The longer someone is in the world of pipes, the more complicated the considerations seem, especially when it comes to selecting a good pipe. So, what is the person new to pipe-smoking to do? How does one successfully navigate the correct acquisition of pipe and tobacco in order to determine whether one might actually enjoy pipe-smoking?
If you are new to pipe smoking, one challenge you face is that you probably don’t want to spend a large sum of money for a pipe when you don’t know whether or not you will enjoy pipe-smoking. This is perfectly understandable. If you decide you dislike pipe smoking, the last thing you want in your bedside table drawer is an expensive souvenir from your regrettable adventure.
If you don’t have a good friend, father, uncle, or grandfather who is willing to bestow a reliable pipe upon you for your experimentation, you must acquire a pipe on your own. This probably means buying one. Here’s the problem: it will be difficult to choose an inexpensive briar pipe that will reliably deliver good flavor or a good draw.
There are five attributes that combine to produce a serviceable briar pipe which is a pipe that will yield a good quality, if not great, smoke. Keep in mind that these are basic attributes and would not be applied to a collector-quality or fine artisan-made briar pipe. Just meeting these standards usually involves higher production costs than the price for which a typical inexpensive briar pipe might sell.
The quality of the briar that comprises the wooden bowl and shank of the pipe.
Briar quality is a critical variable in what makes a pipe a good smoker. Aside from obvious flaws (large pits, cracks, and crevices), it is very difficult–if not impossible–for a novice buyer to detect the difference between good briar and bad briar in any pipe. I consider myself an experienced pipe smoker, and I cannot differentiate good from bad briar.
Even very skilled artisans have been unable to make this distinction; I know this having purchased a few very expensive artisan-made pipes from marquee names that were made from bad briar. This is a rare occurrence, but it does happen. I mention this only to underscore the difficulty in appraising briar. The reason it is a rarity is that reputable pipe makers purchase their briar from briar cutters who take great pains to properly prepare briar for manufacturing.
Briar requires proper harvesting, preliminary aging, boiling, proper drying in storage, skilled cutting, secondary aging, then grading before a block is turned into a pipe. By the time all these processes occur, there is more money invested in the material from which your prospective pipe will be made than you are likely to want to pay for the pipe at your tobacconist. It is not uncommon for artisans to pay $40 to $60 for a single block of briar to make a pipe.
To make an inexpensive briar pipe that may be sold at a profit requires using briar where some key processing steps have been abbreviated or eliminated altogether. Take boiling, for example. Briar is boiled to drive the saps, resins, and tannins out of the wood. If they are still present in the briar, the heat from the burning tobacco will dry-distill them into the smoke stream, and the smoke flavor will be fouled by their presence.
It is impossible to determine what, if any, corners have been cut by inspecting a pipe which you are considering purchasing. While one can see flaws in the wood, one cannot see saps, resins, and tannins that are inside the wood structure. While poorer quality briar sometimes weighs more than high quality briar, it is impossible to detect the extent to which the briar has been aged before or after cutting.
Because low-price pipe producers must use low-grade briar in their pipes, they coat the tobacco chambers with a fireproof material that mitigates against the presence of saps, resins, and tannins using a silicate compound called “waterglass.” The coating is a firewall that is 1) intended to insulate the wood from the smoldering tobacco inside the chamber, and 2) intended to aid in “cake” formation: the build-up of residual carbon from tobaccos that are smoked inside the pipe.
Coating bowls as a whole–particularly waterglass coatings–is controversial among pipe smokers, primarily because many pipe smokers believe that an uncoated briar bowl improves the taste of tobaccos. While I believe that this might be true in the early stages of smoking a pipe before the chamber surface is insulated by carbon build-up (cake), I am skeptical of the difference once the pipe’s chamber walls have been insulated by layer of carbon. Plus, some of the greatest names in the artisanal community, e.g. Tom Eltang, Lars Ivarsson, and Jess Chonowitsch, etc., coat their bowls with waterglass. Chances are that any inexpensive briar pipe you will consider purchasing will come with a waterglass-coated bowl.
