Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Neverending Hunt: Rubens Rhodesians

In every type of collection / obsession / hobby, there are those objects that take one's understanding of the subject and morph into something different, something better, something new. The first and most powerful of those transformative experiences for me, in terms of pipes, was only a little over a year ago.

I had only really started collecting pipes in earnest in the later half of 2010, though I had been slowly building a modest lot for a year or so before that.

I remember this particular day quite vividly: I was sitting in Washington University's coffee house, known as Whispers Cafe, in a chair covered with worn, green leather. I had a cappuccino in one hand and was scrolling through the archives of A Passion for Pipes with the other.

(Whispers Cafe)

Eventually, I stumbled upon a post entitled The Piper's Dozen, an entry discussing Mr. Roan's top choices in several categories, including Best Accessory, Best Estate Pipe Dealer, Most Promising Emerging Pipe Artisan, and so forth. All of this was written back in 2009, though I, being new on the pipe collecting scene, was only then reading it in 2010.

At this point, I feel inclined to mention the incredible accuracy of Neill's picks back in 2009; since expanding my knowledge, I cannot help but agree with nearly all of his choices. One example is who he chose for Most Promising Emerging Pipe Artisan: Bruce Weaver. Since the time Neill chose him, Mr. Weaver has shown himself to be a force to be reckoned with, garnering incredible respect throughout the pipe world for his wonderful work and his out-of-this-world sandblasting.

Back to the story. I eventually found myself at the bottom of the list, reading a selection called "Smoker of the Year". There it was: a pipe that I had never seen before, but that called to me like Cthulhu calls from R'lyeh. (What? What do you mean they don't get that reference? Oh, fine!) *Ahem* ...that called to me like a siren's song. (Better?)

(Image: Neill Archer Roan, © 2009 Neill Archer Roan, All Rights Reserved)

It wasn't a classically beautiful pipe; it was rotund, squat, and had abnormal proportions. But it was the pipe for me. I knew it at that moment and I still know it to this day.

Causing myself to be late to class, a decision that I still do not regret, I furiously typed away on my computer, trying to locate a similar pipe to the "Rubens Rhodesian" I saw before me.

I knew from Neill's description that it was factory made, so I assumed it wouldn't be too terribly difficult to find another specimen. Through my research, however, I found out that this was a limited edition pipe. Specifically, I learned that there had been two generations of the Rubens Rhodesian, the first generation having a bent stem, such as in the picture above, and the second having a straight stem. Further, I found out that each version only had one-hundred pieces produced.

This complicated things.

I stopped looking for any other pipe, and focused all of my energy on finding one of those Rubens Rhodesians, ideally the first generation. For those of you who don't know, the Rubens Rhodesian is a collaboration between Gregory Pease (known to many as G.L. Pease) and Luca Di Piazza. The pipes themselves are made by Radice, so the quality is nearly guaranteed.

Prior to this, my sources for pipes had been limited to the larger online retailers, such as Smoking Pipes and Pipes and Cigars. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those retailers; in fact, both still remain favorites of mine. When one is attempting to find a specific pipe, however, one must needs widen one's gaze.

I eventually found a place called James Island Piper, and there it was in all its digital beauty. A "Clear" finish Rubens Rhodesian, second generation.

(The picture that changed my world)

While I had been intent on finding one of the pipes from the first generation, this little beauty seemed too perfect to pass up.

It arrived at my doorstep just a couple of days later. I was as giddy as a school girl.

I opened the little white package from the United States Postal Service, the shape of which I have come to know and love very well since then. Inside was, naturally, packing peanuts and a small, charcoal box, graced with silver letters reading:

                    Di Piazza

My breathing was already a little heavy upon seeing the box. Inside of that was a short, shorter than I expected, pipe sleeve, inside of which the treasure rested.

The grain was phenomenal; the size, perfect; the draw, unfairly unparalleled.

Yet I found myself unhappy for some reason. I was young (well, younger) and was displeased by the tarnish on the silver band on the pipe. In my mind, pipes were pieces of artistic perfection that could not fade, could not be tarnished.

If memory serves, I even called Don Seatter, the man behind James Island Piper, to ask for an explanation. In retrospect, I extend my deepest apologies to Mr. Seatter and offer my heartfelt thanks for putting up with the naivete of a young enthusiast struck blind by the curvaceous beauty of a pipe.

(Don Seatter)

In the end, I found my mother's silver polish and cleaned the ring up. Once I finished, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and looked at the pipe anew.

It truly was perfect.

I was in love.

All of this goes without mentioning the remarkable smoking qualities of the pipe. It handles any tobacco put in it like a champ, though I have yet to try an aromatic in it. Virginias are sweet and light, while Englishes are complex, while simultaneously letting the individual actors shine.

Truly, I regret telling you all of the wonderful qualities of this pipe, for fear that you will only harden the competition for finding one of the two hundred out there. Silly me, they are hard enough to find already.

One might think that I would be satisfied with the one pipe. While extremely happy, I find myself itching for more, as I knew that this was my shape, my pipe. No matter what else I collected, from then to now to the future, my collection and my pipe smoking as a whole will be defined by the Rubens Rhodesian by Mr. Pease, Luca Di Piazza, and Radice.

Soon, I had my first interaction with Mike Glukler of Briar Blues and located my second Rubens Rhodesian.

