Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Smoker, Collector or Sucker?

Recent debates I have been witness to have included the topic of the value of a machine-made pipe versus that of a handmade one. The majority seems favorable to the high-grade handmade pipes yet always lacking is the quantification of the qualities submitted for comparison. I would not think this would be an easy task given the many variables that one would encounter in such questions as: "Do you prefer performance over appearance?” A question like this is frequently dependent on the person being asked. A smoker may lean towards performance whereas a collector might be concerned strictly with appearance.

How many times has one seen pipes for sale by a brand new pipemaker with asking prices in excess of $500? Usually this type of "pipemaker" is one with no track record, has been smoking a pipe for a year or two, purchased a book from PIMO and made a few pipes in his basement. The most common explanation for the price is that the pipe was made "by hand" and the "time and labor" costs. Looking at the pipes, they are usually basic shapes made from wood with visible flaws, basic stems and poor balance. Neither a seasoned smoker nor a collector would purchase such a monstrosity so who ends up buying? The sucker sees the word "Handmade" and immediately hits the "Add to Cart" button. Some may ask what the harm is in such a transaction but the pipe market is similar to the real estate market in that when one house sells for double the market value then all of the nearby houses double in price creating a much higher market. In the case of this "weekend warrior" pipemaker, his little flawed basic billiards are now $500 each and climbing. When a few more suckers see that other pieces have sold, they'll be tapping those "Add to Cart" buttons in staccato! Before long, those $500 billiards become $1,000 "Artisan-crafted" pipes. Mistakes made on the shaping wheel are no longer rejects; they become "New artistic designs".

Just because a pipe is made "by hand" does not always mean it is better than a "machine-made" pipe. Stanwell uses fraising machines to make their basic shapes then experienced craftsmen do the finishing work and quality control. These pipes smoke consistently well, have a good appearance and cost considerably less than most "handmade" pieces. Smokers like Stanwells for their performance and collectors like them for their "special edition" pipes. Suckers don't usually like Stanwells because they're considered "machine made".

Looking inversely, Dr. Grabow pipes are "machine made" pipes with lesser-quality hardware and extremely low prices. The stems are plastic, the briar quality is not usually clear and the performance is a debate all of its own. There is nothing unique about a Grabow as all the finishes are uniform in every line. Most seasoned smokers do not prefer Grabows, collectors rarely purchase them and suckers don't see "handmade" so they stay away. Moretti, Larry Roush and Paolo Becker Pipes are all handmade with top-quality materials. They are made by people with many years of training and experience. They cost well in excess of $100 but the performance of these pipes is almost always flawless and each piece is stunningly beautiful and unique. Smokers love them for their incredible smoking qualities, collectors love them for their museum-quality appearance and suckers just don't understand. So some handmade pipes are well worth the prices while some machine made pipes are not.

So what really is best? I do not think there is one true answer to this question given all the variables. For the smoker, it needs to perform well. For the collector, it needs to look perfect. For the sucker, it just needs to have a high price tag and the word "Handmade".