When thinking of your first pipe it’s easy to be a little bewildered at the range of styles, brands and prices. A pipe can cost anything from less than $20 to tens of thousands of dollars. Some will tell you that they all smoke (more or less) the same. Others will tell you that only a premium or even an aged premium pipe can give the real experience. Even if you can get your head around the huge range of prices, what about style? Which smokes best? Is one style for experts, another for beginners?
The first thing to understand is that pipe smoking is much like many other pastime or hobby in that there are almost as many opinions as there are participants. This individuality is all part of the magic and the allure, but it might leave a new pipe smoker unsure of where to turn. There often isn’t a definitive right or wrong answer. Not to worry! Our Pipe Club of India is here to help!!
What do you imagine when contemplating your first pipe? Do you envisage Sherlock Holmes with a large, curved calabash? Perhaps you’re thinking of a classical straight billiard. Maybe you’re contemplating Popeye’s corncob? The truth is that (aside from the cheapest low quality examples) there are no bad pipes for a beginner or otherwise, but let’s consider a few points which might help you narrow your choices.
Scratching your head wondering what to choose? Latakia, VaPer, English blend, Danish style aromatic? Don't worry, help is at hand ...
Budget is an obvious consideration. Spend enough to be sure you are getting a pipe which will smoke nicely and give you some aesthetic pleasure as well, but don’t spend more than you are willing to ‘park’ in case (for some crazy and unfathomable reason) you decide that pipe smoking isn’t for you. Avoid the very cheapest wooden pipes, for example unbranded Chinese made pieces. There are enough good pipes out there from well-established (mainly European) makers which won’t break the bank.
Does more expensive = better smoking performance?
Not necessarily! How well a pipe smokes is down to a combination of factors: The type and quality of raw materials used, the proportions of the pipe, the drilling of the draught hole and air passages, the design of the mouthpiece. Some of these produce nuanced differences, some are dramatic. If we consider briar pipes, it is fair to expect a $100 pipe to smoke better than a $20 pipe and it really should. Once you are spending more than $60 you can expect to get good quality briar, from a functional viewpoint. Above this price the cosmetic quality of the briar will improve i.e. fewer or no cosmetic blemishes needing filled, and nicer grain patterns. Filler is used by pipemakers to improve the aesthetics where minor imperfections show in the wood through sand pits for example. Done professionally this has no impact on the smoking quality or lifespan of the pipe. However many collectors do aim to own at least some higher end pipes with natural grain as close to perfection as possible.
Some of the factors affecting pipe prices have absolutely nothing to do with smoking performance, for example silver embellishments, which are ultimately mainly decorative. It is also fair to observe that some brands carry a premium price tag, reflecting a very high quality of product, but also due to their enduring company history and desirability, the most notable example being the famous Dunhill. Whilst there is no doubt that a Dunhill pipe represents the pinnacle of quality for a factory made piece, there is no shortage of debate as to whether they smoke 3 times better than a Peterson or Savinelli, given that they average at over 3 times the price point. In truth, they do not, but smoking pleasure does not only derive from the 'mechanics' of what you are holding. There is a peculiar satisfaction in owning a piece from one of the iconic manufacturers, carrying with it a long history of tradition and excellence. That of course carries its own price tag. When it comes to choosing a manufacturer, you have a huge choice of both factory and artisan made pipes. We have an overview of the differences here: Artisan Vs Factory Made Pipes. You can read more about quality versus price in our detailed article here.
Unless you have very deep pockets, or you are certain that pipe smoking is something you’ll stick with long-term, you might not want to rush into a high value piece as your starting point. Most seasoned pipe smokers recommend that the initiate starts with a low to medium priced ($50-$100) briar pipe from one of the well known brands in the case of a briar pipe. These companies benefit from economies of scale and good quality control standards which mean you’ll generally get a well finished and quality pipe for a moderate cost. Brands such as Savinelli and Peterson largely represent the ‘middle ground’ in terms of high volume production manufacturers with broad price ranges and many loyal followers, though both also offer some relatively high end pieces for the connoisseur. At a lower price point brands such as Rossi, Parker, and Molina can offer great choices. Another great option for a beginner is a corn cob pipe (section below).