(Mike Glukler of Briar Blues)

Though much hunting and searching and searching and hunting, I eventually managed to complete a seven-day set of Rubens Rhodesians.

I could not have been happier. I had seven of my favorite type of pipe in seven different finishes. It was beautiful; it was satisfying; was it complete?

Since that time, my collection of this pipe has expanded exponentially. My appreciation for it has done likewise and it is still one of my go-to pipes. The question is which of the twelve I will reach for!

(My collection and photography skills have both increased! I have added one Rubens Rhodesian to the collection since this photo was taken.)

I will never stop hunting for more of this amazing shape. Once I reach fourteen, I will consider than another milestone, but I won't stop.

This story is not simply intended to show you the sheer madness that love and obsession and passion can create, but rather to show you the happiness that comes along with it. I encourage every single one of you to be passionate. It can be a specific shape, a specific brand, a specific carver, a style, a country, a finish, or anything at all. Just live life passionately and intensely, even when it comes to the humble pipe.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Creature of Smoke

As I have said many times, and will say many times again, I am a geek. That's why it is no surprise when my jaw dropped when I first saw this pipe:

(Balrog, by Stephen Downie)

I don't know how I first stumbled across the work of Stephen Downie, though I think it was from a link on another pipe related website. Since that fateful spotting of the Balrog, Stephen and I have been in frequent contact, discussing projects, games, book, music, and everything else. His work is phenomenal, appealing to more than just geeks, specifically to anyone with eyes.

I have discovered that Stephen is not only an incredible artist and a first rate pipe-carver, but his is also a great guy, fantastically intelligent and hilarious. Here is a little interview I conducted with him recently.

Ethan Brandt: Pipe carving isn't the usual avenue for the artistically inclined. How did you first get into making pipes?

(Stephen Downie)

Stephen Downie: Pipe making was something that I fell into through an odd series of events. I was working in the film industry here in a bunch of different jobs as needed. I was location scouting, Production Assistant on set and getting into the editing side of things as an assistant editor. I got into the film industry because I wanted a job where I could be creative, and in reality anyone who has a lick of creativity should stay far away from the entry positions in the film industry. There is very little creativity involved for the majority of the people employed in it and working your way up to the point of actually having any sort of creative input is the work of decades. As a PA I didn't often get asked about shot composition, dialogue delivery or lighting. 

What I did get as a PA was long, long hours sitting in the rain and staring at trees on location. By this time I had been smoking pipes for a while and one night I decided I wanted to make myself a tamper out of an Alder stick. I did and the next night I made a second one. Soon I was bringing Rosewood and Cocobolo blanks to work and leaving little piles of wood dust behind me. The idea that I had got into my head was that once I made enough tampers and developed some skill in shaping wood, maybe I would graduate into pipe making as something to do on the side. At the time I was living in an apartment and one birthday my good wife, Lexa, consented to let me bring a drill press into the livingroom. After that pipe making became a hobby. 

After that the film industry went through one of its Phoenix impressions and self-immolated, leaving a lot of us in the field scrambling to find work. To make matters worse, we just found out that Lexa was pregnant with our daughter, Helaina. Film industry hours are not normal hours and 15 hour days were the norm rather than the exception, especially while working on set. Spending that amount of time away from one's family didn't strike me as a balanced way to be a good father or husband. Thankfully I had paid a good number of hours into employment insurance at that point and was eligible for a course on how to set up and run your own small business. I was accepted to the course and pipe making became a full-time pursuit. Being able to hang out in a warm workshop with my wife and daughter close by is a much nicer way to spend my time!   

EB: You are very well known for your "Creatures of Smoke". What first inspired that series and what do you enjoy most about it?

SD: Truth be told the first creature of smoke was half a publicity stunt, half something I had wanted to do for a few years. It sounds horrible, but that's how it started out. I was attending my second or third Chicago show and I wanted a pipe that would draw some attention to my table. I always liked some of the carved Meerschaum pipes and wondered if it would be possible to do something similar in briar. Trever Talbert's Hallowe'en pipes also probably had something to do with it, I was and am a big fan of his work. It was a big risk because these pipes take weeks instead of days to complete, but I decided to take the plunge and after that more commissions came slowly rolling in. I was actually surprised when they did and I eventually had to come up with a separate grading system for them.

I think what I like most about these pipes is that they are something you need to approach with a sense of respect for lack of a better word. I know that I'll be investing a ton of time and being paid a fair bit of money for these pipes, so I had better get it right the first time. There is a definite series of steps to be followed, it's sort of like the anticipation and enjoyment of going on a long road trip. The design, materials, time and creative energy need to be all there before I can begin. When I finish a more conventional pipe there is always a nice sense of completion, Creatures of Smoke are that times ten. 

EB: What inspires your pipe creations today, aside from commissions?

SD: The great thing about pipes is that there are so many avenues to being inspired. You can be inspired by the elegance and balance of a classic shape. You can look to nature for organic shapes. You can look at what other artists are doing, not just in pipe making, but other professions like knife making, sculpture, architecture, artistic movements, whatever there is out there. Sometimes the inspiration is just to outdo what I've done before. I've been inspired by the shape of a toilet flush, it's often more difficult not to find inspiration.

EB: What do you feel sets your pipes apart? Give me your sales pitch!

