Problem Child

Problem Child

I’ve had a bunch of pipes through the years. A few have been superstars right out of the starting blocks, many took some time to find their stride, eventually developing into fabulous smokers, most have taken their place comfortably in the middle of the pack, and a scant few have been stinkers that never made it across the finish line.

Once in a while, I’ve ended up with a pipe that I’ve wanted to love, but that has refused to love me back. Tonight, I had an encounter with one of those, a pipe I’ve had for several years. It’s beautiful. It’s elegant. I’ve had many pipes from the same maker that have consistently delivered the groceries. Not this one. This one is a problem child. This one was germinated and raised from a demon seed. This one is the Rosemary’s baby of the pipe world.

I first met it at the Kansas City show in, I think, 2017. A friend had it on his table, unsmoked, and when I showed interest in it, he offered it to me for a very attractive price. The shape appealed to me. The bowl size was within my preferred range. The finish was beautifully done, the stem nicely cut, the drilling perfect. It had everything I look for in a pipe, but for some reason, I passed on it. 

As the weeks went by, I found myself suffering from a case of “non-buyer’s remorse.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that pipe, wondering why I hadn’t just paid the price and taken it home with me. The longer I thought about it, the more I wanted it, to the point where I was almost obsessed. 

I gave my friend a call to ask if, by any chance, he still had it. He did. The deal was struck, and after a few days, the pipe was in my hands. It was everything I remembered, and more. 

When I get a new pipe, I’ll sometimes spend some time in a sort of courtship with it. I’ll hold it gently while gazing lovingly at it from every angle, whispering sweetly into its bowl, asking what tobacco it would like to experience first. It’s one of those peculiarities that some find charming, but most think is just weird. But, my pipe, my fantasy. Leave us alone.

After a couple weeks it finally felt right to introduce my new friend to a nice Latakia mixture. I chose a well aged tin, used just a bit of extra care to gently fill the bowl, gave it a delicate tamp, tested the draw and struck fire. Teasing the strands of tobacco with the flame, the first sips were delicious; they always are. Before the tobacco warms, before the briar becomes engaged in the process, before the flow dynamics of the “system” becomes important, all we get in those first moments is the delightful incense of the tobacco’s volatile aromas and a subtle wisp of smoke being drawn through a soda straw. But those first sips offered hope for an hour of reverie as I enjoyed the first bowl in my new pipe..

Charring light complete, fluff gently tamped, it was time to get things going. After a few promising puffs, everything changed. At once, my hopes were shattered as the gates of hell opened, my senses assaulted in a stygian nightmare as hot, acrid fumes flowed over my tongue. Hoping this to be just a transient anomaly, some sort of first bowl mischief, I persevered. The torment persisted to the last tortuous puff.

Of course, the first bowl in a new pipe will never be as good as later ones when the pipe has “broken-in” to the owner’s habits of smoking style and tobacco choices. Experience tells me that those early bowls are not always indicative of things to come. One more bowl. Then another.

This went on for several days. With only a little improvement after the tenth bowl, I was nearly ready to give up on it, but I desperately wanted this one to be a great smoker, or at least a good one. 

Over the next several months, I tried everything – different tobaccos, different cuts, different filling, different smoking techniques. I’ve tried smoking the hell out of it, and giving it plenty of resting time. I performed deep cleanings, hoping to coax out and exorcise the demons lurking within the briar’s walls. I even carefully drilled out the shank in the off chance that some noxious substance was hiding there. Nothing helped, yet I refused to give up hope. While it got better, sometimes delivering a decent smoke, even at its best, it was no friend to my tongue, so I finally put it up and did my best to forget about it.

This evening, I found myself thinking about that pipe. Bolstered by hope, I pulled it from the racks to try again. I’ve been smoking through a tin of Regent’s from the first release that’s been delicious, and figured I’d give Rosemary’s baby a chance to redeem itself. No bueno. It wasn’t as bad as my memories of it, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

Often when I have a “bad smoke,” I leave open the possibility that it might just be me. Maybe my palate is fatigued, or something I’ve eaten has resulted in my tongue being overly sensitive to harshness or off-flavors. I’ll grab another pipe, maybe a different tobacco, in a combination I know to be a winner, and see if I can get a reset, or at least forget the tortuous smoke. I grabbed a pipe that is quite new to me, barely on the road to being broken-in. It was wonderful. I put the troublesome pipe back in the rack. “I’m really sorry, my friend. It’s not me, it’s you…” 

Why keep trying? Why not just be rid of the accursed thing? Maybe someone else would have better luck taming the hellspawn lurking within the wood. I do know I’m stubborn and often overly optimistic that even a bad pipe might ultimately redeem itself. Plus, some pipes are just “special” to me for whatever reasons I can fabricate in the moment, creating a sort of intellectual vertigo that makes me foolishly believe they’re worth the struggle.

Years ago, I had a beautifully and uniquely cut Castello Sea Rock bent bulldog that vexed me for nearly two years before finally coming round to be a great smoker. Still, out of my frustration with it, I ended up trading it for another pipe with which I didn’t have such a bad history. I’ve often regretted that trade; I like the pipe I got, but still miss the one I gave up for it. I’ve been scouring ebay and estate dealers ever since, hoping to find it or one like it. Partly because of this, I do tend to persist far longer than I should with a pipe that I want to be a good one, even when it’s likely it never will. Too, maybe these experiences serve as a sort of contrasting touchstone yielding greater appreciation for the ones we might otherwise take for granted; the ones that provide nothing but pleasure. There’s lots of stuff I’ll never understand about pipes and why we do what we do with them.

It feels strangely unsatisfying to have spent so many words on a problematic pipes, and not enough time with my feet on the other side of the river. It’s the trainwreck phenomenon. Even when adverse events are outnumbered by positive ones by orders of magnitude, they tend to have a greater impact on our psychological state. Since most pipes are very good at doing what they’re supposed to, the occasional problem child really stands out.

So, to close, I’ll turn my attention to a couple of the great pipes in my collection, shown in the accompanying photographs. They are just two of many that have kept my overall faith in the briar strong. One needs little introduction. It’s a lovely Castello Collection shape #10, the pipe that started my obsession with the abbreviated “Brucianaso” style. It’s been absolutely superb since I first got it almost 20 years ago, and continues to be one of my top tier smokers. 

The second is a similarly proportioned piece by Richard Rosselli, who makes pipes under the name of Smith House Pipes. Rich is relatively new to the craft. I’ve been watching his work for a while, and was definitely impressed with what I saw at this year’s Vegas show, so when my eyeballs fell upon this gem, I had to have it. It’s a few millimeters shorter than the Castello, and is more delicate and refined. I told a friend recently that it was like a #10 that had gone to finishing school. It’s already fantastic. Perfectly drilled and bored, with a mouthpiece that defines comfort, it has delivered a delicious, effortless smoke right to the bottom from bowl one. I’m confident that it’s destined to remain one of the special ones, one of the “Magic pipes.” 

Given how good these two are, and so many others in my collection, my reasons for continuing to struggle with the demon pipe don’t feel very convincing. Maybe it’s time to give up on it after all. When there are so many great pipes, like good friends that we cherish and enjoy, why spend time with the ones that make us crazy? I’ll let you know the answer to that question in a year or two…

Photo by G.L. Pease of the Not Problem Child Pipes


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