G. L. Pease
Last month (see Part I), we asked the the question, “why coat the bowl?” and looked at some of the common reasons coatings might be used. Response to the article was just what I expected it would be, with people taking up residence in one of the three camps I mentioned—hate ‘em, rather not have ‘em, don’t care—though one respondent did say that he does prefer coated bowls. Now that the soup’s been stirred a little, we’ll talk about what these things, dreaded, tolerated or accepted, are, and how they might affect the smoking characteristics of the pipes to which they’re applied.
First, though, we need to take a step back and recognize the unfairness of painting all bowl coatings with the same broad brush; every pipe maker has his own recipe, and they’re not all created equal. Some, probably even most of them, are not only harmless to the overall smoking qualities of the pipe, they may actually benefit the smoker during the break-in by softening the sometimes harsh taste of virgin briar, and possibly presenting a somewhat easier cake-building experience. I once despised all bowl coatings, but over the years that I’ve been investigating them, and the pipes using them, I’ve come to have at least a tolerance, if not respect for some recipes, whilst my loathing for some others has remained intact.
To continue the discussion, I’ll start by grouping coatings into three general categories, the first of which isn’t really a coating at all.
For purely aesthetic reasons, some pipe makers will stain or dye the interior of the bowl to present a more consistent appearance with its exterior. During the staining, it’s nearly impossible to prevent the some of the finish colour from finding its way into the bowl’s chamber, either the result of inevitable drips or through penetration, and some find this unsightly. Depending on the dyes used, or if a pipe is subjected to process such as oil-curing, it can be difficult, even impossible to sand the interior sufficiently to eliminate the discolouration that can often be blotchy and unsightly. The simple solution? Stain the inside as well. Indeed, some factory-made pipes are simply dipped in stain for the sake of production throughput. Smokers are sometimes vocally critical of this practice, complaining of the bad taste the stain leaves during the first smokes, but the flavour eventually goes away, and these pipes will ultimately behave just like their non-stained counterparts. (In fact, I’ve often heard that the harder the break-in, the sweeter the ultimate smoke, though I tend to think of this as justification for the rewards of a battle hard-won.)
Next comes what I’ll refer to as the general class of organic coatings. These are used by many pipe makers, and probably, today make up the majority of interior applications in higher-grade pipes. They are usually based on carbon powder or charcoal, and some sort of binding agent, often a protein (buttermilk, yogurt, egg whites, gelatin, for instance) or a sugar. Even Dunhill, at various points in their history, have suggested that, “A little honey applied around the tobacco bore can speed carbon formation.” (I’m surprised they missed the marketing opportunity to sell expensive little black vials of honey, complete with white spot and applicator brush. If these should find their way to market, remember you read it here first. I’ll demand royalties.)
In my experience, these coatings can range from neutral, still allowing the taste of the briar to come through in the early bowls, to presenting a slightly muted but pleasing taste. One exception to this notion of “natural equals neutral” was exhibited by a pipe I was given by a maker with the expectation that, after assuring me that his coating was made from 100% edible substances, I would smoke it as he made it (he knows I sometimes remove coatings) in order to fairly evaluate what I thought of his recipe. The black layer was applied fairly thickly, and during the first few bowls, the pipe tasted a bit like I was smoking my tobacco from a charcoal briquette, but, after a few bowls, the residual charcoal taste was gone, and is became a superb smoker. Ultimately, a success, though I found no real advantage to the coating, and probably would have preferred the taste of the bare briar over that of Kinsgsford.
But, overall, as a group, these organic coatings are at best nearly undetectable, and at worst, inoffensive, possibly serving to polish some of the sharp edges of naked briar during the initial break-in, and over time, becoming completely transparent to the smoker, neither enhancing nor detracting from the long-term smoking qualities of the pipe, and they may help with initial cake formation. They’re easy enough to get rid of if you really don’t want them; a damp paper towel is usually all that’s required. But, since they seem to do no harm, and may provide some benefit, why go to the trouble?
The third and final group are the inorganic coatings. The most commonly used formulae rely on so-called “waterglass,” a hydrous form of sodium metasilicate (Na2SiO3). When a liquid solution is combined with powdered carbon, and sometimes pumice or other materials, a slightly adhesive “paint” is produced which can be applied to the bowl’s interior. It will dry quickly to a durable surface, and when hardened by the heat of smoking, the coating forms an anhydrous, glass-like layer, an impenetrable barrier between briar and burning tobacco. Proponents of these coatings feel that they offer superior protection against burnout, along with the same sort of easier break-in and cake formation that the organic coatings deliver. There was a time when these coating formulations were much more widespread, though in recent years, it seems more makers are using organic coatings.
