realtor there, put down a deposit on a nice Villa in the Happy Golden Rainbow Unicorn-Dragon Paradise Palace neighborhood, got my Chinese work-Visa, and readied my wife and three young children for an adventure of indeterminate length. A month before we were set to leave, I woke up one morning and just pulled the plug. I decided that, if I was going to realize a 15+ year dream of creating the finest production pipes the world had ever seen, I was going to have to do it from here. On that note, is anybody in the market for five open-ended first class tickets to Shanghai?
So Pete and I got to work designing the equipment we would need to produce shapes never before possible in a "factory" pipe. We contracted with a company to build these machines and, after six months of being extremely dissatisfied, Pete and I donned our welding hoods and went to work building them ourselves. Fortunately, I spent nearly a decade building high end street rods and motorcycles, and Pete was a professional welder for about eight years. The first machines were "stick built" from sketches on napkins and copy-paper. It took us two and a half months of 60 hr weeks to do it, but we created something entirely new, cut from whole cloth. We laid every bead, tightened every bolt, and ran every wire. People may say the pipes are "machine made" (which isn't really accurate), but if that's true, I can tell you that the machines making them was definitely hand made.
After we finished building the machines, there were a couple months of testing and prototyping before we were able to generate any real production. Since then, we've built four additional machines, upgrading each of the previous models as we've tweaked and improved the design. We now have additional machinery in the works and are currently able to produce about 2000 pcs/month. We've hired and trained a team of personnel to finish the pipes to handmade standards, and I can honestly say I'm proud of every single pipe that goes out the door. We've recently brought on three very skilled pipe makers (which I'm sure will become "public" knowledge soon enough), and are hoping to add more.
One of the things I can tell you is that every single person we have working for us--many of whom had never touched a pipe before--can now finish a pipe better (and faster) than just about anyone else on this forum. Plus they've got healthcare and paid vacations. I don't mean that as a sharp stick in the eye. I'm simply saying that our guys (and gals) have an opportunity to finish a year's worth of handmade production every week and they're doing it using a process that I've taught them. There's no better training ground than this if you're actually serious about being a pipe maker.
We've had a 19-year old intern here for the past 7 weeks, and when he arrived he knew nothing. He was simply interested in the craft of making pipes and came to us as part of a work/study program at his University in Vermont. Yesterday, I watched him shape, drill, sand, contrast stain, polish, bowl coat, and stamp a pipe that's better than 90% of the so called "Indie Artisan" stuff I see on Instagram. Plus, he did it in a matter of hours, not days. My point is that we are doing real pipe making here, and we are training real pipe makers. I was making pipes before the Internet was even a useful source of information, so I know what it's like to fumble around in the dark trying to figure out what on earth you're doing and how you're gonna manage to do it. Briarworks offers an actual path for learning what goes into a high quality pipe and then provides the repetition to hone key skills in the process. Like Scott said, it really is like a paid apprenticeship in the best equipped, most capable pipe making shop on planet Earth. If you can't come out of here as a capable pipe maker, it's simply not going to happen . . . ever.
On another forum I read a comment from one of the BeardBro pipe makers (my term not his) replying to a potential Icarus customer. He basically said "It's a nice looking pipe, but there are a hundred more exactly like it." He's wrong about that; there are actually a thousand more exactly like it, and that's something I'm proud of. The whole point is excellence in design, engineering, fit-and-finish, and absolute consistency. You should know exactly what you're getting every time, and that is a beautiful, perfectly engineered smoking machine at an unbeatable price. That's what we do here.
His point, as I took it, was that his Indie Artisan pipes were all "unique" and full of "character," whereas the Icarus pipe was serially produced. Problem is, "unique" often means you lack the skill to make two pipes exactly the same by hand, and more often than not, "character" is code for the lumpy shaping and scratches that Micah mentioned.
We have a customer who owns 22 Neptune Dublins, all of which are technically the "same" shape, but every single one of them is different! He knows how comfortable the bit is going to be, he knows what to expect from the fit-and-finish, and above all he knows every single pipe will smoke as well as anything else in the world, my own pipes included. We don't just have automatons doing the same thing over and over. Every member of our team makes decisions about how to finish a given pipe, whether or not to use an adornment, what type, what color, what style mouthpiece, etc. The idea is to offer the consumer a nearly infinite variety of styles using the shape merely as a jumping-off point.
So just to clear the air here, let me say this. If your goal is to make excellent pipes that demonstrate respect for the craft and for the customer parting with his/her hard-earned money, you are absolutely not in Briarworks' crosshairs. In fact, I've personally spent the past 15 years trying to help anyone who is genuinely striving for excellence as a pipe maker, a fact I hope many here can attest to. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I've also created some monsters in the process, and as a result, the market seems to be littered with hastily wrought $400 pipe-turds of late. If you are a purveyor of such pipe-turds, make no mistake, I strive with every fibre of my being to drive you out of the market and back to the hole whence you came, so that consumers and real pipe makers alike no longer have to suffer the indignity of your existence.
That's all for now.
@lordofthepipering: I'd be very interested in your experience with the Icarus.I just ordered my first Icarus on Friday. It should be here March the 2nd. *insert freaking out like a crack fiend*
I did get to see the Neptune and Icarus pipes that Briar Works Intl. produces at the West Coast Show back in November. Very well made pipes. Wonderful grain on them. They're drilled dead on. The stem work on them is incredible. If I recall correctly the staining that's used on them is the staining that Todd Johnson (the guy who started Briar Works Intl.) uses on his $3,000 pipes. After having seen them in person and handled them I can say with confidence you won't be disappointed.