G. L. Pease
A week or so ago, as I sat on the patio with book and tea, puffing on an old, rather undistinguished billiard—one that is not particularly well constructed, in today’s terms—filled with a recently made tobacco, and having an absolutely brilliant smoke, it occurred to me that I was experiencing the impossible. The pipe does not have a “wide-open draw.” In fact, its airway is so narrow as to barely accept a thin pipe cleaner with a little cursing and coaxing. The bowl was probably machine made. Its wood is unremarkable, other than the fact that it lacks bald spots (I wish I could say the same thing for my own head at this point), and presents no apparent fills. The pipe’s mouthpiece is a bit thick, a bit round, and doesn’t quite fit securely between the teeth, meaning that my hand automatically reaches up to re-adjust it frequently.
The tobacco was something I was exploring, a prototype blended just minutes before, and one that would certainly be called “green” by some of Cyberia’s self-professed tobacco experts. To make things worse, it was precisely the “wrong” sort of tobacco to be smoking in a pipe of this bowl format. All of these things, I am led to believe, should write a recipe for smoking disaster, not a brilliant smoke, and yet, a brilliant smoke is just what I was having. Interestingly, this was not an isolated case. I have had the good fortune of experiencing the apparently impossible quite often.
Though generally pretty good natured and laid back (get off the floor and stop laughing—really, I am), once in a while, something annoys me almost to the extent of water torture, flaming bamboo splinters under my fingernails, or a Justin Bieber concert. I might as well get it on the page up front. I’ve been suffering from flu for days, am explicitly cranky, and am likely indulging a bit of resultant cynicism whilst getting a few things off my dome. Air traffic control has predicted turbulence, so buckle your belts; the ride may get bumpy.
I’m perplexed by some of the over-wrought rhetoric that has, especially over the past decade, imposed its way increasingly into the exponentially growing body of online pipe literature. When given more than a cursory glance by even the most casually critical reader, some of these expressions, apparently intended to convey the author’s deep understanding of the pipe’s mysteries, would be found absolutely semantically void. Yet, they persist, and to some extent, seem to be escalating in frequency of use and general acceptance as somehow meaningful, being re-transmitted without consideration until they reach pandemic proportions, infecting the otherwise rational thoughts of the pipe smoking community at large.
Every pipe being made today, it seems, is perfectly “engineered,” a term whose genesis with respect to pipe-making is difficult to identify, and which usually appears to mean only that a pipe is made to the same standards of internal construction that someone else uses, having been discovered through trial and error. Every pipe, it seems, is made from “only the finest briar.” Who’s making pipes from the firewood these makers reject? Every pipe is made with stems “hand-cut to exacting standards for ultimate comfort.” Isn’t that special? Who, in his right mind, would choose to make a stem to such low standards that it would be intentionally uncomfortable? (My old billiard, notwithstanding. Its stem certainly could use a little help in that regard.) Every bowl coating is “neutral” and designed to ease the initial break-in process. Every pipe maker, newcomer and veteran alike, it seems, bears the title “artisan,” a term which, historically, simply denotes a worker in a skilled trade, and in this respect, it’s certainly accurate, but are there any individual pipe makers that command our attention who are not artisans in this traditional sense?
There are some exceptional artists making amazing pipes today. As well, there are some extraordinarily skilled craftsmen who don’t lay claim to any great artistic vision making exquisite, if somewhat conventional pipes. But, in either case, or anywhere in between, good stems, good wood, proper drilling are no longer things to be considered novel; they are the standards of practice amongst good pipe makers—or they should be—so using these attributes in an attempt to distinguish a maker’s work, at least with respect to hand-made pipes, seems at least redundant, if not just silly.
The problem is that this rhetoric is used cavalierly as little more than jargon to imply something larger than life, and, as is so often the case with language that helplessly finds itself lost in the vernacular’s lexicon, it has been freed from the inconvenient constraints of meaning, serving not at all to distinguish one pipe or one maker from another, but rather to attempt to elevate them all to some Olympian pantheon of godlike briar superheroes.
