Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Depths: Horror and Beauty

You can learn a lot about someone by looking at his pipe of choice. An old, beaten up corncob gives off a very different vibe than a flawless, recently polished, Danish freehand. I am not asserting that one is better than another, but it is telling.

With that in mind, I pose a question to you: What does this pipe tell you about a person?

Quirky? Geeky? Possibly insane? I think all of these are probably accurate assessments, since I have recently be fortunate to acquire this monstrous beauty.

Stephen Downie, hailing from Canada, is an incredibly talented pipe carver and artist; not only that, but, fortunately for me, he is also a geek. When I first stumbled across Stephen's website, the pipe of his that caught my eye was the Balrog from Lord of the Rings. This pipe was not just a decent imitation of the fiery beast, but a fantastical representation, complete with vertebrae and horns. In addition, I saw his rendition of a Greenman, a zombie, and a king. These pipes are all pieces of art, but Stephen does not simply limit himself to “Creatures of Smoke” as he calls them, but also does the more classic designs with grace.

Due to his talent and inclination towards the geeky and macabre, not to mention his being an all-around great guy, he was a natural choice for my desire to have a pipe based off of Cthulhu, the famous Great Old One invented by H. P. Lovecraft in the late 1920s. He is said to waiting in the sunken city of R'lyeh, and might be emerging very soon. Thanks to Stephen Downie, he appeared a little earlier than was prophesied.

I have an obsession with Cthulhu, as my lady can testify: I have posters, backgrounds for my computer, many books, including a leather-bound Necronomicon, and now a pipe. She has asked quite often why this obsession exists, and there are frankly many reasons.

First off, the story is very well written, but that is not the primary reason.

Cthulhu and the entire mythos surrounding him, in my mind, capture all of what is good about horror. Cthulhu is beyond our comprehension, a thing of such greatness that we are dwarfed by the very concept of it. So far beyond our comprehension is Cthulhu that the very sight of him will cause us to go insane. This is horror in its most perfect form – it is not the ghost or monster who jumps out and yells, “Boo!”, causing you to jump a little. This is cheap horror that I label as “American Horror”, which I juxtapose with “Japanese Horror”.

In “Japanese Horror”, a Lovecraftian horror, evil simply is. American horror has a desire to explain evil: it has a source, and that source has an inspiration. Think of the most well-known American horror movies: Michael Myers from the “Halloween” movies, Jason from “Friday the 13th”, Freddy Krueger from “Nightmare on Elm Street”, along with all of the mass-murderer movies. All of the evil that occurs in these movies has a defined, understandable source; there is always a bad guy who can be caught, killed, stopped, or otherwise dealt with.

For the most part, this is not the case in Japanese / Lovecraftian horror. Evil is simply a fact of nature and we are merely caught in its path. Another one of the aspects that makes this horror successful is that it emphasizes the smallness of Man. Humans are often not targeted by the wrath of the evilness, but are simply in its path, like an anthill in the path of a toddler. The child did not intend to destroy the anthill, but the ants can do nothing against a force so much larger and beyond its understanding.

There is a scene in my favorite science-fiction TV show, Babylon 5, that sums this up perfectly. One of the characters, Catherine Sakai, encountered something while exploring a planet, Sigma 957. She asks an ambassador from another race, named G'kar, what it was:

Catherine Sakai: Ambassador! While I was out there, I saw something. What was it? 
G'Kar: [points to a flower with a bug crawling on it] What is this? 
Catherine Sakai: An ant. 
G'Kar: Ant. 
Catherine Sakai: So much gets shipped up from Earth on commercial transports it's hard to keep them out. 
G'Kar: Yes, I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant, "what was that?", [laughs]  how would it explain? There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They're vast, timeless, and if they're aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants, and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know, we've tried, and we've learned that we can either stay out from underfoot or be stepped on. 
Catherine Sakai: That's it? That's all you know? 
G'Kar: Yes, they are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Miss Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone. 

