(Not Quite) All about Pipes

Tobacco pipes have been with us for centuries. The Romans and Greeks copied the hashish pipes from Asia and the Middle East. But the clay pipes in the early 16th century in Europe were the first evidence of pipes made on a large scale for everyday use. Smokers experimented with a vast assortment of materials indigenous to their areas to make their pipes. Tobacco was native to South America, but spread into North America long before the Europeans arrived, and Native Americans smoked it in pipes ceremonially.

In the United States, materials that have evolved into being the most common for making pipes are briar wood, meerschaum, corncobs and clay. Briar, by far the most common, is cut from the root burl of the heath tree native to the Mediterranean region. Briar is resistant to fire, absorbs moisture, a byproduct of combustion, and has a beautiful grain.

Meerschaum is a mineral found in small deposits near the city of Eskisehir, Turkey. It is prized for the plasticity that allows it to be carved into decorative and figural shapes. Meerschaum is very porous and absorbs the tobacco color, which makes a well-smoked golden colored pipe into a prized possession. Purchasers of used meerschaum pipes should try to determine if it was carved from a block of product, or merely made from the dust collected from carvings, then mixed with an emulsifier and pressed into a pipe shape.

Corncobs are aged two years, hollowed out, dipped in a plaster-based substance and then varnished after which pine shanks are inserted into the bowl to make the finished product. These pipes are inexpensive, but some pipe aficionados consider them uncouth as well. Because they require no break-in period beginners often use pipes made from corncobs, and some experienced smokers use corncobs for sampling new blends of tobacco so flavors donít taint a favorite pipe. Probably the most recognized image of a corncob pipe is the one held by General Douglas MacArthur (or Popeye or Frosty, depending on your frame of reference).

Clay pipes are generally categorized into two qualities. The low Ė made in a similar fashion as slip porcelain poured into a mold - are porous and impart unwanted flavors to a smoke. High quality clays are labor intensive, requiring beating all the air out of the clay, hand rolling it before pouring it into the mold, piercing it with a fine wire, and then carefully firing it. Most clay pipes are unglazed. Clay pipes burn very hot in comparison to other pipes, and are therefore difficult for many pipe smokers to use.

Another familiar style of pipe is the calabash, the one that Sherlock Holmes is typically portrayed holding. That pipe is made from a calabash gourd, and if the gourd is being grown specifically for use in a pipe, the grower will hand-train the gourd by bending its neck until it has nearly formed a semicircle. Calabash gourds generally come from South Africa. Meerschaum bowls usually line the calabash gourd. Because they are labor intensive to manufacture, calabashes have become very expensive. To lower the cost many are made with exterior wood like mahogany or briar, but are still called calabashes.

sherlock holmes.jpg (27267 bytes)In reality Sherlock Holmes preferred harsh tobacco, and would probably not have enjoyed the smoothness that the air chamber beneath the bowl of a calabash created. Sherlock Holmes with a calabash was merely a theatrical invention.

Tobacco used for smoking in pipes is carefully treated and blended to achieve flavors not available in other tobacco products. Many of them are blends of variously cured Burley and Virginia tobaccos enhanced with spiced and/or fire-cured plants from Syria, the Orient, or the Balkans. US blends are made of American Burley with sweeteners and flavors that make them aromatic. English blends are usually natural Virginia tobaccos enhanced with Oriental and other miscellaneous tobaccos.