None of this is really new; it’s been going on for as long as there have been pipes, pipe-makers, pipe-smokers and the printing press (a mechanical device utilized to enable the broad distribution of the written word; the precursor to the Interwebs, for those who don’t recall it). Alfred Dunhill was arguably the most creative in his ability to twist the rudiments of briar and vulcanite into something extraordinary, canonizing a ball of rotting burl into sainthood with the implication that “dead” is the rarest and best root. (Briar is pretty much all dead by the time it’s harvested, chopped into bits, boiled and dried. If the burl dies in the ground, it doesn’t take long for bacteria, bugs, fungi and thermal stress to render it useless, making it all the more rare. Hear the screams, my fellows. Hear the screams.)
Those who have been obsessed with these magical little briar objects for any length of time, and that would be most who have read this far, those who have poured through old catalogues and magazines, will recall the same sort of hype applied to various patented inventions throughout the history of pipe making, all alleged to improve the experience of the pipe smoker, but intended, in reality, only to improve the marque’s sales figures over the competition.
But, the internet has fostered an entirely new flavour of credibility gap. False knowledge becomes embedded in culture through repetition, and never before in our history has it been so easy for so many to become instant experts, attempting to repeatedly douse every fire with the contents of their own buckets of rhetoric. We’ve all seen it, and have complained about it with respect to the ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke) fanatics, spouting impressive fountains of non-science and statistical manipulation to attempt to support a clearly scientifically unsupportable position. Yet we do the same thing, perhaps in a less damaging fashion, when we repeat the memes of thought-makers without questioning them. The list is long. For every one of these “truths,” there are often at least as many, often more rigorous exceptions. But, let’s not get bogged down in the factual swamp. Where’s the fun in that?
More optimistically, this restructuring of reality can be viewed in a positive light, as it may tend to indicate that our peaceful and once declining little pastime is facing some resurgence, becoming sufficiently popular to attract the attention of a few taste-makers, and we need some of that popularity if we are to keep the patient alive. And so, we offer our indulgence.
Many of my most treasured pipes are pretty normal looking things, with nothing in the form of internal contrivances, elaborate shapes, noteworthy grain or bowl coatings with “secret” recipes to enhance their desirability. They are pipes that would likely be passed by if displayed at a pipe show. Some of them are not drilled particularly perfectly, and certainly weren’t carefully “engineered” through advanced dynamic flow analysis techniques. Indeed, some of my best briars would be rendered all but invisible by the brilliant dazzle and glamour of the increasing number of razor-grained pierced-elephant-blowfoot-squashed-fishdogs found at every show, but they have soul and smoke impossibly well. I attribute this to the wood, itself (clearly dead-root, millennia-old Algerian briar), something over which the pipe maker has little control. You cannot “engineer” the hell out of a piece of briar raised up in Satan’s briar patch, and pissed upon by feral mouflons. No matter how you drill the thing, no matter how you funnel the mouthpiece, it’s going to smoke like brimstone. But, great wood can make a great pipe, and it will endure and often prevail over a surprising level of carelessness in the making of that pipe, as my old billiard demonstrates. Briar is a mysterious mistress, to say the least.
Don’t take me wrong. I love many of the beautiful, artist-made briars, and have a few exquisite examples in my collection. I appreciate the creativity in shaping and the ingenuity some makers have with material use. The construction of these pipes is often exceptional, their mouthpieces comfortable, their finish beautiful, and their wood majestically grained, yes. They smoke wonderfully, or I wouldn’t reach for them, and they’d find themselves in the trading duffel. But these attributes are not what made me pursue the quarry. Pure aesthetic allure was their front-line of charm; I’m a sucker for a pretty face and a gorgeous shape. When a pipe has sensual lines, Aphrodite’s beauty, a ballerina’s balance and striking grain, any good sense I may have once possessed is hopelessly departed. I’ll trade seven of my best goats for one, lovely temptress, and have done so more than once, often to my ultimate dismay. (We’ve all traded pipes we’ve later regretted parting with, haven’t we? Please, just sympathetically nod and say yes.)
