Finding That Magic Fit Between Pipe and Tobacco

Why do we dedicate pipes?

Some pipe smokers dedicate pipes to particular blends or styles of blends. Because dedication is often accomplished when a pipe is new, the process precludes the possibility of experimenting with several blends before making a final decision. This practice prompts a couple of  questions:

  • Why dedicate pipes to specific tobaccos?
  • Without having experienced different blends in a pipe, how do we pre-judge which pipes are best suited for particular tobaccos.

I dedicate pipes to tobaccos for several reasons. First, I have concluded that particular shape types or chamber geometries is often better-suited to a particular type and/or style of tobacco, e.g. English, Oriental Blends, and Virginia-Periques.

Secondly, because I smoke a range and variety of tobaccos that are incompatible with others, I want to avoid obscuring the taste of a particular favorite blend with some other tobacco, especially if that favored blend possesses singular flavors that are amenable to lingering within the pipe. These residual flavors – commonly called “ghosts” – add undesirable notes to different styles of blends, obscuring or sometimes destroying the blender’s intentions and the tobacco’s flavors.

Some tobaccos ghosts are both more obnoxious and more stubborn than their gentler counterparts. Certain Lakeland-style tobaccos, for example, leave a soapy, perfumey ghost that is redolent of tonquin, honeydew, rose, clove, or geranium. These are ghosts that are more at home in a girdle-filled drawer than one of my pipes.

So, someone who enjoys variety in what they smoke may have learned the hard way that it is near impossible to enjoy a Virginia-Perique flake in a pipe that has habitually extended its hospitality to the occasional aromatic or to a robust English blend. This experience is not unlike stumbling upon the taste of onions in one’s peach cobbler, an unfortunate dessert experience that I occasioned, having cluelessly deployed my wife’s hardwood cutting board before she unwittingly sliced peaches upon the same surface. (She had a slight cold and was deprived of her otherwise keen sense of smell. As things turned out, she was also deprived of her customary sense of humor, but I digress.)

What assumptions and experience guide our dedication decisions?

When it comes to dedicating pipes to blends or blend styles, there is no little conventional wisdom out there. I have often heard a friend declare, “This would make a great flake pipe” or “This pipe is ideal for smoking English blends.”

Such statements beg the question, “Why? Why would this make a great flake/English pipe?”

As many times as I have heard or read these declarations, I have never heard them challenged. These statements pass as if they were received wisdom.

What role does tobacco chamber geometry play in dedicating pipes to tobaccos?

 In my experience, chamber geometry emphasizes and de-emphasizes particular flavor characteristics that are typical in blends. The robustness and complexity of English blends, for example, are underscored when they are smoked in a pot or a Prince. Both shapes have chamber geometries that are, for all intents and purposes square. Their diameter is approximately the same dimension as their height.

Allow me to share a brief story as a case in point. My friend Greg Pease’s fondness for English tobacco blends is widely known in the pipe world. If you know the G.L. Pease line of blends, you know that it is a fact that most of his blends are English. Greg’s collecting obsession with Castello No. 55 pipes is also well known, as is his fondness for the Prince of Wales shape. Both the Prince and the 55 are functionally pots. Their chambers’ aspect ratios are essentially 1:1 or cube-like. Is it a coincidence that Greg’s favorite pipe shapes are those with a chamber geometry that highlight those blends’ virtues? I think not.

Recently, I suggested to my friend Robert Lawing – if he really wanted to experience the McClelland re-release of Ashton’s Old Dog – that he smoke the blends in a Prince.

By way of background, in recent years Robert has preferred Virginias. He told me, “I just don’t like English blends that much anymore.” Robert took my advice and was truly amazed. As a result, he has started a significant effort toward acquring more Prince-shaped pipes. He has fallen in love with English blends again because he is smoking those blends inside tobacco chambers that advantage the blends’ flavors.

What common chamber geometries exist?

