Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Santa, Censorship, and Pipes

So, did you know that there is a publisher in Canada who is releasing an updated copy of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas? There is only one change in the entire edition: the removal of Santa's pipe, both from the poem and from the illustration. To read the entirety of this lunacy, feel free to check out the whole story on my new blog location: Pipe School at Quality Briar.

Thank you and keep on puffing!

Monday, May 7, 2012

In Case You Didn't Know...

Just a reminder, since I still see a good deal of traffic coming to this site, the blog is now located at

I am still working on getting as many of the old pieces over onto the new site as possible, but all new stories will be posted there.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My First Pipe: Reborn

It was a slow evening at the pub. Through the blue and grey smoke diffusing through the room, I smelled something familiar. It smelled like my music teacher’s leather jacket; it smelled like his trumpet and my piano and avoiding my lessons.
Four, college age men sat at a table and one of them was holding a long, clay pipe. Like some sort of mystic ceremony, they passed it around the table, taking a puff, savoring the flavor, and passing it to the next.
Within a week, I found myself at a small, old tobacconist with a statue of an Indian chief standing on a block with the word “TOBAK” written on it. I remember circling the tourist area a number of times before I even worked up the courage to park. It took me even more time to walk inside.
I was completely out of my element. Large glass jars were filled with different types of tobacco, all of which looked so similar, aside from the one in a porcelain jar with a portrait of a Middle Eastern man painted on it; I later discovered that this was the one English tobacco that the establishment offered.
I am sure that I lingered too long in my attempt to blend into the woodwork, but I eventually asked to purchase the same pipe that the guys at the pub had been smoking. I work at a Renaissance Faire during the summers – yes, I’m lame like that – and I justified the purchase to myself by thinking that, if I didn’t take to the pipe, I could at least use the clay one as a prop.
I remember taking the long box that contained the pipe and my two plastic bags full of bulk tobacco back to my dorm room and hiding them in the bottom drawer of my desk. I wasn’t hiding it from my roommate, since I didn’t have a roommate. Perhaps I was hiding it from the memories of my parents telling me how evil tobacco is. What I could not hide, however, was my excitement: a slight feeling of butterflies in my stomach, smiling like an idiot, and anticipating my first experience.
To say it was not the best of experiences might be an understatement, and, much like most bad first-pipe-experiences, it was entirely my fault. I was trying to use flimsy matches to light a pipe that was poorly packed and around a foot-and-a-half long on a cold, windy night, while perched on a ledge of a dormitory building. I think it might have been easier if I had been trying to juggle eight rabid pit bulls while trying to light my pipe.
Eventually, however, I got my pipe lit. I liked it. I lit it again – not too surprisingly, my pipe went out continuously – and I liked it even more. Every time I lit my pipe, I burned away my hesitance and realized that this was going to be a passion. I had been baptized by fire.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Transforming Stereotypes

We all use stereotypes. Every single one of us, every single day. For example, someone at a restaurant hands you something in glass that is liquid and perfectly clear, has no aroma and no fizz. You assume that it is water based on your stereotypes of the world. Some stereotypes are useful; some are harmful.
One particular stereotype out there concerns our hobby, my friends. For an example, take a look at this picture:
This is clearly a phenomenal photograph displaying a pipe smoker who has many stories to tell. However, it is also the image that most people get when they imagine pipe smokers. This is the pipe smoker stereotype, specifically a white man over the age of fifty-five (if only he would have had tweed on!). In fact, this stereotype was recently mentioned on a pipe forum that I frequent. Its validity was questioned, along with whether or not it was a helpful stereotype and, if not, what can be done about it.
This stereotype does not actively work towards changing the demographic of pipe smoking, which is a necessity if pipe smoking is to survive. What we need is a stereotype that moves us progressively forward.
To read more, check out my blog's new location here.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Do You Aspire to Own a Bo Nordh?

This question was recently posed on a particular pipe-smoking forum on which I am an active member. I thought it was an interesting question from the outset, and the result of the conversation was both unexpected and fascinating.

