On the surface, a pipe seems like it should be fairly simple to make properly if you have the right equipment, but it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. Just about every pipe enthusiast has had a real clunker of a pipe. Usually that means that the pipe smokes wet, smokes hot or just plain tastes bad. Sometimes the problem is the wood. Any naturally growing product is prone to inconsistency, and briar even more so. Because briar comes from the burl of the white heather tree, and because the burl is underground in rocky soil, naturally occurring flaws and impurities are likely to be present, so once in a while the wood can make the smoke taste bad. But a bad smoke is more likely to happen because of problems in the engineering.
If you sit around with a group of pipe hobbyists, you’re likely to hear the acronym “BDC” being tossed about. That stands for Bottom Dead Center, and it means that the drafthole enters the chamber so precisely that if you run a pipe cleaner from the button to the bowl, the pipe cleaner should directly hit the bottom center of the chamber. Why is this important? If the drafthole enters too high, you can’t smoke cleanly to the bottom, and there will always be a glob of wet tobacco in the heel when you’re finished. If it comes in too low, the fluids will pool in the bottom of the drafthole and you can wind up with a pipe that gurgles, and the fluid will often travel up the airway and into your mouth.
If the drafthole comes in too low, there’s a fairly easy fix. Just drilling the chamber a touch deeper can solve it, but too high is a problem. The pipe smoker’s solution is “pipe mud”, which is a combination of cigar ash and water, saliva or some other liquid, which is pressed into the bottom of the chamber so the bottom of the chamber is “raised up”. Now, if I bought a really inexpensive pipe and the drafthole was a little off, I’d understand. That’s probably the reason that they can sell the pipe at a low price. But if I’m spending $100 or more, I expect the drilling to be spot-on.
A change has been taking place among pipe makers in recent decades, and that’s a movement toward using larger airways to allow the pipe to breathe more freely. This is a concept I’m totally on board with. The pipes I own that have, let’s say, a 4 mm drafthole smoke drier and stay lit much more easily. The stem aspect of doing this is tricky, though. If the maker drilled a 4 mm hole all the way through the stem, the bit portion would either have to be too thick or the wall would be so thin that it would be very easy to bite through. The solution is to use a smaller hole at the very end of the bit. But, you might ask, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of an open airway, because that will restrict the airflow at the button? Pipe makers dodge that bullet by widening the opening at the button, and the wider slot keeps the airflow free. We have commissioned a new line of pipes with open airways that are a fraction of the price of an artisan-made pipe. We’ll let you know when they arrive.
Another recent concept is the reverse-calabash. With this design, there’s a secondary chamber between the tobacco chamber and the stem. This allows the smoke to swirl around the secondary chamber which allows the smoke to cool and also to deposit excess moisture. These pipes are almost always made with large draftholes as well, so they smoke easily and stay lit. Although we look at this as new technology, and certainly the modern execution of the idea is a bit more extreme, this really is just the evolution of the Peterson System pipe with more effective engineering. And you thought that this was simple.