Chamber geometry has an extraordinary impact on how tobacco tastes. So what are the differences in chamber geometry? As the illustration shows, there are fundamentally three basic chamber shapes that approximate aspect ratios of the diameter to depth: Square (cube), Rectangular, and Conical (Triangular) The illustration below depicts those geometries and associates particular pipe shapes that have historically been associated with them.

I hesitate to associate shapes with chamber geometry for an important reason. Artisans can and do drill chambers according to their own preference and experience rather than according to what the exterior shape might suggest fits. A good example is the Dublin and the conical bowl combination. Most Dublins feature rectangular-tubular chamber geometry which is the same configuration as billiards. That’s why so many Dublins look so thick-walled when examined looking down at the bowl top. As the bowl tapers, the walls get thinner. Because artisans wish to maintain a certain wall thickness, the diameter of rectangular geometries in Dublins are constrained by the narrowest part of the bowl taper.

When I commissioned my Jorn Micke-styled Dublin, I asked Alex Florov to put a conical chamber in the pipe. I wanted that chamber geometry for specific smoking reasons. While conical chambers may have gone out of fashion (this is my impression), they are remarkable when smoking folded-and-stuffed Balkan-style flakes. I find that conical chambers exaggerate flavor development as the tobacco burn progresses toward the bowl bottom. Different flavors present further forward to the palate. It’s something I like very much and never experience in a pipe with a different bowl geometry.

When I imagine a pipe shape that is likely to be a fine Virginias smoker, I think of the billiard. The billiard’s chamber configuration emphasizes the sweet aspects of mature red Virginias. My hypothesis is that the condensation zones’ proximity to the combustion zone solvates more sugars into the smoke stream. 

Does the pipe-smoker’s subconscious mind play a role in selecting pipes?

In pondering the process by which pipe-smokers select pipes, I wonder whether or not the sub-conscious mind helps guide pipe selection.

My friend, Fred Hanna, collects perfect straight-grained pipes. Fred’s stringent aesthetic standards are widely known among collectors and especially among pipe makers. But having talked with Fred quite a bit, I also know that he prefers a certain style of pipe. He likes bents with large bowls. The pipes that he’s shown me exhibit a generous capacity. Those capacious chambers are well-suited to the English blends that I know Fred enjoys. I wonder, do our best smoking experiences - those with an optimal fit between pipe and tobacco - lead us to choose specific pipe shapes, styles, and presumably makers? Do we actually begin to make choices without being consciously aware of what might be driving the choice?

Function or form? What should we be thinking about?

For many years, when I selected a pipe I paid more attention to aesthetics and workmanship than I did to key aspects of smoking quality: stem and button design, chamber geometry, weight, and balance. That’s shifted significantly. Today, when I consider a pipe, I am increasingly sensitive to how a pipe is likely to function. There are many exquisite pipes out there that just don’t suit my smoking preferences.

Of course, every artisan out there proclaims that “My first objective is to make a pipe that is perfectly engineered and that smokes superbly.” While I don’t dispute anyone’s claim, the fact is that there are significant differences in the way different pipes perform, especially when tobacco - a key performance variable - is introduced into consideration.

In the past, I have placed far too much emphasis upon pipe aesthetics as opposed to pipe function. As I have experimented more, observed more, and kept better track of my smoking experiences with respect to matching pipes and tobacco, the quality of my smoking experience has increased markedly. Today, when I consider a pipe, the first thing I think about is its chamber configuration. Secondly, I consider stem and button design. Finally, I appraise weight and balance. As a result, recent acquisitions are providing significantly more satisfaction in my pipe-smoking experience.

Experiment for Yourself

When it comes to considering the merits of hypotheses associated with chamber shape, nothing takes the place of experience. I urge you to try the following experiment. You will need a notebook, two tobaccos, four pipes, matches, water, and unflavored crackers.

