Pipe Academy: A Bit About Bits

Assorted pipe stemsWhile we tend to wax poetic about the beautiful grain that can be found in briar or fawn over the carving and coloration of meerschaum, we tend to think little about the bit or mouthpiece. After all, it serves a practical purpose, and, besides, it’s under our noses, so we pay less attention to it. But I’d like to take a closer look at bits and the materials used in making them. Also, I’ll address some of the less common features found in some stems.

The first thing I want to address is one of the more frequently asked questions by newer pipe smokers- Can I buy replacement bits? For most handmade pipes, the answer is no, sort of. There are sources to buy stems with the right tenon to fit most pipes, but they generally don’t line up at the shank, so the best solution is to send the pipe to a reputable repair shop and let them properly fit a stem to replace the original. For some machine-made pipes and corncobs, properly fitting stems can be bought without any additional work needed.

Peterson Pipe Stems

The pipe on the Right has a P-Lip. The pipe on the left is a saddle bit with a Cumberland finish

Mouthpieces today are usually made of vulcanite (also called Ebonite, which is trademarked) or acrylic (sometimes called Lucite or Perspex, also trademarks). Some mass manufactured pipes use ABS plastic (yes, the same ABS that is used for some plastic drain pipes) or other plastics, such as those used for corncobs. Older pipes may also have stems made of amber or an early plastic called Bakelite, which was meant to mimic the look of amber. In some antique pipes, the bits were made of wood.

Bits usually have a tenon (the part that fits into the mortise of the shank), the main body, and the button. A drafthole runs through the stem, going from the tenon to the button, which is usually opened up around the drafthole, giving it a recessed appearance. There are two main types: the saddle bit, which has a flatter profile that steps down from an area just a little way behind the tenon; and, the tapered bit, which gradually tapers from the part where the bit meets the shank going back to the button. The button is typically flared to allow the teeth to grip the stem, although some are somewhat more unusual. There were, at one time, stems that had a piece that came up from the button about an eighth of an inch or so for people with dentures, so the stem would be less likely to slip. These weren’t all that effective and are no longer available. The Steck bit, or p-lip, has a button that is rounded on top, with the hole usually pointing upward, and a protrusion a small distance from the end of the stem on the bottom. Some people find these more comfortable, but the main advantage is that the hole on the top directs the smoke stream toward the roof of the mouth which can reduce tongue burn. These stems are most commonly found on Peterson pipes and those called “Wellingtons”.

Vulcanite used to be, far and away, the most popular mouthpieces, and are still very widely used. The big advantage of these hard rubber stems is comfort, as the teeth can easily develop bite marks that can stabilize the pipe in one’s mouth. They’re fairly soft and have a touch more “give” when the pipe is clenched. This is also one of the disadvantages, as it’s easier to bite through them. Another drawback is that these stems are usually black, although a swirled rust color with black is available (the Cumberland or brindle bit) or green and black (usually called green Cumberland).

Graco pipes with acrylic mouthpieces

These Graco pipes have fine examples of acrylic mouthpieces.

Acrylic bits (AKA Lucite or Perspex) are made in virtually any color, some translucent, or even clear. In older pipes, the bits tended to be quite thick, which made them somewhat less comfortable. With improved materials and workmanship, acrylic bits are usually no thicker than vulcanite. The main drawbacks are that the material is more slippery and harder, so it takes a while to get a tooth mark to stabilize the stem, but at the same time, these bits are also more durable. Add in the fact that they’re made in a wide range of colors, and the popularity of acrylic bits has grown. A note- the name Perspex is most commonly used in reference to the clear stems used by GBD.

Meerschaum pipes today use mostly acrylic stems with threaded nylon tenons that screw into the mortise, although Bakelite was commonly used in the past,

A number of pipemakers today use a material called Delrin to make the tenons for vulcanite and acrylic bits. This substance is similar to nylon in its slipperiness, which makes removing the stem easier. It’s also more durable than the rest of the stem, solving one of the most common problems.

Meerschaum pipe with threaded tenon

Meerschaum pipe with threaded tenon

A unique feature of some pipes made by Jobey is something called the Jobey link. With these stems, the tenons have the normal pressure fitting going into the mortise, but are screwed into the stem, so if the tenon breaks, it can be easily replaced without having to have a new bit made.

The ABS and plastic stems are not very durable, but are molded and fit into universal shanks, so an inexpensive replacement can be bought without the need for custom fitting. These bits are found on Dr. Grabows (ABS) and corncobs (plastic).

One of the great things about today’s pipes is the variety of stems on the market, and if you prefer one over the other, it’s not a big deal to have a repairman replace the stem you don’t like with one that’s nearly identical, but made of a different material.

When I started to write this, I never thought that I could come up with a thousand words to cover this subject, but the more I thought, the more ground I had to cover, and this article has taken precisely one thousand words. So there!

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About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.