SD: When I make a pipe I make it to smoke and smoke well. Engineering is the base that everything else is built on. A pipe should smoke well no matter how crazily the briar is shaped around it. When you get right down to it a pipe is a couple pieces of wood and plastic with holes drilled in. Even with great engineering I could probably make three pipes a day. It is building something on top of the engineering that I think sets my pipes apart. What I try to do when I make a pipe is to make a common object extraordinary. A box with a door can be a building, but so can the Chrysler building. I'm not saying what I do is anything so grand as that, but I think today there is too much emphasis placed on manufacturing things quickly with an absolute minimum of quality to keep costs down. I understand this, but in my way I think I'm trying to make pipes that go beyond a simple smoking instrument into an object that can be appreciated on many different levels. I think a world with just boxes and no Chrysler Buildings, Sagrada Familias, or Taj Mahals would be a much more dreary place.

EB: How do you like to go about making a pipe? Is there a certain process you follow, including the environment in which you work?

SD: I can't really say that I have a strict process per se. With commissions I like to sketch out some concept thumbnails before I start cutting briar. It lets me work out some design ideas and also helps avoid confusion later on. With some of the more complex pipes I use modelling clay to figure out how it will work. There is nothing like being 28 hours into a Creature of Smoke and still not really have a clear idea how the final shape will turn out.

As far as my approach to the wood, a lot of what I do is commission work and that means that I'm looking for a specific shape in the grain of a block of briar that will accommodate the shape. When I make a pipe for the site I generally grab a block of briar that looks interesting and fit the shape to the briar. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.

When I'm working I'm usually listening to an audiobook or music on my MP3 player. I find this a bit odd since I'm not usually all that great at mufti-tasking. I've found about the only thing I can't do with a set of earbuds in is to write. Something else I've found is that when I'm listening to something I like I spend more hours in the workshop.

EB: What pipe carvers have been the biggest influence on you?

SD: I think without a doubt Trever Talbert was initially the pipe maker that showed me that a pipe didn't have to be just a pipe. It could be something to admire outside of being simply a smoking instrument. Outside of that I've tried hard to not be influenced by specific carvers -at least as far as design is concerned technical aspects are a different matter. It is too easy to be seen as being derivative and even unconsciously bring elements of another carver's work into my own pipes. If I see elements of pipe design that I like I try and put my own spin on it, but I try not to study individuals. 

That said, there are carvers that I certainty admire. Rolando Negoita for instance deserves a lot more notoriety than what he has. He has developed a specific look to his pipes where most other pipe makers rely on tweaking the designs of pipe makers that have come before them. I find that incredibly compelling. Michael Parks does some really awesome stuff as does Will Purdy, Rad Davis, Jeff Gracik, Todd Johnston, Adam Davidson, Nanna Ivarsson, Bruce Weaver, there are a ton of others too.

EB: Outside of the pipe world, who would you say has had the biggest influence on your work?

SDWithout a doubt my wife. Every pipe I make gets a critique and gets looked over before it is finished. It's easy at times to not see flaws that are staring right at you when you have been working on a pipe for 10 hours. She finds them. It is invaluable to have a fresh set of eyes and thankfully she is mine.

EB: Do you have any particular plans for the future, both in and out of the pipe world?

SDI have a few things in mind with pipes, but no hard plans just yet. I'm pretty happy with what I've got on my plate. I'm always looking to streamline production though and next year I'm hoping to experiment in planning out my production schedule so I can take better advantage of overlapping projects.

I've slowly been studying and tooling up for knife making over the last few years and that is another avenue that I'll be exploring in the future. Thankfully there is a lot of cross over in tools and techniques between the two crafts.

EB: What is your favorite type of pipe to smoke?

SDI like to smoke pipes made by people I know and have spoken to. I have a bunch of factory made pipes that are great, but there is something nice about being able to light up a pipe that was made by a friend.

EB: What is your favorite type/blend of tobacco?

SDIf I had to chose I would say straight Virginias. I do also like English blends, non-goopy aromatics, and Orientals.

EB: Other than pipes, what are your other interests that you are passionate about?

SDMy family, playing the Mandolin, long distance running, online gaming, music, reading, coffee roasting, making the perfect cup of coffee, local beers and wines, cigars, always learning something new.

EB: What is your favorite book and who is your favorite author?

SDYe Gods and little fishes, there are so many great works out there. It really depends on my mood. Lovecraft, Poe, Tolkien, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss, Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Vernor Vinge, China Meiville, Phillip Pullman, Douglas Adams, Terry Prachett are all names that spring to mind. How could I possibly chose just one?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Winter

To everyone out there, no matter how you spend your Winter: I hope you are healthy and happy.

For those of you who celebrate a holiday or two, take advantage of the time with your family.

I want nothing but health and happiness for all of you.

Happy Winter Solstice.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Smokin' Present

If you're anything like me, there are those people that you try to shop for this time of year who just stump you. You know so much about the person, but finding a present seems like a challenge worthy of Sisyphus. Should I get her a new scarf? What color? Does she even like scarves? You know how it goes.

Also, if you are like me, there are those people in your life who want to get you something for Christmas or Hanukkah or the Winter Solstice or just because they love you, but have almost no knowledge about pipes. Luckily for them, we are a lot easier than people give us credit. For that reason, I humbly request that you turn over the computer temporarily to that dear loved one so that I may pass some simple knowledge to him or her.

I'll wait.


Hi, my name is Ethan. I write a blog totally dedicated to pipes, because I am obsessed, and your loved one who just handed you the computer reads this blog occasionally. Be sure to thank him for doing that, by the way.