  1. Select four pipes from your rotation: Two with chambers where the diameter and depth are approximately the same. If you have a Castello 55 or a Prince, or a pot - these are ideal; and two with chambers where the depth proportionately exceeds the diameter - billiards, lovats, or apples.
  2. Select two tobacco blend types. I suggest an English blend and a straight, mature Red Virginia. A VaPer will work fine so long as the tobacco has more sweetness than spiciness.
  3. Next, take the English blend and load it into one cube-chamber geometry pipe (pot, prince, etc.) and one rectangular-geometry pipe. Try to pack the tobaccos similarly in both pipes.
  4. Light both pipes using matches, but don’t start smoking in earnest. Refresh your palate with a water, cracker, water cycle.
  5. Now, alternate smoking the blend using both pipes. Don’t stay too long with one pipe to avoid having the tobacco develop asymmetrically. Notice the differences - if there are any - and make notes regarding the differences. Refresh your palate every 10 minutes or so with a water-cracker-water cycle. Try to keep your palate as refreshed as possible. Don’t over-smoke or puff too hard. Hold the smoke in your mouth, taking note of the various flavor components, especially which flavors present with more emphasis.
  6. Take a 30-minute rest. Do another water-cracker-water cycle.
  7. Repeat the above process with the Virginias blend.
  8. Be sure and come back here to comment upon what you have observed and experienced.

I really hope that we can spark a discussion here from experimentation and reporting that will advance what we know about making that magic fit work between pipes and tobacco. I hope you’ll be a part of advancing our collective knowledge by sharing and commenting.


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Reader Comments (21)

Neill - Thank you for these recent postings. It really is helpful and I am floored by the amount of sweat you've put into this.

I look forward to trying your experiment both to learn further how all of this works and to have the opportunity to give my wife and daughter even more evidence that I am mad as a March Hare. Assuming that they have not had me carried off with my crackers, water, pipes, tobacco, cleaners, polish, reamers (and the bottle of Laphroaig I keep under my desk), I will let you know what I discover.

Oh, and I am in no way suggesting that you appear to be similarly afflicted. You can claim this is in the interest of rational inquiry but I have already been diagnosed through familial observation and the prognosis is not good.

October 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWarren

Warren, I echo your sentiments regarding Neill's efforts and astuteness. As to your acceptance of your family's judgments against your sanity, well . . . can they properly judge you unless they have their own array of paraphernelia in regular use?

The only thing that makes me wonder a little is why you haven't yet supplemented that bottle of Laphroaig with a bottle of Hibiki blended bourbon. It's like only smoking pure Latakia without the occasional Virginia!

Looking forward to comparing notes, assuming that they'll let us out of our strait jackets and let us write letters with soft pointed crayons.

For what it's worth, my wife and children – along with my close friends who haven't discovered the seduction of rare smoke – also have pretty well determined that I've left my orbit. And I LIKE it out here!

October 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Stultz

This is one of the most interesting pipe articles I have ever read, and I have two quick comments about specific issues that are raised:

1. The perfume smell, which I used to hate and now appreciate for a once-a-month smoke as a change of pace, comes from the tobacco blenders adding a slight amount of essence of Rose Oil to the Virginias; and

2. All of my best smoking pipes -- FOR ME (I stress this because everyone has a different experience) -- have U-shaped interiors at the bottom of the bowl. Jim Benjamin used to say, "There are V-shaped pipe smokers and U-shaped pipe smokers."

I have a simple test in which I use Vauen striped cleaners -- if I can see three or more white stripes at the bottom of the bowl, I know it is more likely to be a good smoker for me. If I only see one white stripe, I know it will only be good for the first two-thirds of the bowl, but forget it after that. It does not matter what the outside of the bowl looks like, even if it is conically shaped.

October 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick Newcombe

This sounds like a great experiment. I can't wait until I have a balcony or even a front porch to enjoy my pipes on. For now a park bench will have to do.