Another consideration, and one well worth thinking about is Estate pipes i.e. pre-owned pipes. There are many good websites dedicated to these, some specialising in pre-owned collectible pieces commanding very high prices, but also many offering a wide range of low and medium priced pipes. Our Pipe Club of India member, Simon Lewis, offers affordable restored estate pipes from his workshop in the Pyrenees. The advantage with an Estate pipe is that you well get a good pipe for your money (compared to brand new pricing) and you also have the option to resell it later on with little or no financial loss. If you do opt for the Estate pipe route try to find a vendor selling properly cleaned and refurbished pipes, rather than picking up something you find on eBay which may have been lurking in a dirty drawer for ten years without a clean. Of course it’s up to you but our advice would be to source something you can immediately smoke and enjoy without having to give it a deep clean. In the future, once your eye for pipes develops, you may well enjoy searching out estate pipe bargains. There are often some treasures to be found in flea markets and antique stores and occasionally we hear stories of someone turning up a vintage Dunhill or Sasieni at a market for $10 when it could be worth $300 to a collector.
A corncob tobacco pipe by Missouri Meerschaum
Pipes can be made from a range of materials but by far the most common today is briar. This is wood from the root burl of the tree heath ‘Erica Arborea’. This grows wild in many parts of the Mediterranean, with Italy and Algeria being the major sources. This wood is highly heat resistant, can be worked into a huge range of shapes, and can offer a beautiful grain to please the eye of even the most selective of collectors. Other woods are also used by pipe makers but are much less common, including strawberry wood, olive wood and bog oak, known to pipe smokers as morta. Each of these has its own characteristics and nuances but these would be better discussed in a separate article. For the moment let’s assume that your first pipe, if wood, will most likely be of briar, since this is where you will find the greatest level of choice. So what other materials might you consider?
Clay pipes , once mass produced in their millions, were for many years the ubiquitous choice for the tobacco smoker. They would have been found in taverns the length and breadth of Europe when tobacco pipe smoking was first introduced there in the 16th Century and they made their way around the world from there. Clay pipes are made from unsealed natural clay and are therefore very porous to the moisture produced during smoking. This means they offer a very dry and neutral flavoured smoke. Their downside is that they are extremely fragile and unless treated with extreme care they are unlikely to last very long. Historically clay pipes were often very small by today's standards, largely due to the very high price of tobacco compared to average income. Today clay pipes can still be purchased, either as antique collectibles or from the few existing manufacturers. Whilst some collectors enjoy having them for display or occasional use, they are largely perceived as an interesting novelty, rather than an everyday smoking tool.
There are two other main options: meerschaum and corncob. Meerschaum, the name derives from the German for ‘sea foam’, is a soft white clay mineral, essentially magnesium silicate. It mainly hails from Turkey, most famously Eskişehir, and from some parts of Africa around the Great Lakes, including regions of Tanzania and Kenya. There are essentially two qualities of meerschaum available: pressed meerschaum which is formed by compressing dust into a solid form and block meerschaum which is found in solid form. The latter is by far the more desirable and is widely available from quality sellers. Meerschaum pipes differ from briar in that they do not impart any taste to the smoking experience – you only taste the tobacco. Any briar pipe will impart some taste to the overall experience (not necessarily a bad thing). Briar also tends to take on some flavour from the tobacco that you are smoking, known as ghosting, and then passes this residual taste on to other tobaccos as you smoke. This does not occur with meerschaum pipes and is one reason that many experienced smokers who like to smoke a variety of blends have a fondness for meerschaum. Another unique aspect of meerschaum is the famed colouring that it develops over extended use. New meerschaum is ‘chalk’ white but as you smoke it, it will hopefully take on beautiful amber tones which can make a well coloured meerschaum the centrepiece of any collection. You can read more about meerschaum colouring in the excellent blog article by Pipe Club of India member Shubhrajit Chatterjee.