Do I aspire to own a Bo Nordh pipe? Yes, I do.

Bo Nordh is an incredibly important figure in the pipe world, not only creating one of the most beautiful shapes, in my mind, but also carver some incredible works of art. His dedication to quality over quantity and his desire to work with the briar resulted in pipes that would shine in even the greatest of collections.

I was surprised to find that I was in the minority when I expressed this opinion on that particular online forum, and it seems to me that a lot of people got caught up by the word "aspire".

I hate to do this, but my time in my many college English classes leaves me no choice: I have to go to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines "aspire" as "to seek to attain or accomplish a particular goal", while some synonyms are: crave, desire, hope, venture, want, yearn.

With all of these, I find myself returning to the same answer: I do seek to attain a Bo Nordh pipe; I do want one, crave one, desire one, hope that one day I can own one. I was perplexed by the fact that this was not the overwhelming answer.

To read the rest of this piece, please check here, at Pipe School's new location on Quality Briar.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Same Blog, New Face

"Hey, why don't you give me a call sometime? I always like to get to know my customers by voice."

I saw this message on an e-mail from Nick Miller, the man behind Quality Briar, after we'd been dealing with each other for a while. His website provides great value for high-quality pipes and is one of the few that carries a good number of Russian carvers, so I had become a frequent denizen of Quality Briar.

At first, I figured that Nick was just wanting to connect with a customer, as he seemed to me to be that kind of guy. I meant to call him, I truly did, but school and work and everything just got in the way, as life tends to do.

A couple of weeks later, I placed another order, for this pipe in particular:

(Michael Parks Pipe with Deer Antler, Photo by Ethan Brandt)

Along with a confirmation from e-mail from Nick came another, slightly more insistent, appeal: "Hey, man. Call me when you get a chance."

This contained no questioning tone and seemed to leave me no wiggle room. I picked up the phone and called him within a minute of getting the e-mail.

"Whoa, I didn't expect to hear from you so fast," Nick said on the other end of the line.

Since that time, I have gotten to know Nick quite well. He's a call-them-how-he-sees-them type of guy, who often says exactly what he thinks and what he thinks is very often right. He's quick to crack a joke or break into an anecdote or explain something casually, as if it were the most basic concept, that I had been unable to grasp after trying relentlessly.

The result of that initial phone call, and the many that have followed, is exactly what you are reading right now.

For a long time, the "Blog" section on Quality Briar went unused, gathering cobwebs. It was very much like Val Kilmer's acting career: the pieces that were on there were good, but there just weren't enough of them. That is what Nick called me to change.

Pipe School is now going to be continuing on the blog page of Quality Briar. It will still be Pipe School and will still feature the same content, along with some additional writers pitching in every now and then. The main difference is the URL. I know, change is scary, but this is good change, have no doubt about that.

I have enjoyed what Nick has done with Quality Briar, much as I have enjoyed the process of making Pipe School a reality. I am excited to announce that the two will now be coming together, something that I have no doubt will make each of us even more valuable to you, the piping community.

I just recently posted my introductory post on Quality Briar and I am working on my second one as we speak ("Do I Aspire to Own a Bo Nordh?").

Thank you very much and look for the first real entry on Quality Briar within a week!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ask, and You Shall Receive

What do you expect from a pipe called a “Strawberries and Cream Blowfish”? Probably a very interesting, and possibly deadly, dinner experience, for one thing. However, despite the interesting images conjured up by such a moniker, the title is a perfect descriptor for one of Chris Askwith's most recent creations.

I have recently found myself drawn to the Blowfish shape in a surreal way. It's an unusual shape to the eyes of the uninitiated, and even to many who are experienced with pipes. It is often lopsided and fits much better in one hand than the other because of its shape – in my experience, most Blowfish pipes tend to favor our Sinister compatriots.

