On the Pricing of Pipes

The question of pipe pricing presents an interesting topic for exploration. What makes one perfectly fine smoking pipe worth $50-100, while another is priced at ten times that price, or even more? Is it simply a matter of aesthetics, or do the differences run deeper? And, is paying a high price for a pipe any guarantee that its smoking qualities will be better? In the following, only modern pipes are discussed. To include old estate pieces would make any analysis much more complex, as confounding factors such as rarity and perceived value would be an even greater contributing factor.

There are a few essential characteristics of a good pipe. The wood must be of good quality. It must be well cured; meaning dry and relatively free of tannins, resins, saps, and the other nasty stuff that makes a pipe made from "green" briar taste truly hideous. Grain may actually matter very little, apart from its contribution to the aesthetic value of the finished pipe. Some argue that straight grains smoke better, others that cross grains are superior, and so on. These arguments will never be settled; in fact the act of gentlemanly discourse seems to be part of the pleasure many of us take in our hobby. (I have one old Comoy, made from practically bald briar, that is a fantastic smoke. Does it smoke as well as one of my high grades? I confess I am far from objective on this matter. It's impossible for me to separate my love of the beauty of an exquisitely sculpted high-grade from its perceived smoking qualities. I believe most of us have similar compromises to out objectivity. I have yet to meet the unbiased pipe collector.)

Once a block of good quality, well-seasoned briar is obtained, all that's left is to make a good pipe out of it. This is just the simple matter of drilling a couple of holes, shaping a bowl and fitting a stem, tasks easily performed by anyone with a little woodworking skill and the necessary machinery.

But, the truth lies well beyond the realm of the basics. (I'm sure no one really thought I'd float that bubble out there, and not pop it with the point of my own pen!) The internal engineering of the pipe and the skill with which it is executed has much to do with how well it will smoke. The best pipe makers have done significant investigation on these aspects of pipe craft, or have learned from the experiences of a master, and each maker has developed his own thoughts and standards. Sixten Ivarsson, one of the grandfathers of the Scandinavian pipe movement, was arguably the first to take this research seriously, and produce a superior smoking instrument based on his own studies.

Airway diameter, taper, the effects of expansion, turbulent versus laminar flow, and other thermodynamic factors play a significant role in the way a pipe will smoke. The truth of this has been borne out by my own studies on what makes one pipe smoke "better" than another. A pipe is not just a block of wood with two holes in it.

Let's detour for a moment to gain a working definition of "good smoking pipe." A good smoking pipe is one that smokes easily to the bottom, free from excessive gurgling and unwarranted condensation. The flavor of the tobacco should come through clearly, without invasive coloration. (All pipes will "color" the flavor of the smoke to some extent. It's up to the smoker to discover the sorts of coloration that please him.) The tobacco should smolder freely, and not require excessive re-lighting. The draw must be fairly open, without obstruction.

This is a lot of hand waving, I admit. This definition is relative; the subjective experience of every smoker is different. What pleases one smoker may be completely unacceptable to another. Further, as a smoker begins to be more mindful of the smoking experience, additional acuity is often developed, and what was once acceptable can become marginal, or even intolerable.

It is perhaps easier on the other hand, to define a bad smoking pipe as one that produces excessive moisture, that smokes harshly or astringently, that is difficult to keep lit, irrespective of the skill of the smoker. This definition is still relative, but it's an easy one to agree with.

With these basic concepts in mind, I'll divide pipes into four basic categories. The first are those that meet the minimal requirements. These pipes may or may not be acceptable to the collector, but they do pass as smokeable to many, and probably represent the largest body of pipes produced. The second and third groups contain the majority of the pipes sought by those who consider themselves collectors as well as smokers. The fourth group contains what will be termed, for the sake of this exploration, the "high grades" or "luxury" pipes.

The minimal construction requirements for an "acceptable" pipe are relatively easy to achieve. The airway must be centered and located at or very near the bottom of the tobacco chamber. The stem must fit the pipe well, with no air leaks. The tobacco chamber must be within a range of acceptable dimensions. Pipes in this class are often machine-made from inexpensive briar. If this pipe happens to be constructed from a decent ebauchon, it'll probably be a good smoke, but possibly not a great one. There's a certain hit-or-miss aspect to the smoking qualities of these pipes. The smoker pays his money and takes his chances. Most of these pipes sell for prices under $50.