I have a tiny little handmade Stanwell billiard that seems to be engineered to accept 2 folded and stuffed (air pocket method) coins of Escudo. So I smoke nothing else in it.

Incredibly I have a E.A. Carey Magic Inch billiard shape (now I'm bringing out the TRUE Hi-Grade) that smokes Ribbon Cut beautifully.

I am currently trying to decide what to smoke in my newest pipe. I haven't had a single bowl yet. It is a MAMMOTH poker carved by Olie Sylvester of Monstrosity fame. It is a full index finger deep, and a chubby index finger wide.

October 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterBeefyTee

Neill, Being a subject of intense discussion during our cruise from Alaska a few months ago, I have been paying much closer attention to and experimenting with pipe chamber aspect ratios and tobacco types. While I have all but lost my taste for red Virginia, finding the tomato paste flavor to be somewhat overwhelming, I have been running tests using golden Virginias (Rotary, Renier LGF and Capstan) and several different English/Orientals (Balkan Sobrani, Chelsea Morning and lately Wilderness.).

I absolutely concur that the English/Orientals develop better flavor in a square chamber like a pot or prince. Alternatively, a taller, narrower chamber (more chimney like) really makes the sweet Virginias sing.

Another factor that I find comes into play is overall chamber volume. I have found, generally speaking, that a larger volume chamber produces a rounder, mellower smoke while a smaller capacity chamber produces a more focussed and intense smoke. I have a taste for both experiences so I find that, taking a moment to ponder what I really want in a pipe right then and selecting the pipe while considering these factors, really adds to the overall enjoyment and satisfaction of my smoking experience.

As to why the marked difference in smoke quality between big volume and small volume chamber, I can only surmise. However I think it is due to the cooling and filtration effect of the smoke moving through a larger volume of tobacco as well as the much larger distillation zone achieved in the larger volume chamber which creates a larger ration of distilled flavor to smoke flavors.

I have also concluded that it is much easier for a maker to produce a good smoker with a large capacity chamber. Creating a small capacity pipe that produces great, focussed flavors is much more of a challenge to the pipe maker. If the engineering is not spot on, the intensifying effect of smaller capacity only amplifies the flaws in the pipe's engineering. Conversely, if the engineering and the wood are balanced, the intensification and concentration of flavors can offer some of the very best smoking experiences ever.

Another factor that may come into play is the role of the wood in absorbing heat evenly as well as the difference between smooth and rough finishes in dissipating heat. Conterintuitively, some thin walled pipes smoke cool to the taste and touch, while some thicker walled pipes smoke hot. I think this may have more to do with "hotspots" in the wood itself, uneven density or pockets of residual moisture or sap that conduct heat better than other areas in the wood. Obviously this is an area over which a pipe maker has far less control and may be more the province of the briar supplier. It may well be the serendipity of working with an organic, and therefor unpredictable material.

Thanks for opening this avenue of inquiry. I firmly believe that learning ones pipes & tobaccos, paying attention to how they interplay and exercising some forethought and intentionality can greatly enhance that elusive smoking experience we all seek.