The Blowfish is also one of the many shapes that was brought into existence from the Danish revolution of pipe making, from names like Sixten, Lars, and Nanna Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch. It is always fascinating to find a shape that can capture a liminal moment in the history of pipes.

Perhaps what I love most about the Blowfish from a scholarly perspective is that it is an extremely difficult shape to pull off well. A lot of carvers less familiar with the shape will simple hack off one side of an apple or tomato pipe and call it a day. That's not enough, though, as anyone who has seen one of these ugly ducklings can attest. These attempts are important in their own right, as they are testimonies to the skill required to make this shape.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Day of Our Own

It's here. It's finally here. After weeks, if not months of waiting, International Pipe Smoking Day is here!

For a lot of pipe smokers, every day is Pipe Smoking Day, but there is something different about today, something special, something transcendental.

In my opinion, the important part of IPSD isn't that you smoke your pipe (though that is a big part!), but rather that those of you who are closet-pipe-smokers, those of you who hide inside of your house while you puff away, should get outside and smoke at least once today.

By making ourselves visible, we ensure that we are not forgotten. With certain legislation in the works these days, it is important that the world doesn't forget that we exist and doesn't imagine that we are all the caricature of the white-haired grandfather. We are a large and diverse crowd.

For the most part, pipe smokers are humble and quiet people. If we start to smoke our pipe outside and someone looks offended, we will often put our pipe away out of respect. That's a good thing. It is a good thing to earn the reputation of a kind and thoughtful people.

While I am not encouraging you to tarnish that reputation, I would say that you should feel entitled to smoke where you feel fit today, as long as it doesn't break any laws, of course. If someone gives you a sideways glance while you are smoking at the park, I encourage you to respond to by saying that it is an international holiday devoted to the humble pipe and that you must smoke out of obligation.

I would recommend that you select a special pipe and a special tobacco and enjoy the day to the fullest. For those of you who smoke only occasionally, today is a day to puff away happily and without any guilt. This is a special day for us.

While you are happily puffing, I would ask you to do me a favor. Contemplate exactly what it is that makes you love this hobby some much, then come back on here and tell us about it along with how you decided to celebrate.

Finally, allow me to wish you a very happy and healthy International Pipe Smoking Day!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Loved Ones and Pipes

I'm sure that you're all aware that today is Valentine's Day. Don't worry, this is not going to be a discourse about how important love is or how annoyingly commercialized Valentine's Day is (thought that's true).

There is something very important about Valentine's Day, however, and that is that it gives us a day dedicated to contemplating some of our most important relationships.

I remember that pipes used to be a point of slight contention between me and my girlfriend when we first started going out. Lauren came from a family that smoked cigarettes heavily and had come to despise them. Perhaps because of the success of the anti-tobacco propaganda, she had come to associate all tobacco products with cigarettes, as a lot of people do. Thus, because of the negative impact that cigarettes had on her family, she was concerned when she found out about my love for pipes.

(Lauren and me on her first trip to Disney World)

Her fear concerned me as well, as I didn't want to give up pipes, though I didn't want to cause her grief. Naturally, smoking my pipes would have been the one to go if it had to, but I took this as an opportunity for discussion. I talked with her about the medical differences between pipes and cigarettes (as discussed more in depth in a previous post) and let her know exactly why I love pipes as much as I do.

After hearing the differences, including the fact that pipes are smoked less frequently (typically) than cigarettes and are usually not inhaled into the lunges, she completely changed her tune about pipes. She encouraged my hobby and has done her best to learn more about pipes because she knows how much they are a part of my life.

Recently, Lauren did something that revealed her radical change in opinion of pipes.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Shameful Aromatics

(Photo by Valentinian)

I've talked before about my friend, Jeff, a bartender at the pub where I work. I recently made a gift to him of a pipe-starter set, complete with pipe, tobacco, and all the necessary accompaniments (see the whole story here).

