All About Pipes

Pipes and Pipe Smoking

Pipes and pipe smoking has been in existence for thousands of years. There is evidence that as far back as the Roman Empire, smoking of some sort was going on. Tribes in Africa, and the North American Indians, incorporated the smoking of pipes and tobacco as important and symbolic elements of their various cultures.

Christopher Columbus can lay direct claim to naming “tobacco”. Sir Walter Raleigh popularized pipe smoking with a clay pipe. Four years after Raleigh took his first public puff, the mass production of clay pipes began. The bowls were quite small, due to the extremely high cost of tobacco. John Rolfe began the first commercially grown crop of tobacco in North America in 1612 and the first shipment was made to England one year later. This began an industry that helped bring prosperity to the fledgling Colonies. Today, the United States tobacco growing states produce practically all the “English made” tobaccos.

Just as today, there are anti smoking groups and legislation prohibiting smoking in public places, so there was in the early 1600’s. However, the actions had just the opposite effect of their intended purpose. The fuss King James made against smoking prompted much curiosity and smoking caught on with sudden intensity.

Pipe smoking was outlawed in Russia, Switzerland, Persia, and even the Colony of Connecticut. But as different leaders came into power who were smokers and snuff users themselves, these laws were eventually repealed. Thomas Jefferson had tobacco leaves as part of the decoration of the new nation’s capital and they can be found adorning the columns outside the Supreme Court. Washington was a prominent tobacco grower.

In the beginning a pipe was a hollow reed filled with tobacco. The Northwest American Indians smoked from a hole in the ground, using it for the bowl and reeds as the stem. Other Indians made pipes from a variety of materials including jasper, marble and stone. They were decorated with symbols or carved into shapes reflecting the individualism of their owners such as mythical beliefs, geometric designs, birds, animals, and people; just about anything you can think of.

Today you will find pipes made from all kinds of items such as glass, corn cobs, metal, bone, seashells, acrylic, clay briar, all kinds of wood, meerschaum and space-age synthetics. Sometimes they feature a ?lid? over the bowl to keep wind or rain away from the tobacco as well as to keep ashes from falling out of the pipe. During the 1800?s, some European establishments had laws requiring all pipes smoked within their premises to be equipped with these ?fireproof lids?.

Next to Germany, in present time, the United States is the largest pipe smoking market in the world. Two pipes, the Indian peace pipe and the corn cob are distinctly American.

Some feel nothing has surpassed the smoking qualities of briar, a hardened, dense wooden burl that is found within the root system (which is why it is sometimes called briar root) of the white heath tree, a plant that originated in France and Corsica. It is the French who can, in all probability, lay claim for bringing the briar pipe to fruition.

The briar pipe smokes amazingly well, without the adverse effect of hot smoke and occasional tongue bite that clay pipes exhibit. In addition, briar pipes provide a cooler smoke, enabling the puffer to hold the bowl in his hand, unlike clay and metal pipes. The best smoking pipes are normally made from briar that is aged 50 to 75 years

Basically, there are two styles of grain patterns found on a high grade pipe:

  •  straight grain
  • a burl or birds eye (close knit swirls that are actually the ends of the straight grain).

It should be remembered that the pattern of the grain does not affect the smoking qualities of a pipe, it is purely cosmetic.

The major things to look for when buying a briar pipe are type of grain, the consistency of the grain pattern, and if there are any sandpits and or putty fills. However, if minor, these flaws will not affect the smoking quality of the pipe. The other important thing to consider in your pipe purchase is the shape and style of the pipe. There are two basic shapes also

  • straight (referring to a straight stem) and
  • bent (referring to a curved stem).

The following are some break in and maintenance instructions that should enhance smoking pleasure.

