I admit it. I have a problem. Well, actually, I have a lot of problems, but I’m referring to one in particular. I love pipes. There, I’ve said it, but strangely, I don’t feel any better. One of the difficulties, here, is how I feel about the pipes I own. I don’t feel that I’m a very sentimental person. I’ll keep birthday cards for a month or so, and then they get tossed. But my pipes are a very different story.
I’ve got a lot of pipes; well over a hundred by now. I know a number of people with a lot more, but my budget is somewhat restricted, so I consider the number significant. The thing is, I can’t part with them. What I mean is that I don’t swap or sell my pipes and I don’t discard them, unless they’ve burned out, and that hasn’t happened often. In fact, the only times I’ve parted with a pipe is when I’ve given it to someone who admired it. Maybe I can divest myself of one in that manner, because I know it’s going to have a good home.
There are a few lousy smokers among them, and I try a variety of tobaccos in the "iffy" ones before I give up, so why not get rid of them? More than anything, there was something about the appearance of each one that I liked, and I just don’t want to chuck them. I’m actually fortunate that I’ve lost a number of pipes over the years, or I’d probably have to rent a storage unit.
What compounds the problem is that my tastes are quite eclectic. I’d say that about a third of my collection are contemporary/Danish styles, and the rest are more traditional. About two-thirds are bent, to some degree, and I have stems made of vulcanite, acrylic, bakelite and molded plastic, in the case of cobs. Mostly all my pipes are briars, but I have a few meers, a calabash, a morta, a stone pipe, a couple of olivewoods and a lemonwood. I’ve got hybrid pipes, such as a Kirsten and a Falcon, plus a new one that’s not even on the market, yet. I have one or two that are made of materials that would be better suited to a space ship, but they’re neat to look at. Of course, there are always some corn cobs in the mix, especially now that we’ve introduced the Missouri Meerschaum tobaccos.
My friends among the pipe making community are enablers, of course. Every show I attend, they have some gorgeous pieces, and the ones who know my tastes are sure to show me specific ones that will make me reach for my wallet. As a rule, they’re very good people, and a number of my pipes have been gifts. There are collectors who have also graciously given me pipes because they knew that the brand or the style meant something to me.
One of the problems with this (dare I say it?) obsession, is that I’ll frequently set a great smoker aside for an extended period, because I’m stricken by something new. When I finally pick it back up, I wonder why that pipe ever left my rotation. Fortunately, they don’t hold grudges, and go right back to being the champs they always were.
I could easily pare things down. There are about thirty of them that are just phenomenal – always cool and dry, dependable and deliver great flavor. Interestingly, some of these are little more than basket pipes, but you’ll occasionally find a gem in a junkyard. But, I just can’t do it.
I don’t understand it, really. I don’t collect anything else. I take that back. I do collect bills and debts, but other than that, you won’t find a pile of comic books, vinyl albums, baseball cards or any other type of memorabilia in my home. So what is it with pipes?
I guess it’s because they’re attractive and functional at the same time. It’s also because, with a very few exceptions, there’s at least some craftsmanship involved. In the case of briars, there’s the appeal of grain. Even two identical factory-made pipes will have different grain, and the natural beauty of briar can be stunning, especially if the pipe maker has a superb staining technique, or really knows how to sandblast.
There’s definitely a charm about a briar. Someone had to trudge up a rocky hillside and dig to harvest the wood. It had to get lugged back to the mill. Then there’s an extended amount of time in curing and cutting the burls into blocks. Once sent to the pipe maker, it will be cured further, sometimes using elaborate methods, before it will be selected to make a pipe. Whether it’s made by an artisan or a factory, the pipe has to be drilled, shaped and finished. A stem has to be fitted, and it has to be stamped. When you look at it in those terms, a great pipe is a bargain of epic proportions. Although meerschaum is relatively easy to work with, the level of ability it takes to carve one is pretty amazing. I was stunned when I heard how quickly some of the best artisans can make some of these incredibly intricate pipes. The material, which is so delicate, becomes surprisingly easy to carve when it’s been soaked in water. Finishing and polishing may take more time than carving, in some cases.
Then there’s the ever-so-sustainable cob. Remove the grain, and you can use it to plant next year’s crop. Missouri Meerschaum can turn out hundreds of thousands each year, but a lot of the work still involves a pair of hands, and much in the same way a natural briar or a meerschaum will become even more attractive with use, a cob takes on a certain charm as it darkens over time.
So the conclusion should be that I won’t buy any more pipes. I have plenty, and I can only smoke one at a time, so that’s it - no more! Yeah, right!
Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.
See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here