All of us have been amazed at the hundreds of new wood workers & pipe makers flooding the market in recent years. Large Pipe Retailers have been scooping the best ones up as fast as they come in. The pipe carvers the large retailers grab are the “lucky ones”. Once in a large retailers trophy case, half the job of getting noticed is now over. All the maker has to do now is make consistently good pipes and evolve their work at some expected pace.
What about all the other guys that were not picked up by those large retailers? Have you been to a pipe show lately? There are hundreds of tables full of pipe makers both new & old with only a small fraction of them getting large retail/global representation. Have you been on Instagram lately? Reddit? New Pipe Makers Forum? The number of people picking up blocks of briar and ‘giving it a go’ is the highest it’s ever been.
Since the large retailers generally pass on most of these new, very raw & rough around the edges and possibly even fly by night carvers. This ‘fly by night carver syndrome’ happens more often than you think. New pipe makers often learn the hard way of how difficult it really is to make it in this business and to create a financially stable life from pipe making. So where do these new carvers go to sell their product? Today, there is an answer. A very bright person came up with the idea to represent those pipe makers that the large retailers walk past & they have given these people a platform to sell their wares & the sales numbers show that there is a genuine market for these products. It is known as the “Indie” or Independent Pipe Market and it has made a big splash in a very short time. There’s a whole bunch of different levels of pipe maker in their flock.
Like any market it has a marketing plan & all the associated growing pains of staying in business and being profitable. We will explore all these areas and more.
Let’s dive right in and give the floor to Mr. Jay Corcoran who is the proprietor of one such Indie Pipe Retailer, RokStarpipes.com. Jay calls himself the ‘Head Roadie’ of his shop.
New Market Flourishing
I asked Jay for his thoughts on how this new market began and what type of work gets represented in his shop. Jay said: “There are a lot of people who break into the pipe business as carvers. So what makes them a pipe carver? Basically they’ve made a pipe. They don’t have any training and they essentially sit down and go through the process of sticking two holes in the briar, maybe attach a pre-made stem to it and done. There ya go. We have a hand made pipe.”
That’s how easy it is these days. Just yesterday I was reading about a wood worker asking an internet audience how much he should charge for the 1st pipe he made with a pre-made stem. Oh how the times are changing.
Jay highlighted the ease with which one can enter the market these days. That part is not a big mystery. New products, good or bad, are placed on consumer shelves day in and day out. The bigger question I ask Jay is: “Why are people buying these pipes?” Jay gives a solid answer. He said: “The economy sucks & people don’t have a lot of money. Take that bad economy and put it beside the idea of the appeal of having a hand made pipe that only costs $150 versus a factory pipe for the same price.” Jay’s words will now go into the 3rd person perspective of his customer, Jay continues: “Now go a little deeper and feel my customer say to himself, factory pipe or pipe-maker? With a $150 independent pipe makers pipe I can actually see the maker make me my very own special customized pipe. I like the fact that I can actually reach out to the pipe-maker, call him if I want to, interact with him as much as I want. There is an immense amount of appeal to my customers in the personalization of the pipe making & pipe buying experience. To get all of that for $150, how can you beat it?”
I ask Jay about his marketing tactics and where some of his ideas come from. He tells me: “The old dinosaurs in our hobby give me a lot of ideas. Those guys are not nice. I focus on this dynamic a lot.”
What do you mean I ask him? Jay says: “You would think that pipe smokers in general, especially with the government scrutiny that we all face together, you’d think that they would be more open to “spreading the hobby”. Working together, helping each other, supporting etc..and I have honestly found that the old guard of pipe smokers are even more closed minded than other people. Here at RokStarPipes, we actively speak out against this attitude. I myself can’t stand it.”
I remind Jay that his ballad swings both ways and that a lot of value minded pipe smokers often like to throw dirt on higher end collectors and the money they spend on pipes.
Jay agrees and says that: “Younger pipe smokers and newer collectors are as closed minded towards others as some of these older guys are.”
I think to myself how happy I am to hear those words. Most people have immense difficulty looking at and analyzing themselves in the proper light. Everyone thinks they are correct & they hold the ‘right opinion’. More often than not though they are simply behaving just like the person on the other side that they don’t like and they just simply don’t see it. I know hundreds of value minded pipe collectors buying pipes by the bucket loads, all at less than $200 a piece. Their collections are often more valuable than some high end collectors I know because of the sheer number of value based pipes they buy. I have seen collectors have over 200 pipes at such prices. That’s a $40,000 collection which they seem to think is less money than what high-grade collectors spend. It is therefore very refreshing to hear Jay’s honesty on this subject.
