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For Pipe Lovers

Richard Carleton Hacker
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

It's bad enough when uninformed individuals roll their eyes in disapproval upon discovering that we have just lit up a cigar costing anywhere from $1.50 to $20. But when they see us taking a match to a piece of wood that carries a price tag between $35 to $2,500, they sometimes go into shock. Such is the common veil of misunderstanding that is rudely tossed over pipe and cigar smokers alike.

Indeed, pipe and cigar smokers share many of the same attributes and, consequently, many of the same pleasures. For example, we both relish the taste of pure tobacco that is untainted by chemicals or other nonagrarian substances. We enjoy the sensuous feel of our smoking object, whether it be the smooth silken texture of a Connecticut shade wrapper or the glasslike surface of a polished and waxed straight grain. And just like Bill Clinton, none of us inhale. With so much in common, small wonder that so many cigar smokers are also fellow brothers of the briar.

Cigar smokers will find a kindred spirit in a pipe, for like a favored Churchill, it can be a loyal companion during the day and help solve the world's problems at night. It is a true friend, one that mellows and seasons with age, taking on a patina that is somewhat akin to a fine antique. But like choosing a friend, you must know what to look for in a pipe, and, for good measure, understand a bit of history so that the two of you will be perfectly compatible.

Like cigars, pipe smoking got its start in the civilized world with its fateful discovery by Columbus in 1492 (although people like the Mayans and Romans had been smoking pipes for thousands of years beforehand). But unlike cigars, which were introduced to the rest of Europe by Spain, pipe smoking was popularized by the British, who first brought the fascinating practice of "drinking smoak" back home from the colonies.

Although everything from pewter to seashells has been used to make pipes in the past, most modern-day pipes are made of wood, meerschaum or clay. Wood is by far the most popular pipe-making material and, since 1825, the most coveted and practical wood has been briar. That is because briar is hard enough to char without burning, and yet porous enough to permit the pipe to "breathe," thereby ensuring a cool smoke. An additional benefit is its beauty. Briar does not have rings like most trees. Instead, it has a grain pattern that can become very much pronounced on the bowls of smooth, naturally finished pipes. Usually, the older the piece of briar, the more dramatic its grain becomes. It is the grain of a pipe that helps give it character and value.

Briarwood is harvested from the heath tree, which grows in the hot rocky mountains of countries bordering the Mediterranean, with the best (i.e., hardest) wood coming from Greece and Corsica. Actually, it is not the tree that is harvested, but the briar burl that forms within the root system. It normally takes a minimum of 25 years for Mother Nature to create a burl of sufficient size, quality, and character to make a decent-smoking pipe. Any less than that and the wood may not be porous enough to provide an enjoyable smoke. And a pipe made of 100- or even 200-year-old wood is indeed a rare and valuable commodity.

The second-most-popular pipe-making material is meerschaum, which is German for "sea foam." It is white, light, and very porous, which is why--as the byproducts of burning tobacco gradually permeate the bowl over a long period of time--a meerschaum pipe will gradually turn a rich cherry brown. The first meerschaum pipe made its appearance in 1723. During those prebriar days, it quickly became the pipe of the aristocracy. Ornately carved by Austrian and German apprentice sculptors, many of these early pipes are museum pieces today, valued in the thousands of dollars. Meerschaum pipes are extremely cool smoking and, unlike briar, there is no "breaking in" period, in which you try to build a cake of burnt carbon upon the inner walls of the bowl. However, they are also very fragile and an accidental nudge out of the ashtray can virtually shatter your pipe dreams.

Another remarkably cool-smoking pipe is the calabash, a turn-of-the-century affair fashioned from a dried gourd and fitted with a meerschaum bowl. This design creates a cavernous airspace underneath the tobacco chamber. The result is that the calabash is an extremely pleasant pipe to smoke, one of the few in which you can consume virtually all of the tobacco, right on down to the heel, or bottom, of the bowl. The only drawback to a calabash is that it is too fragile and awkward in design to smoke anywhere else other than in your easy chair. But that, of course, is where a good calabash pipe should be enjoyed, especially While watching one of the old Sherlock Holmes reruns starring Basil Rathbone, the actor who made the calabash synonymous with the great detective.

Two other styles of pipes that you may encounter are the clay and the corncob. The clay pipe achieved its zenith during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and they are still being made, many from original molds, in England and Holland. Being a romanticist, I often look to the clay for a nostalgic smoke; I especially like to smoke from the long-stemmed churchwardens around Christmastime. By smoking them slowly over a week or two, a clay can be "seasoned," but as a rule they smoke hot and are extremely breakable. On the other hand, no one seems to care if you break a corncob; they are inexpensive enough to simply throw away and buy another. The corncob, like Bourbon and the Kentucky rifle, is an American invention, having been perfected in 1868, just in time to provide a popular smoke for post-Civil War settlers heading West. The original corncob company is still in business today. Known as the Missouri Meerschaum Company of Washington, Missouri,, it is the last of a once popular segment of the pipe smoking world.

The greatest variety of pipes you'll encounter today are briar. There is a wide spectrum in terms of style, design and price range. A well-made, brand-name pipe can cost as little as $35, but will usually average out to about $65 to $95 for a decent piece of machine-turned briar. Of course, as you get into the better grades and finishes of wood, hand-turned or carved designs, and gold or silver mountings, you can easily max out on your credit-card limit. You might also want to investigate a tobacconist who sells used, or "estate" pipes. These are presmoked pipes that have been cleaned, sterilized and brought back to near-new condition. The obvious benefits are that you can get a premium pipe, often in a brand or shape that is no longer readily available, at about half of what a new pipe of the same quality would cost.


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