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For Pipe Lovers

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

(continued from page 1)

 

And just as in choosing a cigar, there are certain characteristics to look for when selecting a pipe. First and foremost is shape. A pipe should complement your features and personality. Think of it as an article of clothing; not only should it look good, but it should make you look good as well. How does it feel in your hand? How does it look next to your face? Is it too heavy? Too light? Can you identify with it? After all, you are choosing a friend that will be with you for many years, perhaps the rest of your life.

Unlike cigars, the size of a pipe has nothing to do with the fullness of the smoke. That is determined by the type of tobacco you put into the pipe. The bowl size only affects the length of the smoke: the bigger the bowl, the more tobacco it will hold. Hence, the longer the pipe will smoke. Most medium- to large-sized pipes are good for 45 minutes to an hour of pleasant puffing. But a smaller bowl may be what you want for a short smoke during your lunch break. A pipe for watching Saturday afternoon football is quite another story.

Just as cigar shapes have names, such as Churchill, Panetela and Lonsdale, so, too, do pipe shapes have nomenclatures to help in their identification. Billiard, Canadian, Apple, and Bulldog are just a few. The list is so extensive that it would take the rest of this magazine just to list and depict every shape. Not much different from cigars in that respect; the best bet is to forget about the names and simply pick a style that appeals to you. However, a few pointers: a bent (i.e., curved) pipe will hang in your mouth with better balance. A straight-stemmed pipe has the advantage of keeping the smoke out of your eyes, especially while reading. Finally, no matter what anyone else tells you about buying a pipe, there are just two steadfast rules: (1) buy a pipe that you like, and, (2) buy the best you can afford.

There are three basic finishes on all briar pipes. For many connoisseurs, a smooth finish is the most desirable, as the natural character of the wood is readily apparent and any flaw, no matter how minute, can be detected. Personally, I don't mind a few sand pits, if they are small. This doesn't affect the smoking quality. But stay away from wood that has been filled with putty. It is the mark of a less-than-adequate pipe. The ultimate goal for the true aficionado and collector is to find a flawless piece of wood with plenty of grain coverage. But be forewarned: such a masterpiece represents less than 2 percent of a pipe company's total production and you will be paying dearly for this rarity. Moreover, within the realm of smooth pipes, there is the matter of grain. There are three different grain patterns: straight grain, in which parallel lines run down the sides of the bowl; the closer and more pronounced the grain, the higher the grade of pipe and the higher the cost. Second is a bird's-eye, a pattern with tiny swirls of wood, which are actually the ends of a straight grain. And finally, there is random grain, a mosaic of swirls and patterns that are neither straight nor bird's-eye. The ironic thing is, all three grains will usually smoke the same. The differences are strictly cosmetic. Of far more importance is to have total bowl coverage of grain, for grain is an indication of how well the wood will breathe. Try to avoid any pipe with "bald spots," where no grain coverage is visible.

The second type of finish is called sandblast, a roughened texture that is created by actually blasting the briar with tiny beads of glass, metal or sand at tremendous pressure. This has the effect of etching away all of the soft wood and leaving only the hardened "shell" of the bowl. There is an erroneous belief that sandblasts are used only to disguise the blemishes of a faulty piece of wood. In some less expensive pipes this is true, but when you get into the better brands it takes a good piece of briar to create a good sandblast. Look for a deep, finely defined surface; stay away from shallow blasts.

Finally, there is the carved, or rusticated, pipe. Unlike the cheaply carved novelty pipes of a few years ago, these pipes today are hand-chiseled and, in many cases, appear to be sandblasts. Some skilled carvers can actually make their high-grade pipes look as if they have stems of bamboo, or that candle wax is dripping down the sides of the bowl. But it is simply an optical illusion, skillfully carved by an artisan.

As in cigars, brand names can be an important guideline in selecting a pipe, and cigar smokers will find some familiar monikers connected with the very best of briars. First and foremost, there is Dunhill, which steadfastly maintains its reputation of producing only flawlessly smooth-finished pipes (known as "firsts") and impeccable sandblasts. Of course, you will pay for this penchant for perfection, as the lowest priced Dunhill starts at about $400 and can go as high as $2,000 on the new pipe market. Davidoff is another familiar name, and their smooth and sandblast pipes are in the same rarefied price spectrum as Dunhill. More affordable but with the same strict adherence to quality are the excellent handmade pipes by Ashton. Other brand names may not be as familiar, but they are all worthwhile investments: Savinelli, Charatan, Peterson, Upshall, Nørding, Ferndown, Larsen, and Castello, just to name a few.

Yes, you did read "investments" in the preceding paragraph, for that is what briar pipes have become. Many of the older, pre-1960 pipes, especially those made by Dunhill, Charatan, and Barling (this last brand is not currently being imported into the United States), have become extremely desirable, mainly because of the belief that better wood was used in those pre-Beatles years. This rationale is not without merit, for in the past there were far more pipes made with 100-year-old briar than there are today. However, the reason is not one of rarity, but rather, of economics. Briar merchants today can make far more money with far less sweat by working in a computer factory, rather than climbing over some dusty, rocky crag just to cut out a centuries-old burl and haul it down a mountainside. But fear not; excellent pipes abound, if you know what to look for. Check the grain to make sure there is total coverage of all surfaces. Stay away from bald spots. Then heft the pipe; a lighter pipe has more porosity and thus, will smoke cooler. And finally, check to make sure that the tobacco hole is drilled in the center of the bowl and that the airhole emerges at the bottom of the tobacco chamber. An improperly made pipe will never give you the pride of ownership that you deserve.

Once you have selected your pipe, equal attention should be paid to the type of tobacco you will be smoking in it. It makes sense to compare it with the types of cigars you smoke. For example, if you like a medium-heavy Honduran, such as Punch or Hoyo de Monterrey, you might favor the English blends, such as Balkan Sobranie or Dunhill 965. On the other hand, if you like a mild cigar such as Macanudo or Montecruz, you will probably enjoy a blend like Dunhill's Early Morning or one of their many aromatic tobaccos.


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