A week or so after I gave this to him, we ran into each other on the patio of the pub. We were both dressed for work, in our kilts, and enjoying the fire-pits that were roaring outside. I asked him how he was enjoying his new pipe and he seemed to light up when asked about it, indicating that he was liking it a lot.

“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 a question about aromatics, though.”


“Is there anything wrong with liking aromatics?”

“No,” I responded instantly. I did feel obligated to discuss the issue of aromatics further with Jeff, as I feel the need to do now.

First of all, to say that a particular pipe tobacco is aromatic is a sort of an absurd statement. Of course it is aromatic. It has an aroma, usually quite distinct, and is thus aromatic.

The term “aromatic” when being used to describe a subsection of tobacco means something slightly different, however. It refers to sweeter blends, frequently featuring artificial flavoring, such as cherry, chocolate, and vanilla through the addition of syrups.

(Photo by wmliu)

Other tobacco blends that feature Black Cavendish as a primary component are also often referred to as “aromatics”.

Let me blunt, much blunter than I often am about issues concerning taste: there is absolutely nothing wrong with liking aromatics.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Father's Gift

(My father, Jay Brandt, on the Playboy Jazz Cruise in 2009)

Like a lot of children, I loved to be told stories when I was growing up. Honestly, stories, both fictional and true, still play a large part in my life, as I am an English major and aspiring poet. 

Unlike most children, however, my father never regaled me with stories about fairies and princesses and castles. I grew up hearing about Krishna and Ganesha, Parvati and Durga.

When he didn't feel like recalling a classic Hindu or Buddhist story, he would tell me one of his own. In his younger years, my father traveled through India and Iran, Russia and France, Afghanistan and Tibet. He tells me that he left the USA with a backpack and $2,000. Mind you, this was in the early 70s. One my favorite stories involves that fact that, while traveling through Afghanistan, he saw "a line of trucks and jeeps, miles long". Apparently, he had no idea what was going on until many years later, when he realized that that was the Russians invading the country.

(My father riding a donkey with children in Iran)

To this day, my habit of living vicariously through my father has not changed. 

This summer, my father, stepmother (affectionately known as 'Smom'), and my two younger siblings traveled to Myrtle Beach on a family vacation.

When they told me where they were planning on going, I nearly started drooling. "Myrtle Beach as in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina?" I said over the phone to my father.

Don't mistake my intentions. I have no interest in beaches or lengthy periods of exposure to the sun and shirtless people who really should be wearing shirts. My drool-reflex was inspired by something else residing in Myrtle Beach, specifically something residing less than two miles from the condo in which my family would be staying: Low Country Pipe & Cigar, the physical location of

(Image courtesy of Smokingpipes) 

Needless to say, I attempted to rearrange my schedule, to no avail. College does not let you reschedule your classes so easily as one might like. 

So, while my family was enjoying the sunshine of the beach and I would have been whiling away the hours eyeballing extremely expensive pipes, I was forced to learn about basic Political Theory and the writings of Daniel Dennett, which, for the most part, I enjoyed.

A couple of days into their vacation, I received a phone call from my father. "Do you have the Mark Twain pipes from Peterson?"

He's there, I thought to myself, he is standing in my Mecca.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Video Killed the Blogosphere

(Photo by Bella Luna Toys)

It wasn't that long ago that I heard the term blog for the first time. I laughed to myself and thought it was a ridiculous word and and even more ridiculous concept. Certainly, there was no way this could catch on.

Well, here I am with a blog of my own, frequently reading other blogs and wondering what I would do without them. It just goes to show what a Luddite I was being.

However, despite the growing popularity of blogs, they are still, for the most part, written word. Written word has had a single nemesis for years that it has never been able to defeat: video.

(Photo by Deathtiny42)

Video is a quick, effective form of communication with so many great uses. Trust me, I am not complaining about the proliferation of video making and watching capability.

As someone with a desire to continue providing useful, entertaining information on the subject of pipes, however, it would seem to behoove me to expand my area of expertise.