That is the true and perfect terror: to be so dwarfed physically and mentally. The horror that impacts you in your stomach and your mind is so much purer, so much better, than anything that makes you simply jump. The horror that, when you are done reading or watching, leaves you silent and stunned, leaves you in a state of ennui and emotionally drained, is a thing of beauty. That is Japanese horror; that is the genius of H.P. Lovecraft; that is Cthulhu.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Once a Speakeasy, Always a Speakeasy

We humans don't seem to really like having our rights infringed upon, especially when you start messing with our vices of choice. One need not look further than the Prohibition Era to see this, specifically within America, though Canada went through a very similar experience.

On January 16th, 1919, Congress ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, just a little over a year after it was first proposed, despite President Woodrow Wilson's veto. One year and one day later, the majority of “intoxicating beverages” became illegal to sell or create. So what came out of this? Well, needless to say, that year between the ratification and enactment was probably full of “end-all, be-all” style parties, at least it would have been had this same Prohibition taken place today.

One modern example of alcoholic prohibition involves something known as Four Loko, a beverage consisting of an energy drink and alcohol. Four Loko and its liquid brethren were hits at college parties, as the concoction allowed people to both experience the alcoholic effects and the high of the energy drink. The popularity of this drink at such college parties earned it a reputation not unlike that of the Biblical serpent – taking the rap for the poor decisions of others. In some college towns, this drink is now illegal, a decision which seems illogical, since one could simply mix an energy drink with vodka or any other alcohol completely legally. In St. Louis, party-goers were given a one month warning that the drink would be banned soon; this one month saw a number of “Four Loko Parties”, where participants bought full pallets of the drink and knocked back as many as they could before it became impossible. Sadly, these parties led to a number of alcohol poisonings and deaths, finally turning Four Loko into the demon that the naysayers that it was initially. Ironic? [/rant]

In the 1920s, Americans did what humans always do: found a solution to their problem. We are problem solvers, and good ones. Some solutions were simple ones, such as importing alcohol from Canada, Mexico, and Jamaica. Those who were best at illegally importing these treasured liquids wanted to make a profit for their risk, and they found this profit in the form of speakeasies. So much were these speakeasies a part of American culture that children today are still impacted by it; “What's the password?” is a common phrase in childhood games, along with “Murphy sent me,” or something along those lines.

These speakeasies were often in basements, with their doors sometimes located behind counters or in an alley and guarded by burly men ready to fend off those who did not belong. Once one passed through the door equipped with the knowledge of the secret password, one passed into a different world. In these rooms, sometimes cramped and sometimes spacious, almost always filled with cigar and cigarette and pipe smoke, men gathered together to enjoy their vice of choice away from the scrutinizing eye of Big Brother.

There are many bars in existence today that try to replicate the feel of those speakeasies, some going so far as to require a password, though failure to answer correctly does not result in a pummeling, as it might have the the '20s. For the first time in my life, however, I was recently able to experience what was, in my mind, the closest thing to a Prohibition Era speakeasy: the cigar lounge at Brennan's in the Central West End of St. Louis.

I walked in the main door of Brennan's to celebrate a friend's birthday. Inside, it was a small bar with twelve stools and bottles lining the wall behind the counter. At the right end of the bar was a small humidor containing half a dozen boxes of cigars. Yellow Post-It notes were stuck everywhere by the bottles behind the bar, which piqued my curiosity. “That's our computer system here,” said the bartender with a smile. Behind where I was sitting, I heard the sound of a harmonica emanating from a small doorway that led to a narrow, stone stairway.

Jeff, a friend of mine from the pub where I work, told me that that basement used to be a speakeasy. “There used to be a counter here,” he said, indicating an area in front of the doorway leading to the stairs. “That way, when someone went back here, people just thought they were going to the back of the shop.” Clever.

