Pipe Preferences

I don’t think that I’m stretching the point by stating that a pipe is one of the most personal items anyone can own. Most of the other things that you might think of as personal, like your home or car, really only become personal with the modifications you make to them along the way. But a pipe is personal from the beginning, and quickly becomes even more so after using it for a short time.

Think about all the variables with pipes – bowl material, stem material, exterior finish and color, shape, bent or straight stem, overall size, type and size of the chamber, how the stem joins and fits against the shank, down to the size and shape of the button. And with all of those items listed, there are still a number of things I haven’t mentioned.

Most of us have a variety of pipes for different moods and circumstances. If I’m taking a walk, it’s probably going to be with a corn cob, or a lightweight pipe with a thin bit so I can clench it. If I’m doing some heavy thinking, I tend to reach for one of my larger freehands or my calabash. Like most pipe smokers, I have a certain group of favorites that I gravitate to when I just want to light up and smoke without giving it much thought.

My own collection is very diverse. I have lots of briars, some meerschaums and corn cobs, a couple of clays and my calabash. I have straight stemmed pipes, and just about every degree of bent bits, but that’s because certain pipes work well for me depending upon my mood. Many pipe smokers, though, have very specific tastes. Maybe they don’t like acrylic stems. Some folks only smoke bents or straights. There are some who have narrowed it down to one certain shape or manufacturer. The diversity of choices makes it possible to have a collection that says as much about you as your hair style.

My approach to selecting a pipe is a combination of eye-appeal and practicality. If I see a pipe that’s attractive to me, but the stem is thick (which I don’t particularly care for), I may buy it anyway, and plan on it being a pipe that I’ll hold in my hand, or place in a pipe rest between puffs. Other times, a pipe may have a visual element I don’t find appealing, but if it feels good in my hand, or is made by someone whose work I generally like, I might pull the trigger. Of course, to be completely practical, I don’t need any more pipes, and some are more expensive than I can justify (few people in this business are driving a new Mercedes), so I may have to pass.

After buying it, the pipe becomes even more personal. Most of us dedicate a pipe to certain types of tobaccos, or maybe even a particular blend. As it cakes up, the pipe becomes part of the blend or blends. I know plenty of people who use Softy bits to avoid tooth marks, because they often sell or trade pipes. I, personally, like to work in impressions to make the pipe more comfortable, because I often clench. Along with that, I don’t trade pipes or sell them. I’ve given a pipe to someone who really appreciates it, but when I’ve selected a pipe, it’s an extension of me, and I have a hard time parting with it. And if the pipe was a gift, it stays in my possession, as a gift reminds me of the generosity of the giver. Please understand, though, if you like to swap pipes or sell off ones that you don’t enjoy, I’m not passing judgement; that’s just my personal feeling.

Sometimes, we even misjudge our own tastes. I prefer bent pipes. At least I thought I did until I really looked at my collection and found out that I owned nearly as many straight pipes as I did bent. I like sandblasts because of their individuality, yet I have a large number of smooth pipes.

I’d like to think that I’m open to just about any kind of pipe, yet there are certain things that are a deal-breaker for me, like my aforementioned resistance to thick stems. I don’t care much for oversized pipes, although I’ll make an exception for freehands. Price, though, isn’t an area that enters into it. I’ve bought a number of inexpensive pipes over the years, just because there was something about them that struck a chord with me. I may not be comfortable spending a thousand dollars on a pipe, but I would consider it for the right piece.

One of the nice things about collecting pipes is that by doing so, it can extend the life of all of them. A healthy rotation generally means that you won’t over-smoke your pipes,  reducing the chance for a burnout or fouling the pipe from overuse. That said, on occasion, I’ve come across a pipe that was so comfortable and smokes so well that I’m tempted to smoke it too frequently. It then becomes a conscious effort to smoke other ones to keep from ruining a new favorite.

I tend to gravitate toward light pipes, but I have a number of heavier ones that smoke so well, that I ignore their heft. I lean toward vulcanite stems for comfort, but I have a bunch of acrylic-stemmed pipes that are remarkably easy to smoke. Of course, all of these experiences have left me open to a wide variety of pipes, which has negatively impacted my bank account over the years. In many ways, I wish that I had a narrower range of preferences, but I can’t break away from appreciating the diversity of these functional works of art.

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.