Tuesday
May032011

Jan Pietenpauw no longer making pipes.

As I browsed Brothers of Briar this morning, I stumbled across a thread that apprised me that South African pipemaker Jan Pietenpauw is no longer making pipes. Wanting some confirmation of that, I navigated to Pietenpauw’s web site. Jean’s web site confirms the story.

Pietenpauw’s decision to fold his tent appears to be precipitated by a pipe-of-the-year commission by the U.K. pipe forum, Tamp and Puff, that went awry. I can’t help but wonder if Pietenpauw’s atypically low prices could not provide a margin contribution sufficient to his resource needs.

I like the high quality - low price combo as much as any pipe enthusiast, but I have wondered more than once how in the world Pietenpauw could afford to make such marvelous pipes for the prices he charged. I wonder whether those of us buyers who understand the economics of pipe-making should have encouraged Jean to think hard about whether he should increase his prices.

I gather from reading Tamp and Puff threads that Pietenpauw found itself unable to fulfill orders by forum members because the blocks purchased and dedicated to the project were flawed at unexpected levels. In order to be able to afford to replenish the project’s briar supply, Pietenpauw temporarily set the project aside to make more expensive commissions so that it could afford to buy more briar for the Tamp and Puff commission. (It should be noted that ALL paid orders were filled.)

Understandably, those Tamp and Puff members who ordered pipes felt some frustration at the delay of their orders, and also at Pietenpauw’s spotty responsiveness to email inquiries. Almost without exception, forum members appear to have been gracious and understanding. Although Pietenpauw explained and apologized, it appears that the situation may have been humiliating for Pietenpauw. I sympathize. In the throes of what feels like a no-win situation that is turning into a public spectacle - in our fairly small pipe world - I am sure there have been some sleepless nights for Pietenpauw.

I worry that as pipe folks learn about this situation that they may blame the Tamp and Puff crowd or assume that Pietenpauw was somehow untoward in its business dealings. Either conclusion would be unfortunate and unfair.

This is one of those situations that calls for a nuanced reading of events and some compassion for everyone involved. I believe that the Tamp and Puff members meant absolutely no harm and would be horrified to think that they, as people who wanted to buy Pietenpauw’s pipes, contributed to the demise of his business. Conversely, Pietenpauw almost certainly did its best, but found itself in very unfortunate circumstances caused in no small part by bad luck and perhaps by not charging enough for its pipes.

Jean, Pietenpauw’s principal pipe-maker, was remarkably candid and accountable in his posts. At one point, he wrote, “I certainly would not buy a pipe from me.” These are harsh, self-critical words, indeed. They are words with which I must disagree.

If you are out there reading, Jean, know this. I most certainly would buy a pipe from you. I believe that I am, no doubt, joined by many of those in our community who stand ready and willing to lend you our support and encouragement.

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Reader Comments (14)

Hello Neil,

I'm the one who initially wrote the post about Pietenpauw. It was a strange coincidence how l found out, as I hadn't visited Pietenpauw's site in months. I don't own a Pietenpauw, but had been an admirer of their pipes for some time and was quite shocked when I read the banner on their homepage; posted just two days prior to my visit.

I posted on the BoB out of concern. Jan was someone that I'd heard nothing but good things about and I wanted to know how serious things were. I'm a professional artist and can understand the stress of creating quality work while meeting deadlnes. This is compounded by the need to make enough money from your work to keep food on the table. All the while, you want to maintain the joy of actually creating the work.

After reading the Tamp and Puff thread, I came to the same conclusion as you and hope that our small community recognizes that no malice seems to have been intended by either party.

I also agree that he could easily raise his prices and still maintain an incredible amount of value.

I really hope that Jan hasn't lost the joy of creating and just needs some time away.
May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSTindle
Oh! this is too bad for real pipe enthusiasts.. :(
May 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchurchwarden pipes
All I can say is that I too would not hesitate to purchase another Pietenpauw pipe. I worked with Jean about a year ago on commissioned blow fish, not an easy shape to create and the pipe he produced was engineered perfectly from the draft hole to his twin bore stem. A few of my NY Pipe Club buddies also enjoy their Pietenpauw pipes - that is how I found out about him. It is a phenomenal pipe and wonderful smoker. The entire transaction was handled professionally. It was enjoyable to see the pipe along its progression to completion. The thought that the situation on the P&T Forum would drive Jean out of the business is sad. I wish all the best for his personal life and hope to see him back behind the bench in short order.

Lou
May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLouis F. Carbone
Nice zulu Neill!

I, myself, was surprised to see that Jan is no longer carving pipes. I am still kicking myself for not pulling the trigger on the tomato I saw on Compagnie des Pipes last year. I kept checking his, and CdP, for another pipe that called to me. Alas, nothing else came along, so I sincerely hope that Jan will change his mind and start carving again.
May 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterJFStrat
being an artist means putting your heart in your work. it is perilous business. My sympathy to Jean regardless of the circumstances.
May 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermouse
Regarding the briar I have actually thought long and hard about this. I fancy myself a bit of an amateur scientist, and see no reason why the quality of any given block of wood could not be discerned before it is even sold.

I imagine a huge majority of the world's briar has but a few business at the very top, then it is dealt away to clearing houses then along the chain all the way down to retailers. The business at the top must have large enough operations to be able to buy or lease some sort of scanning equipment, be it Magnetic Resonance, or Ultrasonic, or something else.

These scanned blocks could obviously be sold at a premium. For the REALLY high end guys, you could potentially even get a map of the internal grain. Obviously this would only be available to those willing to pay TOP dollar.

I imagine, however, at the most base level blocks could be scanned, and graded similarly perhaps to diamonds. ALL prescanned blocks would be sold at a slight premium, and as you moved towards flawless, and desirable grain characteristics the premium would increase.