Anyway, I know that Winter is a time for giving and that you very well might be contemplating giving your loved one a pipe or something pipe related as a present. This can be a very daunting task, much like a man trying to buy shoes for his lady. One reason that this can often be so difficult is that the pipe smoker might be hesitant to tell you what pipes he has his eye on, since they can sometimes be quite pricey. This humble nature is quite the virtue, but can clearly make your job more difficult when it is time to go shopping.

If you just read on for a little, I will do my best to help you get the best possible present for those pipe smokers who haven't told you exactly what they want.

First of all, you need to decide whether to get him a pipe, tobacco, or an accessory.

Accessories included everything from pipe cleaners and tampers to pipe stands and tobacco jars. A simple fact to accept is that every single one of these will prove extremely useful to the pipe smoker in your life. Pipe cleaners are a necessity, as are pipe tampers. Additionally, there are many artistic pipe tampers out there, made of everything from copper to bone to bamboo.

(Time is Endless tamper, by Yashtylov)

Pipe racks are always a good choice, since, let's face it, there are more pipes in his future than what he currently has, and unless you want to see them haphazardly placed all over his dwelling, he will need more storage space.

Moving on to pipe tobacco. This is, in my opinion, not an area to get creative. Unless you find a tin blended by Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien themselves, I would suggest sticking with those tobaccos that you know he loves. This may sound boring, but look at it this way: he is not bored by those tobaccos, as evidenced by the fact that he still smokes them, so don't worry. If you feel absolutely inclined to get him something new, make sure it is along his line of interest. This, however, requires a little more effort on your part.

If you can sneak a peak at what he likes to smoke while he's not around, look for certain key words in the description of the tobacco: "Latakia", "Oriental", "Cyprus", "English". If any or all of these words appear, then you should find him another blend known as an English. Some of the most popular and highest rated Englishes include Penzance, by Esoterica, Northwoods, from Boswell Pipes and Tobaccos, Three Oaks Syrian, from McClelland, and Westminster, from G.L. Pease. It's hard to go wrong with any of these.

If, on the other hand, the only words you see on the back of his favorite tin are "Virginia", "Virginia", "Virginia", then it is probably a safe bet that he likes straight Virginia blends. Some good names to look for include Full Virginia Flake, from Samuel Gawith, Blackwoods Flake and 5100, from McClelland, McCranie's Red Ribbon, and Jack Knife Plug, by G.L. Pease.

If you happened to notice, along with the word "Virginia", the word "Perique", then this changes things a little. This type of blend is affectionately known as a Va/Per, or VaPer, and is a little spicier than the blends listed immediately above. Try to find some of this blends, and he will be very grateful: Reiner's Long Golden Flake, Scottish Flake and Scottish Cake, by McConnell, G.L. Pease's Triple Play, and Rattray's Hal O' The Wynd.

You might also find that the pipe smoker loves those berry, chocolaty, delicious smelling tobaccos, which is wonderful for everyone else in the room. Here are some blends that are perfect for the holidays: Boswell's Christmas Cookie, Holiday Spirit, from McClelland, Mac Baren's Honey and Chocolate, and Dan Tobacco's Devil's Holiday, all sure to please the sweet tooth. 

This basically covers the main four areas where your pipe smoking loved one might fall. Now comes the difficult area: pipes.

First, let me make a suggestion: unless you are buying a corncob, try to spend more than forty dollars on the pipe. I know that economic times are hard, but listed above are a number of great, thoughtful options for much less money. While a high price does not guarantee a great pipe, it is likely a better pipe than one found for twenty dollars. Think about it this way: a doctor who charges $300 a visit is not necessarily better than one who charges $30 a visit, but I'm a little nervous to trust discount doctors.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let's take a look one more time at the pipe smoker in question. You can learn a lot from looking at his pipes, such as what material he prefers, whether he likes big bowls or small bowls, long stems or short stems, smooth pipes or sandblasted pipes, etc. This is all extremely helpful information.

Surprisingly, I am here going to stop giving advice as to how to pick a pipe. This is why. The very fact that you have been thoughtful enough to want to get him a pipe, along with taking a minute or two to see what kind he tends to like, is enough to make any pipe smoker happy. That pipe that you get him, even if it is a $40 pipe among his $500 pipes, will hold a special place in his collection and in his heart. Even if you found out that he likes smooth, long-stem Meerschaum pipes, and you get him a short, sandblasted briar pipe, he will love it just the same.

There are dozens of extremely helpful establishments, including Smoking PipesPipes and CigarsCup O' JoesIwan Ries4Noggins, to only name a few. Not only do their websites have incredible selections of pipes, but the people themselves are extremely friendly. Give them a call, tell them what you know about your pipe smoker, and they will probably be able to help you out.

Just remember that whatever pipe you get him is the right one. He will love it, because it is from you. It will be one of the few pipes in his collection that he will never trade, because it holds a far deeper meaning that many of the others.

I hope that this short guide has helped. Be confident in what you buy and have a very happy and healthy Winter season.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Smoke on the Water

I'm a college student. I'm not starving or living off of Ramen noodles every night -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but I do have to be concerned about finances. I watch my spending on a lot of things, with a few exceptions, pipes and my lady friend being the top two expenditures.

Recently, however, I received information about an opportunity that made me tempted to forgo all other spending.

