It seems like these days, you can make a pipe out of just about anything. Pipes can be made from briar, or other kinds of wood, corn cobs, minerals, dirt, and even metal. As long as it is fire resistant and will hold tobacco and can be made into a pipe shape, you could probably make a pipe out of it (And although Silly Putty will hold tobacco, it doesn’t make for a very good pipe. Don’t ask me how I know that.) That being said, let’s delve into the pros and cons of each of the pipe materials that are readily availble to us and see where they stack up.
Pros: Elegant look; highly customizable(new stems, rustication of briar, new stain, etc.); styles, brands, and makers offer a nearly endless selection; can offer a superior smoke with proper care and maintenance, can be found for little money with a little research; can last lifetimes if cared for properly
Cons: Constant care is required to keep them smoking at their full potential; stems can oxidize over time if vulcanite is used for stem material; when new, extensive break in is required to get them to smoke at their full potential; can retain flavors and aromas once a certain type of tobacco is smoked in a briar.
Briar seems to be the gold standard for most pipe smokers. It is what most of us cut our teeth on, our learning pipes, and it is easy to see why a lot of smokers prefer them: It’s traditional, it’s timeless, it looks good, it smokes good, and with the different factory makers and artisan carvers alike, the options are almost endless when choosing a briar pipe. The downside is that, as anyone who has bought an old pipe from Ebay or from an antique dealer can tell you, if briar pipes are not properly cared for over the years, they can turn sour, the vulcanite stems can oxidize (basically, they turn brown, fuzzy, and start to smell a litte like an old car tire). Also, once a tobacco with a strong scent has been smoked in a briar pipe, the wood of the pipe will absorb the tars and the nicotines from said tobacco, and it could leave your pipe smelling and tasting like the last tobacco that was smoked in it, like say, an English or an aromatic. Also, when dealing with a brand new briar pipe, an extensive break in is required so that the pipe builds a good layer of carbon, ensuring that the pipe will not burn out and will smoke properly. Still, even with all the maintenance required, briar pipes are timeless, offer a great smoke, can be found for a good price if you know where to look, will last almost forever with the right maintenance, and hold a certain magic that a lot of other pipes cannot offer.
Corn Cob Pipes
Pros: Very affordable on nearly any budget; great choice for beginning smokers who are not ready to spend large amounts of money on a pipe; minimal maintenance required(for most smokers); long lasting if properly cared for; wide variety of shapes and bowl sizes; incredibly open draw if smoked without a filter; additional filters can be added for those who want to use them; offers a very dry smoke either with a filter or without.
Cons: Not as elegant looking as other pipes; more susceptible to “burn outs” if not properly cared for; corn cob pipes not made in the USA can, at times, be an inferior product; most corn cob pipes come equipped with plastic mouthpieces that do not last as long as something like Vulcanite or Lucite.
The image of the corn cob pipe is almost as American as baseball, the American flag, and bacon cheeseburgers. People have been using them for decades to enjoy their favorite tobacco, and they are a good choice for a lot of reasons. They are dirt cheap (many can be found for under $10 on most online retail sites), meaning that if you drop one on the pavement or it goes overboard on a fishing trip, no big whoop: just buy another one. As far as their actual smoking characteristics, a paper filter can be inserted into the shank end of the stem (on most of the models made by the Missouri Meerschaum Company, at least) or it can be left out. In either case, the smoke from a corn cob pipe is very dry and very cool when smoked properly. Also, a minimum amount of care is required to keep the pipe smoking cool and dry; most smokers just run a cleaner through the stem and the shank and call it a day. The only downsides are that, if not smoked properly, there is a higher chance that a corn cob pipe will “burn out”, or that a hole will be burned in the walls of the chamber. Also, a corn cob pipe looks…well, like corn, and some people don’t enjoy the rustic look of a corn cob pipe. Also, most corn cob pipes come equipped with mouthpieces made out of plastic, which isn’t really a problem if you don’t grip your pipe in your teeth, but for the chewers out there, it can quickly do a number on the stem of a corn cob pipe.
Pros: Most fanciful and whimsical looking of any style of pipe; Does not retain flavors and aromas from tobaccos; can be smoked over and over again with minimal care and cool down time; the material absorbs tars over time and colors the pipe a deep brown color which adds to the character.
Cons: Very fragile material that must be handled with care; when coloring, smudges and fingermarks can be spotted on the pipe if the user doesn’t wear gloves or hold the pipe by the stem; more expensive that briar and corn cob, at least in most cases.
Meerschaum is a mineral that, translated into English, means “sea foam.” It is a very porous material that can be made into all kinds of traditional pipe shapes, but can also be ground to dust and pressed into all kinds of whimsical shapes, such as dragons, claws, faces, or human figures. Meerschaum offers a very cool, dry smoke with the added benefits of not retaining any flavor or aromas from tobaccos after they have been emptied out. Also, Meerschaum pipes require little cool down and little care to keep them smoking at their best. Over time, Meerschaum pipes will absorbs tars from the tobacco smoke and will turn the white material a deep, rich amber color that a lot of collectors seek in their meerschaum pipes. The only downside to Meerschaums is that the material is incredibly fragile, and it does not take much for the material to break if dropped or rustled around, so the proper care must be taken when smoking and traveling with these pipes.
Pros: Very elegant look; relatively inexpensive when purchased from the right retailer; does not retain flavors or aromas from tobaccos; very little care required.
Cons: Chamber of the pipe gets very hot while smoking and can cause discomfort if held by the bowl; very fragile material that can break if mishandled; limited number of options available in terms of styles and manufacturers.
Clay pipes have been around since the Colonial days of American history, and probably even longer than that. Clay pipes have a very elegant look about them when they are brand new: nice and white and smooth to the touch. Over time, however, the clay will absorb tars and begin to color, not completely unlike a meerschaum pipe. What sets clay pipes apart from all the others is that they offer a very dry, very cool smoke, almost more so than either a briar or a corn cob, at least in my opinion. Also, there is minimal care required for a clay, and in my case, I do absolutely nothing to care for my clays. A pipe cleaner can be run through some clay pipes, but one runs the risk of breaking the pipe if done incorrectly. Also, the pipe can be heated over the coals of a fire or in a self cleaning oven, which will not only burn out blockages in the stem and bowl of the pipe, but will also “reset” the patina, or coloring, of the pipe, and will make it look like brand new again. The downside to these pipes is that they are fragile, like meerschaum, and one must take the proper precautions not to break the pipe while smoking or handling it. Also, there are a limited number of manufacturers offering clay pipes to the US market. Two of the most well known retailers are Penn Valley Pipe and Tobacco and Lepeltier Clay pipes. Aside from that, a few independent sellers offer clays through Ebay as well.
So which pipe material offers the best smoke? Well, trying to answer this question is like trying to answer the question, “What is the best car?” Each of the materials listed has its good points and bad points, and you would do well to experiment with all these different materials to see what you like best. Once I discovered the positive points of a clay pipe, I smoked a clay exclusively for a good month. Then, I missed the feel and heat absorption of the briar, the way it felt in my hand and the flavor of the smoke it gave me. I do also load up a corn cob when I want to give my briars a rest. And while I don’t own a whole lot of Meerschaum pipes, I do love the ones that I do have, and I never have to worry about dedicating a tobacco type to those pipes, which is part of the fun. Like most things in the pipe world; experiment. Have fun with it. Grab a couple of each kind of pipe and form your own opinion. When it comes to asking what kind of pipe is the best pipe, just remember; as long as you enjoy it, there is no right or wrong answer.