Another key factor with meerschaum is its ability to be carved into a huge range of complex, elegant or even grotesque styles – whatever takes your fancy, so there is a virtually limitless scope to find a piece that expresses something unique to your tastes or interests. Regarding downsides of meerschaum there are probably only two of note. One is cost. Good quality block meerschaum, even if not elaborately carved, will cost more than a modestly priced briar. The other is durability. Meerschaum is definitely not the material to choose for a pipe that will be in and out of pockets, used while you work, or heaven forbid – take a fall. It will break and most likely irreparably.
Corn cob pipes are not taken entirely seriously by all pipe smokers. Perhaps because their low cost gives them a disposable feel, or because there’s something slightly humorous about a pipe that looks like an ear of corn. Don’t let this put you off! Corn cob pipes smoke very well and resist ghosting just as meerschaums do, making them a favourite of many tobacco tasters. They are also reasonably tough and most owners take the view that if they do get broken they are very cheap to replace. If you do opt for a corncob still make sure that you pick one up from one of the well known brands, Missouri Meerschaum being the best known, having been in business for over 150 years. You could certainly do a lot worse than starting out with a cob, and many serious collectors of the finest briar will still have a corn cob or two in their line up.
Traditional clay tobacco pipes
Let’s deal with size first as this is probably less subject to debate. For a beginner, a medium sized pipe is likely the best option. It’ll ideally have thick enough walls to resist overheating, (can be an issue for beginners), and it’ll be easy to load up with the various types of tobacco cut. A medium pipe will be versatile enough to travel with you for use in a range of smoking environments and you’ll be able to enjoy a long enough smoke to find your pace and balance; typically ~45 minutes.
Coming to shape/style then. Assuming we are talking about briar pipes you’ll find a huge range available, but there are some classic shapes which virtually all manufacturers will offer and which should suit the beginner very well. You won't go wrong with a traditional billiard, apple, or bulldog stye for example. The most important aspect is that you should like how it looks and feels. If you have the chance to visit a retailer, pick up a few models. Which looks right to you? What feels good in your hand? If you’re limited to online purchasing, look at as many photos as you can. Don’t just look at catalogue pictures, look for images showing someone smoking the style you’re thinking of. In the end choose what you think suits your style and pleases your eye. We could write another article on whether you select straight or bent, but for a first pipe this isn’t a critical consideration – just go with what looks right to you. Bent styles generally hang better in the mouth for those who want to smoke ‘hands free’ but the truth is that most smokers and beginners in particular will frequently take the pipe to and from their mouth. You can find an excellent guide to different pipe shapes here. If pushed to recommend between a straight or bent pipe for a beginner we'd suggest bent, as it is easier to see into the bowl as you light and tamp, making it easier to develop good technique.
Rusticated, Smooth or Sandblasted?
This isn't a critical point for the beginner, again being a cosmetic aspect rather than anything fundamentally related to the smoking performance of a pipe. The are some who believe that rusticated or deeply sandblasted pipes dissipate heat better than a smooth finished pipe but it is unlikely that this has any significant effect on the smoking experience. You will find that rusticated pipes carry lower price points than equivalent smooth pipes because the manufacturer can use a lower (cosmetic) grade of briar. Smooth pipes (from good manufacturers) require selection of better grains, without even minor flaws. Rusticating the surface hides any imperfections and can utilise a block not considered attractive enough to make a good smooth finish pipe. This difference has nothing to do with smoking quality or even the quality of the briar, other than cosmetic considerations. Sandblasting can also hide small imperfections but one should note that rusticated or sandblasted pipes aren't always a price compromise on the part of the buyer. Many prefer the look and feel of a craggy rusticated pipe or the beautiful grain that a good sandblast exposes. Some forms, such as Castello's famous 'Sea Rock ' rustication process have many fans.