To that end, I have been heavily contemplating starting a YouTube channel devoted to pipes. The videos could be anything from explaining techniques to tobacco reviews to just a one-minute long show-and-tell of a new pipe I acquired.

The purpose of this channel would be to provide you with the information and entertainment that you want. For that reason, I pose the questions to you, and I really do want answer:

  1. Would you be interested in watching such videos?
  2. What topic would you like those videos to cover?
I want to hear your responses and input before I take this step so that I can be sure to provide you with the best possible videos and information.

Thank you ahead of time for your help in what I view as a very exciting possibility!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Play Those Briar Blues

What makes a great business man? Knowledge, resources, experience? Of course, these are all exceedingly important for providing excellent service. To take the step step from good to great, however, you need a little something extra. Mike Glukler has that something and I knew it from the moment I first spoke with him.

He takes an intense interest in your passions, making it his mission to help you achieve your pipe collecting goal, be it finding your first good pipe or completing an incredibly rare and complex collection. More than anything, he is a genuine and disarmingly kind man.

One of the best examples of the type of business man he is, in my mind, is that he starts almost every single e-mail update with something along the lines of, "Good evening. Please excuse this intrusion into your busy weekend", despite the fact that his pipe updates are one of the highlights of my weekend!

Recently, Mike took the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.

Ethan Brandt: When did you smoke your first pipe? What made you start? Can you describe that experience?

Michael GluklerMany years ago. I was 14 and began with cigarettes. My parents, being of solid European stock, said no to cigarettes, and they bought me a pipe. A straight burgundy pear shaped Yello Bowl. I was given a package of Borkum Riff. I filled the pipe, smoked it to near the bottom. My tongue was raw. I emptied the bowl and the yellow tobacco chamber liner fell out. I did not touch a pipe again until I was 18 years old!

EB: How did you first get into the pipe business?

MGI guess it sort of began in the early 80s. I started to enjoy a pipe, seriously, and ended up working part time in a few of the local pipe shops. In 91, the last real “pipe shop” in this area closed and shortly
after I went back to cigarettes. A few years later a friend came over ( a pipe smoker ) with a tin of
McClelland’s tobacco and suggested I bring out an old pipe and have a bowl. From then I switched
back to a pipe. The more I returned back the more I realized that my income was not sufficient for
my “needs” in pipes and tobaccos. In 1995 I began to dabble a bit in selling pipes for friends on E-Bay.
In 1996 I decided to take it to the next level. Built a web site. Listened to a lot of others in the business
on what to do and what not to do, and the business has grown.

EB: What do you look for when deciding what you will sell on your website?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Sherlock Holmes Makes Pipes Cool...Again...

Recently, I was given the opportunity to start writing periodic pieces for Pipes Magazine, one of the largest and most trafficked pipe websites out there. I was thrilled and nervous, to say the least.

I had a lot of ideas for articles, some of which were good and some which simply wouldn't work for Pipes Magazine. In fact, a recent post on this blog, entitled Come Together...Right Now...Over Pipes, was my first attempt at an article for the magazine.

(Pipes Magazine Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Kevin Godbee)

Eventually, the editor of Pipes Magazine, Kevin Godbee, and I decided on a topic: the new Sherlock Holmes movies, starring Robert Downey, Jr., and their impact on pipes.

It was a challenging project. I consider myself linguistically acceptable, capable of pumping out a fifteen page research paper on a topic that I know nothing about within a couple of hours and receiving a very good grade. However, this was my first time writing for a real magazine.

I have worked on Washington University's newspaper, Student Life, doing restaurant reviews, but that was nothing compared to this.

After thinking and working and deleting and slamming my head against my desk, I managed to produce what I feel is a decent analysis of these movies in relation to the older films and the pipe world as a whole.

(Photo by Shining Darkness)

"So, imagine that there is a chain gun blasting away about 20 feet in front of you. Its target: you. How do you respond? By lying down and calmly smoking a pipe, of course! At least, that's what you would do as Robert Downey, Jr.'s rendition of Sherlock Holmes.