The place was nice and the Manhattan I ordered was enjoyable, but I knew there had to be more. I had read previously that this was a cigar lounge, but I was told that smoking wasn't even allowed inside. I pulled my Castello 55 out of my pipe bag and looked at it longingly, preparing to take it back to the car, as I had clearly been misinformed. Once I pulled my pipe out, however, the bartender instructed me to exit the bar, take a quick left, and walk through the large doors.

*insert confused, unintelligible sound here*

I did what she said, because I'm the trusting type, and left my lady at the bar to keep the birthday boy company.

Outside, there were two heavy doors, completely unmarked. Shouldering open the left door, I saw an old, wooden staircase, nearly completely dark. As I started to make my way up the steps, small lights by my feet were activated by motion sensors, illuminating only enough of the stairs to get me to the next light source.

Once up the steps, I found another small bar, with a bartender hand-polishing glasses the way they always do in mobster movies. This is cool, I thought to myself. It's not what I expected, but it's pretty cool. The upstairs bar had a modern feel to it, which was a bit of a downer to me.

“So, I can smoke my pipe here?” I said as I pulled up to the bar.

“Nope, just cigarettes here,” the bartender responded.

“Son of a –”

“The cigar lounge is for members only,” he continued casually.

There's more to this place? “Would it be okay if I saw it?”

“Sure, follow me. Need another Manhattan first?”

Of course, I needed another Manhattan!

The bartender took me through another backdoor area, where I saw a case full of cigar cutters and accessories, so I knew I was close. Stepping through a final door, the entire environment changed. In here, there was a tiny bar, enough room for three people to sit and only enough alcohol for the bartender to make the classics – though the full bar was only a hop and a skip away.

On the walls were bottles of single malt scotch and whiskey and framed photographs. A little alcove behind the bar contained a record player, at that moment playing John Coltrane – in fact, the bartender changed the record to Miles Davis's “Kind of Blue” right when we walked in.

Beyond the glass case containing myriad Zeno Cigar boxes and accessories was a 10' by 20' room with couches, leather chairs, tables, and even a workbench with an intense light for inspecting pipes and cigars. 

The room was pretty full when I arrived, with a young lady smoking a cigar to my left and men smoking pipes spread throughout the room, talking and laughing and swapping pipes and tobacco. Next to the woman was a man named Clayton, who jumped up to shake my hand and greet me as soon as I walked in. I must have looked like a cat inspecting an active vacuum cleaner, but Clayton clapped me on the shoulder, pipe in his mouth, and started introducing me to the entire room. I then found out that I had serendipitously arrived at Brennan's on the very night that the Viking Pipe Club was meeting. What luck!

After being introduced to a number of people, I reclaimed my Manhattan from the small bar and found a spot on one of the couches. I had been carrying my Junior Archer PipeFolio with me the entire time, so I finally pulled out my Castello 55 and started to load it with Full Virginia Flake.

“Nice fifty-five!” a gentleman across from me said. He then pulled out his own Castello 55 and we exchanged pipes for inspection. This was a totally new experience for me. In all of my time enjoying pipes – which I admit is not that much, but the point remains – I had never been around such a large group where my pipe could be identified by make and model by so many people so easily. 

On the table in front of the man, who I later found out was a lawyer, were three tins: Union Square, Escudo, and Full Virginia Flake. This, too, was a new experience for me. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with drug-store tobacco as long as it makes you happy. However, I tend to enjoy the craft blends like those of G. L. Pease and Esoterica, and here, for the first time, were other people who enjoyed the same.

Burning all around me were many fine blends: a Samuel Gawith rope, Night Cap, Full Virginia Flake, Shortcut to Mushrooms, and many more.

While the evening progressed, I started to realize that this was the speakeasy of my day. Here, gentlemen, and a lady, enjoyed their vice of choice away from the judgmental eye of a society that scorns them for their pleasures; here, they enjoyed their pipe and cigar and drink with others who not only put up with those vices, but accepted and embraced and loved those same pleasures with just as much enthusiasm. Up those barely illuminated steps, a group of people found solace and acceptance and friendship in a society that wants nothing more than to see their kind eliminated. Here, they were safe.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Pipe Contest

So, I am issuing a challenge to all of those that I can reach. You don't have to be a pipe-smoker to take part in this challenge, or even have any knowledge of pipes at all, though the prize for winning might not be that exciting to you if you don't smoke a pipe.

