Monday, February 10, 2020

A Hobby, Not a Habit

And now for something completely different... the art of pipe smoking.

I thought it might be fun to talk a little bit about something less serious -- a relaxing pastime that for me began just a few short months ago, yet it already seems as if I've been doing it forever.

Not long after we moved to Idaho, we were out visiting a shopping center in Spokane called the Flour Mill, which used to be just that -- a flour factory -- but has since been converted into a little marketplace. It was a charming location that reminded me of all the quaint mom-and-pop novelty shops that line the waterway at Pike Place Market back in Seattle. Inside the Flour Mill is, among other things, a tobacconist's shop. I used to smoke cigars, back when they were trendy in the '90s, and every now and then I'll still pick up a stogie. Yet the last time I bought one, at a restaurant here in Wallace, I set it aside and it went stale. So on one hand, I was curious to check this place out, but on the other hand I figured it might just be a waste of time.

That's when my 8-year-old prodded me to go in and look at the pipes. She'd been telling me for a few months up to that point that she thought I should start smoking a pipe. It would make me look more like a dad, she said, adding, helpfully, that pipe smoking is something old guys like to do. Maybe she got the idea from watching Gandalf and the hobbits puffing away in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm not sure. Or maybe I mentioned that I had an uncle who smoked a pipe when I was a kid. Or maybe I mentioned that I tried taking up the pipe hobby once years ago but gave up on it in frustration when I couldn't keep the pipe lit.

So I decided to pop into the store, not really knowing what the heck I was looking for. From an aesthetic point of view, I liked churchwarden pipes -- the ones with the long stems that everyone in the Lord of the Rings films smoked. So I picked up a long-stemmed wooden pipe from the bargain rack, bought a few pouches of tobacco, and went home to fire up.

That was twenty-odd pipes ago, and now firing up a pipe has become a nightly ritual. Yeah, that's a lot of pipes. But here's the thing: When I throw myself into something new, I tend to go whole hog. I wanted to try different types of pipes made of different materials, and to enjoy them with a variety of different tobaccos, to make sure this was something I wanted to stick with and also to maximize my enjoyment. Because, after all, pipe-smoking is about slowing down, about relaxing, puffing, and pondering. And to do that, you need the right combination of pipe and tobacco that make you happy.

It almost seems taboo to even talk about enjoying the pleasures of smoking these days. But I guess I never got caught up in the whole public panic over smoking since just about everyone I knew growing up smoked, friends and family alike. And aside from my aforementioned uncle, they all smoked cigarettes. I didn't mind the smell of cigarettes, but I never saw the appeal in smoking them. They seemed to be more of a way to get a quick hit of nicotine to calm your nerves than something you sat down and enjoyed.

Pipes, on the other hand, are little works of art that you can fill, light up, and savor -- a contemplative leisure activity that turns the smoking experience into more of a hobby than a habit. It's no accident, I think, that pipes are associated with authors, thinkers, professors in tweed jackets, and all that. Tolkien, Einstein, Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes. You get the idea. And where nonsmokers find the smell of cigarettes unpleasant, I find that the same people often get a whiff of some nice aromatic pipe smoke and will tell you it brings back pleasant memories of their dads and grandfathers.

For me, cigars and pipes always held a certain appeal. So once I had a job and could afford to indulge a little bit, I got into cigars. That was in the mid-'90s, at the height of the cigar fad. I had my little humidor, my cigar cutter, and my torch lighter. I went to the cigar shops and lingered over the options, acting like one of those seasoned connoisseurs who drone on about subtle notes of plum and chocolate. I even took a few day trips over to Windsor, Ontario, to sample the Cuban cigars that were renowned for their superior flavor but unavailable in the USA because of the embargo against Cuba. I never thought the Cuban smokes were much better, but then maybe my palate wasn't refined enough to notice the subtle differences. But there were also a lot of junk cigars being pushed out back then to satisfy demand. So who knows.

