Not Just a Piece of Wood

13th January, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes

I’ve had a lot of pipes over the years; an uncountable number, really. They come and go, are traded and bartered, smoked for a while, then passed on to their next caretaker. Sometimes, it seems like my collection is more of a temporary home for itinerant pipes than a real collection, though there is certainly a core that remains intact. It’s been a great way to explore most of the better known brands, as well as a few that have never quite risen from the shadows of obscurity. Some have been great, some dreadful, and most have fallen somewhere in between. I’ve had pipes that articulated the subtlest nuances of a complexly orchestrated blend with perfect, harmonious balance, and others that were so bland they would suck the life out of the most flavorful of weeds.I recall one small Charatan, a black relief bulldog with a saddle bit. Every thing about this pipe was perfect. The stem was wonderfully comfortable; the blast was deep, craggy, and beautifully detailed, and the pipe was so light it would all but disappear in your hand or between your teeth if you didn’t think about it. It had only one flaw; this beautiful pipe would render the most powerful tobacco totally impotent and completely devoid of anything resembling taste.

Another pipe stands out as a near polar opposite to that Charatan. It’s an old Comoy, a very early 1900’s piece, bald as a bowling ball, sporting a thick, uncomfortable mouthpiece, drilled poorly, and with walls so thin that it can NOT be handled while smoking, unless asbestos gloves are employed. I could smoke sun-dried lawn clippings in this pipe, though, and the smoke would be delicious, rich, flavorful and cool.

These two pipes represent the extremes, and between them lie all the rest; those I have had and traded, and those that I have kept for years. Other Charatans have found their way into my collection, and are wonderful smokers, while a few really beautiful Comoys have been banished almost as soon as I got them. Some pipes smoke hot, some cool. Some are sharp, some round. A pipe can enhance one aspect of a blend, while subduing others, or it can bring out every note with perfect clarity. Some pipes are finicky about the tobacco burned within their bowls, while others just don’t seem to care, giving their best irrespective of the style or intensity of the blend. Others seem happiest in particular ranges of heat, humidity, or even barometric pressure. (I’m kidding about that last bit, but anything is possible.) Every pipe is different.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that I just didn’t spend enough time with the ones that didn’t “work” for me. I have traded pipes, explaining that I didn’t enjoy the way they smoked, and telling the potential new owner what I found wrong with them. Often as not, those same pipes would yield wonderful smoking experiences for their new owners. I’ve never fully understood this, but I know it has a lot to do with personal preferences, tobacco choices, body chemistry, and so on. I also realize I am sometimes overly critical of the way my pipes smoke. In a sense, I have to be, since my “job” is intimately connected with the art and act of smoking. I need to understand the way a pipe smokes, so that I can assess its influence on the blends I’m developing, and get a better idea of how those blends will taste in a variety of pipes. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Still, how can I find a pipe completely devoid of taste, and the next guy can enjoy it immensely? (I’m not even going to try to answer that one here…)

There are many things that must be on the menu before a good smoke can be served up. Certainly, a great tobacco is paramount, but there are other ingredients that are essential, and a good pipe, a pipe that the smoker knows and loves, one that delivers a wonderful smoke reliably, is one of the more important ones. How that “good pipe” is defined seems to be a matter of some combination of objective and subjective criteria that sum up to an undefinable, mystical quantity. Once a great tobacco and a good pipe are selected, the mood of the smoker takes its place on the menu. A contemplative mood will yield a different smoking experience than a sprightly one. And, what accompanies the smoke? The same tobacco and pipe with a nice brandy after a wonderful meal will taste delightfully different than if smoked with the newspaper and the morning coffee. The list of variables is long, indeed, but two things seem to remain quite constant: Tobacco and pipe.

The interplay between leaf and burl is something that has always intrigued me, and, candidly, I’ve always felt that there are more bad smoking pipes than bad smoking tobaccos, and that many tobaccos are judged unfairly when the pipe might actually have been at fault. This is only one of many reasons I suggest never attempting to evaluate a tobacco without smoking at least a dozen bowls in a few different pipes. I’ve passed over some really fine blends, only to later learn that the pipe I chose for their sampling was incompatible with the tobacco. Had I given all the tobaccos I’ve ever tasted a fair chance, my cellar would likely be loaded to the rafters with even more different blends! Perhaps my hasty judgment has been a good thing, in that respect, as it’s spared my having to build an add-on to house endless tins.

I suppose I should navigate back to the original waters I was sailing upon, hoping that the wandering diversion, or the unanswered questions have not been too distracting. The point is just this: The pipe DOES make a difference - perhaps even as big a difference as the choice of tobacco. Tonight, I’ve smoked the same tobacco in three different pipes, each previously dedicated to the same blend, and have had three very different smoking experiences. The first was supple and rich, full of the sweetness of the Virginias in the blend, but also presenting a little sharpness on the center of the tongue. The second was silky smooth, and the very small amounts of Latakia in the blend seemed to dominate the taste. The third, the one I’m still smoking now, is perhaps the best of the three, though they’ve all been pleasant. The edges are back, but subdued, not as sharply defined as those from the first pipe. The sweetness, too, is profoundly present, but there’s a depth and breadth to the smoke that provides many added dimensions. All three smokes have been cool and dry, but the taste of each has been SO different. I have done my best to be as objective as possibe while smoking these three pipes, and trust my results. In this light, how could anyone argue that the pipe itself, even objectively, doesn’t play a significant role to the overall smoking experience?

Next time someone says, “A pipe is just a piece of wood you burn tobacco in,” send them here. I doubt it will make believers out of those who cling stubbornly to their narrow perspectives, but it just might help to move some, those who are willing to entertain possibilities, off their not-quite-steadfast positions, and offer them some new worlds to explore.


Though I fear I will add support to my dear friend, and sometime adversary, Fred Hanna’s position that it’s the briar, not the brand that makes the pipe, I must, in the interest of full disclosure, confess that two of the three pipes involved in this experiment, the two that were the farthest apart in flavor, were impeccably crafted by the same maker, from briar from the same region. Each bowl is similar, though not identical, in shape and proportion, and the pipes were filled as consistently as I am capable. While I still maintain that there is an emotional or aesthetic component to some pipes that can dramatically alter our subjective involvement with the smoke they produce, I’ll have to concede that Fred’s probably right that the briar makes the biggest contribution to the objective experience.