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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Light both pipes using matches, but don’t start smoking in earnest. Refresh your palate with a water, cracker, water cycle.
- 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.
- Take a 30-minute rest. Do another water-cracker-water cycle.
- Repeat the above process with the Virginias blend.
- 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.
I just found articles by Greg Pease on this subject from December 2003 that are interesting reads from Greg’s perspective. You can find the articles here.
Please find here pictures of two pipes that Rick Newcombe has used his cleaner test on (see comment below).