Your First Pipe, Buying Advice
Summary: If you are not sure if you like pipe smoking, a corn cob pipe is a better choice than a poorly made briar pipe. However, if you know you enjoy smoking a pipe it is worth buying a briar pipe of reasonable quality. It will last a lifetime, is easy to care for, and provides cost savings over time.
Pipe-smokers are an individualistic lot, and the range of shapes, materials, and finishes available reflect the diversity and individuality of the smokers who own them. If you are new to pipes or are selecting an item as a gift the options can seem overwhelming. A good tobacconist can help guide you through options to select a great pipe that will bring enjoyment for years to come.
The purpose of this article is to give you some basic knowledge to help you judge pipes in the store, without getting overwhelmed with details you will discover as you refine your own personal preferences and likes.
So what are some things you want to look for in a first pipe? First a good pipe is one the smoker enjoys. That means you should spend a moment to think about the shape and size. Pipes can be an accessory as much as a hobby, and it’s good to consider the emotional appeal of a pipe. Do you want a compact briar like Einstein favored or unmistakable directness like General MacArthur’s famous corn cob?
Pipes can and have been made out of almost any material that can withstand heat, however most quality pipes available are made out of briar (Erica Arborea). Briar is prized because it is has a dense grain that can stand up to the heat of use and also helps provide a cool, dry smoke. Briar is strong compared to many other pipe materials, and straightforward to care for.
When looking at a briar pipe pay attention to:
- Grain - Look for a uniform tight grain, but the pattern of the grain (or even mix of patterns!) is not too important for a first pipe, and smokers debate opinions about favorite grain patterns.
- Finish - Great pipes can be found in smooth or rusticated (rough finish) but it’s a good rule of thumb to steer clear of varnishes that give a glossy shine. They can mar over time and may interfere with dry-out times between smoking sessions.
- Fills - when a piece of briar has a pit in it pipe makers fill it in with putty. While considered not desirable aesthetically, unless they are very deep they will not interfere with how the pipe smokes.
Other common materials:
Clay pipes are inexpensive but fragile and tend to heat up in the smokers hand.
Meerschaum is a mineral that is often beautifully carved. It darkens in color with use. It provides a cool dry smoking experience, it is lightweight, which can be an advantage for long, relaxing sessions but good meerschaum is relatively expensive, and have some additional care considerations.
Corn cob pipes can be a great introduction to pipe smoking, especially if you are just trying to assess if you enjoy smoking a pipe. Corncob pipes look more rustic which is an aesthetic issue for some (but prized by others). They provide an inexpensive pipe that smokes well without needing a break in period. One detractor of corncob pipes is that they do not last as long as pipes made from more durable materials.
Construction matters no matter what the pipe is made from:
- Air hole - If you look into the bowl of a pipe, you will see a hole drilled that allows the smoke to ‘draw’, or be carried up through the shank and stem into the smokers mouth. It’s important that this hole is at the bottom and center of the pipe bowl. it is difficult for tobacco to burn below where the hole is drilled, so a hole that is too high in the bowl will mean that tobacco can’t completely burn in the bowl. This can waste tobacco and make it harder to develop an even ‘cake’ which is desirable. A thin (around a dimes width) carbon deposit will help your pipe to be protected against charring, and can make it easier to achieve a mellow, sweet smoke.
- Part alignment - Look at the where the stem and shank join. They should have a solid fit that looks well made. If these parts don’t fit together well you might have trouble cleaning the pipe. If the air pathway is not optimal because of a poor fit you might experience moisture condensation when smoking, which is unpleasant.
- Other factors related to construction can help you choose your pipe. Most of these will depend on your individual pipe smoking habits. For example, if you find pipes tend to heat up uncomfortably in your hand you might consider a pipe shape that provides a thick area of material that will provide you an insulated area to hold on to. Or if you find your favorite time to smoke a pipe is while reading or doing other tasks you might prefer a pipe with a bend in the stem, which will move the pipe out of line of site and require less hand holding. These are considerations you can’t anticipate as a novice, but your tobacconist can help guide you through some of the more common issues.
New or Estate?
What about estate pipes? Estate pipes are the industry term for pre-owned pipes. Pipes can last for generations and can become prized heirlooms. Pipes can be cleaned thoroughly, so buyers need not worry about cleanliness issues any more than one would worry about using flatware at a restaurant. Some older pipes are prized for their collectibility and the quality of their materials and workmanship. Sometimes pre-owned pipes can provide a good deal, costing less than an equivalent new pipe. If you are considering an estate pipe all the previous advice still applies, but you also want to look inside the bowl to make sure that previous owners did not light the pipe with a jetflame lighter, which can be too harsh for a pipe and create uneven walls and pitting inside the bowl. A reputable tobacconist will be honest if any repairs have been performed or if further refurbishing is required. Reputation and expertise are all important for retail tobacconists, and there is no incentive to mislead a customer for a ‘quick sale’.