So, what does this mean to you? The cost of buying a pipe made from quality briar is asymmetrically higher than the smoking quality you’re likely to experience unless you are prepared to pay significantly more than are most new pipe smokers. At a price point that someone who is trying out pipe-smoking is probably willing to pay, you are more likely to get a good smoke from a cob than a briar pipe. Briar is a much more finicky material than corncob. A cob avoids the above-described pitfalls while introducing you to pipe smoking inexpensively. With a cheap briar pipe, you are almost certain to be disappointed.
Proper drilling of the tobacco chamber and the draft hole from the tobacco chamber through the shank and stem.
Like many aspects of the smoking pipe that seem elementary, there is more to proper drilling than one might expect. In basic terms, one inspects the tobacco chamber to ensure that the draft hole intersects the chamber at the bottom center of the chamber. The easiest way to see the relationship of the draft hole to the tobacco chamber is to run a pipe cleaner through the stem into the chamber. If you can see that the cleaner touches the chamber bottom as it emerges from the center of the chamber wall, it is properly drilled.
If the draft hole is slightly left or right of center, this will not materially affect smoking quality. However, if the draft hole is not at the chamber bottom, the tobacco at the bottom of the chamber will not burn properly and will likely leave a goopy residue. Believe it or not, by running a cleaner through wall pipes, I have found several that were not drilled all the way to the chamber. You will want to be able to easily run a cleaner through your pipe after (and sometimes during) smoking, so make sure the pipe will take a cleaner without too much fuss.
Tobacco chamber drilling is also important. The most important thing to inspect is the depth of the chamber compared to the overall bowl height. A chamber that is drilled too deep leaves insufficient material at the chamber bottom (the heel). This can result in the pipe burning out, something that occurs when the briar itself is burned by butane re-lighting or by the tobacco embers.
Although burn-outs are usually caused by flaws in the briar, they can also occur from over-heating the ember by puffing too fast or too hard. Because novice pipe smokers often “smoke hot” and re-light repeatedly in order to smoke the tobacco all the way to the chamber bottom. If you’re a new pipe smoker, it’s better to ensure that the heel is not too thin.
Personally, I prefer that the heel thickness is roughly equivalent to wall thickness with a minimum heel thickness of a quarter inch. (Thanks to Rad Davis for this rule of thumb.) Unless the pipe shop you’re in has a depth gauge or a micrometer and the person serving you is willing to measure chamber depth, you’ll have to improvise.
To measure the heel thickness, insert a pencil, pipe cleaner, or pen into the chamber center. Place your first and second fingers across the bowl top, squeezing the object between your fingers. Continue to hold the object between your fingers as you withdraw it from the chamber. Place your second finger on the bowl top so that the object parallels the chamber axis. You will readily observe that the end of the object descends as far as the chamber is deep. The distance between the end of the object and the bottom of the bowl is the approximate heel thickness.
Overall weight, balance, and hand-feel of the pipe.
If there is anything a new pipe smoker is unlikely to realize, it is how important weight and balance is in selecting a pipe. I’ve purchased pipes that delighted my eye that I rarely smoke because they are either ungainly or uncomfortable to hold or both. What I’ve learned is that, over time, I get used to how a pipe looks so beauty fades in importance. However, if a pipe is too heavy or uncomfortable to hold, these attributes do not fade. It never gets better. The pipe stays in the drawer or becomes a “Rack Queen.”
As a new pipe smoker, you probably don’t realize the extent to which you will develop a relationship with your pipe. A pipe is an intimate object; you put it in your mouth. If it tugs at your teeth like some crazed dentist because it’s too heavy, you’re not going to enjoy it, no matter how handsome you think it is.
I generally will not buy a pipe that weighs more than 50 grams. I prefer pipes that weigh no more than 40 grams. I have several pipes that weigh under 20 grams and they are, by far, my favorite smoking companions.
Diameter and depth of the tobacco chamber.
Chamber diameter is one of the most important considerations I appraise when I buy a pipe. I only purchase pipes with chamber diameters between 19 and 22 millimeters. In my case, I’ve learned that my favorite chamber diameters approximate the thickness of my thumb halfway to the knuckle. I believe that chambers that are narrower than 19 millimeters deliver significantly less flavor than their larger counterparts. Be advised that not everyone agrees with me; some pipe smokers believe that chamber diameter is unrelated to flavor intensity.
