Todd Johnson: Respect For The Customer

Todd Johnson is a talented pipe maker. There's no doubt about it. He's done so much to propel the American pipe making movement in the last two decades, as well as completely change the game of the serially produced pipe. But as beautiful and expertly executed as his designs are, what truly sets Todd's work apart is his attention to detail and his appreciation for his customers. Why spend extra time polishing the airway through a stem? Why take days to cure your finish? Because buying an artisan-grade pipe is a big deal, and any customer spending hard-earned money on a pipe deserves respect. Attention to detail and training make a pipe maker great. And that's exactly what you can expect from any Todd Johnson pipe.

I recently sat down with Todd and got his thoughts on pipe making. Here's what he had to say:

When and why did you start making hand made pipes?

When I was 19 years old, I went to Samford University in Birmingham Al. I never thought I was going to attend college in high school, but I met a teacher who made me realize that I would really thrive in a college environment. I decided to go to school, and I knew that if I just took a bunch of entry level classes, I'd get bored and drop out. Luckily, I had a friend that was able to get me into a bunch of classes that I didn't have the prerequisites for. They were upper level classes like 400-level philosophy of religion and such. I developed a love for learning in the official capacity, as I always read a lot. Perry, who had gotten me there, smoked a pipe, and I had never seen anyone smoke a pipe before. I wanted to make him a graduation present and decided to make him pipe... out of walnut. I had no idea what was proper. I had never really seen a pipe. He still has the pipe, but I have since replaced it with a proper pipe. Walnut bowl and a mouthpiece made from a paint scraper handle. As far as first pipes go, out of all the pipe makers in the world, mine had to be the crudest.

The internet had just started to become a useful tool for researching such things. I never used a pipe kit. I made a few for buddies on campus. We didn't know any better, and it seemed like the best thing in the world. I started selling my early pieces through the Briary in AL.

So you had been making pipes for a few years. Tell us about that if you would.

I have only two phases in my pipe-making career: pre-Tom and post-Tom. If Tom Eltang didn't have the kindness and willingness to invite a young man into his workshop, then I would definitely not have been able to live the life of a full-time, professional pipe maker that I have for the past 17 years. I cannot overstate the importance of those visits with Tom. I exist as a pipe maker because of Tom, and without Tom, American pipe making would not be what it is today.

It's we'll known that you've taught a lot of pipe makers. Tell me about what teaching and passing on the skills that you've learned has done for your own pipe making?

I think there are a lot of guys who may know what they're doing, but they may not necessarily know why, and they may not be able to tell you why. I think knowing how to do something is fundamentally different than knowing how to teach someone to do something. I've done a fair bit of teaching at both the undergraduate level and graduate level as a TA and a graduate assistant. One of the things about teaching is that you have to learn your subject matter inside, outside, and upside down, because a lot of it is theoretical and conceptual — so if you can show someone how to do something, they might be able to replicate it. And a lot of pipe makers can do that, but it doesn't mean they can translate that into something else. They are only learning how to do what you're doing, not why you're doing it. As an example, cutting a dome saddle vs. a flared saddle, the process is the same, but there are certain conceptual differences there, and if you learn how to apply them elsewhere, you can apply those theories broadly into a variety of things.

So what impact has that had on your own work?

Again, if you're just doing something then you're probably not thinking about why you do it that way. But if you have to ask yourself this question, one of two things will happen: you'll either know your process better or you'll find another way to do it that's better. For me, this is all about process. I'll often tell my students, "Look, I'm going to show you a way to do things; I don't know if it is the best way, but what I do know is that if you follow the process then the result is guaranteed. But you might still be able to find a better way to do things, and in that case then you need to come back and show me so that I can further hone my process." That's what I did when I went and learned from Tom. He showed me how he did things, and for at least a year, I did not deviate one iota. That allowed me to have mastery over a process with a guaranteed result. And from there I started working on developing greater efficiency. Tom has continued to do this with his process over the years as well. Nobody ever used pin gauges when I started using them, and now they are such an integral part of the pipe making process that most of us go through. Now I wouldn't want to make pipes without them.

Todd's Samurai Volcano design featured in BriarWorks' Signature Line

What is your favorite shape to smoke, and what is your favorite shape to make?

I smoke a lot of straight Billiards. I like little pipes, and I would say that my favorite shape to make is the Volcano. It's the shape that I have explored the ins, outs, and depths of more than any other. I sort of know how far you can take it, because I've definitely taken it over the edge only to realize that it didn't work, and then you can pull back slightly. Of my signature shapes, the Samurai Volcano is probably what I'm most known for.

What is your favorite blend or type of blend?

English blends. Dunhill Aperitif is my absolute favorite and I have at least a 10 year supply. I also really enjoy Fox's Banker's blend.

If there was one thing you'd like to tell all the collectors and smokers out there, what would it be?

For me, pipe making is not just a job or a career; it's a vocation. I tend to be very passionate and outspoken about it because I care a great deal about it and consider it to be a very high calling. To me, this is a thing that has existed before us and will continue to exist after us. It's not just a craft that you casually do in the garage. It is something with a rich history and tradition and should be taken very seriously.

In part, this means there are things the customer will never be able to see, corners that can be cut, things that you didn't do, things that you did and shouldn't have. Engaging in these practices is very disrespectful. I consider it very disrespectful to leave tool marks, for example, or use briar that isn't fully cured. Stuff like that. We are lucky as human begins to create something — to make it with our hands and have people spend their money just to own it. So I take that very seriously. Of course, you can't change that; all you can do is model what you think the "right" process looks like and hope that others follow suit. Sure, there is a degree to which I am somewhat cavalier about certain things, but it never affects the quality of the product or how I treat the customer — they are more philosophical. For instance, filling sandpits with superglue. These natural flaws are there, you can seem them (we're talking about pin pricks), and I make no bones about it. I've never seen a flawless pipe ever. I'm putting it all out there — I'm not hiding anything. I'm doing it the way that I do it.

The finished product: Long Shank Acorn

To see Todd's work up close, head on over to his page on the site. You won't be disappointed.


Comments

    • Manuel ┬ĘPires Pintado on March 26, 2016
    • Very interesting article. First time seen such detailed information. Great work and well finished pipes.

    • Adam O'Neill on March 28, 2016
    • @Manuel ┬ĘPires Pintado Thanks for reading Manuel!

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