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.
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.
Cigar smokers will identify with the ritualistic procedure of lighting a pipe, which is best reserved for those quiet moments when you have the time to indulge yourself. First, if it is a new pipe, wipe a very slight coating of honey on the inside of the tobacco chamber. This will help the virgin briar produce a charred "cake" much faster. This cake is what helps insulate the wood from your tobacco and is part of the secret of avoiding tongue bite, the most common malady affecting both new and experienced pipemen. The other part of the secret is in the way you load your pipe. In essence, you are rolling your own cigar, for the way you fill your pipe will affect the way it is going to smoke. There are as many ways to load a pipe as there are "experts," but here is my method, one that I have successfully been using and passing on to others for more than 30 years.
First, trickle in enough tobacco to loosely fill your pipe bowl to the top. Tap the bowl to settle the tobacco. Then, with your finger or a tamper, gently push down until the tobacco compresses into a light, "springy" sensation. Repeat this process two or three times, until your pipe is filled to a point just below the top of the bowl. If you leave any tobacco overflowing, it will eventually burn the rim.
Now, using a wooden match or a butane flame (as with a cigar, paper matches or fluid-type lighters will impart a foreign taste to your tobacco), slowly walk the flame over the top of the tobacco, gently puffing on your pipe while you cover the entire area with the flame. Then tamp this burnt tobacco down gently. What you have done is create a "charring light," which prepares the tobacco for its true baptism of fire. Now you are ready to smoke. With a new flame, light the tobacco again, this time puffing on the pipe and drawing the fire down into the bowl. Now sit back, relax, and gently sip the smoke, as you would a fine Cognac. From time to time your pipe may go out. This is perfectly natural. Simply relight; it just takes a couple of puffs and an occasional gentle tamp on the tobacco to keep it compressed. Because heat produces condensation, and rid we tend to salivate when relaxing, it pays to keep a package of pipe cleaners handy. Simply thrust one down the airhole of your pipe whenever necessary, withdraw it, and get rid of the thing before anyone sees it. The fireplace is best.
Once you have entered the realm of the pipe smoker, you will find that you are in good company. Most great thinkers, writers and philosophers were pipe smokers: Byron, Tennyson, Emerson, Sandburg, Kipling, Twain, Einstein ... the list would make a great gathering for any hostess with an "A" party. But the image of the pipeman continues even today. Actors such as Jack Lemmon, Ted Shackelford, Jameneson Parker, and William Conrad are dedicated pipe smokers. So, too, are Hollywood producer Aaron Spelling, news commentator Walter Cronkite and musician Chet Atkins. Ironically, some of today's biggest megastars are ardent devotees of the pipe, but many of them insist on not being identified because of antismoking paranoia on the part of their agents or managers. Perhaps their agents and managers should start smoking pipes.
The image of a pipe smoker has always been one of an intelligent and honorable man. In fact, until John Mitchell was dishonored by Watergate, there never was a major crime committed by a pipe smoker. So fill your glass and then your pipe, place another log on the fire, and settle back with briar in hand. Let the aromatic clouds of smoke slowly drift upward, like the many thoughts and cares of the day, dispersing in the hidden eddies of the room. It is a time to contemplate, to be at peace with yourself and the world. This is the true pleasure of the pipe, a relaxing and not-too-distant deviation from our cigar. It is a sublime moment that the nonsmoker will never know, and we are all the more richer in that knowledge.
Richard Carleton Hacker is the author of The Ultimate Cigar Book.
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