In any event, my interest waned by the time I met my wife, who didn't like the smell of cigars anyway. So sometime in the early 2000s, I gave pipe smoking a try. I knew nothing about pipes, and in the early 2000s, you couldn't just pop on to the internet and find a deluge of helpful resources at your fingertips. And since I was never very close to that old pipe-smoking uncle, I didn't feel comfortable picking his brain. So I winged it. I recall eventually buying a couple of little meerschaum pipes carved to look like the heads of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. And I also remember that I couldn't keep the darn things lit. I probably wasn't packing them properly, since I didn't know how. And I just found the experience frustrating instead of relaxing. I must have sold or donated the pipes, and that was that -- until 15 or so years later, when I had a kid who urged me to give pipe-smoking another spin.

Maybe I was more ready for it in my late forties than I was in my early thirties -- the typical pipe smoker is over 45, after all -- but I immediately found puffing on a pipe relaxing. It took me a while to get the packing right so the tobacco would keep burning -- and sometimes my pipes still go out, but I've learned that that's OK, so I don't stress about it anymore. I've picked up some good tips and expectations from being able to talk with other pipe smokers on social media, reading forums, and so on.

It could be that you just need to have the right frame of mind to enjoy pipes. I'm not exactly a Zen guy, especially given my precarious health, but I think I'm far more mellow now than when I was in my early thirties. And I just don't think you can be a high-strung person and get any enjoyment out of a pipe, because it's something that forces you to slow down and relax.

The entire process is like a ritual -- similar to a tea ceremony, as my wife astutely pointed out -- in that you have to choose your pipe, then choose your tobacco, then pack the pipe properly, test the draw, light it, puff, get the top of your tobacco nice and charred, relight, and then sit back and relax. But even then you might have to tamp down your bowl while you're smoking, to keep the hot embers in contact with the unsmoked tobacco beneath -- and sometimes you'll just have to grab another match and relight the whole thing. Then when you're done, you have to clean out your bowl, dump your ash and spent matches, run a pipe cleaner through your pipe, and put your pipe back on the rack. It all takes patience. To 32-year-old me, that all would have sounded tedious and annoying. To 48-year-old me, it's an enjoyable way to kick back in the evening and mellow out for a bit.

But boy, when you're getting into the pipe hobby, you'll be inundated with opinions and advice from other pipe-smokers. Everyone has a viewpoint about the proper way to pack a bowl, what kind of lighter you should use, how often you should puff, what types and cuts of tobaccos to use, how you should break in a new pipe, whether your pipe should have a filter, what type of material your pipe should be made of, and a hundred and one other things that I won't bore anyone with. Ultimately, once you get down the basics, the rest is just a matter of personal preference. Pipe "experts" can be just as annoying and full of themselves as the cigar and wine pros who'd have you sniffing and swirling stuff around in your mouth and trying to convince you why some esoteric quality you'd never notice on your own justifies paying 50 times as much for some rare, special blend as you would for a decent-enough product at the corner grocery store. The goal isn't to impress anyone or drain your bank account but simply to enjoy yourself.

I know, I hear you. Don't drain your bank account, he says. The guy who owns more than 20 pipes!

Well, most of the cost of indulging in pipes is up front. Once you've bought your pipes and supplies, all you need to do is occasionally replenish your tobacco, pipe cleaners, and matches or lighter fluid. And pipes don't need to be expensive to be good smokers. Even in my short time in this hobby, it seems pretty clear to me that once you pay over a certain amount for a pipe, you're paying for a brand name or age or craftsmanship or collectibility, but not for a better smoking experience. I did pay a fair amount for a couple of my pipes, mainly because I liked the look of them, but most of them were pretty inexpensive -- thanks to eBay and its seemingly endless supply of auctions of "estate pipes," which is insider lingo for used pipes. (That's not as gross as it might seem -- generally, sellers do a good job of cleaning up and sterilizing the old pipes they're selling.)

So what are my favorites? Well, there are different things I like about each of my pipes. I've sought out pipes made of a wide variety of materials, since I'd read lots of pros and cons of each, to see which would suit me best. One thing I did figure out early on is that I prefer bent pipes to straight ones. From a practical standpoint, bent pipes stay out of your field of vision better than straights do, and that's a good thing when you make your living on a computer and you want to puff and read at the same time. From an aesthetic point of view, I also prefer the curves of a bent pipe. I think those curves make them look more elegant and beautiful. Straight pipes just look... well, very rigid and, dare I say, phallic. (Freud was known to smoke pipes... I wonder what he would have said about that. A pipe is just a pipe, maybe?)