Whilst true that a pipe made with care and skill, with great attention paid to every detail, has a higher probability of becoming a wonderful smoker than one haphazardly constructed from random briar and consigned to the basket on the counter of a local mall tobacconist (if there is such a thing anymore), it has not always been the case that the high-grade acquisition will smoke like aces, or that the basket briar would have been better left behind. The rules guarantee nothing beyond decent smouldering of the shredded leaves we stuff our pipes with.
A pipe does not have to dazzle to become a trusted smoke, a favored companion. I return to the old billiard that started this rant. Some pipes have their own intrinsic, hidden beauty that defies superficial glances, and only reveals itself to those who will spend the time to look deeper. In a quest for the latest and greatest, the most breathtaking examples of briar artistry, I think a great many of these jewels are overlooked. And, more is the better for those of us with more modest means and gentle hearts, as can result in some true bargains finding their way into our racks.
Why are we so easily seduced by the clichéd newspeak, the use of so many words that say so little? Because we live in an impatient culture and have excessive constraints placed upon our limited time. We want answers at the click of a button, and rarely have the focus or the energy left at the end of our busy days to work towards that deeper knowledge from which we can synthesize our own understanding. So, even though it has drifted perilously adjacent to meaninglessness, there is some comfort in this rhetoric. It sits us at the same table, and without engaging too deeply, gives us something with which to break the ice on forums and at pipe shows. The things that really matter, like what the pipe maker does to his wood to make his pipes smoke well, or his sense of aesthetics, of form and balance, or from where his inspiration is drawn, or the philosophy behind what he feels makes his pipes special requires something different. It requires greater effort. It requires a different approach to research and study. It requires the cultivation of a rather different vocabulary. To the vast majority of us, who would just as soon simply sit back and enjoy our pipes, there may be little reward for all that effort, and for others, it would soon simply become tiresome.
Pipe smoking is an art, and like any art, it is a largely personal journey. It takes time to learn how to do it, how to appreciate it, how to best work it into our lives in a way that is comfortable for each of us. For some, a corn cob stoked with some fine burley is the perfect grease for sticky days. For others, the aesthetic beauty and exquisite craftsmanship exhibited in a beautifully grained high-grade pipe tightens the trousers. Some like their tobaccos fresh, young and exuberant, others, long-aged, with the rough edges polished off. Some love the candy shop smells of aromatics, others, the campfire and leather of latakia. As an old N’awleans friend used to say, “It’s all good.”
When reading all the advice, all the theories about turbulent versus laminar airflows and Reynolds numbers, the age of the briar, and whether or not the coating helps the break-in or hinders it, and what tobacco is best for a given bowl size, remember that we are all human, and we easily become invested in our hypotheses, clinging to them like ivy clings to stone walls. We tend to design our experiments and seek out sympathetic support in such a way as to amplify what we want to believe. (The scientific community uses peer review to keep their work honest. We have no similar system.) So, beware to mind the credibility gap. Your experience may be very different from another’s, and that’s as it should be. We have different tastes, different goals in pipe smoking and different approaches. If we leave the rhetoric out of it, and approach things with civility, this fact will give us something truly interesting to talk about on forums or at the next pipe show, and I, for one, look forward to that. Fumus in pacem.
NOTE: 1. I recall a particular maker who was touted by one of the “experts” as using only the absolute best briar blocks from Bo Nordh’s woodpile. Does anyone really believe that Bo would have sold, for $75, a block of wood that he might otherwise fashion into a $10,000 pipe? Considering this meme was repeated around the webs for years, at least a few people did.
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.