Behind the Scenes at Peterson: An Interview with Tony Whelan

Visiting the Peterson factory for the first time earlier this year was an incredible experience — there was a lot to see and a lot to learn. While I've also found this to be true for several of the larger pipe factories that I've seen over the years, it's especially true for Peterson: even though the production is handled on a larger scale, and the facility is spacious and well-equipped, it really felt more like a workshop than a "factory." The folks working here are craftsmen, their passion is immediately evident, and the processes have largely remained the same over the years. After spending two days looking at pipes, talking about pipes, and gawking at the various skills and talents all around me, I made some time to sit down with the Factory Manager, Tony Whelan, to discuss his many years with Peterson, and what life on the factory floor is like from day to day. Let's see what he had to say:

How long have you worked for Peterson of Dublin?

I started in 1966 and worked there until 1983. I started again with the company in 1994, so around 39 years in total, spanning 50 years.

What was you first position here?

When I started, I worked flush fitting stems and stummels, sanding bowls, and working mouthpieces. When I came back in 1994, I started in the bowl department, which entails bowl grading and picking, among other things.

In the early days, around '74, I spent 9 years doing work study, keeping track of efficiencies. Back then, we paid bonuses based on individual output. I was appointed Factory Manager in 2000, and this is my 16th year as Factory Manager.

I was 15 when I started, and was informed by a friend that a position was open. I thought I was showing up for interview, but in fact I was hired on the spot. I knew of the company because my father was from the same area as the company, and when I told him I had a chance to work here, he suggested that I take it with both hands.

One of the first people I met the day I started was actually another Tony Whelan of no relation. So for years there were two of us! When he retired, I took over his job in the bowl department.

What are your current responsibilities?

It's my job to chase the pipes from start to finish once the work orders are handed over. And to manage the people as well, to be a good listener. I feed information to the workers and make sure that time off is recorded, etc. At Peterson, one of my main jobs is also to grade bowls.

How many people are working under you?

18 people total. Among those, I have two people in the bowl department, three in sanding and silver-smithing, as well as two team leaders over in finishing.

How many pipes on average are produced each day?

We aim for around 300-350 completed pipes each day. Some pipes have more complex processes and require more work than others, and we do our best to keep the types of pipes we're working on mixed, but it all depends on what has been ordered.

The period I remember most was the early '70s. I'd say between 1970 and 1975, we had a year when we made 500,000 pipes, compared to the 60-70k nowadays. There weren't as many complicated designs, so the pipes were easier to produce — like the Matte finished pipes with no accents, for example. The staff was about 80 people back then.

All of our bowls are sorted and graded, but after they move into production they get a second check after staining. This is a precaution to eliminate the chance of problems showing up before the pipes go too far into production.

What are some of the big changes you've seen over the years?

In 2000, when I took over as the Factory Manager, we did revamp certain aspects of the factory — mostly updating conditions and equipment. But the majority of our machinery is still old. Quite a few are from before the '70s, but they were made so well that with maintenance they will last forever. We also began to implement a more thorough QC process. We still have an apprenticeship system in place. A new silversmith will work under an experienced worker for 5-6 years, for example, before being on their own. Over the last decade we've seen quite a few employees of 50+ years passing on their craft to the newer employees. We have a structured training system in place. We're also cross-training to be a bit more flexible when there is a hole to fill.

As far as the core processes goes though, it has remained unchanged over the years.

What would you would want all smokers to know about Peterson pipes?

We put a lot of emphasis on quality. Our finished product, regardless of price point, will be the best that it can be. We are very proud of our work. There's a lot of time, effort, and capital that goes into each Peterson pipe.

I grew up making pipes, and I love it. I've spent many years here, and so have many others, and we have been happy. There's also a good camaraderie here as well; everyone gets on well. We have a lot of good people here, and we brought them up and educated them not just in matters of pipe making, but life in general! I like to think that I've had a part in ensuring the Peterson legacy of quality and tradition — passing on the craft.

We're well aware that we're making something that someone will enjoy. We know that people are paying their hard-earned money for one of our pipes, and that's not something to take lightly.

Last year's Founders Pipe had my signature on the box, on behalf of all those who worked to produce those pipes.


    • Bean Boy on April 19, 2016
    • Well, there going to have to do a better job. I have ordered Peterson Pipes and have been disappointed in the workmanship and quality.

      I had to return several pipes for defects and it seems each one is made differently and you don't realize that some are defects when compared side by side with one that might be made proper.

      Even the bags that come with them were defective and sewed badly. I do not believe they are doing a good job. In one particular model they do not mention it comes in two shapes despite having the same model name!

      It is obvious you are not looking or even buying your own products. Well, I don't blame you!