At the same time, while I still like my long-stemmed churchwarden pipes, there's something to be said for a pipe that doesn't need to be held while smoking. Shorter pipes that you can clench with your teeth are great for multitasking -- very useful if you need your hands free while you're smoking, as one does if you work at a computer keyboard. Churchwardens, then, are best for when you can spare a hand and devote your full attention to your smoking experience. Their long stems also make for a cooler smoking experience, since the smoke has to travel further up the stem, and they have the related benefit of keeping the hot smoke from the bowl out of your face.

Incidentally, if you're wondering about the name, churchwardens are said to have originated in the days when churches employed night watchmen, who preferred long-stemmed pipes to keep their field of vision free as they patrolled the grounds. Other tales say the long stems allowed the watchmen to remain inside the church building while releasing the smoke outside, by sticking the bowl out a window. But since smoke comes out of one's mouth as well, I'm not so sure I buy the latter explanation.

Here, then, are some observations on my piping so far, going through my collection by material type.


Briar. The most popular type of pipe material is wood, in particular briar -- which comes from underground burls of the white heath tree, most common in the Mediterranean region. This type of wood is heat and fire resistant, which is advantageous for obvious reasons. Yet despite being a very hard and dense wood, it's also quite porous, so it can absorb the tar, oils, and other moisture from the tobacco, resulting in a clean and dry smoking experience.

I have six briars.

This one, a churchwarden from U.S.-based Mitchell Thomas, is the first one I bought. The shallow bowl has an unusual oval shape, but I didn't even notice that when I purchased it -- which goes to show you just how little I knew at the outset of this adventure.

I know now that they call these "opera pipes," and as with most things related to pipe lore, there's more than one story about how the name came about. Some say opera pipes were designed with a slimmer profile in mind so that opera-goers could slip them in their jacket pocket and take them out for a quick smoke at intermission. Others say that the term "opera" is a corruption of the French term "au pair," suggesting that nannies preferred to hide away their pipes from the parents employing them. Who knows which story is true, if either.

Here's another churchwarden, with a normal round chamber. This one comes from Mr. Brog, a Polish manufacturer of budget-priced pipes.

This is an Oom Paul pipe, named for the person who made the deeply bent style famous: Paul Kruger, who was president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900 and a key figure in the Boer Wars. "Oom" is the Afrikaans word for "uncle." My Oom Paul, made by Italian pipemaker Cesare Barontini, was an estate pipe I found on eBay when I wanted to find a good clenching pipe. It has a nice, deep chamber, making it good for a long smoke. It hangs with ease from my mouth and rests comfortably against my chin, so it's a good pipe as far as that goes, too. But because of the severe bend, it sits closer to my face than any of my pipes, which means I end up dodging more smoke. Good points and bad points to this one.

Here's a so-called hunter pipe, from a long-gone Swiss company called BBK. These are old rustic beauties, works of art that you might expect to find hanging above the fireplace in an old hunting lodge. This pipe, like most from BBK, is decorated with nature-themed silver accents -- this one with flowers (or maybe sunbursts) and a deer -- and a chain runs from the stem to a silver wind cap that covers the tobacco chamber. You don't see wind caps very much, but they do just what you'd expect -- help keep your pipe lit if you're in a breezy environment. I bought this one mainly for its looks, but it is still functional, despite its probable age. BBK went out of business in the 1970s, but its manufacture of distinctly Old World-style pipes like these mostly ended in the 1930s. So this pipe is probably around 90 years old, at a minimum.

This is a Vauen estate pipe from Germany. I picked this up when I wanted something cheap to throw in a carry case, in the event I wanted a pipe on the go. This old guy was well used, and I got it for just $25. And it's one of the best smokers in my whole collection. It was the first pipe I got all the way through without having to relight a single time. It ended up being one of my daily smokers around the house instead of an occasional pipe I might light up on the road.

