176. A Chat with Jonathan Fields, Peterson’s Production Manager

“All Peterson pipes are made for individual people.
There’s no two Peterson pipes the same.”
—Jonathan Fields, Production Manager

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! I have been saving this interview with Peterson’s production manager Jonathan Fields for a special occasion, and this is it. Jonathan is one of the “new,” younger generation of craftsmen at Peterson—he’s only got 23 years’ service under his belt at this point—but his enthusiasm, energy and strength typify all that’s best about “the lads” out in the shop. So light up your favorite SPD or any of your Petes and enjoy!

How’d you get started at Peterson?

I think Angela Fortune’s one of the reasons I got a job here. My grandad, Patrick Corcoran used to work here—not on the floor, but as a cleaner and he did all the gardens on the property. And he lived down the road from Angela. And my brother used to play with Angela’s sons. So when I walked in and handed in my CV, Angela said, “Jonathan!” That was on a Friday, and I got the call the following Monday. I always presumed she put in a good word for me, and that’s 20 odd years ago.

Well, she’s really one of the biggest reasons the Peterson book got written. I was constantly emailing her and we began to develop a friendship. She was sending me loads of information as she had time and seemed to enjoy and have a knack for the detective work. And then finally she wrote and said, “Why don’t you come over for a week and have a look for yourself? We’d all love to have you.” And so we did.

She’s a lovely lady. And she knows my mom as well. To get places, it’s really not what you know, but who you know.

Speaking of which, this is my third time to visit the factory and just as on my previous visits, there seems to be a lot of camaraderie. In my teaching days, I was lucky to find one guy that I could joke around with or eat lunch with, but one or the other of us always transferred out just as the friendship was really being established.

Jason Hinch, Peterson’s lead silversmith

We have a group here that hang around each other and slag each other—it’s very good. I was one of the new lads when Jason Hinch [Peterson’s lead silversmith] started, and we kind of clicked together.

Did you ever think you’d be production manager?

No. When I started back in 1997, there were a lot of older people who’d been here a long time, and I could look down the line and say, ‘No, he’s not retiring yet, so he’ll be in line for it,’ and there were lots of guys like that.

I never thought I would’ve made production manager under Tom Palmer [CEO 1991-2018]. For some reason, we never saw eye to eye. He’s a lovely fellow, and he’d say the same about me. We just had different points of view. And he let me get away with a lot more than most bosses, who would’ve told me to walk out the door. But I think he knew I was passionate about the work. I’d say, “No, you’re doing this wrong!” and he’d say, “I know, I know,” but that would be the end of that discussion. I thought Joe Kenny would be production manager before me. In fact, when I started with Peterson, Joe was in charge.

Joe Kinney at work on a spigot

Joe’s always seemed to me like the Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, a master in the line of Paddy Larrigan, Tony, Sr. and Tony, Jr., training everyone else.

That’s true. Joe’s my go-to when there’s anything I need. He’s brilliant whenever you get stuck with something, but he doesn’t want to manage the factory anymore. He’s quite happy to do what he does, whereas I’ll speak to the lads a lot more than Joe would and don’t mind telling them “this isn’t done right, I want it done this way.” I think that’s what Josh and Sykes like about me, and not long after they came, in November of 2018, they asked me to be production manager.

I’m quite happy with it. They give me free rein on the floor, and what I say goes, but I always like to get a second opinion, which they’re very good with. They never put you under too much pressure. They don’t come out too much on the floor, whereas the previous owners were out a lot, saying “I need this” or “I need that,” which the lads didn’t always respond to. If you talk to them and say, “C’mon, let’s do this together,” that’s how you get something done. But for everyone, not just the younger lads but the older ones that are here for a long time, you need to know which way to work them. It’s mad, right?

Actually, I think that’s good leadership. A good coach understands what kind of encouragement and motivation each player needs and doesn’t try just to use muscle on everyone.

I think the lads are happy enough with me. I don’t hear anything negative. And in meetings, it’s apparent that the quality of production has been getting a lot better.

The only woman out on the floor now is Margaret Doherty, right?

Sandra Kane

No, there’s also Sandra Kane, who worked in finishing for a long time. She went out to try something different for awhile, but came back last July. Then there’s Doris Barrett on the opposite side, in charge of shipping. There used to be Teresa Lynam in charge of finishing, Ann Bryan in marking (until her passing), and Marion Brady in buffing.

It used to be more of a two-part company in the Dublin era [1991-2018]—there was the factory and then there was the office. But under the new owners it’s more like everyone’s here for the same thing. Now the factory’s brought in on everything instead of just being told we need to do this and that. They tell us everything, down to the fine details. Used to be, one of the production managers would just come out and tell us what needed to be done. But now I’ll have a conversation with Sykes Wilford about what needs to be done, and then I’ll go out and tell everyone else what Sykes and I talked about and fill them in.