Any budding pipe retail marketers should re-read those paragraphs a few times because it speaks volumes to how customers feel, what they expect & how they are reacting to the economy these days. If the above is true, how can a factory pipe even compete?
What about Quality & Craftsmanship?
The amount of negative uproar among the supposed ‘elites’ in our community about this Indie market is rather intense. Do they have a valid point when they say that the quality of these pipes is undermining the very essence of High Quality Craftsmanship, the mantra that we all supposedly stand upon? Once again, Jay from RokStarPipes gives a great answer: “These new carvers look at the market and see that there is some money to be made. Not a lot of money but still some. So we are seeing a lot of people rushing to make pipes and to put them out onto the market. I definitely think that a lot of these guys should slow down however and put some extra effort and time into making a better product.”
Mike Lancaster, President of TobaccoPipeCollectors.com (TPC), which is considered the largest such “Indie Outlet” agrees. Mike tells me: “It doesn’t do anybody any good to sell a pipe at too high a price when it is not warranted. We have even had to drop prices on a few pipe makers that we felt had some quality issues.”
Chris Morgan, co-owner and Head of Quality Control at TPC echoes the same thoughts and goes even further by saying: “A general lack of pipe making skill is seen in a lot of pipes that come through my hands. I see pipe makers applying ideas that they are not familiar enough with and that they should simply not be tackling. Those are the pipes that we send back to the maker & we tell them to work on this or that area before we let them come on board”
Because I myself am removed from this Indie scene (although learning more about it everyday) I spoke to pipe makers who are more familiar with these wood carvers and asked them the same question. One such carver I spoke to was Giovanni Placentile. A relatively new but very sound, solid & great carver out of Canada. Gio’s comments start by him sharing thoughts from his first few years in pipes. He said: “When I finally started selling my pipes to the public with perfect engineering in place, which took quite a bit of time to learn, even then I did not think it was fair to charge more than $100. I thought that I am not established enough to ask for more money from people.”
Naturally my next question was: “Why are people trying to sell pipes these days at prices that don’t match the engineering requirements?”
Gio gives a sensible response: “Maybe it’s greed, a sense of entitlement, maybe they think if I am asking for more money my pipes will be more desirable. Maybe even consumers think that if they are paying that $400 price point, they believe that this must be good work. I see it all the time. People are buying pipes from makers that are inferior. People follow trends and ignore the relevant and surrounding issues”
Pipe makers like Gio start in this business with the proper mindset in place. Focus on quality first and see what else comes later. Money should not be the first priority when getting into this business. Of course, in a free market economy that is your right but having more sound long-term goals can only help you if you plan to stick around this hobby for some time.
How Important is Engineering for the Indie Consumer?
I ask Jay from RokStarPipes about his customer’s priorities when buying pipes. Once again, Jay gives us the goods. Jay outlines the issue from A to Z and says: “When you talk about a guy who is buying a $150 pipe, I think more than anything their purchase priorities boil down to two things. # 1 – Value or perceived value and then # 2 – Aesthetic appeal. The customer wants something that kind of looks cool. In their mind they are getting a hand made product. It was shaped and cut by someone who put “love & passion” into it. Or that’s how the customer see’s it. They are getting all of that for $150. And that $150 pipe will smoke the same $10 tobacco that the high grade pipe will. Deep down they know its not as nice at that high grade pipe over there but they ask themselves a simple question, is it worth it to pay another $700 to get those extra quality & engineering details?. Most often the answer is no. Thats what it is. A perceived value. Those are the priorities. It smokes my tobacco, it looks good and it was hand made. I will take it! So no, their priorities are not in high quality engineering and my customer is not asking if the pipe will smoke well. My customer doesn’t even have that frame of reference. The Bad A*s pipe that they just got is already a big step up for them, especially if they are a brand new smoker and completely inexperienced in the market.”
We all know that there are details in a pipe’s engineering that change the smoking experience dramatically. For some of the new comers though, and as Jay from RokStarPipes correctly reminds us that: “These guys just don’t understand that a pipe may gurgle a bit or cause their tobacco to smoke faster. They simply don’t have that frame of reference”
To access a perspective that encompasses basket pipes all the way up to ultra high grade pipes, I had a brief conversation with Premal Chedea, owner of SmokersHaven.com about this issue. Premal said: “I see so many new guys out there who are only making pipes because they have the general ability to work well with wood. With a smoking pipe however, in order to have the pipe perform well, you must have sound engineering behind it and today, each pipe maker that I work with, that is the main focus of our work. Engineering is absolutely priority number one. Without good engineering, the pipe will simply not smoke well. I see it every single day in my shop. Consumers start out by buying a pipe under $150 and after a few months, once they get into the $300 range, only then do they begin to notice the dramatic difference in quality and smokability of a well engineered pipe. There are so many information outlets for these new guys to use to make better crafted pipes. From the pipe smokers forum to mature pipe makers in general. There is so much information out there and I think that these guys have the responsibility to seek it out and use it.”