(Captain Richard Friedman)

Richard Friedman is one of the examples of a great pipester. He is knowledgeable, warm, giving of his time and energy, and a Renaissance Man. I feel that this last quality should be a requirement of pipesters, as we have embraced the notion that life is enhanced by a myriad different experiences and that knowledge relating to these experiences only serves to amplify their effect.

One of the many pleasure of life that Richard has devoted himself to, and perhaps the only passion of his that rivals his love of pipes, is yachting. In an attempt to combine those two passions, and to enhance the pleasure of other pipe smokers through friendship and experience, Richard has put together a Pipers' Cruise on Alaskan Song.

This is an incredible opportunity to meet other passionate pipers, enjoy fantastic food prepared by Nancy Friedman, and smoke a pipe on a yacht of phenomenal proportions. To make the pot even sweeter, master pipe artisan Tonni Nielsen will be on board!

(Artisan Tonni Nielsen)

For more information on this exciting expedition, check our Richard Friedman's website and Neill Archer Roan's experience.

Once you see the offer that is in front of you, you very well might be as tempted to put everything off for a little while as I am!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Teacher! I Know the Answer!

CL had just clocked out when I got into work.

I was carrying my Archer PipeFolio in one hand and my Amazon Kindle in the other. It was a beautiful Monday night, to my eyes, with a steady rain and grey sky. I knew that this meant the night would either be extremely busy or extremely dead. A selfish part of me was hoping for the latter, as I had just gotten to an exciting part of A Dance With Dragons, by George R. R. Martin, and I was looking forward to trying out a new tobacco.

After I clocked in, I strolled back often to the host's station, which is simply a small counter with a phone and calendar next to the bar. Rainy weather always puts me in a good mood, that night being no exception.

Twenty minutes into my shift, no one had walked in. About that same time, CL dropped his backpack next to where I was standing and leaned against the counter with a glass of red wine in his hand.

One of the things I really admire about CL is his ability to appreciate a plethora of flavors, a skill that has made him an aficionado on wine, beer, and scotch, and he is working on adding pipe tobacco the list.

“So, I had a pipe question for you.”

Wonderful, I thought, putting my Kindle down in anticipation. It is a rare that a young man gets to help educate the bar manager where one works, so I was not going to pass the opportunity. Plus, as someone who helped spark his fascination with pipes, I feel like I have a stake in his continuing enjoyment, as, indeed, all pipe smokers have in the continued proliferation of our community as a whole.

“I recently snagged some Full Virginia Flake –“

“Hold on,” I interrupted, probably sounding ruder than I intended. Digging around the poor excuse for a host's station, I found a piece of crumpled paper with some information about a reservation to have taken place weeks ago. I scratched out the old writing, wrote down a few words, folded the paper, and slid it towards CL.

“What's that?” he asked.

“Nothing. Sorry, I interrupted. You were saying something about your FVF. Good stuff, by the way.”

“That's what I've heard. I traded someone online for it and it came in a mason jar, so I figured it would be okay. But when I opened it, there was this stuff all over it.”

“Stuff?” I asked, channeling my years of acting in high school and college to sound as befuddled as possible. “What color was it?”

CL paused. “White, mostly. White and light grey. I didn't know if it might be mold.”

I smiled and tapped the piece of paper that I had slid towards him earlier.

He picked it up, unfolded it, and read what I had written: It's not mold. It's called bloom.

After reading it, he cocked his head at me, laughed, and said: “Smart ass.”

I proudly smiled. “Absolutely! But notice that the first word in that insult was 'smart'.”

This is a common question with pipe smokers, and cigar smokers, as a matter of fact, and can often cause some overly wary people to lose out on a very good smoke.

A lot of online forums have questions concerning tobacco and mold, most frequently with Virginia flakes, such as Samuel Gawith's Full Virginia Flake.

When people unseal their tobacco, they are sometimes greeted with this sight:

This can, understandably, cause alarm in those who are unaware of this natural occurrence of tobacco, known as 'bloom'.

In most of those online conversations, the more experienced pipe smokers, who have encountered this before, will attempt to reassure the novice, by telling him that what he is seeing is, in fact, sugar. This is easy to believe, as what appear to be crystals can be seen in the white/grey substance under just a little light. While this is a nice thought, and is plausible with such a sweet tobacco, it is, unfortunately, a myth.

This substance is known as 'bloom' or 'plume' – I, personally, prefer 'bloom', as it sounds like the tobacco has blossomed, which is quite accurate.

When tobacco ages, the oils in the tobacco will sometimes come to the surface in the form of crystals. This is nothing to be concerned about, and is actually a sign that your tobacco has been aging well.

It is pretty easy to tell the difference between mold and bloom once you know what you're looking for: bloom is always white or light grey, should rub off very easily, leave no stain, have crystals, and should have no odor. Mold, on the other hand, can be different colors, including yellow, will not contain crystals, will often be hairy, and will probably smell.

With renewed faith in his tobacco, CL left the pub determined to try one of the most highly rated smokes of our time. I highly encourage you to do the same!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Don't Worry, Be Happy

As a college student, I am very familiar with the irritation that comes when reading the writings of someone who feels inclined to repeat himself over and over again. Repetition can sometimes be an effective method of communication, but when it starts to feel like Chinese water torture, you know if has crossed the line.

Thus, I tend to feel like a hypocrite when I answer the majority of pipe-related questions with some derivation of, “Whatever makes you happy.”