You should also consider chamber wall thickness. While I have a number of fairly thin-walled pipes that stay cool in my hand, many thin-walled pipes can be very hot to the touch, especially if one is just learning to smoke a pipe. I advise most new pipe smokers to choose pipes with walls that are as thick or thicker than a number two pencil.
Thickness of the stem at the button end of the mouthpiece.
An uncomfortably thick mouthpiece will make it difficult for you to feel comfortable clenching a pipe (holding it in your teeth), something you will undoubtedly try to do, even if you decide to become a sipper (holding the pipe in your hand when puffing).
Personally I prefer a mouthpiece thickness of approximately 4 mm. This is fairly common among good artisanal pipes and even among some better factory brands. Seldom have I encountered a wall or basket pipe with a mouthpiece this thin, but I suppose that there may be some out there. What’s important is to avoid pipes with mouthpieces that are thick and ungainly.
Another solution well worth considering.
In the pipe world, inexpensive briar pipes are called “basket pipes” or “wall pipes” because of where they have traditionally been displayed in tobacconists’ shops. Certainly, you will read and hear stories about individuals who have bought a wall or basket pipe that is, to this day some 20 years later, the very best pipe that he has ever smoked. Let’s get real. There are also people who win the lottery. There are first time track-betters who pick the trifecta, but what are your chances?
While it is easier to buy a good basket pipe than to win the lottery, that doesn’t mean it’s bound to happen. Unless money is no object or you are committed to smoking a pipe on principle, I urge you to let others gamble on inexpensive briar pipes. You are far more likely to experience a satisfying smoke if your very first smoke is in a corncob pipe.
Embrace your inner geezer.
Cobs deliver a cool, flavorful smoke. If that weren’t true, famous pipe smokers like Mark Twain or General Douglas MacArthur would never have waxed so lyrically upon the wonders of the corncob pipe. The cob also has the virtue of being inexpensive, especially when compared to its briar brethren.
When I recommend a corncob pipe, the prospective pipe buyer usually regards me as if I were trying to transform him into a hillbilly, a geezer, or a nerd. This is not the case. While the newbie will regard a smoking pipe as if it were a pair of shoes, a belt, or a watch, a pipe is not a fashion accessory–at least not until you are a well-heeled collector. (You know who you are.)
To a real pipe man, a pipe is only as good as it smokes. A pipe that is evocative of how one might imagine a sewage outlet tasting will never be redeemed by its good looks. A briar might look great clenched in your teeth, but if it’s improperly drilled or made from sour briar, you’re screwed. By way of contrast, I’ve never smoked a bad cob, and I’ve smoked plenty of them.
The average cob smokes a whole lot better than a low-cost briar pipe. And while it may not last as long as a briar pipe, the service it renders is likely to be sweeter and more appreciated while it lasts. I’m smoking cobs that I’ve had for five or more years.
Here’s the skinny: real pipe-smokers respect cobs and cob-smokers. So, if you want to look cool to your impressionable friends, go ahead and buy the pipe that looks all manly and cool in the mirror. If you want the respect of the guys at the pipe shop or club, and if you want a great quality smoke at a low price, give a corncob a try.
Should you decide you enjoy pipe-smoking, you can save your money to buy a good briar pipe later. You can enjoy learning about good briars while researching the various options available – options so plentiful that you may very well find yourself overwhelmed by choice.
When you do get around to acquiring a good briar pipe, you may be amazed at how a good cob experience is hard to surpass, even with a fine briar pipe. While I personally like smoking briars more than anything else, I love my cobs, too. After all these years, I still smoke cobs and you probably will, too.
Pipes are important. We all love our pipes. But a great experience smoking a pipe is more dependent on the quality of tobacco than anything else. If you load a $5,000 Jess Chonowitsch pipe with nasty tobacco, the pipe won’t save you. So make sure you read my previous posts about selecting tobacco.