I could not agree more with Premal. Yes, there is the mind set that I heard from several Indie retailers that the customers is getting what they are paying for. While that may be true, it could also be seen as an excuse for selling product just to make money.
Engineering issues beyond the Indie Market & Consumer Education
8 years ago I purchased a pipe from a large retailer that had a substantial flaw in the inside of the bowl. That pipe was returned. In the past 8 months I purchased an $800 pipe from another large retailer and the shank & stem on this pipe did not line up perfectly. It was off by a few millimeters but nonetheless, at that price, I expect not just a beautiful pipe but one with near perfect engineering. I did not return this pipe but it is clear that quality control issues are not just an issue in the realm of the Indie Pipe Market. I even spoke to a major retailer who admitted to me that they used to sell pipes that did not meet “High Quality Engineering Standards”.
This is the crux of capitalism and the business machine. All retailers need to sell product in order to survive. These retailers also need to sell new product in order to grow their business. Do these retailers overlook engineering issues just to make some more money? You bet they do.
I was told by a friend about a recent High Grade Estate Pipe that was on sale at a major retailer’s website for around $400. In the description, the retailer accurately disclosed that ‘major spider webbing was beginning to occur inside the bowl’. Okay, the retailer disclosed that fact but how many people actually know what spider webbing means? It is when the wood in the interior of the bowl is beginning to crack in many places, forming a spider web effect. Such ‘spider webbing’ is the start of a potential burnout. A hole through the pipe’s bowl. Yet still somehow that pipe is on sale for $400. The only way to combat such instances is to educate one self better on what to look for in a quality made pipe.
Yes we should rely on these retailers quality control and trust it to some degree. At the end of the day though, I think the bulk of the trust we should have is in you and me, the pipe collector and the pipe buyer. How do we obtain that trust? How do we know that we are getting a sound product? It is actually very simple. By educating ourselves on the details of pipe engineering. The more we know, the better product we demand and in turn the better the pipe of the future will be produced.
From the new pipe makers perspective as well, is it really that much harder for any new pipe maker to take the extra time needed to make sound engineering connections inside a pipe? If you’re a pipe maker and you answered ‘no it is not that hard’, welcome to the club and looking forward to your growth. If you answered ‘yes it is hard and too difficult & annoying to learn how to properly engineer a pipe’, to you I say goodbye and you will likely not last too long.
Trust yourself through Education
Here is a little cheat sheet on pipe engineering brought to us by Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes. Jeff makes high quality smoking machines and he is showing us the most basic, most fundamental elements of pipe engineering that you should familiarize yourself with. Pipes that are missing or not meeting these basic requirements will not give the pipe smoker an optimal smoking experience.
There are far too many variables to cover when trying to analyze why a pipe does not perform well, most of them in fact come from the smoker themselves. Maybe the smoker is puffing too hard and his tobacco appears to smoke very fast. Perhaps the smoker has a lot of saliva in his mouth causing the pipe to gurgle. Pipe smokers will often blame the pipe when in fact they are themselves to blame.
We have to ignore those items and focus for the moment on the basic engineering details of the pipe. Once we have these nailed down you can focus in on how you smoke a pipe. Without these engineering fundamentals though, it will be difficult for you to learn about why your pipe is not performing well. Arm yourself with the information and help the whole industry pick itself up in the quality arena more.
Because of the high number of new wood workers and pipe makers entering the market, it appears that this new ‘Indie’ outlet is here to stay. A warm welcome from TobaccoDays to all the new pipe smokers we have because of this Indie market.
To those people who are against this new market, you can either mimic the thousands of historical examples we have in this world where intolerance is shoved upon a certain community & you can bang your head uselessly against your wall, yelling loudly & being upset at them for not meeting perceived standards.
Or you could choose to learn more about this community & then perhaps even try to help the community by educating them on certain aspects that need attention. All of this is done with the ultimate goal to help our community rise up and be the best it can be. Believe me, these guys are now a part of our community and they are new brothers of the briar. Anyone in the hobby who has the ability to help & assist them in any way you can, support these people and help the entire hobby improve.
Multiple images courtesy of RokStarPipes.com and TobaccoPipeCollectors.com
Premal photo courtesy of San Diego Pipe Club.
Pipe Flaw images courtesy of Pipes.org
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