I do not say this in an attempt to skirt the issue, as I will happily tell you what my preference is and why. That is all it is, however: a preference.

There are some things within the pipe world that are, most can agree, not based upon personal preference, such as what material of stem is harder, as hardness is a measurable quality. Which type is more comfortable, however, is personal preference: which provides better smoking qualities is an issue of personal preference.

It is true that pipe smoking, through consideration of population, is down from generations ago, even in just the 1970s. On the other hand, our contemplation, analysis, and appreciation is very much on the rise. What we have now is an issue of quantity versus quality.

There were those in earlier times who loved their pipes and appreciated them and cherished them. By and large, however, pipes were thought of as mediums in which tobacco can be burned and thus enjoyed. While, mechanically speaking, this is still true, the enjoyment of pipes has gone very far beyond that simple physical capability.

By being driven underground, so to speak, the passion for pipes has increased exponentially amongst those who continue to enjoy them. Thoughts about chamber geometry, bowl coatings, the value of Italian versus Danish carving styles, how best to pack one's pipe, and so forth, are very much results of our generation of pipe smokers. Pipe carvers had, naturally, mulled these ideas around for a great deal of time, but it is rather recent for the average pipester to use such mental effort in attempting understanding and finding the best pipe.

Despite this increased contemplation about different aspects of pipes and tobacco, we find ourselves having to answer the majority of questions the same way that Mark Twain did in his day: 

As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the
chiefest is this--that there is a STANDARD governing the matter,
whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man's own preference
is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept,
the only one which can command him. A congress of all the
tobacco-lovers in the world could not elect a standard which
would be binding upon you or me, or would even much influence us.

With all due respect to the older generation of pipe smokers, I would not trade my generation of pipesters for anything. (Just for clarity, I include all of those still enjoying and learning about pipes at the current moment as “my generation”. I am not limiting it to simply those in my age group.) We, per-capita, show a greater interest in learning and understanding about the inner machinations of the central focus of their hobby. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers! We are bound together in a unified acceptance of the beauty of pipes and the realization that there is always more to learn. We refuse to stay stagnant and will continue to aspire to enlightenment.

I, for one, would take 10 well-informed pipe smokers, who are driven to keep learning, over 1,000,000 people who make no effort to expand their understanding. This is why I first created Pipe School: to enhance my own understanding and to help others along the same path.

But there is one key to learning with which I cannot help you: learn what you like. (See how I tied that up?)

The best thing about pipe smoking is that your personal preference is not wrong. It literally cannot be wrong, so long as it brings you pleasure.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Every hobby has its caricatures, its members who so well fulfill a particular stereotype that one cannot help but wonder if it is an act.

As a passionate and unabashed geek, I have encountered my fair share of these cartoon-like figures. 

It's happened to me more than once that I have walked into my local comic shop to grab a new release of The Amory Wars or a codex for Warhammer 40,000 and have encountered a man...boy...male leaning over the rack of Magic: The Gathering cards with drool on his shirt and glazed doughnut flakes on his lips, laughing at his own jokes with a drone that would make Fran Drescher cringe. When I encounter this figure, I am almost always tempted to put my selections back on the shelf so that I am not lumped into the same category as this fellow. But I am a geek and will sacrifice my self respect to get my nerdy fix!

Pipe collecting and smoking has these caricatures just as much as comic shops do, though I have never encountered someone who has made me ashamed to be a pipe collector. A great deal of these caricatures are even clearer on Pipe Forums, where people have the opportunity to share photos and thoughts with a click of a button at any time of day.

The One and Done: 

We all have that one pipe that means a great deal to us, that shines through in our memories for one of myriad reasons, such as nostalgia, functionality, beauty, or the quest that one had to go through to acquire it. This particular pipester, however, either managed to acquire that singular pipe of perfection on his first try or subsequently got rid of all other pipes after acquiring this one. He only has one pipe and fails to understand what is known as PAD (Pipe Acquisition Disorder) and the general desire to acquire another pipe. In his mind, if you have a pipe that smokes well, then you're done. I, personally, welcome as many of my friends to join the ranks of the One and Done pipester, as that just leaves more pipes for me!

The Corncob / Briar / Meerschaum / Clay Only Collector: 

Unless you have managed to keep your collection completely symmetrical and balanced, there is one medium of pipes that outweighs the others in terms of value. This particular collector, however, has taken that to the extreme and vowed to collect only one medium of pipe; further, he bellows loudly and often about how all of the other mediums are inferior to his chosen form. When questioned about the virtues of his favorite style, he will go on and on about the wonders of his worshiped material, but will simply plug his ears when similar values are pointed out about the other mediums. Once again, more for me.

The Master Debater: 

This person finds any hot-button issue being discussed, either on a forum or in calm conversation among collectors, and turns a rational dialogue into a raging argument. Common subject matters that the Master Debater simply cannot resist include the value of inner bowl coatings, the function of bowl geometry in relation to tobacco flavor and burning qualities, and the price of pipes. Once this person opens his mouth, the entire conversation stands on the edge of a knife in an attempt to retain its sanity.