And finally, this is my Peterson Irish Harp. It's one of the few pipes I bought new, and one of the only ones I paid a premium price for. Most people tell you that if you want a quality briar, get yourself a Peterson or a Savinelli. Both companies have a long history of creating quality pipes, with Dublin-based Peterson dating back to the 1860s. I went with a Peterson after finding this beauty at a tobacconist's shop in Coeur d'Alene. It looks and smokes great, but was it worth the extra cost? Time will tell, perhaps.

Pearwood. Like briar, pear is a hard, dense wood. But it tends to burn warmer than briar, so it's generally considered a less desirable choice for pipes.

I have just one pearwood pipe. It was the second pipe I bought -- also a churchwarden, with the Tree of Gondor imprinted into front side of the bowl. How could a Lord of the Rings fan resist? Considering it was inexpensive, purchased through Amazon from KAFpipe, a small Ukrainian company, it's actually a pretty nice pipe -- one of my favorites.


These two pipes were a very inexpensive impulse purchase from eBay. The novelty of having little Burma Shave-style rhyming advertisements glued to each pipe lured me in; it seems these must have been used as a store display to entice customers to buy a pipe. The labels read as follows:

When days look dull and
dark and drear
Reach for a pipe,
Turn on the cheer

To have a measure of
Real pleasure
Smoke this pick from
Buescher's treasure

They both also marked 49 cents, presumably their retail price.

The only clue to what these might be is the Buescher name. U.S.-based Buescher Industries made "Sweet Hickory Pipes" from 1939 until the Missouri Meerschaum Company (more on them in a moment) bought Buescher out in 1991. Considering the 49-cent sale price, I have to assume these pipes date closer to to 1939 than they do to 1991. The can-shaped bowls with their lovely wood grains, along with the reed-like stems, almost make these too interesting to smoke -- and indeed, it appears neither one has ever been lit up. These will remain conversation pieces on my pipe shelf for the time being.


Meerschaum is a mineral, otherwise known as sepiolite, that long served as one of the leading materials for pipe-making. It's most commonly found in Turkey, and it somewhat resembles cuttlebone in its natural state. My first two pipes were meerschaums -- the aforementioned Holmes and Watson pair. It's common for pipes of this material to be carved into intricate designs before they're hardened, making meerschaum pipes nice options for display and conversation as much as for smoking.

Like briar pipes, meerschaums are favored for being porous. By absorbing the moisture and oils from the lit tobacco, they act as a natural filter and provide a dry and flavorful smoke. Their porous nature also means that over time the pure white of the meerschaum will begin to take on a golden hue. One advantage meerschaum has over wood is that it doesn't impart any of its own flavor. So what you get is purely the taste of the tobacco and nothing else.

I own only two meerschaums. I admit I might have a negative association with them from my failed first go-round as a pipe smoker, but I wanted to at least give them a fair shake. Yet even now, I'm not terribly excited about them. The tobacco somehow seems less flavorful in a meerschaum, in my admittedly short experience.

This is a hand-carved churchwarden that I bought new from

And this estate pipe from SMS has some nice coloring to it. It appears to have been much used and well loved. The stem was loose when I received it in the mail, but I think I've managed to jerry-rig it into a stable position. I have no idea of its age, but it's no more than 40 years old, since SMS -- originally Turkish but now U.S.-based -- commenced operations in 1980.

Meerschaum pipes, although fragile, are not as brittle as their clay predecessors. But just as meerschaum eclipsed clay in popularity as a pipe material, briars eventually began to overshadow meerschaum. As collector pipes, I think they're great. As daily smokers, I'm not completely sold on them. But the SMS pipe does have loads of character. It may grow on me.


Technically, morta is another type of wood. But the characteristics of morta pipes are so different from those of conventional wood pipes that they're typically put in their own category.

Morta, also known as bog oak, is essentially semi-petrified wood. The material is pulled from oak trees that have been preserved by being submerged in peat bogs, often for centuries. What makes morta ideal for pipes is that the minerals in the water have pulled out and replaced the tannins and resins, so that, unlike briar, the wood doesn't impart any flavor to the tobacco. That makes morta similar to meerschaum in terms of providing a neutral medium for the tobacco, but also like briar in terms of its durability. It has all the advantages of both briar and meerschaum and none of the drawbacks -- save for price, as morta is difficult to harvest, and only a small amount of the recovered wood is suitable for pipe-making.