  • Wet the inside of the bowl for the first few smokes to reduce the harshness of smoking tobacco in a brand new pipe.
  • For the first few smokes, only half fill your pipe. Pack the tobacco on the bottom loosely to avoid clogging the hole and to secure a good draft. Press the upper layer more firmly, not too much, not too little.
  • Light up evenly and smoke slowly, using your tamper to keep the tobacco firm inside the bowl.
  • By gradually increasing the amount of tobacco, you will ensure an even build up of a “cake”. Do not allow this to become excessive as a surplus of “cake” may crack the bowl. This char insulates the pipe, controls the temperature and ensures the ultimate taste and aroma.
  • Do not smoke more than 1 to 2 pipefuls a day for the first two weeks.
  • Clean your pipe with a pipe tool and pipe cleaner and let it cool.

Next to briar, the second most highly desirable pipe making material is meerschaum, which is a German word meaning “sea foam”. The substance itself is comprised of the fossilized remains of prehistoric, microscopic sea creatures, and is composed of silica, magnesia, carbonic acid and water. It is only found in one area of Turkey, where it occurs in clumps found deep underground. It is soft, lightweight and porous. It is the quality of the carvings as well as the quality and size of the meerschaum pipe itself that determines the price of the pipe.

A meerschaum pipe starts out as being pure white in color, but as it is smoked, it gradually (over a period of months) starts to change into a light tan and finally it transcends into the brown realms, as the material is gradually permeated with years of tobacco juices, tars, and smoke. Eventually, if a person keeps at it long enough, a meerschaum pipe will acquire a deep reddish brown patina that is highly prized by both smoker and collector alike. The first meerschaum of record was created in 1723 for Count Androssy of Austria. In spite of its rather fragile nature, meerschaum can be carved much like a briar pipe, although the delicate white “sea foam” must be kept moist, giving the material an almost cheese like consistency, which therefore makes it much easier to work with and enables a skilled carver to create delicate facial features or intricate floral leaf designs without chipping or otherwise destroying the material.

Once fully carved, the pipe is fitted with a stem and polished by hand with a finishing compound that smoothes the surfaces. Then the meerschaum is immersed in a boiling mixture of hot beeswax which occasionally is augmented by the addition of animal oils and fats. The pipe may undergo several dippings to insure that the entire area has been completely saturated with this boiling wax mixture, for it is the soaking of beeswax into the meerschaum surface that gives the ability to change color.

The better the saturation and porousness of the meerschaum, the better the pipe will color when it is finally smoked; the nicotine and smoke from the burning tobacco seeps into the pipe, colors the wax and gradually works its way through the walls of the bowl to the outer surfaces. Also, when smoking any meerschaum pipe, the smoker should take care not to handle the meerschaum with their hands. The heat from your hand will cause the beeswax coating to soften, at which time the oils of your skin will mix with the beeswax and animal oil coating the pipe and coloring it with dingy brown fingerprints that never fully disappear even after months of smoking the pipe.

Meerschaum is a mineral and literally translated from German means “Seafoam”. It will not burn out and is considered by pipe smokers as the perfect material for a cool, dry smoke. Because of its natural porous nature, Meerschaums most fascinating characteristic is its process of gradually changing colors from white to a golden deep cherry red or brown. Since each stone is unique unto itself, each pipe will color at various speeds and shades.

Don’t be afraid to hold and handle your Meerschaum pipe. As long as your hands are not excessively greasy or dirty, the finish will not be stained. Also, unlike Briar, which must be dried after each smoke, Meerschaum can be smoked many times a day because of its absorbing qualities. If your pipe becomes soiled or dirty, use cotton or a soft cloth with just a drop of after shave lotion or similar product containing a slight trace of alcohol and gently wipe it clean when the pipe is cool. Never boil or scrape your pipe.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable and fascinating pipes is the hookah or water pipe.
Invented by the Persians and made popular long before the l600’s, the hookah has been a popular smoking instrument.

Water pipes have been made of everything from copper to coco­nuts. Today, they are usually made of glass, ceramic, acrylic, brass and sometimes bamboo and horn.

