Briarworks Pipe-Story in a Nutshell
Below is the Briar Works pipe-story in a nutshell for anyone who's interested.
By Todd Johnson, who posted it to a thread on the Pipemakers Forum, and used here slightly edited, by permission of the author
First, to answer [a] 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....
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 [were] 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.
We recently had a 19-year old intern here for 7 weeks, and when he arrived he knew nothing about pipe making. 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. After a couple of weeks I watched him shape, drill, sand, contrast stain, polish, bowl coat, and stamp a pipe in a matter of hours. 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 [a previous poster] said, it really is like a paid apprenticeship in the best equipped, most capable pipe making shop on planet Earth.
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 [completely handmade] 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.