This is my only morta, from Mr. Brog. I call it my "fatboy" pipe because of the extremely thick chamber walls, and because the stem is so flat and wide that I can't fit it through the stem hole in my pipe rack. It's a stout little fellow and offers a pleasant smoke. Mr. Brogs are value pipes, so I imagine what I'm getting here is only a sample of how good a morta can be. Maybe someday I'll manage to save up enough to buy a higher-end one.


Clay is one of the oldest media used for pipes. Clay pipes have existed for as long as Europeans have known about the pleasures of smoking tobacco, and indeed it's the long, slender "tavern pipe" that many still associate with the olden days of pipe smoking. Like meerschaum, clay pipes are porous, making for a dry smoke that isn't tainted with the flavors of the pipe itself. The downside, of course, is that they're extremely fragile. They also tend to smoke very hot. If you have a clay churchwarden, you're not going to be able to hold on to the bowl when it has tobacco smoldering inside it.

I wanted to get one just to say I tried a clay pipe. I ended up finding a pair of pipes for sale -- one with a fairly short stem, and a typical long-stemmed churchwarden-style pipe.

These both come from the Netherlands, complete with their original stickers from Goedewaagen, which bills itself as the world's oldest maker of clay pipes. The Goedewaagen family began making clay pipes in the late 18th century. These pipes bear a stamp on the bowl, the letters "E.S." and a crown, that the company apparently used into the 1940s, and I doubt these pipes are much older than that.


The quintessential Sherlock Holmes pipe is instantly recognizable for its long, curved stem and its huge horn-shaped bowl. "Calabash" today often refers to this specific shape of pipe, which can be made from a variety of materials, including briar. But the name originally referred to the material itself -- a calabash gourd that's hollowed out, shaped, and left to dry, after which it's fitted with a stem and (typically) a meerschaum bowl. The enormous chamber under the bowl allows the smoke to cool dramatically, making the calabash the coolest and driest pipe you're ever likely to smoke. Put on a deerstalker and a trenchcoat, and people might just mistake you for history's most brilliant detective.

This is my calabash, made by French company Butz-Choquin from an actual calabash gourd. I bought it new. It's the most expensive pipe in my collection, but when I saw it, I simply couldn't resist it. I don't smoke it too often, as its size requires one's full attention, including one hand to constantly support its weight. It's a beautiful pipe and a nice conversation piece, but it's definitely more of a special-occasion pipe than a daily smoker.


I didn't even know there was such a thing as a porcelain pipe until I was looking around on eBay for some pipes to fill out my collection. Turns out they were popular in Europe for well over a century, and some of the porcelain pipes were extremely elaborate and large, some with stems extending for four or five feet.

Other porcelain pipes, though, weren't quite so obnoxious -- like those that the aforementioned Goedewaagen company made. Those were the ones I keyed in on. Having fond memories of my mom's Blue Delft tableware, I was drawn to a Baronite pipe, shaped like a calabash, that featured a painted Dutch scene in blue, so typical of all those plates and cups I recall from my childhood.

You'd think a porcelain pipe would get hot like a clay pipe, but Baronite pipes were made with a double wall -- that is, the wall of the tobacco chamber, then an open space, then the outer wall. The air space in between helps keep the outer bowl cool.

After finding the Baronite, I poked around a little more and found a lovely boxed set containing two pipes from another Dutch company, Zenith, each a special edition created for Christmas 1981 and 1982. One had been smoked, and the other was brand new.

I thought they were adorable little pipes -- again, decorated in Blue Delft style -- and decided to splurge on them. I tried out the one that's already been smoked, and it delivered a nice, smooth smoke. For now, I've left the unsmoked one as is. But between the Zenith and the Baronite, I was left wondering why porcelain pipes like this never caught on more than they did in North America. Their fragility, maybe? I really don't know.