Richard Friedman

October 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Friedman

even if the blogpost is outstanding regarding all the thinking about this theme, i guess its still too simple.
and i fear we will not get a clearing finish about that mistery of combining pipes with tobacco.
i have only one prince shape and ive got it from larrysson pipes paul hubbart. i want it for virginias but i got no satisfying smoke with it. after reading your newest blog post i decided to smoke it with chelsea morning and now i think it works, but i need a lot of more smokes to tell for real. i cant stand myself but asking me: isnt this a brillant example for placebo, because i want it to smoke better?
i like billards and pot shapes so i have a lot of them an i like virginias more then english blends. thats why i can tell, that billards and pots work well with virginias, but i have no idea why english blends shouldnt smoke equal in it.
sometimes im obsessed to swear that english blends should be smoked in my black stained pipes.
its a combination in my brain saying: black pipes are for darker tobaccos, but this works also with black xx rope or bayou morning. no obvious reason to make this true.....but it works.
this is also with my natural coloured pipes. my brain say: virginias blondes in it. so somehow the colour directs me.
i use to smoke giant pipes and im pretty sure, they all brings out the flavour more like an orchestra, whereas the smaller pipes are better for hearing the solos of a flavour.
at last i must admit i use 9mm meerschaum filter. here in germany all experianced pipesmokers tell me, that this way i have no idea about tobaccoflavours! so be careful to trust my comments ;-)
another aspect may be the origin of the briarwood and the age oft it and maybe the conditions of cellering and other treatments.
at last the kind of pipe maybe relevant? a lot of smokers think, that morta is better for english balkan style blends. but again: why?
and here they say, that meerschaum pipes are the queen of pipes and brings the tobacco flavour out best.
i never smoked one and if the statement would be true, why are briar pipes selling so much better?
uha, more question less answer, but im very keen on reading more comments.
please forgive ma my poor english!

October 30, 2010 | Registered CommenterPipeCulture

Silly question I suppose, but doesnt the "combustion zone" move lower in the pipe as one smokes towards the bottom of the bowl? If so, then the proposed "zones" below it, all collapse downward as well, do they not?

That said, this little Falcon I am enjoying at the moment must have the perfect geometry, as it is smoking like a champ.

October 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterComparadun

Dreaded red X on the Newcombe pipe pictures.

Is the rectangular vs square chamber valid ?

If one half fills a billiard will it not function exactly the same as a pot ?

October 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDunkeld

Dunkeld wrote:

Is the rectangular vs square chamber valid ?

If one half fills a billiard will it not function exactly the same as a pot ?

I've thought the same thing. I can appreciate your question.

I think it would depend on the diameter of the billiard. A smaller chamber diameter has too little area for the distillation zone. So, I think it is not just a question of the geometry, but also the size of the ember relative to the area of the distillation zone.

Princes and pots have larger diameter chamber drilling than billiards - at least that is the case in my pipe collection. I have had some larger diameter billiards in the past. I wish I had one now to give this a try.

October 31, 2010 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan


How timely this article luck would have it, I just finished the first Pot I have ever made. Not being personally fond of the shape, I decided that should not be a reason to preclude it from my repertoire.

When the time came to drill the bowl, I decided on a 13/16ths diameter, which left a thicker wall than what I normally make. I could just as well have moved up to 7/8ths, which would be more in keeping with the discussion at hand.

Furthermore, I have been experimenting with different chamber configurations for nearly a year now, primarily for concerns of moisture and to produce smokes that always burn right to the bottom. Taste and flavor were not a part of that consideration, but volume of tobacco and what appears to me to be a contemporary preference for 3/4-13/16ths diameter chambers were.

Again, a great discussion and thanks for adding another dimension to my on-going quest in chamber construction. I will have to grab all the requisite paraphernalia and try for myself...


October 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Pohlmann

Dunkeld's sensible question:

"Is the rectangular vs square chamber valid ?

If one half fills a billiard will it not function exactly the same as a pot ?"...

is, I think best addressed in Richard's post about the differing volumes of tobacco under the combustion zone i.e. in the distillation zone of a fully filled rectangular bowl. Starting half full would reduce this to become more akin to a square bowl?

November 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo

Just tried the first part of the experiment above by smoking Va (in this case Capstan Medium) side by side in a Prince and a tall Zulu (both shop specials from the same London maker to avoid confusion with Fred's "pipe brand mystique". The smoke in the Prince was OK, remaining consistent throughout the bowl, whereas the smoke in the Zulu, although starting a bit hotter (the ember filling the bowl) developed in flavour dramatically as the bowl progressed. I've long held to the belief of tall (not necessarily small) pipes for flake Va's but this has been overtaken a bit by thinking my Pots do best with everything (not borne out by this test though).