These are arguably the most controversial of the lot, and may be the cause of much of the overall ire levied against all coatings. My own experience with them has been less than happy-making, and in discussing the subject with quite a few pipe-smokers, I’m apparently not alone. I find the initial bowls of pipes with these coatings to offer an often harsh, acrid taste that never seems to go completely away, though a thick cake does seem to help in these cases. But, a few pipes I’ve had, even after dozens of bowls, just never really found their sweet spot, or developed the smooth richness that a seasoned briar is expected to offer.
Many years ago, I acquired a well-used pipe made by a maker who used a waterglass coating. The pipe had been carefully smoked by its previous owner, whose taste in tobacco is similar to my own. When I got it, it had a fairly thin, beautifully maintained cake, and it had been meticulously cleaned. I filled it with a favourite mixture, and lit up, finding the resulting smoke to be off tasting. Interestingly, I also noticed that the shank built up moisture more rapidly than I usually experienced. Even a dozen bowls and thorough cleaning and reaming back to the walls did nothing to improve things.
To satisfy curiosity, and in the hopes of redeeming a beautiful pipe, I ended up cutting the chamber back to pristine, bare wood, not an easy task, and treated the pipe like a brand new one. The initial smokes tasted of virgin briar, and within a few bowls, the pipe was already smoking much better, with noticeably less moisture finding its way into the shank, reinforcing the hypothesis that the glass-like layer of silicate can, at least in some cases, interfere with the porosity of the briar, one characteristic of the best smoking pipes that is so highly prized. I’ve subsequently repeated the experiment with several other pipes, each time with similar results. Some people seem to get along just fine with these coatings. I, apparently, do not. Tobacco choice and taste preferences may play a role, here, but for me, for the tobaccos I prefer, for my smoking style, my tastes, leave the waterglass in the bottle, please.
One thing that many makers claim about their coatings, irrespective of the formulation they use, is that they serve to protect the briar during those critical first bowls. This is a very difficult claim to get a measurable grasp on. Most burnouts are the result of a flaw in the briar, usually a soft spot, or a void just below the surface of the wood. When such a pipe burns out, there’s no way to know if a bowl coating of any kind would have prevented it, and if it does not, there’s no way to know if it was the bowl coating that was responsible for its durability, so all we really have is anecdotal evidence. (As I mentioned, the only two pipes I’ve ever owned that burned out had heavily coated chambers.)
To get some numbers, I corresponded with several pipe makers and sellers regarding defect rates. Specifically, I was interested in how many uncoated bowls were returned for burnout, in order to get a baseline. The responses were anywhere from a low of “zero in 17 years,” (about 3000 pipes) to a high of 15 pipes out of about 11,000 (0.13%). Collectively, the burnout rate was less than 1 out of every 1000 pipes made/sold. Interestingly, one seller replaced 3 out of about 3200 pipes sold last year, two of which were coated bowls. One maker reported 3 returns out of approximately 2500 pipes, two of which he said were his fault for making the bottoms of the bowls too thin. Another maker of about 300-400 pipes per year has not had to replace a single burnout in the last five years.
It would seem the “protects the wood” argument might have to be taken as an article of faith, but as mentioned in Part I, even if a it affords only very slight protection, it might be well worth the pipe maker’s efforts, providing the quality of the smoke is not compromised.
Bowl coatings have gotten a bad rap from some critics, and I suppose I’ve often been one of them. A few bad experiences can tend to shape our impressions more deeply than is rational, but that’s human nature. In the final analysis, it comes down to personal preferences, and armed with a little more knowledge, we can make more rational choices. We consider things like briar quality and construction details along with aesthetic appeal when we’re considering a pipe purchase, and bowl coatings are just another dimension in the decision making process. I’m not nearly as critical of them as a whole as I once was, nor as quick to run into the workshop to remove them from a newly acquired pipe, though I still advocate for naked briar whenever possible. Most pipe makers will tell you, in vague terms, what they use, so if it matters to you, just ask. Let’s just not condemn the whole barrel for the sake of a few sour apples. And, if you don’t like the way a coated pipe smokes, you can always remove it and start anew. Just remember that doing so will likely void any warrantee the pipe maker may offer.
Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.