Here is the challenge: Write a coherent story using as many pipe shape names as possible (a list of a few of these name will be include below). This story should not only include the needed vocabulary, but should also be entertaining. Stories will be judged on literary value, number of vocabulary words included, and if the words used flow naturally within the story.

Here is an example that I wrote a while ago: "A Canadian prince and a lumberjack from Liverpool are playing a game of billiards in Dublin, and another man joins them and says “I've got a bulldog and I know you'll just lovat." The prince spits the seeds of the pear he is eating into a pot, hits the eight ball, and says, "A bulldog? My friend, that's a Rhodesian Ridgeback!" The lumberjack drinks a horn of apple brandy while he picks up a poker and jostles the logs in the fireplace, sending embers up into the chimney like a volcano. "Whatever you call it," the lumberjack says, "his eyes are as red as a tomato and he's ugly as a blowfish!" 

Rules: The story cannot exceed 500 words, must be fully your work, and must be posted on my blog as a reply to this topic by December 1st, 2011, at 11:59 PM. The needed vocabulary should be used in a way that makes sense and not just thrown it. Variants of a pipe name (bent apple, straight apple, etc.) will not be counted twice.

Prize: The author of the story with the most votes – or that the judges deem the best, should there not be enough votes cast – will receive his choice of 2oz of Full Virginia Flake, 2oz Penzance, or a tin of any more readily available tobacco.

Please feel free to vote on which story you feel is the best.

Good luck to all and have fun!

Some pipe-shape names:

Oom Paul

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

Facts are facts, and the fact is that smoking a pipe is a much rarer now that it used to be. Despite this, there are new people picking up the hobby every single day. In fact, one of the largest sources of new pipe smokers is the college campus (college is the time for experimentation, right?).

For my part, I have within the past year gotten three people to take up the pipe. Now, for you vehement anti-tobacconists, every single one of these gentleman smoked cigarettes before I ever knew them, and I think that we can all agree that pipes are better than cigarettes – if you aren't willing to agree with that, you are being willfully ignorant to the facts.

The first of these gentlemen, CL, is a bartender at the pub I work at, and he had tried a pipe once or twice before. As he tells me, his first experience with a pipe was when he and his friends were heading to a bonfire. They decided to stop by Walgreens, pick up a half-dozen Dr. Grabow pipes (the ones that are sold in a plastic and cardboard container), some matches, and a tub of drug-store tobacco. They broke open the plastic containing their pipes, blindly loaded the pipes around the fire, and puffed away.

Now, this very well may be a fun experience. After all, almost anything can be enjoyable with the right people and in the right situation. Smoking my pipe around a bonfire has been one the best piping experiences for me. However, the retelling of this story makes me shudder.

As a devoted pipe-man, I want people to enjoy their pipes. The circumstances surrounding CL's first time smoking a pipe made a recipe for disaster, however. A cheap piece of briar that wasn't broken in, loaded with a drug-store aromatic by someone who has no idea how to load a pipe. This has the potential to be a very unpleasant experience: in all likelihood, CL and his friends had a really tough time keeping the pipe lit, which led to a great deal of relights, which probably led to a hot smoke and a little bit of a burnt tongue.

So what, you might ask. Well, if this happened to you – having trouble, not enjoying it, and burning your tongue – would you ever try it again? Probably not. This is one of the downsides of the internet age with pipes.

It used to be that, even if one just wanted a cheap pipe and some cheap tobacco, there was a brick and mortar (also known as B&M) tobacconist that one could go to. These weren't drugstore tobacconists, where you could buy your cigarettes and maybe a cheap pipe or two. These were sanctuaries; these were temples. One could walk in and see rich mahogany cases filled with a great variety of pipes and walls and cabinets filled with tins of tobacco. When it was bright out side, it always seemed a little more laid back inside those doors; when it was dark outside, it was always warm and welcoming there.

