Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Getting to Know You"

Many people have said that there is a difference between a pipe smoker and a pipe collector. According to the commonly accepted definition, a pipe smoker buys a pipe to smoke it, while a pipe collector very well might smoke the pipe he buys, but that is not the reason he buys it – he buys it for its beauty, its form, or some unnameable aspect that calls to him. If this be true, then I am a pipe collector.

Despite being a pipe collector, I am also a pipe smoker. For this reason, there are occasional moments when I look at my pipe rack containing upwards of fifty pipes, all of whom have struck me for different reasons, and I become slightly morose. This feeling stems not out of a desire to fill the remaining 20 slots in my rack – that feeling is quite a different one – but rather comes from seeing so many bowls that remain completely clean, never touched by tobacco or flame. Though this pristine quality ensures that the beauty of the pipe remains untarnished and that the design remains in the exact condition that it left the hands of the artisan, it also means that there is something that I do not know about my treasured possessions.

I know what the pristine pipe looks like; I know its back story; I know what it feels like in my hand; in all likelihood, I even know what the draw of the pipe is like, since I will often pick up a pipe, inspect it, feel it, and give a test draw. But I don't know what I call the alchemy of the pipe. It is the je ne sais quoi of the pipe, a quality that cannot be grasped through quantification, nor through hours of endless groping at the power of engineering and design in pipes. Though these musings and investigations may allow for a hypothesis as to how a pipe will potentially behave while introduced to a specific type of tobacco, there are no guarantees. For example, it is generally accepted that stouter pipes, such as pots, princes, or, my personal favorite, the Rubens Rhodesian, react well with English style bends. It's true, I have had many of these pipes that have taken to Englishes like a Golden Retriever – beautiful, reliable, and trustworthy – but there is also one who responded more like a Pit Bull. This is not just variety within the same general shape, but within the exact same unique shape, designed to be nearly identical in dimensions.

This alchemy can only be discovered through experience, usually a good number of bowls of a good number of different styles of tobacco. This delving into the inner machinations of a treasured pipe can be a double-edged sword, though.

It is a true joy to discover that an artfully made pipe is also a wonderful pipe to smoke – double threat! However, there is the risk that something within the pipe is just not meant for tobacco and fire. It's a rare thing that pipes won't respond well to any type of tobacco, but it does happen. When I discover this quality about a beautiful pipe that I have admired and loved and dreamed about smoking, I feel that some part of its beauty is diminished – not to mention how sad it is to know that the bowl has been charred to no avail. When this happens, I can't help but wonder: Would ignorance have been bliss?


  1. I smoke therefore I collect pipes and for no other reason. The most satisfactory thing is a great looking pipe that smokes well but, if you don't light it, you'll never have that.

  2. Very true, Jimbo. I have had that moment many times, where a pipe that I loved from afar turned out to be even better in the hand. I do always intend on smoking the pipes that I buy, it's simply the fact that I tend to wait for the right moment to try them out, and the longer I wait, the more hesitant I become to try them out. Once I do, though, I am almost always rewarded with another lifelong friend!

  3. There are certain pipes I'd never smoke. Just think of some of the crazier designs from people like Keiichi Goto or Alex Florov. Those pipes are more like art pieces than tools, possessing a virginal beauty that would be utterly destroyed if smoked even once.

    On the other hand, a gorgeous pipe of a more traditional shape just begs to be smoked - that is, of course, unless the rim of said pipe has such beautiful grain that rim darkening would mar the pipe's character.

    It comes down to the pipe and your whether the pipe's looks matter more to you than the smoking.