Naturally, this is quite a new situation for Sherlock Holmes, as is easily recognizable by even the most casual of fans. However, no matter which Sherlock Holmes we are discussing, be he played by Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, or even if he is simply a character on a page, we can be sure that he will have a particular item: a pipe. The pipe, even more than the hat, coat, and magnifying glass, is a signature of Sherlock Holmes. It defined him. The question that is rarely asked, however, is how did Holmes define the pipe?"

To read the entire article, check out my piece on Pipe Magazine.

Let me know what you think about any part of it: the pipes, the movies, the acting, anything!


Friday, January 20, 2012

Back to Basics, Part II.

(Photo by Patrick Hoesley)

All right, class. I know it's been a while since I've taught your section, but I hope that you have taken opportunity to practice what we talked about last time.

Who here remembers what we talked about before? Yes, you in the second row.

That's right: how to select your first pipe. Now, how many of you have that pipe with you? Good! I see a lot of briars and corncobs. Oh, there are even a couple of meerschaum pipes in the class. Very well done.

When we last met, I was about to discuss how to select your tobacco. Let's talk a little about that now.

Bear in mind, this is how to select your first couple of blends, not how to select a tobacco once you've gotten the hang of pipe smoking. By that time, you will have ideally figured out what you like and how to select a new blend to try.

For now, let's worry about how to select those all-important first blends.

I am not going to tell you the one option that you must do, but rather show you your options, with their positive and negative aspects.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The One That Started It All

(Image: Ethan Brandt, © 2011 Ethan Brandt, All Rights Reserved)

I have written extensively about my obsession with the Rubens Rhodesian shape design by Greg Pease and Luca diPiazza. To see the level of my fascination, check here.

Recently, I have made a breakthrough in that particular passion.

After the publication of my most recent story concerning the stout, bulky, beautiful shape, I was contacted by Neill Archer. As some of you might recall, I recently wrote about how it was upon seeing the Rubens Rhodesian depicted on his blog that my craze was sparked.

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

That was the photo I saw. This was the photo that called me and created a fervor in my pipe world that has yet to be matched or even rivaled by any other aspect of tobacciana.

I attempted to sate the desire by setting my aim on any other Rubens Rhodesian I could find. Believe me, it was intensely satisfying to see my collection grow and mature. Still, it was not finished.

I said all of this before, and I rehash only to help you all understand why the message that I received from Mr. Roan was such a bombshell.

He started off with some advice for my blog and photography, an area where he obviously has extensive knowledge. Eventually, however, the topic changed.

He told me that he had seen my most recent article concerning Rubens Rhodesians and he made me an offer.

Trades and purchases are frequent within the pipe world. Sometimes one of the collectors involved comes out on top, sometimes it is an even trade. This offer, however, was nothing that I ever expected.

What was this offer, you might ask.

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

Two, count them, two beautiful example of the Rubens Rhodesian, one from each generation.

Do you see what I see? That top beauty, the one with the darker finish and the curved stem, is the very same pipe that I had seen a little over a year ago on Mr. Roan's website.

I could not believe it. My heart rate increased and I could swear I literally started salivating. In the pipe world, this is like getting a date with the pin-up girl whose picture you hung up in your locker.

Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity like a dog begging for a treat.

I was so excited that I stayed up far too late that night, considering I had such an early morning, so that I could respond instantly to his messages.

This offer came just a day after I got a message from another pipester on Tamp and Puff, a pipe forum that I have only recently discovered. He let me know that he had found another unsmoked Rubens Rhodesian on an online retailer. I was extremely grateful for the early warning, as I had not yet received the e-mail update alerting me of its presence. Thank you, PapaBear!

(Photo Courtesy of Smokingpipes)

To say that this was an amazing week would be an understatement of epic proportions. Not only has my collection grown to fifteen of the two-hundred pipes ever made (7.5% of the total), but one of those is the pipe that started the entire infatuation. 