Not only were they beautiful and welcoming, but the people working there were knowledgeable. Try walking into any drugstore now, getting down the plastic sealed pipe, and asking the attendant how you should load your first bowl or what the burning qualities of that tub of tobacco are. I dare you. It would be funny. If you asked those same questions at these mostly lost sanctuaries, you would often get a perfect answer. In fact, this information would often be given to you without even having to ask, especially if it was clear that you were a novice. Why did these people know about pipes? Because they smoked pipes. This is a rare site these days. A lot of attempts at tobacconists these days don't have a single pipe smoker working there, even if they sell a couple pipes. In all likelihood, the people working there smoke cigars and may know a little about pipes, but they are not the sages that used to be out there.

(Iwan Ries in Chicago, one of the few remaining real Tobacconists)

Since these places, with a few select and glorious exceptions, are dead, novices often find themselves in CL's situation, and often find their tongue blistered and burnt, and they never touch another pipe. For this reason, let me make a public plea: to any who are thinking about picking up a pipe, or if you know someone who is thinking about picking up a pipe, please take advantage of the wonderful resources we have online. Forums and blogs dedicated to the subject are overflowing with helpful and knowledgeable people. If you can't find any one of these sources, feel free to ask me! I may not be a master, but I am willing to try and will almost certainly be able to refer you to the masters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From Italy, With Love, Part I

A couple of days ago, I returned home to see a little slip of paper on my porch where my mail normally goes. My heart sank. I knew this piece of paper very well. It was from Tim, my postman, needing my signed permission to redeliver a particular package.

I picked up the slip, signed it, asked Tim to leave the package on my porch when he finally delivered it again, and went inside to sink into a heavy depression on my couch.

“Why?” I asked my wallpaper, “Why couldn't I have been home a little earlier?” If I had been, this whole tragedy could have been averted. Now I was going to have to wait another two days for my new Castello 55!

I had been waiting a week for this package. Ever since I had been browsing one of my favorite pipe forums and found a link to this gorgeous piece of briar, so finely cut that I felt like a dozen hawks were staring at be from the front part of the bowl, I was hooked.

I had been wanting a Castello 55 pot for quite some time. I'm not sure why, honestly. The pipe isn't the prettiest of shapes, nor is it the largest or the rarest. The shape is charming in its own way, however, and it is rumored to be an English smoking machine, turning Oriental and Latakia and Virginia into ambrosia vapors.

Those two days passed slowly, like the clocks were deliberately mocking me.

When I returned home on the second day, at a time that I knew was after the post's delivery, I nearly giggled like a little girl when I saw a tiny, white package on my doorstep.

I brought it inside and slowly went about my other responsibilities in an attempt to delay the torture a little longer – laundry, return emails, etc.

Finally, I knew I had waited long enough because my hands had started to shake a little. I took out a pair of scissors and gently sliced open the tape sealing the tiny white box, a sound that was oddly reminiscent of a choir of angels.

Let me say right now that I love the English language, a love that sometimes results in my using overly verbose and absurdly hyperbolic statements in order to communicate my meaning. With this said, I am not exaggerating while telling this story. There are moments as a pipe collector and smoker when heaven seems to come to Earth and to your doorstop in a small cardboard box.

I finished opening the flaps and cleared out the packing peanuts to reveal a yellow box with golden writing, CASTELLO shining proudly. I could not help but think of the little yellow book that so influenced Oscar Wilde, and thus Dorian Gray, a book that led Dorian into the enjoyment of myriad excesses, later resulting in the distortion of his painted self. Though I don't think that pipes will disfigure my soul as Dorian Gray's was, I do believe that this is an even greater enjoyment than any that Dorian embraced.

Feeling like I was sorting through Russian Nesting dolls, I opened this even smaller box and cleared out even more packing peanuts. Beneath those pesky, static-loving legumes I found the bag containing my prize.