I'll try the mixture test later but I already know that my enjoyment of these blends has been vastly enhanced following Neill's post on SF about smoking Wilderness (and Legends) in a Pot or Prince.

November 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo

Thanks again Neill, more food for thought.

November 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEd Anderson

I completed the second part of the experiment today (I know that's not exactly as Neiil laid out but real life intervened!) by smoking Wilderness in the same two pipes. The square bowl gave the expected superb flavour and the development through the bowl was good (check - the complexity of the baccy or the pipe shape?) - as expected because that's exactly how I've been smoking this marvellous blend.
The other rectangular bowled Zulu again started hot but quickly calmed down to be a fine smoke but somewhat "mean" after the wider bowl, seemed more astringent (not the Syrian - that's a constant) - and didn't develop as the Va. did in this deep bowled pipe.

Results? - really very subjective observations:

Can the difference between smoking these baccy's in square or rectangular bowls be discerned - Yes.

Is the difference effective? - for Va.s only marginally; for English mixtures (or at least this one) very much so.

Fascinating to see if the experience of others is the same or whether by far the biggest variable is the smoker.

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo

I thought I'd take this a stage further in the light of some comments by repeating the Wilderness smoke but substituting a large Billiard (of the same make) for the Zulu as the rectangular bowl; exactly the same bowl internal diameter as the Prince but nearly twice as deep.

The smoke in the Prince was exactly as before; the Billiard started similar to the Zulu - a bit hotter and less flavour than the Prince but it did develop better than the Zulu as the bowl progressed - by halfway it was good but never gave up as much oomph as the Prince did.

What do we make of that?

There is an advantage in square bowls for smoking English mixtures and the whole of the smoke is good.

A large wide rectangular bowl is much better than a tall narrow rectangular bowl for these blends but not from the start of the smoke and not as overall effective as a square bowl.

Bo(w)l(e)d conclusions from just a couple of smokes so let's just say immediate subjective impressions!

November 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo

I finally had enough free time over the weekend to devote the time and attention I felt needed for this experiment, so here are my findings. I found that the Latakia was more noticable on the inital light in the prince shape and seemed to evolve throught the bowl (I would taste the latakia, then the orientals came through with a light sweetness associated with the red Va) whereas the billiard loaded with the english mixture seemed flat and lacking in the flavor department throughout the entire bowl. Then off to try the Va experiment, I am mostly a Va & Va/per smoker and found it to be interesting that most of my pipes have the rectangular bowl geometry and indeed handle these types of blends well. I loaded up 2 different bowl geometry pipes with some Red Ribbon and the volcano shape undoubtedly delivered the better smoking experience of the two. The RR in the volcano was very sweet, burned cooler (the pot seemed to want to burn my tounge on every draw) and the flavor was there throught the bowl, whereas the RR in the pot was very uninteresting/bland from the get go.....

November 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterDustin Ash
What other types of tobacco would benefit from a conical chamber? Just Balkan-style flakes? I imagine that all flakes, Virginia or otherwise, might do well in a conical chamber. As the flakes expand throughout the smoke I imagine the narrowing chamber would intensify the flavors. Just curious, since the general consensus is that "square" (i.e., prince or pot) chambers are good for Englsih/Latakia blends, while rectangular (i.e., billiard) chambers are good for virginias, yet there isn't much mention of what else would be successful in a conical shaped bowl. How about Escudo? Plumcake? Tudor Castle? Surely, the conical bowl must give some interesting perspectives on these tobaccos . . .
March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLord Morley
Not everyone can understand why smokers love their pipes and tobacco, but it is the respect and responsible usage that make this habit tolerable for non-smokers. Some find it helpful to relieve their stress while others consider it as a social activity. Thank you for sharing such an interesting piece.
March 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLong Beach Smokers
What would you recommened for aromatics & burleys?
September 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen
For burley I would certainly go with Solani's aged burley flake. And for aromatics Lane's Hazelnut
December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJP

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