Pipes, and life's little serendipitous moments, never cease to amaze me.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Pipe Contest: The Verdict

(Photo by Vince42)

I know that this has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that there might be those of you who do not even remember the contest. To read about the rules and to see all of the fantastic entries, please refer to the entry entitled A Pipe Contest, or just use the link provided.

Before giving the name of the winning author and the story itself, I would like to thank my two fellow judges: Richard Friedman and Tom Welsh. Both of these men were more than generous with their time and effort. I am extremely grateful to you both.

In an effort to be as transparent as possible, here are the criteria upon which each entry was judged:  Each entry can be awarded up to 25 points for creativity, which includes overall originality and the creative use of the pipe names, 30 points for the amount of pipes used within the story, and 45 points for the quality of the story as a whole. So, this is a total of 100 possible points for each entry.

Now, without further delay, the winning story:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Come Together...Right Now...Over Pipes

(Photo by Gary Birnie)

There's something beautiful hidden within that piece of briar or meerschaum or corn or clay that you are holding. Beyond the external beauty, beyond the physical properties that allow it to turn dried leaves into mystical experiences, beyond the hard work that went into its formation, there is something bigger, yet invisible. That pipe represents a form of global unity rarely found today. You are holding proof that man can come together out of love, out of a shared passion.

(Photo by "psd")

If I am sounding a bit transcendental, cut me some slack, since I have spent the last four years of my life studying religion, philosophy, and literature (hurray for a liberal arts degree!). If you give me a bit of leeway, I hope I can illuminate what I find so amazing about the pipe.

When I picked up my first pipe, not even four full years ago, I knew nothing about the differences between given schools of pipe making, nor did I have any conception of the history of the wondrous object that I had just purchased. I just knew that I put tobacco in the hole, lit it on fire, and puffed, and even that I did not fully understand.

Once I started to widen my gaze and do a little research, I saw some of the most beautiful works of art I had ever seen. The first one that made my jaw drop was shown to me by my older brother, Tommy, who I had also brought along with me in my exploration of pipes.

Sitting at home, puffing contently on my Neerup apple, I saw a message pop up on my computer from my brother, reading something like: “You think your pipe is pretty? Look at this!”

(Photo Courtesy of Smokingpipes) 

To say that I thought that this pipe, carved by Kei'Ichi Gotoh, was magic is an understatement. I was expecting a jinni to slither out of the pipe at any moment. Fascinated, and disappointed by the red SOLD OUT next to every pipe made by Gotoh, I looked for other Japanese carvers, to see if there was any similarity between this carver and his countrymen.

The pipes I found were organic and breathtaking, their curves flowing more naturally and more perfectly than a super-model's. Since then, I have learned that this is one of the signature qualities of the Japanese carvers: natural, organic shapes that push the boundaries of the pipe-making world, while simultaneously showing respect to the traditional form.

This is it, I remember thinking to myself. These are the top of the line pipes.

While there are those out there who would agree with this assessment, the Japanese style is but one jewel in the crown of pipes.

My piping education continued. I eventually discovered more online resources beyond the retailers, including A Passion for Pipes, the revered blog of Neill Archer Roan. 

(Image: Neill Archer Roan, © 2008 Neill Archer Roan, All Rights Reserved)

My very first visit to this website brought me face-to-face with an Eskimo, by Tom Eltang. At the time, I was unfamiliar with both the shape and the carver, so, like a good little student, I did my research.

With a few keystrokes, I discovered that Mr. Eltang is a contemporary artisan based out of Copenhagen. I may be American, and thus horrible at geography, but I knew enough to know that meant he was from Denmark. My curiosity piqued, not least of all because I found it intriguing that a Danish man would make a shape called an Eskimo, I determined to find out about other Danish carvers.