Slowly, I revealed this long-awaited pipe. It was stunning. The cross-grain is phenomenal and the birds eye would make a peacock blush.

Once I had the pipe in my hands, I proceeded to turn it over and examine it under the light from every angle; I held it in both hands in a relaxed position and a smoking position; I clenched it in the jaw; I took a test draw; I ran my finger along the inside of the bowl. I learned every physical detail of the pipe that I could. To say that I was satisfied would be an under statement.

I plopped down on my couch with the pipe in my hand and started thinking about what tobacco to try in the beauty first. An English, I thought to myself, this pipe seems made for it. But which one? Which one? Suddenly, like I had been struck with divine inspiration, I shouted, “Old Dog!”

I rushed to my makeshift tobacco cellar in my basement, where it stays dark and cool and I shoved aside all of the junk that had recently come to block the larger of the two cabinets that I use for this purpose. Once I had the way cleared, I slowly, reverently, opened the cabinet door and located the grey and white tin with a sleeping dog on it. I had been saving this tin for the right occasion, and I knew that this was it.

Right when I was about to open the tin, I realized something horrible: I wasn't craving an English. The weather had changed in St. Louis recently, becoming far warmer than it has any right to be, and my pipe cravings are very weather dependent.

With a longing look at the pipe and the tin sitting next to each other, I placed the pot in the Italian row of my pipe rack and let the tin of tobacco sit next to it, waiting...

...Waiting for the right moment.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pipes and Health

It would probably be disingenuous of me to write a blog dedicated to pipes and not discuss the issue of health. There are several aspects to health, however, more than the issue of cancer that everyone always focuses on.

First, allow me to say that I am not going to deny that pipes have a chance of negatively impacting my mortality. Of course, they do. With that acceptance on my part out of the way, allow me to shed some light on this issue. According to a number of studies, including, but not limited to, a report from the Surgeon General, a pipe smoker would have to smoke between four and ten bowl of tobacco a day, every day, for 30 years before it negatively impacted his lifespan in any significant manner. According to that same report from the Surgeon General, a pipe smoker smoking four bowls a day regularly increases his mortality chances by 30% or so. In medicine, however, an outside force is not considered a significant influence on one's health until it reaches a factor of 200% or more.

It also seems important to emphasize that not all tobacco products are alike. Cigarettes are, as a general rule, an addiction used in order to reduce stress or as a force of nervous habit. Cigarettes, as we well know, are inhaled to the lungs and the average cigarette smoker smokes more than a pack a day. Additionally, the processing and harvesting of the tobacco used for cigarettes is what gives them so much of their harmful qualities: saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is added in order to make the cigarettes burn better, while other chemicals are added for for addictive qualities. Every single aspect that I just mentioned is not true about pipes and cigars. Pipes are not an addiction; pipes are not used in stressful situations or as a force of habit; pipes are not inhaled into the lungs and are not smoked nearly as often as cigarettes; the tobacco for pipes is not chemically altered. Pipes are not cigarettes.

Further, pipes can actually have some very positive impacts on one's health. To smoke a pipe is relaxing in a number of ways: the comfort, the ritual or preparation, the requirement of slowing down to enjoy the pipe, and the physical act of smoking the pipe. Though there are those who smoke a pipe while working, even while doing strenuous physical work – a feat which never ceases to impress – the majority of people use the blessing of a pipe as an opportunity to relax and take a break. Many people have rituals, such as reclining in a favorite leather chair with a book, lounging on the couch to watch golf or a movie, or sitting outside in the fresh air. All of these experiences are relaxing, which lowers the blood pressure and reduces stress. For these reasons, studies have shown that those pipe smokers who enjoy fewer than four bowls a day actually tend to live longer than non-smokers. Of course, there are other possible reasons for this fact, such as the fact that pipe smoking tends to be a vice of the more well-off in society, who are thus better able to afford medical care. Either way, however, the fact remains the same: smoking a pipe three times a day, generally speaking, increases the life span. How you like them apples?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Act Now, Supplies Are Limited

"Hey, check out this new pipe I just bought!"