    • s.ireland on April 19, 2016
    • @Bean Boy Having been to the factory, I can categorically say that Peterson does place an emphasis on quality and they also have a thorough quality control process in place, as do we. buys thousands of Peterson pipes each year, and every pipe must pass our quality control before hitting the website. And that's true for every pipe across all the brands/makers that we carry. Of course, it's always possible for something to slip through, and we're always happy to to resolve those situations should they arise.

    • Dan Gregory on April 21, 2016
    • I heard a lot of people on forums, a at least one individual on YouTube mention that Peterson is dip staining their pipes, such that stain will get into the bowl? How true is this? If it is true, has the issue honestly been resolved?

    • s.ireland on April 21, 2016
    • @Dan Gregory Peterson uses two different staining methods, neither of which involve "dipping" the bowls in stain. I believe the majority of the lines call for hand-staining, which is time consuming and requires a craftsmen to brush the stain onto the bowl, sometimes taking many coats to achieve the final result. The other process is "spraying" the bowls. In both cases, they take care to avoid the chambers. Also, the higher-end lines without bowl coating often have their chambers polished, but not stained. I hope this helps!

    • Dan C. Haffner on April 22, 2016
    • Why do this at all?

    • M. Trrent on April 22, 2016
    • My experience with Peterson pipes has been good.

      A couple of the Peterson pipes I've purchased have had fills or sand pits - but I expected them to, as they were inexpensive pipes and it is normal for any pipe less that $70, in today's money, to have that kind of "defect". One was a Mark Twain I bought in the 80's, which was stolen from me; it was a beautiful flame-grained pipe with no defects. visual or otherwise, whatsoever. I still miss that pipe as it was an excellent smoker as well as wonderful to look at.

      As far as comparing two semi-production pipes side by side to determine whether or not one isn't made right - well, that just shows a lack of understanding of the "hand made" part of the process, briar, and of pipe-making in general.

    • Bean Boy on April 23, 2016
    • You have to be very careful when buying some of their pipes. For instance I compared two pipes from the same model. How many people do that??

      The System Standard. I noticed one had the "well" drilled much deeper than the other. And this is important because you want the deeper well as it fills quickly with moisture and will overflow into the bowl ruining your smoke.

      Another even had the hole drilled to one side and not the center of the pipe and the hole in the bowl was off-center! But you had to look carefully or you'd be smoking for years with an improper smoke.

      BTW, I still find the pipe will gurgle. Just about on every smoke. Don't get me wrong I still like Peterson pipes but I wish they inspected their pipes and even their bags better.

      There needs to be a better standard each pipe and bag must meet. Heck, they should even pay me for doing their JOB!

    • pylorns on April 23, 2016
    • Awesome view into the production and interview. Very cool! While I've had a few issues here and there on the whole the quality has been ok - my St. Patrick's day pipe for 2016 was spot on, great pipe!

    • Johnny iii on April 23, 2016
    • I enjoyed the piece Shane. Owning several petes I find them a good product for the money and enjoy every one.

      I would have loved to see more pics and videos though. Huge and impressive looking place.

      Thanks for the story!

    • CSM on April 23, 2016
    • Always interesting to read more about old pipe firms past and present, the people involved, and their methods of production. I have owned several Peterson pipes and enjoyed each. They smoke well and are easy to break in.

    • Barber Trey on April 24, 2016
    • Thanks for this Shane. I love these kind of posts, it makes each maker/manufacturer seem almost... local. You folks do a great job of bringing us as the customer in touch with the artists behind the products we purchase. Now when I fire up one of my Petes I'll wonder how many times Tony handled it before it left the shop.

    • Gus Kund on April 24, 2016
    • I have 2 Peterson pipes. while good quality for the money, I find the draw not as open as I would like. I smoke them on occasion but I still prefer my vintage Dunhill pipes. As they say you get what you pay for.

    • Bill Woodward on April 29, 2016
    • I have been smoking pipes for 54 years. My first good pipe was a Peterson System P-lip 309, which is no longer in production. I paid $20 in 1973, and loved it. For many years, I only bought Peterson pipes. In the mid-1970s, I was not a sophisticated smoker. I was not aware of the huge selection of pipes available to me as well as the numerous kinds of tobacco that I could try. In time, I knew a lot about pipes and tobacco. I consider myself well informed, and have accumulated many high end pipes and numerous tobaccos.
      Although I still love Peterson System pipes, I started to disengage with the Peterson brand when the company began cranking out countless styles and non-system pipes! I have never understood the the company's dilution of the original brand. I suppose that market conditions justified its decision to make all the different types of pipes and styles. Choosing a Peterson pipe now is confusing and difficult to distinguish among the various types! I think the company made a poor decision by confounding the consumer!

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