The step from "acceptable" to "good" is a significant one. Here, better briar is used, and more attention to detail is paid. Things like airway alignment between stem and shank come into play. A proper taper of the airway as it follows the stem can make a big difference in the way the pipe smokes. Attention to the smoke outlet, the way it "flares" the smoke into the mouth becomes a concern. Though I'm not really discussing aesthetics at this point, exterior fit and finish do enter the equation here. These are the often pipes in the roughly $50-100 range. Generally, these are mostly machine made, with molded stems and superficial attention paid to the finish. There's a greater probability that these pipes will deliver a good smoke, and many will, in fact, smoke extremely well.

In the next group, we find pipes where still greater attention is paid to the details. These pipes are likely to be hand-made from briar of a higher grade that is better and more evenly grained, and cured longer or using "special" techniques. Care is taken on things like shape and comfort of the mouthpiece. The overall fit between mortise and tenon is more precise, and the tenon's inlet is more likely to be chamfered. These factors will decrease moisture in the smoke and improve flavor. The devil is in the details! Can we discern the difference in the smoking qualities between these pipes and those from the previous group? Probably. Is it dramatic? It depends on what you're comparing to what, and probably on the tobacco being smoked. More hand waving. Another major difference between this group and the previous will be the artistry of the pipe maker. Consistency is also more likely in this range, and many excellent pipes will be found in this category. These pipes generally fall into the $100 to several hundred dollars price range.

Moving into the "high grades," we reach the point of diminishing returns, as far as things like smoking qualities are concerned. Here, the aesthetics and artistry factors really begin to play the most significant role.

It's perhaps axiomatic that these pipes will be made from the best possible briar, and made with the greatest skill and care. We expect to start seeing attention being paid to very tiny details. The tobacco chambers will be finished to a more uniform smoothness. Airways will be drilled more precisely, and will be more carefully tapered to avoid those turbulent regions that result in condensation of moisture and a commensurate wet smoke. All of these things take skill, and significant time to accomplish, and we can rightly expect the maker to be paid well for his efforts.

The level of finish on pipes in this category will be finer. One maker was discussing his finishing techniques with me. He showed me a nearly finished piece. The carving was complete and the rough sanding done. He explained that he'd spend a couple more hours sanding it, after which he'd apply the first stain. Then, a couple more hours of sanding, and he could apply the second stain. Then, he'd do the final finish sanding, buffing and waxing. This is added to the many hours required to bore, drill, shape, sand and find the final shape of the pipe in the wood. Is it any wonder these pipes are expensive?

To examine the extreme case, let's look at Bo Nordh's work. Bo is, in my mind, the finest pipe maker alive today. His artistry is remarkable, his attention to detail is second to none, and his meticulous work is legendary. When you remove the stem of one of his pipes, it's like disassembling a precision instrument, neither not too tight nor too lose. The mortise is polished, the end of the shank is polished, and the face of the stem is polished, as is the tenon. These little details don't effect the way the pipe smokes, but if you appreciate fine craftsmanship, you can truly appreciate his going the extra mile. All this precision does comes at a significant cost. Bo makes about only a few pipes per year, and his least expensive piece at this point is about $2500 - well beyond the budget of this poor collector. As to the smoking qualities, I was recently LENT one of his pipes to try. It was truly amazing. (Sadly, I grumble, this experience has increased my desire to own one.)

So, in the high-grade world, we're paying for the rarity of perfect blocks, the artistry of the maker, the attention to detail, and the precision of the construction. There are many excellent pipes in the $100 range, and some truly superb pipes available in the under $200 range, even more if you are ready or willing to expand your budget to $300-400. The greatest examples of the pipes of the truly legendary makers may elude you, however, until you take out a second mortgage on your mansion, or sell your Lamborghini.

My own collection consists of pipes ranging from my first Medico and a couple old Kaywoodies, to estate GBDs that I picked up for $40 or so, to American and European high-grades. While there are certainly differences among these pipes, spanning all four categories, the experience of building this collection has served to demonstrate that there are certainly superb smokes to be had from pipes in every range. However, it's also been my experience that there is greater risk involved in the low- and mid-priced pipes, and correspondingly lower risk in the higher grades, up to a certain point.

There does appear to be some rationale behind the pricing of pipes, some justification for the high price tags of some pieces. What really matters is our subjective experience, which can entail more than simply the smoking. For some, a pipe is little more than a block of wood with two holes in it. For others, a pipe is a work of art. We each like what we like, and any defined, objective metrics of "quality" may, in the end, have little to do with our enjoyment. It is clear, though, that beyond a certain point, the collector is paying for artistry and rarity, two things that have always been expensive.