The Old Codger: 

No one can really tell how old this person is, but he always seems to be at least ten years older than the other oldest member of the organization. Additionally, though he seems to always be unable to remember your name or even what he had for breakfast, he is perfectly able to remember the pipes of yesteryear and how much better they were than the pipes that are being made today. Even if he acquires some contemporary, artisan pipes, he seems to always return with the same beat up pipe clenched between his jaw. Despite his obsession with the value of the older pipes, he knocks his cherished pipe around like Ali handled Frazier in Manila, forcing the obsessive-compulsive collectors to shudder, all the while lecturing about the good ol' days, Ronald Reagan, and the genius of Wheel of Fortune.

The Flavor Hater: 

This person seems to have had one bad experience with a particular flavor in pipe tobacco and has deemed anything containing that flavor as tripe. There are three typical flavors that draw the most ire: artificial flavorings, Latakia, and Perique. Those who fall into the first camp feel that any "Fru-Fru" tobacco is worthless and is only smoked by those who cannot appreciate real pipe tobacco. For the Lat-Haters, even a little but of smokiness is too much and far too overpowering; despite the fact that there are many subtle Latakia blends, they refuse to try them, as they are under the impression that Latakia poisons even the best of blends. Finally comes Perique-a-phobia. Even a sprinkling of this flavorful leaf makes the pipester feel like they are biting into a peppercorn and thus shiver when even contemplating a blend with Perique in its contents. There is nothing wrong with this caricature unless the personal preference starts to take the form of overarching condemnation, which it often does.

The Put-Everyone-Else-to-Shame Collector: 

This pipester is not evil or bad or even mean. He has managed to amass one of the most stunning, comprehensive, and mind-boggling collections of pipes you have ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, he is always around whenever you want to show off a new acquisition. He looks on and claps you on the back, congratulating you on your fine new pipe. Then he pulls out his pipe bag, which is made out of the fur of one of Santa's reindeer, embroidered by silent monks living in an Ashram high in the Himalayas, and kissed by Marilyn Monroe. From it he pulls a pipe that might have been crafted by Hephaestus himself, leaving a solitary cricket in the place where your friends were standing moments earlier, as they gather around this collector in an attempt to get a glimpse of the gods' gift to pipe smokers. Eventually, even the cricket goes over to see what everyone is looking at.

Big Brother: 

There's not much to say about this person, because he does not say much at all. Should you encounter this person at a tobacconist or pipe club, he might spend his time staring out a window or blindly gazing into space; if you didn't know better, you might suggest calling 911 to ensure he was still alive. If this is someone you interact with on a forum, you may even start to forget that he exists. Just when you let your guard down, however, he pops into the conversation, either will just a little comment aimed to remind you that he is still listening or with a genius analysis that proves that he, even while half-comatose, still knows more than you do.

The Mad Scientist: 

Just when you thought pipes were simple pieces of wood or stone or corn into which tobacco was placed, ignited, and subsequently inhaled, out pops the Mad Scientist, with chemical analysis, lectures about thermodynamics, and diatribes about principles of engineering, all of which serve to explain why you really like that new Billiard you bought. In other words: Flee before my mighty intellect, peons! The sad fact is that the Mad Scientist is, more often than not, correct. He simply provides so much information that you never needed or, even if you needed it, you could never understand if you tried. He has spent hours researching pipes and the inner machinations of the beautiful pipes that you take for granted. While we are grateful, Mr. Mad Scientist, my mind melted trying to understand just your introduction to thermodynamics.

I am sure you have met at least one of these people in your pipe travels, and probably in other situations, and I am also sure you have met even more ridiculous fellows than these. Let's hear about 'em!

Trever Talbert wrote his own list of types of folks that are found on pipe forums, a story that can be found here and is perfect for a good laugh and is sadly accurate!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pipe Writing Contest, An Update

Hello, everyone!

This is going to be a very brief note. I am primarily writing to let everyone know that the submission period for Pipe School's first Writing Contest is officially over!

We have had a number of incredible submissions, displaying incredible rhetorical and creative skills. I am truly envious of all those who submitted, as I am sure that if I were half as skilled as they are I would have a far more successful blog!

The judges for this competition will be my brother, an talented writer, avid reader, and devoted pipester, me -- as if I'm qualified -- and one guest judge who will be announced once the judging process starts.

I would also like to thank everyone who participated, either through direct submissions to the competition, encouragement of the writers, and the two gentlemen who added their own tobacco to the prize, Neill Archer Roan and Richard Friedman.

Check back for updates on the judging and results of the competition!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Giving + Thanks + Pipes

Part of the Thanksgiving season is giving, whether this giving comes in the form of thanks or otherwise.

Not that long ago, I found an opportunity to give and forward the pipe lifestyle at the same time. I simply could not pass it up.

While in school at Washington University in St. Louis, I have worked as a host at a local Scottish pub called The Scottish Arms. I've now been a host there for around four years, with minimal breaks to focus on school.

When I first started at The Scottish Arms, it had a smoking section and a non-smoking section; sadly, the smoking section is now also called 'outside', as St. Louis City no longer allows smoking in the vast majority of restaurants.

A couple of months after I started working there, I picked up my first pipe, a pipe that is still known by the other employees of The Arms as my 'Gandalf pipe'. In reality, it was a long tavern pipe, which makes it rather understandable why it got its nickname.

Starting to bring in my pipe to work was one of the greatest discoveries since the fact that I can read on my Kindle at work and no one really notices. Slow times at work were much more pleasant when I could enjoy my pipe and get paid for it. It was also a wonderful environment for my earliest days of pipe smoking: in a pub, with beer and scotch flowing, music ranging from Miles Davis to Flogging Molly, and a kilt – don't forget the kilt!

