Artisan pipes, for example the freehand Asymmetric Egg by Greek maker Michail Kyriazanos pictured above, are entirely handmade by one individual. They buy high quality briar and stem materials, usually selecting the best raw materials available to ensure the highest quality final product. Since artisan pipes are, by definition entirely handmade, they are usually 'one offs', with no two pipes being exactly the same. Artisans will often follow the briar, meaning that they select the final shape and finish of the pipe according to the grain and features revealed by the wood as they work.
Most artisan makers offer the opportunity for buyers to commission pipes whereby you can have a pipe personally made for you, according to your preferences regarding shape and finish.
Not surprisingly, given the relatively low production volumes, attention to detail, quality of materials used and the individual skill of the maker, artisan pipes will tend to have a higher cost than factory made examples. This is not to say that an artisan pipe will always deliver a better smoke. Some of the most famous and sought after pipes are factory made; for example Dunhill (England) and Castello (Italy) and they also demonstrate an attention to quality of materials and finishing that guarantee an excellent smoke.
Just as the quality and finish of factory made pipes will vary according to the different manufacturers and the pipe's price point, the same is true of artisan pipes to some extent. The art of hand making a pipe is a long and never ending journey, and the pipe maker will learn, improve, and refine their skills over many years. For this reason pipes from a world renowned 'master' will command very high prices as they will be sought after by many collectors. Indeed many such makers will have long waiting lists to attain one of their pieces. Younger (in terms of experience), less well-known makers will naturally have less of a following and their pricing will therefore be more modest and attainable.
Something that many collectors actively enjoy is seeking out pieces by new and upcoming artisan makers, knowing that one day their pipes may command much higher prices as their production gains recognition and desirability.
Given their nature as one man (or one woman) operations, not all artisan makers will have their own websites, instead relying on a limited number of quality online stores to sell their pipes. Some, including our US based member Mike Couch, use Etsy as a sales platform. Most artisans grow through word of mouth, trade shows and pipe fairs, and the good ones soon pick up a loyal following. Seeking out new and interesting makers is itself an interesting sideline within our pastime, and pipe smoking enthusiasts are always keen to talk about the latest makers of interest and share new discoveries.
Factory pipes make up the vast majority of tobacco pipes on the market. At the height of pipe smoking popularity, the major factories will have each produced tens of thousands of pipes per year. Today, production rates are generally more modest, but these makers retain their tried and tested manufacturing methods to ensure consistent quality in their final products.
The key difference in artisan versus factory made pipes is in the workshop. An artisan will work alone, taking the pipe by their own hands through each stage of manufacture; from selecting the block of briar (or other material), to shaping and finishing it and also hand making the stem. In a factory process the pipe will pass through the hands of various workers, with each specialising on an individual step. In terms of the tools used there is less difference than you might imagine. Whilst the term 'factory' perhaps suggests the use of automated systems where the maker inserts some wood and a machine pops out a finished pipe, this is far from the reality. Most stages of production in a pipe factory are still done by hand. Perhaps one key difference is that factories will almost always produce pipes according to specific predefined catalogued shapes and series, where the intention is to produce a relatively large number of pipes to the exact same finish and standard. For example, if you order a rusticated Savinelli 320 Dolomiti (pictured above), you will know exactly what to expect - they will all look virtually identical in size, shape and finish. Some of the well established factory pipe makers also offer special artisan lines, where a very small number of highly experienced makers within their company will produce a limited number of entirely handmade pipes per year. An example of this is the Savinelli Artisan series. Some other companies further blur the lines between factory and artisan by employing several artisans, each taking a pipe through all of its production steps.
Of course, as with any form of production, you can expect to see a wide range of qualities and finish according to the professionalism and market positioning of the brand. Well known factory pipe makers, for example Dunhill and Castello who are at the top of the factory pipe table in terms of quality and price, but also the mainly 'mid-tier' brands like Peterson and Savinelli, will always deliver a high quality product. Indeed mid-tier pipes will make up the bulk of most collections, as the buyer knows that they will get an excellent pipe for their money. Good quality factory produced pipes are an excellent choice for any pipe smoker, whether new to the pastime or seasoned smokers. The buying power of large manufacturers means that they usually have access to high quality raw materials, and their volumes of production give them strong economies of scale that transfer through to competitively priced final products.
Very cheap, mass produced pipes (for example <$20 pipes from China) are almost without exception a different story. If the focus is on making a pipe at the lowest possible price point it should not be surprising if the quality, smoking pleasure and lifespan of the product are also below par.