Brigham Enterprises Inc

Handmade vs Machine Made… what’s the difference?

Product Knowledge | October 19, 2017


What is the difference between  ‘machine made’ and ‘hand made’ pipes? Not enough to make the term meaningful!

A little insight into the crafting process will help dispel the idea that pipes can be turned out like auto parts…

It’s all about the raw materials

At the heart of pipe quality is the briar used and there are no shortcuts. It generally takes at 40 or more years for the burl of the Mediterranean White Heath tree to grow large and dense enough to make a pipe from – the size, density and quality of the briar are all dependent on nature.

After the burls are dug up by hand and cut into blocks, they’re boiled to remove any sap from the wood. Next comes curing which takes at least a year. Then, briar blocks are cut and graded before the pipe maker gets his or her hands on the material. The pipe maker shops according to the quality grade, number and size of the pipes they plan on making.

After choosing blocks for Brigham pipe production, we add an extra 2-3 years of curing (drying) as we’ve found this produces a better quality end product. Good selection and handling of briar is something that can’t be compensated for at any later stage, regardless of skill.

The first cut is the only difference

The first actual production step is where the distinction between the main types of production occurs – forming the pipe head (cutting the block into the basic shape of the pipe).

‘Hand Made”: A craftsperson takes the raw block and works it down into the shape they wish it to be. This is best described as ‘hand cut’ or ‘free hand’ as the pipe head is formed without using a template.

‘Machine made’: This stage is often accomplished by setting up chisels and tools in a rig to allow a craftsperson to cut the raw block against a master form. The process is sort of like cutting a key in a local hardware shop but with a less sophisticated setup.

Each of the original masters that are used as a template would have been created ‘free hand’ at some point. For example, the classic Brigham #84 was created decades ago free-hand and is unique to our collection. To make more #84 pipes, we that form as the template and raw blocks are cut at a bench by a craftsperson running the rig.

This is not a mass-production technique (not many heads can be cut at once) but rather a way to replicate the same basic shape.

One set of hands vs. a few

From this point onward, the manufacturing processes are the same for all pipes – ‘hand made’ AND ‘machine made’. In making some ‘hand made’ pipes, the sanding, drilling, fitting, rusticating and finishing is all done by the same person. These may best be described as artisanal pipes.

Anything other than a one-person shop will have skilled craftspeople, trained in and dedicated to one or more of those stages. Each pipe makes its way to the various benches for the stage to be completed one by one. One may even argue that these operations are done more effectively in this sort of shop – these specially skilled craftspeople hone their skills in a few areas vs one person trying to be great at each step.

Not only are all of these pipe-making processes done by hand, skilled craftspeople are, put mildly, hard to find. The bane of many pipe makers is the immense shortage of talent and willing apprentices of the craft. Finding and keeping that talent are critical as it simply can’t be replicated by machine.

It’s a skilled art form

There is very little one can call ‘automation’ let alone ‘machine making’. Briar pipes require hands-on work and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Regardless of the particular technique used to cut a pipe head, this is an art form with very few shortcuts.

We admire and enjoy the work of individual artisans, some of whom have passed through Brigham’s doors along the way. At the same time, we want to ensure pipe smokers understand that crafting a pipe requires human hands, patience and time no matter how you cut it.