My ability to pass the duller hours with a pipe has since been stripped from me, leaving me fondly remembering the good ol' days.

Luckily, I have substituted my smoking a pipe with discussing my pipes. A rather surprising number of employees at The Scottish Arms have recently taken an interest in pipe smoking. I have written previously about a gentleman named CL, a bartender at the pub, who has now gotten into the full-swing of pipes, sampling Escudo, Westminster, Peterson's Christmas Blend, and much more.

A newer devotee is another bartender, Jeff. He approached my one day while I was working and asked me if I knew where he could get a good starter pipe. Apparently, he had puffed on someone else's pipe – an old Savinelli that I had given to him a couple of months earlier – and had thoroughly enjoyed it.

I ticked off a number of great brands with fine pipes under $100: Peterson, Stanwell, Neerup, Savinelli, etc.

There was a twinge visible on Jeff's face and I soon knew why. I toss out $100 as being a great price for a reliable pipe because I know that to be true. As I have said earlier, a good pipe costs good money and one does not want to run the risk of starting off with a poorly made pipe.

An initial investment of sixty to eighty dollars is a lot to ask, though. I suggested Missouri Meerschaum corncobs and a number of other options, but I could see the enthusiasm dripping from him like sap from a tapped tree.

That's something I refused to let happen.

I went onto one of my most visited websites, Smoking Pipes, and found the gift set they have known as the Collegiate Starter Set. They have a long and in-depth description of the product, which is something that I love about the people at Smoking Pipes, and the write-up starts as follows:

You love the delicious, fragrant aroma of pipe tobacco. You admire the refined, classic look of a pipe. Perhaps you've even fathomed, once or twice, of trying your hand at the hobby. Where do you begin?"

This is the situation in which Jeff found himself and he turned to me for a little advice. I may be known as the weirdest member of The Scottish Arms's workforce, but I also know a fair amount more about pipes and cigars than most people there.

Since Jeff put his trust in me, I refused to let him down.

I quickly ordered the starter set waited.

Finally, the set arrived in the mail, all of the items – pipe, cleaners, tobacco, stand, tamper, and leather pouch – packed snugly in a cardboard box designed to look like a present, complete with a ribbon printed on the box.

Next, I had to find a time when Jeff was working, as we rarely work at the same time.

Eventually, I went in to work to grab a drink after class and there was Jeff, discussing the value of original Bob Dylan versus any cover of his songs.

I ran out to my car to grab the box, which I had brought with me for just the eventuality. I sat down at my table, the box sitting at the edge, and waited for Jeff to come by.

“Can I get you a drink, young sir?”

Jeff is about five years older than me, but manages to make those years seem like decades. He's a jovial man with a sense of humor that borders on the absurd. He is, if anything, an extremely kind man.

“Yes, sir! I will take an Arcadia London Porter and you will take this.” I handed Jeff the box, which he looked at with a perplexed stare.

Once he opened it, he face lit up.

He thanked me profusely and walked away from the table with a big smile on his face. He was still beaming when he brought me back my beer and told me it was on the house.

I have yet to be able to see Jeff smoke his pipe, as smoke-breaks at restaurants are rarely long enough to enjoy a bowl. He has, however, shared his experiences and confusions with me and I can tell that he has enjoyed his new-found hobby, approaching it with enthusiasm and curiosity.

It felt good to fan the flame of his interest in pipes. So much of the writing and discussion about pipes is often directed towards those who are already interested in pipes. This makes sense, as very few people with no interest in pipes would care to read a blog about them. We should, however, be sure to invest time in encouraging those who will carry on the torch (or the Old Boy or the Zippo) for years to come.

A little while later, Jeff came up to me and started talking about his experiences with his samples of tobacco.

“I'm really liking the Altadis Night Cap. It just smells and tastes great!”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said. “Aromatics are always a crowd-pleaser.”

“I do have one question about aromatics, though.”


“Is there anything wrong with liking aromatics?”

Short answer: “No.”

Long answer: ...In a later post!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

It is easy to have an overly verbose and overly dramatic post on Thanksgiving. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I will try to keep mine short and real -- no promises.

I am not a religious person, so I give thanks to the people in my life.

Obviously, I am thankful that my lady, Lauren, made the foolish decision to have me in her life and for the fact that she puts up with and loves me for my strange obsessions and behavior.

I am thankful for my family that understands me and encourages me. Love is not something to be taken for granted.

I am thankful for more things than I should trouble you all with.

Instead of continuing to enumerate all of that for which I am thankful, please allow me to make a wish for every one of you: cherish your family, not just on holidays, but everyday; cherish the loves in your life, be they people or pipes; do not let a day go by where you do not appreciate how wonderful it is to be alive, for life is far too short. I wish you all happiness.

On this day when we are, interestingly enough supposed to give thanks, we so often spend our time rushing to a store to pick up something we forgot, worrying about the turkey (though I am excited to worry at the turkey), complaining and arguing and stressing and bickering.

I certainly hope you all take a breath and kiss your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/any random person. Do not let those moments pass you by, for you never know when there won't be anymore.

I am also thankful for the entire pipe community in which I so often participate. You have all been supportive and fun and friendly and helpful. So, when I raise my pipe later tonight to exhale out my thanks with wisps of grey-blue smoke, I will have you all in my thoughts.