From a bunch of basket bargains to some very nice hand-made beauties, a great many pipes have passed through my hands over the years. I’ve always loved the hunt for the next member of the stable, and all the horse-trading along the way has done a lot to keep the fun alive. Many pipes, whether still with me or long since traded away, have come with a story attached. Sometimes, the stories are as enduring as the pipes themselves.
At a show some years ago, in a complex multi-way trade, I managed to wrangle a lovely Charatan Supreme that belonged to a well known collector, many years my senior. While the pipe was a bit too small for him, it was equally too large for me, but its shape and the harmonious interplay with the briar’s wavy, angel hair grain sang to me with a siren song impossible to resist. Three or four other collectors scattered throughout the room each played their hand carefully, until we all ended up happily replacing a pipe or three that we didn’t want with one or two that we did. I got the Charatan.
I didn’t smoke it right away. I’m like that with some pipes, especially those that were hard won. I’ll take them out, look at them, admire the shape, the wood, the patina. Sometimes, the whisper of remorse over the pipes that I traded, or a hint of trepidation over whether my new prize will smoke as well will keep me from pressing it into service. Other times, a longer courtship just seems appropriate. My delay in lighting up that Supreme was probably a combination of both. Plus, at the time, it was the most valuable pipe I’d ever owned, and I had to let it settle into my consciousness that it was really mine.
The time finally came, weeks later, when I’d opened an old tin of Garfinkel’s Orient Express #11, then and now one of the best tobaccos I’ve ever tasted. Breaking the seal on a well aged tin of tobacco is always a special moment, and it seemed perfect to burn the first bowl in my recently acquired treasure. As I went to fill the bowl, I noticed for the first time something odd, something I’d never seen before. The top half of the bowl had a thin but perfectly formed cake, hard, consistent, even, but the bottom, darkened and stained from smoking, was bare wood.
I knew its previous owner to be a lover of vintage Three Nuns tobacco, but couldn’t imagine him smoking a pipe this way, especially in light of the fact that everything I’d been told as a greenhorn was that not smoking a pipe to the bottom was tantamount to an act of pipe abuse. I gave him a call to see if he could shed a bit of light. (Yes. On the telephone. It was a while ago.)
He laughed. “It’s simple. You know I love old Three Nuns, right? It’s getting hard to find the really old tins, and my supply isn’t as large as it used to be.”
“Right. But, half a bowl? The top half?”
I remember my dad joking with servers at restaurants when asked if he’d like another cup of coffee, he’d reply, “Just half a cup. The top half, please.”
“I like the first half of the bowl the most. That’s the most enjoyable part of the smoke to me, so that’s the part of the bowl I smoke.”
I get it. Maximize enjoyment. Smoke what you like. Right. “But, it seems like such a waste of precious old tobacco. Wouldn’t a smaller bowl be a better choice?”
“Maybe, but I like big pipes.” Fair enough. “Besides, a smaller bowl wouldn’t change things. I’d still like the first half best. It just wouldn’t last as long.”
Turns out my concern over his wasting his precious leaf was unfounded. He explained further. “I buy the current stuff, too. Some to age, of course. But some I use to fill the bottom of the bowl. I fill the top half with the aged goodness, and that’s what I smoke. When the flavor changes, I’m done.”
I asked him about the “conventional wisdom” that this would ruin the pipe, possibly even crack the briar because of the uneven cake.
“I’ve been doing it for years. Haven’t lost one yet.”
I did what I figured any sensible pipe smoker would do. I filled the pipe, and smoked it to the bottom. After a dozen bowls or so, the cake began to even out, and it became a tried and true smoker, but over the years, I’ve often wondered if he was onto something. One of these days, I’ll have to give it a try.
A Charatan Supreme, not the Charatan Supreme in the story
Gregory L. Pease's Pipe Smoking lifestyle meanderings for May 2021