I obviously have no way to really break down the margin, but I would think over a few years the machine would pay for itself.
May 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterBeefyTee
The way briar is harvested and sold is not the way you imagine. It is bought from harvesters by cutters, who process the burls into blocks (discarding a great deal in the process) then either sell directly to pipe makers/manufacturers, or to retailers like Pipe Makers Emporium in the US. There is no concentration of the supply chain to the point where enough money is being made to justify a MRI or X-ray machine. And I think the economic logic of scanning every block for flaws is flawed in that there is no incentive for the briar seller, in the end. Perhaps he can charge a tremendous price for a certified flawless block, but by doing so he acknowledges that the rest of his blocks are flawed, and he knows it.

I think briar cutters, because they spend their lives dealing with briar, have a pretty good idea what they have when they cut into a burl, and there is a range of briar quality and price that starts at the top with the world's most established high-grade makers who have the reputations and relationships with cutters (not to mention the means) to gain access to the very best, and descends through various strata to the lowest price blocks. I don't know where Jan bought his briar or how much he paid, but his prices of around $100 (from what I've heard) don't leave much room for briar cost. My most recent order included medium-sized blocks that were 35 euro each, and I've heard of makers paying much more. You can pay 35 euro and still have flaws, but the less you pay per block, the more flaws you'll have.

Here's an illustration. When I started making pipes, I ordered two or three blocks at a time from a US supplier. I became frustrated with the flaws I found. I got a couple of really spectacular blocks, but also some that had big flaws, and the supplier explained that this was just the nature of briar. Nobody could tell what was inside a block, you just pays your money and takes your chance. I decided that what I needed to do was buy an entire bag of briar so I'd have the same chance of getting good briar as anyone else. The briar cost $20 by the block, but $8 per block if I bought a bag. 244 pieces, a bit over $2,000 shipped. Bear in mind that I hadn't sold one pipe yet, but I wanted to take some pipes to sell to the 2004 Chicago show, and I knew I wasn't going to get there one block at a time. This was a major commitment.

The briar came, and I started to work. Long story short, it was horrendous, and if I'd been depending on it for my living I would have failed right there. I almost quit out of frustration -- if this was what pipe makers had to deal with they could have it. Most of the blocks were warped and had enormous internal cracks. Simply sawing the rough shape, I could see huge flaws. If not big inclusions, then voids where the briar had dried too quickly and pulled apart inside. Having spent all my money on this bag of briar, I plowed ahead and started pipe after pipe. After 32 blocks, I had four pipes finished, two of them rusticated. I finally gave up and credit carded a dozen blocks from Marco Janzen. They cost about $35 apiece, including shipping, but I got a pipe out of each block. I did get the occasional pipe from the original bag. Maybe 20 pipes over the years. I threw most of it out when I went through and sanded or cut each block enough to evaluate it. I used some of it to make handles for things and for various craft projects. I still have a few blocks and I'll give it a try from time to time because pipes made from it do taste good, but even at $8 a block it was the most enormously expensive briar I've ever bought. Valuable lessons:

1. Pay for quality materials up front if you're selling a quality product, you'll pay one way or another.
2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

There has been a lot of talk over the years about X-raying blocks, and I think some makers or manufacturers have actually done it , but in the end I think it has been shown that a good business model is more useful.
May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJack
Jack,

Thanks so much! Obviously I was clueless as to how the back end (or front end depending on your perspective) of the business works. Obviously working with smaller entities would not allow such an expense.

I had thought about the issue of a dealer admitting his blocks were "flawed", and some pipe makers (Olie Sylvester for one) can do some pretty neat things with a flaw, but yes, a seller would find himself with a warehouse full of "flawed" blocks he couldn't move.

Again, thanks for taking the time...I know a little more now.
May 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterBeefyTee
I am really disturbed to hear that Jan Pietenpauw appears to have shut up shop and abandoned the pipe-making craft. He is a fine carver and a very sound artisan. Following Neill's lead, I have read the thread in Tamp and Puff from start to finish. It does seem that the major factor in the rift between the forum and Jan was Jan's lack of communication with his purchasers. When communication breaks down, bad things happen - and they did in this case. A great shame but perhaps those who accept commissions for any sale would do well to bear this in mind.

Oh, and by the way, I could find no evidence for Neill's claim that Tamp and Puff is a "U.K. pipe forum". It looks to be based in the US ..... but what do I know.
May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Brain
Patrick, if T&P is not a U.K. based forum, I stand corrected. I'm not sure where I got that impression, but I may be wrong. If so, thank you for making this apparent.
May 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan
It was started by a Hawaiian but has a strong UK showing in both the users and the mods, so it's understandable!

I'm glad to hear he's decided to come back to the craft.
May 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterg
I also read that T&P thread and agree no malice on either side was intended. Also happy he has decided to continue carving. Nice post Neill.
May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEd Anderson
Glad to hear that Jean hasn't completely closed up shop. I only have 1 Pietenpauw, and it looks like I got it just in time. I got the email on April 21 that the commission I had asked about was done. I'm still just getting to know this pipe, having only smoked a few bowls in it and not yet having it "broken in," but I do love the precision in "engineering" and the gorgeous finishing.

Based on my limited experience (the one pipe), I will have to agree with others. Jan Pietenpauw pipes would still be a value at higher price point. You just don't expect this level of craftsmanship/artistry for less than $200.
May 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSmokey the Werewolf
Just bought a pipe off of him in Nov 2013. He seems to have about 2 available at a time, and they don't stay around for long.

I got the "Liz". Awesome flame and depth, old Grecian briar burl. He is a master.
December 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSauer

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