When the pipe is puffed, the smoke is drawn down into the water, which acts as a filter. The cool, cleansed smoke then bubbles to the surface where it is drawn out through the mouthpiece. Sometimes, “flavoring agents”, such as brandy or wine, are used instead of water. The hookah or water pipe is a unique and pleasant method of obtaining one of the “purest smokes” possible.
The clay pipe probably originated in the British Isles. They were rather plain with small bowls at first but as their popularity grew so did the pipe. The bowls became taller with various designs sometimes carved into them. The stems also became longer and the Churchwarden, whose stem was 14 to 16 inches long, was invented so one could rest their hand on the arm of the chair while puffing away. Many long stemmed clays were community property of English ale houses. The patron would use the pipe while drinking at the tavern and snap the end off so the next user would begin with a ?clean tip?.

The clay remained unchallenged as the most popular smoking instrument for the first 250 years of pipe history. They are still being manufactured and literally millions are sold each year to smokers and collectors.

The Calabash is a South African gourd which has been artificially shaped during the growing process to give it a gracefully hooked neck. After harvesting, the gourd is trimmed at both ends, hollowed out and dried. It is then polished, waxed and fitted with a meer­schaum bowl. The air chamber of the inner gourd provides an excellent cooling system. The calabash was the type of pipe Sherlock Holmes enjoyed.

Basically there are three distinct styles of pipe stems. The most common is the push stem which simply has a tenon which is pushed with a twisting motion into the hole drilled for it in the shank. The second type of bit is a threaded screw on style. Finally, there is the military bit which pushes into the stem, which is normally protected with a silver, gold or horn cap.

Both the bit shape and the bit material are interrelated. In the past, mouthpieces have been made from everything from hollow reeds to ivory and pewter. Today, the two most popular substances are hard rubber, often referred to as vulcanite, and plastic which ranges from the inexpensive molded bits found on corn cobs to the hand-carved glossy Lucite.

The advantage of vulcanite is being able to be hand cut it to thin saddle-back or wide fish-tail shapes that look elegant and feel secure in the mouth. However, the rubber ages rather ungracefully and will oxidize and turn green and even white in time. Fortunately, these bits can be professionally cleaned and polished to look like new.

Lucite will never tarnish and does not lose its color around the “bite marks” on the bit. Lucite is harder than rubber and will take longer to bite through. It will break though, just as rubber will, and it is also thicker.

Another 19th century pipe bit material that is making a comeback is amber. Amber is fossilized resin found along the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. It comes in colors ranging from off-white to yellow to a rich, deep red. It is opaque and glass like and can break easily.

The tobacco must be carefully broken up and separated so that no mattes or clumps interfere with even burning. Then take a pinch of tobacco in your fingers and trickle it into the pipe until the bowl is loosely filled almost to overflowing. Using your finger or a tamper, gently press the tobacco down until it feels slightly springy. Normally, this will compress the tobacco so it fills one-third of the pipe bowl. Repeat this step two more times. This should fill the pipe bowl to the top. Be sure to retain that “springy” feeling in your tobacco. It’s a good practice to occasionally draw some air through the mouth piece to make sure you are not packing the tobacco too tightly.

If you find it difficult or impossible to keep your pipe lit, the tobacco may be too tightly compressed. Empty the bowl and start over.

You are now ready to light up. It is recommended that you use wooden matches or butane lighter. Paper matches and lighter fluid are impregnated with chemicals that will taint the taste. If using wooden matches, pause a second after striking the match, so the sulfur will burn off.

The first light is called the charring light. Its purpose is to “char” the top of the tobacco making a “fire platform”, enabling you to smoke the entire bowl evenly.

Move the flame slowly over the entire area of the tobacco as you draw in on the pipe with long, smooth puffs, sucking the flame down into the tobacco. When the entire top surface of the tobacco has been evenly lit, take the pipe from your mouth and gently press down on the ashes with a tamper. Then, once again, move the flame over the entire area of the tobacco as you puff slowly and rhythmically.

No matter how well you’ve packed it or how thoroughly you’ve lit it, all pipes require additional lightings before the entire bowlful is consumed. It will, however, stay lit longer if you periodically keep the ashes tamped down upon the remaining tobacco. An average pipeful of tobacco usually lasts thirty to forty-five minutes. Enjoy!!