What bodes so well for Peterson to me is the new management’s broad experience with pipes, production factories and artisans all over the world. They’ve been in and out of nearly every facility and workshop in the world and now they’re dedicated to making Peterson the absolute best it can possibly be, gauging it both by what they know and have seen—and smoked—from around the globe and their increasing knowledge of Peterson’s own incredibly long and rich history.

The owner of a company really needs to know the product inside and out, doesn’t he? And I think that’s what we’ve got in our partnership with Laudisi. And they’ve proved that. When Josh Burgess [the Managing Director] started, he came out every week and would work a day with one person on the floor, learning how to do what that person does. It’s not that he wants to make a pipe now, but he’s sat with Keith and all of the others so that he has insight into what goes into each job and how it’s done. He knows it’s not easy.

He spent a day papering [sanding] mouthpieces and he came back the next day and said, “My back is in bits! I had no idea how hard that job was!” So now when someone comes to him and asks for a raise, Josh has a good idea of the physical labor and the skill that’s involved in the job.

When I give tours of the factory, I can sometimes sense visitors look at someone doing her work and thinking, “Oh, that’s the easiest thing in the world,” which is why I often give them a chance to stamp a bowl or bend a stem, just to see how difficult it really is.”

Gulp. I tried both. And . . . you’re exactly right. Now everyone knows why Smokingpipes.eu sells Irish Seconds! 

There’s a reason Jonathan has such great “guns”

Before assuming your role as production manager, what areas did you work in?

I’ve worked in every area except mounting. And while I can look at a bowl and tell what it ought to be, I’ve never graded them myself.

Is grading still Kevin Brennan’s primary responsibility, as it was in 2013, when I interviewed him for the Peterson book? 

No, it’s Willy Gray’s now. He grades every single bowl that comes in and puts it on the shelf. He puts them on the trays and Kevin fills them and sands them, then moves them back for Willy if he sees any flaws in them.

But BTA is where my skills lie—that’s where I started out for eight months, first by turning System mouth pieces.

To me, that’s the heart of Peterson—the System.

It’s a pain in the ass—turning mouthpieces, I mean [Laughing] ! But the System’s a great pipe and our top seller. In ’98 or ’99 I was moved to BTA [Bowl Turning & Assembly] and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I’ve trained a number of the lads in BTA as well—Pavel Szeglowski, Warren Byrne and Giocomo Penzo.


Giocomo Penzo’s recent artisan homage to the 309 Dutch Billiard

And I still jump in every now and again to give a dig out. And I can do papering and staining—I kind of run that area with Joe Kenny—and buffing I can do (but hate it—it is a hard job). And I’ve done a small bit of nickel stuff, but I haven’t done any silver.

It’s interesting that you say buffing is so hard, because you know, historically, women were K&P’s buffers from the beginning through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

That’s because women are tough! I’m going to take you out there and let you buff a pipe and see just how tough it is. [Laughing]

What do you like best about your work?

The best thing I like about the job is that every day—every day—there’s a little surprise. Somebody finds something that’s wrong and I get to try and fix it.

The problem-solution matrix?

Yeah. I love trying to figure out how to fix the day’s problem. For example, in the sandblasts, sometimes you get a lot of putty in them, and the lads were wire-brushing them, pulling the putty out. And Josh looked at some of the bowls and said, “This looks ridiculous.” And so I’d take them out and do a little on the rustic drill and take them back and he’d say, “What’d you do to them? They look great!”

Jonathan Fields & Keith Healy

What do you think is important for pipe smokers to know about Peterson pipes and the people who work at Peterson?

I’ve seen a few of the negative things people have put up on social media about Peterson. And I think what I’d like most is for them to come over and see the factory and see how we do things. It’s not throwing a piece of briar in a machine and it chunks out a pipe. Everything done on the factory floor—even the work done on machine—has to be done by eye and touch.

When someone makes a Peterson pipe, they set it up, they turn it, then they move it over to the papering. And if there’s any flaws in it, they have to fix the flaws, and so on through the factory to the finishing. It’s all hand made. So when people criticize our work, I think, “We’re breaking our heart to make that for you.”

So what I’d like to say is this: All Peterson pipes are made for individual people. There’s no two Peterson pipes the same. You can take a hundred 05 Systems and every single one will be different from the others, whether it’s the grain, a flaw in a different place, where it was stamped, how it was finished, the way the stain took to the individual piece of briar—they’re none of them identical to the others.


Banner photo of Jonathan Fields
courtesy Peterson of Dublin
Jason Hinch & marked bowls photos courtesy James Fox.ie
Giocomo Perez pipe photo courtesy Smokingpipes.com
Other photos C. Mundgungus & Mel Bud
Thanks to Ralle Perrera




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