A selection of briar tobacco pipes showing a range of sizes, styles and finish
The pros and cons of filters in tobacco pipes is a frequent discussion point in virtually all pipe forums and groups. Some rate filter pipes as providing a cleaner and drier smoke. On the other hand, others feel that filters remove some of the flavour and create excessive resistance to the draw. Debate is only further fuelled by the fact that there are various types of filter available, not only in terms of material but also in diameter and design.
There are a couple of reasons to employ a filter in a tobacco pipe. One is to hopefully reduce the level of potentially harmful substances reaching the smoker, the other is to create a cooler and drier smoke as the filter provides a physical barrier to the vapour.
The most commonly used filters are 6mm and 9mm inserts which sit in the stem of the pipe, where it meets the shank. Most brands are made of paper and plastic and contain activated charcoal to filter excess moisture and tars from the smoke. Many report that this does result in a smoother drier smoke but the majority opinion notes that it does somewhat diminish the flavour of the smoke. A well regarded option is Savinelli's balsa wood filters. These are inserted in the same way as the charcoal filters but do seem to offer less draw resistance and have no negative effect on flavour. They are however more targeted at moisture reduction and capture of some excess tars, rather than the more comprehensive filtering achieved by the charcoal versions.
So what of unfiltered pipes? Well, these would fall into a couple of categories worth noting, and there are some performance differences in terms of achieving a cool, dry smoke. What we can call 'standard anatomy' pipes where there are no specifically designed moisture capture systems, and then a range of pipes employing different design solutions to capture moisture and provide a drier smoke. Of the latter the best known proponent would be the patented Peterson System. This offers pipes with special drilling that creates a moisture capture chamber that the smoke must pass through before reaching the mouthpiece. This encourages condensation of moisture, resulting in a drier smoke. Calabash and reverse calabash pipes operate in a similar fashion, but have a much more pronounced secondary chamber to encourage condensation.
How cool and dry a pipe smokes is not just a function of having a filter or not. As noted above there are some specific pipe designs intended to reduce moisture and prolong the smoke's travel to the mouthpiece, resulting in a cool and dry experience. Pipes without any such features can of course also provide an excellent smoking experience, if properly designed and made. The angles and diameter of drilling are critical to performance, so a well made pipe is a good starting point to achieve a satisfying result. You will also find that pipes offering a longer stem will tend to produce a cooler and drier smoking experience, as the greater distance travelled by the smoke encourages cooling of the smoke and greater condensation of excess moisture. This is a defining attribute of the long-stemmed churchwarden design.
We won't seek to give a definitive answer on the question of filters or moisture capture designs. Some tobacco pipe smokers swear by tham, others swear at them! Opinions are indeed very much divided, so our only advice can be to find what works for you through trial and error. However as a beginner, we don't want your first buying decision to be an error, so we again highly recommend that you choose a pipe from a well known manufacturer. A well made non-filter pipe is an easy starting point as you have one less consumable to consider, and with a little basic smoking technique you should be able to achieve a great smoking experience.
Talamona (of Italy) reverse calabash design including 9mm filter
Read suggestions, take advice, look at the many websites, visit your local shop if you can, but in the end choose with your heart. A tobacco pipe is more than just a nicotine delivery device. Pipe smokers connect with their pipes as much more than a functional tool. Our choice of pipe gives us the opportunity to express a little of our individuality and style. We hold them in our contemplative and relaxed moments.
A good pipe becomes a valued companion, so buy the pipe that speaks to you.
Once you have your pipe, or if you'd like more guidance on choice and ideas - come and join our Pipe Club of Facebook Group. We'd love to meet you and see what you're smoking ...