(Photo by Ashtyn Renee)

To this day, it is a mystery to me how I went a single day in the pipe world without stumbling onto the wealth of information concerning the Danish pipe-makers. Images of stunning caliber flashed across my screen, filling my hard-drive and my mind with shapes unbeknownst to me previously. These shapes came equipped with titles like tulip, bent egg, elephant's foot, blowfish, and, most commonly, freehand.

(Photo by slynndesign)

Had I been a more casual collector, I may have paused for a moment to admire the stunning prowess of these carvers and then been on my jolly way. Instead, I dug deeper. Soon, I found out how much I owed to the Danes.

Back in the late 50s, a man by the name of Sixten Ivarsson – a name now on the same level to me as Michael Jordan and Jimi Hendrix – did something practically unheard of: he left the bark on the top of a bowl he was forming, rather than removing it, as the classic doctrine dictated he should. This simple decision led to the creation of what we now know as freehands.

Before this innovation by Mr. Ivarsson, pipes looked mostly like what are today called classic shapes: billiards, dublins, princes, maybe a bulldog or zulu or two. The undisputed master of the classic shape was, and is still widely thought to be, England.

(Photo by David Salafia)

Ashton, Barling, Comoy, oh my! ABC, one, two, three, you've got three incredible companies who have been putting out reliable, handsome pipes for years. Beloved by many, revered by some, these pipe markers have stayed close to shore and have not adventured as far as others in terms of shape innovation. However, when you know how to do something pretty close to perfectly, why change?

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten the biggest English name of them all, the big-daddy, the Goliath of pipes: Dunhill. The name itself is still enough to send shivers down the backs of some pipe collectors – in a good way!

During its time, the Dunhill company has helped to reshape the pipe world, creating some new shapes and transforming the meaning of a quality pipe. When Alfred Dunhill opened his first tobacco shop in 1906, he found the quality of pipes coming in from France to be below his required quality level: he saw fills and did not seem to think the pipes smoked as well as they could.

Like a true entrepreneur, Alfred Dunhill set out to fix the problem himself, opening a small factory that followed a simple motto: the best briar at the right price. The rest is history.

Dunhill and the rest of the English pipe-makers have ever since enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for producing handsome, elegant pipes of high quality. They were the undisputed gold standard of pipes, and still probably would be if it were not for little man in Copenhagen by the name of Sixten.

The Danish artisans did not rest on their laurels, however, and have since continued to innovate and create some of the most popular and exotic shapes available today, using some of the highest quality briar available in the world. I actually discovered that a lot of those Japanese carvers whose work I had fallen in love with had studied with some of the great artisans of Denmark, including Sixten and Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch.

Okay, I said to myself, I was a little hasty in my conclusion before. This is really the top of the line, the best of the best.

I was so convinced by the superiority of the Danish pipes that I messaged Neill Archer Roan, since his website was the springboard for this whole investigation, to ask him his opinion as to whose work I should focus on in the Danish market.

Helpful as always, he directed me to several of his favorite artisans. He then said something that caught me totally off guard: “Have you looked into Russian carvers?”


(Photo by Marc Veraart)

How many different countries could possibly produce great pipes? Sure enough, I did my research and was once again wildly impressed. In fact, Russia has recently become my country of focus in terms of pipes. The Russian artisans show a vast awareness of the organic possibilities within a pipe, as well as the simple beauty of the classic forms, and are not afraid to mold the two worlds into one piece of art, creating something new and yet, at the same time, timeless.

The pure talent coming from everywhere in the world is mind-boggling: Turkey is home to the master Meerschaum carvers, who come the closest to making actual sculptures of their pipes; American carvers are some of the world's rising stars when it comes to pipes, reinventing the notion of sandblasting and turning it into an art-form of its own; German artisans seem to have taken the best of both worlds from Japan and Denmark and turned it into something new and heart-stopping.

The list simply does not end. Every country bears its particular perspective on pipes and brings something unique to the table. While each is unique, none is an island (even though some of the carvers literally live on island). Every tradition relies on another and somehow, despite physical, ideological, and language barriers, they all come together to form something beautiful: the pipe.