Metal pipes can have metal shanks and wooden bowls, or they can be made almost completely of metal. For the most part, I don't find metal pipes very aesthetically pleasing.

I did, however, come across this petite brass pipe from India, with some beautiful etching. The seller on eBay didn't know much about it, except that it was probably manufactured as a souvenir and probably dates to around the 1910s.

The downside, as you can probably imagine, is that metal gets extremely hot. As with the clay pipes, I have to hold my brass pipe by the stem if I want to smoke it.


And finally, there's the all-American corncob pipe, practically synonymous with the likes of Mark Twain, Popeye, Frosty the Snowman, and General MacArthur. Missouri Meerschaum is the world's leading manufacturer of cob pipes, and although cobs are relatively disposable and certainly not renowned for their elegance and beauty, they are a great option for a beginning pipe smoker. If you want to try out the hobby without laying out a lot of money up front, you can get a decent cob for less than $20.

I didn't get a cob till I was well into collecting pipes. When I decided to get one, it was on a lark at the Flour Mill store where I got my very first pipe.

I chose this Great Dane Spindle style, and I enjoyed smoking from it far more than I expected I would. Like briar and meerschaum, cobs are porous and so absorb the tars and other unpleasant byproducts of burning tobacco leaves, resulting in a nice, cool, dry smoke.

But you also get what you pay for. My Great Dane came with a cheap plastic bit, and either I partially bit through it on my first smoke or it came with a sharp edge. I put a rubber bit on the tip and that seemed to solve the problem. The pine-wood shank also developed a crack after I tried to straighten out a bend in the stem. A dab of Gorilla Glue fixed that problem. All that is to say ... buyer beware.

That didn't stop me from picking up a few other cobs. I initially got this little Country Gentleman pipe to replace my Great Dane, but I ended up making it my on-the-go pipe in my travel pouch when  I managed to fix the Dane.

Missouri Meerschaum also put out a line of Tolkien-inspired churchwarden pipes, presumably to capitalize on the popularity of the Lord of the Rings films, and based on the rave reviews, I ended up getting two of the four styles available -- a Shire Cobbit and a Wizard Cobbit.

The Wizard is the largest of the four, with the longest stem and a huge basket-shaped corncob bowl.

The Shire is shorter, with a smaller, acorn-shaped bowl. I prefer the Shire, as the Wizard is almost too heavy and clunky to use comfortably.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

And that's my collection. I'm not about to encourage anyone else to take up the pipe hobby, but neither do I discourage it. If you're interested in giving it a whirl, find yourself a corncob pipe, and talk to a tobacconist about what blend of tobacco you might find pleasing. There are plenty of over-the-counter brands that have been around for ages that'll get the job done -- Prince Albert, Sir Walter Raleigh, Half and Half are some of the names your grandpa might have used. (Captain Black Original is my favorite.) And while there's nothing spectacular about any of them, they will give you a decent idea of what you can expect pipe smoking to be like. Because pipe tobacco almost always has some sort of added flavoring, it won't smell like cigarette or cigar smoke. The scent is generally much more pleasing, even to nonsmokers who wave their hands around and cough whenever they come within 100 feet of a lit cigarette.

You'll also need matches or a lighter, some pipe cleaners to keep things tidy when your smoke is finished, and something to tamp down the tobacco in your bowl while you're smoking. You can spend a fortune on fancy lighters and tamping gadgets, but something as simple as a book of Diamond matches and a golf tee will get the job done. The tamping is important to keep the hot embers on the top of your bowl in contact with the tobacco beneath. Without tamping while you smoke, your pipe is probably going to need a relight at some point.

I think a lot of beginning smokers give up over relights. I know that's what frustrated me the first time I tried smoking pipes. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong. And indeed, there is an art to packing your pipe. You don't want to pack it so tight that no air gets through, but you don't want it so loose that the embers die out from lack of contact. It's one of those things that come with practice, and you'll find no end of people telling you they've found the best method of packing. The important thing is to stick with it till you find a method that works for you. And in the end, relights are OK. Sometimes the bowl just goes out.

Above all, relax and enjoy. In the end, that's what smoking a pipe is all about.

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