(Becker Morta)

"Wow, that's cool looking. How much did it cost?"

"About $200."

"What?! Why would you spend that much for a pipe?"

"Because it's worth it. I mean, look at the grain and the shaping..."

"It's just a piece of wood. Why is it worth $200?"

I have had this conversation many, many times, clearly with someone who had no conception of what goes into making a pipe. What most people do not realize is that these prices are often extremely reasonable, and the people setting those prices, for the most part, are fine people and are not wanting to burn a whole in your wallet. There is a lot of work that went into that $200 pipe, possibly more than you realize.

Briar comes from the root, or burl, of a thorny, thicket-forming plant. This buried treasure of nature is often found on the side of rocky cliffs, and is not the easiest thing to get to. The best briar comes from older plants, usually 15 years old at minimum. The harvesters of the burl, also known as cutters, have to identify a plant that is ready for harvesting, climb up to it, cut out the appropriate area from beneath the ground while often hanging onto a cliff for dear life. Here's an additional problem: some of those carvers are less than careful, harvesting the burl in such a manner that kills the rest of the plant. With no one actively planting more of this thorny gem, the resource is more limited by the minute.

Once the cutters return with their harvest, there are a number of basic imperfections that are looked for by the briar dealer. Warped wood, large pit or faults, severe discoloration, etc. All of these flaws that are spotted by the dealer are purely external, as there is no way for them to tell what waits inside the block of briar. Of course, experienced harvesters and dealers can probably get a pretty decent idea of what's inside the block, but there are no guarantees in that business.

Next, the pipe carver has to purchase the blocks of briar from the dealer. There are a number of ways that this can be done, ranging from purchasing in bulk to actually visiting the dealer and purchasing a select number of blocks. This process itself is more difficult than it sounds, as the pipe carver relies on the reputation of the briar dealer.

Once the carver gets his happy mitts on his block, it's time for him to start carving. Now, remember how I said earlier that the only imperfections the briar dealer could detect were one the outside of the block of briar? Well, the pipe carver gets to find the rest. That means that the $35 block briar that he just bought could be totally ruined by an unexpected crack or sandpit. The more expensive the dealer that one purchases his briar from, the less common these events are, but the blocks are still a result of nature and can be difficult to work with.

After all of this, the carver finally gets to start working on the pipe, everything from shaping the pipe and drilling the holes for the tobacco chamber and airway, to fitting the stem, sandblasting or rusticating, lacquering, and possibly even hand-cutting the mouthpiece. This is a lot of work, taking hour upon hours, depending on the quality of the pipe. After all of this, the price that we pay to enjoy the fruits of their labor seems well worth it.

There are other materials for pipes to be considered, such as Morta and Meerschaum. Morta is fossilized bog wood, often thousands of years old. This resource, needless to say, is very limited, more difficult to locate, and even more rare in terms of a useable, quality piece. Thus, the prices on Morta tend to be even higher, though the sandblast is one of the most gorgeous things in all of pipedom.

What about Meerschaum? This porous, white mineral has sometimes been found floating in the Black Sea – hence, its name, meaning “Sea Foam”. More often than not, however, Meerschaum has to be mined from deep within the Earth in one small area of Turkey. This mining is often done without the luxury of some of the more modern equipment found in major American mines, and the miners are sometimes lowered down in a basket tied to a rope. Once again, this material is naturally formed and not synthesized, and it is thus difficult to locate a perfect sample. This mineral is then carved by artisans, forming anything as simple as a billiard to as complex as a stone version of the Last Supper (I have seen this pipe). Again, one is not only paying for a pipe, but the treacherous process of mining and the time-consuming, skill-intensive carving process.

Pipes are not just pieces of wood, they are connections from around the world, an intimate link between Earth and Man, artisan and layman, leaf and stone and fire. You are not just paying for a utensil, but a piece of a art, a tradition.